Food Standards and International Trade
Our manifesto is clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
We remain firmly committed to upholding our high environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU and the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book.
These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament.
The UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide advice to the UK and Scottish Governments. They will continue to do so in order to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreement.
We consult the food and farming industry when we are putting tariff and market access offers together. This is done via our new agri-food Trade Advisory Group – comprised of senior figures from across the industry. The group receives highly sensitive details at regular stages of each negotiation and provides expert advice to help negotiators strike the best deals for consumers and farmers. This helps ensure that nothing we agree undermines standards.
As an independent trading nation, we will be taking a fiercely values-driven approach to trade policy, which includes defending, championing and promoting high standards around the world in areas like food, animal welfare, the environment and human rights.
We are bringing together a coalition of like-minded nations to advance high standards worldwide, from food and animal welfare to the environment and data.
As part of its work, the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be advising the government on how it can build a coalition of countries to advance higher animal welfare standards.
We want trade deals that open new opportunities for farmers to sell their brilliant products – including to some of the world’s biggest consumer markets in the Americas and the Pacific – while protecting British consumers as well as British agriculture and its high standards. If we don’t think a deal achieves that, we will walk away.
Parliament plays a vital role in scrutinising our trade policy. We have robust and transparent scrutiny arrangements that allow Parliament to hold the government to account and understand whether it has kept its promises on issues like standards.
We provide extensive information to Parliament on our negotiations, including publishing our objectives and economic scoping assessments prior to the start of talks.
Once a deal is agreed, we share the text of each deal with the relevant Lords and Commons committees in advance it being laid before Parliament. They also receive a full, independently verified impact assessment and have the option to produce independent reports on each agreement.
Parliament will also receive an explanatory memorandum and a final impact assessment.
The final text is then laid before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG), where MPs have three weeks to scrutinise the detail and have the option to hold a debate.
Under CRaG, Parliament can indefinitely delay the ratification of the deal, in effect providing a veto (because it becomes clear to the government and other countries that the deal can’t be implemented).
Our scrutiny arrangements go at least as far as other Parliamentary democracies with a comparable constitutional set-up (Japan, Canada, Australia), and in many cases go considerably further.
To improve the scrutiny of trade deals, we are extending the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) and putting it on a statutory footing, giving farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy.
It will be put on a statutory footing in the Trade Bill, reviewed every three years.
It will produce a report on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each free trade deal the government signs after 1 January 2021. This report will be laid in Parliament before the start of the 21-day scrutiny period under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.
We also introduced a section to the Agriculture Act to bolster parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements, by introducing a new duty for the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on whether, or to what extent, commitments in new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), relating to agricultural goods, are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. These reports will need to be laid before new FTAs may be laid in Parliament for ratification. This was approved by both Houses of Parliament and forms part of the Agriculture Act 2020.
The Commission, set up in July, will continue with the report it is currently producing.
That report will advise on:
- Trade policies the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, to ensure that animal welfare, food production and environmental standards are not undermined and to identify new export opportunities.
- Advancing and protecting British consumer interests and those of developing countries.
- How the UK engages the World Trade Organization to build a coalition that helps advance higher animal welfare standards across the world.
- Developing trade policy that identifies and opens up new export opportunities for the UK agricultural industry – in particular for small and medium sized enterprises – and that benefits the UK economy as a whole.
The Commission published an interim progress report on 5 November 2020, and the full report will be published in February 2021 and presented to Parliament.
Trade Bill amendments
I agree that Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade policy and free trade agreements. It has an important role in debating and scrutinising the Government’s domestic and foreign policies.
That is why I am glad that the Government has made a number of important steps in enhancing Parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy. This includes sharing extensive and comprehensive information with Parliament ahead of negotiations with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach. Ministers have also published their negotiating objectives prior to the start of trade talks and held open briefings for MPs and Peers.
Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations and I know that my Ministerial colleagues at the Department for International Trade will also be engaging closely with the International Trade Committee and the Lords International Agreements Committee as negotiations progress.
There is also some concern, however, that the amendment made in the House of Lords could place restrictions on the Government’s ability to enter into treaty negotiations and to ratify treaties. Ministers have said that giving Parliament a veto over negotiating objectives would curtail the royal prerogative and would limit the flexibility to negotiate in the best interests of the UK.
The Government has told MPs that it is committed to a transparent trade policy with comprehensive engagement with Parliament. While I cannot support the amendment for the reasons mentioned above, please rest assured that I will press Ministers to ensure that Parliamentarians have the opportunity to scrutinise new trade policy in detail in the future.
Cut Fuel Duty
As you may be aware, a continuation of the freeze of fuel duty was promised during the election campaign. I welcome the fact that the decision to freeze fuel duty for ten consecutive years has saved the average driver over £1,000. I am confident that we can build on this legacy, so that ordinary hardworking people can keep more of their money. However, it is worth noting that the fuel duty freeze comes at significant costs to the Exchequer, and that £67bn has been spent on freezing fuel duty and another £46bn will be spent by the end of 2025.
I have conveyed your comments on fuel duty to my colleagues at the Treasury, who assure me that all elements of taxation, including the various reliefs associated with any given tax, are kept under constant review. Any changes to fuel duty would be considered as part of the normal process leading up to the next Budget, and it has been announced that there will be no Budget this autumn.
My colleagues at the Treasury have also emphasised that any future fuel duty rates will be considered alongside measures that are needed to help meet the UK’s net zero commitment.
Beer Duty and Pubs
As a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Beer, I agree that this is an important issue and I am continuing to engage regularly with industry stakeholders. I am working with colleagues across all parties to secure the future of our local pubs.
I welcome the new measures put in place to help businesses across the country, particularly pubs. It is reassuring that no pub or other business in the hospitality sector will be required to pay business rates this year. Local authorities will apply the rates relief automatically and no action is required by pub rate payers.
I also welcome the temporary cut to VAT from 20 per cent to 5 per cent for all food and non-alcoholic drinks, which initially applied from 15 July 2020 to 12 January 2021, but has been extended to 31 March 2021. This will continue to support restaurants, pubs, bars, cafés and similar premises across the UK. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has supported thousands of businesses and help protect the jobs of over a million employees. Pubs, restaurants and others that participated will be fully reimbursed for the discount by the Government.
In 2013, the Government took the decision to end the beer duty escalator, and beer duty has been frozen or cut several times since then. Duty on spirits has been frozen over the past two years. As a result of these changes, a typical pint is cheaper than it would have been had these measures not been introduced. I share your concern about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The steps taken by HMRC to make it easier to claim back the duty on any beer thrown away as a result of pub closures were a timely and sensible intervention.
I welcomed the announcement that for only the second time in 20 years every alcohol duty has been frozen, meaning that this freeze covers duty on spirits, beer, wine, and cider.
I want to see the Government continue to support pubs and keep costs down for consumers. Any decision to modify alcohol duty in the future is a matter for the Treasury. I have ensured my colleagues are aware of the points you raise and reminded them of the importance of local pubs in our communities. There is a broad recognition of the need to reform the current duty system to support the alcoholic drinks and pubs sector in the longer term, and a call for evidence is due to be published before the end of 2020.
I am also excited about the launch of my Parliamentary Pub of the Year Award which looks to recognise some of the amazing pubs we have in North Devon. To learn more about the awards please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internal Market Bill
First, I want to explain why I believe this legislation is necessary. The European Union has raised the prospect of the UK not being included on its list of ‘third countries’ who are able to export food to the European Union. Given the special position that Northern Ireland will inhabit as a consequence of the Withdrawal Agreement, this could mean preventing food exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. No self-respecting sovereign state could ever accept that.
Given the UK’s existing food standards being amongst the best in the world, it is ludicrous that the EU would even raise the prospect of excluding the UK from a list of ‘third countries’. This is what has fuelled the Government’s concern that the EU might not be negotiating in good faith as it is required to do under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. That would constitute a breach of international law.
Consequently, the Government have sought to take action to protect Northern Ireland should the EU follow through on their threat. It is true, but only if enacted, the provisions of the Bill pertinent to Northern Ireland would breach the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore international law. However, those provisions would only ever be triggered in response to the EU itself breaching international law through a breach of the good faith articles of the Agreement.
At Second Reading, a number of colleagues, including myself, expressed their reservations about the Bill. The Government has therefore decided to table an amendment to the Bill which would require the House of Commons to approve the triggering of the provisions which would break international law. The Government have also given further assurances that they will pursue the formal disputes process outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement if they have to ask the House of Commons to approve the use of the provisions above. This underlines the fact that these powers are to be kept in reserve in the event that the EU prevents, or unnecessarily impedes, exports to Northern Ireland. It is a last resort and the Government is continuing to negotiate with the EU about the terms of a future trade agreement.
The conditions under which the Government would consider triggering the provisions of the Bill have been published here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-statement-on-notwithstanding-clauses/government-statement-on-notwithstanding-clauses.
Some constituents have asked why I voted for the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place if I am willing to support the potential breaking of that agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement places legal obligations on both the EU and the UK; this legislation is there to protect the Union if the EU breaches its good faith obligations. I do not think it was foreseeable that the EU might consider breaching their legal obligations, but we must now be prepared for that eventuality.
Second, many constituents have said that we should never contemplate breaking international law. In the vast majority of cases, I agree. However, in this context, the UK’s breach of international law would be in direct response to the EU doing the same. On a moral and reputational level, I think that a ‘retaliatory’ breach of international law, whilst regrettable and a last resort, is justifiable.
Third, some have pointed to the view of other MPs who said they could not support this legislation. I have consulted a wide range of colleagues with legal backgrounds and there is a broad spectrum of opinion. I am glad that following the Government’s assurances, many colleagues are now supporting the Bill who previously declined to support the Bill at Second Reading.
This is why I believe we need the Internal Market Bill and why I will continue to support it. I appreciate that some constituents will still not agree with me and that is inevitable. However, I am happy to respond to any further concerns you may have.
VAT on Sunscreen
I completely agree with you that people need to afford to be able to protect themselves. Using a good quality sun cream with both a high sun protection factor (SPF) and at least a four star UVA protection is an essential part of protecting ourselves from the sun.
However, not all sunscreen products are recognised as having a health benefit and the factor level necessary for adequate protection is a matter of contention. Exempting all sunscreen from VAT would not necessarily lead to people being better protected. However, VAT rules do allow drugs and medications dispensed by registered pharmacists against a prescription issued by a qualified health professional to be zero rated for VAT. This means that high-factor sunscreen is on the NHS prescription list for certain conditions and provided VAT free when dispensed by a pharmacist to patients.
Saudi Arms Exports
The decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia has been taken in line with the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. This means that the Government believes that any goods exported to Saudi Arabia will not be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
We have some of the strictest arms export criteria in the world, and I am satisfied that the Government have acted in line with that. I reviewed the contributions made during the recent Urgent Question on the resumption of exports, and I will continue to follow this issue.
I have received a large amount of correspondence from constituents concerned about the Trade Bill, and I was asked to support a number of amendments. I did not vote for any of the amendments to the Bill, and I will explain why below. Contrary to the claims made by some, this does not mean that I support lower food standards or NHS privatisation.
New Clause 4 (NC4). I voted against this for a number of reasons but primarily because I am satisfied with the existing powers available to me as an MP in scrutinising trade deals. These powers include the right to block a treaty from being ratified and the right to block any primary legislation required to implement a free trade agreement.
New Clause 7 (NC7). My position on the protection of standards, whether they are domestic production or import standards, is available on my website (https://www.selainesaxby.org.uk/environment-food-and-rural-affairs). However, our current import standards will prevent the importation of inferior food products such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef. Following multiple conversations with Ministers, I have been assured that this will not change.
New Clause 8 and New Clause 17 (NC8 and NC17). The NHS must remain publicly owned and free at the point of use. The Government has been very clear about these important principles. When we are negotiating trade deals, the NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table. The services the NHS provides will not be on the table. The Trade Bill is designed to provide continuity for existing trade agreements, and it cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements, e.g. with the United States. It was absolutely not about the content of future trade deals and the future of the NHS, and it is misleading to claim otherwise, and this amendment was therefore unnecessary.
New Clause 11 (NC11). This amendment was similar to a previous amendment to the Agriculture Bill and I have provided an explanation of my position on my website (https://www.selainesaxby.org.uk/environment-food-and-rural-affairs). However, as with my explanation of my vote on NC7, I will not support lower standards. Further, this amendment would have likely led to serious disruption of our food supply chains, including for domestic manufacturers.
I hope that this makes my position clear, I always vote in what I believe to be the best interests of my constituents.
I do understand why people question why I would not vote for certain opposition amendments but they rarely, if ever, propose something that would make the Bill better. We are, after all, making law and not ‘virtue signalling’ for the benefit of social media. If an opposition amendment were thought to be beneficial to any Bill then it would be considered for adoption by the Government.
In general, opposition amendments are put forward so that Government MPs will vote against them, giving the opposition a stick with which to beat the Government and its MPs with. This is often the way with Punch and Judy politics which we are all guilty of at times.
I do hope however that a greater understanding of the context of the way these opposition amendments work may help curtail some of the anger and frustration that seems to constantly fuel online anxiety and sadly, on occasion, abuse against MPs of all parties across the country.
We are a nation of animal lovers, so it is only right that we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world. In addition to fur farming being banned in the UK, I am pleased to note that the import of fur products is tightly regulated. It is illegal to import furs derived from cats or dogs, or products made from them. In addition, the fur and skin of endangered animals or fish cannot be imported without a valid permit.
As well as this, it is prohibited to import furs or fur products from 13 wild animal species originating in countries where they are caught in the wild by leg-hold traps, or trapping methods that do not meet international standards of humane trapping. Strict rules are also in place to ensure that animals kept for fur production are kept, trapped and slaughtered humanely.
I appreciate that there is considerable support for banning all imports of fur products. The UK continues to support higher animal welfare standards worldwide as the best way of phasing out cruel and inhumane fur farming and trapping practices that are banned here. Now we have left the EU, the Government has retained all the current regulations banning imports of cat and dog fur and seal products from commercial hunts, as well as controls on products from endangered species and humane trapping. Until the end of the transition period it is not possible to introduce additional restrictions on the fur trade, but at the end of that period the UK will have a unique opportunity to ensure we have the highest standards in every area of animal welfare.
The UK will also be able to press for high standards through international forums such as the World Organisation for Animal Health, CITES and others. The UK will retake our seat on these bodies and be able more effectively to promote and support improved animal welfare standards internationally.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
The inclusion of investment protection provisions and associated ISDS mechanisms in trade agreements helps protect UK investors, both large and small, from discriminatory or unfair treatment by a state.
These kind of provisions are already in place within over 90 bilateral investment treaties between the UK and other countries, helping safeguard the interests of UK businesses trading across the globe. Despite the UK’s participation in these agreements there has never been a successful ISDS claim made against the UK and nor has the threat of potential disputes affected the Government’s legislative programme.
The UK will continue to ensure that the NHS is protected in all trade agreements it is party to, whether transitioned from an EU context or as a result of new negotiations. I have been reassured that the UK's future approach to investment policy will continue to protect our right to regulate in the public interest, including in relation to healthcare, climate change and environmental objectives.
Coronavirus and Bailouts
These are incredibly difficult times for the country and while it is paramount to protect jobs and the economy, questions are also being asked about the way the country does business. I have raised the points you mention with colleagues in the Treasury, including about supporting a green recovery.
As we recover from Covid-19, the Government needs to deliver an economy which is stronger, greener, more sustainable and more resilient. No government could expect to have all the answers itself. I was therefore pleased that, in June, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched five new ‘recovery roundtables’ bringing together businesses, business representative groups and leading academics, to unleash Britain’s growth potential and help the economy recover from the pandemic. The group will focus on: the future of industry; a green recovery; backing new businesses; increasing opportunity; and winning more high value investment in the UK.
I know questions have been raised about support for certain sectors. In the case of airlines, for example, firms can draw upon a range of financial support during this challenging time, including billions of pounds worth of loans and guarantees, tax deferrals and the furlough scheme for workers. The ministerial-led international aviation taskforce is looking at the best ways to support the industry, recognising the unique challenges they are facing. Rightly, any potential intervention would need to represent value for money for taxpayers.
In exceptional circumstances, where a viable company has exhausted all options and its failure would disproportionately harm the economy, the Government may consider support on a ‘last resort’ basis. As constituents would expect, sensible contingency planning has been put in place and any such support would be on terms that protect the taxpayer.