Trade secretary Liz Truss has announced that, after months of campaigning from farming groups, the government will set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission to help inform trade policy.
In a letter to NFU president Minette Batters she wrote: ‘I wholeheartedly agree that any trade deal the UK strikes must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers, and must not compromise on our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.’
The news follows widespread concerns over the possibility of future trade deals, particularly with the US, resulting in food being imported that would be illegal to produce here. A petition started by the NFU received over a million signatures in little over two weeks.
Responding to the news, Minette Batters described it as “a hugely important development” that the NFU first called for over 18 months ago.
“We look forward to working with government and other stakeholders in the days ahead on the Commission’s terms of reference, to ensure that its work is genuinely valuable,” she added. “In particular, it will be vital that parliament is able to properly consider the Commission’s recommendations and can ensure government implements them effectively.
“The NFU will continue to scrutinise the progress of trade negotiations with the USA and other countries over the coming months outside of the work of the Commission so that our future trade deals work for British farmers and consumers, and believe it is vital that parliament is provided a strengthened role in this regard as well.”
Chief executive of the National Sheep Association, Phil Stocker, welcomed the news, saying the commission is a “really good starting point” but added that there are still questions to be answered and commitments for the government to uphold.
“We will be clear, this committee should be formed to assess each proposed FTA for its individual risks, the reports should be released publicly, and the Government should be required to issue a public response.”
The British Veterinary Association also welcomed the announcement but stressed the importance of having veterinary expertise at the heart of the commission’s membership and remit.
Ms Truss said she supports Mrs Batters’ recommendation that the commission is ‘not another quango or regulator and that it is strictly time-limited’. She proposed that once the commission has completed its work, it will produce a report for parliament, and its recommendations will be advisory only.
The work of the commission is expected to focus on four areas:
- Considering the policies that the government should adopt in free trade agreements to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high standards are not undermined.
- Reflecting consumer interests and those of developing countries.
- Considering how the UK engages the WTO 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 businesses – and that benefits the UK economy as a whole.
Ms Truss concluded her letter by saying she looks forward to agreeing the terms of reference for the new commission ‘as soon as practically possible’.