The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee, made up of 11 MPs from across the political spectrum, held a one-off evidence session to scrutinise the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC)’s recommendations to the government and explore the UK’s approach to international agri-food trade.
The NFU welcomed the evidence session on this important topic, and outlined concerns surrounding scrutiny of imports and exports in future trade deals. The NFU's director of trade and business strategy Nick von Westenholz appeared in front of the committee outlining the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) for incorporating standards into UK trade policy. Former chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens and chair of the Trade and Agriculture Commission Tim Smith also gave evidence.
The committee examined the TAC’s suggested new mechanisms to protect UK producers from being undermined in future trade agreements. This would involve establishing core standards countries have to meet if they wish to trade with preferential tariffs for particular products, and incorporating them into FTAs. Alternatively, trade remedies may be put in place to deal with trade distortion.
Mr von Westenholz made it clear to the commission that in order to meet UK policy, UK farmers shoulder significant business costs in order to meet animal welfare and environmental production standards. Therefore, it is reasonable to ensure they are able to compete on a fair playing-field with imports that do not otherwise have to meet the same policy requirements and associated costs.
Scrutiny of trade deals
Following the publication of the TAC’s final report in March 2021, concerns were raised to the committee over the statutory role of the TAC.
Mr von Westenholz outlined to the committee that the ambition for the statutory TAC is to be able to conduct thorough assessments on future trade deals, so parliamentarians can be clear on the impacts when deals go forward to them for consideration.
However, the new chair for the statutory TAC has not yet been selected, and the Commission does not come into force until the end of 2022, so unless the government adopts the 22 recommendations of the TAC report, there is little opportunity to shape current negotiations. Mr Smith believes that the government negotiators have taken the TAC’s recommendations.
Angus MacNeil, chair of the International Trade Committee, was also in attendance at the committee session, and outlined the role of the International Trade Committee in scrutinising trade agreements. So far, the committee has only received one briefing on the Australian FTA, which has now undergone four rounds of negotiations, and little else regarding mandates.
Mr Smith also raised concerns to the committee over how agri-food trade will fit into broader national food policy. With Henry Dimbleby set to publish part two of the National Food Strategy in the coming months, Mr Smith was hopeful that the strategy will carefully craft the protections recommended by the TAC to ensure farmers are able to compete on a fair playing field with imports, and will support the TAC’s other recommendations, particularly those that look at boosting the government’s expertise and energy behind exporting activity.
Mr Smith also reiterated the TAC’s recommendation that a minister for agri-food trade would help ensure agri-trade fits into national food policy.
The committee heard more about how the government can support British businesses that face increasing competition from overseas products in the UK.
Support for exports
As well as a large focus on imports, the committee also received evidence on what the government can do to support UK exporters. In its final report, the TAC outlined that there should be more agricultural trade representatives in embassies around the world to increase market opportunities, remove technical barriers and promote British food. Mr von Westenholz commended the Department for International Trade for its work on the Open Doors campaign, launched at NFU Conference in February 2021, to help UK businesses export their produce.