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Trade and animal welfare

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UK trade agreements could seriously impact animal welfare.

Read on to find out the latest situation, what is at stake, and what we are doing to help protect farm animal welfare in the UK.

Why is trade being discussed now?

As Britain leaves the European Union (EU), it will be able to set its own trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years – previously trade policy has been set by the EU, as a result of the UK being a Member State.

Setting trade policy includes determining the rules on what food products can be imported into the UK. Whilst the UK’s farming standards could certainly be improved, they are higher than almost any other country (aside from those within the EU, because our farm animal welfare rules derive from EU Regulations and Directives).

What are the choices facing the UK?

As the UK leaves the EU, it is faced with two choices. HM Government could opt to maintain existing standards and requirements that need to be met for certain products to be permitted into the UK – an option that would leave open the possibility of further improving our domestic animal welfare legislation. Or the UK could opt to lower the bar on the products allowed onto our supermarket shelves, ultimately entering us into a race to the bottom where we seek to compete on who can produce at the lowest price.

This decision alone will have a bigger impact on the UK’s standards of animal welfare, food safety or environmental protection than any other single policy area – and the ramifications could be felt for decades to come: it will impact upon both the food British citizens may end up eating as well as having a knock-on effect on the livelihoods of higher-welfare farmers within the UK.

How far have trade talks progressed with our major trading partners?

The UK is currently in the transition period of leaving the EU – this is set to end on 31st December 2020. From that date, a new trading relationship will come into effect with the EU and all other countries.

HM Government is in the process of negotiating that new relationship with the EU – a number of rounds have already taken place. As of October 2020, there is some uncertainty over further discussions taking place, due to the failure to reach agreement on a number of issues – particularly the ‘level playing field’ and fisheries.

Alongside the EU talks, several other Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are being negotiated. One of the priorities for the UK Government is securing an FTA with the USA. Talks take place every six weeks, with each round lasting two weeks. These are only likely to conclude well into 2021, once the implications of the November elections have become clear.

Negotiations are also ongoing with countries including Australia and New Zealand. We are concerned that the deal with Australia – where hormone-treated beef and battery eggs are still common – may involve concessions that may then form a precedent for the US talks. It is vital that the Australian deal does not act as a Trojan horse for undermining our higher standards in the potentially much larger US FTA.

A deal with Japan has been concluded, although still needs to pass through the Japanese Diet (Parliament).

What is happening in Parliament?

In addition to the FTAs being negotiated by the UK Government, a number of Bills that will impact upon farming standards in the UK are going through Parliament. Most notably, the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill. Both these Bills could have serious implications for farm animal welfare.

The Agriculture Bill seeks to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) area-based subsidy scheme with payments for farmers who deliver on areas such as animal welfare and the environment – a shift in priorities welcomed by Compassion.

But there is a major risk that the improvements the Bill could bring in are entirely undermined by the trade deals the UK secures. Compassion, alongside a wide range of NGO and industry bodies, and MPs from all parties, have been calling for the Bill to protect our existing standards and prevent imports that do not meet them.

The Agriculture Bill has completed its normal House of Commons and House of Lords stages and is now going through the process known as 'ping pong'. One of the issues that is being debated between both Houses is that of which food imports will be of an acceptable standard to be included in a FTA. Despite an amendment, tabled by the Environment Select Committee, to protect against low-standard imports, the Government insist these measures are unnecessary and that we already have those protections in place.

That amendment was defeated in the Commons, before a similar amendment was adopted by the Lords. That amendment was then also rejected by the Commons –despite being supported by MPs from all sides of the House. The House of Lords has, yet again, inserted an amendment on food import standards – this one requiring imports to be of an ‘equivalent’ standard – and it will now be voted on once more by MPs in due course.

The Trade Bill, which focuses more on rolling over FTAs that the UK is party to because of EU membership, also offers the opportunity to secure protections against lower standard imports. It would potentially ensure that Parliament is fully involved in setting out the negotiating position, scrutinising and then ratifying FTAs. Again, something that has broad cross-sectoral support but has been opposed by Government.

What is the UK Government's position?

The Government has said that we will not see our animal welfare standards diluted as we leave the EU - indeed, when Michael Gove was Defra Secretary, he committed us to being a global leader on animal welfare. And the 2019 Conservative Manifesto stated that, “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” a commitment that was most welcome.

However, as things stand, the FTAs we strike with 3rd parties pose a serious threat to that commitment to uphold our standards and we feel the Bills going through Parliament do not contain sufficient protections for the UK’s higher welfare farmers or our animal welfare standards.

The UK Government has proposed using ‘dual tariffs’ to resolve this issue. Tariffs are effectively ‘taxes’ that are placed on goods entering our market. The Government’s proposal would involve charging a higher rate for products entering the UK that do not meet our standards, and a lower rate for those that do. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, tariffs should be one of a host of mechanisms used to protect our standards – in addition to import bans – not the only one.

A significant concern is that these tariffs would merely become a starting point for any trade negotiations (with the USA or others), rather than an end point – once the principle has been accepted that low-welfare, low-quality food can be imported, even with a high tariff, there will be steady pressure to reduce the tariff over time. The solution to that situation would be legislation that prevents certain products being imported under the terms of any FTA in the first place – something that the defeated amendment to the Agriculture Bill sought to achieve.

What is Compassion calling for?

When negotiating trade agreements, the UK must not accept clauses that require the UK to permit the import of meat and dairy products, or eggs, that are produced to lower animal welfare standards than those of the UK.

The UK has a considerable body of legislation on the welfare of farm animals. Many of the countries the UK is seeking an FTA with do not – in some cases, regarding farm animals, there is almost none!

The UK should resist calls for regulatory coherence with these countries – how does one do that when there are no regulations to align with? If the UK were to seek a level playing field with lower standard nations, it will make it very difficult for the UK to adopt good new legislation on farm animal welfare and may well create pressure on the UK to dilute its existing standards.

To avert this danger, the UK must insist on the inclusion of a clause in these FTAs permitting it to require imports to meet UK animal welfare standards. Such proposals are likely to meet with resistance – particularly by the US negotiators.

The overall impact of any FTA that the UK ratifies should not be that it makes it more difficult for the UK to improve its animal welfare standards – and certainly should not create a downward pressure on existing UK standards.

Furthermore, there is very little scrutiny of trade negotiations – something the Trade Bill could and should address. This is particularly the case when it comes to setting tariffs: parliamentarians have no mechanism to challenge the tariffs that the executive lodge with the WTO (or amendments by the Government to existing tariffs). So, over a period of time, the Government could choose to gradually reduce these tariffs – potentially to zero. This, of course, would then offer no protection against low standard imports whatsoever.

If the UK were to go down the tariff route, the challenge would be a) making sure that any tariff is sufficiently high to effectively keep a given product permanently off the supermarket shelves and b) to ensure that tariff isn’t removed as part of any FTA. 

The Government should legislate to protect UK standards, through amendments to several Bills currently going through Parliament (such as the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill). And it should make clear that it will treat any request for access for lower standard imports to the UK as a red line that is not going to be included in any trade agreement.

What has Compassion done so far?

Earlier this year, Compassion representatives gave evidence to the Agriculture Bill Committee and the Environment Select Committee on the animal welfare implications of the Agriculture Bill. These sessions also examined the potential impact of trade agreements on the standard of imported foods.

Following these evidence sessions and many discussions with individual MPs, several important amendments were tabled to the Bill. Most importantly, on the issue of trade, amendments were tabled that aimed to prohibit imports that don’t meet our standards: if adopted, these amendments would have helped to prevent higher welfare British farming being undermined by poor trade deals, and it gained strong cross-party support. This included New Clause 2 to the Agriculture Bill, in the name of the Environment Select Committee.

277 MPs voted for the amendment, including 22 Conservative politicians who defied the Whip and rebelled against the Government by joining with their opposition colleagues to vote for much-needed protections.

Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated. The House of Lords voted by a majority of 95 to protect standards in trade deals, but this was defeated in the Commons (14 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government and backed the Lords amendment on that occasion). The most recent vote in the Lords was won by a majority of 38, again with cross-party support.

In addition to the ‘public’ lobbying of Committees, we have also sent multiple briefings at the various stages of the debates / Bills progress through Parliament, and had a number of meetings with MPs from all parties.

We are continuing to work hard for the amendments to be secured in the Bill and are in touch with a range of Peers on all sides of the House about this.

Last year we secured a similar change to the Trade Bill that would have replicated trade deals the UK had, through EU membership, with countries such as Canada, Switzerland and South Korea. However, because of the general election, this Bill did not become law. A new Trade Bill has now been published and we are once more demanding that it requires imports to meet UK welfare standards.

Supporting all of this has been Compassion’s dedicated army of supporters, who sent supporter emails to their MPs. Over 18,000 emails were sent to MPs about the Agriculture Bill, and a further 17,000 emails to MPs on the issue of animal welfare standards in trade deals.

Compassion will continue to lobby MPs on this issue in the coming months – particularly when the Agriculture Bill returns to the Commons in due course.

Take action

Thank you to the amazing number of people who have already signed our open letter to the Prime Minister, calling for him to protect animal welfare in trade deals.

If you haven’t already done so, please join over 49,500 compassionate supporters urging the Government to stop cruel trade deals.

Further reading