UK trade – an overview
The UK is at a turning point in its international trading relationships, and this poses both risks and opportunities for animal welfare.
On this page, you can find out the latest situation, what is at stake, and what Compassion's campaigners and supporters are doing to help protect farm animal welfare in new UK Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).
Why is trade an issue now?
As a result of the UK leaving the European Union (EU), the country is now able to set its own trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years. Previously these policies were determined at EU level, although the UK was involved in decision-making, alongside the other Member States.
Setting trade policy includes determining rules on which food products can be imported. And, whilst the UK's farming standards could certainly be improved, its legal baselines are higher than most other countries.
What are the choices facing the UK?
Since leaving the EU, the UK has two options:
- HM Government could choose to require certain products to meet UK legal standards in order for them to be imported. This would prevent UK farmers from being undercut, and leave open the possibility of further improving domestic animal welfare legislation.
- Alternatively, the UK could opt to lower the bar for imported products, increasing pressure to lower domestic standards, and potentially taking the country into a 'race to the bottom', where it seeks to compete only on price rather than food quality and animal welfare.
The choice the Government makes could have a more significant impact on the UK's standards of animal welfare, food safety, and environmental protection than its decisions in any other single policy area. And the ramifications could be felt for decades to come.
The Government's approach will help determine the food UK citizens eat; affect the livelihoods of higher welfare farmers within the UK; and, crucially, influence the wellbeing of animals throughout the UK and beyond.
Is Northern Ireland a Special Case?
Yes. The Northern Ireland Protocol means that Northern Ireland remains subject to European Union trading rules – particularly in terms of animals and food products – and therefore outside any other arrangements that are made for Britain. This means Northern Irish consumers, farmers and animals will be affected by future EU decisions on animal welfare but may be less impacted by the risks and opportunities of new UK FTAs – although details of how this will work remain to be clarified.
What is the UK Government's position?
The UK Government has repeatedly said the country will not see its animal welfare standards diluted on departure from the EU.
Indeed, when Michael Gove was Defra Secretary of State, he committed to the UK being a global leader on animal welfare. And the 2019 Conservative Manifesto stated: "In all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare, and food standards."
What is more, in February 2021, the Secretary of State for International Trade restated this promise in the House of Commons. Liz Truss said: "I have been very clear that in every trade deal we sign, we will not lower our excellent standards... and we will not expose our farmers to unfair competition."
These commitments were most welcome. However, as things stand, the Government's actions on trade have done more to undermine than support this pledge to uphold UK standards.
The Government has proposed using 'dual tariffs' as a means of protecting animal welfare and environmental standards. Tariffs are effectively taxes that are placed on goods entering a market. The Government's proposal would involve charging higher import tariffs for products that don't meet UK standards and a lower rate for those that do.
However, tariffs should be one of a host of mechanisms used to protect standards, not the only one. Not least because they are a starting point, rather than an endpoint, for any trade negotiations. 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 this situation would be legislation that prevents certain products from being imported under the terms of any FTA – but the UK Government has resisted legal measures at every turn.
Two new pieces of legislation with a direct impact upon UK farming and animal welfare have recently passed through Parliament. These offered the Government an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to protecting UK standards in trade deals. However, they repeatedly blocked attempts to ensure that the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Trade Act 2021 provided sufficient protection for the UK's higher welfare farmers or its animals.
The Agriculture Act...
Replaces the EU's area-based farming subsidy scheme (the Common Agricultural Policy) with payments for farmers who deliver on issues such as animal welfare and the environment – a shift in priorities welcomed by Compassion.
However, there is a major risk that the benefits of this new approach will be entirely undermined by future trade deals because, due to Government resistance, the same Act does not require food imports to meet UK legal standards.
Under pressure from campaigners, including Compassion, the Government did offer Parliament a modest increase in its scrutiny of trade agreements. As a result, the Act requires the Government to report on whether, or to what extent, a new FTA undermines UK animal welfare, food, and environmental standards.
But, whilst this is a step in the right direction, it does not offer the same safeguards as a legal prohibition of imports of products not raised to UK standards. Indeed, it suggests the Government can permit those imports and then merely submit a report to Parliament stating why it has chosen to do so.
The Trade Act...
Focuses more on rolling over FTAs that the UK was party to because of prior EU membership.
This Act also offered the opportunity to secure protections against lower standard imports. It could have ensured that Parliament was fully involved in setting out the negotiating position, scrutinising and then ratifying FTAs. But, again, this was opposed by the Government.
There was, once more, some modest progress in terms of scrutiny. In this case, the Government offered two minimal concessions during the last stages of the debate. It promised:
- An increased role for parliamentary committees before negotiations: Where a relevant committee has sought a debate on a new deal's negotiation objectives, a debate for Lords (but not MPs) will be provided.
- Debates for both Houses after negotiations: These will be provided, within the existing 21 sitting day scrutiny period, if requested by committees.
The Government has also placed the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), which will review FTAs, on a statutory footing (to be reviewed every three years). But, whilst this is a welcome step, it appears that the membership of the Committee – particularly in the areas of animal welfare, food, and the environment – will remain narrow and be composed predominantly of farming bodies.
Additionally, the new TAC has yet to be established, and the Department for International Trade has yet to respond to the recommendations of the original Commission (published in early March 2021). Yet, the Department continues to negotiate, and even agree, FTAs in the absence of the scrutiny the Government promised.
Meanwhile, following lobbying by Compassion and other organisations, the House of Lords twice voted in support of an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have required food imports to meet UK standards. However, this amendment was twice overturned by the Government in the House of Commons.
In sum, despite pledging to protect UK animal welfare standards in trade deals, the Government has repeatedly refused to introduce legal protection for animals, farmers, and consumers against lower standard imports, and resisted thorough, meaningful scrutiny of FTAs.