MPs have rejected huge public and campaigner pressure to enshrine food standards in law in the latest debate in the Agriculture Bill and what’s been called some of the most important Brexit votes to date.
With a majority of 53 votes, MPs voted to remove the amendment around trade standards, which would make it effectively illegal to import food that does not meet UK standards, such as chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-pumped beef, as well as fruit and veg produced with high levels of pesticides.
In a much-anticipated debate last night (12 October), MPs also voted to remove other amendments including an interim net zero climate change target for UK agriculture, and an amendment to ban pesticides being sprayed near residential areas, schools and hospitals. The Lords had previously voted to add in these amendments in a review of the Bill in the House of Lords last month.
The vote follows a campaign headed by chef Jamie Oliver alongside other high-profile figures to #SaveourStandards to bring the issue to public attention, and urge them to write to MPs.
The government argued that putting trade standards into law was unnecessary because ministers have committed to ensuring UK standards of food quality and animal welfare are met under any new trade deal.
In impassioned speeches, several MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens spoke in favour of the amendment, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, who tweeted: “Government just voted with majority of 53 to strip amendment 16 from #AgricultureBill, which would have safeguarded food standards in trade deals – demonstrating beyond doubt that their promises are totally utterly and completely worthless – even when enshrined in their manifesto,” she said.
The Conservative manifesto on the issue states that: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and high standards.”
Vicki Hird, head of farming at sustainable food alliance Sustain, tweeted that: "Sad to see MPs turning their back on the public, farmers and welfare experts by voting against the food standards amendments in the Agriculture Bill. Now it's for the Lords again to get acceptable amendments to protect us, animal welfare, the environment and farmers."
MPs were expected to reject the amendment on food standards because of the Conservative majority in the Commons and the desire to keep the path free for trade deals.
The Agriculture Bill will now return to the House of Lords where they will have a chance to reinstate their own amendments in what is being described as a potential “ping pong” situation.