As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Government’s reluctance to face the food standards issue only raises more concerns
by Arable Farming July 2020
Sometimes, it feels as though the Government is almost determined to raise suspicions about its intentions on food standards.
That was certainly the sense I had when speaking to Farming Minister Victoria Prentis at the recent Cereals Live press briefing.
A fellow journalist asked her about protecting standards generally and the NFU’s proposed Trade and Standards Commission specifically.
In her answer, the Minister gave all the expected platitudes, explaining that the Government was committed to high standards and mentioning – again – that fabled manifesto commitment to safeguard them.
She didn’t, however, answer the point about the Trade and Standards Commission.
So I used my question to directly ask whether the Government intended to set one up or not.
Her answer? It’s ‘not necessary’ at the moment, as there is already an Expert Trade Advisory Group made up of agri-food representatives which is feeding into all negotiations.
What she failed to say was that this body is unable to make policy recommendations – one of the core functions of the proposed Commission.
It also meets for just a couple of hours each month and is often convened with very little notice, making it difficult for everyone to join.
From a political perspective, the idea of setting up a Commission to explore how best to protect food production standards in trade policy is a no-brainer.
It has become an emotionally-charged issue which requires detailed consideration of all the different trade-offs.
For this reason, you would expect Ministers to welcome with open arms the opportunity to distance themselves from taking any of the tough decisions associated with it.
This is something they are normally very keen to do, because it takes the heat out of any debate and allows the Government to say it is simply following expert advice.
Ministers have used this trick to develop immigration policy with the help of the Migration Advisory Committee, to increase the National Living Wage on the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission and, more recently, to lock down the entire country on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for emergencies.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about the democratic accountability of these bodies, but the Government cannot pretend it is averse to employing them when necessary, or politically expedient.
Which rather begs the question – why the reluctance to set up a Trade and Standards Commission? What exactly is it the Government fears about taking expert advice in this area?
The cynic in me, and I am sad to say my time as a journalist has made me extremely cynical, says there is some concern about what a Trade and Standards Commission would recommend.
Because once a recommendation has been made, it would be very difficult for any Minister to ignore, and it is likely these recommendations would make it trickier to negotiate trade deals, or perhaps even suggest existing agreements be looked at retrospectively.
That said, my cynical self would be very happy to be proved wrong, and there is an opportunity for the Government to accept an Agriculture Bill amendment in the House of Lords which would establish a Commission.
Let’s hope it does.