My Lords, I declare an interest in a small agricultural holding in France and, more seriously, in the WTO, in whose creation I played a part when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, the Government have pledged not to reduce health, animal welfare or environmental standards in this country. I am sure they will honour that pledge, not least because no other country is asking us to reduce our standards.
The issue confronting us with the amendments is on what terms we will trade with other countries which may have different standards from ours. Amendments 270 and 271, among others, would prevent any trade deal which does not exclude all imports of agricultural products which have not been produced and processed according to standards which are equivalent to or exceed EU standards.
It is quite reasonable for farmers to seek a degree of protection or financial support if it is necessary to enable them to compete with foreign producers who face lower welfare costs or who enjoy subsidies, but the amendments do not seek a proportionate level of protection or support—they propose a total ban on imports produced to different standards from our own. That is despite the fact that, in practice, our farmers, through greater efficiency and higher quality, compete successfully within the EU without tariffs or subsidies with French beef farmers who, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, receive £1 billion of subsidy, and with Polish farmers who produce poultry to higher densities than ours. Both the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron said that only a minority of American states have welfare standards lower than ours, but that does not seem to prevent farmers in other American states competing with them successfully.
However, the arguments used in favour of the amendments often claim to be based on concern for animal welfare and human health rather than protection of farmers, and do not address the practical consequences of banning all relevant imports from countries with lower animal welfare standards than our own.
I want to raise a few questions with both my noble friend the Minister and the proponents of the amendments. First, can my noble friend confirm that restrictions of the kind implied by Amendments 270 and 271 would be against WTO rules? The WTO has never allowed import bans based on so-called ROMP rules—rules on methods of production. That may be right, it may be wrong; but we have to accept the rules or face retaliatory tariffs.
Secondly, can my noble friend confirm that if we adopted the amendments, it would make it impossible to reach a free trade deal not just with America but with the EU, for the simple reason that some EU member states do not impose as stringent animal welfare rules as we do, and they certainly would not allow us to police their rules domestically? We have happily traded with some member states despite their lower standards for decades, so it is a bit odd that we should raise this obstacle now.
Thirdly, can my noble friend confirm that WTO rules allow countries to ban products that are a threat to human health, as long as the ban is based on objective scientific and medical evidence? Consequently, there is not the slightest likelihood that the UK Government or Parliament will alter our laws to allow sale of food which is contaminated with substances dangerous to human health.
Fourthly, I ask the authors of the amendments to clarify whether their desire to ban American chicken treated with pathogen-reduction agents or hormone-treated beef is based on concern for the welfare of the animals in America or concern for health of humans in Britain? If the latter, do they also want to outlaw the use of dilute chlorine washes of salads, which are permitted at present, and to ban the use of chlorine in swimming pools and to make water potable? If the former—i.e., if they are really basing this on animal welfare—do they accept that they will simply be acting against WTO rules? The EU realised it could not base its ban on chlorine and other washed chickens on the ground of concern about the cost of production in America or the welfare of American chickens. It had to base it on fears of a supposed threat to health of humans, but that was found by a WTO panel to lack scientific evidence.
Fifthly, what is the logic, I ask the authors of the amendments, of continuing to import agricultural products which have not been produced or processed under standards as rigorous as the UK’s from countries such as Thailand, Argentina, Brazil et cetera, while seeking to ban them under deals which we may do in future with the EU, the USA and so on?
Finally, I ask the authors of the amendments why these bans would apply only to future trade deals, including those where we still have to ratify continuity deals? Are they aware that this might put at risk continued preferential access for UK exports to more than 22 other markets—for example, putting at risk over half a billion pounds of Scotch whisky exports? If they are really concerned about the health of British industry, and the agricultural industry in particular, they should think very carefully about the amendments.