Commons defeat for Brexit food standards amendment despite warnings over chlorinated chicken

Farmers in tractors take part in a protest over food and farming standards. Credit: PA

Tory rebels have failed to secure an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which had sought to protect UK food standards in post-Brexit trade deals, amid warnings over chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef entering the UK market.

MPs voted by a majority of 53 to overturn the House of Lords amendment which would have required agricultural and food imports to meet domestic standards.

Peers made the change in a bid to block the import of foodstuffs produced abroad with lower animal welfare standards.

Several Conservative MPs backed the amendment, rebelling against the government, despite Number 10 arguing existing protections are already in place.

Boris Johnson's government said it has no intention of watering down current restrictions.

Speaking as the Lords amendments to the Bill was considered, senior Tory Neil Parish said the legislation is heading in the right direction and stressed the UK should be a "great beacon" on animal welfare and the environment when negotiating future trade deals.

The chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee said: "We have in our manifesto the commitment to both animal welfare and the environment.

"Would it not be right for the Secretary of State for International Trade to have the armour of having the backing of Parliament to say ‘I can’t negotiate away that particular part of the deal with you because it is written down in law’?"

Farmers in tractors take part in a protest over food and farming standards, organised by Save British Farming. Credit: PA

Conservative Richard Fuller, intervening, expressed "frustration" over ministers suggesting the food standards protections need to be put in other legislation.

Mr Parish added: "When we’ve tried to amend the Trade Bill, we get told it’s not the place to put it, but it’s not the place to put it in the Agriculture Bill either so where is the place to put it?

"The place to put it is in this Parliament and I will very much support this and (Mr Fuller) does and many on our side do because we want to negotiate very good trade deals – not only with Australia, New Zealand and America but later on, this is not about today or tomorrow, this is about several years down the road."

Mr Parish criticised Brazilian farming techniques which "destroy the land".

He continued: "We, the British, believe in animal welfare, we believe in the environment… so does this government, but for goodness sake getting the backing of Parliament."

Neil Parish quit after admitting watching pornography in the Commons Credit: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA

Conservative MP Julian Sturdy said he too would back the Lords amendment on food standards.

"I hope a continued stand on this issue will encourage the government to put our manifesto commitment to maintain UK standards on to the statute book," he said.

Conservative former minister Steve Brine also said of the amendment: "Isn’t the wider point that we’d be sending the message out that we want the rest of the world to change their practices – it’s not just about what we do domestically, it’s about Britain being a beacon for the right thing elsewhere in the world."

Alongside the Tory rebels, Labour and the SNP had also outlined their support for the amendment.

Mr Johnson has previously said misleading terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’ are inflammatory. Credit: PA

Defending the government's stance, environment minister Victoria Prentis said Numer 10 is "absolutely committed" to high standards.

She also said: "The tools we have to ensure high standards are, as I’ve tried to set out, are many and varied and strong enough to protect standards even under pressure."

Ms Prentis pointed to restrictions under EU law, parliamentary scrutiny, and the role of the Select Committee for International Trade in providing checks.

"Other experts including those within the Trade and Agriculture Commission can advise us on trade policy and finally, but by no means least, we have the buying power of the British consumer who is increasingly committed to high standards of animal welfare," she continued.

Farmers join a protest organised by Save British Farming (SBF) on the day the amended Agricultural Bill returns to the House of Commons. Credit: PA

The environment minister said a "serious examination of the role of labelling" in food standards promotion and welfare would also begin before the end of 2020.

She continued: "I think this combination of measures will protect producers of high welfare British food, while allowing us to import where we wish to."

Ahead of the debate, a tractor demonstration took place in central London as farmers demanded food standards are upheld in post-Brexit trade deals.