The leaders of more than 20 major environmental and animal welfare groups have called on the UK government to give MPs and civil society a bigger say over the content of new trade deals as “global Britain” looks to strike agreements around the world.
Amid fears that pressure to strike quick trade deals with the US and Asia-Pacific nations will lead the government to dilute standards on food, the environment and animal welfare, the groups called for the creation of a “scrutiny process” equal to that of the EU and US.
In a letter to Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, seen by the Financial Times, they warned that “time is running out” for the government to enshrine its verbal assurances on maintaining high standards into law in the trade bill that is working its way through parliament.
“The government should, as a matter of urgency, introduce provisions to ensure that MPs have a say on negotiating mandates, maximum access to negotiating texts and a binding vote once a deal has been agreed,” they wrote.
The letter was written as the government faces mounting pressure from farming and animal welfare groups over its failure to legislate to ban the import of food products reared by methods — like battery farming — that would be illegal in the UK.
The 26 signatories included the chief executives of the Marine Conservation Society, the Green Alliance, Compassion in World Farming, Pesticide Action Network, WWF UK, the Women’s Institute and the Fairtrade Foundation.
The group said the Conservative UK government’s domestic election manifesto promises to uphold domestic standards on environmental protection, animal welfare and food, now needed to be put “at the heart” of international trade policy.
Hugh Knowles, the CEO of Friends of the Earth, said that entering negotiations with key issues on climate change, environment and food standards unresolved was “sheer folly” because “warm words are not red lines at the negotiating table”.
“What kind of message does it send that the next host of international climate change talks is reluctant to guarantee environmental protections in law, much less set out how our climate ambitions will be realised through our approach to international trade?” he said.
The failure to legislate to guarantee standards has raised widespread suspicions that the government will ultimately trade away standards to secure deals with countries that, like the US, are demanding the UK dilutes strict EU food and environmental rules that will initially be enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition agreement.
The government’s decision to block amendments to the agriculture bill barring the import of products raised with animal welfare standards currently illegal in the UK saw more than a million people sign a petition by the National Farmers’ Union calling for legislative guarantees.
In an apparent response to the pressure, Ms Truss has announced an independent commission to advise on post-Brexit agriculture trade policy. The NFU continues to push for legal guarantees.
The government is also set for clashes on other areas of trade policy, such as genetically modified crops, fishing quotas and pesticide residues on plant products and seed coatings.
The Pesticide Action Network released a report warning of the much higher levels of food pesticide residue allowable not just in the US, but among members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP) that includes Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Japan and which the UK is seeking to join.
Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns, at Pesticide Action Network UK said future potential UK trade partners had listed pesticide standards inherited from EU membership as a “key sticking point” and made clear that weakening them was a priority.
“Drill down into the language the government is using about trade, and alarm bells start to go off. Couple that with the failure to enter into legislative commitments and it begins to look like they plan to sell the environment down the river,” she said.
Trade policy experts said the government had been too slow to build consensus on trade and had failed to learn the political lessons of previous negotiations, such as the failed EU-UK transatlantic trade deal (TTIP) which proved highly divisive.
David Henig, a former UK negotiator on TTIP, said that ministers had been complacent in believing that a “free trade is good” narrative would trump the divisive politics of trade and were now suffering the consequences of failing to build consensus.
“Old hands from TTIP days said ‘don’t do a US deal first, nothing is more guaranteed to get civil society mobilised than a US deal, but the message just didn’t get through,” he said.
A government spokesperson said: “This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.”