Dr Liam Fox speech in the House of Commons on the Agriculture Bill

Speaking in the House of Commons Chamber on Monday 13th May 2020 in the debate on the Agriculture bill.  The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP said:


I wish to speak against new clause 1. A real issue needs to be dealt with: the high levels of regulation imposed on UK farming can and do add to increased costs for UK farmers. High standards can be an advantage in two ways: first, in what they say about the United Kingdom and our attitudes to animal welfare; and secondly, when it comes to exporting, when we can show to those who want to buy British agricultural produce that it is produced to very high standards—that was a huge advantage to me on a number of occasions when I was Secretary of State for International Trade.

The best way to help our farmers is to have a proper cross-governmental strategy to improve UK farming exports. The proposed changes do not deal with that particular problem, but they do create a number of others. There are three main unintended consequences: the first is the damage to our reputation for observing international treaty law; the second is that the proposals would damage our ability to conclude our current free trade agreements, and potentially future ones; and the third is that they make a mockery of our current negotiating position with the European Union.

First, the new clause is not compatible with WTO rules. Food safety and related issues are anchored in WTO law. Only the slaughter of animals is covered as a ​welfare issue in the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. There is nothing that the Government will do to undermine food safety standards in this country, and to suggest otherwise is a complete red herring in this whole debate. It would be a fine start to Britain’s independent trade policy outside the European Union if we were to begin by finding ourselves in conflict with the very rules-based trading system that we believe to be necessary.

Secondly, the new clause would damage the chances of our completing our current free trade agreements. I can say from personal experience, in my discussions with the United States, that the US would walk were the proposals to become law in the United Kingdom, and it would be swiftly followed by others—the Australians, the New Zealanders and those involved in the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership would be unlikely to take kindly to it. They do not want the incorporation of UK rules to become a prerequisite to trading agreements with the United Kingdom.

There is an additional problem: it is about not just our current FTAs but our ability to conclude future FTAs with developing countries, which simply cannot afford to have the same level of animal welfare standards as we enjoy in a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom. It would be a great pity if, after all the work we have done to promote development, we unintentionally undermined it by agreeing to this change.

Thirdly, the new clause makes a mockery of what we are doing in our negotiation with the European Union. We are currently telling the European Union that we cannot accept the introduction of rules made outside our own country as a precondition of trade with the European Union—the so-called level-playing-field approach—but that is exactly what the new clause would do in relation to everybody else. I can imagine nothing that would bring greater joy to the bureaucrats of Brussels than the UK scuppering its free trade agreement with the United States on the basis that we were insisting on a level-playing-field agreement that we have categorically ruled out in our dealings with the European Union.

I wish to go slightly beyond the content of the proposals to the wider consequences. I worry about what some of the proposed changes say about the signals we would send as a country and our approach to free trade in general. It is worth pointing out—because almost no one seems to have noticed—that global trading volumes went negative in the fourth quarter of 2019. Before covid, global trade was on a downturn, with inevitable long-term economic consequences. Since 2010, the world’s wealthiest economies—the G20—have increased and increased the number of non-tariff barriers to trade: in 2010, they were operating around 300; by 2015, they were operating around 1,200.

There is a bit of environmental law here, a bit of consumer protection here and a bit of producer protection elsewhere. It all adds up to a silting up of the global trading system. Why does that matter? It matters because it risks the progress we have made in the past generation of taking a billion people out of abject poverty through global free trade. It is not morally acceptable for those countries that have done very well out of global trade to turn to the others that are still developing and pull the ladder up in front of them. We have benefited from a ​global open trading system. It is not only economically sensible, but morally the right thing to do to ensure that that free trade continues.