Comment: Will the Trade & Agriculture Commission have teeth?

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

The BEIC along with other industry allies took part in the NFU’s campaign, that called for the establishment of a national commission to oversee and scrutinise trade negotiations and help to inform trade policy post-Brexit. We warmly welcomed the UK Government’s recent decision to establish the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for International Trade said that the Government recognises the importance of engaging with the agriculture and farming sectors and seeking expert advice. The Secretary of State also said our high food and animal welfare standards will not be compromised. It would be amiss of me not to mention the fact that there are no animal welfare organisations represented on the membership of the Commission, however.

British farming and the food industry, as well as consumer groups and animal welfare organisations are eagerly awaiting the further details emerge about the Commission’s future planned work and activities. We are likely to know more after the first meeting of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. The Commission has only been given a term of 6 months, in which they will be expected to produce and submit an advisory report, that will be presented to Parliament by the Department for International Trade (DIT). Parliamentarians will then debate the contents of the debate and of course the Government will be expected to respond to any recommendations contained made by the Commission within the report.

The establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is welcomed, despite the fact that it’s membership is not as inclusive as it could be, by including representation from a broader range of farming and agriculture industry associations, particularly those with relevant expertise. However, it is a step in the right direction. We, along with our industry allies do have some concerns. The Commission has been established under the auspices of DIT. It is vitally important that the Commission has demonstrable and full operational independence within its remit, and in the drafting of its final advisory report that is presented to Parliament.

The Commission’s remit covers a few areas, most importantly: policy that the UK should be adopting in trade agreements to assure animal welfare standards are maintained – as per General Election manifesto of the Conservatives; how to reflect consumers interests; how the UK will engage the WTO in terms of advancing animal welfare and environmental protection standards; and new export opportunities for UK agriculture. The BEIC believes by limiting the Commission term to only 6 months, the Government is missing a significant opportunity to address these areas and produce the best-informed post-Brexit trade policy. If we take, for example, the fact that the Government wishes to conclude 80% of their desired trade deals within 3 years, an incredibly ambitious target, would it not make sense for the Commission to last at least this long? If not, for an indefinite period.

If we make a direct comparison with the USA, they have a permanent trade commission that advises their Congress on all aspects of trade. The Trade and Agriculture Commission could exist in such a way that it serves to inform all parliamentarians, and the Government, to help them develop and produce better legislation and policy in trade and agriculture by working holistically with a range stakeholders for the benefit of consumers and producers.

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