A trade minister has claimed UK farmers should be “positive not fearful” of a proposed UK-Australia free trade agreement.
Greg Hands struck an optimistic tone in the Commons, despite fears raised by MPs on both sides of the House representing rural areas about the impact a deal could have on UK farming.
Hands said the deal would represent a “major prize” for the UK’s newly independent trade policy, and would “slash” tariffs on “iconic” UK exports–saving business potentially around £115 million a year.
He told colleagues: “This will be a great deal for the UK and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade area in Asia and Pacific, opening doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economies of now and the future.
“Our food is among the best in the world and incredibly competitive. We should be positive, not fearful, of the opportunities that exist for our agriculture and our farmers.”
Hands went on: “Australian meat is high quality, produced to high standards, and arrives here in low volume. Meanwhile, Australia has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
“The UK accounts for just 0.15 percent of Australian beef exports and our analysis suggests any increase in imports is more likely to displace food arriving from the EU.
“Any deal we strike will continue protections for our farmers, any liberalisation will be staged over time and any agreement is likely to include safeguards to defend against import surges.”
However, questions were asked about the scrutiny of any deal and the possible impact on farmers and their businesses.
Earlier this week, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said there would be a “very long transition” for farmers to adjust to competition from Australia under the terms of the proposed free trade deal.
Conservative Neil Hudson (Penrith and the Border) raised concerns that the deal could “damage our farming sector” and asked for “meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.”
He told the Commons: “A free trade agreement between the UK and Australia is something I welcome as it can be of huge benefit to both our countries. We are the closest of friends and share so much in common.
“However, I share the concerns of farmers in Cumbria and across the UK that the FTA may damage our farming sector. It is important that Parliament is able to scrutinise these FTAs, something which is not happening with this deal.”
He added: “Will the Government commit to meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of this agreement and act to reconstitute the Trade and Agriculture Commission immediately and also consider tariff-rate quotas as a sensible way of safeguarding this agreement?”
Worries were also raised by Labour’s Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower).
After asking about farmers in her constituency, Hands told her there is “strong buy British branding” in the UK and he does not see that “changing overnight” as a result of a trade deal.
He told the Commons: “When it comes to British beef in our supermarkets there’s strong ‘buy British’ branding in the UK, I don’t see that changing overnight.
“81 percent of beef sold in the UK has got either UK or other home nations branding and 100 percent in many of our major supermarkets. I don’t see that changing as a result of any trade deal.”
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour could not support a “rushed through” deal.
She said: “Let me make clear at the outset that we support a trade deal with Australia which is designed in British interests, which will create jobs in our economy and increase our exports and growth.
“What we cannot support is a deal being rushed through in time for the G7 summit without proper debate or consultation, let alone the advance scrutiny that the Government promised via the Trade and Agriculture Commission.”