Boris Johnson accused of eyeing post-Brexit US trade deal by ripping out food safeguards imposed by parliament

Exclusive: ‘This is clearly an attempt to make it harder for the public and parliament to ensure protections are not traded away’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 27 October 2019 09:27 GMT
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Boris Johnson is paving the way for a quickfire US trade deal after Brexit that would slash UK food standards by stripping out protections imposed by parliament earlier this year, critics are warning.

The alarm has been raised after the Queen’s Speech revealed he will introduce a new trade bill – rather than “roll over” the trade bill from the last session, which was changed dramatically in the House of Lords.

Peers inflicted a string of defeats, most significantly to prevent ministers pursuing and signing post-Brexit trade deals without approval by a vote in parliament.

The issue is crucial because of an expectation that the prime minister, if the UK does leave the EU, will move quickly for what Brexiteers view as the prize of a trade deal with Donald Trump.

The US has already set out its aggressive demands – the right to sell chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef, rip up restrictions on shipping personal data and ramp up the cost of NHS drugs.

The trade bill, if it had been brought back as it stood before parliament was prorogued, would also have forced ministers to produce assessments of the environmental and social impacts of new trade deals.

And ministers were forced to guarantee that any new deals will not lower UK standards in any area.

Kierra Box, Brexit spokesperson at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent: “This is clearly an attempt to make it harder for the public and parliament to ensure protections are not traded away and for the government to be held to account.

“It appears from comments made by Liz Truss [the trade secretary], Boris Johnson and others in cabinet that they see Brexit as a deregulatory exercise.

“They see a US trade deal as the core aim of leaving the EU, despite the level of opposition in parliament and in society to Brexit leading to dirty trade deals and deregulation.

“And the US has made clear, since 2016, that its priority will be access for US agricultural goods produced to lower standards, as well as access for genetically modified goods.”

Labour echoed the warning, accusing the government of “a complete waste of everyone’s time and efforts”.

“Ministers took this bill through the full scrutiny of both Houses and even thanked us for helping to make the legislation fit for purpose,” said Lord Stevenson, a Labour trade spokesperson.

The Independent understands that Baroness Fairhead, the former minister in charge of the original bill, is “fizzing” with anger about it being gutted. She did not respond to a request to comment.

The controversy comes after a leaked document revealed the government is already exploring how the Brexit deal will allow it to slash standards in future.

The trade bill is one of no fewer than seven pieces of Brexit legislation now “paused” unless Jeremy Corbyn drops his opposition to Mr Johnson’s demand for a general election on 12 December.

The defeats were inflicted in the Lords in March, but the legislation was then put on ice rather than before MPs – before disappearing altogether when the session was curtailed.

Until it passes, the UK cannot trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules after a no-deal Brexit, which the prime minister insists remains a possibility.

Mr Johnson and Mr Trump talked up prospects for a rapid trade agreement when they met in New York last month, the US president hailing its “magnificent” potential.

The prime minister has insisted the NHS will be “off the table” and that he will not “prejudice or jeopardise our standards on animal welfare and food hygiene”.

However, Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, is among those arguing there will be no US trade deal unless the UK weakens its red lines – meaning No 10 will be under huge pressure from home and abroad to back down.

The key protections added to the previous bill in the Lords were:

* A negotiating mandate must be approved by parliament for any trade deal, plus an impact assessment drawn up by a parliamentary committee.

* Any agreement must be approved by the committee, with recommendations reviewed by both Commons and Lords.

* No agreement can be ratified unless it has been approved by both Commons and Lords.

But the Department for International Trade defended its decision to start afresh on the grounds that the bill was not intended to deal with future free trade agreements”.

“We have been clear that we will maintain our high standards including on environmental standards as we leave the EU and negotiate new trade deals around the world,” a spokesperson said.

“The work of the House of Lords will be taken into account when preparing new legislation to we provide continuity for both businesses and consumers that trade across the globe. This will of course be subject to scrutiny in both houses.”

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