“Chlorine Washed Chicken Bill”

Anne McHardy, a former Guardian journalist and Labour activist in Islington, echoes our own local groups’ campaign in urging stronger action in Westminster and on the streets against the pernicious Agriculture Bill:

“A Bill in its committee stage in the Lords, due to become law before the Brexit transition ends on December 31, is misleadingly titled the Agriculture Bill. It should be the EU Importation Bill or, better, the Chlorine Washed Chicken Bill.

It will give the government unfettered powers to make unscrutinised trade deals with the United States, and indeed anywhere else. Even more dangerously for our environment, food and medical standards, it will allow future governments to change the EU regulations which currently protect us against foods farmed to such low standards that they need bleaching before we eat them, symbolised by that description “chlorine washed chicken”.

The Bill imports a comprehensive range of EU regulations into UK law, ostensibly to maintain EU standards, but also covers most areas where the farming and food industries are being radically changed by Brexit. An amendment proposed in the Lords by Dianne Hayter would have given legal force to the imported EU regulations and therefore prevented them from being changed by the governments, or indeed negotiated away in trade deal. But it was withdrawn after assurances from the government to maintain EU standards.

How credible those assurances are can be judged by the fact that the Hayter amendment was backed by Theresa Villliers, who was Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until she was sacked by Johnson. She had negotiated maintaining EU equivalence. Villiers does not trust Johnson and Co.

One of our weaknesses as a Labour Party, I believe, is we are too focused on the industrial and urban and have no alertnessss to danger to agriculture. That is why I feel the Bill should be titled EU Importation. That would have had us marching to Westminster. In the Commons Johnson’s back benchers, even those terrified of chlorine washed chicken and threatening revolt about Huawei, obediently voted this amendment down and will pass the Agriculture Bill.

One of the serious weaknesses in our UK political system as we leave the EU is that Parliament has no power – it never had – to scrutinise or veto treaties which are made under the Crown Prerogative and can therefore be signed by the government with the Commons having only a 21 day debate after that, and with no Parliamentary scrutiny during negotiations. Within the EU all negotiations were scrutinised by the European Parliament, but that invaluable protection has gone.

The Lords, very mindful of this, in April set up an International Agreements Committee, under the aegis of its European Committee, with Zac Goldsmith as chair. In July he asked for evidence on the US trade talks. Little though I normally agree with him, he is impressive on the environment, has no career to be damaged, and dislikes Johnson. Labour, with Emily Thornberry as Shadow International Trade Secretary, is working to prevent a bad Brexit, but, of course, getting zero media coverage.

But maybe the rest of us need to raise our collective voice too. Raising the Labour Party’s voice on schools and masks shouldn’t divert us from the wider dangers of a no-deal Brexit, for which the unamended Agriculture Bill will provide Johnson et al with essential tools. Labour’s commitment to a greener future should have us campaigning not just to clean up city streets, but seeking legal status for EU standards, and making common cause between those buying in supermarkets and food producers.

The UK only produces 53 per cent of its food and far too much of that using seasonal migrants, whose working rights and often awful living conditions lack protection as certainly as those of Leicester textile workers. As trade unionists we should be horrified. Most of the rest of our food comes from Europe which makes an EU trade deal vital. A deal will be impossible however if the UK accepts the US’s lower standards which is, of course, why this government is making having no trade equivalence a sticking point in the Brexit talks.

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, says we all have a moral duty to protect food standards. We have. This Bill potentially wrecks them. We need to stop that. The Trade Bill is a possible way to at least allow some stay to Johnson et al and it will get its Second reading next Tuesday. There are petitions and some demonstrations planned. Pity there wasn’t the same for poor old Agriculture.”

Reminder: our local groups’ model letter on farm standards is here