British farmers have expressed concerns that animal welfare standards could be undermined by the UK’s newly-announced free trade deal with Australia.
Boris Johnson insisted the pact, the first to be negotiated from scratch since Brexit, will benefit British farmers following fears from the sector that they could be undercut by cheaper imports.
Downing Street said products like cars, Scotch whisky and confectionary will be cheaper to sell to Australia because of the tariff-free agreement, while British farmers will be protected by a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years.
However, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called for more information on the protections for UK farming businesses, while also raising concerns over possible compromises on food standards.
Labour has also accused the Government of “screwing over our farmers” after Australia’s trade ministry revealed that tariff-free protection periods would stop in five years for dairy products, and after 10 years for beef and lamb.
NFU president Minette Batters said in a statement: “We will need to know more about any provisions on animal welfare and the environment to ensure our high standards of production are not undermined by the terms of this deal.
“The ultimate test of this trade deal will be whether it contributes to moving farming across the world onto a more sustainable footing, or whether it instead undermines UK farming and merely exports the environmental and animal welfare impact of the food we eat.”
Similarly, animal welfare charity the RSPCA said that the agreement could set a “worrying precedent” and sought reassurance that standards on imports would be equivalent to that of the UK.
Chief executive Chris Sherwood warned that it is legal in Australia to mutilate the rear end of sheep, while chicken can be washed with chlorine and almost half of cattle are given growth hormones.
He added: “The UK should be proud of its animal welfare standards and strive to maintain and improve them, but there’s a danger this is being sold out for the sake of a quick trade deal.”
Mr Johnson said the trade agreement will adhere to the “strongest possible” animal welfare standards, while Mr Morrison insisted that Australian standards were “very high”.
Downing Street also sought to ease concerns over animal welfare, telling reporters that hormone-fed beef will not be allowed to be sold in British supermarkets under the pact.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told Westminster reporters: “We are absolutely not compromising our high animal welfare and food safety standards.”
Elsewhere in the agreement, UK citizens under the age of 35 will be able to travel and work in Australia more freely – scrapping the requirement for farm work.
Previously, Britons under the age of 30 could work in Australia for two years and were required to spend time working in agriculture to do so, but those under 35 can work there for three years without this under the new deal.
However, further details of the free trade deal have so far been sparse, with the announcement by Downing Street lacking specifics on when the agreement comes into force and what other sectors are set to benefit.
The two leaders were said to have agreed the pact over dinner in Downing Street on Monday evening, with a final agreement in principle set to be published in the coming days.
Following the announcement, Mr Johnson told reporters: “It will be good news for British car manufacturers, it will be good news for British services, for British financial services and it will be good news for the agricultural sector on both sides.
“Here, we had to negotiate very hard and I want everybody to understand that this is a sensitive sector for both sides and we’ve got a deal that runs over 15 years and contains the strongest possible provisions for animal welfare.
“But I think it is a good deal and I think it’s one that will benefit British farmers and British consumers as well. It will also make it easier for British people, for young people to go and work in Australia.”
Mr Morrison added: “Our economies are stronger by these agreements, this is the most comprehensive and ambitious agreement that Australia has concluded.”
The agreement with Australia is also set to boost the UK’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
In the lead-up to the deal being agreed, a split in the Cabinet appeared between International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Environment Secretary George Eustice, who has concerns about the impact on farmers.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove also harbours fears that the agreement could fuel demands for Scottish and Welsh independence.
In a statement stressing the benefits of the deal to all four nations of the UK, Number 10 said the new deal will help distillers by removing tariffs of up to 5% on Scotch whisky.
The free trade deal is also set to eliminate tariffs on Australian goods like Jacob’s Creek and Hardys wines, swimwear, and confectionery, which will save British households up to £34 million a year, according to Downing Street.
MPs will be able to scrutinise the agreement once it is completed, which is expected to be towards the end of the year, but it is understood that they will not be given the chance to vote on whether it should come into force.
Shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry said: “No other country in the world would accept such a terrible deal for its farming industry, and neither should we.
“Any Tory MP backing this deal today needs to have a hard look in the mirror, and ask how they would react if it had been proposed by Brussels instead.”
Total trade between the UK and Australia was worth £13.9 billion in 2020, while the UK was Australia’s fifth largest trading partner the previous year.