UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement: letter to UK Government

Letter from Rural Affairs Secretary raising concerns about the impact on Scottish farmers of the proposed UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement that will provide tariff free access to Australian agri-food.

From: Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon MSP
To: Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP Secretary of State for International Trade

I am aware you recently met with Australian Minister for Trade, Dan Tehan, to discuss progress made to date on UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement negotiations. The UK Government has previously reassured the public that food standards will not be compromised, yet the UK Government disagreed to amendments to the Agriculture and Trade Bills that would have delivered reassurances to all. The UK Government must not renege on those earlier assurances, as granting unfettered access within a UK-Australia FTA will set a precedent for all future FTAs.

As we have been clear since the Scottish Government’s response to your Department’s consultation on future FTAs in 2018, an FTA with Australia must not undercut Scotland’s world leading food standards or lead to a zero tariff / quota agreement. At a time when UK agri-food producers are facing significantly greater barriers to trade with Europe – the sector’s largest export market – it would be incomprehensible for the UK Government to sign up to a trade deal that would facilitate mass imports of Australian agri-food produced to a lesser standard. A trade deal that liberalises tariffs for Australian farmers, to put it bluntly, will put UK farmers out of business.

The UK Government’s own scoping assessment concluded that a UK-Australia FTA would benefit UK GDP by a mere 0.02%, whilst identifying agriculture and semi-processed food as losing sectors from a deal. Scottish Ministers have repeatedly sought reassurances as to how the UK Government will protect the agriculture and semi-processed food sectors.

As Martin Kennedy, President of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, recently said: ‘The prosperity of rural areas and our high standards should not be jeopardised for the sake of a headline-grabbing deal’.

The UK public have sent an unequivocal message to the UK Government that food standards must not be compromised within FTAs. Recent consumer research conducted by ‘Which?’ concluded that 94% of respondents want food standards to be upheld in all FTAs.

In addition to the devastating impacts from a UK-Australia zero tariff and quota FTA on domestic producers, trading with Australia will have a significant impact on the global environment and the climate emergency.

Increasing imports of red meat from Australia, often produced on massive feed lots, is unsustainable, and runs contrary to the Scottish Government policy position that trade should support progress to achieve net zero. Moreover, increasing imports from Australia, will merely offshore UK emissions to the southern hemisphere, whilst increasing global emissions from transport.

I also note that the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission has yet to be established. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government is seeking to rush through an Australia trade deal before the Commission has been established and can scrutinise it properly. I recognise that the Commission may be established in time to consider your report under section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2020, but by then the damage will have been done.

The Scottish Government believe imports of Australian agri-food must be produced to equivalent standards as those that domestic industry are required to meet. This position was also supported in the recently published Trade and Agriculture Commission report. However, where there are particular domestic sensitivities, such as those experienced in the beef and sheepmeat sectors, there must also be tariff rate quotas to control imports of Australian product.

These quotas must be duly maintained, and not eroded over time. As part of market access offers, they must also be determined in consultation with stakeholders and the devolved administrations with the objective of agreeing import quotas that are fair and sustainable – something that has been notably absent from the process so far.

I would welcome the opportunity to urgently discuss my concerns directly with you in respect to UK-Australia and other FTA negotiations. My office will be in contact with yours to seek to arrange a suitable time. I believe it would also be helpful if you, or one of your colleagues, could attend the next Inter-Ministerial Group between Defra and the Devolved Administrations which is being rescheduled for early June. This would provide an opportunity to discuss progress made to-date on UK-Australia and other key FTA negotiations.

I am copying this letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster, the Minister of State for Trade Policy, the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales in the Welsh Government and the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the Northern Ireland Executive.

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