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Torridge and West Devon Liberal Democrats

Torridge councillors ‘angry and disappointed’ at Government refusal to protect food standards in Agriculture Bill

October 29, 2020 8:40 PM
  • Motion urging the Government to reconsider carried by 20 votes to 5
  • Tory councillors ignore advice from MP and abstain

Less than a year after winning the parliamentary seat with 60% of the vote, the Conservative Party's position on food and farming has received a decisive thumbs down from Torridge District councillors. At Monday's full council meeting they voted to express their anger and disappointment at the government's refusal to accept House of Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill which would have protected food standards in the UK and ensured that British farmers are not undermined by imports produced to lower standards. The Council will be writing to Geoffrey Cox and other local MPs urging them to join Conservative party rebels like Neil Parrish in voting for the amendments when the bill returns to the House of Commons this week. It will also write direct to central Government.

Proposing the motion, Councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin said that, without the amendments, British farmers risk being sold out in a trade deal with lets in cheaper, lower quality food and that, as well as putting their livelihoods in jeopardy, this would impact on animal welfare, the environment, and public health:

'This is not just about hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken, but also matters such as stocking densities, battery cages, antibiotic use, pesticides, fungicides, and more. Our government promised us that "in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards". The government now has the opportunity to take this promise, and enshrine it in law through the Agriculture Bill, as recommended by the House of Lords, yet they are failing to do so.'

The MP for Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox, who voted with the Government in rejecting the amendments the first time around, sent a message to councillors in advance of the vote, reassuring them that there were already 'robust protections' for food sold in this country enshrined in law. His office wrote:

'The amendments would also have had damaging consequences for UK food security and our ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries.

'Geoffrey has made it clear he will not support an agreement that he believes genuinely undermines these standards, or that compromises the fundamental principles of the NHS.'

Responding to this, Councillor Cottle-Hunkin said in the meeting that:

'When contacting our representatives on the matter we are given the equivalent of a pat on the head and told not to worry. We are urged to believe that they can still be trusted to keep that promise. But if they had no plans to break it, surely they would have nothing to fear from these protections being put into law?'

Seconding Councillor Cottle-Hunkin's motion, Councillor Philip Hackett said:

'Notwithstanding information brought before us today from our MP's office, it is our duty to the public we represent to make our views firmly clear to Government, and to embolden our MP to support both our farming community and the health and wellbeing of us all.'

Speaking against the motion, Councillor Doug Bushby complained that Councillor Cottle-Hunkin, as a Lib Dem, was playing party politics and Councillor Chris Leather said that, having read Geoffrey Cox's letter, he felt uncomfortable with the motion because it was a 'very political statement'.

However, Councillor Peter Christie said:

'We are talking about one of our main industries. If we're not allowed to talk about it because of so-called politics, I don't know where we are.

'If you read the debate, a lot of the opposition to the Government's proposals comes from Conservatives in rural areas who realise that this could be a real death knell to a lot of farmers.'

The debate was also informed by written statements made by members of the public.

Local vicar Dr Susanna Metz, from Petrockstowe, who has first-hand experience of agricultural practices in the United States, described how agribusiness there has undermined not only food standards, but also animal welfare:

'In the US, I have worked with immigrants involved in multi-national chicken corporations who have been treated abysmally by those corporate giants. Yes, the US is geographically huge, but all across the nation, land is being despoiled at an alarming rate by an agribusiness political machine that allows such things as manure lakes, animals housed by the thousands on land that cannot sustain them, the use of pesticides, bovine growth hormones, and antibiotics in an unsafe and poorly regulated manner, and an immoral lack of care for the people who, for generations, have seen their life work as providing healthy food for the world's people.

If we ignore the need to support and encourage sustainable farming in our country, we leave ourselves open to finding our supermarket shelves filled with food that is far inferior health-wise to that we can grow here. Yes, it will be cheap, but we only have to read the problems people in the US are having, for example, because of the insane use of corn syrup sugar in foods that actually have no need of it. We will be tempted to buy dairy products that could very easily have antibiotic and bST in them. Is this what we want? In the Dalton, Georgia area (US southeast), hospitals were finding a much greater percentage of women who presented with breast masses which were traced back to cheap milk. Is this what we want to share?'

Baz Meeson, whose family farms in Woolsery, wrote:

'How will consumers know that what they are buying is not up to British safety standards? Already, it's hard for us to show consumers what goes into their food, so I hate to imagine what this will be like in years to come. Will we see a rise in infections due to poor food production practices? The fears of us being undercut with lower quality goods, and having consumers not know what they are buying are real and are growing. I wrote to my MP last time there was an amendment, but it's obvious my message was not clear enough to him. When an MP operates in a rural area, and isn't concerned with how their votes can impact local industries, are they really the 'representative' of the people they're made out to be?'

Declaring a personal interest in coming from a farming family, Councillor Cottle-Hunkin said:

'Family farms are the lifeblood of the South West. 72% of Devon's land is farmed, with the constituency of Torridge and West Devon having the highest proportion of employment in agriculture across all of the UK constituencies. In fact, Devon's GDP from farming is double that of the rest of the country. As farmers here in Devon, we have pride in our produce. Farming is not a job, but a way of life, where practices and livestock have often been passed down through generations. Farming is a vulnerable industry that faces huge pressures at the best of times, from issues such as crop failure and disease, and now the added pressures of Brexit, Coronavirus, and climate change.'

Put to the vote, the motion won by a majority of 15 votes, with Conservative councillors abstaining.

David Chalmers, Parliamentary spokesperson for Torridge and West Devon Lib Dems, said:

'I am very heartened by the strength of opinion expressed in this vote. It shows that in local government as in Westminster, the Government is being held to account over its promises. Brexit must not mean the loss of our farming industry or the debasement of our diet.'

The full text of the motion was as follows:

I propose that Torridge District Council expresses its anger and disappointment on the government's decision to vote against protecting food standards in the Agriculture Bill. This is a devastating blow to farmers and consumers, impacting upon animal welfare, the environment and public health. We urge the government to reconsider its stance when the Bill returns from the House of Lords in November.

I propose this council writes a letter to central government as well as our own MP for Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox, along with the MPs from surrounding constituencies who all voted against the amendment to protect food standards - Selaine Saxby for North Devon, Mel Stride for Central Devon, and Scott Mann for North Cornwall, to ask them to put their heads above the parapet and do what is right for our communities and Save British Farming.