DEFRA faces pressure to give way on standards

DEFRA has said it will not water down environmental standards as part of trade negotiations once the UK leaves the EU in response to a leaked internal document suggesting it will come under pressure to do so from the Department for International Trade.

Villiers has already suggested she is open to overhauling environmental regulations. 3Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The DEFRA briefing warns that the department will come under “significant pressure” from the Department for International Trade (DIT) to weaken the UK’s food and environmental standards to secure a trade deal with the United States post-Brexit. 

The document, prepared for environment secretary Theresa Villiers and leaked to Greenpeace’s Unearthed project, warns the DIT will push DEFRA  to “accommodate” American requests to lower the UK’s sanitary and phytosanitary standards post-Brexit.

“Weakening our SPS regime to accommodate one trade partner could irreparably damage our ability to maintain UK animal, plant and public health, and reduce trust in our exports,” it reads.

DEFRA did not comment on the document directly, saying it  “does not comment on leak[s]”.

However, a department spokesperson added: “The UK is a world leader on animal welfare and environmental standards, and we will not water down our standards as part of trade negotiations.”

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According to Unearthed, the paper examines the impact of various post-Brexit scenarios on the UK’s food and environmental standards. It states that agreeing to US requests will severely limit the UK’s ability to negotiate an agreement with the EU and could lead to the EU imposing a hard border in Ireland to protect the single market.

The authors urge DEFRA to “push back strongly” against DIT pressure “to secure our positions, particularly on dispute settlement, handling of custom terms and definitions, and around controversial issues (hormone beef, chlorine chicken)”.

However, Villiers herself has already suggested she was open to overhauling environmental regulations.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference last week, she said Brexit gave the UK the chance “to take back control of our rules on farming, on animal welfare, on the environment and on fisheries”.  

Chancellor Sajid Javid also launched a new Brexit red tape challenge, which he said would give the UK the chance to “remove or improve” regulations.