The government is rushing to negotiate a trade deal with Australia that would allow food produced with pesticides banned in the UK to be imported into the country, campaigners and MPs have warned.
The international trade committee in parliament has called for a vote on the deal, which would see food produced under UK domestic environmental standards sold in the UK.
SNP MP Angus MacNeil, who chairs the committee, said there was a risk that the deal would be rushed through without scrutiny by MPs, and that it amounted to “offshoring” pesticide use.
He told the Guardian: “There has been no democratic input to the debate so far, and there will be pressure on government members to just push it through by the end of the month. We have asked for the approval time to be extended, for parliament to give us another 21 days to allow parliamentarians to process the report before it is ratified.
“As it stands, the UK could ratify this deal without any parliamentary vote.”
The MP calls for a vote in parliament because “it is one of the most liberalizing agreements we’ve seen on agricultural standards”.
This week, the international trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, skipped a session of the trade committee after MPs accused her department of avoiding investigating the matter.
“We had a fight with her yesterday,” MacNeil said. “The consequences we have had this week is that the foreign minister does not even appear at the committee meeting.”
The Ministry of International Trade said at the time that Trevelyan had pulled out because she was busy with other commitments.
MacNeil said the deal was far too liberalized on pesticides. “Pesticide limits in Australia are 200 times higher than those in the UK. They also have 144 approved pesticides, while the UK only licenses 73 of these. The environmental movement is talking about carbon offshoring; you could say we are offshoring pesticides.”
Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at the charity Pesticide Action UK, said: “Australia uses toxic pesticides which are banned here for health and environmental reasons. They also release far more residues than in the UK. The government’s own advisers have admitted that overuse of pesticides in Australia will put our farmers at a disadvantage, but argue that existing border controls will keep food with high pesticide residues out.
“However, there is reason to believe that UK food border controls are not nearly as robust as the government claims. Ministers should not walk away from parliamentary committees with legitimate questions to ask – not least, what will the government do to keep consumers safe and why are they breaking their own manifesto commitment to uphold standards in trade agreements?”
Orla Delargy, head of public affairs at the charity Sustain, said: “The government appears to be trying to push the UK-Australia deal through without giving Parliament a chance to properly scrutinize it. The government has yet to respond to the advice of its own advisers that our concerns about pesticides in Australian products are justified and that food standards bodies have failed to investigate their potential impact on public health, which feels like a huge oversight. don’t just upset them.”
The Department for International Trade has been contacted for comment.