THE Government must demand high farm animal welfare standards in any free trade agreements it negotiates after Brexit.

A report by a House of Lords committee warned that increased imports from countries operating lower farm welfare standards would put UK producers at a disadvantage.

The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment sub-committee said the Government’s desire for the UK to become a global leader in free trade was not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards.

It said demand for high-welfare products is ultimately driven by consumers purchasing those products, at added cost, rather than buying cheaper, lower-welfare products.

But it warned consumers are not always aware of the difference between production systems or willing to pay a higher price for premium welfare products. This could exacerbate the challenge to the competitiveness of UK farmers.

Lord Teverson, committee chairman, said: “The UK has some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world and UK producers are rightly proud of those.

“We see no reason why Brexit should diminish those, as long as the Government is aware of the challenges ahead and acts accordingly.

“We heard evidence of undeniable concern that opening up the UK market to free global trade poses a number of issues.

“As we said in our last report, the Government may find it hard to reconcile its free trade ambitions with its commendable desire for preserving high farm animal welfare standards.

“We heard overwhelming support for farm animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved. To help achieve that, we urge the Government to secure the inclusion of high farm animal welfare standards in any free trade agreements it negotiates after Brexit.

“While Brexit provides the UK with the unique opportunity to review and potentially improve farm animal welfare standards, the Government will need to consider the effect of increasing standards on the competitiveness of UK producers as well as the future trading relationship with the EU.”

The report also examined whether the UK will have access to the staff needed on farms and in abattoirs after Brexit.

It found an overwhelming reliance on non-UK EU citizens to fill crucial official veterinary positions in the UK, while the agricultural sector employs significant numbers of temporary and permanent farm workers.

The committee said the Government must ensure that the industry is able to retain or recruit qualified staff to fill these roles post-Brexit.

Gudrun Ravetz, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “The report supports our view that animal welfare should be considered a public good and we reiterate our calls that a replacement CAP scheme should encompass animal welfare, animal health, disease surveillance, biodiversity and environmental stewardship to benefit not only UK producers, but consumers and wider society too.”

He said some estimates suggest 95 per cent of official veterinarians working in UK abattoirs graduated overseas, mostly in the EU, but there were already reports of fewer applications.

Mr Ravetz said: “A strong, sustainable veterinary workforce is vital to safeguarding animal health, welfare and public health post-Brexit.”