George Eustice, a former UK Cabinet minister, has criticised the country’s free trade deal with Australia.

Eustice, who as the UK’s former Environment Secretary helped secure the agreement, said “the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

When the deal – the UK’s first major post-Brexit trade agreement – was struck last year, it was criticised by UK farming bodies as being bad for the country’s beef and lamb farmers as they would have to compete with tariff-free meat shipped in from Down Under. Concerns were also raised about whether Australia’s animal welfare standards were comparable to the UK’s.

In a speech in the House of Commons yesterday (14 November) during a debate on the trade deal, Eustice, who now sits outside the Cabinet as a backbench MP, said he shared some of those misgivings.

“We did not need to give Australia or New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep. It was not in our economic interest to do so and neither Australia nor New Zealand had anything to offer in return for such a grand concession. Let us not forget that, while we are about to open our market to unbridled access for Australian beef, Australia remains one of the few countries left in the world that maintains an absolute export ban for British beef,” he said.

Eustice told MPs he believed the deal was rushed and blamed Liz Truss, who was then Trade Secretary before later becoming – briefly – Prime Minister. Upon becoming Prime Minister, she sacked Eustice who had become Environment Secretary under her predecessor Boris Johnson.

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“We should not set arbitrary timescales for concluding negotiations. The UK went into this negotiation holding the strongest hand – holding all the best cards – but at some point in early summer 2021 the then Trade Secretary, my right honourable friend the Member for South West Norfolk [Liz Truss] took a decision to set an arbitrary target to conclude heads of terms by the time of the G7 summit, and from that moment the UK was repeatedly on the back foot,” Eustice said.

“In fact, at one point, the then Trade Secretary asked her Australian opposite number what he would need in order to be able to conclude an agreement by the time of the G7. Of course, the Australian negotiator kindly set out the Australian terms, which eventually shaped the deal.”

Eustice described the agreement as “not actually a very good deal for the UK” and suggested that “unless we recognise the failures the Department for International Trade made during the Australia negotiations, we will not be able to learn the lessons for future negotiations”.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the opposition Labour party’s Shadow International Trade Secretary, said: “It is clear that the Conservative government’s trade policy is in utter disarray. Even George Eustice, a cabinet member when the Australia trade deal was negotiated, has now agreed that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return.”

But in a statement sent to Just Food, the Department for International Trade defended the UK-Australia free trade deal.

“Our landmark trade agreement with Australia will unlock GBP10.4bn (US$12.34bn) of additional bi-lateral trade, support economic growth in every part of the UK and deliver for the 15,300 businesses already exporting goods to Australia, a spokesperson said.

“We have always said that we will not compromise the UK’s high environmental, animal welfare or food safety standards and the deal includes a range of safeguards to support British farmers.”