Food and drink organisations in Scotland have expressed concern that trade deal negotiations with Australia are being rushed, with the UK Government accused of avoiding scrutiny and consultation.

An open letter to UK International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has been signed by 14 businesses and trade bodies warning about how the talks are being conducted.

Ms Truss has insisted British farmers have nothing to fear and an “awful lot to gain” from a free trade deal with Australia, while suggesting a 5% whisky tariff may be scrapped in the first agreement drawn up from scratch since the UK left the EU.

But critics of the proposed agreement fear the zero tariffs, zero quotas deal that the government in Canberra is demanding would see British farmers and businesses undercut by Australian rivals.

The 14 leading organisations in Scotland’s food and drink sector behind the open letter have also now expressed concern about the negotiations, suggesting it could set a bad precedent for future deals.

The letter, with signatories including the chief executives of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, the Scottish Seafood Association and Scotland Food & Drink, said: “We recognise the UK Government’s desire to move quickly to create new opportunities with nations beyond the EU.

“However we are concerned that the pace of these negotiations, particularly the free trade agreement with Australia, is too quick and denying the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny and consultation.

“Trade deals are complex and markets are sensitive; the impact of the Brexit deal has demonstrated this.

“The risks here are enormous for the whole food and drink supply chain and, in the absence of any formal impact assessment to suggest the contrary, we remain hugely concerned at the impact on sensitive sectors of our industry.”

It added: “We welcome an ambitious trade policy if it will open new opportunities for our producers.

“That said, we should be under no illusion that the EU market remains the most important export market, with it being the destination of two-thirds of all food exports.

“The new trading arrangements post-Brexit with our biggest export market, on our doorstep, have made this market more costly, complex and high risk to supply to.”

Elaborating on the worries caused by the potential trade deal, Scotland Food & Drink chief executive James Withers said: “As a food and farming industry we want to be ambitious for global trade. The future of our sector relies on it, and international sales of Scottish food and drink are already worth over £6 billion in a normal trading year.

“However, if we rush trade deals through, without any serious scrutiny and no engagement with industry and other experts, we can harm businesses, communities, the environment and the UK’s international reputation.

“Frankly, the process behind the Australian negotiations is cause for concern.

“We want to work collaboratively with UK Government on trade but that is very difficult to do when everything happens behind closed doors.

James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said the Australian trade deal could set a damaging precedent for future negotiations
James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, said the Australian trade deal could set a precedent for future negotiations (Stewart Attwood Photography/PA)

“We need a UK trade policy that not only protects the high animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards here, but acts as a force for their development globally.

“The importance of the UK-Australian deal goes beyond the relative value to both nations; it could set the framework for all future trade deals.

“So we need to get this right because the price of failure is too high.”

SNP MP Drew Hendry argued the letter should be “an urgent wake-up call for the UK Government to push the brakes on its damaging trade deal plans”.

He said: “The warnings are clear that ploughing ahead with a UK-Australia trade deal – without due scrutiny and process – will inflict further harm upon our vital industries.

“Brexit has already cost our economy and businesses billions of pounds, and this Tory trade deal would deliver yet another devastating blow at a critical time.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael added: “Buyer’s remorse already appears to be settling in with ministers around the rushed and heedless deal they made with the EU.

“You might think they would have learned to slow things down for negotiations with Australia and others so that they do not make the same mistake twice. Based on today’s letter, the lesson appears to have passed them by.

“It is time that the Government listened to local businesses to ensure that we get trade deals that work for everyone.”

A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “We seek a wide range of views before, during and after negotiations to ensure all voices are heard, and consult widely across the country before we launch talks, including extensive engagement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“We will only sign deals that work for all parts of the United Kingdom, including any potential deal with Australia.

“Our Exports Minister was in Scotland last week to champion the benefits of the Australia FTA, highlighting how a tariff reduction would benefit iconic goods like Scotch whisky.

“Any deal we sign will include protections for the agriculture industry and will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.”