Continuity Trade Agreements: Parliamentary Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 12:37 pm, 17th November 2020

In under two years, the UK Government have signed or agreed in principle trade agreements with 52 countries that account for £142 billion of UK bilateral trade. That accounts for 74% of the value of trade with non-European Union countries that we set out to secure agreements with at the start of the trade continuity programme. Since the transition period began, we have expanded the ambition of our programme above and beyond that original scope. In November we signed an enhanced deal with Japan, accounting for £30 billion of UK trade in 2019, and we expect to make significant progress in securing further deals before the end of the transition period. We believe that this is the largest set of parallel trade negotiations ever conducted by any country.

Parliamentary scrutiny is central to our continuity negotiations. All signed agreements would be subject to the statutory scrutiny process as set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, providing a guaranteed period for Parliament to scrutinise and debate these agreements. Indeed, Parliament has held debates on six of our signed continuity agreements, and not one of those debates has carried a negative resolution. Further, we have voluntarily published parliamentary reports alongside all continuity agreements, explaining any differences from the predecessor EU agreements. I am pleased to see that our approach to scrutiny was praised in a recent report by the House of Lords EU International Agreements Sub-Committee, “Treaty scrutiny: working practices”.

As we approach the end of the transition period, it is possible that the scrutiny window for remaining agreements will extend beyond 1 January into the new year. That means that we may need to use provisional application for a short period, in order to guarantee continuity of trade relationships and avoid any cliff edges. I thank the right hon. Lady for her two letters on the subject to the Secretary of State last week. Provisional application is a well-established and widely used mechanism to give effect to treaties while domestic ratification procedures continue in parallel. Many EU trade agreements were or are being provisionally applied, including the comprehensive economic and trade agreement with Canada and the agreements with Ukraine and with the Caribbean Forum. I remind the right hon. Lady that those EU agreements have already been comprehensively scrutinised at EU level and by this Parliament. In fact, the Government published a technical note in Parliament last year setting out our assessment of provisional application and the circumstances in which it might be used.

We will always take the time necessary to negotiate the right deals. Any agreement we sign must benefit British consumers and businesses, preserve our high food standards and protect the NHS, and they must share wealth across all our nations and regions as part of our levelling-up agenda. We look forward to submitting further continuity FTAs to Parliament for scrutiny once signed, and we welcome further debates on our independent trade policy.