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 Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade 12:37 pm, 17th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question on an issue that should never have become urgent. The Government have literally had years to protect our free trade with countries such as Canada, Singapore and Mexico, but with just six weeks to go until the end of the transition period, 15 of those continuity agreements have still not been secured, leaving £80 billion of UK trade at risk—two and a half times our trade with Japan. Those 15 agreements have been left so late that the Government will now have to ride roughshod over the rules of parliamentary scrutiny to implement them in time.

Why do we find ourselves in this sorry mess? Why were 20 agreements signed in 2019, but only four so far in 2020? Why have we heard Governments such as Montenegro and Cameroon saying that formal talks were held in September 2019, but then nothing for a full year afterwards? Why, in just the past week, have we heard the Prime Minister of Canada say that Britain has lacked the “bandwidth” to do a deal and the Government of Ghana express dismay that their UK counterparts would turn up late and badly briefed to meetings and then leave early with nothing resolved?

Those are all the hallmarks of Ministers who are simply not doing their job. How else do we explain why the agreement reached two weeks ago with Kenya has still not been laid before Parliament and cannot now receive the full 21 days of scrutiny? It is sheer bumbling incompetence, and instead of taking responsibility today, the Secretary of State has sent her Minister in her stead —a fitting symbol of a total failure to grasp this issue during her 16 months in office. It therefore falls to the Minister of State to answer my three final questions. First, what new steps is his Department taking to get these 15 agreements over the line before Christmas? Secondly, when will UK businesses be told if any of those agreements, including with Mexico, are definitely not going to be reached? Thirdly, how can Ministers continue to defend the adequacy of the rules for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals after the absolute mockery that they have made of them today?