My Lords, I am pleased to open this debate, with so many vastly experienced and distinguished Members on the list of speakers. I particularly look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lady Meyer, who is making her maiden speech today. I warmly welcome her to the House.
Let me start with some background. This Bill is fundamentally a pragmatic and, in most parts, technical Bill. It is about continuity and about certainty—continuity of the existing trade agreements that we already have through the EU, and the certainty that this gives to businesses and our trading partners. It may be a pragmatic Bill, but it is no less important for that. Before we sign any new trade agreement, we need to maintain the effects of our existing ones. Whatever the outcome of our negotiations with the EU, our current trading partners have made clear that they do not wish to lose access to our market—that of the fifth-biggest economy in the world—and nor do we to theirs.
Britain has always been a natural trading nation. We pioneered the global trade in mass manufactures at the start of the nineteenth century and globalised financial services towards the end. It is a deep part of our heritage, leaving its mark everywhere you go. Trade is more central to our economy now than it has ever been. In fact, it represents 60% of GDP, with exports making up 30% of that. It maintains jobs and touches almost every job up and down the country.
Of course, as we look to the future, we can be certain that the shape of the economy will change, just as it has in the past, whether it is from demographic shifts, artificial intelligence or anything else. Government has a duty to prepare the country for those changes. But one thing that we can be sure will not change is that trade will continue to be an important part of our economy and critical to the people of our country, which is why it is right that we now have a department dedicated solely to increasing international trade, and why we are supporting trade through our export strategy and our more than 200 recent ministerial visits from DIT alone overseas.
We can also be sure that the countries with which the EU has existing trade agreements will be a crucial part of that trade. Those agreements—the subject of this Bill—are with more than 40 non-EU countries. They represent 12% of our trade. We must ensure that we can replicate the effect of those agreements in UK law, with a transparent and timely process. Parliament, and especially this House, has a particularly crucial role here, because getting that right—the details, the technicalities, the practicalities—has always been where this House comes into its own. That is something this Government genuinely do value.
I am clear that this Bill has been improved by scrutiny in the other place. As a result of that input, the Government have made amendments to increase scrutiny, so that the Government would have to lay a report in Parliament setting out changes to existing trade agreements when they get transferred and use the affirmative resolution procedure where appropriate, not the negative; and by reducing the sunset period by two years. The amendments also give certainty that the new Trade Remedies Authority can be up and running on day one by letting us set up the TRA in shadow form without risking staff employment rights. They also iron out some technical consequences of machinery of government changes for the agreement on government procurement, so that we do not just have certainty, but are seen by our trading partners to have certainty.
So what, moving to the detail, does the Bill do? In short, the key elements are, first, as I have said, to seek the powers to ensure that we can implement existing continuity agreements with trading partners, both full free trade agreements and other agreements relating to trade. Secondly, it seeks the powers to ensure that we can become an independent member of the WTO’s agreement on government procurement, so that UK businesses do not lose access to a £1.3 trillion market. Thirdly, it seeks powers to establish the Trade Remedies Authority, to protect domestic industries from unfair and damaging trade practices. Fourthly, it lets the Government gather and share information on trade.
On the first of these, the Bill provides for the legal power to continue the trade agreements that the EU currently has with third parties, such as those with South Korea and Canada. Of course, once we have left the EU, the Government will not require additional powers to continue the trade agreements themselves—the power to negotiate and sign treaties is a prerogative power and always has been. Agreements concerning trade are no different. International agreements, once signed, are then ratified subject to the process set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and laid in both Houses alongside an Explanatory Memorandum to give Parliament oversight.
This Bill instead concerns the domestic implementation of those continuity agreements, where domestic law is required. Again, in many cases, this will already be preserved through the withdrawal Act, but it is essential that we have the legal power to make such agreements operable under UK law. The Bill will make sure that they can be. We should remember that many of the agreements are ones that the UK itself pushed for as a member of the EU and that all of them are bringing jobs across the country.
From preliminary discussions, the Government are confident that other countries want to be able to continue these existing agreements. Many of these countries have already said as much publicly. We are the world’s fifth-largest economy, its sixth-largest importer and its 10th-largest exporter, so even outside the European Union we will be one of the world’s most significant markets in our own right.
The second function of the Bill is to allow the UK to implement the changes required so that we can remain a party to the Agreement on Government Procurement—known as the GPA. This agreement, covering 19 parties and 47 countries, operates under the structure of the World Trade Organization. Although we are a member of the World Trade Organization in our own right, our GPA membership is through the EU.
The Government already have the power to accede to the GPA, subject to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. The power in this Bill will allow the UK to make the necessary changes in domestic legislation to reflect that accession. Being in the GPA means letting businesses from overseas compete in some of our procurement markets on level terms with domestic firms, with guaranteed reciprocated access. Around one-quarter of UK procurement contracts are opened up to foreign providers under both UK and EU rules—that is £68 billion—though in practice the vast majority are still won by British companies. In fact, only around 2.5% of the larger contracts go to foreign suppliers. In return, the Government get better value for money through more competitive tendering and our own businesses can sell into the world’s largest public procurement markets. Last year, British firms won contracts abroad that secured thousands of jobs. As I said, the opportunity is estimated to be worth £1.3 trillion a year.
To be clear, there is no requirement, and it is certainly not the policy of this Government, to open up the NHS or any other public service to international private sector competition. Nor will the Government put our own businesses at a disadvantage. We currently apply GPA rules through our EU membership; this clause simply lets us continue with the status quo. Our market access offer to the GPA remains completely in line with what we currently offer as an EU member state. Our schedule will be replicated. Continuity and reassurance are what this clause of the Bill provides.
The UK will continue to decide, at its sole discretion, which services to open up to competition, not our trading partners. The Bill will allow us to make necessary changes to our domestic legislation to reflect our independent membership of the GPA. In addition, it will allow for further limited changes; for example, to account for other countries joining or leaving the GPA.
The Bill’s third purpose is to let us set up a new public body, the Trade Remedies Authority, or TRA. This will allow the UK to investigate and, where appropriate, take action against unfair trading practices such as dumping and subsidies or unexpected surges in imports where they cause injury to UK industry, in line with WTO rules. This action usually takes the form of an increase in duty on imports of specific products; these are known as trade remedies measures. Such measures are key to ensuring an effective, rules-based system for international trade by levelling the playing field and restoring the competitive balance. They allow us to protect UK businesses and UK jobs.
Currently, the European Commission is responsible for undertaking trade remedies investigations and imposing measures on behalf of the UK. Once we are operating our own independent trade policy, that responsibility will be ours. That is why we have set up our own trade remedies framework, through the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, which noble Lords debated last week. This will ensure that the UK can continue to provide a safety net to domestic industries after the UK has left the EU. It is vital that this Government can continue to protect our businesses from unfair or injurious trading practices by other states.