Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 4:48 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, I am delighted to be the first Cross-Bencher to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on her very moving and powerful maiden speech. I have previously known her as the wife of her husband. I knew some of the story she told us today, but not all of it. None of us can be in any doubt that the range and depth of the experiences that she described will enable her to contribute very powerfully to the business of this House.

I support the Second Reading of the Bill. Like the earlier withdrawal Bill, it is clearly necessary if the UK is to leave the European Union. As has been said, it will be an important first step if the UK, as a third country, is able to novate trading agreements that we already have as members of the EU. Of course, it will be for the EU’s trading partners individually to decide whether or not they want to make such arrangements with the UK. As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said, that will not in every case be straightforward. The Secretary of State assures us that the auspices are good; we must hope that he is right.

However, there is the much larger question of trade with the EU countries themselves. I accept what the Minister said—that this Bill is not directly about trade with the EU—but the EU is such an essential part of UK trade that it is bound to be relevant to a Trade Bill. I hope that we can reach an agreement with the EU and believe that we must not be excessively dismayed by the reports of negative reactions from the EU negotiators to the Chequers proposals. As we all know, the EU has a habit of cobbling together an agreement at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. Nevertheless, we must be realistic about the consequences of failing to reach a deal.

In a recent article Professor Ngaire Woods, the director of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, pointed out that because world markets are becoming increasingly interdependent, other countries are consolidating their supply chains, not breaking them up. She made the point that three-quarters of world trade in goods consists of inputs to items finished elsewhere. For all countries, there is a premium on the ease of transmission of goods across borders. Half of current British exports are to the EU. I know that I do not have to give a lecture on these matters to the Minister, with whom I had the great pleasure of working during my brief foray into commercial life.

There is also the fundamental importance to the UK of exports of services. Here, I draw attention to my interests in the register. The Chequers proposals do not cover such exports but here again, mutual recognition of standards is as important as it is for goods. Of course, an agreement on these matters is important also for the EU, which is a reason for hoping that a deal will ultimately be done. But it is more important for us because trade with the EU is a more important part of our economy than trade with the UK is for its members, so we cannot afford to be light-hearted about the consequences of no deal or an inadequate deal. I know that the Government are not light-hearted about that but we have to ask ourselves whether, in the event of no deal or an inadequate deal, the advantages of leaving the EU still outweigh the disadvantages. Can we assert that a majority of the British people, in voting for Brexit, were in a position to take an informed view on this question? Of course, they could not have been because the terms of our future relationship were not known when the referendum took place—indeed, they are not known today.

I do not believe that it be would be right or responsible for the British people to go over the cliff without being asked to make an informed choice when the terms of our future relationship with the EU are available. If an amendment to this Bill is tabled to provide for such a choice, I will again support it. I cannot accept the Prime Minister’s response that providing the British people with an opportunity for an informed choice would be “a negation of democracy”. On a matter of such importance, precisely the reverse is the case.