Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 11th September 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 5:03 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, since my introduction into your Lordships’ House, on each occasion when I have risen to speak from these Benches, I have endeavoured to find some point of common cause with the previous speaker—some point on which we can agree, or some way in which I can seamlessly weave myself into the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, will appreciate that, on this occasion, I choose to divert myself from that and to take this opportunity to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, to your Lordships’ House. I particularly congratulate her on her maiden speech. I was privileged to be here in person to listen to it. She has a compelling personal story. I have not practised law for some time but, when I did, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade judges of what was in the best interests of children. If she intends to use her opportunity as a Member of this House to do this, she can guarantee that I shall be behind her. I honestly think that people are much more likely to listen to her because she can translate her personal circumstances into a compelling argument, and I thank her for that.

In the third or fourth sentence of the Minister’s opening remarks, she said that the principle that guided the Bill—I think this is the phrase used by Liam Fox in the other place—was that of continuity. She suggested in her peroration that the purpose of the Bill is substantially to preserve the status quo. During the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House, to the extent that I can engage with it, I intend to test whether it in fact gives any bankable guarantee of continuity or whether it creates a series of opportunities which I suspect that the Government will not resist to do the opposite in some specific cases. I intend to use my time to identify some of them and ask some specific questions of the Government about their intentions.

I begin by going back to a point made by several speakers, including my noble friend Lord Grantchester and the noble Lord, Lord Fox. Indeed, before we even started on Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, about this. My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford also asked about this in his intervention. We are promised that, in summing up the debate, the noble Baroness will come back to address the issue of whether the Government can achieve what they set out to do, which is to roll over these trade deals in the time available in a way that generates continuity.

Whether the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, likes it or not, third parties are involved, and that guarantees that we cannot just cut and paste these trade deals. First, the European Union has to take action and then the third-party countries have to agree. Some of these countries are required by their constitutions to ask their Parliaments whether they can agree to the novation of these trade deals; in some, the head of state has the equivalent of our prerogative power to do so; in others, it is relatively simple, and departments can do it.

This point was brought to my attention by press reporting over the weekend. I am thinking specifically of the report in the Independent—it may have been only online—on 8 September of an answer given to an FoI which revealed that, beyond trade, there are more than 750 such deals with at least 168 non-EU countries. They cover a wide variety of issues: airline services, nuclear safety, fisheries, agriculture and data sharing, over and above those that relate to trade, which we are specifically dealing with here.

I ask the Minister to address the specific question asked in the FoI: whether the Government have central information on the number of those agreements and whether information is held about their individual status—in other words, the degree to which a likely positive response from a third-party country had been gained by discussion and negotiation, principally by her department. I understand that, in answer to that question, Charles Marquand was told that the Government do not hold the information relevant to the request.

It was reported that none of these 168-odd countries have given clear agreement to roll over any deals, yet there is no date for asking them to do so. Given what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, was told by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in Oral Questions—that these all have to be rolled over by 29 March—perhaps the Minister can confirm in her promised response to this debate that the Government do know how many third-party countries have promised or agreed to roll over agreements. Perhaps she can persuade your Lordships’ House that the Government are confident that this information actually exists somewhere. Can she quantify the risk of loss of trade after Brexit if any of these countries refuse to roll over agreements or require significant changes to them?

I have a few minutes left in which to make a second point, which relates to geographic indications. No one who knows my history of representing a Scotch whisky constituency for 13 years will be surprised at this. In case I run out of time, I repeat to the Minister what the Scottish Whisky Association, which has briefed me on this issue, has asked me to put to her:

“If the UK does not agree to reciprocal protection, it risks the status of the UK’s GIs”— there are 86 of them and a lot of rural economies utterly depend on them—

“in the EU and globally with those countries that have trade agreements with the EU”.

I make this point because the Minister of State for Trade Policy went to the Scottish Parliament on 5 September to give evidence to its Finance and Constitution Committee. He told it specifically—it is in the Official Report—that the Government do not agree with the European Union’s position on geographic indicators because they consider it to be a barrier to free trade. That suggests to me that the Government intend to undermine many of these geographic indicators. That would be a very significant detriment to many rural communities, particularly in Scotland.

I have taken up too much of my time in making these two points. At later stages of the passage of the Bill, I also want to engage the Government about devolution issues. Again, Ministers went to the Scottish Parliament and said some really interesting things about that.