Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:13 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the reasonable and well-reasoned comments from the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I am not sure if it is the convention, but I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, who has left the Chamber, as the first Green to do so. I am of course the only Green, which is a source of great sadness to me and, I am sure, to many Members of your Lordships’ House. I take issue with the rather rude and disagreeable comments about Brexiters from the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton. I voted leave, but I had no idea that this Government would make such a hash of it, so I will be voting against almost everything that the Government bring forward unless they listen carefully to the debates and arguments in this House.

I used to be an archaeologist so I have a little experience of trade 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. My knowledge is not that much more outdated than that of the Government. The Trade Bill sounds rather like an attempt to continue with 20th-century arrangements, which are based on ideas from the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, if that is not going far back enough in history, some of the measures here are more 16th-century—the Henry VIII powers that Ministers are trying to grab for themselves yet again.

The Government try to tell us that this is simply business as usual, but we all know that that just is not true, and that this legislation will have far-reaching impacts in economic, democratic and constitutional areas. It is therefore for us to talk sense to the Government and hope that they will listen. Trade deals are no longer just about removing tariff barriers between countries. Modern trade deals can change vast areas of public policy, such as food standards, environmental protections, working conditions and the privatisation of public services. A trade deal can make huge changes to our hard-won rights and protections, yet the Government want a blank cheque to trade away those rights if they feel it is appropriate, without parliamentary scrutiny or approval. Obviously I am going over some areas that have been mentioned already, but I will say it differently—and, quite honestly, these things need repeating. The Government frame this Bill as simply the rolling over of existing deals, but there is nothing on the face of the Bill to stop their powers applying to renegotiated or even entirely new trade deals.

We have been told, time and again, that Brexit is about taking back control, that Parliament will once again be sovereign, and that the UK Supreme Court will be the ultimate arbiter of legal disputes. But the provisions in the Bill will undermine that. Any control taken back from the EU will be jealously guarded by Ministers and shielded from scrutiny by this Parliament. This arrangement will hold the powers outside of the supervision of the Supreme Court, too, which is already limited in its capacity to question the exercise of royal prerogative. If things were not bad enough, many modern trade deals create supranational legal bodies—so-called investor-state dispute mechanisms—whereby corporations and lobbyists can take national Governments to secretive courts for the crime of hurting their profits. The idea that we are taking back control is clearly laughable. The Government appear to be seizing power on behalf of international capitalism at the expense of workers and the environment. The simple truth is that we are losing control with the Bill, and I fear for our democracy if it goes through. Ministers will have the power to change primary legislation to meet the demands of any dictator who chooses to intervene. Whether it is Putin, Xi Jinping or Donald Trump, anyone could negotiate with Liam Fox, who is desperate for some high-value deals, and I do not trust him not to sell us out while he tries to outfox Mr Art of the Deal.

To put all this in perspective, let us compare the scrutiny arrangements in the Bill with those of some of our trading partners. The United States, the European Union, New Zealand and Canada all have some degree of public and parliamentary scrutiny which exceeds the proposals in front of us. In the United States, negotiating texts are reviewed by a body of representatives, and Congress has both a power of amendment and a binding vote on the final agreement. In the EU, the European Parliament is consulted throughout, and MEPs get a binding ratification vote on the final agreement. In contrast, our Parliament will have little say and zero power; even the so-called undemocratic EU will be more democratic than us, which is very embarrassing. Parliament will be on its knees, begging for scraps from the Government, while our counterparts in other countries can be said to be running the show. Trade justice campaigners have told me that they always thought the EU system was flawed and undemocratic, but the proposals in the Bill have managed to concoct something even worse. This is not what anyone meant by “taking back control”.

My big worry is not just the procedural and democratic argument; I am extremely worried about the massive changes that could be made to some important laws. We already know, for example, that the US is pushing for us to reduce our food standards to allow it to import food that would currently be deemed unsafe and probably plain yucky by British consumers. We hear a lot about chlorinated chickens, but in fact the unsanitary, diseased conditions of American mass farming are the scary part rather than the chlorine, which is designed to make the meat safe to eat, so we should be glad that American chickens are chlorinated. Just one statistic: someone eating food in the United States is 10 times more likely to contract food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses than if they were eating in the UK. We can be sure that people like Donald Trump will insist that we lower our standards and flood the market with American goods, if we want a trade deal. It cannot be left to Ministers alone to wave goodbye to our food standards and safety; it is Parliament that passed these laws, and Parliament should take them away.

Of course, different departments could pursue completely different objectives: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might have one idea about trade while the department for trade is negotiating the complete opposite. We must make sure that protections are in this Bill to ensure that our standards and rights are protected, and that all departments negotiating trade deals are clear that these protections are not up for grabs.

We have an opportunity here to rethink what trade means and what trade deals are. Trade does not have to be a race to the bottom; it can be used as a way to work with other countries to create good jobs and improve living standards. Instead of working together to bargain away workers’ rights and environmental protections, we could make deals in which we agree collectively to strengthen our standards and take them to new heights. It is possible to be ethical about these things and to shape policy for good; we should be setting our sights rather higher. Much of Britain’s wealth was created by plundering and exploitation of the global south; we have to move away from that mindset with our modern approach to trade. We can demonstrate global leadership by championing fairer trade and rising standards, not just free trade.

From a green point of view, there is absolutely no point in continuing with trade for trade’s sake. Global thinking is that trade is incredibly important but, where something can be produced and consumed locally, we should aim for that; it will have less environmental impact both globally and locally. Food is also much healthier when we get it locally rather than have it shipped in. A noble Lord mentioned earlier how there is lots of exchange—milk, for example, goes backwards and forwards across borders. Why on earth does that happen? We should think more locally. I would like to see the Government do more to encourage local and regional trade and I hope to hear from the Minister about any ideas that the Government have.

The proceedings around the EU withdrawal Bill proved that there is a lot of concern with the way things are going. I look forward to working with other noble Lords to help make this legislation fit for purpose but, unless significant changes are made, I will vote against the Bill.