Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:16 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 6:16 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the TUC. In a debate yesterday the congress came close to expressing no confidence in the Government’s conduct of the negotiations with the EU so far and edged rather reluctantly towards supporting a popular vote on the outcome of the talks. Why did it do that? It is because the trade unions are worried: worried about the impact on jobs and rights after Brexit, the byzantine complications of the Chequers proposals, and our country crashing out of the EU with no deal and becoming distanced from our biggest trading partners, with no customs union and no single market.

To hear some Brexiters talk, British business can survive cut off from obligations to the EU. But pause for a moment: what is British business nowadays? The UK has been unique among the world’s largest economies in having permitted extensive foreign ownership of what might be termed the commanding heights of the economy, with many companies in sectors such as cars, energy, utilities, aerospace, transport, investment banking and many others under ultimate foreign control. All this risks our open economy, which is particularly vulnerable to disruptive actions by companies rethinking their locations for research and production. I have never understood why the nationalists among the Brexiters have paid so little attention to the extent of foreign ownership of UK businesses.

Of course, in the past we have certainly welcomed inward investment. We would not have a large car industry without it. Much of it resulted from our membership of the EU single market as companies rushed to get in. But take that away—I hope everyone will recognise that there is a huge risk involved, unless the future trade issues are agreed amicably and quickly. While we wait for the Brexiters’ plan, their alternative, we know that it is likely to focus on tax cuts, deregulation, competing in the bargain basement and not raising our sights to compete on investment, innovation and productivity with the best. It is a sorry prospectus and I am glad that the Prime Minister has resisted it to date.

In my time in Brussels as secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, I was involved in the EU trade negotiations on the South Korea free trade agreement, TTIP and the Canada deal. In each of these negotiations, we managed to insert a trade union role and voice into the processes. Our aim always was to replicate features of the EU single market in those deals, so that there was a measure of social and environmental protection in them. We succeeded in the South Korea agreement. Having listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, speak about her experience with Tesco, it may be that we should revisit that, but, at the time, we thought that we had succeeded. We thought that we had succeeded, too, in the Canada case. We did not succeed with the Americans in relation to TTIP, which is one reason why it ran into such heavy bombardment on both sides of the Atlantic. I note what the Minister said earlier, but we are concerned that this trade union influence and role might not be continued or replicated in the new UK arrangements. I am interested in her response to the following question: will the Bill include measures which can reassure stakeholders that they will be engaged and involved as fully as possible in future trade negotiations? What is the Government’s reaction to the call from the TUC, the CBI and the International Chamber of Commerce for such engagement of trade unions, employers, civil society and the devolved authorities in trade policy?

I am suspicious that some of the countries with which the EU has negotiated trade deals that we would hope to roll over would welcome this opportunity to jettison measures concerned with social and perhaps environmental regulation. The Conservative Party has had a long aversion to the social dimension of the EU single market—remember the opt-out in the Maastricht treaty? Can the Minister assure us that, as the Government seek to roll over existing trade deals and conclude new arrangements with the countries concerned, they will not jettison the social and environmental features? One way of helping with this would be to include trade union and other stakeholder representation among the non-executive members of the Trade Remedies Authority. I ask the Government for an assurance on this point, too.

Similarly, the Bill needs to make provision in trade deals for the protection of fundamental worker rights as enshrined not just in ILO core conventions but in its decent work agenda, which is rather more ambitious. I hope, too, that proper respect is shown for public services such as the NHS. We cannot allow them to be swamped by private companies pleading that a free trade arrangement permits them to challenge the continued existence of public services, with allegations that their monopoly is not subject to market pressures and so on. That was a certainly a huge problem with TTIP.

In the recently published document, Framework for the UK-EU Partnership: Open and Fair Competition, the Government state that the UK proposes committing to high levels of social and employment protections through a non-regression commitment, which is welcome, but they go on to use the phrase, “on domestic labour standards”. What does “domestic” mean? Does it mean the EU social acquis—the 60 or so EU directives on employment which the UK has absorbed? Does it mean that the working time directive and its provision for four weeks’ paid holiday a year are to be protected? Or does it mean just that employment laws generated domestically will not be interfered with? Can we have the Government’s assurance that it means the former and that we will continue to mirror the measures in the EU’s social and employment programmes? I hope that the Minister can clear that up during the passage of the Bill through this House and look forward to her responses.