Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:52 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 7:52 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, although I cannot possibly agree with him on most of what he said, particularly not on his last comments about medical products. I invite him to reconsider very carefully what he said about the precautionary principle not being overused where facts were not available. Surely the whole point of having a precautionary principle is to deal with cases where the facts are not always available, as a means of making sure in such cases. My real fear is that deregulation is going to drive us down this road and leave vulnerable people exposed. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on her moving maiden speech, which I think was very well received in the House.

I can understand the logic of the Bill before us tonight, but it is a sideshow compared with the main issue, as outlined so clinically by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. As noble Lords might expect, I shall be looking from the viewpoint of industry, business and consumers in Wales, as well as in the context of the powers of devolved Administrations. As I understand it, the Scottish Government recommended against giving legislative consent to the Bill, and the Welsh Labour Government said that amendments would be needed before they could recommend legislative consent. Government amendments to the Bill made in the House of Commons reduced the restrictions on devolved Ministers’ use of the relevant powers but did not address all the concerns raised by both the Scottish and the Welsh Governments. I noted from the Minister’s opening comments that the Government are willing to conduct further discussions with the devolved Governments. I very much hope that the House can be kept informed of progress on this, as was requested by the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, a few moments ago.

In this context, I seek an assurance from the Minister that nothing in the Bill will restrict the Welsh Government from maximising the extent to which their procurement policies encourage expenditure to go to suppliers in Wales, within the context of the existing EU guidelines. This is so that the Government’s expenditure in Wales can help to support the Welsh economy—something which has been done very effectively over the last 10 years. I also flag up the issue touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, in relation to geographic labelling, which other colleagues also mentioned, including Scotch whisky, Welsh lamb and Cumberland sausages. I hope there will not be any question of these being actively discouraged as labels by the UK Government. The issue is already a hot potato in Wales, as was shown in the Royal Welsh Show in Builth in July, when it became a very controversial issue indeed. It is undoubtedly a matter that will cause rancour, and—I suggest to the Government—unnecessarily so.

Notwithstanding the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, I suspect that many colleagues on all sides might wish to ask the House of Commons to consider again an amendment requiring the Government to seek to remain in the customs union with the EU if it cannot negotiate a frictionless free trade area. I note that attempts to secure this in the Commons were defeated by a majority of only six votes, and that was after a considerable amount of arm-twisting. If the Government insist on pulling us out of the single market and customs union, their action will scrap existing free trade deals with over 50 countries outside the EU, as well as endangering our trade with the 27 member states themselves. That, of course, is what this Bill is all about.

Trade with third countries with which we have free trade agreements arising from our membership of the European customs union account for almost £140 billion of UK trade. If we were to lose, even for a transitionary period, any significant proportion of that trade, it would have a major effect on the UK economy. In moving Second Reading, the Minister claimed that the Bill will simply translate those deals into domestic legislation. However, the Bill’s Delegated Powers Memorandum describes the process of,

“transitioning EU-partner country trade deals into UK domestic law”,

as “uncharted territory”. Furthermore, the Bill’s own Explanatory Notes admit that:

“It may also be necessary to substantively amend the text of the previous EU agreements … so that the new agreements can work in a UK legal context”.

We are reliant on the immediate co-operation of 50 nations with which we have existing deals if those deals are to continue. That is something that the Secretary of State and his chief negotiator, Crawford Falconer, admitted in oral evidence, which they gave to the International Trade Committee on 1 November last year, to be matters on which they have been unable to secure guarantees. I understand that we still do not have cast-iron guarantees on those matters. Will the Minister tell the House what evidence she has that this has changed since last November? And in doing so, will she indicate whether the public consultations launched by the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, on 18 July, on potential future trade deals the UK might seek with the US and New Zealand, have proven to be fruitful in any way?

It seems to me that President Trump is blowing hot and cold on the promise of a trade deal with the UK in the wake of the Chequers declaration, and that this bodes badly for any assumption of an automatic endorsement on rollover agreements from such unreliable partners. I also ask the Minister, in this context, to address the issue of New Zealand’s opposition to the EU and UK’s proposal to split tariff rate quotas on lamb, which is clearly a matter of huge significance in Wales. In leaving the EU, the UK will have to separate its tariff rate quotas from the EU, and its new schedules would be subject to approval by all WTO members. New Zealand might well choose to block such approval.

I now return to the implications of this Bill for the devolution settlements in Wales. It seems to me that the Government are indeed ignoring the existing pattern of devolved powers and the engagement of devolved Administrations in helping to formulate new trade agreements. The Welsh Government have a responsibility for the economic development of Wales; they receive financial assistance from the EU for that purpose. The success of Welsh agriculture and industry in exporting its products is fundamental to the well-being of the Welsh economy. The Welsh Government have, over the past 19 years, undertaken a wide range of initiatives to boost Welsh exports for the benefit of both our own economy in Wales and that of the UK, and they have of course done so most often in partnership with the UK Government. We need to build on that, and in the post-Brexit world we need to harness all such resources. The UK Government should be seeking a new and ambitious role for the devolved Administrations that will ensure that they have a real say over important issues that impinge on their responsibilities. If the UK is a union of equals, the Government should really start to understand this.

Time is squeezing and I point out only that over the last year consideration has been given, in the context of securing some understanding between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government, to the need for the existing Joint Ministerial Committee to be overhauled and rebuilt into a statutory UK Council of Ministers covering the various aspects of policy for which agreement between all four UK Administrations is required. In my opinion, any future trade deals should require statutory endorsement by the devolved Administrations, and in this context there should clearly be Welsh and Scottish representation on the new UK Trade Remedies Authority.

The degree of wishful thinking on which this Bill is based beggars belief. I hope only that the Government will face reality: they cannot expect to have all rollover trade links in place by 29 March next year, less than seven months away, and, in a panic to achieve that wholly artificial and unnecessary deadline, they will sell out on myriad issues in order to get nominal trade deals in place in time. This is not the way to conduct international trade agreements. In considering the Bill in detail in Committee, this House should do its utmost to force the Government to face up to the folly of a rushed Brexit and, more than anything, enable the other place to think again on the central issues of an ongoing customs union relationship with our European partners, which would make this Bill totally unnecessary.