Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:05 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 9:05 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, with all the travails afflicting Italy, they should be relieved that they can rely on the sunny optimism of the noble Lord, Lord True, to see them through in the future. I am perhaps in the same pickle as the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who could not find any common cause with his previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton. I shall take a trick out of his book and find something positive to say by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on a wonderful maiden speech. I see she is back in her place.

It seemed easier a year ago, when Liam Fox suggested at the Conservative Party conference—reportedly to cheers from activists—that it would be a breeze to get all the existing EU trade agreements in place before Brexit in March. He said,

“believe me, we will have up to 40 ready for one second after midnight in March 2019”.

The Trade Secretary added:

“All these faint hearts saying we cannot do it—it’s absolute rubbish”.

I have never considered the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, to be a faint heart, but the term he used was “miraculous”. I think that that is more accurate. Perhaps Dr Fox, on the Marr programme 10 days ago, showed himself a little faint-hearted. When asked if he stood by what he said then, he replied:

“That remains our aim. Of course a lot of countries are waiting to see exactly what that relationship will be with the European Union”.

Well, they are not the only ones. However, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, seemed to be back on track for the second-after-midnight position during Questions today.

As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and others have said in this debate, we are expecting the Minister, in her summing up, to clarify how many countries have confirmed, in writing, to the UK Government that there is agreement in principle to ratify agreements before March 2019, and on what terms. If they have not, what are they asking of us? This information should be with the Government. If it is not, it is extremely alarming. If it is, the Government need to tell the House and the best opportunity would be for the Minister to do so when she sums up.

Time is nearly up. Businesses cannot wait any longer. I told the House before the Recess that our pharmaceutical industry was starting to stockpile because there was no clarity on what customs arrangements would be. As the industry has said, it is estimated to take 10 years for the technological side of any new customs arrangements to be in place and operational. The Government have rolled over and rubbed out one of their previous red lines, of being distinct and separate from the European Medicines Agency, thereby ultimately now accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice by taking its rules and having no say in the making of them. Irrationally, they cannot see the case for other regulatory bodies critical to UK trade. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked, why is this the case? What is the Government’s position as to why they are not in this Bill?

The trade association EURIS, which represents thousands of British businesses and £148 billion of UK trade, together with the independent UK Trade Policy Observatory, has published a survey just today, showing that 83% of British industrial product manufacturers support continued regulatory alignment in order to remain competitive in a global market. Respondents overwhelmingly say that they see no benefit in moving away from the EU regulatory system for industrial and manufactured products. The report states:

“UK companies told the survey that their supply chains have already been disrupted by post-referendum currency changes and that EU27 companies have started to select non-UK suppliers amidst the ongoing uncertainty of post-Brexit arrangements”.

It added:

“It is not a choice of exporting to Europe or the rest of the world. If we become less competitive in the EU we will be less competitive in other international markets. The UK Government’s target to develop stronger trading relationships with other non-EU countries is a positive move, but this can only be achieved if we maintain a strong alignment with EU regulations and supply chains”.

That is an industry response to the position of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, who is not in his place for the winding-up speeches. Perhaps, as he did this afternoon, he has nipped out to be in Committee Room 9 to share a desk with Boris Johnson, if the BBC reporting is accurate. It is telling that one of the first to speak up for the Government left this debate to be with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, when they said this afternoon that the Chequers position, which the Minister supports, is now worse than the status quo of staying in the European Union. I wonder what the Minister’s response to that will be.

The Bill is all about disruption, or the futile attempts to prevent or minimise it. The UK has a trading relationship or is in discussion for one, over and above WTO base rules, with 143 countries. In addition to the single market with the EU 27, we have an FTA with 36 countries, with a further 46 where the agreement is provisionally applied. Agreements with eight countries are pending ratification, and five are being updated. With a further 21 countries, negotiations are ongoing or paused, and we have had a role in all those discussions.

This cannot possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a cut-and-paste job simply to put it into UK law. For the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, to indicate that that would be a straightforward process is a flight of fantasy. The agreements in place are also indefinite. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer this, too. Are we asking them to ratify an indefinite deal but also telling them that it will last for only three years unless we renew it? Can she confirm that she has stated that to all of our partners? What of those likely to mature into force after next March but during the implementation period?

It is now incumbent on the Government to publish what they have told each of those countries and let Parliament know. If we rollover those deals and then deviate from them—because we will be part of a common rulebook, as is the Government’s position, but from which the Government say we will be able to deviate—we will, by definition, deviate from all the agreements that we will have rolled over because we are adopting the existing EPA or FTA components. Parliament cannot possibly approve any of those agreements with confidence when we do not know what our customs or non-tariff regulations will be.

I take just one example: food and plant health imports from South Africa, where the Government say that we are having constructive discussions. If we are part of a common rulebook, importing a vegetable product from South Africa requires 13 sets of regulations out of 43, from warehousing to labelling and exports. All are under the jurisdiction of the CJEU, which will define whether they are being met. A third country will go to that court if it thinks that we are not satisfying those criteria. I hope that the Government can be clear on the relationship between their position on a common rulebook and their view on rolling over the agreements.

Some of the EPAs which we have said we shall be rolling over include ongoing discussions on services. Are we also committed to run a parallel process on those services, because they are currently part of the discussion that the EU is having on them? The SADC EPA agreement includes a joint council and proposals for structures and a framework. What is the Government’s position on rollover agreements and joint framework arrangements to discuss them?

A government statement recently promoted the rollover for the South African customs union agreement, representing 0.7% of all UK trade—less than one-quarter of what we export to Belgium. No. 10 spun that as the first new trade agreement that is now going to be in place for after Brexit. However, the SACU Ministers said that they welcomed the UK’s intention to avoid disruption for its trading partners as it withdraws from the European Union. If you study the fine print, it states that we are committed to having the agreement in place in the event of no deal. It is not even necessarily going to be in place if there is an agreement on the withdrawal.

This leads on to why Parliament needs to have an enhanced position in the scrutiny of it. Under the existing EU arrangements, a mandate would have been sought and secured by the Commission from the Council to enter any of these discussions and then published for Parliament to see. A public scoping exercise would have been carried out and published and Parliament would have been able to see that too. This Bill and the Government’s proposals, not just for the rollover agreements but also for other trade agreements, will afford this Parliament fewer opportunities to provide scrutiny than the European Parliament currently does to the Commission and the Council.

In her opening remarks, the Minister said that the Bill was about transparency and heralded consultation. As preparation for this debate, I was enthused to go on to the DIT website and complete the consultation for the United States. I filled it in as an individual business from Scotland, potentially concerned about the impact there may be for Scottish farmers on beef products et cetera. I was asked my age and ethnicity and where I lived; that was all fine. The first question was:

“What concerns, if any, do you have about a free trade agreement (or related trade talks) with the United States, and why?”

I filled in a simple response. It then asked:

“Which of these areas of a free trade agreement best describe the concerns that you have outlined above?”

I clicked: “Products. Standards, regulation and certification”, because of the concerns, mentioned by other noble Lords, about animal products, environmental regulations, health and safety et cetera. In order to provide feedback, as the Minister said, I was expecting to see what the current discussions were, what the terms were, and what was being outlined with America. What turned out to be the final question then came up, asking:

“Is there anything else that you would want to say about the UK’s future trade relationship with the United States?”

That was it. I do not think that that is sufficient consultation with the public, so I am submitting my comments in Hansard instead.

Why does this matter? It matters because one of the key elements of the discussions with the United States and with Europe is the equivalence of how we see and interpret these regulations. They are core to any of the discussions. Do we consider equivalence with the European Union, as the White Paper has said, or see equivalence in the United States’ regulations, as it has asked us to do? As the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Jones, said, we will not be able to do both.

On issues concerning devolution, there needs to be much greater clarity—in paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 and paragraph 9 of Schedule 2—on devolved Ministers having to consult Ministers of the Crown. What happens if Ministers of the Crown disagree? When there are joint actions with devolved Administrations, UK Ministers cannot act alone without the approval of devolved Ministers. What if they refuse? We need to know more about the Government’s intentions for the operation of a UK single market. You cannot separate that from any of the trade agreements either.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, may have built up her hopes about Liam Fox stating that we can rely on passing this Bill because any future trade agreements will require primary legislation, so Parliament will have a much greater voice. I will quote from what Dr Fox actually told the House of Commons. He said that the Government would,

“bring forward a bespoke piece of primary legislation when required for each new future trade agreement that requires changes to legislation and where there are no existing powers”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/7/18; col. 42.]

Therefore, by implication, if a new trade agreement does not need changes to legislation, or if those changes can be made using existing powers, Parliament is bypassed. That is simply not acceptable. This is why the International Chamber of Commerce told a meeting that I chaired last week that the Government are proposing a 19th-century approach for approving trade agreements in a 21st-century trading environment. That is why the Bill will have to be scrutinised and, most likely, amended in Committee.

A trade policy for the 21st century for a truly global Britain would be based on zero tariffs to our largest and nearest trading partners and be an open market to those who share our high values; based on combined regulations where we have a say in how they are made and shape them for the economic and new trade challenges and opportunities of the future, such as e-commerce and technology; and based on principles of openness and fairness, especially for the least-developed countries that we trade with. This was at the heart of the commission that I chaired with the Nigerian Trade Minister for the All-Party Group on Trade Out of Poverty. A truly global Britain would use that group of trade partners to help us negotiate free trade with partners further afield, with no trading cost to our businesses, to take advantage of the growth potential of non-EU countries. Therefore, a truly global Britain would see that the Bill necessarily has to be changed in order ultimately for us to meet those kinds of “Global Britain” requirements—which is to continue to be part of the European Union customs union and, if necessary, to give the British people the option of the right to make the decision that we remain a truly global Britain in a customs union based upon open principles, transparency and accountability. That is sorely lacking in what is currently offered.