Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:20 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 9:20 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the many meetings and discussions we have had in the rather extended period while we waited for the Bill to come into your Lordships’ House. We have learned a lot about each other’s positions, as was reflected by her speech today—rather annoyingly, because she anticipated some of the things that I might have said later. But that has been useful in building up a relationship, particularly as she comes new to the job of taking a Bill through the House. I also congratulate her, as other noble Lords have, on the clarity of her introduction; it is rare to have such a clear exposition of a Bill, and it was helpful to the debate that followed.

I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, on her maiden speech. She shared with us some dark and difficult moments on a long journey of great interest, and I look forward to hearing more of her contributions as she builds on her career in this House as well as on her previous life.

This has been a good debate, except, as was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for a slight deterioration towards the end of the speeches from the Back Benches. I was sorry to hear that. I do not think that we earned any of the disapprobation levelled at us by the noble Lord, Lord True, and it did not seem to fit in with the generally engaged debate and discussions we have had. Nevertheless, he has the right to make his own speeches as he wishes, and we must learn from them and move forward as best we can. But this debate has been enhanced by contributions from former Secretaries of State, former Ministers and officials who have worked in trade, and envoys who have had experience in the real world; they have brought their experience to bear in the comments they made, and we have all learned a little from that.

The Minister talked warmly about this House’s skills and ability to scrutinise Bills, and I share her view on that. It is therefore something of a surprise, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, noted in his introductory speech, that while we know about the business through to 21 October 2018, no dates have yet been suggested for Committee. One wonders whether in fact it will proceed; at the present rate, it is unlikely to be ready for Royal Assent until perhaps the end of December 2018, which seems rather late and does not quite fit with the urgency that was expressed about certain aspects of it.

The Minister tried to persuade us that this was not a Brexit Bill and that it raised no issues about the timing or the content of any withdrawal agreement that might be emerging from the current negotiations. But the House, by a ratio of about 4:1, as I made it, has taken a contrary view. Indeed, thanks to the interesting contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Cooper of Windrush, and other noble Lords, I feel much better informed about where we are in the post-Chequers situation. Indeed—although it might have been concealed by my strictly temporary face covering—I allowed myself a small smile of satisfaction at the thought that we might as a country be coming to our collective senses and finding a way through the muddle we are now in. The Government might wish to reflect on why they have misjudged the view of the House on this issue. I suggest that there is more than a grain of truth in the comments made by my noble friend Lord Liddle. His assessment was that it stemmed from the feeling that the Government’s current position on Brexit, and on trade in particular, is economically illiterate and quite probably politically unsustainable.

Let us roll back for a moment and use the benefit of history to review where we are. Many Members of your Lordships’ House will remember that the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty was signed with France in 1860, marking the world’s first free trade agreement. A Back-Bench supporter of the treaty told the House of Commons that it would both advance the prosperity of our country and benefit peace and happiness. His point, of course, was that trade is a tool, not only limited to promoting self-interest but also to unite and shape our world. “Prescient” is a great word for that; he certainly seemed to know what was coming.

In the following century and a half, no agreement has in my view better demonstrated this principle than the European Union. It has brought nations together into sustained peace and, at the same time, offered and delivered economic prosperity: security, peace and prosperity are a pretty potent mix. Yet, as the UK’s departure from the EU looms, our Government are preparing for a trade policy that shies away from that proven principle. They do not welcome calls to allow civic society, trade bodies, trade unions and consumers to feed into negotiations; they have not worked out how to engage properly with the devolved Administrations, the English regions and our great cities.

Ministers are trying to claim that this Bill is nothing more than a technical measure. But the questions raised today go far further, getting to the heart of what we are as a nation and how we engage with the world. What will be the basis of our trade policy? Who will operate it and how will it be agreed? How will it impact on ordinary people in the UK and outside?

Assuming that there will be a Committee stage, we will be laying amendments in the hope of improving this Bill. The way the government procurement agreement will work in practice, how to ensure protection for our high-quality services, labour and environmental standards, and how we will preserve our human rights protections must all be tested and made clearer in the Bill. At the same time, we have to make sure that UK firms can compete for the procurement on offer in signatory countries on a fair and equitable basis.

We need to strengthen the independence and integrity of the TRA, the Trade Remedies Authority. The model here is surely the CMA and the Information Commissioner’s Office, or even Ofcom. It is not, and certainly cannot be, simply another non-departmental public body under the control—or under the thumb, perhaps—of the Secretary of State; it needs resources to be guaranteed on the face of the Bill.

Recognising the calls from all around the UK for a proper, open, transparent and inclusive system, under the control of Parliament but engaging with the devolved Administrations, we need a system, perhaps a Joint Committee of both Houses, for setting up a trade policy, agreeing a mandate, receiving information on the progress of free trade agreements, and making recommendations to Parliament, for Parliament to decide, on whether or not to accept the proposed deal.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was right to spell out the many issues that now need to be included in a modern free trade agreement. This sparks the thought that we are talking at present about rolling over, without question or scrutiny, something like 40 free trade agreements. Some could happen during a period when these issues are not at the forefront of negotiations, or they could fail, as the recent CETA agreement does, to do justice to human rights or other issues; surely this makes the case for proper scrutiny. The Government have begun to move on this issue, but they need to go much further, including continuation deals as well as any new ones. We need to spend some time on tariff rate quotas, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Grantchester. GIs were raised, as were state aid rules and, more generally, how we protect UK businesses and raise productivity in the United Kingdom as a result of all this work, which was a key point raised by many people.

Finally, we need to return to the question of a customs union. I agree, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, with the argument for looking again at this. I add one additional point: there are very few successful customs unions in the world, and very few with the depth, breadth and strength of the EU. I think the evidence is there to make it absolutely clear that there is no remotely realistic scenario under which businesses in the UK outside such a customs union would be in a better trading position than if the UK stays in the inside. Our businesses will suffer outside a customs union and it will be far more difficult for them to sell their goods abroad.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made the point clearly that trade is the way to prosperity. We have to make sure that, whatever we do, laser like, we focus on that. Put simply, a stand-alone UK is extremely unlikely to secure a more effective trade deal than one struck while we are within the EU. Whether or not we have zero tariffs, non-tariff barriers to trade and their impact on our services—the golden egg of our economy —will destroy the UK economy and reduce living standards. I look forward to the debates that are to follow.