Trade Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:17 pm on 21st January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:17 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, as we start this Committee stage of the Trade Bill, my amendment seeks to be helpful to your Lordships’ House in finding a constructive framework for further scrutiny of the Bill following Committee. It is now well over a year since the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons, and I think that the 132 days since the Second Reading in your Lordships’ House set a record.

Following consideration in the other place, the Bill was passed to us to undertake our responsibility of scrutiny in the normal way, and we will fulfil that obligation. My amendment recognises that, in 2017, it was perhaps understandable that the Government introduced a skeleton Bill. However, as time moves on, it is essential that we conclude our deliberations within a clearer policy framework before the Bill returns to MPs for further consideration. There are three key reasons for asking the Minister and the Government to accept my amendment today.

First, at its core, this is a no-deal Brexit Bill to deal with a situation which only very few want to see happen, and the other place has already indicated its clear intent that it must not happen. MPs from all parties are urging the Prime Minister to take action to rule out such a catastrophic outcome, as indeed your Lordships’ House did in a Motion passed last Monday by an incredible majority of 169. That alone makes it hard to justify the Bill in its current form.

Secondly, when it was first introduced, the Government presented it as a short and uncomplicated Bill dealing with issues related to a possible no-deal scenario; indeed, the Minister described it as pragmatic and technical. We were informed that the substantive issues about how the Government would deal with new international trade agreements once the UK is in a position to do so independently of the EU would be in a second Bill. I am aware that the Government are consulting the Constitution Committee, and that the Prime Minister is consulting the Liaison Committee in the other place, but no further legislation has been introduced. There is not a White Paper or even a Green Paper, and time is running out. It is not unreasonable that before we complete—not continue, but complete—our consideration of this Bill we should have more information about, and proposals on, such an important policy issue.

I have carefully read the report of our Constitution Committee, which refers to this Bill as a “framework measure” which provides the Government with,

“extensive … delegated … powers, to effect new trade policy”.

That committee raised several issues of concern. At the time, the Government justified the loose drafting by claiming a need for flexibility given the uncertainty over the withdrawal agreement. With no second Bill, the time for flexibility is disappearing fast. Decisions have to be made and mechanisms and processes have to be in place.

Thirdly, we should welcome the fact that, in recent months, we have seen a growing public interest in how and on what basis we should negotiate and operate our trade policy in the future. This is partly due to recognition of the misplaced and misleading optimism—to be polite—of Ministers and others, who told us all how easy trade agreements would be. This is not an issue that Ministers can make up as they go along; it needs serious, forensic, evidence-based policy-making. We know that the terms of future trade with the EU remain unclear, and now the true picture of the lack of progress in securing rollover deals to replace those we currently have with non-EU countries through our membership of the EU has been exposed by the Financial Times.

The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, is on record telling us how easy it would all be. Back in July 2017 he said:

“The free trade agreement we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in … history”.

He then said that all agreements would be ready and in place “one second” after Brexit, with “no disruption of trade”. Not only were those statements irresponsible, they were gravely wrong. Now, the International Trade Secretary says only that he “hopes” they will be in place, and that this depends upon whether other countries are,

“prepared to put the work in”.

Apparently, he has signed a mutual recognition agreement with the Australian High Commission in London to maintain all current relevant aspects of the agreement it has with the EU. But the EU does not have a free trade agreement with Australia.

When this legislation was going through the Commons, we argued that a legally distinct new trade agreement was required. The Government claimed they could simply roll over the existing agreements, but that is clearly not the case. Our country needs a sensible and appropriate scheme for trade, rooted in reality not in fantasy. Trade negotiations are complex and difficult. They require a proper and effective system involving Parliament and the devolved Administrations, in relation both to the negotiated mandate and the final agreements. We should also engage civil society, feeding in the views of consumers, trade unions and companies.

In conclusion, we will be unable to fulfil our obligation of scrutinising the Bill effectively without further information on how the Government intend to provide proper accountability and scrutiny of current and future trade agreements. We need to know how the devolved Administrations will be involved; we need to be assured of the mechanisms for ensuring that our trade policy is compliant with our international obligations; and we need legal commitments that in any future independent trading policy there will be no reduction in, for example, the rights of employees or consumer and environmental standards.

One way in which the Government could do this is by tabling amendments to the Trade Bill in Committee or on Report, but there may be other mechanisms. My amendment does not dictate what they should be but merely states that this House should not receive the Committee’s report on the Bill until both Houses of Parliament receive proposals on the process for making international trade agreements once the UK is in a position to do so independently of the EU. As the Report stage is expected at the end of February and the leave date is 29 March, it is not unreasonable to expect the policy framework by then, with just one month to go.

My amendment is designed to help your Lordships’ House in its deliberations. The Chief Whip is smiling at me, so I hope that is an indication that the Government are inclined to accept it. However, if that smile is misleading and the Government are unable to support us today then, given the seriousness of the issue and my concern for the role of this House in dealing with the legislation, I will seek the opinion of the House. I beg to move.