Trade Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 21st January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 4:21 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, we intend to exercise a considerable amount of scrutiny on the issues in Committee, but—as hinted at by the Chief Whip in his elegant speech, in which he kindly named me—we will also raise other points not specifically relating to the original narrow focus of the Bill but fitting more closely into the debate we have just had. I make no apology for that, because it is important that we probe the Government on their longer-term intentions and receive some assurances about where the particularities of this Bill fit in relation to that.

In moving Amendment 1, I shall speak also to Amendments 2, 3 and 100. This first group relates to the provisions in Clause 1(1) to set out the arrangements under which the Government can sign up to, and through regulations make changes to, the Agreement on Government Procurement. The GPA is an agreement between the EU and currently 18 countries to open up their public procurement markets, operating under a WTO framework. The Government intend that the UK should remain part of this system, becoming an independent member, and the Bill provides delegated powers to facilitate this, should it be required.

We have a number of concerns at that, some of which, in Amendment 1, are largely connected with the question of consultation about this process. The GPA itself is not a particularly interesting or informative document, but it does attempt to do something that I think all Members of the House would regard as a very good process and something we should support. It attempts to level the playing field for those who bid for and get government procurement contracts. It therefore makes it fairer, as all those involved in the GPA are able to bid for and secure work for their workforces, to earn money and to make profits out of that. In a sense it is an economic growth scheme founded on work that has been going on for some time trying to identify why relatively small numbers of companies bid for contracts offered by government under this system. I am sure the Minister, when she comes to respond, will say the UK is at the forefront of trying to open up its procedures; I know previous Ministers have also been concerned that we should have an open playing field and an open market here, so anything that can do that must be good and we would support that.

However, it is important that it is done in a process that reflects the wishes of the people more generally. It is therefore a little unfortunate that the Bill does not spell out the need for consultation not just among those directly involved, particularly local authorities and those groups, but also the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it is resumed, which have a considerable amount of contract work going forward. So this is a widely spread requirement that the GPA will open up for broader discussion and debate and, I hope, greater access to it; it is reciprocal in the sense that it should also make it available to UK companies. Before we make regulations, we should encourage much more consultation to make sure that the regulations are appropriate and that the benefits and interests of those concerned are taken into account.

Amendments 2 and 3 are largely taken from comments made in the report referred to in earlier debate on the Select Committee on the Constitution in its report in October on the Trade Bill, which raised a few issues on how the regulations will be framed and brought forward. The starting point is that these regulations will be enacted with powers under the provisions modifying retained direct EU legislation, but the committee pointed out that there was some variation in the wording. I do not wish to quote the committee directly, but the conclusion is that the Government were recommended to include in the Trade Bill the definitions of retained direct principal EU legislation and retained direct minor EU legislation as used in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and these make the substance of our Amendment 2.

Amendment 3 follows the comment made in the next part of the report that the Bill’s Explanatory Note states:

“Parliamentary approval for ratifying the UK’s membership of the GPA will be sought separately from the powers in the Bill itself and will be done in accordance with the procedures set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010”.

However, there is some doubt about exactly what the sequencing of that should be and which particular regulations and powers would relate to which. The suggestion therefore made in our Amendment 3 is to restrict the timing and quantum of regulation to a point in the system where previous approval has been received from Parliament under the CRaG Act.

The final amendment relates to what type of regulation should be required. The comment in the Constitution Committee’s report is that the regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure and our Amendment 100 would put that in clear prose on the face of the Bill. The Bill itself may have been due to be amended by the Government when they came to respond to the Constitution Committee report, but so far I have not seen those amendments so we have aided them by tabling them and I commend them to the Committee. I beg to move.