Trade Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 6:15 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, as I repeated, the Government’s priority is to bring certainty to businesses and the public so that we will have continuity in our current trade and investment arrangements with non-EU markets after we have left the EU. Certainty is something for which we have heard widespread support in both Houses of Parliament, and not having the ability to implement our continuity agreements fully could jeopardise our ability to deliver it. Both the International Trade Select Committee and the Trade Bill Committee have heard from external witnesses that continuity is what businesses want. The report published by the International Trade Select Committee on 28 February 2018 clearly stated:

“Almost no one who contributed to our inquiry suggested that the Government’s policy objective of seeking continuity was the wrong one”.

Amendment 6, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, seeks to ensure that before we use the Clause 2 power to implement obligations of a continuity agreement, we have consulted appropriate stakeholders. While I believe I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, this amendment would have the practical impact of delaying our ability to use the Clause 2 power to implement obligations of any continuity agreement until we had satisfied this condition. This would be problematic to the delivery of our programme, as we are working at pace to ensure continuity in existing trade relationships. Once we have signed continuity agreements with our existing partners, we need to ensure that we have implemented all obligations of these agreements to guard against a cliff edge as we leave the EU. This needs to happen before we can bring these agreements into force, which is what will deliver continuity on the ground to businesses which are already benefitting from the terms of EU trade agreements.

We are seeking to balance the need to maintain pace with providing appropriate scrutiny and oversight. That is why, in the other place, we upgraded the operation of the Clause 2 power by requiring a report on each agreement to be laid before both Houses and an affirmative resolution to provide the additional scrutiny that colleagues in the other place were seeking. This means that Members of both Houses will already have the opportunity to consider each use of the power fully through the established affirmative resolution procedure. As I have already mentioned, the power is subject to constraint and will not be used to implement changes other than those necessary to secure continuity in our existing trade relationships.

Amendment 7, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, would mean that instead of using the Clause 2 power to implement “appropriate” changes to domestic regulation, it would be used to implement only “necessary” changes to domestic regulations. Again, I have sympathy with the noble Lord on this point. We are clear that we are going to use this power only to implement changes which are essential to deliver continuity. I understand where he is coming from with his suggested change to the Bill, but we have chosen to use the term “appropriate” following serious consideration of how best to reflect our policy in legislation. We have previously sought advice on this point, and the conclusion of that advice was that “appropriate” is the term which best fits the policy intention. This is because to use the term “necessary” would restrict the use of this power too much. As noble Lords know, our policy aim is to deliver continuity of effect of our agreements. To deliver this, we may need to have some tolerance for changes which may arguably not be strictly necessary but will nevertheless help us to deliver on our commitment of continuity and ensure legal certainty for UK businesses.

Limiting the power to only changes which were strictly necessary would set a very high bar and greatly increase the risk of legal challenge to the use of the power. It is one thing to justify a change as appropriate in all circumstances; it is quite another to demonstrate that that change was absolutely necessary. I am advised that this could provide a field day for lawyers and result in delays to continuity.

An example of a change that we will need to make through this power is ensuring continuity in our procurement arrangements in our free trade agreements. We will need to change the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, the Utilities Contracts Regulations 2016 and the Concession Contracts Regulations 2016 to refer to our UK agreements instead of the EU agreements that they are based on. If we were to amend the wording of this power to say that changes needed to be necessary, we could be drawn into court challenges on whether a change was strictly necessary, thus leading to delays in implementation, which would leave a gap in continuity.