Trade Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:38 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 8:38 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 8 and the other amendments in this group. Amendment 8 relates to the continuity agreement, and Amendment 53, which is also tabled in my name, relates to future agreements. We return somewhat to an earlier debate where there is perhaps more complexity than the Government have alluded to until now about some of these agreements. I shall explain why this is important before I refer to the components of the amendments.

I shall use three examples of agreements which the Government so far have not said whether they wish to replicate in the continuity agreement: Singapore, Japan and Mexico. This is more complex than the Government have alluded to so far because a European Court of Justice judgment two years ago indicated that free trade agreements should not now include investment protection components. In relation to the Japan agreement, which this Parliament has approved and which will come into force on 1 February this year, as a result of that judgment separate negotiations are now being carried out on an investment protection agreement which Japan has not yet agreed. What is the UK’s intention in rolling forward the trade and investment components, or is it just the trade component? The Singapore agreement, which has been agreed and which would be one of the agreements that we wish to take forward, has, again, been separated out. The Mexico agreement has been agreed and is going through legal scrubbing.

Those three examples, which are significant to UK trade, highlight important aspects. They represent some of the best components of what modern deep and comprehensive trade agreements can include, but they also signify the difficulties that our Government have in wanting to make them continuity agreements, simply and straightforwardly rolling them on. That is why Amendment 8 on continuity agreements is important. It is important because it now sets the principles for agreements which have been signed in principle but which, through the process of seeking continuity, might include practical changes. We do not know yet, but they might. Although we know that it is the Government’s intention that they will not, we have yet to see them or any of the details. Therefore, it is appropriate that we would want to set some criteria for how they can be rolled forward, especially if we are to take forward what the European Union is now doing, which is separating out investor protection agreements from trading agreements. Of course, these amendments relate to trade agreements, but I want to stress the complexity to highlight the fact that the principles should be set down in statute.

In recent years, UK trade, through these agreements, has been transformed to take into consideration much wider aspects than just tariffs, and that is part of the reason that consideration of investment protection is a domestic requirement, whereas other trade is an exclusive competence of the EU. It is why the Japan agreement with the EU, for the first time, includes a specific commitment to the Paris accord. The Japan agreement sets the highest standards—which we are now told by the Prime Minister are to be guaranteed—for labour, safety, environmental and consumer protection, as well as data protection, and it fully safeguards public services and has a dedicated chapter on sustainable development. Curiously, that does not seem to be a concession from the Government today, whereas it would be included in one of the continuity agreements that the EU has already agreed. However, that is not surprising because, with the growth in the wider aspects of trade in our relationships, with many more non-tariff measures in international trade agreements, the impact on domestic legislation and on wider public services is much greater.

If you go on to the EU website, you will find that there have been significant discussions with Australia on trade and sustainable development, taking into consideration provisions on trade and labour, multilateral environmental agreements, climate change, biodiversity and forests, and civil society groups. These are now core elements of how the European Union negotiates trade agreements. How did I know that these were part of the discussions with Australia? I knew because this information is made public. Transparency at the European Union level is such that I was able to find all the elements of the last round of discussions with Australia that took place in November. However, I looked in vain to find any similar background material that led to the mutual recognition agreement that the UK has signed with Australia.

It may well be that mutual recognition over wine will be very necessary, come Brexit; we will probably be enjoying Australian wine a lot more. But the point of making sure that trade agreements meet ethical standards and have a clear set of benchmarks, with a requirement on Ministers to report that they are carrying out these discussions, is now of fundamental importance. It is important because the continuity agreements may not all ensure continuity. I would not be surprised; as we have heard, the Government are seeking “as much continuity as possible”, which could mean there are likely to be some changes.

While this is relevant for the UK in agreements with Japan, Mexico, Singapore and those highly developed rich countries where we will have good trading relationships, it is also vitally important that we retain these ethics when trading with least developed nations, or with the large number of nations that have partnership arrangements with the European Union on preferential trading agreements, or with the whole series of nations where we have zero tariffs on everything but arms.

It is absolutely necessary to have a clear element of transparency in this Parliament on how we trade with these countries, both when rolling over the agreements that we currently have in place and as we start to negotiate in the future. We must have reporting but also much higher standards and ethics checklists for how we engage in this. These amendments are, I hope, not partisan, but are supported by a very wide range of NGOs representing many hundreds of thousands of people around the country who are looking for a lead in Parliament from this House. Amendment 53 especially, as we start to engage in discussions about how our trade goes forward, reflects the highest ethical standards which are set down now for the future.

It is interesting to reflect on how, at the end of a two-year process of negotiations, the Prime Minister now seeks to make concessions out of labour market and environmental standards. These should not be issues where the Government seek to gain some kind of political advantage by making concessions; they should be core components of our trading relationships around the world. That is why I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to this amendment.