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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 9:00 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, I support the sentiments behind most of the amendments in the group, although perhaps not the exact wording. My focus is on environmental standards, their vital nature and why they are at risk under the current government proposals.

When we discussed Amendment 4, I made the point that it is much easier to be ambitious about standards if you are part of a pack, part of a group—which we were, we were one of the 28. When we are working on our own in a more isolated position negotiating bilateral agreements, even if they are allegedly rollover bilateral agreements, it is less easy to be robust and ambitious.

Environmental standards are vital in transitioning continuity agreements, but the other point, which has already been made, is that whatever we do in the continuity agreements is a harbinger, a signal, of how we want to handle negotiations on new deals, including deals with countries such as the USA and Brazil, where we know that big environmental issues will arise, particularly in agricultural trade deals. Agricultural standards impact not only on food standards and safety and animal welfare but on the environment. We do not want the chlorinated chicken debate replicated in individual trade deals for the future.

We need the Government to use the Bill to guarantee that all free trade agreements ensure, for example, that food imports meet the UK’s environmental, food safety and animal welfare regulatory standards. That should be the case in all negotiating mandates as well as in the subsequent agreements that flow from them. Import into the UK outside a free trade agreement is much trickier, but it is still vital that the Government set out very soon that they propose to use current World Trade Organization rules to maintain standards.

I will speak briefly to Amendment 15, the non-regression proposal from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. International trade agreements have the potential to undermine or weaken essential standards, as we know from the TTIP negotiations, which have already been mentioned. Non-regression commitments are common in existing trade agreements, and a meaningful commitment to non-regression provides a useful safety net. All international trade agreements implemented pursuant to the Trade Bill should incorporate that principle. Indeed, we need to go further. We need to widen their scope and strengthen their enforceability if they are to help deliver the Government’s promises to improve the state of the environment.

The Minister will say that we should be reassured that the Bill is only about continuity—I am rapidly coming to hate the “continuity” word—and that we are carrying across, not renegotiating conditions, but nothing in the Bill assures that. The Government have said tonight that only changes essential to ensuring continuity will be considered, but we know that when this was debated in the other place, the question was raised as to whether other Governments will want to agree deals with us without substantive changes. Indeed, Michel Barnier said a year ago that,

“partners around the world may have their own views”.

The message to the Government there is that it takes two to tango and although we do not want to renegotiate any conditions, there may be strong pressures to do so in the rollover process. Government needs to give a signal that we are absolutely clear about not negotiating any weakened standards.

The test of the Government’s mettle in all this will be how quickly we can get as many agreements as possible under our belt, both rollover and new, to demonstrate that they understand what Brexit is all about and are making real progress in trade. Although I hesitate to ascribe to the Government any dirty tactics, the reality is that, when push comes to shove, environmental standards will get the boot. We have had umpteen assurances from the Government that they are highly committed to maintaining all sorts of standards, including on the environment. The Command Paper, Preparing for our Future UK Trade Policy, said:

“The Government is fully committed to ensuring the maintenance of high standards of consumer, worker and environmental protection in trade agreements”.

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, said:

“Let me try and state in letters that are as big or as bold or as clear as possible: we won’t be signing trade deals that mean British producers are undercut on animal welfare or environmental standards”.

The Prime Minister has made that point; indeed, today’s Statement reinforced how important environmental standards are and that they would not be compromised by the Brexit process. If we have all these assurances from government, I invite the Minister to say, “Since that’s what we really want to happen, we are going to enshrine it in this Bill”.