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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 9:45 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, the richness and intensity of this debate demonstrates the expertise in this Committee and the importance of getting this right. I assure the Committee that the Government are committed to upholding and strengthening our high standards in food safety, the environment and animal welfare as we leave the EU. In her Florence speech, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reconfirmed this, saying we are,

“committed not only to protecting high standards but strengthening them … we will always be a country whose pitch to the world is high standards at home”.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will not only provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU but will ensure that all existing EU laws on standards continue to apply in the UK. Leaving the EU means we now have a unique opportunity to design a set of policies to drive environmental improvement with a powerful and permanent impact tailored to the needs of our country.

Amendment 8 was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. I reassure noble Lords that this amendment is not necessary. The process of exiting the EU will not alter the UK’s commitment to upholding international laws and our international commitments. This includes commitments on climate change and the sustainable development goals. The UK is a world leader in our strong commitment to human rights, labour and environmental standards around the world. We will continue proudly to comply with our international obligations, a point I am happy to reiterate.

Additionally, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State stated during the passage of the Trade Bill in the other place that our aim in undertaking this transition programme is to seek continuity of effect of existing trade agreements. This is not an opportunity to renegotiate terms. We are clear that, given the time pressure to have these agreements in place before we exit, there is neither the intention nor the opportunity for the UK Government or our trading partners to change the effects of the existing agreements. This is a technical exercise to ensure continuity in trading relationships. It is not an opportunity to renegotiate the current agreements. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, we have to make sure that we do not make it overly cumbersome. Third parties to whom we have talked on all the continuity agreements have stressed their interest in continuity; it is in our mutual interest. That is where the hypothetical hits reality: this is in their interest and the interest of their consumers and businesses.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, referred to investor protection dispute settlements. There is a later group of amendments in this Trade Bill debate relevant to that and, in the interests of time, I wonder whether we can move discussion of that to then. I see that the noble Lord is happy with that suggestion.

Turning to Amendment 9, let me reassure the House that the scope of the Trade Bill is to ensure the continuity of effect of existing EU trade deals. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, asked about standards in deals with India and China. I reiterate that the power in Clause 2 could not be used to implement a trade agreement with those countries because the EU does not have trade agreements with them and the Clause 2 power is limited to countries with which we have a trade agreement.

As the Clause 2 power is intended only as a vehicle for changing UK law as a result of our entry into continuity trade agreements, it is clear that it will not be used to make changes to UK standards. This is in line with public commitments that the Prime Minister and Ministers from across Government, including from Defra and DIT, have made on the maintenance of the current standards. It would not be logical for the UK to lower our rigorous levels of protection in order to secure a trade deal, as demand for UK exports is based on our reputation for quality. As the Secretary of State for International Trade said:

“Let me tell the House that Britain will not put itself at the low-cost, low-quality end of the spectrum, as it would make no sense for this country economically to do so, nor morally would it give us the leadership we seek. I believe there is no place for bargain-basement Britain. High standards and high quality are what our global customers demand, and that is what we should provide”.—[Official Report, 6/7/17; col. 1365.]

My noble friend Lady Hooper stressed that powerfully.

My noble friend Lady Byford talked about future free trade agreements but they are not part of the Bill. This is all about continuity of the existing ones. We will bring forward proposals for future free trade agreements in the coming weeks, and I am happy to reiterate the commitment made in the other place by the Secretary of State for International Trade that Parliament will have the ability to inform and scrutinise those agreements in a timely and appropriate manner.

We want to achieve the same outcome of maintaining our standards, but if we were to amend the Bill in this way, we would be likely to delay ratification of agreements—something that neither we nor our partner countries want. We appreciate the concern about scrutiny of agreements. On earlier amendments we covered the scrutiny procedures at length and the need to make sure that the House has the ability to look at these continuity trade agreements. The amendment would duplicate some of that process. I would argue that, particularly given the time pressure, there will be good opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise the trade agreements that are being transitioned.

Amendment 10, tabled by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, would ensure that the Clause 2 power would not be able to make provisions in international agreements that restricted the ability of public sector employees to deliver public services. I hope that I have already been clear that the Clause 2 power will not be used to do such things, as it will be used only to deliver continuity. These changes would require reopening negotiations with third countries and that would constitute a change in policy, which would not be continuity. I reassure my noble friend that the UK Government, not our trade partners, will continue to make decisions about public services. Public sector jobs are under no threat whatever from this agreement or any other.