Trade Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 30th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative 5:00 pm, 30th January 2019

My Lords, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and others of the same gist are remarkable. In my 35 years in Parliament, I do not recall Parliament ever having subjected any trade agreement negotiated by the European Union to the level of scrutiny which it is proposed that future trade agreements negotiated by ourselves should be subjected. This is remarkable evidence that the Opposition are converted to the merits of having an independent trade policy because it will mean that we can influence it and work it to our own advantage. Of course, that would not be the case if we had a customs union-type arrangement similar to Turkey. Turkey does not participate at all in the negotiation of European free trade agreements with others, but is simply a pawn in those agreements. We would be too, if we were in a customs arrangement with Europe but not part of Europe—in other words, if the policy of the noble Lord’s party were to become effective, as I am sure he would agree—and those sorts of assessments would become irrelevant.

More substantively, in the past when I was involved in negotiating the Uruguay round, for example, one thing that disturbed me was the difficulty of becoming accountable to the House—then the House of Commons—for what I was doing. It is quite difficult for Ministers to be accountable for something that they are negotiating, because they can always come back and say, “We got the best possible deal. If it hadn’t been for my brilliant negotiation, it would be even worse”. It is very hard for the House to respond to that. That left me feeling uneasy. If we can find a way to ensure that negotiations are properly reported, assessed and held accountable to the House, that is a good thing. One of the bad consequences of them not being accountable is that officials did not take the job of being accountable to Parliament at all seriously. They felt they were accountable to the international organisations with which they were negotiating. One needs to be worried about that and it is why it is important that we have accountability. If Parliament holds Ministers accountable, officials will be responsive to Ministers and to what the House wants—not to what international organisations and their peers in other organisations want.

That is not a party-political point. When I made that point in the Commons, my Labour opposite number came up and said it was exactly the sort of thing she experienced, not in trade matters but in other matters. Where she was not responsible to the House, officials did not take that responsibility seriously. The noble Lord and his colleagues are on to something important with their approach, which I prefer to the simplicity of the approach of my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. When we have our independent trade policy, it will be important to find ways to hold Ministers to account.