Trade Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

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

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 5:30 pm, 30th January 2019

I support Amendment 33, about which a great deal was said in the debate on the previous amendment, although some of the contributions more properly belonged to the discussion of this amendment. I have no hesitation whatever in suggesting that this is probably the single most important article in this legislation—except that it is not there, of course, at the moment, but it needs to be there.

Why is it so important? It is because until now the British Parliament has had no clear role in giving mandates or setting out the broad lines under which the Government should negotiate trade agreements, nor has it had any proper system for oversight of them. Possibly that did not matter in the far distant days before we joined the European Union, but it certainly matters now when free trade and other trade deals are, as the Government have said again and again, at the heart of their Brexit strategy. Britain’s ability to negotiate on its own on trade is at the heart of the Government’s pleading to back their deal.

This is really urgent now because the Government have made it urgent by refusing to take no deal off the table. If they took no deal off the table, as the Spelman amendment passed by the House of Commons did last night, we would have time to look at this. However, if no deal remains on the table—and the Prime Minister has said that it does—we have to realise that the Bill we are now discussing may be operational in 60 days’ time on 30 March this year. As currently drafted, the Bill says nothing about approving mandates before the Government can negotiate on trade with a particular country. That is a lacuna which cannot be left unfilled.

When he replies, I would like the noble Viscount the Minister to repeat what the noble Baroness the Minister said: that the Government will table amendments before Report and explain how they believe that Parliament’s authority should be established in the context of an independent trade policy. I agree that it may not be needed on 30 March and we would be mad to leave without a deal on 29 March. But the Government have decided to go on saying that we may and therefore we had better be prepared. I hope the noble Viscount will deal with that point as soon as he starts his response.

The substantive issue at stake relates to the provisions—or lack of them—for parliamentary mandating and oversight of all negotiations with third countries once we are able to conduct them on our own. They are important because without them, if the Bill remains as it is currently drafted, together with the provisions for the approval of international agreements, the only say that Parliament will have will be after the Government have conducted and concluded negotiations and then put before Parliament an up or down, yes or no agreement to what is in them. That is what we call in this House, when we are talking about statutory instruments, the nuclear option. It would be absurd if we went into the conduct of an independent trade policy with nothing for Parliament except the nuclear option. What does the nuclear option mean if it is ever deployed? It means that the Government would in good faith have negotiated with a third country—reached agreement with it, settled all the tariff details and the non-tariff barriers—and then the deal gets rejected. How much negotiating credibility would we have left after that? Zero.

I agree that what is being suggested—devising proper provisions to provide mandating and oversight—is not rocket science but it requires a fairly delicate touch, partly because this Parliament has never fulfilled that function before. It is not all that difficult. The EU has structures that do precisely that. I tend to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the template of the European Union’s structures is not quite right for this Parliament but it shows that it can be done and how it can done, if that is what you want to do. It shows how the Council, composed of elected representatives of the member states, has to mandate any negotiations before they start. It shows how it provides oversight. It deals with how it endorses negotiations when they have been concluded. It is probably quite a good place to start for the Government when they devise—as I hope they will—these provisions.

There is also a strong role now for the European Parliament, which is part of the mandating, approval and oversight processes. It is not impossible to do. The European Union has conducted some extremely successful negotiations under these oversight and monitoring provisions. Take, for example, the agreement on Japan, which is about to enter into force—not a small matter when you are talking about the largest and fourth-largest economies of the world agreeing on free trade. It has been conducted very successfully. The Parliament has had its say, the Council has had its say and it has worked. I hope the Government will give very careful thought to all that.

I can see—and I think this was raised in the discussion we had before we committed the Bill—that there is a real worry about confidentiality. How do you ensure that the mandating, oversight and so on do not involve damage to the Government’s negotiating position? That is not rocket science either. We have a Joint Committee that deals with intelligence and security and there are no leaks from that that I know of—none that have been damaging to the national interest anyway. I am sure we can devise a system that has those characteristics and is secure from leaks.

I do not know whether the exact formula that the noble Lord has put forward in his amendment will be the right one. I am sure there are different ways of doing this. It is for the Government to say how they want to do it but I ask them—please—not to quarrel with whether they are going to do it. That will not be acceptable to this House. I hope they will not. I think we would be quite inadequately provided for if we do not have a system of this sort with a Joint Committee—or however it may be described—to do it.

I therefore wait with interest to hear what the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, says in reply. I remind him again that without adequate and reasonably prompt positive reaction to the filling of this lacuna, this Bill is going nowhere. It is as simple as that. That is what this House voted for when we had the debate before the Bill was committed. I look forward to seeing some government amendments in the very near future. Although I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, he himself has said—very wisely, I thought—that he did not think it was necessarily the final word in wisdom and that every detail did not have be as it was; this is something that the Government have to provide. I hope that the noble Viscount will tell us that that is what they are going to do. He might even tell us when they are going to do it. I hope he will also say that the coverage of it will be the coverage here—mandating and oversight by both Houses of Parliament.