Trade Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 30th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 5:45 pm, 30th January 2019

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 59 and 71 to 74. They are quite distinct. Amendment 59 most certainly does not meet the Hooper test of brevity but I can dispatch it fairly quickly—no doubt to the great relief of colleagues in the Committee—because it may be considered a continuity amendment. It replicates the need for a meaningful vote process for the future relationship with the EU as we go through the withdrawal agreement process. It need not be controversial but it provides for the necessity for Parliament to authorise the agreement. It provides for that to be in primary legislation and sets out the procedures should the Commons resolve against the agreement. If we leave, this will be necessary for our future trade agreement with the EU to avoid a repeat of the “running down the clock” situation. Therefore, it is right that we have this put in place now.

Amendments 71 to 74 are perhaps the core of that element and have formed part of the discussions so far about the role of Parliament going forward. In a moment I will come to a live case study of a continuity agreement to show that this is not just about the future policy but is relevant now. Fundamentally, the reason that Parliaments around the world—the elected bodies other than simply the Executives—are now involved at early stages of trade negotiations is that trade negotiations are now markedly different from how they were 30 or 40 years ago.

By definition, the European Union now enters into discussions on deep and comprehensive trade agreements. In the past, the agreements were primarily about tariff rates and little else, but now trade agreements take into consideration the impact on domestic law of environmental standards. The social, economic, environmental, gender, human rights, labour, development and regional impacts are all core components. If you look at the most recent trade negotiations that the European Union has carried out with British participation, whether it is with Singapore, Japan or Canada, they have included sections on the development and sustainability goals. There are now clear positions when it comes to human rights, labour development and the impact on local communities. These are core parts of the trade negotiations that we have embarked on, and that is why the United States, Australia and the European Union have a much wider role for their Parliaments throughout the process. The Government’s position is in stark contrast to that: we would simply use the existing treaty provisions, which are not only out of date but will prove ineffective.

The only other aspect of ratification of treaties under the Constitutional Reform Act concerns what Mr Hollingbery, the Trade Minister, said in oral evidence to the International Trade Committee. He said that, although he did not want Parliament to have binding votes on these agreements, there was one aspect where he thought that Parliament should have an overrule. He said:

“But I do believe that Parliament should be able to opine upon the outline approach”.

Parliament being able to opine on the outline approach of trade negotiations might be a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase but the Government have given some indication that they are willing to consider it. I think that on the previous group the Minister gave an indication of that kind, and I agree. We are looking forward to hearing the Government’s position on the amendments to the Bill and to them giving a clear steer.

In the spirit of assisting the Government, these amendments in my name, with back-up from many civil society organisations, suggest what I consider a quadruple lock of parliamentary involvement from the outset in considering the sustainability impact so that there is a degree of transparency for all the different aspects that I mentioned earlier—the social, economic, environmental, gender and human rights impacts and so on.

One reason why that is important to me is that when I co-chaired with the Nigerian Trade Minister a commission for an all-party group on trade and development in the Commonwealth, it became abundantly clear to me that, to be a force for good in the world, trade also now has to take into consideration all those components. The British trade approach could be an especially good force for good for development around the world. We know that until recent years trade agreements have not been proactive in the areas of gender, human rights or those parts of society that have not been economically empowered. We could see trade agreements not simply as protective measures or as things where we are fearful of giving away British negotiation positions; we could see them as potential forces for good.

The second element of Parliament being involved in setting a mandate by resolution is a proactive mechanism for that. It is why this is now established in the European Union and I believe it would be of great merit for our Parliament to be involved in it. The third component proposed in the amendments is transparency, involving Parliament and the people, whom ultimately we all represent, because they are likely to be a key part of these trade negotiations. We know from the previous examples how difficult some trade negotiations can be, and that is when we look at the impact on both our communities and those of the country with which we are signing up to an agreement. The final component is scrutiny before signing, which I believe to be of fundamental importance. That quadruple lock is important. In essence, it is simply a way of replicating British representation through the European Union.

We have elected representatives in the European Parliament who take part in the early stages of negotiations. There is a very helpful document called Negotiating EU Trade Agreements: Who Does What and How We Reach a Final Deal. It is very straightforward and simple. It shows that even in preparing the position that it will take, the Commission publishes its negotiating directives online and sends them to the Parliament. The Parliament is informed at the earliest stage of the process and even prior to that. After each negotiating round, reports are presented to both the Council and the European Parliament, as was the case in the latest round involving Australia. I tried looking on the British Government’s website to find out about our discussions that led to the mutual recognition agreement with Australia but there was nothing. That was in stark contrast to the position with the Commission.

The fourth stage is that, when the Commission plans to table negotiation proposals, it informs the European Parliament about them, and it then informs the European Parliament at every stage of the developments, keeping it updated. The Parliament is then able, through its Committee on International Trade, to pass resolutions on the progress of those processes. When the negotiators from the two sides come close to finalising the text, the Commission tells the Parliament. The Commission also informally sends the text to the Parliament. In finalising the process, the chief negotiators of both parties usually initial the text of the proposed agreement to mark the end of the negotiations and that text is sent to the Parliament. The 10th element of the process is that, after both sides sign, the Council examines the proposal for conclusions and sends the agreement to the Parliament for its consent. The 11th stage is consideration by the committee of what to recommend to the plenary, and consent or no consent is then given to the agreement. There are 12 parliamentary stages in the negotiating process.

We understand that the Government have made only two agreements so far. One is with Switzerland. The text from the Swiss party was immediately put online; the text from the British side came subsequently. But we should do a case study of the announcement last week of what our Government said was an agreement in principle to sign a free trade agreement with Israel, while the Israeli Minister, Eli Cohen, said that the text was “concluded” on 23 January. I asked the Library to find a copy of that agreement—but there is none. I understand from the Government that the text will be placed in the House alongside an explanatory memorandum and an associated parliamentary report in due course, once the agreement has received signature.

If we had been following the stages under the European system, things would have been different. The European Parliament would already have been involved in the content of the talks, and been allowed the parameters for discussion. The Parliament would then be told that the negotiators were close to finalising the agreement, and the texts would be sent at an informal level to the Parliament. Once the agreement had been initialled, the initialled text would immediately be sent to the Parliament. I understand that, if it is an agreement in principle, but we do not know whether our text with the Israeli Government has been initialled; perhaps the Minister can clarify that. If it were then signed, that text would be included too.

Potentially, therefore, there are five steps when the European Parliament would have been involved—whereas we are not. Why is that fundamentally important? The Israeli agreement is a good example. It touches on many aspects of international law, human rights and domestic legislation. Our domestic legislation, in addition to the European agreement, on the treatment of goods from the illegally occupied territories and settlements, means that we as a Parliament should be aware at the early stages of what our Government are discussing with the Israeli Government.

To find out only at the last stage, when we can do nothing other than to delay or not to ratify an agreement, is not appropriate. So I hope that the Government will be able to confirm the current status of this live example of a continuity agreement. Can the Government confirm, on the record, that they have initialled an agreement that does not put into any question the status of products from the illegal settlements, and that we will honour our decade-long commitment in how we treat this agreement? When will they bring forward the text of the agreement?

This is a live example of a continuity agreement, on which there is not the transparency that the Government claim that they wish to bring about. We seek, at the very least, to replicate the position that British representatives have in the European Parliament. We also seek to ensure that the role of elected bodies is not diminished in the proper negotiation of these deep and comprehensive trading agreements.