Trade Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 30th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 6:45 pm, 30th January 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Purvis, for tabling Amendments 34 and 54 and for giving this House the opportunity to discuss this important area. I entirely agree with the concerns that have been raised, particularly on areas such as agricultural products, affecting farmers and rural areas, which were addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and my noble friends Lady Byford and Lady McIntosh. I would like to take these two amendments together, because there is a fair amount of overlap in the questions that each amendment raises. I would also like to do so in some detail, because they cover a very technical area and I hope that my clarification will help—that is the aim of what I am trying to do.

We have tariff-rate quotas both in the existing EU FTAs that we are working to roll over and in our WTO schedules. A different approach is required for each, which I am happy to explain. In doing so, I will also address each amendment first as it refers to the EU FTAs and then as it relates to the WTO TRQs. I will first address TRQs in EU free trade agreements. The EU has been clear that it will not revise its free trade agreements with third countries as a result of the UK exiting the EU. This is because usage of those quotas tends to be low. The UK is therefore engaging directly with our trading partners to agree new TRQs to apply under the continuity agreements, and we are making good progress. We are agreeing TRQs for the same products at levels that protect existing trade flows. We will continue to report fully to Parliament on the TRQs agreed as part of our Clauses 3 and 5 reports on changes to the agreements. Amendment 34 would therefore be impossible to implement in respect of EU FTAs, as there is no division with the EU to refer back to.

On Amendment 54, as I mentioned, the Government have already committed to lay before Parliament for each transitional FTA a report that sets out any substantial changes to trade-related matters. These reports will include details of changes to the TRQs. Let me assure noble Lords that the reports will also include an indication of the impacts associated with the changes to the TRQs. However, we would not expect there to be substantial business impacts from changes to TRQs, as we are maintaining TRQs for the same products sized at a level which protects existing trade flows.

On the EU Council decision relating to the modification of TRQs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, referred, I am happy to write to the noble Lord on that point and I will put a letter in the Library.

I turn now to the TRQs found in our WTO schedules. Here, the Government have taken quite a number of steps, and in addressing these amendments I believe it would be of value to noble Lords if I walked through them. To prepare to leave the EU, the United Kingdom has had to establish its own schedules of goods and services at the WTO. In doing so, we have taken the approach that we should maintain our current obligations as far as possible. This was announced to both Houses through Written Ministerial Statements on 5 December 2016. While much of our goods schedule is directly replicable—for example, our bound tariff rates—some parts, such as tariff-rate quotas, are not. Quotas are not directly replicable because they are a quantity coming into the EU 28, as your Lordships will know, and if they were exactly replicated this would lead to an expansion of market access into both the EU and the UK. This is why the Government agreed a co-operative approach with the EU to apportion WTO tariff-rate quotas, based on historic trade flows. This was agreed in October 2017 and communicated publicly through a joint letter by the UK and EU ambassadors to the WTO.

The UK schedule was finalised in July 2018. We sent it to the WTO on 19 July, and once again both Houses were informed through Written Ministerial Statements. Our schedule then began its formal three-month certification period on 24 July. That period was completed on 24 October. While most WTO members agreed with our approach, as I and the Secretary of State for International Trade once again explained through Written Ministerial Statements laid on 25 October, some WTO members have argued that their market access has been reduced by our approach to TRQs. This is why we announced the Government’s intention to enter GATT Article XXVIII negotiations on TRQs at the WTO to establish whether the apportionment we have proposed is a fair representation of the UK’s current rights and obligations.

Between October and 21 December, when the Government formally launched the Article XXVIII process, work was completed to prepare the necessary trade data and the notification for our Article XXVIII process to begin. We are now in the first phase of this, a 90-day notification period that lasts until 21 March 2019, during which WTO members can examine our TRQ trade data and register an interest in negotiating with us. After this, the UK will examine those claims and determine with whom and on which commodities we will be negotiating under Article XXVIII.

I should also mention briefly the EU’s corresponding transition at the WTO. The EU has launched its own Article XXVIII process, as it, of course, apportioned the EU 28 TRQs with the United Kingdom. It formally started this on 22 July 2018. The reason it was able to do so before the UK is because it did not have to establish a new schedule of its own. Our process and that of the EU are legally distinct and are being pursued separately. However, they are linked in that they derive from the same initial obligation, and WTO partners will need to be convinced that their access to the EU 27 and UK markets will be no less favourable once both processes are complete. So our processes are separate but complementary.

My noble friend Lady Byford raised the issue of whether we could improve on them in the future. Our main focus in this phase is on continuity, ensuring that there is as much certainty for farmers and businesses as possible—that is our first aim. The future is another issue, but our primary focus now is continuity.