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Trade Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 4th February 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 6:15 pm, 4th February 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for providing this opportunity to discuss these issues by tabling her amendment.

With regard to the World Trade Organization, we operate under WTO terms if we are not in a free trade agreement—that is, if we are not a part of the EU or currently part of an FTA. For example, WTO terms operate for most of our current trade with the US. On the noble Baroness’s point about how we do not wish to leave without a deal and move exclusively on to WTO terms, that is the subject of a future amendment, to be discussed later this evening. I stress once more that that is not the Government’s priority, which is to secure a deal.

I will touch on the reform of the WTO. This is a key global priority, which was highlighted in recent meetings of the G20 and mini-ministerial summits held in Canada last year, and at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. I agree with the noble Baroness that WTO reform is essential to address the functioning of the organisation, including the strengthening of its negotiating arm. Indeed, when I attended the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting in Paris last year as the UK Government’s representative, I emphasised the importance of, and the UK’s commitment to, advancing WTO reform discussions.

This is important, given that trade discussions relevant to some of the most critical global issues, such as climate change—which the noble Baroness so passionately commented on—are currently stalled. This House discussed the current state of the WTO’s environmental goods agreement in Committee the week before last. I restate that we are strongly in favour of seeing these negotiations restart and of playing a key role in them, given the important contribution this agreement would make to tackling climate change, which is a key priority for the Government and this country.

However, the UK cannot require the WTO to modify its procedures in a way that secures the supremacy of international treaties that were arrived at under the auspices of the UN over trade agreements that were not. The WTO and the UN, I am informed by our lawyers, are two distinct independent organisations, with two distinct bodies of international law. The WTO is not part of the UN system and exists independently in international law. That position is combined with the fact that there is an established principle of international law that there is no hierarchy of sources of international law. Reform of the WTO therefore requires reform of the WTO’s own treaties, which has nothing to do with UN law, nor can it. Trade agreements, too, whether they seek to reform the WTO, or are secured bilaterally, must comply with the relevant law, which is WTO law. They exist outside UN law. I hope I have provided clarity on the legal situation in this area.