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Trade Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 4:30 pm, 6th March 2019

My Lords, I appreciate the attention that this House has paid to the vitally important issue of standards at each of the Bill’s stages, and for the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lady Henig, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Purvis of Tweed. I also thank their Lordships for the productive meetings that we have had on the subject.

The Government, like your Lordships, do not want and do not intend the strong environmental protection, food safety, and animal welfare standards that the UK is proud of to be lowered once we leave the EU. As I mentioned in Committee, the Prime Minister and Ministers from across government, including Defra and DIT, have made public commitments to the maintenance of the current protections and offered many assurances that we will not lower these rigorous levels of protection in order to secure trade deals.

Let us not forget that, first and foremost, our policy is one of continuity. We seek to carry over the effect of the existing EU agreements. Our trade continuity programme is rooted in our desire to deliver consistency to businesses and consumers as we leave the EU. This approach has been widely endorsed by partner countries, businesses and Parliament. The International Trade Select Committee report in March 2018, for example, stated:

“Almost no one who contributed to our inquiry suggested that the Government’s policy objective of seeking continuity was the wrong one”.

In relation to standards, I can confirm that, under the provisions of the EU withdrawal Act, we will start at a point of maintaining the high standards that we have benefited from as an EU member. This provides us with a strong basis to build on in future. This includes those provisions that the House will be aware of on chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, which will not be able to enter the UK market. The UK has already transposed the relevant EU Council directive into UK law prohibiting the use of artificial growth hormones in both domestic production and imported products. This is now UK law. No products, other than potable water, are approved in the EU to decontaminate poultry carcasses, and this will still be the case in the UK when we leave the EU. EU food safety provisions will come across through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, where they will be enshrined in UK law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised an issue about the unlimited duration of this clause. I would just like to clarify that there is a sunset clause for this power: unless it is extended by both Houses of Parliament, it will expire three years after exit day. That is set out in Clause 2(7).

I turn to the issue of reducing standards in future trade agreements. Our future trade agreements provide us with the greatest opportunities for the UK to develop its global trading position. The demand for UK goods, as I have seen first-hand, is based heavily on our outstanding reputation for quality and the British mark of excellence. The Government have no intention of harming this reputation. Indeed, we intend, as a minimum, to maintain the standards that we currently have, which are set out in our primary and subordinate legislation, and the high standards that we have led on maintaining as a member of the EU. We will continue to retain these as part of the retention of EU legislation, as we exit the EU, through the EU withdrawal Act. The desire to maintain the high levels of standards that we enjoy in the UK is therefore at the heart of the Government of this country and, more than not planning to reduce those standards, we have a strong policy of ensuring that those standards are maintained.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised a point about the WTO schedules and the fact that we are already suggesting that we might change them. I want to clarify that our WTO schedules will not change. These set out the maximum tariffs that the UK would impose. The UK, like any country, remains free to impose lower tariffs than those set down if it so chooses.

On Amendment 3, I thank the noble Lords for their amendment and for my conversations with them on this important issue. I fully understand the sentiment with which the amendment is laid and have already reiterated in my response the Government’s strong commitment to maintaining standards as we leave the EU. However, we feel that the amendment as currently drafted is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the amendment comes with some uncertainties as to its scope. The term “standards” does not have a single legal definition which can easily be called upon. Any legislative commitment not to lower standards would need to make crystal clear what regulations are in scope. This amendment does not, and instead requires the Government to report against an open-ended list of potentially relevant standards, as my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier highlighted. This would require the establishment of a process to determine what constitutes “standards”, not only in each of the listed groups of standards but beyond. Outcomes of this process could then be easily questioned in a court and, until a court ruled on the matter, they would simply be the Government’s own assessment rather than legal certainties.

Secondly, on the notion of “reducing” standards, how the Government would prove that they were or were not reducing them would be problematic. This contains a degree of subjectivity, which would create considerable legal uncertainty if it were to be added to the Bill. Again, the term “standards” can mean a voluntary, best-practice way of doing something. Standards are often not set by Governments but developed by consensus among relevant stakeholders. Of course, there are minimum levels of safety, quality and environmental protection—for example, where voluntary approaches are not effective. These rules and regulations are mandatory and enshrined in our laws, which, of course, are subject to parliamentary approval.

We sincerely believe that the best way to influence standards in other countries is to forge strong trading relationships where we can positively influence those countries through the reputation of UK businesses. Through such relationships, we can insist on the proper treatment of workers and their rights, so that UK consumers are assured that the products they buy from reputable UK businesses are from suppliers whose practices those businesses have assured. In order to achieve that, we need to have trade agreements in place.

On human rights, which are referred to in paragraph (g) of the amendment, noble Lords will recall that the Government have already reaffirmed that the UK is a signatory to the ECHR and will continue to uphold human rights in the UK under the Human Rights Act. The Clause 2 power cannot be used to amend the Human Rights Act, and it would be unlawful for any regulation under the Trade Bill to be incompatible with the rights enshrined in the ECHR.

On Amendment 4, I have listened with interest to the useful debate, and I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for her well-argued contribution. In relation to this amendment, let me make it clear that, before any regulations are laid under the Clause 2 power for the purpose of implementing a free trade agreement, the Government will lay reports before Parliament which will clearly detail any significant trade-related differences from the EU third-country agreements. This would include significant differences which had an effect on the standards that we or our trading partners were required to meet.

The Government have already laid such reports for the UK’s agreements with Chile, the Faroe Islands, the eastern and southern African region, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I am pleased that my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering welcomed the updates that we have made and will continue to make as these progress. I hope that it is clear from these reports that our continuity agreements are compatible with the maintenance of the UK’s high standards in the areas of environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has called for debates on the continuity agreements which the Government have already made. His Motions will be dealt with in the usual way and the Government look forward to further discussion on those.

What is more, regulations under the Clause 2 power will be laid before Parliament under the affirmative resolution procedure. As your Lordships know, affirmative secondary legislation is scrutinised and debated before it can be approved by votes in both Houses. This well-established procedure provides ample opportunity for examination of the regulations.

I thank noble Lords for this really constructive discussion and for the comments of those who tabled this amendment, particularly the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. I believe we are not far apart from each other, particularly in light of the progress we have made to date. Consequently, as throughout this process, I can confirm that I am happy to have further discussions to see if we can reach a mutually acceptable agreement, and we will return to this at Third Reading. On this basis, I beg noble Lords to withdraw the amendment.