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Trade Bill - Report (1st Day)

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

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:45 pm, 6th March 2019

My Lords, after that brief pause for dramatic effect, we move on quickly. We have already begun to discuss this issue because it was the subject of the Motion before the House before we began to consider Report, so I can be relatively brief. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Purvis of Tweed, for joining me on Amendment 12. I will speak also to Amendment 35, which would be a new schedule dependent on Amendment 12 and which I consider to be consequential.

The background is the White Paper on future trade deals that was referred to. It is very good to read in that paper that,

“the Government is clear that we must have a transparent and inclusive future trade policy that delivers for all parts of the United Kingdom … that there must be a strong and effective role for Parliament in scrutinising our trade policy and free trade agreements … We recognise that the best free trade agreements will be those that draw on the extensive expertise and experience of both the House of Commons and House of Lords and have its full support”.

Unfortunately, those good recommendations in the White Paper do not follow on from the analysis. The problem that we have come across is that the stumbling block seems to be the rather startling assertion:

“The making amending and withdrawing from treaties are functions of the executive which are carried out in exercise of the Royal Prerogative”.

I thought that we decided some time ago that the royal prerogative had had its day. It is a bit odd to see it prayed in aid in this case.

Trade negotiations are no longer just a matter of the import and export of physical goods. They are about societal rights, environmental rights, the provision of healthcare, and investment protection. There are trade-offs between services and tariffs, which was exactly the point that we were discussing earlier today. The public are entitled to know what the Government are doing. We in Parliament are duty-bound to have a role in scrutinising what the Government intend to do. Surely our country needs a modern approach to the approval of trade agreements, with proper roles identified for the Executive and for Parliament, which can operate a sensible scheme rooted in reality, not fantasy, and which is appropriate for our representative democratic system.

The Government say that this proposal,

“should draw on the expertise of Parliament … via a close relationship with a specific parliamentary committee in each House”.

They suggest that these committees,

“would have the power to produce a detailed report … to assist parliamentarians and the public in understanding the agreement and its potential implications”.

Moreover:

“Where the Committee(s) indicated that the agreement should be subject to a debate prior to the commencement of parliamentary scrutiny under CRaG, the Government would consider and seek to meet such requests where those requests are made within a reasonable timeframe and subject to parliamentary timetables”.

These are a pale imitation of what we already have in the EU, where the relevant committee follows trade negotiations extremely closely and a plenary vote in the Parliament is required before the conclusion of an agreement.

In our view, the arrangements proposed in the White Paper do not provide a solid role for Parliament that meets the expectations of those who are interested in trade and which is required for modern trade negotiations, particularly during the scoping and negotiating phases; n or do they accord Parliament the role it should have in ratifying the final agreement, with positive votes being required in each House. I hope the Government will engage with us on this issue and I would be very happy to meet them again to explore the way forward. In the interim, I beg to move.