Amendment 23

Trade Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Lord Purvis of Tweed:

Moved by Lord Purvis of Tweed

23: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—“Publication of trade agreement progress register(1) For the purposes of subsection (2)—(a) the first reporting period begins with the passing of this Act and ends one week afterwards;(b) each subsequent reporting period is—(i) the week beginning with the end of the previous reporting period, or(ii) if the condition in subsection (4) is met, the month beginning with the end of the previous reporting period.(c) the last reporting period is—(i) the reporting period in which exit day falls, or(ii) if the condition in subsection (4) is met, the reporting period in which any transition period provided for in the negotiated withdrawal agreement expires.(2) Before the end of each reporting period, a Minister of the Crown must publish a report relating to the continuing application of EU trade agreements after exit day.(3) A report under subsection (2) must—(a) specify the trade agreements the United Kingdom is party to as a member of the European Union (the “existing agreements”),(b) for each of the existing agreements, specify whether the United Kingdom intends to sign an agreement that replicates the effects of the existing agreement (the “continuity agreements”),(c) for each of the continuity agreements, specify—(i) whether the agreement has been signed, and(ii) if the agreement has not been signed, what progress has been made towards signing the agreement, and(d) for each of the continuity agreements that has not been signed, specify—(i) the likelihood, in the Minister’s opinion, that the agreement will be signed before exit day, or(ii) if the condition in subsection (4) is met, the likelihood, in the Minister’s opinion, that the agreement will be signed before the end of any transition period provided for in the negotiated withdrawal agreement.(4) For the purposes of subsections (1)(b)(ii), (1)(c)(ii) and (3)(d)(ii) the condition is if the United Kingdom has signed a negotiated withdrawal agreement with the European Union.(5) In this section, “negotiated withdrawal agreement” has the same meaning as in section 13(16) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.”

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade)

My Lords, this feels like an intermission between two parts of the main feature this afternoon, so I shall be brief. The amendment is even more important given the vote in the Commons last night and the votes likely to come up in the other place. It would provide for a duty on the Government to update the information that they published on 21 February.

I signed up to a weekly trade newsletter from the European Commission at the start of this Bill’s consideration. It includes a weekly digest of the latest news on EU trade, new trade negotiating texts, reports and studies about ongoing discussions, upcoming events and consultations and the EU Trade Commissioner’s statements on related topics. That is the type of information available through the Commission that should be the benchmark by which our Government provides information, not only to Parliament but to civic society and interested groups across the country. But unfortunately, it is in stark contrast with the kind of information that the UK Government publish to date. It is appropriate that we have information on the status of discussions and highlight areas where there are justifiable public differences in approach or policy between our Government and other Governments.

The amendment is not asking for commercially sensitive information or for information that would diminish the ability of negotiators to carry out a set mandate or agreed policy objectives. It is necessary for continuity in the areas that we are discussing.

Also, as we discussed in the previous debate, if there is no deal, we have unilaterally decided to engage in a different trading relationship with countries we currently have arrangements with, and possibly add new tariff lines on goods that are not in place in the current FTAs. The Government seem to think that it is rational to discuss continuity agreements with other countries if there is no deal, apply a new tariff regime with nearly 500 extra tariff lines to businesses trading from those countries and roll over agreements, thereby reinstating the zero tariffs we currently enjoy with those countries by virtue of our membership of the European Union. It is a bizarre approach that the Government think will be beneficial, but it stretches credulity.

At the start of proceedings on the Bill, the Government said that the whole process of moving over agreements would be easy. The noble Lord, Lord Price, the Minister’s predecessor, said that all countries had agreed to roll over agreements but, in fact, they had not. Ministers said repeatedly that all the agreements would be in place by 29 March but many of us knew that that would not happen. The Government denied that there was a problem when it was apparent to everyone that there was, and we knew that those agreements were not going to happen for a number of reasons. Only after frustrated officials leaked information did the Government demur and publish a one-off statement admitting a degree of reality. That is not sufficient and we need to move away from that approach.

The amendment addresses a way forward. It would lead to more information on the trading relationships with the countries we have an agreement with through the EU, but will end if we crash out. The amendment calls for a weekly update before we leave the EU—if we leave—and a monthly update that will form the basis of reporting until the texts of the agreements are shared with Parliament. Unless we have a consistent mechanism, we will have a bizarre situation involving two reporting systems from the Government: one on the progress on continuity agreements and the other on successor or new agreements.

For example, the Government intended to have a continuity agreement with Japan but no reporting undertakings. However, the Japanese have now said they want a successor agreement, which would be covered by undertakings in the Command Paper. But the underlying policy intent has not changed and there will be nothing to stop discussions with a country such as Canada on a continuity agreement then becoming a successor agreement—and there will be two parallel systems of reporting. That is not helpful for clarity or transparency.

Finally, we heard clearly last week from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others who have been at the highest level of negotiations on behalf of the UK, that greater transparency and the involvement of Parliament in approving mandates actively strengthen the UK’s position, not weaken it. In order for Parliament to do its job correctly and engage with civil society groups and those with an interest in trade, or who will be impacted by decisions made in the negotiations, we need a high level of information on progress, rather than simply a descriptor such as “engagement ongoing”, as referred to on 21 February.

That is why I hope that the Government will look favourably on the amendment and, if they cannot accept it, at least establish some principles whereby reporting mechanisms can be more up to date, regular and meaningful than a one-off publication on 21 February. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has outlined the reasoning for and detail of the amendment. I intend, therefore, to be brief as we have a number of amendments of greater importance.

It is a shame that the Government will not accept the amendment or work with noble Lords on this side of the House to bring more detail and clarity to the reporting mechanism and progress analysis on rollover agreements. Suffice it to say, Her Majesty’s Government are woefully behind on negotiating, securing and signing agreements that will need to be rolled over. Only a handful of deals are close to completion. Ministers have admitted that they are struggling to make progress with the other trade agreements that Liam Fox has a number of times promised would be ready for the day after Brexit.

These rollover deals represent trade with approximately 70 countries, which constitute around 13% of our exports and 12% of our imports. So far as we know—and that is telling—only four have been signed, nine are off track, 19 are significantly off track, four cannot be completed before Brexit and two are not being negotiated. The Government have refused to confirm how many separate and distinct agreements must be replicated to ensure continuity of trade on existing terms. This is a sensible amendment allowing Parliament to have oversight of the process, and I fail to see how that would or could undermine our negotiating position as we move forward. If the Minister is going to say that it would, will she explain in detail how? We are happy to support the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 5:00 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for moving Amendment 23, and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, for building on it. The Government agree with the spirit of the amendment that providing updates on negotiations is necessary. It is fundamental to our approach that Parliament remains informed. It is something the Government have always sought to do and we will continue to do so.

Your Lordships will recall that, following concerns raised in Committee in this House, the Government published a paper on 28 February providing comprehensive proposals for the scrutiny of future free trade agreements. Many of your Lordships will also recall the debate last week on future trade agreements. The noble Lords, Lord Purvis of Tweed, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Hannay of Chiswick, tabled amendments which facilitated a full debate on the scrutiny of future free trade agreements. In that debate, I again confirmed that, for future free trade agreements the Government will publish their outline approach to negotiations, including objectives, and that that would be accompanied by detailed economic analysis. The EU reports to which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, referred are on future EU agreements.

We have committed to publishing progress reports after each negotiating round and annual trade reports across all live trade negotiations. In terms of Parliament’s role in this, I confirmed that in future free trade agreements the Government will work closely with a committee of both Houses or a committee in each House, and will provide information on a confidential basis to ensure that Parliament can scrutinise negotiations effectively from start to finish and throughout.

In relation to our trade continuity programme—the agreements that are the subject of this amendment—noble Lords will be aware that the Government published a Written Ministerial Statement on 21 February 2019. It provided an update to Parliament on the status of the continuity agreements. I hope it clarified a number of the points that the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, raised. I also trust that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will welcome the approach the Government are taking of informing Parliament each and every time a continuity agreement is signed. There have been seven free trade agreements so far and we will continue to take that approach.

These agreements have been accompanied by a signed or initialled report outlining the material changes between this agreement and the existing EU/third country agreement. These reports provide important transparency and inform not just Parliament but businesses and consumers. We will discuss three of the agreements and the reports later today. However, some of your Lordships may not be aware of what the Government have done above that over the past six months to keep Parliament informed more generally. For example, we have provided five oral evidence sessions to Select Committees by Ministers or senior officials, given 10 written updates to the International Trade Select Committee or the European Scrutiny Committee on trade agreement continuity, and answered seven Oral Questions and 53 Written Parliamentary Questions. I hope that those elements are further tangible proof of the Government’s commitment to keeping Parliament informed. However, while the Government agree with the intention of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I am concerned that having this obligation in statute could have unintended consequences in making it more difficult to keep Parliament informed.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked what the issues were. They are the kinds of obligations that might arise while we are in the middle of negotiations with our partner countries. For example, if we were to say that an agreement discussion was progressing well and that all the key issues had been addressed, that might cause a negotiating issue on the other side. Equally, if we said we thought that it was performing poorly or that there were issues, that might expose issues that our partner countries were ill prepared to address. If negotiations were going badly, a public statement to that effect would likely prejudice them further, resulting, we believe, in a worse outcome for the UK. Our approach is to provide Parliament with as much information as we can, consistent with managing those risks. It genuinely is about getting the balance right between openness and transparency with Parliament and managing often delicate international negotiations.

I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, takes reassurance from this explanation and, most importantly, from our continued commitment to ensure that Parliament is kept up to date on the trade agreement continuity programme. I therefore respectfully ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade)

I am grateful for the Minister’s response, and for the support of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol. He highlighted that we are likely to have seen only 13% of UK exports represented in the agreements that we have, so there is quite a long way to go. The issue then is whether a one-off published statement would be sufficient. However, I take on board what the Minister said about the other areas, on which there is ongoing engagement with Parliament; that is to be welcomed. I also welcome that in the Command Paper the Government have committed to publish material and to have an ongoing dialogue, both in public and in private, with committees that could well be established. I hope very much that the dialogue will also involve discussions about what type of information is appropriate to be released into the public domain and about doing so in a timely fashion.

On the basis of the Minister’s comments and on the understanding that, if we are to be secure in the information that I think we need on the continuity agreements, we will continue to be persistent on the Written Questions and on the opportunities in Parliament, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.