Amendment 23

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

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 4:52 pm, 13th March 2019

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.