Amendment 59

Part of Trade Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 13th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 7:45 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their continued engagement with the work to establish the Trade Remedies Authority. I trust that I am able to provide reassurance that we are taking proper steps to set up this important body in the right way.

I turn first to Amendment 59, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. We listened carefully to the points made by them and other noble Lords in Committee about how best to ensure that the senior leadership is as independent as possible. This includes the appropriate role for the International Trade Committee. That is why I am pleased to announce that the Secretary of State is content for the International Trade Committee to conduct a pre-commencement hearing of the TRA chair. This hearing will take place after the Secretary of State has appointed the TRA chair, but before the chair has taken up their position. I further reassure the House that this offer of a pre-commencement hearing by the International Trade Committee will apply to all future TRA chairs, not just the first one. We hope that this will ensure that the ITC has the appropriate role in scrutinising any individual appointed to that position.

I turn now to Amendment 60, for which I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. There are three key issues at hand that I would like to address. The first point is independence. Having had discussions with the noble Baroness and the noble Earl, I will say that independence really matters. We are committed to creating an independent TRA that all our stakeholders can trust and that will be seen as an independent body by third countries. We have taken clear steps to achieve this, including establishing it as a non-departmental public body in the first place, which is different from other organisations around the world, and giving it the appropriate separation from Ministers. We are ensuring that it has an independent board. That is why the Secretary of State will be required to follow the tried and tested Cabinet Office Governance Code on Public Appointments when appointing all non-executive TRA board members.

As this House will be aware, that code enshrines the independence of those members by explicitly stating:

“All public appointments should be governed by the principle of appointment on merit”.

TRA board members must be appointed based on their ability, not the stakeholder group or interest that they represent. The Commissioner for Public Appointments will regulate all non-executive appointments to the TRA, providing independent assurance that the Secretary of State follows the code’s strict rules on making such appointments based on merit and the public interest. While TRA non-executives may well have had experience representing certain stakeholders, we believe that that alone cannot be the reason why they are appointed. To do otherwise would jeopardise the true independence of the board, particularly as this is an investigative body.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, referred to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. We do not feel that it is appropriate to draw parallels between the TRA and the Office for Students. The primary function of the Office for Students is to protect the interests of students, whereas the TRA has been set up to protect UK industry from unfair trading practices, which it will do by undertaking independent and impartial technical investigations into whether these practices have occurred. While this will ensure that manufacturers are protected against unfair trading practices, the TRA has not been set up specifically to protect the interests of those manufacturers or other groups.

The second point relates to skills and experience. I assure your Lordships that we are committed to making sure that the members are best placed to oversee this new function. That is why, when appointing the non-executive members of the TRA, the Secretary of State will have regard to ensuring that the board has the right balance of skills and range of experience. I will do more than pause, as requested by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. She has wide experience of sitting on boards in both the public and private world, and it is having that right balance and mix of skills and experiences that is most important. Moreover, this process does not happen behind closed doors. To ensure transparency, the requisite skills and experience for each non-executive appointment will be set out in individual TRA job descriptions that will be published in accordance with standard practice.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, raised a question about the TRA having regard to guidance, and we have included clear statutory restrictions on the Secretary of State’s ability to issue guidance to the TRA. That includes setting out specific circumstances in which the Secretary of State can publish guidance. For example, they cannot publish guidance in relation to a specific case. That is also why the Secretary of State must consult the TRA before publishing guidance, and explicitly have regard to its independence, impartiality and expertise.

These skills and experience requirements include, among others, strong and effective leadership, astute business awareness and an understanding of the complex domestic and international trading environment which the TRA will be operating in. However, we believe that specifying a detailed list of desired experience in statute risks restricting the Secretary of State’s ability to appoint individuals, and the chair and the board’s ability to appoint executives with other relevant experience not detailed here. It suggests that only those criteria listed in legislation are desirable, and may inadvertently displace others. That could create a problem if, in the future, a TRA non-executive was needed to fill a skills or experience gap not covered on the list.

On stakeholders, let me reassure the House that we understand the need to ensure that stakeholders’ interests are accounted for properly. We have also taken clear steps to ensure this. That is why the TRA chair’s job description, and terms and conditions, make clear that he or she will be expected to communicate with stakeholders and incorporate their perspectives into TRA board discussions where appropriate.

We specifically recognise the importance of the devolved Administrations in building the UK’s independent trade policy. That is why we have made several key commitments to ensure they, too, have an appropriate relationship with the TRA and DIT. These include sharing the TRA’s annual report with each devolved Administration, seeking suggestions for the optimal way to recruit TRA non-executives, and suggesting to the TRA chair that the board undergoes specific devolution-focused training. The Welsh Government of course have passed a supplementary legislative consent Motion in the Welsh Assembly, indicating their support for the TRA provisions in this Bill.

As we are reaching the end of Report, I will make some concluding remarks. This stage has provided us with a valuable opportunity to test and improve the detail of this important Bill. I thank your Lordships for that and look forward to Third Reading next week. Having said that, I respectfully ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.