Amendment 80

Trade Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:00 pm on 15th October 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Rooker:

Moved by Lord Rooker

80: Clause 6, page 4, line 32, at end insert—“(5) The TRA may publish in such a manner as it thinks fit—(a) any advice given under this section, and(b) any other information in its possession, from any source.(6) Before deciding to publish any information under subsection (5), the TRA must consider whether the public interest is outweighed by any consideration of confidentiality.”Member’s explanatory statementThe purpose of this amendment is to give the TRA the same powers as the Food Standards Agency to reinforce its operational independence.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, I shall be brief in moving this amendment. It is partly probing and partly serious, and in due course I shall probably reserve the right to come back to it on Report.

I referred to the idea for the amendment in my Second Reading speech at col. 712 of Hansard on 8 September. I accept of course that the two bodies, the Trade Remedies Authority and the Food Standards Agency, do not have the same legal status. The Food Standards Agency is a non-ministerial government department whose staff are civil servants, and indeed its board would make such a decision as implied in the amendment. It is the principle that I seek to transfer, which has worked quite successfully in the legislation for the Food Standards Agency for over 20 years, under Governments of all parties—in other words, the principle of transparency and openness when dealing with what can sometimes be confidential matters.

The power is there, as I say in my explanatory statement, to be a further guarantee to reinforce the operational independence of the authority. No one is ever going to believe that any of these bodies—set up at the behest of Ministers and perhaps fulfilled without proper due process, in the way that all bodies should be—are actually operationally independent. The one way to ensure that is to give the body such a power. I fully accept that that is very unusual—government departments, in the main, do not understand how the Food Standards Agency legislation came to provide such a power—but it was freely given by the Government and accepted by Parliament in the 1999 legislation. To the best of my knowledge, it has not actually been used, in the sense of being a sanction.

I referred at Second Reading to a stench of corruption about this Government—not as individuals, but there is a general feeling that something is not quite right about the way things are being done. Any wayward move on a trade deal—that is the polite term—could be avoided if those who wanted to be a little wayward knew that the TRA had such a power. That is where the idea of a sanction comes in: it would be established in primary legislation, even though I suspect, and sincerely hope, it would never be used. Then, we could better trust the trade deals, which is the important, central point. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. While I am in favour of transparency and of what he called the ability to sanction, I am also cautious when it comes to the disclosure of information from any source. I can see that with food, there is a public health issue that might override everything else, but I question whether the comparison is the right one when expanded more generally. Much information will be submitted to the TRA from UK and overseas companies that is commercially confidential and has been given on the understanding and indeed requirement of confidentiality—among other things, under WTO treaty obligations.

I will leave it to the Minister to reply, but it seems to me that the amendment, maybe unintentionally, goes too far and could undermine international co-operation or even leave the UK in breach of international rules. Not that I would expect the TRA to do that, but it should be clear that it is not in contemplation, so as to avoid international misunderstanding. Maybe the amendment could be worked on to include some acknowledgement of those constraints.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, I support Amendment 80 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which is trying to create levels of transparency in the Trade Remedies Authority similar to the principles of openness and transparency that underpin the Food Standards Agency.

There is no doubt that the TRA must have operational independence to enable transparency and prevent any form of corruption in trade deals. We are in a new dispensation that requires such trade deals to bring benefit and, obviously, to be open, subject to the issue of confidentiality which, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, covers in his amendment. In many ways, I suppose there is also that direct read-across with the need for an international trade commission, but that was dealt with in previous amendments on Tuesday in your Lordships’ House.

We are all aware of the concerns about hormone-infused beef, chlorinated chicken and other issues surrounding corruption. We therefore need those high standards of transparency and openness. In that respect, the model of transparency and openness ushered in by previous Governments back in 1999 and 2001 with the Food Standards Act, which set up the Food Standards Agency, provides a useful paradigm for the transferral of those principles.

There is undoubtedly a need for the Trade Remedies Authority. It should publish advice, and any information issued should be subject to issues of confidentiality. I believe that the amendment would enable openness and transparency and help to prevent the concern that pivots around the issue of corruption. I will be happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, if he wishes to bring the amendment back on Report.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy)

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, my noble friend Lady Bowles and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, in favouring transparency, in particular for its salutary effect on the independence of a body such as the Trade Remedies Authority. I say that after looking at the report from the Select Committee on the Constitution, which is hot off the press. It speaks with real frustration when it says:

“We remain of the view that the Bill’s skeletal approach to empowering the Trade Remedies Authority is inappropriate.”

The committee points out that the TRA must have regard to guidance published by the Secretary of State but says, quite accurately:

“There is no further indication of the content of such guidance.”

It emphasises that

“it is not clear why, more than two years after the previous version of the Bill was introduced, the functions and powers of the Trade Remedies Authority cannot be set out in more detail in this Bill.”

So I think we can all agree with the underlying purpose of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others that focus on trying to flesh out the contents of the Bill so that this House, and the other House, have a clue about what exactly we are signing off on.

Transparency is particularly crucial when it has direct implications for consumers, especially where safety is a concern. I am sure that is the logic behind the powers of the Food Standards Agency to make disclosures; I would like to see that logic carried over into the TRA. However, as my noble friend Lady Bowles identified, we must recognise that the TRA will be drawn into a wide range of industry sectors, where revelations may well have no safety implications and might be commercially sensitive. So, like my noble friend, I would like a more comprehensive set of criteria than those in the amendment as drafted. I say this in case the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, decides to bring the amendment back on Report. I recognise that, in Committee, we are discussing the principles of an amendment and not the precise wording. I am sure that none of us wishes to discourage applications to the TRA when justified, and nor would we want it used as a weapon of unfair competition. So getting the language right is important, and it is something that could be addressed in a further drafting exercise.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Rooker for his very good probing amendment. He has a habit of picking up on issues which, on first sight, seem not to be mainstream—but he is absolutely right that this is important, and I think it will be of long-lasting concern.

We believe that the creation of the Trade Remedies Authority is both necessary and welcome, but we are worried that, as presently constituted, the TRA lacks the stakeholder engagement or parliamentary oversight and accountability that would give it the visibility and independence that it needs. To this list, thanks to my noble friend Lord Rooker, we should add the question of transparency. It is up to the Minister, when he comes to respond, to explain how independence and accountability will be achieved without the TRA having the power to publish such information as it sees fit. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, Amendment 80, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seeks to provide additional powers for the Trade Remedies Authority to publish information that it holds and advice it provides to the Secretary of State. This was not an amendment raised during the passage of the 2017-19 Bill, so it is interesting that he has chosen to raise it now. However, I fully recognise his desire to ensure that the TRA is impartial, objective and transparent, and I appreciate the opportunity to debate this aspect briefly. As I have said, the Government share these objectives. As can be seen from the trade White Paper that we published in 2017, they have been our guiding principles in establishing the TRA as an independent body. They are at the very heart of the trade remedies system set out in the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 and in the Bill.

The role of the TRA is to gather and assess information from manufacturers, businesses and others to establish whether there is evidence that trade remedy measures are needed to protect domestic producers from injury caused by unfairly traded imports. The TRA’s decision on whether to recommend the imposition of measures will be dictated solely by the evidence available to it, in accordance with WTO rules, as implemented into the United Kingdom’s own legal system, and nothing else.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, eloquently and clearly indicated, to fulfil its role the TRA must be trusted with confidential and often business-critical information. However, it must also ensure that parties have access to the information they need to represent their interests. The way that it treats information is therefore crucial, as much to meet the requirements set out under WTO rules as to ensure that businesses can have the confidence to bring, or participate in, investigations. That is why the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 and related secondary legislation set out a clear framework for transparency and the handling of confidential data. Given a few of the questions that noble Lords have raised this afternoon, it may be appropriate for me to write a letter with my noble friend Lord Grimstone clarifying the transparency that is already there as part of that Act. I will speak to officials after the debate to look at that aspect.

As part of its role as the UK’s investigating authority, the TRA is also able to advise and assist the Secretary of State, including in cases where trade remedy measures recommended by it are subject to an international dispute. While it is the Government’s responsibility to represent and defend the UK in such cases, the TRA may hold important information and evidence needed for the UK’s defence. On that basis, I do hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 2:15 pm, 15th October 2020

My Lords, I am very grateful for all the comments on this technical amendment, if I can put it that way. I say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady Kramer, that I fully accept that “from any source” in proposed subsection (5)(b) looks dramatic. Frankly, I just lifted the text straight out of the Food Standards Act 1999. That is exactly where I got the wording; in fact, there are a few more caveats built in—I think it is in Section 19—but it did not seem appropriate to have a huge probing amendment. Of course, proposed subsection (6) lays down a provision for checking on it.

The central point is that it is not for the TRA to simply publish its evidence—it “may” do. In the main it will not, but if Ministers receive advice on a wayward trade deal that they decide not to accept, the TRA should have the right to let everybody know what advice it gave. That is where the sanction comes in, in terms of being open. Nevertheless, this has been a useful debate and I will look at it again to see whether it is worth coming back to. I will be happy to receive a letter from the Minister and, obviously, I will look at it to decide whether to bring the amendment back on Report, because I do think that the issue has legs. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 80 withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 81. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment or anything else in the group to a Division should make that clear in debate.