Amendment 81

Part of Trade Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 3:00 pm, 15th October 2020

My Lords, I drafted Amendment 109 essentially in reaction to Amendment 106 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which would require the group of non-executive directors of the TRA to include stakeholders. I have no problem with people with those backgrounds and expertise being on that board, but I fear that it could raise false expectations. You could say that this was a particular bête noire of mine: non-execs on a board must act in the interests of the organisation on whose board they sit. Membership is in many ways a gagging order, if they have other interests and represent other relevant parties. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, pointed out, as did my noble friend Lady Bowles, that their work is very largely procedural and concerns governance: whether rules have been followed, whether risks have been assessed and what remuneration is right for senior executives. However, I believe that stakeholders, especially given the economic importance and potential impact of the TRA, should be able to speak and persuade freely in the interests of the organisations or different nations of the UK, the businesses they belong to or the consumers they represent. That applies just as much to other relevant groups.

Our proposal in Amendment 106 is to create an advisory committee. In my mind at least—and this is not necessarily underscored in the amendment’s language —it would be like the two-tiered corporate governance systems that we see in many continental European countries. Of course the TRA can set up committees. However, I am concerned that, as they are written in the Bill, they will have a tendency to be ad hoc and lack status, whereas a board that contains representatives with a specific role and status established in legislation has much more impact and is exceedingly important as a flow of information and advice to the TRA. I pick up a comment which I think the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made, which is that it is really important that advice is balanced, and this would be one of the mechanisms that would help to ensure it.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others in their call in Amendment 81 for pre-appointment hearings by the Select Committee on International Trade. These would be for appointments to the Board of Trade—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, TAGs would probably be thrown into that as well. I spoke on this extensively on Tuesday, and I shall not repeat the comments, as the case has been very well made. The same amendment calls for appointments to be made following the governance code for public appointments. We are in a pretty pass when this House has to put such a requirement in a Bill in regard to such key and important appointments. Clearly, it has to do so because No. 10 has been so clear in its intentions to skirt those requirements wherever possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—and I saw the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, nodding confirmation—pointed out that the appointments would essentially be limited to members of the Privy Council. I am really shocked at the thought that the Privy Council mechanism is being used to get around what everyone would expect to be a process that came under the governance code for public appointments. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, has a long history with that code, and I hope that he will be sufficiently shocked that he goes back to the Government and discusses that issue. All these appointments need to have the absolute smack of integrity, and there must be an absolute absence of cronyism.

Amendment 83 raises the issue of non-disclosure agreements. I was very pleased to see this language in there. I think that the drafting probably needs some work but, again, we are in Committee. Non-disclosure agreements are being widely abused, instead of being kept to their original and narrow purpose of preventing commercial harm essentially by a competitor company, or disclosure of intellectual property, pricing and so on. I have worked with so many whistleblowers who have experienced the impact of these gagging orders, which tend to work very much against the public interest. We need a proper drafting into the Bill of the kind of language that would limit the scope and purpose of non-disclosure agreements to the most restricted kind of necessity that they originally covered, not the expansive use that has become habitual as a way to protect privacy and avoid challenge.

Amendment 110, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Bowles, again raises the issue of properly funding the TRA, including providing for its inherited liabilities, to protect its independence. I spoke to this on Tuesday, so I shall not repeat myself, but there is a common sense among many of your Lordships that funding the TRA is an issue that has to be challenged. It must not find itself in a position of being short of resource and, therefore, curtailing or basically shaping what it does because of a lack of funding.

Amendments 111 and 112 in my name and that of my noble friend and Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, which I think is a very significant amendment, strengthen the reporting requirements of the TRA and finally provide some substance to the report. I spoke on an earlier group of the criticism of this Bill from the Constitution Committee—essentially, of its thinness and skeleton nature. Providing this kind of substance is genuinely critical if the significance of Parliament is to be recognised. As drafted, the Bill, as we have heard on two groups of amendments today, raises issues of transparency and independence. Therefore, like my noble friend Lady Bowles, I find it frustrating and inappropriate that the report of the TRA comes to Parliament only via the Secretary of State. That strikes me as a mark of undesirable dependency. We have been arguing all the way through that the TRA must be visibly, clearly and openly independent. Its ability to report directly to Parliament is surely a litmus test of that.