Increases in imports or changes in price of agricultural goods

Part of Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 3:45 pm, 30th January 2018

The Minister was getting a little bit tetchy and prickly there. There is a quote from “Henry VIII” which, given that we are talking about Henry VIII powers, seems appropriate today:

“Be advised:

Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot

That it do singe yourself.”

The new clause would establish an enhanced parliamentary procedure in relation to import duties on agricultural goods. During our sittings, the Committee has heard serious concerns expressed by multiple witnesses about the democratic shortcomings of the Bill. The Bill is, first, strikingly light on detail, notwithstanding the Minister’s assurances that things will be put into place and more detail will come in due course. The Government are pushing that detail on to secondary legislation, but the delegated legislation process was designed to make administrative changes to laws—in effect, a rubber-stamping process—not for items that will form the material basis of our trade defence policies and so require proper scrutiny and debate. More worrying are the items to be channelled directly through the Executive in an unacceptable concentration of power, which ought to be subject to scrutiny, with Parliament given a say in holding the Government to account. The amendment is one of several in which the Opposition are calling on the Government to put critical decisions on tariffs, quotas and preferential rates in front of Parliament.

The measures in the Bill are at odds with the greater democratic control persistently promised to voters. Bringing back control, as we have said a million and one times, is about bringing back control to Parliament, not to a cadre of Ministers sitting in their offices in Whitehall. The new clause sets out four steps to enhance parliamentary scrutiny: first, a Minister must come to Parliament to explain the intentions of the draft regulations; secondly, a Minister must tell Parliament the import duty amount, as well as the period and trigger price under the relevant section; thirdly, the House must pass a resolution arising from the Minister’s motion; and, fourthly, regulations must be made to give effect to that resolution—all in the cold light of parliamentary scrutiny and sight. It is not for the Government to make decisions single-handedly behind closed doors, nor for the Secretary of State to steer the process unilaterally. Rather, such decisions must be subject to proper democratic accountability, with the essential checks and balances enshrined in law.

As I have said before, the Opposition recognise that the Government must make necessary preparations to create the UK customs and tariff regime post-Brexit, but they cannot have carte blanche. We should not allow, or be considering, a carte blanche process allowing the Government to concentrate all those new powers in the Executive. The Opposition’s view is that in this instance the interpretation of taking back control— moving it from Brussels to the Executive—is not acceptable. That is not only true of the provision before us today, but evident in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Trade Bill. The Government are attempting to sidestep parliamentary scrutiny, and that is not acceptable.

In our view, tariffs should undergo the same parliamentary process as taxation, with similar levels of parliamentary scrutiny. We will oppose the Government’s attempts to give the Treasury delegated powers to set future customs duties and tariffs away from the public and parliamentary eye. That is not the way we do things in Britain. New clause 6 outlines an enhanced parliamentary procedure for setting additional import duty on agricultural goods, among others, to bring scrutiny to our customs policy.

Our agricultural sector faces an uncertain future with Brexit ahead. It is distinct from other UK industries in possessing a more interwoven relationship with the European Union, given the existence of the common agricultural policy, which provides subsidies to UK farmers that the Government have indicated they will continue. The common agricultural policy provides critical support to UK farming—for example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimated in 2014 that such payments represented 55% of farm income. As I said, the Government have promised to maintain those subsidies at the existing level until 2022, which I am sure is a huge comfort to the agricultural sector, but there are no guarantees yet on what will occur after a transitional period. Our step-by-step proposed parliamentary process will hold the Government to account for their policies and import duty proposals on agricultural goods.

Given the reliance in some quarters on subsidies and the fact that our EU counterparts will continue to be in receipt of subsidies across the continent, there will be a number of factors to consider when the UK comes to setting tariffs on agricultural imports. It is worth noting that the value of UK agricultural production at market prices was £25.8 billion in 2014, according to official Government statistics, and the farming sector provides 400,000 jobs in the UK. I accept that not many of them are in the constituency of Bootle, but there we are.

As the National Farmers Union has highlighted, the UK trade balance is negative to the tune of £22.4 billion, which makes the UK a net importer of food. Although there is an ambition for that figure to improve as the UK becomes more self-sufficient in food production, it shows that the UK is quite heavily exposed in terms of import dependency. As the NFU also highlights, the UK will be duty-bound to establish its own set of schedules with the World Trade Organisation, once we leave the EU. Although we know the Government have announced their intention to replicate the existing trade regime as far as possible in those new schedules aligned with existing arrangements, we have no guarantees on that front, and that must also be agreed by the other members of the WTO. Given the broad range of potential outcomes here and the importance of the agricultural sector to the UK economy, it is vital that any decisions made on import tariffs are subject to proper scrutiny and debate.

The amendment proposes that the relevant Minister must lay before the House of Commons full statements and drafts of regulations so that they can be properly scrutinised by Members from around the country who can represent the diverse interests of the agricultural community—the producers—and British consumers. It is almost a binary position.