Reviews of grandfathered trade agreements: Joint Ministerial Committee sub-committee

Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 30 January 2018.

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“(1) The Joint Ministerial Committee shall establish a sub-committee to review the effects upon the devolved nations of any international trade agreement which is in force and for which regulations have been made under section 2(1) of this Act.

(2) The sub-committee shall have power to supply, with the consent of the full Joint Ministerial Committee, documents setting out its conclusions to the devolved assemblies.

(3) In this section, “the Joint Ministerial Committee” means the body set up in accordance with Supplementary Agreement A of the Memorandum of Understanding on Devolution, between Her Majesty’s Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee.” —(

This new clause would create a sub-committee of the Joint Ministerial Committee, to review the effects on devolved nations of any international trade agreement implemented by powers in this Bill.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Ryan. The good news at this stage is that there are fewer notes written in advance—the Committee might be quite relieved about that. New clause 3 was originally drafted by colleagues from Plaid Cymru, and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Livingston and I were more than happy to add our names in support. Actually, we have been completely vindicated on that given how events have panned out today. There have been no concessions to any Scottish Government or Welsh Government amendments. The Government voted down the Labour amendment that would have allowed impact analysis to be undertaken and at least understood. They have excluded any provisions for devolved authorities to be involved in the Trade Remedies Authority.

The new clause is quite simple: it seeks to propose a sub-committee of the Joint Ministerial Committee, to look at effects in the devolved nations of any international trade agreement implemented by the powers in the Bill. It is simple, effective and it does not create a whole new body, because it just creates a sub-committee of the existing JMC. In terms of administration, it should not be excessive, and so I ask members of the Committee to support the new clause.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

I can be brief. The Government have made it clear that they seek to maintain the effects of the UK’s existing trade agreements. We make this commitment in relation to all parts of the United Kingdom, which means that we do not intend Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or indeed England, to be disproportionately impacted by our transitioning of these agreements. As we have committed to seeking continuity in the effects of existing agreements, the impact of the transition should be neutral on all parts of the UK.

In relation to consultation with the devolved Administrations, as we have laid out frequently on Second Reading and in Committee, the Department for International Trade ensures that each of its Ministers, as well as directors and other senior officials, visit the devolved Administrations regularly and continually look for further opportunities to engage with a range of stakeholders across the UK.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade and Investment)

The Minister will forgive me if I find his comments somewhat ironic given what has been in the press over the last couple of days about impact assessments. Does it not seem reasonable that the Joint Ministerial Committee—which, as my hon. Friend says, is already in place—should have a sub-committee? He may think that as things stand there may not be an impact on the devolved nations, but I am sure that, like the rest of us, he does not have a crystal ball. Would it not make sense to put into legislation the ability for the devolved nations to have a sub-committee of the JMC to make it the best possible legislation that it can be?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 6:30, 30 January 2018

I accept the hon. Lady’s intervention, and she makes a case, but my point is that it is not necessary to have the review. These are existing agreements that, in a huge number of cases, are already in place. Some have been in place for a long time. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun says that an additional review process will be simple and effective, but I am not quite so sure. For example, the amendment makes neither reference to the intended product of such a review—how the review process would work—nor to the continued role of the devolved Administrations in the review after it has been reported.

I think it is much better that we stick with our position of consulting frequently and engaging with the devolved Administrations, without an extra review of agreements that are already in place. We have been clear that we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations as we transition these agreements, therefore we do not need to commit this kind of review to legislation. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the clause.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade

It is appropriate to once again read out the long title of the Bill:

“To make provision about the implementation of international trade agreements”.

Everything that the Minister is saying ignores that the scope of the Bill precisely admits that we should be able to put into statute the procedure that the hon. Members for Livingston and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun have suggested.

The Minister has told the Committee that the Government

“will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations as we transition our current agreements” and that:

“The Department for International Trade engages regularly with the devolved Administrations”.––[Official Report, Trade Public Bill Committee, 25 January 2018; c. 128.]

It is therefore surprising that the Government have not proposed any formal engagement procedure to ensure a statutory footing for consultation on the issues presented by the Bill—particularly given the Government’s approach to consultation thus far, which has been little more than lip service and press releases. An example of that was when the consultation for the Bill closed on 6 November and the Bill was published a few hours later on the morning of 7 November.

Modern trade agreements have extensive coverage, with chapters setting out substantial provisions in a range of areas, many of which might well be considered to touch upon matters that otherwise would be within the competence of the devolved authorities. We have gone over this ground in previous sittings, when we considered how trade agreements impact on our fishing industry, food standards, services regulation, agriculture, public services, procurement and so on. The day-to-day oversight and administration thereof may be wholly within aspects of devolved competence; however, the obligations that arise from a trade agreement might require changes to the way that those matters are managed. A question might then arise regarding when such a matter ceases to be a trade matter within the exclusive competence of the UK and becomes a matter within the competence of the respective devolved Administration.

That is why many other countries have set out formal consultation frameworks with their own constituent administrations, which may also have a degree of devolved competence. Indeed, the United States has such an engagement process to ensure that state-level representations can be fed into the negotiating process—albeit it is a process that is subject to controversy in various states that have sought to implement a much more robust consultation process, and have derailed the extension of the fast-track trade negotiating authority.

Canada has a similar process in order to ensure that, once an agreement has been concluded using the federal Government’s exclusive competence, it does not come unstuck at implementation stage. In his response to questions about the need for stakeholder engagement as early as possible in trade negotiations, our witness, Nick Ashton-Hart, noted that

“the political economy demands that you have the backing, as a negotiator, at home when you are sitting across the table from your counterparties and that they know that you have that…People know that you have to get to a sustainable deal also, and sometimes you have to do a concession at the right time to solve a problem in a domestic constituency for your counterparty”.––[Official Report, Trade Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2018; c. 10, Q12.]

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun touched on the concerns raised by another of our witnesses, Professor Winters of the UK Trade Policy Observatory, who noted that we cannot have a situation in which a trade agreement might be unpicked once it had been concluded. Therefore, he said,

“Parliament and the devolved Administrations need to have an important role in setting mandates, and there need to be consultation and information during the process.”—[Official Report, Trade Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2018; c. 58, Q111.]

The United Kingdom is clearly not unique in facing this matter; that is also the experience of other countries, many of which the Secretary of State is alleged to have identified as prospective gold trading partners. Those very countries may well wish to see a similar framework formally constituted in the UK before we come to the negotiating table. The European Union levelled that request at Canada prior to commencing negotiations on the comprehensive economic and trade agreement. The JMC appears to be an entirely appropriate forum for such consultation in the UK’s case. It would provide us with an off-the-shelf committee with the express purpose of seeking to avoid such complications.

The memorandum of understanding between the UK and the devolved Administrations notes that the four respective Administrations agreed

“to alert each other as soon as practicable to relevant developments within their areas of responsibility, wherever possible, prior to publication”— of course, the GPA, which the Minister did not refer to, is one such case that is quite specifically about implementation within the devolved Administrations’ competence—

“to give appropriate consideration to the views of the other administrations; and…to establish where appropriate arrangements that allow for policies for which responsibility is shared to be drawn up and developed jointly between the administrations.”

Furthermore, in recognition that a commitment to engage may not be sufficient in certain cases, the memorandum of understanding sets out provisions for a formal consultation framework to ensure that engagement on such matters is more than just lip service.

Acknowledging that there will, of course, be matters relating to international issues that will touch on devolved matters, the memorandum of understanding requires the fullest possible engagement on such matters and sets out the framework for the Joint Ministerial Committee. Its terms of reference are

“to consider non-devolved matters which impinge on devolved responsibilities, and devolved matters which impinge on non-devolved responsibilities…where the UK Government and the devolved administrations so agree, to consider devolved matters if it is beneficial to discuss their respective treatment in the different parts of the United Kingdom…to keep the arrangements for liaison between the UK Government and the devolved administrations under review; and…to consider disputes between the administrations.”

The Government could have considered their own appropriate framework or forum for a proper consultation process with the devolved authorities and other key stakeholders in advance of beginning trade negotiations. The Secretary of State has, for example, reconvened the Board of Trade, of which he has appointed himself the president. Of course, for the Board of Trade to be effective, it would likely require significant expansion of its membership. Currently, I believe it has the sum total of one person—namely, the Secretary of State himself.

The creation of a formal consultation forum is essential before and during the negotiating process. In that respect, we will support the new clause. Of course, I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to our new clause 11—I hope it will be considered in a later sitting—which seeks to ensure that the JMC is convened for all trade agreements, including new trade agreements that correspond to existing EU agreements.

I hope that Government Members recognise from the Committee’s deliberations that this Bill contains a serious threat to the powers of the devolved Administrations, and that the installation of an appropriate consultation procedure to address such matters will assist Ministers in concluding agreements. Although this amendment seeks to mitigate any complications that might present at implementation stage after an agreement has been concluded, the Bill still fails to address the very serious concerns about the dilution of the devolved authorities’ powers in matters that may be considered within their devolved competence. In that respect, I ask the Government to address this matter either by supporting the new clause or by way of their own amendments to the Bill before it proceeds, with such amendments making clear that powers afforded to Ministers of the Crown under the Bill will not, and cannot, be used to undermine the rights and powers of the devolved Governments. If the Government do not seek to do that before the Bill progresses to its next stage, I assure the Minister that the Opposition will.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

Very briefly, in response to that long speech I have only three points to make. First, there is no serious threat to the devolved Administrations. What we are talking about is the transition of existing free trade agreements. The hon. Gentleman’s points—his parallels with the United States and so on—seemed to relate entirely to future trade agreements and not to the continuity of existing trade agreements. I also point out to him that the Secretary of State for International Trade has not appointed himself President of the Board of Trade. The Prime Minister has appointed him President of the Board of Trade.

Most importantly, the Bill is all about continuity and the technical transition of existing free trade agreements. The hon. Gentleman’s points seem to relate to future trade agreements, which will be a matter for another day.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

I take on board what the Minister says and know that logically it is correct in theory: this is just the roll-over of existing EU agreements into UK law. However, as the hon. Member for Brent North said, and as we heard from witnesses, there is still a risk that, even in trying to move over existing agreements, some matters come up for renegotiation. It is not crystal clear how matters will pan out and the new clause would at least give the protection of full analysis of the impact on the devolved nations in terms of any adjustments that end up happening in due process when we move over the existing agreements.

We have previously expressed our concerns about the UK Government getting competency in devolved matters, and the new clause would wrap up that aspect. For that reason, I will press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 9, Noes 10.

Division number 32 Caledonian Pinewood Forest — Reviews of grandfathered trade agreements: Joint Ministerial Committee sub-committee

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 8