International trade disputes

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:30 pm, 16th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 94, page 76, line 33, at end insert—

“(2) The Government must lay before the House of Commons by 9 September 2020 a statement of the conditions under which it would consider it appropriate to vary rates of import duty under this Section.”

This amendment would require the Government to state the conditions under which it would consider it appropriate to vary rates of import duty in an international trade dispute.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 15, in clause 94, page 76, line 33, at end insert—

“(2) No regulations under this section may be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.”

This amendment would require the Government to seek the approval of the House before making regulations varying rates of import duty in an international trade dispute.

Amendment 16, in clause 94, page 76, line 33, at end insert—

“(2) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, no later than a month before any exercise of the power in subsection (1), lay before the House of Commons a report containing the following—

(a) an assessment of the fiscal and economic effects of the exercise of the powers in subsection (1);

(b) a comparison of those fiscal and economic effects with the effects of the UK being within the EU Customs Union;

(c) an assessment any differences in the exercise of those powers in respect of—

(i) England,

(ii) Scotland,

(iii) Wales, and

(iv) Northern Ireland; and

(d) an assessment of any differential effects in relation to the matters specified in paragraphs (a) and (b) between—

(i) England,

(ii) Scotland,

(iii) Wales, and

(iv) Northern Ireland.”

This would require a review of the economic and fiscal impact of the use of the powers in section 94 including comparing those effects with EU Customs Union membership.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:45 pm, 16th June 2020

This is a small clause in the Bill, but hidden within it is the Government’s intention to set the conditions under which they would consider it appropriate to vary the rates of import duty in an international trade dispute. With amendments 14 to 16, we seek to amend clause 94 because we are concerned that it gives the Government a huge amount of additional power, with which they will avoid scrutiny. The explanatory notes state that the clause

“replaces the requirement for ‘authorisation’ with a requirement to have regard to international obligations.”

The Government need to explain why they feel they need the additional power, what the safeguards to it will be and why they think it is appropriate at this time.

Trade wars are damaging and should be very much a last resort. If the Government intend to take such actions, they deserve the scrutiny of the House. It should not just be about what the Secretary of State deems to be appropriate. I remind Members of the dispute affecting the Scotch whisky industry in Scotland, which is facing a 25% tariff because of US actions regarding Airbus and Boeing. Disputes have spillover effects that affect other parts of the economy, so we need a good understanding of why the Government are seeking these powers.

Amendment 14 would force the Government, by 9 September 2020, to set out the conditions under which they would breach international law to engage in a trade war. If none exist, they can surely remove the clause from the Bill. If there are conditions under which they would jeopardise our economic prosperity, the House deserves to know. Amendment 15 would require Commons approval before Ministers could follow such an irresponsible course of action. Brexit campaigners said they wanted to restore parliamentary sovereignty. If that is the case, the Government should accept that Parliament must have a say in such important matters.

Amendment 16 would force UK Ministers, no later than a month before any exercise of power, to make an economic assessment of the implications of the power and compare it with the economic health that the UK would be enjoying within the EU customs union. Ensuring that the public are informed of the impact of such an act of economic vandalism should not be controversial. We were promised a veritable land of milk and honey during the EU referendum campaign, so we certainly deserve to see the truth about these kinds of actions. The Government must explain why they think it is important to remove that authorisation and allow the Secretary of State to do what they want without the check and balance of this House.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The Opposition have considerable sympathy with the hon. Lady’s arguments and the amendments tabled by the SNP. We have many concerns about clause 94, which seems buried, given that it is of such considerable importance for the years ahead.

The change to the language in section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 has worrying implications for the Government’s adherence to the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement system. Replacing the requirement for authorisation under international law with the more nebulous consideration of appropriateness is extremely concerning, and implies that the Government may seek to sidestep international law regarding trade disputes. The matters set out in section 28 of the 2018 Act already give the Government considerable flexibility over what they consider to be appropriate action in the light of international law. It is effectively up to the Secretary of State to decide which international agreements are relevant to the exercise of the function. Loosening up the language even further in this clause is thus highly questionable.

The proposed changes seemingly downgrade the Secretary of State’s responsibilities when it comes to their international obligations. Having regard is nowhere near as onerous as having authorisation. That would allow the Secretary of State to operate at a much lower standard of requirement, and move away from recognised EU standards. We therefore seek to understand the reasoning behind the change. What is wrong with the current provisions regarding the variation of import duties in trade disputes?

There are further questions to which we seek answers from the Government. What will they use the clause for? It does not detail what kind of dispute is in question. How might the Trade Remedies Authority be involved in the decision-making process? Could this be an upshot of the digital services tax? The US has already found similar measures by France to be trade-restrictive, leaving the office of the United States trade representative to authorise retaliatory tariffs, as we discussed last week in Committee with reference to the digital services tax. While both parties are in the process of reaching a deal over the matter, it is possible that the Government wish to introduce this clause in preparation for a similar confrontation with the US. I hope the Minister can assure us that that is not the case, but why do the Government wish to reduce their responsibilities in adhering to international law?

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and her colleagues go some way towards responding to that. The production of a report by the Chancellor no later than a month before any exercise of the power regarding the economic impact of such an action might enable Parliament to better scrutinise the actions taken through the clause. As it stands, other than through the scrutiny of primary legislation, Parliament has little say over international trade. I welcome the amendment to seek approval of any regulations deriving from the clause by resolution of the House of Commons, in the spirit of parliamentary scrutiny. However, the Government hold a considerable majority, and therefore I question how far the amendment would go in practice towards ensuring that the Government act in accordance with international law.

I welcome the amendment regarding the requirement for the Government to detail the conditions under which they would consider it appropriate to vary the rates of import duty under the clause. However, I believe that the implications of the wider clause are of significance and that the Government ought to provide these details during debate, rather than by September, although we are sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment. I stress that I would like the Minister, when he responds to the hon. Lady’s concerns, to explain the reasoning behind this change, what kinds of disputes the clause would cover, and whether the Trade Remedies Authority will be involved.

If the changes in the clause are in anticipation of a dispute with the US over the digital services tax, does this not involve giving the Government permission to ignore international trade rules when disputes arise, undermining the authority of the WTO in the process? I hope that the Minister will provide assurances on the issue of appropriateness and respond to the concerns that the hon. Lady and I have, because this is a significant change. We have reservations about the measure that the Government are putting forward, and we would like to understand much more about their intentions.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank hon. Members for their comments, and pay tribute to my colleague the Exchequer Secretary for rattling through the clauses we debated earlier with such effectiveness. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central has raised important questions, which I want to address properly, so I will give this issue quite a considerable amount of discussion because it is an important aspect of the Bill.

Clause 94 makes a change to the criteria in section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 to ensure that the UK can vary the amount of import duty in the context of an international trade dispute. Provisions in various international trade agreements allow for the UK to vary the amount of import duty applied to goods in the context of an international trade dispute. There is existing provision in section 15 of the 2018 Act that gives the Secretary of State the power to

“make regulations varying the amount of import duty” where

“a dispute or other issue has arisen between Her Majesty’s government…and the government of a country or territory”.

Currently, section 15 of the 2018 Act is worded in a way that could be interpreted to mean that a binding ruling of the World Trade Organisation is needed before the UK can impose a duty, which would be restrictive. In certain circumstances, countries are within their WTO rights to impose additional tariffs quickly in relation to the actions of other WTO members and, where necessary, outside of WTO dispute proceedings.

In addition, since section 15 of the 2018 Act was enacted, there have been developments in the wider sphere of trade policy, including increasing trade protectionism and problems with the WTO dispute settlement system. The WTO appellate body has stopped functioning, and it has now become possible for final and binding resolution of a WTO dispute to be blocked by a party to the dispute by appealing a panel report. That means it may not be possible to apply retaliatory duties, even where a panel report has found in the complaining body’s favour and the respondent has failed to bring itself into compliance.

Against this background, it is essential to ensure that the UK has the appropriate tools to respond to any unilateral measure or action taken by a WTO member that is not compatible with its obligations to the UK and that harms UK interests. Clause 94 therefore amends the original provision to ensure that, after having regard to relevant international arrangements, the Government may deal with such an issue by varying the amount of import duty. The EU is seeking similar powers, it should be noted, through amendments to its enforcement regulation, because it too recognises the importance of being able to respond quickly in the event of illegal measures being taken against it. What we are talking about is therefore in parallel to a process seeking similar powers within the EU.

At present, section 15 of the 2018 Act permits variation of import duty only where the UK is authorised under international law to deal with the issue. Clause 94 will amend section 15 to allow the Government to vary import duty where they consider it appropriate, having regard to relevant matters, including the UK’s international obligations, as set out in section 28 of the 2018 Act. That amendment will allow the UK to respond more effectively to developments in the international trading system, in line with international laws and our rights as an independent WTO member.

To come to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, there are a number of situations in which it would be appropriate to vary rates of import duty. The most likely situation is that in which the UK has successfully challenged another WTO member’s measures in the WTO dispute settlement system, and the other member has failed to bring itself into compliance. The UK could then impose retaliatory measures, including higher import duty against the other member. That is not contrary to and does not undermine the international rule of law; it insists on the international rule of law, in the face of measures that could disable it.

Import duty variations might also be imposed following a dispute brought under a free trade agreement or in the context of a WTO member applying a safeguard measure but failing to agree an adequate level of trade compensation for the adverse effects caused by the measure. It is also possible that the UK could lose a dispute under a free trade agreement and could agree compensation with another country. The compensation could take the form of lower import duty on certain goods.

In each of those circumstances, the Government are still required by the 2018 Act to have regard to our international arrangements that are relevant to the exercise of this power. It need hardly be said that the UK strongly supports the rules-based international trading system and appropriate enforcement of WTO agreements. It is because appropriate enforcement would be otherwise lacking that this clause is being brought into effect.

Amendment 14 would require the Government to state the conditions in which they would consider it appropriate to vary rates of import duty. As you will know, Ms McDonagh, international trade disputes are broad and varied, depending on the nature of the international agreement under which they are conducted and on the subject matter of the dispute. It would limit the Government’s ability to respond effectively in a particular dispute if they were required to list in advance conditions for varying import duty in a dispute. I have already set out several situations in which it would be appropriate to vary rates of import duty. Examples have also been provided in the explanatory notes to both the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 and the Finance Bill.

Amendment 15 would require the Government to seek the approval of the House of Commons before making regulations varying rates of import duty in an international trade dispute. It is important to say that clause 94 is not an unchecked power. Any specific tariff measure introduced under section 15 of the 2018 Act would require secondary legislation, as is prescribed in that Act. The requirements set out in amendment 15 are therefore not necessary. Secondary legislation will involve the public passage of a piece of legislation. The Government need flexibility to respond effectively to state-to-state disputes, but with the understanding that they must have regard to the international arrangements to which the UK is party.

Amendment 16 would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lay before the House of Commons a report containing an assessment of the economic and fiscal effects of the exercise of the powers in clause 94, including a comparison of those fiscal and economic impacts with the effect of the UK being within the EU customs union, and an assessment of any differences in the exercise or effects of those powers in respect of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Information on the expected impacts of import duty variations will be provided in the documentation accompanying any and each statutory instrument. However, it would not be appropriate to publish extensive detail, because doing so could undermine the effectiveness of the UK’s response. It would also not be appropriate to compare the economic and fiscal impact of the use of the powers in clause 94 with EU customs union membership. First, the EU may not itself have a dispute with the WTO member against which the UK has brought an action. Secondly, even if the EU were applying retaliatory measures against that WTO member, the EU’s retaliatory tariffs would be based on the impact on the EU27 and would not take into account impacts on UK industries and sectors. The amendment would therefore invite the Governments and others to compare apples with oranges.

Amendment 16 would place a reporting requirement on the Chancellor; however, it is the Secretary of State for International Trade who will utilise the power to make regulations varying tariffs in order to deal with a trade dispute or other issue, as is stipulated in section 15 of the 2018 Act. It would not be appropriate to require the Chancellor to lay a report when it is the Secretary of State who is responsible for making the regulations.

Clause 94 makes an amendment to section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 that is needed to ensure that the UK can respond to developments in the international system, in line with international laws and the UK’s rights as a WTO member. To be clear, this measure does not impose any new import duties. Changes to import duties would require secondary legislation. It is needed because of the evolution in the trade and policy context that I have described, and it is designed to uphold our rights and the proper exercise of what amounts to international law in a context where the existing mechanisms are not functioning adequately. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee, and ask that it rejects amendments 14, 15 and 16.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:00 pm, 16th June 2020

Although the Minister spoke for a long time, he did not get to the nub of why the clause is necessary, what safeguards are in place, and why the requirement for authorisation is replaced with a requirement to have regard to international obligations. I will press my amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 5 Finance Bill — International trade disputes

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 15, in clause 94, page 76, line 33, at end insert—

“(2) No regulations under this section may be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.”—

This amendment would require the Government to seek the approval of the House before making regulations varying rates of import duty in an international trade dispute.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 6 Finance Bill — International trade disputes

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.