Examination of Witnesses

Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 16th June 2020.

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George Riddell and Professor L. Alan Winters gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee 2:02 pm, 16th June 2020

Before I welcome the witnesses, I remind everybody to please switch their electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings, but Members can obviously drink water. I also remind Members that the Hansard reporters would be very grateful if they could email electronic copies of their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

We will now take evidence from the first panel. I welcome George Riddell, the director of trade policy at Ernst & Young, who is here in person, and I hope I can welcome Alan Winters of the UK Trade Policy Observatory. I think Charlotte Nichols wants to make a declaration.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I want to declare an interest: my father is the president of the TUC this year.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

Professor Winters, I am Graham Brady, and I am chairing the Committee. I know that you cannot see me and we cannot see you, so I am going to make sure everybody lets you know who is speaking to you when they are asking questions and making points.

I thank Professor Winters and Mr Riddell for joining us and helping the deliberations of the Committee. As Chairman, I am entirely independent. I will not be involved in the questioning, but I will be calling others to put their questions to you. I first call Bill Esterson, who is the shadow Minister. Could you introduce yourself before you start?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Thank you, Graham. I thank both our witnesses. Professor Winters, can you hear me okayQ30 ?

Professor Winters:

I can if I concentrate hard.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q The first question is to both of you. Can you give an outline of your analysis of the Bill and any gaps in it that you think might be rectified?

Professor Winters:

In general, the Bill is trying to do sensible things in a basically sensible way. The issues that arise are about whether or not it is drafted in a way that would allow it to be used for things beyond these intentions.

For instance, it says that the Government do not expect to make major changes with this Bill, yet the procedures that it will set up might allow a Government that wished to do so to make really quite dramatic changes through secondary legislation. As we know, and you know better than me, secondary legislation is not typically challenged. For instance, under the GPA—the agreement on government procurement—if I understand it correctly, the Government have the power to make changes in the coverage of the agreement. A lot of that is about new members, which seems sensible, but if I understand it correctly, it also seems to be about the coverage of sectors within the UK.

When we deal with non-tariff provisions in the trade continuity agreements, for instance, the mutual recognition agreements are very serious bits of trade policy, particularly for services sectors. I think a non-tariff provision would include things like sanitary and phytosanitary regulations and technical barriers to trade. These are mostly governed by EU law at the moment, and in implementing a trade agreement, the Government could change a number of them. Rather than having to bring them back to the legislature as primary legislation, they would actually be able to move through a secondary legislation process, so I think there needs to be a little more attention on the potential spread of the use of this. The Bill can also be extended indefinitely in five-year periods. That seems to me to be not in the spirit of the Bill, which is about cleaning up.

Let me make one last point. The Bill is obviously designed, in terms of trade agreements, to deal with the continuity trade agreements, but there are at least two cases that, so far as I can see, will fall under the Bill and will really go further than just tidying up the details so that trade can continue. The first is UK-Korea. Korea and the UK have signed a continuity trade agreement, but with a commitment to renegotiate a fuller and more ambitious free trade agreement within two years. So far as I can tell, any of that would essentially be covered under this Trade Bill. Similarly with Japan, we do not really know what the Government intend to discuss with the Japanese Government, but the analysis that we got last month was—what shall we say?—studiously unspecific. Essentially, it reads as if it is going to be basically a new agreement; in a sense, the table is blank, and stuff will be put on or taken off. However, so far as I can tell, because Japan had an agreement with the EU on 31 January, it will be covered by the Trade Bill. Korea and Japan are two major trading partners, and this might not get very much scrutiny, essentially because you can undertake quite major changes under the heading of the Bill, which I interpreted largely as a tidying-up Bill.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q Thank you, Professor Winters. Before I ask George Riddell to answer the same questions, I will ask a couple of follow-ups to what you said. You spoke about the GPA, and I think you mentioned changes in coverage of sectors in the UK. What did you mean by that?

Professor Winters:

The WTO’s government procurement agreement is restricted to the set of countries that have signed it, so quite a lot of this Bill is about what we do when that set of countries changes: what concessions do we expect from them and offer them? That seems, in a sense, to be fairly uncontentious. The other element of coverage is that the Government lists in the annexes to the government procurement agreement the sectors, and the thresholds for procurement in those sectors, that will be open, subject to the GPA’s requirements. I think that the powers in the Bill permit the Government to change that as they will, rather than, given that who you allow to bid for different bits of procurement is a fairly major piece of public policy, having a process that is open to more scrutiny.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q I have one other follow-up question from your initial remarks. You spoke about the implementation of trade agreements and said that the Government could change them without primary legislation. Could you say why you are particularly concerned by that aspect of the legislation?

Professor Winters:

Yes. The traditional way that we have handled trade agreements and, as far as one can tell, the Government’s intention going forward, is to say that the Government negotiate these treaties under the royal prerogative but that, to the extent that they require changes in regulation in domestic law, these will come to Parliament. In cases where that would normally be primary legislation, those changes will have to be made by Parliament through the processes for primary legislation.

What this Bill does—and it is the same in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—is say that a number of things can be changed by secondary legislation, even though they were originally set out under EU procedures through routes for primary legislation. It potentially brings to Ministers a number of issues one would generally expect to have the full scrutiny of Parliament. It would be a process that allows a little bit of scrutiny, the affirmative process, which, de facto, does not seem to result in very much. Again, in a sense, the worry is not that one might need these powers to tidy up a clause here or there, but that, in fact, quite serious issues would suddenly fall to the discretion of the Minister.

One of my colleagues, Emily Lydgate, has investigated this on environmental regulations under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, and it is fairly alarming. As far as I can see, one could fall into that situation through the Trade Bill in the sense that the Japanese or Korean trade agreement could agree something that would normally be subject to primary legislation within the UK but that can now be handled with secondary legislation under the cover of the Trade Bill.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q I would like to ask George Riddell to answer the opening question. Feel free to pick up any of what Professor Winters has said.

George Riddell:

Thank you; it is a pleasure to be here. I would characterise the Bill as creating the baseline of the UK’s trade policy. It tries to continue the basic trading conditions for rest-of-world trade that UK business currently enjoys.

That includes the continuity agreements. A lot of people, when commenting on those agreements, go straight to the tariffs: “If you don’t have a continuity agreement, you’ll face tariffs; if you do, it will continue as it currently is.” For the services sector, which I represent, there are also important establishment provisions within the services trade chapters of those agreements and mobility provisions that allow business travellers to travel between the UK and those third countries to supply services. The discussion about the continuity agreements and ensuring that the UK is able to continue to trade past 31 December this year is therefore wider.

The same goes for the government procurement agreement. The UK has enjoyed the status of the government procurement agreement at the WTO since its creation in 1995, although its membership of that particular agreement came through the European Union.

I will pick up two points that Professor Winters talked about. First, yes, new members join the GPA on a fairly regular basis. There are a number of ongoing accessions to the agreement, some with shorter timeframes than others. It is right that there is provision for the agreement to expand, as it naturally does, at the WTO. The other point is about the coverage and the entities. The UK list of covered entities is rather out of date. Many current Government Departments are not listed as part of coverage under the GPA, so the list is very outdated. Therefore, even if the thresholds the UK has signed up to as part of the GPA are not changed, there is a need for a technical update of the UK’s commitment to reflect the current machinery of government.

We are also establishing the TRA and bringing back powers from the Commission in Brussels to establish a trade remedies regime here in the UK. On the statistics front, which is very important in making trade policy, I would flag the interest in improving the trade in services statistics for the UK. Trade in services statistics are notoriously unreliable, and powers in the Bill could be used to make the UK a leader in how we measure services trade in this country and globally.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q Thank you for that. To compare what you and Professor Winters said about the update of the entities under the GPA provisions, you referred to what you termed “technical updates” on things like the names of Government Departments, whereas Professor Winters spoke about more substantive areas of change, such as environmental ones. Will you pick up the concern that he raised about the need for additional scrutiny and the expectation that there would be a more detailed approach than mere technical updates?

George Riddell:

If I understood correctly, Professor Winters’ point was about the potential for including new entities on the list and going further than the UK’s current commitments with regard to the GPA, leaving the continuity agreements question to one side. There are two aspects here. From my understanding of discussions in Geneva, they have been very focused on understanding what the UK’s current machinery of government looks like and how that could be represented as part of its GPA commitments. Certainly, the Government have said, from my understanding, that they do not intend to change the scope of the commitments, even if technical updates are necessary. I would not want to go further than that.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Hello, Mr Riddell. Thanks for coming. I hope that the Committee will bear with me, as this is slightly out of the scope of the Bill, but I was particularly intrigued by the point that you made about measuring our trade and exports in services better. You alluded to a way to become a global leader. What would good look like in that space, as we look to get the Bill through and then move on to the next phase?Q

George Riddell:

Two initiatives have been undertaken recently. One is that the Office for National Statistics has launched its experimental trade in services datasets, which it is looking to continually improve. Anything that supported that initiative would certainly look good. For the past Trade Bill, in the previous Parliament, a number of organisations, such as TheCityUK, put forward written evidence with more concrete suggestions. I do not have that with me, unfortunately, but I am happy to share it.

Coming to the point on the data being notoriously unreliable, both the US and the UK claim that they have a trade surplus in services with each other. There have been a number of attempts by statisticians on both sides to try to bottom out why that might be the case. It goes to show that, often, trade in services statistics are indicative and a good rule of thumb, but putting too much faith in them is not necessarily a wise move.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Professor Winters, you were talking earlier about how the procedures, as set up, would allow the Government to set up major changes through secondary legislation without, perhaps, sufficient scrutiny. What powers do you believe Parliament should have in that situation over the Trade Bill?Q

Professor Winters:

I confess that I do not know how to draft it in legislation, but I would suggest that one has something in the Bill that gives concrete form to the statements that we have that the Government expect not to use it to make major changes, and that such changes would come with primary legislation. At a practical level, one would need some sort of early-stage scrutiny to identify issues that were mere technicalities or minor issues, and to flag up larger issues that might require primary legislation.

I am afraid I am not a draftsman. I do not know how to write that, but it seems to me that that is what we require. This is a very sensible, pragmatic tidying-up Bill, but it seems to have loose ends that might, under some circumstances, lead to places other than those that the Bill says it is intended to cover, and more than the House would wish.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

Mr Riddell, you touched on services. I was thinking about the OECD report on what will happen to the economy. One of the reasons we will be particularly badly hit is the reliance on services, albeit that we will rebound quicker in the second year. I wonder what you think the consequences of not having the Bill would be for the service sector, which you are a member of.Q

George Riddell:

In terms of the service sector, I would say that the two biggest elements are definitely the continuity agreements and the government procurement agreement. The government procurement agreement, although it largely covers goods, has several services provisions in it that are particularly important for small and medium-sized enterprises that operate cross-border government procurement contracts.

On the continuity agreements, it is difficult to say exactly, because there is different coverage in each of the continuity agreements for different service sectors. Broadly speaking, you have the horizontal elements in the more advanced trade agreements, such as that with Korea, which covers investment and establishment for service providers, and additional mobility provisions for short-term business visitors and the suppliers of services.

There are also, in some of those agreements, additional commitments on the digital economy, and how the UK and the third country can co-operate in order to foster more digital trade, which is of growing importance, particularly in the light of the pandemic that we are experiencing. I know that many of the people here have dialled in or participated remotely in these sittings, so it is a very pertinent topic for the service sector.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

My question is to both contributors; thank you very much for coming. It is about our trade with developing countries. Looking specifically at sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which Professor Winters mentioned and which can be used as trade barriers, but also looking in general, could the Bill be detrimental for developing countries, and how could it be improved to complement our poverty reduction commitments?Q

Professor Winters:

I do not see strong and direct implications for our relationship with developing countries. Most of the countries with which we are signing these continuity agreements are, in fact, developing countries. I think the issue again, essentially, is that the Minister has powers to make regulations concerning non-tariff provisions, and some of those regulations could indeed rebound to the disadvantage of the countries we are dealing with—those on the other side. For instance, if we have issues surrounding conditions of entry for particular goods, the Bill might be used to tighten those up.

Having said that, the agreements we have with the developing countries—the continuity agreements—have genuinely continued, so far as they can, trade relations with those countries. There are some complications that are not in our gift, such as rules of origin, but I understand that the agreements that have been signed already under the heading of continuity trade agreements have made no changes, so far as access to the UK economy is concerned.

There is nothing I have seen in the Bill that is specific to developing countries that raises an alarm, but on the other hand, it is not clear that trade with developing countries is exempt from my residual nervousness about what the Bill might be used for under less satisfactory circumstances.

George Riddell:

One thing that I am keen to emphasise is how the UK’s trading relationship with developing countries is split across the continuity agreements contained in the Bill and the customs Act, which gives effect to the generalised system of preferences and duty-free, quota-free access for least-developed-country exporters. You have the continuity agreements under this Bill, but there are also very important trade provisions in the customs Act, and making sure that they are aligned and work together to support developing countries’ trade into the UK is very important.

As for your question about SPS measures specifically, in my experience of working in developing countries and looking at how they trade, one of the biggest things is meeting food standards, health standards and environmental standards. The UK does capacity building very well through DFID—pending recent announcements today—and through programmes such as aid for trade in developing countries, in order to allow businesses and exporters to take advantage of the provisions in the trade agreements and EPAs.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Professor Winters, much of the debate so far has focused on continuity agreements, but I want to take you to new free trade agreements, which are another area of contention in the Bill. Will you compare the process for scrutiny of new free trade agreements, for example with the US, under the CRAG process with the processes of scrutiny in other Parliaments, including the US CongressQ ?

Professor Winters:

I am not a huge fan of the process that we have under the CRAG, which seems to me to allow the Executive a bit too much scope to do things unscrutinised—

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

We will try to find out whether we still have Professor Winters. Mr Thomas is there something you would like to pursue?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I would very much like to hear what he has to say. [Interruption.]

Professor Winters:

I did not catch all of your question. With the process we would be using for, say, the agreement with the US, my honest preference is that we would set up a system for new trade agreements that involved more formal consultation and more reporting back to Parliament than is obligatory under the CRAG. In one sense, I see the Trade Bill offering an even easier route for Executive decisions than the standard CRAG procedure, and I do not think that will really give us enough scope for bringing Parliament and the people along.

I think the issue, essentially, is that if this was abused in order to try to introduce major changes, there would be even less defence. There is no commitment to discuss, consult and so on, and the Minister is being granted extensive secondary legislative powers. Under the CRAG, although the treaty has to be approved through an affirmative process, if changes in domestic law are required to implement it as a new trade agreement, it would potentially have to go through primary legislation. As far as I can tell, that is not required here for any of the continuity agreements.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Q To follow up on that, I want to ask you to compare what would be envisaged under CRAG for future FTAs with what happens in other countries’ Parliaments in terms of the scrutiny of free trade agreements.

Professor Winters:

In general, most other countries have processes that involve more formally required consultation and rather more engagement with the legislature as the process goes through. For instance, in the USA there is a whole series of trade advisory committees—I think that is what they are called—which the Government speak to on a confidential basis. There is formal approval of a mandate, particularly if they want to do something on fast-track.

Those are things we do not have in the UK. We do not yet have a completely definitive statement about how these things will be handled, but essentially the CRAG process is fairly light on scrutiny and consultation. Compared with Australia, the US and Canada—where there is, if not constitutionally, at least informally a good deal of consultation with the provinces—we have a system that allows the Government rather more discretion.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

We have to conclude by 2.40 pm, so I think this will be the last question.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

I want to pick up those points with both of you. You were referring, Professor Winters, to the US trade rep approach, whereby they go out, engage and consult and then set the parameters of what the negotiation objectives should be. For the purposes of clarity, do you think that setting that up is a massive missing piece in this legislation, as it would enable visible parliamentary involvement and the involvement of relative organisations, such as trade unions, sectors and devolved powers, to establish buy-in and engagement? If it is missing, should it now be put back in?Q

Professor Winters:

For the Trade Bill, which is presented as a piece of legislation to make it feasible to roll over the continuity agreements that we are trying only to roll over and not to change—we have already joined the GPA and are not trying to change our schedule—you do not necessarily need a huge apparatus. If we get into a situation where the Trade Bill is used to make quite dramatic differences to the arrangement with Korea or to make essentially a new agreement with Japan, it is unfortunate that there would be less of an obligation to consult the devolved Administrations, parts of the legislature and stakeholders. The solution is not so much to nail those processes on to the side of the Trade Bill, as to try to find a way to ensure that the Trade Bill is not used for purposes that involve a major change relative to the status quo.

George Riddell:

I agree with many of the comments made by Professor Winters and would add two additional points. The first is on consultation and its importance. Not only does it help the UK to identify what its offensive and defensive interests are and how best to achieve them through negotiations; it also helps to build political support. The thing that businesses want when they are looking to use trade agreements is the certainty that, when they make an investment under the provisions, in five, 10 or 15 years they will continue to be able to trade under the terms of that trade agreement. By not having wide consultation and the necessary support, it calls into question that certainty. The question of scrutiny and everything else is for this House and this Committee, but from a business perspective, we want widespread support for the trade agreements so that they can continue into the future.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

Can I ask a 20-second supplementary, Chair?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q In your view, both of you, would UK-US negotiations be covered by this Bill?

George Riddell:

My understanding from reading the Bill is that it covers the continuity agreements that existed between the EU and third countries.

Professor Winters:

Is somebody trying to get my attention? I am afraid you all faded away.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

Sorry, I was just asking whether you feel that the Bill covers the current UK-US negotiations.

Professor Winters:

As I understand it, the Bill does not cover current negotiations with the US. It is restricted to those countries that had agreements with the European Union on 31 January this year.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

That brings us neatly to the end of the time allotted for questions to these witnesses. I thank both of the witnesses, Mr Riddell here in person and Professor Winters struggling with technology to join us. It is very kind of you both to assist. Thank you very much.

We will have a brief suspension while we engineer the next session.

Sitting suspended.