Q91 Bear with us, David. Tom West is just taking his seat before I formally start the evidence session.
Welcome, and thank you very much for coming. Thank you, Tom—lovely to see you—and thank you, David. Could you start by introducing yourselves? Let us start with Tom.
Thank you for inviting me. It is really good to be here, if slightly surreal; it is my first time out of the house for a while.
My name is Tom West. I work for an environmental law non-governmental organisation called ClientEarth. We are interested in the implications of the Bill and trade policy in general on the environment. The way we see it, there are a number of ways in which trade policy can affect the environment, directly and indirectly, in terms of the quality of goods we are trading, but also in terms of how our trade rules affect how able we are to meet our important environmental commitments.
At the moment, the UK has this great opportunity. It has this great chance to redefine and refresh how trade policy is designed. A lot of trade policy is quite old—years and decades old—and was not written in a time when the global environmental challenges, like climate change and biodiversity loss, were understood to the same extent. It is very well established now that there is a real urgent need to take action here. We think there is a chance for the UK to refresh the approach to reflect that and to move us forwards as global leaders in that area.
Good morning, everyone. My name is David Lawrence and I am the senior political advisor at the Trade Justice Movement. We represent 60 NGOs, faith groups and trade unions that have an interest in trade issues. Our group has done a lot of work on international development and the relationship between that and trade agreements, but obviously our focus recently has been on post-Brexit trade agreements and the UK’s new independent trade policy. We have previously given a lot of evidence on parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements, which I would like to talk about today, if possible. I also very much share Tom’s concerns about upholding environmental standards and using trade in an environmentally sustainable way, so I will touch on that as well.
Thank you, Ms Cummins. Good morning, Tom and David. Tom, you just talked about the chance to redefine trade agreements. For starters, can you talk us through the government procurement agreement and the continuity trade agreements? What is your view of what the Bill does in both areas? Do you have any concerns, and is there anything you would like to add to the Bill in those areas?Q
Sure. I will focus on the continuity trade agreements and what is being done there. It is worth saying at the outset that it is sensible to try to roll over and maintain where we are, as a starting point. It is also important to see that as a starting point as to where we are and where we want to go. The process gone through there demonstrates the need for, first, a better approach to scrutiny and oversight for how we conduct and design our trade policy. Secondly, there is the point about saying, “Let’s review and refresh.” With the continuity agreements in particular, there is a need to put in place mechanisms to review those in due course and to check up on them and say, “Are these delivering the economic things we need from the trade agreements but also, importantly, the environmental issues that we need to deliver on?” If we want to become a global leader in environmental issues, we need to think about what that means for all areas of policy. We cannot simply rely on directly environmental ways to deliver those. Let’s look at those and see: are these the sorts of trade agreements that are working from an environmental point of view? Are they encouraging the right sort of trade and the right sorts of goods and services? And are they allowing us to take the actions we will need to take to fight climate change and reverse biodiversity decline?
As I said earlier, parliamentary scrutiny is a big concern for us. When the Trade Bill was first introduced, which was a while ago now, it was billed as an open conversation on scrutiny and a new framework for how trade could be done, but in fact we see nothing new on parliamentary scrutiny, and so far the Government have not seemed to be very open to having that conversation or to listening to proposals for how scrutiny should operate. That is not just our concern; it is shared by a lot of other NGOs and businesses, and indeed by many MPs. The UK currently uses a pretty archaic form of treaty scrutiny that dates back to the first world war. It was designed to deal with secret defence treaties between European powers. Today’s trade agreements are a million miles from that. They cover a huge range of policy areas—from food standards and environmental regulations, to NHS prices and digital services. We think it is completely inappropriate to expect that MPs should have no say in how those deals are made.
It is also worth noting that that is an issue that many members of the general public are concerned about. If you think back to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP—the proposed EU-US trade deal—you will see that one of the reasons it collapsed was that people were not happy about the idea that these important talks were happening behind closed doors and that their own elected representatives did not have much of a say over them. In Westminster, MPs have less of a say over trade deals than MEPs in Brussels or, indeed, Members of Congress in Washington DC.
If I am honest, I think lots of people would be quite surprised and shocked to learn that their own elected MPs do not have a say over these trade agreements, the new deals we are doing with the EU, the US, Australia and Japan, or the new ones announced yesterday. It is not clear who people are meant to write to or who represents them and their interests when they are concerned about how these deals might affect their livelihoods, the food they buy or, as Tom mentioned, environmental standards and principles.
For us, scrutiny is an absolute priority. We also want to use trade to maintain high standards. We have concerns about the GPA and the way that public procurement works, but scrutiny is absolutely the priority. If we do not have that, there is no way Parliament can make sure that trade in the future meets with those high standards, and there is no democratic representation or transparency.
There is a scrutiny concern that is specific to public procurement as well—making sure that Parliament has a role, that there are democratic processes involved—and there is a standards concern to ensure that procurement can be used in a way that maintains standards. The Government have this levelling up agenda and the idea that post-Brexit Britain will support parts of the country that are not doing so well economically. Procurement is an opportunity to support those areas as well. As we have seen with covid, all sorts of big questions are raised around global supply chains. One of the immediate effects of covid was countries putting in place things like export controls and wanting to localise their supply chains. Procurement is one of the many tools that Governments can use to support local industries in that way and to maintain standards. The more that Parliament has a say over that process, the better.
From our perspective, there are four elements to an ideal scrutiny procedure. First, before negotiations begin, we think there ought to be a full debate, with a vote on the negotiation objectives, and that ought to be written into law. At the moment, the Government can grant a debate, if they want to—and they have done so, at very short notice, as some of you will remember, I am sure, on the US objectives and the EU objectives—but we want a guaranteed debate and vote on the objectives. Secondly, during negotiations, there should be regular reports back to Parliament on the progress of those negotiations, and, ideally, publication of texts from each negotiation round. That is a practice that is done elsewhere: the EU has updates during negotiations. As I am sure all of you are aware, MPs are very much left in the dark. At the moment, US and EU negotiations are going on, but we rely on leaks, essentially, and reports from Brussels or from DC because there is no formal process for reporting back.
Thirdly, after negotiations there should be a debate and a vote on the final deal to approve it. Again, that is something that happens in the US Congress and in the European Parliament. We do not have that guaranteed. The only way we can get a debate and a vote on a trade agreement is if the Opposition force a debate on it during an Opposition day within a 21-day sitting period. As you all know, it is not guaranteed that there will be an Opposition day that falls in that period, and if there is, the Opposition may decide to use it for other things. The Government are proposing a lot of new trade agreements, so the current system is not reliable in terms of ensuring that debate and vote on the deal.
Fourthly, throughout this whole process we would like to see public consultation and independent impact assessment. There have been some half-hearted attempts at that. I sit on one of the expert trade advisory groups at the Department for International Trade, but there is not a well-established, formal process of consultation with actual trade agreements where businesses and NGOs are brought in to comment on and critique the trade agreements themselves. We have not seen that happen yet. Again, that is something that happens in other countries, but the UK is very much behind on this.
Q Before I get Tom West to answer, I have a question for David Lawrence. You talked about the importance of the publication of the negotiation text at the end of each round. Why is that so important? Indeed, why is the process you outlined so important? What sorts of things can go wrong if the level of scrutiny you described is not in place?
It is about public trust. We saw in the TTIP negotiations a lot of distrust that ultimately led to the deal falling apart. If you wanted TTIP to happen—if you want these trade agreements to work—you need the public behind you. If there is not transparency, there will be conspiracy, leaks, theories about what is being discussed, accusations and a lot of uncertainty. That is why it is something that businesses and NGOs are united on: regardless of your view on whether the specific trade deals are good or bad for the economy or society, at least if you have transparency, you know what is being discussed and what is on the table. That is why we are pushing for it, and we have joined the British Chambers of Commerce, the International Chamber of Commerce and the CBI in pushing for that level of transparency. It has been a source of frustration, not just among civil society but also among businesses, that these important deals are supposedly on the way but we do not know what is being discussed at the moment.
We are supportive of the asks and processes David outlined. Greener UK, which is a coalition of environmental organisations, is also a signatory to the document David mentioned. I will just add some extra things around the side.
First, once a trade deal is in place and up and running, there is a need for ongoing scrutiny and involvement of civil society in making sure it is being implemented in the right way. That is crucial looking forward. Secondly, to give a bit more clarity as to the value of this, within the environmental sphere, the value—in fact, the necessity —of public participation is long recognised. The Aarhus convention 1998 enshrines in law that the public must be engaged in the design of policies related to the environment. It is true here as much as in other areas: by involving the people affected by the policies, you get better policies and better buy in.
There is another interesting point on the value of this. Last year the US negotiators said, “Look, we can’t refer to climate in our negotiations”. They were able to point to an Act of Congress and say, “Our hands are bound here. It’s impossible for us to do this”. In that way, a steer and an instruction from Parliament can strengthen our negotiating arm. As I have said, our vision is that the UK uses its blank sheet of paper on trade policy to align its trade policy with its global environmental ambition. Let us get that clear and written down so that our negotiators can point to it and say, “The conversation that we want to have—and, in fact, that we need to have—is around robust implementation of the Paris agreement, meeting our environmental goals”.
Lastly, David mentioned the need for public support: this matters to the public and they care. For me, this goes to the question—and annunciating—what are we going to get from these trade deals? What is the benefit and value to people? That is very much part of the question and review of what our trade policy is for. We have seen various estimates of what a US trade deal might get us, for example, from an economic point of view. The figures sometimes are relatively small. I have seen some say that the benefit in reduction in tariffs might amount to £8 per household per year. If that is the case, we need to understand what that will do for us and what other benefits we might be able to get from a trade policy that is more closely aligned with our environmental ambitions.
Both of you have talked about the US and the deal we have with them, but this Bill is about the continuity of agreements that we already have through the EU. If I understand your criticisms correctly—you can correct me on this—you are saying, Tom, that the agreements we have had through the EU have not been good enough for you, and David, you are saying that agreements we might do in the future with Australia and the US and so on may not be good enough for you.Q
First, given that this is about continuing agreements that we already have, if we sought to change them, they would not really be continuity agreements anymore. Secondly, could you both talk about the counterfactual? If we did not have this Bill or the continuity agreements, what would be the consequences for this country and for those countries in the developing world with which we are seeking these agreements?
I think it is right to say that the Bill itself is focused on those continuation agreements, but in some ways that is symptomatic of the wider problem I am talking about in terms of the lack of an approach that says, “Let’s review and revisit what our trade policy is for and how it should be designed,” with an eye, in particular from our perspective, on what that means in terms of delivering our climate and environmental goals. As a first step, yes, we need to take those sorts of measures and it is sensible to do so, but that is just a first step. That, in and of itself, cannot be the full range of what we should be seeking to achieve when it comes to our approach to trade. However, taking that more ambitious approach requires putting in place certain mechanisms and frameworks. We are talking about scrutiny processes as a key part of that and, in addition, frameworks that seek to guarantee that, through our trade deals, we will be protecting and supporting our delivery of environmental goals by making sure that we retain our right to regulate in environmental matters and doing that thoroughly; that we have non-regression in environmental standards and a meaningful and enforceable commitment to non-regression; and that our import standards match up to our environmental goals.
I think that the EU’s approach to trade needs improvement, yes. This is not just about trying to replicate what the EU is doing in any of these areas. There is scope to do things better, to use this new power to conduct our trade policy in new ways where we can be a world leader and use our seat at the WTO to say, “There is a better way to do these things,” and that is a great opportunity.
Can I just add to that? There are issues around the substance of the agreement, but you can improve the scrutiny processes without necessarily changing the substance of the roll-over agreements, while recognising the importance that those deals are rolled over the before the transition period ends. We work closely with Fairtrade and Traidcraft, which are two of our members. They have direct links to lots of the countries that have the EPA trade agreements—economic partnership agreements—with the EU that are being rolled over. There is a tension because a lot of countries want to change those EPAs—they see Brexit as an opportunity to renegotiate those deals—but there is also a desire for those to be done in time. Our hope is that those things are not completely incompatible and that you can have a new Bill, like the Trade Bill, that implements these agreements while also having a process of scrutiny and an opportunity for countries to reform EPAs where necessary.
In terms of the scope of the Bill, the Bill is about roll-over agreements. It is also about the creation of a Trade Remedies Authority and acceding to the government procurement agreement. Both of those latter two things are about future trade policy. They are not just backward looking—"We need to make sure those things are rolled over”. They are also about the UK’s new trade policy. That is why, for the previous version of the Bill, a number of amendments that were ruled in scope, both in the Commons and in the Lords, were about why the scrutiny process is not just for roll-over agreements but for new agreements as well. Indeed, some of those amendments were successful in the Lords. There is an element of, “If not us, then who, and if not now, then when?” about it as well, because the Government are not proposing any alternative trade legislation at the moment.
This is the only legislative opportunity, as far as we know, to put in place these scrutiny provisions. If the Government want to bring forward a trade framework Bill, or something else where there is an opportunity to have a proper conservation about scrutiny, then fine, but in the absence of that, this Bill should be used to put in place those scrutiny procedures, as with the previous Trade Bill.
If I may add to that quickly, this lacuna that David and I are both describing, in terms of where is this bigger picture of trade policy, comes through in the conversations on the Agriculture Bill as well, where the issue of food import standards is, quite rightly, an important topic for debate. We are saying that what we do around our import standards is going to matter. It will matter for British farmers, but for our environmental impact and overseas footprint too.
Our view is that the Government clearly need to act to put in place those manifesto commitments to not compromise on environmental, animal welfare and food standards. We have seen statements in the media in the past around the Trade Bill being the right place to do this, but at the moment there is nothing in the Bill about it. The Agriculture Bill provides that opportunity as well. Clearly, there is a need to do something on import standards. That is true of food import standards, but it is true more widely as well. It is not just food that we are looking to import, and we need to make sure that that approach is compatible with our domestic environmental ambition and our global environmental ambition too.
Q Could I just push you quickly on the second part of my question, which was on the consequences of not having these continuity agreements? I have heard all the things you would like to see in the Bill and all the future standards. I accept those points from you. What would happen if we did not achieve these continuity agreements that the Bill is designed for?
We have not run the counterfactual of saying what would happen if these had not gone in there. Overall, the idea of continuing those agreements for now, and then looking at them in the round later on, is an approach that makes sense.
Yes, I agree with that. The Bills both need to pass before the end of the transition period in order for the deals to be rolled over. We are in agreement on that. The question is whether you can do that, while also having better scrutiny and setting in stone better standards for the future.
One of the areas of contention is whether the Bill should be wider in scope to include all free trade agreements. Obviously, the most high-profile free trade agreement in negotiation that is happening is the US deal. Can the two of you set out your concerns about the potential UK-US deal? Secondly, one of the other potential continuity deals, which has been controversial in the past, is with Canada. Can you set out your concerns on the potential UK-Canada dealQ ?
Starting with the US deal, we are concerned about the attempts and the approach from US negotiators, particularly around agriculture and food standards, to change the way the UK currently regulates and legislates in that area. It is clearly set out in the US negotiating objectives that they want to open up UK markets to US agricultural products. Our view is that in many areas those are produced to lower standards than is currently allowed here in the UK.
That also raises the indirect effect that trade deals can have on environmental standards, which is incredibly important. Trade rules can place restrictions on what it is that countries can do to meet their environmental goals. Our view is that achieving environmental goals is a good thing do—it is of value in and of itself—and that trade rules should work within that framework. Limiting what we can do, in order to achieve certain trade goals, is a restriction that we should not have in place.
To go back to the specifics of the US deal, another area of concern is chemicals. Currently in the UK, there are more than 1,300 chemicals for use in cosmetics that are not allowed; in the US, that is around 11. I think that demonstrates the stark difference between the regulatory approach in the US and the current approach we have here. While the UK now has the chance to do things differently—I am not saying we must stick to EU ways; that is not necessarily the approach we need to be taking—we do want to make sure that our standards get better and not worse.
In terms of the scope of the Bill, I do not think what we want is for the Trade Bill to become a big debate about the US trade agreement, but we do want it to be a debate about scrutiny. If you have those scrutiny practices in place, when the US deal comes round, Parliament can actually debate that properly, rather than relying on the occasional parliamentary question or a Backbench Business debate, which is what currently happens, even though it is on the Government’s own terms for really important big trade agreements.
I completely agree with what Tom said about standards. The key thing here is that there are two dominant regulatory regimes in the world—the EU’s and the US’s. In many ways, Brexit will force the decision about which of those regimes we align with. Something that we have called for—I believe Tom and ClientEarth have called for it as well—is sequencing, whereby the EU deal comes first. We sort out our relationship with our largest trading partner, with whom we are already aligned on so many things and have been for so long, before we negotiate with the US, because the US really do want us to align with their regulatory regime, as Tom said.
You mentioned Canada. Canada and Japan have both asked not to renegotiate their existing terms, but essentially want to seek new free trade agreements with the UK. They have also both emphasised that they want the UK to sort out its relationship with the EU first, because historically the UK has been a springboard, particularly for Japanese investment in the European Union. For a lot of our trading partners, sorting out our relationship with the EU is an absolute priority. We have said let us do that first and then we can think about new trade agreements, such as one with the US.
There are a number of other concerns with the US deal. I will not go into huge detail on that unless you want me to, but we have concerns around public services provision, digital services and regulations in a number of areas, not just the environment, but also health regulations and food standards; we are also concerned about investor protection provisions, because we have seen that those have been used in really damaging ways in other US trade agreements, such as NAFTA. Those are some other concerns we have about the US deal. As I have said already, the real priority is scrutiny, because then we can have that debate properly in Parliament.
So, as David was talking about, there is this point about the two big regulatory spheres of influence. Canada is very much close to that US sphere and so, while there might be less of the direct issues, we see that stepping-stone effect.
One extra thing to add is that there are approaches that the US takes in its trade agreements and trade deals that are clearly better than what the EU is doing. Around enforcement, for example, some of the approaches that the US will often take include better enforcement mechanisms for environmental provisions in trade deals. Looking at the different approaches is certainly worth considering.
Q I have a question for each of you. The question for David Lawrence is about scrutiny. You talked about the addition of scrutiny. Do you see any downside to adding in that additional level of scrutiny, particularly for developing countries, but also for British businesses and workers?
For Tom, a recent High Court decision about Heathrow airport ruled that we could not have Heathrow airport because it was counter to the Paris climate agreement. Are there risks if we do not put extra environmental standards in the Bill that future trade agreements will be brought into question, as that national policy statement was?
In terms of downsides to scrutiny, we are very much calling for scrutiny and I do not think there are any really obvious downsides. As I said, it is an area where, perhaps unusually, we are very much aligned with the private sector. A lot of businesses are also calling for similar things.
In terms of developing countries, as you will know very well, Fleur, there are a lot of organisations in the UK representing the interests of developing countries and a lot of foreign aid organisations who would like to be able to see what is going on in trade negotiations and be able to represent those interests to MPs, but at the moment there simply are not those scrutiny proceedings in place. Obviously, the process of scrutiny takes time, so maybe it would slow things down a bit, but on the long-run game of improving public trust in what the Government are doing and public understanding of how trade deals work—where they are beneficial and where they are potentially harmful—it is absolutely worth having those additional scrutiny proceedings in place.
The Heathrow decision is a really good example of how important it is to make sure that all of our policies are compatible with our environmental goals. While we might not get a direct read-across in this case here, what it does demonstrate is that we need to make sure that what we are doing in all areas is compatible with meeting Paris and our other environmental goals, too. We have got net zero and an Environment Bill that could provide a framework for some ambitious targets, and we need to make sure that that is compatible. Making sure that we have got that clear framework in legislation will necessarily help with that.
This is a question for you both. David, this will reflect on your serious concerns about the inability of MPs to have scrutiny or to amend the Trade Bill. In fact, I think you said the public would be shocked to learn that their MPs do not have a say over these trade deals. Following on from that as a natural progression, what concerns, if any, do you have over the ability of elected Members in the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved Assemblies to influence items that are normally devolved competencies within the Trade Bill?Q
We have very similar concerns in relation to devolved nations. It is obviously tricky because you do not want to necessarily end up in a gridlock situation where an entire UK-wide trade agreement is blocked because one of the nations has a veto, but at the same time there will be parts of trade agreements that primarily or only affect the industries in the devolved areas and that cut across regulations that are normally devolved competencies. In those areas, we would like that to be the decision of the devolved authorities. Obviously, there is a role for consultation throughout that, as there has been through the Brexit process. I know it has not been handled perfectly in the Brexit process.
More generally, it is about applying the normal standards of democratic scrutiny that we would expect for other areas of domestic legislation to trade agreements, in recognition that trade agreements have a large and wide-reaching domestic effect. If the Government want to build a new railway like HS2, they have to put it in a Bill that has all of its Commons stages, layers of scrutiny and Committees like this one, and then it goes to the Lords and it comes back again. It goes back and forth, the media get involved and people write to their MPs about it. That is just for a railway and this is for a trade agreement that, if the Government are to be believed, is central to the UK’s post-Brexit industrial strategy, and MPs do not have anywhere near that level of say over it. So what we are calling for is similar to the way in which other regulations and big projects and proposals are treated with the level of democratic scrutiny that they receive.
Yes, I agree. With environment, agriculture and fisheries all being devolved, this is obviously really important to our concerns, too. Clearly, there is a need for better mechanisms to be in place to make sure that the four Governments of the United Kingdom can work together to have the appropriate conversations about how we are going to work these things out. It is not straightforward exactly how it will work, but clearly it needs to be done so that the devolution settlements can be respected, and, as David says, so that the proper democratic input into trade agreements can be had.