Examination of Witness

Part of Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:10 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Sam Lowe:

The first thing that I should say is that I think the Bill is necessary; there is a need for continuity when it comes to the UK’s trade relationships with third countries. Looking at the provisions for the government procurement agreement, I can see why there might be some concerns about the powers given to the Executive to alter things in future, but I also understand why the provisions are there, in that the government procurement agreement will evolve over time, new members will accede to it and there will be a need to update it.

Specifically on the continuity agreements, there are a few points that I would like to make. First, I am not sure that the scope is fully understood, in that it maybe covers more agreements than people think. As well as the ones that we all know about, for example Chile, Jordan and the like, it also covers Singapore and, to my reading, Vietnam, which was signed by the EU in June 2019. That is something that should be considered.

When it comes to the broad categorisation of continuity, I have a few questions. I would probably recategorise the agreements. I would start with category 1, which is the pure continuity agreements where there are just minor changes to be made. I am thinking of Chile, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Faroe Islands and the like. I would also include South Korea stage 1 in that box.

My second box would be the agreements that are continuity agreements but will be substantially different from what exists within the EU. Those are the agreements with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Turkey, and I would probably add Ukraine to that box as well. Because the existing relationship is so contingent on our EU membership, there is no doubt that the future agreement we have with them will be substantially different from today.

The third category are just new agreements, because we have decided that they cannot be rolled over and we are set to renegotiate them. That would be Japan and Canada. I would also put South Korea stage 2 in that box, in that the South Korean roll-over agreement contains a commitment to consider renegotiating after three years, but it also contains a poison pill that means that we will inevitably have to, because the rules of origin provisions that allow for EU inputs into UK goods to continue to qualify for the agreement’s local content provisions expire after three years. In that case, it will be a renegotiated new agreement.

As to whether I think the Bill is appropriate in its coverage, I think for box 1—pure continuity with minor changes—it is fine. For box 2—continuity but with big changes—I would say that it is probably still fine. There are obviously some concerns that they will change substantially, but those agreements are ones where we probably need to prioritise continuity over all else. In box 3, to my mind, they are new agreements, so I am not sure why they will be covered by a Bill that is focused on continuity—particularly in the case of Japan, where we have seen new objectives and even statements that we want to go beyond the EU’s existing agreement.

I would conclude with the need to consider the counter- factual. What we are discussing here is not necessarily the whole trade agreement; we are discussing how we deal with the implementing legislation accompanying the trade agreement. If we think about what that covers in practice, we are largely just talking about procurement and perhaps some issues on technical barriers to trade—that is it. In practice, we are probably talking about fairly minor changes in this space.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the question we are asking ourselves is: would slowing this down for everyone in order to do this via primary legislation add sufficiently extra scrutiny on the whole? I am not convinced it would, considering that it is ultimately still a yes/no decision either way. Parliament is not going to change; it just has to decide whether it wants it. Here is where I think it speaks to the bigger issue, which the Bill does not address but is hard to ignore. I listened to some of the first panel, and they touched on it. Parliament’s role vis-à-vis trade policy is incredibly limited; it is largely an Executive competence. Parliament has very little influence over what trade agreements look like, and very little ability to object to them if it comes to it.