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Examination of Witness

Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Nick Ashton-Hart gave evidence.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 12:35 pm, 18th June 2020

We will now hear oral evidence from Nick Ashton-Hart from the Digital Trade Network. Nick, can you hear us?

Nick Ashton-Hart:

I can indeed.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Q I am Judith Cummins. I am chairing this session. I will not be asking questions but calling on members of the Committee to do so. We have until 1 o’clock for this session. Please introduce yourself to the Committee.

Nick Ashton-Hart:

Thank you. I will try to be brief, because it is important for you to have time to ask me things. I am Nick Ashton-Hart, the Geneva representative of the Digital Trade Network, which is a coalition of industry groups throughout the world. I am the focal point for industry on digital economic policy in Geneva. I have been involved in the trade community for more than a decade and participated for about 20 years in multilateral telecommunications and trade policy as it relates to use of the internet.

I am frequently on national delegations and an adviser to countries or groups of countries that are negotiating economic policy. I am also the special adviser on international internet policy for the International Chamber of Commerce in the United Kingdom, although I am speaking to you today in my personal capacity as a trade expert in the field.

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

Q Good afternoon, Nick Ashton-Hart. Thank you for joining us. Give us your impression of the Trade Bill as it currently stands. In particular, please concentrate on the elements on the government procurement agreement and the continuity trade agreements. Do you have concerns or are there areas where you would like to see additions to either of those sections?

Nick Ashton-Hart:

Thank you very much for the question. Thank you all for asking me here. It is a great privilege and honour, as an immigrant who arrived here in 1986 with £900 in my pocket, to be heard by Parliament.

With respect to the Bill, many of the comments I made about the Bill in the last Parliament remain true. There are some changes in this Bill, but the core of the issue is the road it sets out in terms of consultation on trade policy with not only Parliament, but industry as a whole. In my work, I see how Trade Ministries worldwide relate to stakeholders and how they choose to involve stakeholders in trade policy-making and negotiating.

I understand the argument that the continuity agreements are intended to be as close as possible to and a simple replication of the provisions of the agreements that you benefited from via membership of the EU, and that consultation is not necessary because of that fact. As I said in 2018—and this remains true—these are not the same agreements. At that time, we did not have any of the agreements rolled over, if you will, so we assumed that they would not be the same agreements. Based on my experience in trade policy, nobody makes exactly the same deal with a smaller party that they did with the larger party, because it is not in their interest to do that. In this case, we have even more reasons.

As an example of how these agreements are not the same, I offer up the Swiss agreement. There are 20 mutual recognition chapters of the Swiss-EU agreement. The UK-Swiss agreement has only three, because Switzerland cannot agree that our regime is equivalent unless we continue to apply the EU regime, as the Swiss-EU agreement requires that. So, 24% of the UK’s exports and 16% of imports in that deal are not covered currently. That is also true in the agreement on customs, so UK goods will not be expedited through the Swiss border in many cases as a result.

Therefore, these are fundamentally not the same agreements, yet they are treated, in terms of consultation with industry and Parliament, as if they are, when they are materially different. It is like anything else—if you start out on a road, you want to make sure that the destination you are heading towards is the destination you want to reach. I think that, as a country, the destination we should want to reach is that the country as a whole buys into the arrangements for trade policy that the country proposes to make.

While I accept that in February 2019 the Government’s roadmap for consultation with Parliament and with civil society and the like began to approach what we would consider a more standard relationship, I offer this comment to Committee members to consider. If you are negotiating with another party about economic affairs, the reason why you want industry to have a close relationship with you when you are doing that is because industry has relationships with industry on the other side—in the country that you are negotiating with. Industry can then help you to gain support from industry in your negotiating partner for the provisions that you are recommending, which are also in the interests of industry in that other country, or negotiating partner. If industry is not a close collaborator with you throughout the negotiating process—not just in setting up the terms that you are looking for before you negotiate, but throughout the negotiation and ratification process—you are robbing yourself of a key element that will help you to negotiate a successful outcome.

That is just as true when you are dealing with issues such as the GPA as it is when you are dealing with regular free trade agreements, or regulatory co-operation agreements, which are not really discussed that often but are fundamentally important—financial technology bridges, or FinTech bridges, and the like.

That is the key thing that I have heard from industry, and the key thing that I have seen is that the continuity agreements are taking longer to reach than had been thought. I wish I had been wrong about some of my predictions back in 2018; unfortunately, pretty much all of them have turned out to be taking place. These agreements have been more difficult, they have been more different and there are gaps in coverage. Of course, all of that is not terribly surprising, but despite the knowledge that industry and other stakeholders were right when they said that more consultation was needed, the Bill still does not provide for that consultation to take place, which is a real lack, and an opportunity that should be seized.

The consultation should not be seen as a negative; it should be seen as a positive. These agreements will last longer than they are expected to, and the successor agreements to them will take longer to negotiate than is estimated, because there is one thing that you can guarantee about a trade agreement negotiation process and it is that the target date for finishing it is not the date you will finish. You will definitely finish at some later point than you predict. That has proven true for us with these continuity agreements, which is not a surprise to anyone in the trade community.

Hopefully, that is not too long an answer.

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

Q That was very helpful. You mentioned the Swiss-UK agreement, and the differences in the mutual recognition chapters. Are there other agreements where there are similarly big gaps between the agreement that we are party to as members of the EU and the agreement that we have now signed with a partner?

Nick Ashton-Hart:

First, I should say that you will have testimony from other witnesses who will have more knowledge of all the continuity agreements than I do. As you know from our conversations, I am a services guy, so I tend to focus on services and digital services.

As is the case in the Norwegian agreement, we will find that in any third-country agreement we try to make, the EU will quite naturally have made conditions on that country’s negotiations with additional third countries—the regulatory choices that the third country has with other parties with which they negotiate, other than the EU, are constrained by the agreement with the EU.

When it comes to regulatory chapters in trade agreements, there are really three major powers: the US, the EU and China. We do not have the regulatory freedom to determine, on our own sovereign nature, exactly what we do. Ultimately, we will adopt one of these three—we are smaller, and that is how it works. Big blocs carry the weight and tend to get more of what they want than do smaller parties. That is true of negotiating for anything in life. Anyone who has bought a car or a house will realise that those things stay the same. We will find that the choices that other countries are allowed to make in terms of their agreements with us are constrained by their deals with the great powers.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

Q Nick, could you talk about the importance of the GPA for the digital services sector, and in financial terms?

Nick Ashton-Hart:

The GPA is its own special animal. You will already have had descriptions of it, so I will not describe it. The GPA is a pretty loose agreement, and you can decide what you want to include within it and what you want to exclude. In theory—actually, in reality—it offers access to large amounts of potential supplies to Governments around the world, because Governments are major purchasers of everything. There are many conditionalities on that, and we will get less out of it than is suggested by the headline numbers, because of the flexibility of the arrangements and the scheduling. Countries, naturally, often like to sound more open than they are in this area.

I know of a certain European example: a major trading partner of ours in the EU that speaks a language that is not in the world’s top 50 most spoken languages has the same commitments on government procurement as does the EU, in terms of market access to third countries. What is not stated, however, is that you must do all of your bidding, contractual work and work with that party in that language that is not in the world’s top 50 languages, which quite naturally rules out the vast majority of people and companies in the UK, especially small companies. I am sure that a vanishingly small number of people in the UK speak that language.

So yes, the GPA is important, and yes, it does allow our firms access to many other markets but, looking at the fine print, access is not as simple and straightforward as is suggested. The GPA allows you to say to another country, “You—service provider X—can bid on services with my country.” It does not say, “And we will treat you as if you are one of us for regulatory issues.” You still need to be able to meet the regulatory requirements as a service provider that a domestic service provider has to meet. That is understandable and reasonable, but if your regulatory system in the UK is not seen as equivalent by that country, you will have to go through the additional step—if it is a regulated service, and many of them are—of being found to be regulatorily compliant with the regime of the country you are selling into. As we know, services are all heavily sensitive to regulation and to regulatory compatibility in third countries that you are selling into. That is why the single market is such a massive enabler of services trade throughout the European Union and its member states.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

Q In conclusion, despite what you see as its limitations, you would rather see us accede to it than not do so.

Nick Ashton-Hart:

Certainly.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Nick, I just want to concentrate on the digital sector and e-commerce. Do you think there any omissions from the Bill in those areas? I am thinking particularly about what has happened in the last 24 hours with regard to the US pulling back, and about some of the challenges being faced by the WTO on this front. Should there be something in the Bill on that?

Nick Ashton-Hart:

We are, as you know, one of the world’s powerhouses in services. Part of the reason we are a powerhouse in services is because, in the digital realm, we are also a great power in terms of innovation and firms that have had a lot of international success. Something like 60-plus per cent. of UK trade is underpinned in one way or another by digitalisation, so we are highly sensitive to any barriers to services through regulation, as well as through things such as the free flow of data and data protection.

We know that the agreements will not be duplications, because they are already not exactly the same. To the extent that we can, we should try to ensure that there are liberalising measures associated with at least the fundamentals of digital trade—some arrangements on data protection and on mutual recognition. Of course, that would also require us to stay quite close to the EU regime on data protection, which I and the industry have strongly argued in favour of. It is difficult, because if you are a negotiator and say, “I want to replicate this agreement, but I want to change one thing,” the other side is quite naturally incentivised to say, “Okay, then I want to change another thing.” The reality is that everyone will come to this with some changes, because—for many reasons, only one of which I covered—you cannot just copy and paste.

To the extent that we can put in digital measures, we should. It should be a part of the negotiating mandate for those agreements. It may be; I speak to DIT people quite frequently and have not heard whether it is, so I would not like to say whether it is, one way or the other.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

The UK is massively competitive in digital and e-commerce, and we expect it to be even bigger in the post-covid economy. However, I am quite concerned about what future trading agreements mean for online harms, because of things such as section 230 laws in the US on platforms’ liability for what they host. Is this an area that you think should and could be covered by the Bill?Q

Nick Ashton-Hart:

I would say that, at the level of principle, it probably should be. This is an example of an area of regulation that is not only economically consequential, but social and politically consequential. It is also not understood very well. The issues around platforms relate to business-to-consumer platforms, and particularly to social media. Those platforms are a tiny minority of the actual economic value of platforms as a whole. Business-to-consumer traffic represents about 10% of a platform’s value vis-à-vis the 90%, which is business-to-business traffic.

It is important at a level of principle to recognise that there are sensitivities, but it is also important to recognise that economic policy does not solve social problems and that the hooks need to be there to allow for exceptions, so that social problems can be anticipated and dealt with by the competent authorities that are responsible for them. In economic policy, however, the default is that platforms are a public good in the same way that markets are a public good. We want to facilitate innovation in the platform space, and our economy is a huge beneficiary of that.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

If there are no further questions from Members, on behalf of the Committee I thank you, Nick, for your evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Maria Caulfield.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.