Implementation of international trade agreements

Part of Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade) 11:45 am, 25th June 2020

As ever, Mrs Cummins, I am grateful for your guidance. It will come as no surprise to you or the Committee that Labour Members are disappointed that the Minister has not at least stuck to the terms of the deal that he and the then Minister of State made with Mr Djanogly to reduce the sunset clause from five years to three years, which is specifically relevant to amendments 20 to 23—just to help the Government Whip.

Again, one wonders if, by that point, there was growing fear in the Department that, despite the rhetoric of the Minister, there would be a series of challenges in completing these roll-over agreements. It is a surprise to us to see that sunset provision not included. What my hon. Friends and I have done—in a very generous way, I think—is provide a menu of options to the Minister to demonstrate his and his Department’s faith in their ability to complete these roll-over agreements. Surely, if it is that easy to get the roll-over agreements completed, they will not need to go beyond five years, which is the purpose of amendment 16. Perhaps, if they are feeling a little nervous, they might want to go for amendment 17 and have a limit of 10 years on the face of the Bill. If they are feeling very nervous that they will not get negotiations done with South Korea, Canada, Andorra, Japan or Turkey by the end of the implementation period on 31 December, perhaps they would want to put back into the Bill their own amendments, as encapsulated in amendments 20 to 23.

In our generosity, we have retabled the amendments 16 and 17 that were tabled to the previous Trade Bill in the names of my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner and my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central and others. We did that to help the Minister demonstrate his confidence in his ability to get all the trade agreements done, with his own wording on a three-year as opposed to a five-year sunset clause.

It might be worth, particularly for the Government Whip’s benefit—thinking about rebellions—to remember what the hon. Member for Huntingdon said. He pushed Ministers to go further to limit the powers in the Bill. He pushed them hard on Second Reading and, clearly, in private negotiations, to table their own amendments on Report, to limit the amount of overreach and potential abuse of the current weak scrutiny arrangements for trade agreements. On Report two years ago the hon. Gentleman advanced an entirely plausible argument, and talked about the possibility of a country where there is an EU trade agreement saying to us:

“‘Yes, we agree that you can roll over, but let’s face it, you are a market of only 50 million people rather than 500 million, so we’ll agree to roll over, but only on condition that we also get 50,000 visas a year.’” —[Official Report, 17 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 274.]

Under the present Bill, that trade agreement could be pushed through the House of Commons with only a 17-member Committee talking for 90 minutes. That is hardly the sort of robust parliamentary scrutiny that such a trade agreement would deserve. On Second Reading of the present Bill on 20 May the hon. Member for Huntingdon repeated his criticism at column 621 and noted that not only might visas be an issue with respect to trade agreements; the country that wanted to roll over an agreement with us might also want military or intelligence provisions to be added in as part of a package.

Similarly, any slightly amended deals in five or three years’ time could also be covered, and could be used to implement such trade agreements with other wide-ranging implications and with minimal levels of scrutiny. So surely it is a sensible step to limit the Bill’s ability to help Ministers to bypass parliamentary scrutiny of the trade agreements they conclude, even in the small way that Ministers have previously advanced themselves of reducing the sunset period from five years to three years. If they cannot face the embarrassment of backing an amendment that was first tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, perhaps they will show a little courage and back the amendments that they brought forward as a result of a deal with Tory Back-Benchers. If they do not vote for amendments 20 to 23, it will be further evidence that when Tory MPs do a deal with Ministers they cannot rely on it until it is written on the face of legislation.

The further we get from the point when the EU signed a deal with a third country, the more likely, surely, a UK-specific deal is to be significantly different from the deal that the EU negotiated. It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central said, that South Korea has agreed a continuity deal, but only on the proviso that a new deal would be properly negotiated in 18 months’ time. The further away from the signing of the EU-South Korea deal and the UK-South Korea continuity deal, the more likely it is that the new deal will be very different. Therefore, more parliamentary scrutiny—even the limited parliamentary scrutiny that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 provides—will be merited. Limiting the length of time that the Bill can be used to push that deal through with the minimal levels of scrutiny as it allows is even more necessary.

I gently remind the Committee of the significance of what we are discussing. Trade agreements last longer than a Parliament. They outlive Ministers, even those who keep coming back to the trade Department—like a bad penny, some would say, but that would be unfair. I do not know why I was tempted to say that, looking at my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central. I will move on.

Mistakes can be made, and in order to prevent them it is important that we have proper scrutiny. Therefore, if we limit the provisions of the Bill purely to its original claimed purpose—just to do the continuity work that is necessary to maintain existing relationships—we should limit the time that is required. It is in that spirit that I offer to the Committee this menu of sensible options to limit the power in the Bill.