Implementation of international trade agreements

Part of Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade) 12:15 pm, 25th June 2020

I rise to move new clause 18 in my name and that of my hon. Friends, and I hope to say a few words about new clause 22. Clause 2 gives Ministers the authority to make any regulations they consider appropriate for the purpose of implementing an international trade agreement, including regulations that make provision for

“modifying…primary legislation that is retained EU law”.

We have had representations suggesting that “retained EU law” appears to include a very wide range of primary legislation that has an impact, potentially, on measures to improve equality in this country, not least the Equality Act 2010 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. At the moment, there do not appear to be safeguards on the face of the Bill to prevent Ministers from using the power in clause 2 to erode previous rights on equalities granted by Parliament.

That excellent organisation Liberty has provided an example to the Committee, to give a little colour to this justified concern. The Government could in theory

“reach an agreement with a foreign state on the provision of services, such as transport, and” make

“changes to the Equality Act”.

That

“could include removing the duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, making access to transport more difficult for 1 in 5 of the UK’s population.”

If such a power were necessary at all, it is surely vital that safeguards are introduced in the Bill to ensure that human rights and equality laws passed by Parliament cannot be amended by Ministers whose key priority is to get a series of trade agreements signed off and locked into law. The way in which the Bill has been drafted does not include any restrictions on the use of delegated powers, as we touched on in a previous discussion.

As a result of those concerns, Members of the other place in particular, as well as a number of Members in this House, raised those points with Ministers. That led to what we Opposition Members thought was a very sensible amendment, tabled by the noble Baroness Fairhead, then a Minister of State in the Department, for the Government on Report in the House of Lords. I assume that she no longer fits the ideological bent of the current Government, and she is no longer there, which may explain why the amendment is no longer in the Bill. It seems to me that that is one further example of how this Bill is even worse in terms of parliamentary scrutiny than the Bill that had completed all its initial Commons and Lords stages in the last Parliament, only to be ditched by the Government.

According to the official record, the Government apparently worked very closely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce the amendment that the Government originally tabled and that we are re-tabling, acknowledging that although they were not anticipating any need to amend equalities legislation, there was a possibility of the type of example that Liberty has advanced to us, and which I have given to the Committee: that trade agreements could potentially weaken protection against unlawful discrimination or lead to the diminution of equality rights.

The new clause provides for a ministerial statement to be made before any regulations are laid to implement a continuity trade agreement. The statement would outline whether those regulations modifying the provisions of the Equality Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2010 are set to happen. That provision was supposed to be in addition to the reports that Parliament would receive setting out the significant differences between continuity agreements and the original agreements. Given that those reports are also no longer guaranteed, it is a further indication that scrutiny—already poor of these trade agreements in a number of ways—is set to get even worse, unless Ministers are willing to put this sensible new clause into the Bill.

When she moved her amendment, which I read it again for the benefit of Members, Baroness Fairhead said:

“I trust that this House will accept this as further evidence that the Government have a strong desire to be transparent with Parliament, businesses and the general public about their continuity programme.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 March 2019; Vol. 796, c. 1060.]

What are we to believe now that it is not in the Bill? Inevitably, it is difficult not to feel that the Government do not want to be quite as transparent as they once claimed with Parliament, businesses and the general public about the so-called continuity trade programme. It is therefore not surprising that one comes back to the words of Professor Winters talking about the feedback he had had on how UK-Japan negotiations were going. He was very clear that they were being “studiously” vague. I once again urge Ministers, even at this late stage, to accept new clause 18.

New clause 22 would lock in the need for the consent of both Houses of Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly before any trade agreement could be agreed. We on this side of the House have considerable sympathy with the idea that both Houses of Parliament should be required to approve any trade treaty before it takes legal effect. We think that the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have as much right as the people of England to expect a say through their representatives in this House on whether trade agreements should be signed into law. We are clear, too, that the devolved Administrations must be properly consulted. Indeed, with new clause 16, which we will no doubt come to vote on this afternoon, we want to lock into law the guaranteed rights of the devolved Administrations to consultation.

Given the significance of trade agreements to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, I can well understand that the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Executive will at times want to comment on trade matters. One can understand why those who tabled new clause 22 decided to do so in the light of the fact that Ministers have decided to vote down every attempt to improve the scrutiny arrangements for future trade agreements and the so-called continuity trade agreements—many of which, as we know only too well, are not actually set to be continuity trade agreements at all.

Let me give just one example where the Senedd in particular might have concerns about trade agreements, which might have provoked the tabling of new clause 22. The Senedd, like the Welsh Government, will probably understandably have been very concerned about the future of the Port Talbot steelworks. If we had been given more detail about the nature of the UK-Turkey negotiations, rather than the studiously vague description that the Minister read out from the Secretary of State’s Twitter feed, there might not be the concern about the future of steel in Port Talbot and elsewhere in the UK that there understandably will be following Mr Warren’s evidence to the Committee.

Let us take cars. Again, the automotive parts manufacturing industry is particularly strong in Wales. As a result, the need to conclude a UK-Japan deal is particularly important to the automotive industry, as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has set out in some detail in its evidence to Ministers. It is particularly concerned about the future of rules of origin. The Minister said at the outset that he may need to revert back to give us detail about how rules of origin are changing as a result of continuity trade agreements. I respect and understand why that might be necessary, but he will know that with trade agreements, the devil is in the detail, and nowhere is that more true than rules of origin.

Many of the rules of origin that the UK car industry benefits from involve both horizontal and diagonal cumulation at the moment, in the sense that countries other than the UK where parts of cars are made often count towards the value of that car as a product and therefore whether it benefits from preferential trade terms with a third country. The issue is how that will be replicated in one country-specific deal—a UK-Japan deal. One can understand why the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Executive might have concerns about that.

Again, it would be good to hear from the Minister at some point today, or by letter, how the debate about rules of origin with Japan, Turkey, Canada and South Korea has been taken forward. I understand that with South Korea, a deal has been done for the time being to allow EU parts to continue to be counted towards the value of a UK car. Will that be the case in a UK-Japan agreement, bearing in mind that we apparently have only six weeks for those negotiations to be done?

As I say, one can understand the concerns of the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Executive and their wanting to have a say in trade negotiations. We think the solution is to add new clause 16 to the Bill, but I hope that I have nevertheless done some justice to the understandable concerns of those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who are worried about how trade agreements might affect them.