Implementation of international trade agreements

Part of Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 12:45 pm, 25th June 2020

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that; he makes a good point. I refer him to the deal that we have negotiated with South Korea and how it reflects on those rules. That negotiation has been completed. However, here, today, it is not my job to comment on live negotiations or discussions with our counterparts.

The hon. Member for Dundee East talked rightly about sectors that are important in different parts of the UK. He made a very fair point. He talked about the white fish sector being 10 times as important to the Scottish economy overall as it is to the UK. That makes me wonder why—if I understood him correctly—his party’s policy is to rejoin the European Union, where presumably the status of the white fish sector is even smaller than the one tenth it represents in the UK. That baffled me.

It is strongly in the UK Government interest to have good relationships with the devolved authorities on trade, which is a reserved matter, a prerogative matter. None the less, regulations interact with areas that are matters of devolved competence.

It is therefore perfectly proper both for the UK Government to have good relations and discussions with the devolved authorities, and for the UK Government to interact with sectors that are larger—I do not mean to say that they are disproportionately important—for certain devolved Administrations than others. That is one reason why I have gone out of my way since rejoining the Department to have meetings—I am checking my list of engagements—about Scottish smoked salmon, and with the Scotch Whisky Association, the Scottish Beef Association and other bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in the English regions.

Hon. Members talked about the unrestricted nature of the power, but it is not quite right to say that this is unrestricted. Any changes made are subject to the affirmative procedure, and the power is only to amend secondary legislation that is direct retained EU law, again subject to the affirmative procedure. It is not as if that is an unrestricted power.

Returning to equalities legislation, I remind colleagues of constraints in the Bill, including the fact that the affirmative procedure is required for any statutory instruments made under the power in the clause. Parliament will rightly make its voice heard on regulations made, but as the Prime Minister outlined in his Greenwich speech, the UK will always be an open, equal and fundamentally fair country. That will remain true regardless of EU membership or any other international agreement. We have not needed the EU to tell us what is appropriate in the field of equalities. For example, the EU provides a minimum of 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, whereas Britain offers up to a year’s maternity leave, 39 weeks of which are paid, and the option to convert it to shared parental leave. Moreover, UK workers can get statutory sick pay for up to 28 weeks, whereas the EU has no minimum sick leave or sick pay legislation.

Promoting respect for British values, including equality, the rule of law and human rights, is and will remain a core part of our international diplomacy. That is what our continuity programme provides, alongside certainty to business and consumers. It is not, and never will be, about undermining equalities legislation.

I turn to new clause 22, tabled by Plaid Cymru Members. For the benefit of Members who have not sat on a Bill Committee before, it is entirely possible for those who are not members of the Committee to table an amendment—I would not recommend that course of action for Government Members—as we see Hywel Williams and his colleagues have done. On Tuesday, in a debate on similar issues, I set out that it is an essential principle of the UK constitution that the negotiation of international trade agreements is a prerogative power of the UK Government. The prerogative power serves a crucial role in ensuring that the UK Government can speak with a single voice under international law, providing certainty to our negotiating partners.

Of course, international negotiations are a reserved matter under the devolution settlements—an area in which the UK acts on behalf of all the nations of the UK. These important principles are complemented by the UK’s dualist approach to international law, which provides that international treaties cannot of themselves make changes to domestic law—I think we will return to that this afternoon. This approach ensures that where our agreements require changes to UK domestic law, the UK Parliament will scrutinise and pass that legislation in the normal way. Where that legislation is made by the devolved Governments, the devolved legislatures fulfil that role. It is right that Parliament and the devolved legislatures should have that role, which is why we have provided that regulations made under clause 2 will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

We have also committed ourselves to not normally using the clause 2 power to legislate in devolved areas without the consent of the relevant devolved Administration, and never without consulting them. Combined with the scrutiny mechanisms in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which the hon. Member for Harrow West was so enthusiastic about 10 years ago, those procedures will ensure that the UK Parliament can see exactly what we have negotiated, and if it does not agree with it, can take steps to prevent the Government from implementing and ratifying the deal. There are therefore already rigorous checks and balances on the Government’s power to negotiate and ratify a new agreement.

By giving Parliament an automatic veto over trade agreements, the new clause would cut across those procedures and undermine the important constitutional principle that it is for the Executive to negotiate and enter into deals, and for Parliament to scrutinise them. The new clause would also give the devolved legislatures an automatic veto over our agreement, which would be wholly inappropriate given that this is a reserved matter. On a practical level, a veto for the devolved legislatures would also lead to a situation in which one part of the UK could prevent the rest from benefiting from an agreement.

The Government recognise the important role that the devolved Administrations and the UK Parliament can and should play in our trade agreements, and I welcome the opportunity to put that on the record again. My Department works closely, as I have outlined, with the devolved Administrations and Parliament to deliver trade policy and trade agreements that reflect the interests of the UK as a whole, but we should do so in accordance with the long-standing principles enshrined in our constitution, rather than seeking to undermine them. I hope that reassures the Committee. I ask hon. Members not to press their new clauses, and to agree to clause 2 standing part of the Bill.