Provision of advice, support and assistance by the TRA

Trade Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:00 pm, 25th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 6, page 4, line 22, at end insert

“and

(c) analysis of the impact of any exercise by the Secretary of State of the power under section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 (as amended by section 94 of the Finance Act 2020) to vary an amount of import duty if he or she considers that it is appropriate to do so.”.

Amendment 28 would require an analysis of any exercise by the Secretary of State of the power under section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018, which I assume will be amended when the Finance Bill achieves Royal Assent, to vary import duty as she—it is “she”, at the moment—considers appropriate. This is a move away from working within the rules-based system. I entirely accept that there is a challenge because of the situation with the WTO; my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West and I raised this in relation to other matters to do with the Trade Remedies Authority. This is an enormous step, and a great deal of power that the Secretary of State is potentially granting herself, or being granted by the Finance Bill, assuming it goes through, and there is presumably a role for the Trade Remedies Authority in scrutinising that.

The Minister was telling us earlier how wonderful social media can be and how immediate its effects can be. I use it to look at the newspapers in the morning. The Financial Times and The Times reported a number of things today that were relevant to our proceedings. I confess that I do not always pick up what the Minister and the Secretary of State are saying on their Twitter feeds; one of the problems with Twitter is that people scroll down and miss what someone has said. I mention social media because this morning The Times reports:

“President Trump has revived his trade war with Europe”.

He is threatening tariffs on £3.1 billion of goods, including beer, whisky, which we know about, and biscuits—I knew that mentioning British beer would gain the attention of some hon. Members—as well as Spanish olives, French cakes and German lorries.

The Times states:

“The primary focus of Mr Trump’s ire over trading has been China, but his America First agenda has found little room for the country’s purported allies either”—

that is, us. It continues:

“One of his earliest actions as president was to slap tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium from the European Union”,

and our steel and aluminium sectors have suffered as a result. The Boeing-Airbus dispute has caused great problems for businesses and workers in this country. There is the 25% levy on Scotch and Irish whiskey; I raise these because they are real examples of where trade disputes need responses, robust analysis and the correct approach.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

On a point of clarification, my constituency manufactures one fifth of the world’s gin. Would my constituents be impacted by the measures that my hon. Friend refers to?

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

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the chance to put on record the fact that Warrington is home to a fifth of the world’s gin. I know that she has been looking for the opportunity, and she has found it. The Times does not record whether gin is in the sights of the President of the United States for increased tariffs, but it would not surprise me. The list of proposed tariffs includes cakes, vodka—it does not say gin—potatoes, chocolate and cheese. Some of those are from the UK, but all of them are from the UK and Europe together. The article states:

“The EU has accused the US of providing state aid to Boeing, the American aircraft manufacturer, and is seeking to apply tariffs on $11.2 billion of US goods.”

We await a ruling from the WTO. As we have discussed, that is not without problem, and the dispute over aircraft subsidies goes back over a decade.

I mention those examples because they show just why it is important to get this right. The proposed change to the cross-border trade Act is relevant to the Bill as well, because that Act created the powers of the Trade Remedies Authority that we are setting up belatedly in this Bill. A power is being created here to vary rates of import duty in an international trade dispute.  As I have just described, that power is significant and of great concern. This needs to be done correctly, because once a trade dispute starts it can grow and become a much bigger problem. That is why the amendment proposes a role for the Trade Remedies Authority. It is entirely consistent with the Bill, which says that the Trade Remedies Authority’s responsibilities include scrutiny and advice. We are suggesting that advice be given to the Secretary of State before she uses the new power.

The Secretary of State can act if she considers that to be appropriate. That sounds enormously wide-ranging. I have concerns that, without adequate scrutiny and the involvement of the appropriate organisation, mistakes might be made. They might be made in good faith, but we want the best possible evidence base to ensure that trade remedies of the sort that these powers envisage are used in the right way.

In the Finance Bill Committee, the Treasury Minister was asked a number of questions, and I would like to ask some of them to this Minister, because he might have had a chance to look at them. The answers will inform our view on whether, through our amendment, we are seeking the right power. The Treasury Minister said that provisions in various international trade agreements allow the UK to vary the amount of import duty applied to goods in the context of a dispute. Will this Minister please tell us what those provisions are? That was not clear from what the Treasury Minister said in the Finance Bill Committee.

The Treasury Minister described the provision in the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018. Will this Minister tell us why a provision that was included in legislation only two years ago has now been found to be inadequate? What has changed in two years? Some of these problems with the WTO were entirely apparent even in 2018.

Who is advising the Government that the legislation is inadequate, and that the Secretary of State needs this additional power? The Treasury Minister said that, in certain circumstances, countries are within their rights to impose additional tariffs quickly in response to the actions of other WTO members, and where necessary outside WTO proceedings. If that is the case, why is that not sufficient for what the Government are trying to achieve?

The Treasury Minister referred to the problems with the WTO appellate body, which he rightly said had stopped working. He neglected to say that that was the result of President Trump declining to appoint to it. Will this Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that President Trump appoints to that body?

The Treasury Minister appeared to say that the problems with the WTO appeals system meant that the UK Government should operate outside the WTO. Is there not a danger of our further undermining the WTO if we are not careful in how we go about doing that?

In the Finance Bill Committee, the Treasury Minister said that the change to the Finance Bill was similar to one being proposed by the EU. Will this Minister give further details of what the EU has said and done to give itself such powers?

The Treasury Minister said that the Government recognise the importance of having regard to relevant international arrangements. Will this Minister tell us what those arrangements are, and how the new powers will be exercised in line with international law and our rights as an independent WTO member?

Will the Minister tell us what initiated this change in a law that was so recently passed? Was it the digital sales tax and fear of retaliatory action by the United States, for example? The Treasury Minister reiterated the Government’s support for the international rules-based system. We agree on its importance. He indicated that any changes in import duty would be made by statutory instrument. That is a familiar concern in our deliberations on the Bill.

I said the amendment was about scrutiny, and it is. It is about delivering the right amount of scrutiny to ensure appropriate use of the power. Our concern is that the change to the cross-border trade Act allows the Secretary of State to take significant action where she considers that to be appropriate. That is a very large power for her to be awarded if there is not adequate scrutiny. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to deem something appropriate without adequate scrutiny.

On the Scotch whisky industry, I mentioned the 25% tariff because of US actions regarding Airbus and Boeing. Disputes have spill-over effects on other parts of the economy. Will the Minister tell us the reasons for the change and for giving this big new power to the Secretary of State, and will he give serious consideration to what we are proposing? It seems to be entirely consistent with the remit of the Trade Remedies Authority as set out in the Bill.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 3:15 pm, 25th June 2020

As we have heard, amendment 28 seeks to create a new role for the TRA in analysing the impact of retaliatory or rebalancing duties imposed by the Secretary of State as a result of an international dispute. We should perhaps remind ourselves of the roles and responsibilities relating to international disputes, and the purpose behind the provision in the customs Act—to give it its proper title, the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018—which the amendment refers to, and which the hon. Member for Sefton Central has been referring to as well.

Before going into the detail, I will say a couple of things about some of the broader issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The Airbus-Boeing dispute is clearly not directly within the remit of amendment 28, but it is not, I suppose, so far from it. Let me be clear about today’s announcement. We oppose the tariffs coming from the US vigorously. We find them unnecessary and harmful to trade between the US and the UK. We have raised our opposition with the US trade representative in person in recent weeks. I confirm to the Member for Warrington North that my understanding is that gin is included. There is not a decision to impose tariffs on gin, by my understanding, but gin is one of the products they are actively looking at.

On the questions that the hon. Member for Sefton Central asked about the Finance Bill, I think I am best off offering to look at those, and the most appropriate Minister will respond to him. As a former Treasury Minister, I am slightly mindful that the questions are probably within the Treasury’s area, and it may be better for the Treasury to respond. I do not think that there will be time to respond before the sitting ends at 5 o’clock in any case. However, contrary to what he suggested, it is highly unlikely that a Treasury or other Minister has said that we should operate outside the World Trade Organisation’s rules in the cases that he raised.

Section 15 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act provides for the Secretary of State to change the amount of import duty that applies to certain goods as a result of an international dispute. There are several scenarios under which that could come about. The first is if the UK has successfully challenged trade-restrictive measures imposed by another WTO member under the WTO’s dispute settlement system. If the other member fails to comply with the WTO’s ruling in favour of the UK, the UK Government would be able to impose duties to redress the issue.

Secondly, if there is a dispute between the UK and one of our partners under the terms of a free trade agreement, the UK may be able to impose retaliatory duties. Thirdly, there is the possibility that the UK could be subject to a dispute in the WTO, or as part of an FTA, and be required to provide compensation to the relevant WTO member or FTA partner. That conversation could take the form of imposing lower duties on certain goods. I reassure Members that variations in import duties in response to trade disputes are intended to be temporary in nature, and will be removed when action has been taken by the country or territory in question to bring itself into compliance.

What is clear from all this, and what Parliament has already accepted in passing the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act, is that it is for the Government to decide whether it is necessary to change import duties as a result of a dispute. We should be clear, however, that the resulting duties, whether higher or lower, are not trade remedies measures. That is the problem with the amendment.

Although the Trade Bill enables the TRA to provide expert support to the Secretary of State in order to build the evidence base for decisions on international disputes where needed, as we have already discussed during our consideration of amendment 3, the TRA does not have a role to play in determining duties arising from international disputes, and those duties are not trade remedies measures. Interesting though they may be to the Opposition, that would expand the role of the TRA into areas for which it is not intended. The TRA will be the UK’s expert body on trade remedies—that is the reason we are establishing it. It will not have the wider remit that the amendment would confer on it. I hope the Committee will agree and I ask the hon. Member for Sefton Central to withdraw the amendment.

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

That was a quite remarkable finish. I think the Minister said that the TRA will be the UK’s expert body on trade remedies.

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

Yet it is not going to be able to get involved in helping the Secretary of State by advising her where she might vary import tariffs in the event of an international trade dispute. Clause 6(1)(a) refers to

“the conduct of an international trade dispute”, which seems to be entirely the right place to be looking for support for the Secretary of State when she is being given remarkable and unusual powers. If that support does not come from the Trade Remedies Authority, the Treasury will be advising, but it is a role for the Secretary of State for International Trade, not for the Chancellor.

The Minister correctly said that aspects of what I have asked about are for Treasury Ministers, but this is a responsibility of the Secretary of State for International Trade. That is why it has come to this Bill Committee; there is not another opportunity to deal with this issue. It is entirely relevant to look at support from within the Department for International Trade, which is why we tabled the amendment. I am concerned that the Minister has not come back with an alternative to how this power might be used.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

I would not normally intervene on the hon. Gentleman’s summation, but I think he is confusing two things: he is confusing an international trade dispute, the result of which may be retaliatory tariffs or some kind of other tariff action, with a trade remedy, which is in place to prevent something like the dumping of products where the UK is a producer of those products. They are fundamentally different things. The Trade Remedies Authority is set up to deal with trade remedies, not per se with the subjects of international trade disputes.

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

Not per se. The clause states:

“The TRA must provide the Secretary of State with such advice, support and assistance as the Secretary of State requests in connection with— the conduct of an international trade dispute”.

It is not just about prevention, but about the conduct of an international trade dispute. We will end up disagreeing on this issue. With the way that the Bill is crafted and the way that the Government are setting up the Trade Remedies Authority, this was an obvious place to be looking to give the Secretary of State support and advice. Given that that is one of the key functions of the Trade Remedies Authority, it would be wise for her to have support in making such decisions.

I will wait for the Minister’s response to my questions. I think the problem was that the Treasury Minister was not able to answer them because they are technically challenging. The questions he was asked were difficult, so I am not surprised by what he says about answering a little later. It is very important that we get this right. Perhaps he can come back with exactly how advice and support will be given to the Secretary of State. I gave the examples at the start because they are current and show just how serious these issues are, and it is really important that we get them right. So I will wait to hear back from him. In the meantime, we will test the will of the Committee.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 15 Trade Bill — Provision of advice, support and assistance by the TRA

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.