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“Review of free trade agreements
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a review of the operation and impacts of each free trade agreement to which this Act applies.
(2) Each such review shall be laid before Parliament no later than five years from the day on which the agreement comes into force.
(3) A further review of the operation of each agreement shall be laid no later than five years after the day on which the previous such review was laid before Parliament.
(4) Each review shall be conducted by a credible body independent of government and shall include both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the impacts of the agreement, including as a minimum—
(a) the economic impacts on individual sectors of the economy, including, but not restricted to—
(i) the impacts on the quantity and quality of employment,
(ii) the various regional impacts across the different parts of the UK,
(iii) the impacts on small and medium-sized enterprises, and
(iv) the impacts on vulnerable economic groups;
(b) the social impacts, including but not restricted to—
(i) the impacts on public services, wages, labour standards, social dialogue, health and safety at work, public health, food safety, social protection, consumer protection and information, and
(ii) the government’s duties under the Equality Act 2010;
(c) the impacts on human rights, including but not restricted to—
(i) workers’ rights,
(ii) women’s rights,
(iii) cultural rights and
(iv) all UK obligations under international human rights law;
(d) the impacts on the environment, including but not restricted to—
(i) the need to protect and preserve the oceans,
(iii) the rural environment and air quality, and
(iv) the need to meet the UK’s international obligations to combat climate change;
(e) the impact of any investor-state dispute settlement which forms part of the agreement;
(f) the impacts on animal welfare, including but not restricted to the impacts on animal welfare in food production, both as it relates to food produced in the UK and as it relates to food imported into the UK from other countries; and
(g) the economic, social, cultural, food security and environmental interests of those countries considered to be developing countries for the purposes of clause 10 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018, as defined in Schedule 3 to that Act and as amended by regulations.
(5) The elements of the review to be undertaken under (4)(f) must be sufficiently disaggregated so as to capture the full range of impacts on different groups of developing countries, and must include both direct and indirect impacts, such as loss of market share through trade diversion or preference erosion.”—
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
I rise briefly to suggest to the Committee that once a free trade agreement has been signed in the future, it makes sense to have a point at which to assess the effectiveness of that agreement, perhaps to see how it has worked in practice in terms of British exporters being able to take advantage of it.
Labour Members remember only too well the Government’s decision to axe by some 60% the support to British exporters. So it will be interesting, five years down the line from the publication and signing of these continuity agreements, to see whether such a severe cut has actually meant that many British businesses have been unable to take advantage of the opportunities in a free trade agreement.
The new clause would also give us the opportunity, five years hence, to see whether the genuine concerns of many—both in this House and out—about investor-state dispute mechanisms, if they have been incorporated into agreements, have taken effect. We would be able to see the damage done to environmental protections, the health service, labour rights or human rights—any way in which they might have been affected.
Given the concerns expressed clearly to us about how many of the continuity trade agreements might actually work in practice, it is surely sensible to have the opportunity to review whether those concerns have been borne out in practice. One can think of the Norway continuity agreement, which still has no services provisions for British companies wanting to operate in service markets in Norway. That is still in some doubt, as only the goods part has been resolved. The situation is similar with Switzerland. We raised a series of concerns about the South Korea agreement and the extent to which some agricultural products, such as cheddar cheese and honey, have been affected by poor drafting of that agreement.
Given how we have thrown away some of the great advantages that Britain drew in terms of soft power from the Department for International Development being a stand-alone Department, again it will be interesting to see whether the Ghana and Kenya agreements—I thank the Minister for his letter—have been able to serve their purpose and support not only agricultural sales to the UK, but regional integration in west and east Africa.
For all those reasons, and given the huge concerns about some of the potential measures in free trade agreements, it makes sense surely—it certainly makes sense to us—to have a fixed point, five years down the line after a trade agreement has been signed, to have the opportunity for the Government to publish a full review looking at the impact.
New clause 15 proposes a review, as we have heard, of free trade agreements every five years after entry into force. I have already drawn the Committee’s attention to the parliamentary reports that we have voluntarily published alongside every signed continuity agreement, outlining any significant differences between the signed agreement and the underlying EU agreement. I confirm that we will continue to do so for the remaining continuity agreements.
We have a meaningful and constant dialogue with several Committees in Parliament. Those may provide a more appropriate forum for reviews of our trade agreements and an assessment of the UK’s wider trade environment and relationships. We are keen for Parliament to make its voice heard during the negotiation of our continuity programme in a way that is proportionate and productive. I also draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that six signed continuity agreements have been subject to debate in Parliament without a single one carrying a motion of regret.
As I have said many times before, our objectives for the trade continuity programme are to replicate the effects of existing EU trade agreements, which have all been subject to comprehensive scrutiny at EU level. Given that scrutiny, the parliamentary reports we have committed to publishing and the other constraints contained within the Bill, we do not believe that an additional report in the future would be an efficient use of parliamentary time. Additionally, I argue that looking at each agreement in isolation from the wider trading situation of the UK at an arbitrary point in time risks rendering any such report at best incomplete and at worst meaningless.
As a Department, we have an ongoing obligation to provide meaningful and timely information to the public, businesses and other key stakeholders on our assessment of the UK’s trading relationships. Statutory obligations anchored in specific agreements in the manner proposed by the new clause could in fact act as a constraint to the Department providing that sort of information in a timely and impactful way. As such, I ask the hon. Member to withdraw his new clause.
I have listened to what the Minister has said. He will understand that we remain concerned that this provision was put in the Bill by the Government on Report in the Commons, and it has been taken out. The Minister who gave the assurance in writing that such reports will continue is no longer in the Department. I think we would still prefer to see the commitment in the Bill, and as a result, I intend to press the new clause to a vote.