Trade Bill

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Committee stage
Thursday 15th October 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Trade Bill 2019-21 View all Trade Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 128-VI(Rev) Revised sixth marshalled list for Committee - (13 Oct 2020)
Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, I drafted Amendment 109 essentially in reaction to Amendment 106 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which would require the group of non-executive directors of the TRA to include stakeholders. I have no problem with people with those backgrounds and expertise being on that board, but I fear that it could raise false expectations. You could say that this was a particular bête noire of mine: non-execs on a board must act in the interests of the organisation on whose board they sit. Membership is in many ways a gagging order, if they have other interests and represent other relevant parties. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, pointed out, as did my noble friend Lady Bowles, that their work is very largely procedural and concerns governance: whether rules have been followed, whether risks have been assessed and what remuneration is right for senior executives. However, I believe that stakeholders, especially given the economic importance and potential impact of the TRA, should be able to speak and persuade freely in the interests of the organisations or different nations of the UK, the businesses they belong to or the consumers they represent. That applies just as much to other relevant groups.

Our proposal in Amendment 106 is to create an advisory committee. In my mind at least—and this is not necessarily underscored in the amendment’s language —it would be like the two-tiered corporate governance systems that we see in many continental European countries. Of course the TRA can set up committees. However, I am concerned that, as they are written in the Bill, they will have a tendency to be ad hoc and lack status, whereas a board that contains representatives with a specific role and status established in legislation has much more impact and is exceedingly important as a flow of information and advice to the TRA. I pick up a comment which I think the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made, which is that it is really important that advice is balanced, and this would be one of the mechanisms that would help to ensure it.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and others in their call in Amendment 81 for pre-appointment hearings by the Select Committee on International Trade. These would be for appointments to the Board of Trade—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, TAGs would probably be thrown into that as well. I spoke on this extensively on Tuesday, and I shall not repeat the comments, as the case has been very well made. The same amendment calls for appointments to be made following the governance code for public appointments. We are in a pretty pass when this House has to put such a requirement in a Bill in regard to such key and important appointments. Clearly, it has to do so because No. 10 has been so clear in its intentions to skirt those requirements wherever possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—and I saw the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, nodding confirmation—pointed out that the appointments would essentially be limited to members of the Privy Council. I am really shocked at the thought that the Privy Council mechanism is being used to get around what everyone would expect to be a process that came under the governance code for public appointments. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, has a long history with that code, and I hope that he will be sufficiently shocked that he goes back to the Government and discusses that issue. All these appointments need to have the absolute smack of integrity, and there must be an absolute absence of cronyism.

Amendment 83 raises the issue of non-disclosure agreements. I was very pleased to see this language in there. I think that the drafting probably needs some work but, again, we are in Committee. Non-disclosure agreements are being widely abused, instead of being kept to their original and narrow purpose of preventing commercial harm essentially by a competitor company, or disclosure of intellectual property, pricing and so on. I have worked with so many whistleblowers who have experienced the impact of these gagging orders, which tend to work very much against the public interest. We need a proper drafting into the Bill of the kind of language that would limit the scope and purpose of non-disclosure agreements to the most restricted kind of necessity that they originally covered, not the expansive use that has become habitual as a way to protect privacy and avoid challenge.

Amendment 110, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Bowles, again raises the issue of properly funding the TRA, including providing for its inherited liabilities, to protect its independence. I spoke to this on Tuesday, so I shall not repeat myself, but there is a common sense among many of your Lordships that funding the TRA is an issue that has to be challenged. It must not find itself in a position of being short of resource and, therefore, curtailing or basically shaping what it does because of a lack of funding.

Amendments 111 and 112 in my name and that of my noble friend and Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, which I think is a very significant amendment, strengthen the reporting requirements of the TRA and finally provide some substance to the report. I spoke on an earlier group of the criticism of this Bill from the Constitution Committee—essentially, of its thinness and skeleton nature. Providing this kind of substance is genuinely critical if the significance of Parliament is to be recognised. As drafted, the Bill, as we have heard on two groups of amendments today, raises issues of transparency and independence. Therefore, like my noble friend Lady Bowles, I find it frustrating and inappropriate that the report of the TRA comes to Parliament only via the Secretary of State. That strikes me as a mark of undesirable dependency. We have been arguing all the way through that the TRA must be visibly, clearly and openly independent. Its ability to report directly to Parliament is surely a litmus test of that.

Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for International Trade (Lord Grimstone of Boscobel) (Con)
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My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate on this group of amendments, particularly touching on many aspects of corporate governance. To put my cards on the table, I am a fervent believer that good corporate governance leads to good decisions. Noble Lords were absolutely right to make their comments about the importance of governance.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Bassam of Brighton and Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling Amendment 81, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for moving it. Noble Lords may be interested to hear that, technically, the only member of the Board of Trade is its president, the Trade Secretary, as it is a requirement that, to be a member, you must be a privy counsellor. The Board of Trade is one of our most historic boards, which is why, as noble Lords can imagine, it was set up that way. My noble friend Lady Noakes was quite right about this, as was my noble friend Lord Trenchard, who added his normal wisdom to our debate.

The Board of Trade advisers are just that: advisers. They are not board members. We brought together experts from business, academia and government, who we hope will use their expertise and influence to help Britain make a stronger case for free trade on the international stage and to encourage more businesses across the UK regions and nations to boost their international trade. They are not policymakers, as such; the board and its advisers take a collaborative approach, focused on promoting the UK regions as destinations to trade and do business with.

The selection process for all advisers is the same: they are first shortlisted by the president of the board; departmental officials then conduct due diligence, in accordance with guidance from the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office. Throughout this, principles are followed that are consistent with those underpinning the Governance Code on Public Appointments, to provide advice on the suitability of appointments. As they are direct appointments, the Secretary of State considers the advice provided and, following No. 10 approval, has the final decision on whether or not to appoint. The board’s sole function is to provide expert and apolitical advice to the department. As such, the role of adviser to the board does not carry with it the responsibility to make decisions, hold senior staff to account or have any role in striking trade deals while representing the UK overseas.

I listened carefully to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about Mr Tony Abbott. As the PM has made clear, the Government do not agree with all of Tony Abbott’s views; nor do his views reflect the views of the Government. As with all advisers, he has been appointed because of his expertise in trade matters.

I thank again the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for her kind words about my small role in public appointments and for explaining the need for all public appointments to be made with integrity. Cronyism must have no place in our public appointment system.

Amendment 83, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, relates to the trade advisory groups established by my department. The trade advisory groups will engage with businesses across the whole of the UK to access the strategic and technical expertise necessary to progress our trade negotiations with new partners across the globe. They have a very wide membership, embracing exactly the types of organisations referred to by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. The names of all members and their affiliations can be found on GOV.UK.

Trade advisory groups are just one part of the Government’s external engagement on international trade. We of course recognise the very important position that civil society organisations, such as trade unions, occupy in our society, particularly the unique insight that they can offer on important issues. I confirm that we are deepening our engagement with trade unions in relation to trade matters and we will announce more details of that in due course.

I have heard the concerns over confidentiality, and I reassure the House that we intend to share sensitive information only where it is relevant to current negotiations and where the trade advisory groups are best positioned to provide advice and expertise. This is information which must of course be protected, because if such information were to be released it may compromise our negotiations with key partners.

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Moved by
86: Clause 8, page 5, line 22, after “trade,” insert—
“(aa) facilitating the exercise by a devolved authority of the authority’s functions relating to trade,”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that HMRC is able to disclose information to a devolved authority.
Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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My Lords, this group consists of three government amendments, which are minor and technical in nature, together with an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I will present the government amendments, before responding to Amendment 89. The amendments all relate to the data disclosure provisions at Clauses 8 and 9.

On government Amendment 86, it has always been our intention that the devolved Administrations should be able to access HMRC information to facilitate the exercise of their trade functions through the powers in the Bill. However, in recent discussions, colleagues in the devolved Administrations asked for their ability to receive information to be made more explicit in the Bill. I am happy to offer this clarity. This amendment puts beyond any perception of doubt that the devolved Administrations can access HMRC information for their trade functions through the Bill.

The associated government Amendment 96 is simply a consequence of Amendment 86, and explains what is meant by “devolved authority” for the purposes of the Bill. We have worked closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the data-sharing gateways in the Bill also assist them with their devolved functions. In this spirit, I make two further commitments to the devolved Administrations on data-sharing in Clause 9.

First, the data shared under Clause 9 will be used by the border impact centre and the Cabinet Office to develop strategic insights. They are committed to sharing strategic analysis related to flow of trade, where it will support the more effective management of flow through the border. I understand that Cabinet Office officials have been working closely with counterparts in the devolved Administrations to ensure that relevant analysis and information relating to trade and management of the border can be shared to support devolved functions. Examples of the types of information that the border impact centre intends to share with relevant parties in the devolved nations are flow patterns through ports. The Cabinet Office will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the border impact centre provides strategic benefit to management of flow through key ports.

Secondly, the UK Government commit to consulting the devolved Administrations before any devolved authorities are added to, or removed from, the list of specified authorities that can share data under Clause 9.

Amendment 90 corrects a drafting omission in Clause 10(4)(b)(i) in relation to the imprisonment term for a person guilty of an offence who is liable in England and Wales on summary conviction. Clause 10 as currently drafted provides that a person guilty of an offence under the clause is liable on summary conviction in England and Wales to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to a fine, or to both. Until the relevant provisions of the current Sentencing Bill are enacted and commenced, however, magistrates can impose a sentence of only up to six months’ imprisonment for a single offence in England and Wales.

In other legislation that provides for a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment on summary conviction, a provision concerning magistrates’ current sentencing powers is included to provide that reference to “12 months” is to be read as reference to six months until the relevant provisions of what will be the Sentencing Act are commenced. The amendment adds a similar provision to the Trade Bill.

I hope noble Lords will support these minor and technical government amendments.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Grimstone for making these amendments. This flags up a constant issue, whereby issues are raised late and at quite short notice by the devolved Administrations, but it also flags up a broader issue for another day as to where we are with the common frameworks.

I want to put one question to the Minister about the remarks that he has just made. He refers to the fact that the Cabinet Office will be responsible for disclosing this information and making it available to the devolved Administrations under Clause 9. He went on to say that in future they will now be consulted under Clause 9. I want to go one step further and ask him, in the usual way, that they are not just consulted but that the Government wait for them to give their consent to these changes, particularly if they might not just be technical but could be substantial. It is extremely important to keep the devolved Administrations on side, given that there will be elections at some point in the future where this could be used to the Government’s disadvantage. Could the Minister just confirm that they might await consent rather than just consultation?

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Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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My Lords, if it is a parliamentary expression, I may perhaps first say touché to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in relation to our earlier exchanges and I look forward to receiving his letter on those matters.

On my amendments, I was perhaps too optimistic and hopeful in describing them as minor and technical government amendments. So that I can give a full and accurate response to noble Lords who have raised questions on them, I will write to noble Lords answering all their points and place a copy in the Library.

Turning to Amendment 89 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, there are criminal penalties for any unauthorised sharing of data that apply under the existing Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005, which the Bill references. I would not want to impose different penalties for wrongful disclosure of HMRC data shared for trade purposes from those for HMRC data shared for other purposes under the 2005 Act. It would seem wrong to make that differentiation. I hope that provides reassurances to the noble Lord and that he will withdraw Amendment 89. I commend Amendments 86, 90 and 96.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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I shall now put the Question that Amendment 86 be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say content. To the contrary, not content.

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The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made a good point about the procedure for considering these issues: that it would be better if it were the affirmative procedure rather than the negative procedure. Clearly, there are issues such as timeliness to consider, but the affirmative procedure offers greater scrutiny to Parliament. In general terms, we on our side tend to agree with that.
Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his interest in the UK trade preference scheme. The Government share his interest in using trade preferences to support trade and development, and I am happy to discuss the Government’s commitments in this area.

I reassure the Committee that the Government have made long-standing commitments, including to Parliament, to replicate the EU trade preference scheme. The UK trade preference scheme—UK GSP—will provide the same level of access as the current EU trade preference scheme by granting duty-free, quota-free access to the UK market to least developed countries and by granting tariff reductions to other developing countries. It will replicate the three levels of market access provided by the EU, including an enhanced level of market access for economically vulnerable countries that ratify and implement 27 international conventions.

As noble Lords will be aware, coronavirus has had a severe impact on trade for many developing countries. Providing certainty that we will continue their GSP access is an important way of supporting their economic recovery.

I can confirm that the first set of GSP regulations will be laid before the end of the year and that they will maintain continuity of market access. I listened carefully to the points made by my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, but, as these regulations do not effect any significant changes compared with the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, the Government consider it more appropriate, when parliamentary time is stretched, to keep these as negative procedures.

However, I say to noble Lords that, after we have ensured continuity of the EU trade preference scheme in the transition period, we are committed to improving the UK’s trade preference scheme further in due course. I can confirm that we want the UK’s unilateral preferences to be as effective and simple to access as possible, to best support economic development in poor countries and to support UK businesses and consumers to access competitively priced goods. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we will make available the information in the autumn that we said we would make available.

I turn to the second part of amendment on human rights, and reassure noble Lords that the power in Section 10 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act allows for preferences to be varied, suspended or withdrawn and, by extension, allows the Government to address human rights violations of the type that this amendment seeks to address. I can assure the House that regulations to create the UK preference scheme will include provisions for the variation, suspension, or withdrawal of trade preferences where the beneficiary country engages in serious and systematic violations of human and labour rights. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, gave us some very powerful and chilling reasons why it is very important that we have these options. The Government will look at range of options in the event of human rights violations, and we shall balance the need to act decisively, where required, with the need to follow due process.

My noble friend Lord Lansley raised the question of Cambodia. The UK shares the EU’s concerns over the human rights situation in Cambodia, and continues to raise them with the Cambodian Government. However, the UK, rightly and properly, will take into account all the available evidence before taking a decision on whether to partially suspend Cambodia’s preferences at the end of the transition period.

The UK has a strong history of protecting these principles and promoting our values globally, and we will continue to do so. The Government do not shy away from issues of human rights, including during our discussions on trade. Moreover, the introduction of political considerations related to human rights does not fit with the purpose of the list of countries in Schedule 3 to the Act. This was intended to determine eligibility based on objective classifications by international bodies. The proper place to include these provisions is in the regulations that we will be introducing before the end of the year.

I undertake to write to noble Lords who raised detailed questions in the debate that I have not covered in this winding-up.

As this is the last amendment we are debating, I ask for the Committee’s indulgence to put on record my gratitude and appreciation to noble Lords, who have spoken with great passion, knowledge and experience during all the debates. I have personally found the expertise and constructive engagement I have had extremely valuable, and I thank noble Lords for their patience as I have begun to learn my trade as a Bill Minister. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Grantchester, Lord Purvis and Lord Fox, the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and my noble friends Lord Lansley, Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Noakes. I think that noble Lords will also want to join me in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Younger, whose support, guidance and good humour has been invaluable to me. On a personal level, I also thank the Bill team in my department for some tremendous work, and my private secretary, Donald Selmani, for spending long hours sitting in the Box.

The debates that we have had in Committee have allowed a detailed assessment of this Bill, as well as of wider trade issues. We now have some time in which to reflect on the views that we have heard—and, of course, I undertake to do that. I will use this time carefully and I look forward to engaging with Peers and debating the Bill further on Report.

On the amendments that we have been discussing, that just leaves me to say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lansley for raising these important issues. I hope that I have been able to reassure him and other noble Lords, and that he will agree to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Lansley Portrait Lord Lansley (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response to this debate. I am pleased that we have finished with an illustration, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in that regard, and to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for giving powerful, relevant examples of how the trade preferences and the way we manage our trade in future can have substantial impacts in some of the poorest countries of the world.

It is rather important that we finish by recognising that, while we do our dry legal work here, there will be powerful, real-world consequences of the decisions that we take. It is precisely for that reason that I tabled this amendment—to illustrate that, as a Parliament, we want to get involved in the debate about how we can make our UK trade preference scheme more generous, more accessible and able to support sustainable development around the world more effectively. We may well start by replicating the EU scheme, and I think the EU would legitimately argue that its generalised scheme of preferences is a world leader, but that does not mean it is perfect. It is important for us to recognise that there may be ways we can further develop it, given our ability to deploy our development expertise around the world.

I also understand the Minister’s argument about the first regulations being essentially to replicate the EU scheme, so why should we take up our valuable time debating them? The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, shared the point that our global tariff is not the same as the EU’s tariff. In so far as there are differences, it will have consequences for the least developed countries. Some of those consequences—for some products for some countries—might be really significant, and the noble Lord gave us examples of that. That is especially true if we do not have rollover agreements. It is bound to be true in that the EU has, for example, regional trade agreements that give rise to accumulation opportunities that we will not necessarily have in place early next year. So, easy as it is to say that we will simply replicate the EU scheme, I am afraid that there will be differences from the outset. I want to make sure that those differences are not negative and we find ways to deal with the potentially negative consequences for the neediest countries, but also go on, perhaps, to find new opportunities in the future.

I hope this is a debate that the Minister wants to have and that we will continue to have but, in view of everything he said, I do not want to press it now. As someone who has participated in all these Committee days—as my noble friend Lord Bates will recall, we did the same back in the early part of 2019—I think the Minister can rest assured that he has had an effective, capable and impressive first outing as a Minister working on a Bill. In response to his kind words to noble Lords, we have all very much appreciated the way that he, my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie and officials have gone about the process of working with us. We look forward to that being continued on Report. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 92.