Debates between Baroness Noakes and Lord Goldsmith during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 8th Oct 2020
Trade Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage:Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Trade Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Goldsmith
Committee stage & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 8th October 2020

(3 years, 8 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, it is indeed a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and to be reminded of a pleasant afternoon we spent last month debating reports from the Constitution Committee and the EU Committee on the handling of treaties. I think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of some of the things that were in those reports. I have to say that that afternoon I was, as I shall be today, no doubt, the only participant supporting the Government, and the rest of the participants in that debate were repeating lines we have heard already and will continue to hear on this issue.

The Constitution Committee looked in particular at the European Parliament processes which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh, and it recommended not replicating them. There was a very clear finding that we should not replicate them, and the committee pointed out the differences with the European Parliament as a supranational Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, earlier referred to Jack Straw in relation to the CRaG Act. Noble Lords might be interested that he gave evidence to the Constitution Committee and advised it that he thought that copying the European Parliament’s processes was a rabbit hole down which we should not go.

The other important aspect of the Constitution Committee’s findings was that we should not fetter the royal prerogative and that some of the processes that have been put forward by noble Lords, and that have been put forward again today, do indeed fetter the royal prerogative, as my noble friend Lord Lansley said. That applies in particular to a role in negotiating objectives. The committee did not recommend that Parliament should fetter the royal prerogative in that way.

That debate and these debates come back to a lack of happiness among noble Lords with the CRaG processes. I remind noble Lords that the CRaG processes were not invented when the CRaG Bill was brought forward by the last Labour Government. Those processes were based on the Ponsonby rule, which has existed for a very long time and served Parliament extremely well on the ratification of international treaties. The CRaG Act effectively codified those processes into law and recognised the role that Parliament should have, which is at the end of the process once the royal prerogative has been used to negotiate treaties.

There has been a lot of talk about whether 21 days is enough. We have to remember that it is 21 sitting days, so that would be a minimum of five weeks and sometimes quite a lot longer, so this is not a minimalist period for parliamentary committees to go about doing their work, and I believe that on the whole that has proved adequate for scrutiny take place.

Coming on to whether extra time is needed, which is in Amendment 63 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lansley, we have to remember that CRaG allows the other place not to ratify a treaty—so, de facto, the other place already in effect has the power to require extra time by the simple act of denying approval of the ratification. That can be done an infinite number of times. The other place does not have the power to make changes to treaties but does have the power simply to refuse ratification, and that can be used effectively if the Government were perceived to be acting reasonably. As my noble friend Lord Lansley said, the Government have said that they will respond where possible to any reasonable request for further time, and I think that that is a perfectly reasonable position for us to be in.

I will comment on only one other amendment in this group, Amendment 98, which seems to be another opportunity for Parliament to disapprove of a no-deal Brexit by denying this Act to come into effect if it does not approve a no-deal Brexit. As we know, the Government do not want a no-deal Brexit, but we may not achieve a free trade agreement with the EU, and if we have to exit on a no-deal basis, that is what we have to do. Had this amendment gone into the Bill we were considering a couple of years ago, it might have had some purpose to it for those not of a Brexit persuasion to have a last gasp at trying to keep us in the EU. However, with the current electoral result in the other place, with a large majority that was elected on a clear campaign promise to get Brexit done, I cannot believe that Amendment 98 has any real place in the Bill, and I hope very much that the noble Lord will not press it if it comes back on Report.

Lord Goldsmith Portrait Lord Goldsmith (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, this is the first time I speak on the Bill; I apologise to noble Lords that I have not done so before. I am prompted to do so because of the references that have been made in this debate and in some of the amendments to the EU International Agreements Sub-Committee, which I have the honour to chair. I want to speak not so much about the detail of some of the amendments —I cannot speak with the authority of the committee as it has not taken views on some of them as such—but to lay down a marker. If some of these amendments come back on Report, I may well not be quite so reticent.

I will make some basic points about the job that we have now been tasked to do by your Lordships’ House, which is to scrutinise international agreements—not simply trade agreements, although they are obviously an important part of that. Reference has already been made to the debate which took place on 7 September, if my memory serves me right, on three reports: the report that we had produced on Treaty Scrutiny: Working Practices, alongside the report of the Constitution Committee, which is chaired by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, and the Lessons Learned report of your Lordships’ EU Committee. As we noted in our report, which is the most recent of them, at paragraph 23:

“all three reports called for greater transparency; a role for Parliament much earlier in the process of negotiating international agreements; and a proper role for the devolved institutions. Significant concerns were also expressed as to whether it was possible to conduct meaningful parliamentary scrutiny within the timetable permitted under the CRAG Act.”

We had a good debate; I repeat the thanks to noble Lords who participated in it. Sadly, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, was not the Minister on that occasion, so we did not have the benefit of hearing his responses to those reports—I hope that today will provide an opportunity for him to do so. However, I believe that he shares our belief, if I dare take his name in vain, that parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements is crucial and that we have moved on from the days when it was thought that the sovereign—read now the Executive—could simply enter into agreements without any involvement of Parliament.

I acknowledge that the CRaG process has changed this, at least to some extent. However, it is still ex post facto—after the agreement has been made—which gives rise to the serious problem that Parliament, whether it is the other House or the comments that this House make on it, has to take it or leave it. Under CRaG, strictly interpreted, it is not until the deal is done that the matter is subject to scrutiny, and then, in the case of the other place, the sole weapon is to withhold consent.