Report stage & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report: 1st sitting & Report: 1st sitting: House of Lords
Monday 7th December 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Trade Bill 2019-21 View all Trade Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 128-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (2 Dec 2020)
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, although I cannot accept her diagnosis of this being an attack on democracy. I shall make just three short points, because we do not want this to go on all day.

First, noble Lords who have brought forward these amendments have not adduced any evidence as to why they are needed. The core procedures for the handling of treaties have served this country well. The Ponsonby rule, which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, reminded us of again today, is now enshrined in CRaG. As I said, no practical issues have been put forward for these amendments being needed. The Government have responded to the desire, as expressed by both Houses of Parliament, for more information and more involvement in the processes of scrutiny of trade treaties, most recently in the latest Ministerial Written Statement. I think that I am the only noble Lord speaking here today who has not seen a copy of that Statement but I am sure that it is splendid.

My second point is on the royal prerogative and prerogative power. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lansley that, despite Amendment 6 saying that it does not seek to override or diminish prerogative power, its effect is that, in practical terms, it does so—in particular, in relation to the approval of the negotiating objectives, which is not part of our current processes—and could easily restrict the prerogative power available to government. That is why I think that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House did not recommend that we go down that route.

My third point is on parliamentary accountability. Both amendments in this group are predicated on a view that parliamentary accountability requires legislation to make it effective. That is plainly not in accord with our parliamentary history. It is also, I submit, a dangerous route to go down. The strength of the UK’s parliamentary system is its capacity to evolve constantly, as we have seen in relation to free trade agreements with the way in which the Government have been open to involving Parliament increasingly and in different ways, including through engagement with committees.

If we wrote too much into legislation, that could work against the flexibility that is the hallmark of our system and has served us well, in particular over the last couple of years. I believe that that could end up being Parliament’s loss at the end of the day. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, referred to the constructive partnership that has been emerging between his committee on treaties and the Government, and the practical ways in which the work of his excellent committee is being helped to be effective. I have to say to noble Lords that the more you codify, the more it is less likely that constructive partnership becomes the hallmark of an ongoing approach. Noble Lords really cannot have it both ways.

Earl of Sandwich Portrait The Earl of Sandwich (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I also find Amendment 6 rather severe: not only is it asking for accountability to Parliament but it challenges the entire CRaG process. However, I accept that there is strong public feeling on this, which is confronting the Government’s post-Brexit policy directly and the political impetus towards global free trade. Many stakeholders and charities have already commented on several FTAs currently passing through Parliament; they want to be sure that there are safeguards throughout the process of scrutiny, and I understand that. I agree in principle with the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the right reverend Prelate. It is an impressive spectrum of opinion.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, refers to CRaG as minimalist, and he may well be right. However, I said earlier in our proceedings on the Bill that I had accepted the Government’s view that they had been flexible and that CRaG was, for the time being, fit for purpose and need not be altered yet—at least not radically. We have made a good start. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, uses the word “consensus”; I admire what I know of the European Parliament’s scrutiny processes, especially its opening up to civil society in all member countries, but I have misgivings about a debate on the objectives of every FGA, because I can guess how much it would slow down our own process.

The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made an important point about domestic legislation, but all this adds to the CRaG process. It is desirable, and there may be a time for it, but as we are entering a new era of trade agreements, we should wait to see how our existing process will cope with so much demand. Do we have the resources to do this? I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has taken that on board. We have already missed the boat with a row of important new agreements, either past or imminent. I suggest instead that CRaG and the issue of 21 days should be reviewed in a year’s time. So while I am sympathetic to the amendment I may have to abstain on the vote.

Lord Haskel Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Lord Haskel) (Lab)
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I call the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. No? Then I call the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, my first point on these amendments is that I am fundamentally in favour of trade. It is a huge part of our history as a nation and is certainly part of our ambitions for our future outside the EU. Being in favour of trade does not mean that I am against human rights, but I believe that a mature trading nation has to be able to balance competing interests; for example, the desire for all nations to uphold the highest standards of behaviour towards their citizens against the economic well-being of our own nation.

Human rights abuses are not a black and white issue. At one extreme, there is appalling abuse, such as the treatment of the Uighurs in China—though we must not forget that China contests the facts. At the other extreme, there might be a nation state that has never committed a human rights abuse, but I am not sure one exists. The UK, for example, has been founding wanting by the European Court of Human Rights on several occasions, and our own courts have found the same. Importantly, there is a spectrum of grey where the difficult task of responsible government arises.

Both Amendments 8 and 10 envisage using the courts to decide whether a human rights abuse is one that could, in effect, override or cancel the free trade agreement. In the case of Amendment 10 in the name of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, this is explicit, but in the case of Amendment 8, the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury—I think that I am quoting him correctly—said that the Government’s determinations under his new clause could be challenged by the courts. The courts in the UK may be good at determining whether human rights abuses have been committed in this country, but I do not believe that they are well placed to make any such determination in relation to overseas territories.

Furthermore, both amendments open our courts to vexatious claims by human rights activists of all kinds. I have a vision of our hard-pressed judicial system being swamped by the kind of litigation that is bound to follow if these amendments become law. It is not wise to invite our courts into the territory that is properly the domain of the Government’s foreign and trade policy; that would be a very poor outcome.

Amendment 8, unlike Amendment 10, does try to restrict itself to “serious violations”, but it defines them widely in subsection (5)(d) as

“other major violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

I do not know what that means and I do not want our courts getting sucked into these sorts of issues, which are, inevitably, political judgments at the end of the day.

I have one fundamental objection to these amendments: they attack free trade agreements only. They do nothing about trade that carries on on WTO terms. We do not have a free trade agreement with China but we certainly trade with it. If noble Lords think that passing either of these amendments, or Amendment 9 in the next group, will do anything for the Uighurs in China, they are not being honest with themselves. We should be wary of using our power to legislate to do no more than virtue-signal.

Earl of Sandwich Portrait The Earl of Sandwich (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I support Amendment 8. We have been privileged to belong to the European Union and follow the Copenhagen principles, as they were once called. We followed these rules as EU members; they will now be translated into our own legislation. Even in the EU, there are countries where the rule of law falls short, yet we still trade with them. Beyond that, how can we influence and do business with the more serious human rights offenders? Should we bring them aid and trade on the grounds that, in time, that might lead to a culture that could introduce new ideas and alleviate human rights offences? It is an outdated, even arrogant, position—I am not sure that it worked with Macaulay and Curzon in India—but we still argue it. Sometimes, we have to go further and resort to sanctions.

On the International Agreements Committee, I have argued for a stronger reference to human rights in the Explanatory Memorandum. In the past, you would see the phrase “no significant human rights considerations”, but I know from the Minister’s reassurance that the FCDO has been working hard on this and things such as trafficking. The rollover agreements reiterate the EU clauses, including protection for minorities. Can the Minister confirm that there has been further progress there as far as the new free trade agreements are concerned?