Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 29th September 2020

(3 years, 10 months ago)

Grand Committee
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-II(Rev) Revised second marshalled list for Grand Committee - (29 Sep 2020)
Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friends Lord Hain and in particular Lord Hendy, whose erudition in this area of law is well known. I have lent my name to Amendment 5, because, as I said at Second Reading, the Bill is lacking in positive reference to workers’ rights. As my noble friend Lord Hain said, it is more about a race to the bottom. It is therefore important to remedy this deficiency.

The deficiency can be remedied in part by Amendment 5. The UK already has commitments as a signatory to the ILO. These are currently protected by EU directives on public procurement, but this amendment is an opportunity to insist on conformity to them in relevant domestic legislation. The much-vaunted “levelling-up” agenda of the Government may be thrown into doubt by any number of decisions they may take. Not to accept the need to protect workers’ rights would be one such decision.

There is ample evidence that workplaces organised by trade unions are generally healthier and safer places to work, so the right to organise as in Convention 87 is a core principle. The right to collective bargaining and to achieve collective agreements, as set out in Convention 98, is central to providing an appropriate forum to determine wages.

This amendment is about creating conditions to ensure the provision of employment rights by insisting that no provision of the GPA should undermine the rights of and protections for workers in relation to or under a tender or contract. If, as I am sure we would all wish, we are to see public procurement in which relevant authorities have proper regard to the rights of workers and in which we as a country are seen to honour the obligations up to which we have signed in the ILO, our course is for your Lordships to agree the amendment.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 6 in my name, but before that I want to speak more generally on Amendments 1 to 5. These all refer to Clause 1 and the UK’s future participation in the Agreement on Government Procurement. It should be noted that the GPA has been an important form of market access that has come with our membership of the European Union. As the Minister and others have said, it opens up the possibility of access for UK companies to about £1.3 trillion of government contracts. One would expect Her Majesty’s Government to talk up this side of the equation.

The expectation is that the UK will enter the GPA at the end of the year, and I understand that the Government are seeking more or less to reproduce the access that we have enjoyed thanks to our European Union membership. Perhaps the Minister can give us an update on the timetable and whether there may be any changes to the terms that we might expect of the GPA at the turn of the year.

As I said, the external element of GPA is extremely important, but the flipside of that external access is that international businesses have access to about £67 billion of public service contracts in the UK every year. As we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Lennie, Lord Hain and Lord Hendy, the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, and my noble friend Lady Burt, these amendments seek to establish comfort on the nature of those services in terms of their impact on society and how publicly procured contracts affect people. We are sympathetic to these aims. Of course, we will debate later further amendments with similar objectives covering the whole trade environment and not just GPA, because workers’ rights, the environment, food standards, protecting the NHS, the needs of small businesses and other vital issues are central to the trade agenda. There is no point in having international trade if it erodes standards for people who live in this country.

In his maiden speech at Second Reading, the Minister made it clear that there was no intention to water down terms and conditions, yet the Government seem reluctant to put any of those terms and conditions into the legislation. This makes people suspicious—it makes me suspicious. These amendments, or amendments that come later, would help alleviate our suspicions.

Amendment 6 would require the Government within six months of acceding to the GPA to lay before Parliament a report on what help they are providing to businesses in the UK so that they can secure the advantages of this market access. The Government paint a picture of “global Britain”, a nation sailing the high seas of international trade with swagger and elan. I am not sure that I wholly sign up to this particular view of the world, but the GPA is an opportunity for UK companies, and has been since 1996. The Minister also said at Second Reading:

“I should like to make it clear that this Government and I are committed to transparency”.—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. 675.]

All the evidence points to his sincerity in this regard. In the interests of the transparency that the Minister espouses, Amendment 6, proposed by my noble friend Lord Purvis and I, simply asks for a report within six months on how the global Britain project is going with respect to the GPA. It would set out how Her Majesty’s Government are facilitating UK business taking advantage of the GPA. What actions have backed up the Secretary of State’s brio? For example, how have Her Majesty’s Government helped small businesses in the way just advised by my noble friend Lady Burt?

This level of transparency will have the benefit of reassuring people like me who fear that much of the language around international trade is just that: words. We want action; we want success. Human nature being what it is, our proposed six-monthly report would also help ensure that someone was actually doing something during that period.

Baroness Bryan of Partick Portrait Baroness Bryan of Partick (Lab) [V]
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I am pleased to speak in support of Amendment 5. The Institute for Government puts UK government spending on procuring goods, works and services from external suppliers in 2018-19 at around £292 billion, which is more than a third of all public spending. This huge spending capacity should be used as leverage to ensure the highest standards of labour rights here in the UK and in countries with which we do business. The Trade Bill gives the Government the opportunity to advance this process.

This amendment and the later Amendment 18 ask the Government to permit public bodies to consider more than short-term concerns such as lowest price and to take into account the welfare of the workers who will carry out the contract, ensuring that acceptable standards of employment are applied by any successful bidder. The conditions suggested in the amendment are in no way onerous; they are the basic minimum standards as set out in the conventions of the International Labour Organization which have been ratified by the UK. As we are a founding member of the ILO and a country that has ratified the eight fundamental conventions, this would not be asking too much. The amendment simply expects that any trade deal should not undermine or restrict the ability of a public body to include in its tender that bidders should abide by these basic employment rights, covering: freedom of association; the right to organise and to free collective bargaining; following basic rules against forced labour and child labour; and outlawing discrimination.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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My Lords, I have received a request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Fox.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, I am sitting here looking at the small surface wipes, which profess to kill 99.9% of all viruses. In his speech, the Minister used broadly the same terms twice, and substantially the same terms once, when describing the follow-on GPA agreement. That is equivalent to the 0.1%, which is important these days. Could the Minister tell us what is not the same, because “broadly” and “substantially” is not “identical”? Therefore, there is a difference. In what areas are we seeing variation?

Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for listening so intently to my speech to make those calculations. It is of great benefit to me that he did so. The changes are technical. I do not have them in front of me, although I know what they are. However, if I may, I shall write to the noble Lord and recount them for him.