Trade Bill

Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Excerpts
Report stage & Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 15th December 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, this has been a good debate on an important issue. We have heard some very expert contributions from all sides of the House set out the scene clearly. In responding to the debate, I will also speak to Amendment 19 in my name, which I am pleased has some support from the noble Lords who spoke before me.

The issue that distinguishes my amendment from those in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Kramer and Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is—if I can use an inelegant term—the fact that I was trying to provide in the amendment a little wiggle room for the Government on ISDS. I mean that in the sense of offering the Minister and the Secretary of State, when a proposal for an ISDS mechanism comes forward within a trade agreement, the chance to argue the case in Parliament and get support for it, should that be necessary in his or her judgment in relation to the particular case concerned. However, today’s debate has polarised the views of those who are concerned about ISDS. Probably the right thing to do is to signal at this stage that I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and we would be prepared to follow her into the Lobbies if she wished to test the opinion of the House.

The reasons for that are easily summed up; we can look to the cases drawn up by my noble friend Lord Hendy, the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. For a moment, I thought that he was going to turn into a serial rebel with his victory earlier on in our debates this afternoon; I also thought that he might wish also to move against his own Government on this issue, but he was able to draw a line and point out both the transgressions that were being perpetrated within the Government and the opportunity for a rethink, in his terms, in the light of the schemes before us.

As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, concluded, we probably need to draw a line in the sand and explain why we do not believe that ISDS is the model that the Government should be thinking about going forward. It may well be that the multilateral tribune approach is not yet right. There may also be a better case to be made for the use of our own courts; after all, we have an experienced and expert judiciary and a lot of court experience in these matters. If we are doing trade deals with countries that also have mature legal systems, it is hard to see why an ISDS scheme needs to be there unless, as my noble friend Lord Hendy said, this is part of some overall scheme of preferential treatment for those who have investment to spare but find the risks too great and need the assurances of an ISDS system to back up their support.

We live in different times. I do not know whether the old arguments will work, but I do know that what we see before us with ISDS is not right. It is no longer fit for purpose— it must change. We should start that progress by supporting the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer.

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, I turn to Amendment 15, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and Amendment 19, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. These proposed new clauses concern the approach taken to investment protection and the settlement of investment disputes where these provisions are included in free trade agreements. I will try to restrict my comments to points germane to these amendments.

The UK has included these provisions in more than 90 bilateral investment treaties, which have been crucial for our overseas investors. The UK is one of the most open countries for investments. That is because one of the great attractions for foreign investment is the fair and independent legal system underpinning domestic and foreign investment. We look to use investment provisions in trade agreements to guarantee equivalent levels of legal certainty for our businesses expanding overseas. These businesses make sizeable investments and incur significant risks. It is therefore vital that they can operate in a free and fair environment with a means of independent redress where treaty commitments have been breached.

In response to points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb—not that I expect I will cause noble Lords to change their minds, sadly—many major British companies tell me that the existence of ISDS in certain overseas countries is absolutely germane to their decision to invest in that country. I recognise that noble Lords are concerned that these interests are correctly balanced in our free trade agreements with the Government’s right to regulate in the public interest. That is an objective I share. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Lansley for answering the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, on Canada in such depth and with such erudition—in words I could not hope to better.

Amendment 15 would permit the UK to sign a trade agreement only if it commits all parties to pursue the establishment of a multilateral investment tribunal system and an appellate mechanism for the settlement of investment disputes. It would also require all such disputes against the UK to be heard by UK domestic courts until such a system is in place. Your Lordships will no doubt be aware that not all trade agreements include investment protection and dispute settlement. It would not be appropriate to require all trade agreements to include a commitment to pursue a multilateral investment tribunal system or for disputes to be heard in UK domestic courts. In the absence of such a system, including this requirement would only hinder the progress of UK trade policy.

The UK is fully engaged in negotiations at the UN Commission on International Trade Law on the options to reform investor-state dispute settlement and the possibility of establishing a multilateral investment court —MIC. I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that the process of triangulation continues, and we have not yet come to a conclusion on the most appropriate way forward. Binding the hands of both the UK and our treaty partners before negotiations are concluded may not be in either their or the UK’s best interests, especially, as my noble friend Lord Lansley noted, some of our major trading partners are against the concept of the MIC. My noble friend Lord Caithness asked about ISDS and China. I confirm, perhaps surprisingly, that we have had a bilateral investment treaty with China since 1986. However, perhaps to the relief of noble Lords, there has never been a case brought against the UK under that treaty—nor do I expect there to be.

As for the requirement for UK courts to hear investment disputes, depending on the circumstances foreign investors in the UK will already have a means to legal redress against the Government without resorting to ISDS. It is likely that if we impose a requirement for disputes to be handled only by national courts, this will need to be agreed on a reciprocal basis with treaty partners. This would then require disputes brought by UK investors against a host state to be heard in their national courts, undermining the access to independent ad hoc arbitration for UK investors which has successfully supported UK investors worldwide for the past 40 years. I have no doubt that our major investing companies would oppose this.

ISDS in its current form is valuable for UK businesses investing overseas. This in turn benefits UK citizens as their shareholders. Conversely, the UK has never been a respondent in an investment dispute before a tribunal that has gone against it. The UK’s existing stock of bilateral investment treaties all contain ad hoc arbitration as the form of dispute settlement. Arbitration is a widely used means of resolving disputes between parties, including under international and domestic law.

Amendment 19 would similarly require the UK to pursue the establishment of a multilateral investment tribunal system and appellate mechanism. It would also result in the UK being unable to implement trade agreements containing ISDS unless the subject matter of a claim is something under which UK domestic law offers redress to UK persons. It would require the Government to approve a mandate for a free trade agreement containing ISDS provisions through regulations of both Houses of Parliament.

I will start with the redress available to investors under domestic law. The amendment overlooks the fact that, depending on circumstances, foreign investors in the UK already have the means to seek legal redress against the UK Government through domestic law, without resorting to ISDS. I humbly suggest that is one reason cases have never been brought against the UK under ISDS. As I mentioned, UK courts are regarded internationally as reliable and independent. It is worth reiterating that this is one reason the UK has never been a respondent in an ISDS case.

The amendment requires that the Government approve the inclusion of ISDS provisions through both Houses of Parliament. The Government have already committed to publishing their negotiating objectives, along with an initial impact assessment and a response to any public consultations, before entering negotiations. I humbly suggest that noble Lords know well that, as required under the CRaG procedure, the Government will lay the final treaty text alongside an explanatory memorandum before both Houses for 21 sitting days. This House has the power to prevent ratification should the ISDS provisions in the proposed treaty not be to the satisfaction of noble Lords. The House of Commons can do so indefinitely.

On the point raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh about dispute resolution in any EU agreement, I am afraid that, like me, noble Lords will have to wait and see. I hope this reassures noble Lords and, on that basis, I ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

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Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for raising the important issues of trade and international development. I am well aware of his deep commitment to this topic, and I admire the integrity with which he pursues it. I am pleased to say that the Government share his commitment to supporting international trade, prosperity and poverty reduction, and I am happy to explain the Government’s policy on this topic.

The Government have a proud history of providing official development assistance in such a way as to achieve maximum impact on reducing poverty in developing countries, including through helping to build their capability to trade. The International Development Act 2002 requires that overseas development assistance is provided only for the purposes of furthering sustainable development of a country outside the UK or for improving the welfare of the population of such a country. I unequivocally assure all noble Lords who have raised the point that the Government are committed to providing international aid untied to commercial conditions. That ensures that international aid spending is procured through open competition to achieve best value for money. The UK’s approach in this area is published in the 2015 UK aid strategy and further set out in the UK Official Development Assistance: Value for Money Guidance. The Foreign Secretary reaffirmed this commitment in the other place on 26 November. Through these provisions, the Government’s approach to international aid is wholly consistent with both sets of OECD guidelines on official development assistance to which this amendment refers. I am happy to give the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and other noble Lords a categoric reassurance that we have no plans or intent to change that.

I turn to Amendment 25. The Government, of course, share the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, to support trade with developing countries. We have engaged wholeheartedly with our developing country partners to secure economic partnership agreements that provide continuity of their market access. As has already been noted by noble Lords, I am pleased to inform the House that Kenya and the Ivory Coast have recently agreed economic partnership agreements with the UK, which will provide long-term certainty of their duty-free market access and provide a framework to develop our trade relationships in future.

We began discussing an economic partnership agreement with Ghana no less than three years ago, and we encourage Ghana to conclude those discussions to maintain our existing trade arrangements, including its duty-free access. I ask noble Lords to join me in that encouragement: we want to conclude an agreement with Ghana, and I give it that message loudly and clearly. On Cameroon, we are committed to securing an EPA. Further discussions continued as recently as last week and, again, I encourage that country to reach an agreement with us as soon as possible.

Further, I clarify that the Government’s long-stated policy is to replicate the effects of the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, or GSP, and then in due course to go beyond it. This arrangement supports trade with around 70 developing countries; it increases global prosperity and reduces poverty while providing access to cheaper products for UK consumers. The most appropriate way in which to ensure continuity of this vital trade arrangement is to replicate the existing trade preference scheme, which is already known to be compatible with WTO rules, and regulations to create the GSP will be laid in Parliament shortly.

I absolutely took the point made by my noble friend Lord Lansley about the optimum arrangements for the future, and I will ensure that his comments are passed on. Transitioning the existing EPAs is absolutely not the limit of the Government’s ambition in the area, and in the future we will look at how we can improve on these structures. Regarding proposed new subsection (2) in Amendment 25, introducing any changes to the eligibility criteria of the UK GSP at this point creates risk and uncertainty for the remaining 70 countries of the UK GSP, which I am sure noble Lords wish to avoid.

Regarding proposed new subsection (3), which proposes removing the tariffs on bananas for countries in the UK GSP’s enhanced framework, I urge caution. Although this could provide a way to maintain Ghana’s duty-free access to bananas, it would also extend this preferential access to the other countries in the enhanced framework. Some of them are already competitive banana producers and could increase their exports of bananas to the UK at the expense of existing banana producers, many of which are Commonwealth partners in the Caribbean. Such a proposal cannot be rushed. It must be based on careful analysis. For that reason, it cannot be accepted now.

I hope that your Lordships agree that there is a balance to be struck. While of course I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the impact of a potential loss of duty-free access for Ghana if the worst comes to the worst, this amendment to the UK’s generalised scheme of preferences could have negative consequence on other countries’ trade relationships with the UK. I reassure noble Lords that if Ghana does not agree an EPA—I sincerely hope that it will—it will still receive tariff reductions on two-thirds of its product lines through the general framework of the UK GSP. Ghana can also apply for the enhanced framework of the UK GSP, which provides further trade preferences.

I am genuinely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for raising these important issues. I hope that I have clarified for him and other noble Lords who have spoken the wider consequences of the amendment. I also hope that I have reassured him and other noble Lords on the Government’s policy to not tie overseas development assistance to procurement or trade from the UK, in line with international guidelines. I hope therefore that noble Lords agree that this amendment is unnecessary, and that the noble Lord agrees to withdraw it and not bring it forward on the later occasion.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate, which has focused on longer-term issues rather than more immediate ones. I am very grateful for the Minister’s response, his kind remarks, and the courtesy with which he carries out his work. My noble friend Lord Bruce and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, addressed very clearly the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and to some extent, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. I took the 2015 Act through this House on behalf of my then right honourable friend Michael Moore in the House of Commons. I refer to the subsequent Conservative Party manifesto, its 2017 and 2019 manifestos, and what has been said by every Conservative Minister from the passing of that commitment until three weeks ago. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, asked whether the amendment was going to prevent the Government doing something that he said they were not going to do. Well, every statement from Ministers and three manifesto commitments has been breached.

Therefore, I hope that noble colleagues will forgive me for laying down a marker to indicate that the connection between trade and development is real. It may be that if, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has indicated, the Government bring forward repeal or significant amendments to the 2015 Act or, indeed, the 2002 Act, we will consider it then. I hope, of course, that they do not.

The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made the point about blurring the lines, perhaps, between development priorities and trade priorities. He asked specifically about the drafting of the amendment. It is a fair question. I tried to blend the categories in the list at Part 3 of Schedule 3 to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018, which defines the countries that we will have, with what a trade agreement amendment would be—because as we know, the tied aid goes beyond trade agreements—but, of course, there are elements to be debated going forward. I hope we will not need to debate these. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is right. I hope that what the Government say about having no plans for change will be right. I believe that the Minister has a very high degree of integrity and I am very grateful for the explicit and categorical assurances, and therefore I shall not press Amendment 16.

On the most immediate point, I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I was hoping that he might be in a position to confirm the movement that I understand has been made, because while I freely admit that my amendment is only one option—the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, indicated other options and the Minister has indicated certain other areas; we might need to approach this in a different way—the principle is the same. Agreements have not been made. I hope that they will be, but if they are not within a week’s time, assurances need to be made for goods that are in port now, ready to come to the UK from some of the least developed countries in the world. I am glad that the Minister has given reassurance, and I hope very much that we will not need to come back to this after January, because this is now a real, live test that needs to be resolved so that the people paying the price for the end of the transition period are not the people working in some of the least developed countries in the world. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.