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)
Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My concerns are rather general. I have been associated with the European Union for a very long time, as many people know: since 1979. I was at the TUC when Jacques Delors came and won the TUC over to the fact that the European Union could lay down standards which would benefit working people all over Europe, not just in Britain. I am very concerned that the Bill should not weaken any of those standards.

I am not going to point a finger at the Government and say, “Oh, that's what they are trying to”, but I would welcome a clear statement from the Minister that the Bill does not aim to give British working people lower standards or enable people to work around the standards that have been laid down and enjoyed for a long period. That is a fundamental matter.

When we look at where those standards come from—I follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in this—we see that the International Labour Organization has played an historic and noble role in working people’s standards for the past 100 years. It is the only part of the League of Nations that is still in being in its original state. The ILO and its conventions must be at the centre of any trade agreement negotiated by the British Government. If we are to have trade agreements, we cannot ignore the ILO’s standards or the basic standards of human and workers’ rights, and this is one way in which we can do it.

We heard a lot in the referendum, after the referendum and in the election about taking back control, but I hope that we are not going to be taking back control in order to weaken standards which have been hard won over the years. One of those standards is the democratic participation of Parliament in lawmaking and the making of trade agreements. This is highlighted in Amendment 100, and I share the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who said how important it is that each House of Parliament has a say. We cannot delegate democracy. If we are a two-part Parliament, this House must also have an input.

What concerns me about the whole approach is that we are not taking back control to Parliament; we are taking back control from a Parliament, the European Parliament, and seem to be putting it quite firmly into Whitehall—largely, it would seem, in an unaccountable manner. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that there will be a central role for both Houses of Parliament in how the trade agreements to be negotiated under the many clauses of this Bill are implemented.

The final point I want to make is this. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, mentioned the TUC. I have not heard a word from the TUC so I put it to its representatives, who I presume will be monitoring this debate, that if they want to protect workers’ rights, they should remember that a third of all workers do not vote for the Labour Party, they vote for the Conservative Party, a good number of them vote for Plaid Cymru and a fair number vote for the Green Party, the SNP or the parties in the north of Ireland. I would say to the TUC, “If you are issuing briefs, please issue them to everyone. If you’re not, please wake up”, because this Bill has enormous import for the future of workers in Britain and they deserve the TUC to be a little more proactive than it has been up to now.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I wish to address Amendment 6, referred to my noble friend Lord Fox, and to support Amendment 3, spoken to by my noble friend Lady Birt and to which she has put her name. In so doing, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for supporting in principle the idea that we are asking the Government to outline how they will be supporting British business to take advantage of the GPA agreement of which we are now a member in our own right as agreed by the other members. I reassure her that this Bill will never be long enough to address all the fears that me and my colleagues may have of this Government, but the amendment is practical, sensible and simply asks the Government to be clear. We will not rely on the Minister’s winding-up speech in this short debate in Grand Committee; rather, as my noble friend Lord Fox has indicated, we are asking for a proper report from the Government setting out how they will support our businesses.

We want the UK to prosper and our businesses to benefit from any new opportunities while also not being burdened if trading relations with our biggest market in Europe are harder. Procurement is one area where our businesses can seek contracting opportunities across all the GPA members, but there are practical barriers to those, whether it is language, knowledge of that country’s government procurement system, having local partners or legal protections. These are just some of the factors among many and it is a complex area in which to do business.

According to the OECD, taxpayers’ money that is spent by the Government on goods, services and infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools accounts for over 13% of gross domestic product, so there is a huge market. I can reference Amendment 51 in a later group, but let me refer to the NHS here at home. My noble friend Lord Fox gave the figure of £67 billion of UK procurement. NHS England spends around £27 billion on goods and services every year. Ward consumables are delivered through the American-founded and German-owned DHL. Mental health beds are operated by American companies providing about 13% of in-patient beds in England. In some areas, the proportion of US-owned mental healthcare facilities is much higher. In Manchester, patients have a 50:50 chance of being admitted to a privately owned hospital and a one in four chance of that bed being provided by an American-owned company. Patients think that the NHS is purely British from beginning to end, but services are being provided by an American-owned company. There is thus no question about the need for the British Government to provide more support for British companies to take up opportunities abroad. The Government strategy is for the NHS supply chain to be expanded and to make it easier for companies around the world both to bid for and to secure NHS services within this country. Of course, they will assist British businesses in doing the same but—I am not necessarily critical of this—the Government operate a level playing field.

The US sees this market as a valuable one because it is colossal, so it is no surprise that it has within its negotiating mandate with the United Kingdom to ease barriers so that its companies can benefit from greater market access to provide over £30 billion-worth of basics and consumables in addition to £7 billion in deals for capital contracts. It has been interesting to note that procurement opportunities within the UK have expanded and that that is positive. It opens up the UK to more international co-operation, but as my noble friend Lady Birt, has said, we want to see greater support for British businesses to enable them to take up some of these opportunities too.

It is interesting to note that the European Union has emphasised that the final market access offer presented by the UK for membership of the GPA was

“commercially credible and viable, replicating the UK’s current coverage under the EU schedule with minor technical adjustments.”

The EU was a fairly enthusiastic supporter of the UK application, and why would it not be? It replicates the same basis as it has at the moment.

I note that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, asked the Minister about the thresholds. She referred to $130,000 being the threshold. That is the threshold of every single GPA member other than Japan and Aruba, which have it set at $100,000. Can the Minister say, if we are to have opportunities in our own right, why that threshold is the same as what we had within the European Union?

The reason the WTO and the EU were enthusiastic about replicating what we have at the moment is because the WTO said when it approved our GPA membership in our own right

“It was underlined that the United Kingdom accounts for over a quarter of the EU’s total procurements covered by the GPA and that, when taking into account just central government entities, the UK accounts for nearly half of the EU’s covered procurements.”

There is no doubt that the EU is happy because it has retained market access to nearly half of all of that covered within the EU.

We were led to believe that the Government would negotiate nothing without using British leverage to get a better deal for Britain. Can the Minister explain what we have done with that? The Government did not include procurement in their mandate for a future relationship with the EU, while the EU’s mandate did. It wanted to go beyond the GPA, including utilities and supplementing the GPA with additional areas of coverage which would have opened up the European market for British businesses under procurement. But, no, the Government wish to go on the GPA model, which means that the European Union has in effect preferential access to UK procurement where we have not sought to open up some of the barriers to the European market.

I have a final question to ask the Minister regarding what is happening here at home. The 1998 devolution settlement means that public procurement is an area of responsibility for devolved government in Scotland and Wales. The Government have indicated that they wish to seek divergence in our current approach to procurement. How would this be seen in the devolved areas? I know this as a former constituency Member in the Scottish borders who fought many campaigns on the issue of being against centralisation and the Government centralising procurement policy and bundling up contracts, which makes it harder for smaller, local businesses, as my noble friend Lady Birt has indicated. The White Paper states

“For both goods and services, these provisions will be supplemented by the non-discrimination principle. For goods, non-discrimination will apply within certain excluded areas such as procurement.”

Paragraph 145 goes on to say that the Government are considering

“whether and to what extent it should apply to public procurement, in particular for above-threshold procurements.”

That means that, in effect, the UK Government for England can decide what the threshold levels and the policies for procurement would be for the devolved Administrations. No reference is made to procurement in the Bill, so can the Minister clarify the position on procurement within the internal market?

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak for only the second time in a debate and my first time in Committee, but as with my maiden speech, it is on matters of great importance to the businesses and consumers of the United Kingdom as we prepare to take our first steps as an independent trading nation for the first time in over half a century. I look forward to working with your Lordships to bring this Bill on to the statute book. I listened to the vast experience of Members of the House when we debated the Bill at Second Reading, an experience which I have already heard repeated in this Committee, and I know that noble Lords will take great care to scrutinise the provisions of the Bill thoroughly.

As I said at Second Reading, the intention of the Bill is to ensure continuity and certainty for the UK and our trading partners once the transition period ends. It will establish an independent body to protect UK producers from injury caused by unfair trading practices. It will enable better use of data to facilitate and improve trade. It will also ensure—the subject of this group of amendments—that UK businesses continue to have access to £1.3 trillion a year of government procurement contracts globally through our independent membership of the WTO’s Agreement on Government Procurement, or GPA. What the Bill will not do is lower our standards in any area.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful. I was muted, so I apologise for any inconvenience.

I support Amendment 7 and would like to explain to my noble friend Lord Lansley that this is more than just semantics. “Necessary” has a specific meaning in law, as has been identified by the Law Society of Scotland. Perhaps I should state for the record that I am a non-practising Scottish advocate. Against the background expressed by the Constitution Committee of the House on numerous occasions, in particular on this Bill but also on others, we are seeing an extensive scope of delegated ministerial powers, so it is incumbent on my noble friend the Minister to explain why they are required. By adding “necessary” as well as “appropriate”, we are flagging up to the Government that, in scrutinising the Bill and subsequent regulations, the objective of this legislation will go only so far as is necessary to implement the agreement in question. I hope that the Minister will see fit to accept this amendment.

I also wonder whether there has been an oversight in Clause 2(2)(b). The Explanatory Notes define international agreements as follows:

“International trade agreements are agreements between two or more countries aimed at reducing the barriers to trade in goods or services between them.”

For the sake of trade agreements relating to services, not least the right of people to trade services such as legal services, I wonder whether that was an oversight and whether it should be amended to read “free trade agreements and services”.

I also support Amendment 9, which I have signed, because, as stated in the Explanatory Notes, a trade agreement would need to be ratified before regulations could be made to implement it. In most other jurisdictions it is certainly the case that Parliament, and the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, would ratify the agreement. Would my noble friend put my mind at rest that this amendment is not required because that is the legal situation? If it is not, I would see some argument for the need for Amendment 9.

Amendment 10 seeks to apply the provisions of the Bill to trade agreements other than EU rollover trade agreements, allowing it to act as a framework for future trade policy. If the Bill is not to be the framework, it would be helpful if my noble friend took the chance to explain to the Committee what framework the Government intend to use.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I will primarily address Amendment 10, to which I have put my name, and then Amendment 7. In doing so, I will reflect on a couple of very good points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and other noble Lords during this short but useful debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that this debate frames the context for many of the later groups.

There is now no disagreement between the Government and the Opposition that trade agreements are now, by definition, deeper and more comprehensive than they were before we joined the European Union. The transformation of trade agreements from the mid-1970s to now has been significant. They touch on wide domestic policy, far beyond simply tariff rates or quotas for goods. Many will now include provisions on the service-sector economy, which trade agreements never touched on in the past. Therefore, seemingly innocuous technicalities in a trade agreement can sometimes have far-reaching consequences for domestic policy. Later on, the Committee will address additional chapters on climate, development and human rights that never used to exist in trade agreements. In the last group, the Minister referred to impacts on modern slavery and supply chains. These are now all within wider, deeper and more comprehensive trade agreements. It is also the case—admitted by the Government—that trade agreements in the UK in the 21st century impact on the devolution settlements that did not even exist before we joined the European Union. Therefore, there are wider consequences, and the Committee will be discussing those later.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for giving me the chance to clarify my comments. We have already said, and I am happy to say again, that we will bring forward primary legislation as necessary for future FTAs with new trade partners. As my noble friend quite appropriately spotted, we could not implement those free trade agreements without bringing forward primary legislation. The CRaG process does not do that—it ratifies the treaty but cannot, in itself, alter domestic legislation.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister. He said two things, one with regard to the scope of this Bill. We have heard Ministers many times state their desire for this Bill to be very limited in scope and look only at continuity of trade. The Government have brought amendments to this Bill to widen the scope quite significantly, for example on data sharing. The debates we will be having fall squarely within the spirit of what the Government have done to open up the scope.

We will be returning to this valid debate area, but I want to ask the Minister a specific question. I listened carefully to what he said. In objecting to some of the amendments, he referred to the fact that some of the agreements did not require scrutiny within this Parliament because, he said, they had already undergone the EU scrutiny process, mandate, negotiation and ratification stages. That was by the European Parliament, where British MEPs sat and were able to take part. For new agreements, we will have no equivalent. To be clear, is the Government’s position that the EU scrutiny process—when it comes to the agreements that have been approved by the European Union and gone through it but not yet been put into domestic legislation—is equivalent to the CRaG process the Government are asking to use going forward?

Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for his comments. The continuity agreements were those that were in force before 1 January or had been agreed to by the EU, even if not fully ratified, before then. We were fully participating members of the European Union then. The committees of this House and the other place that scrutinise European legislation—the noble Lord knows much more about that than I do, being a new boy—scrutinised these agreements and did that satisfactorily.

--- Later in debate ---
Unfortunately, the UK, like many other countries, has pulled its punches when talking to China about these abhorrent practices. Of course, as the Economist has pointed out, China’s economic power has helped it to avoid censure regarding the abuse of the Uighurs. Many companies in the west appear reluctant to use any leverage they may have to put pressure on China. That is clearly not helped by the reluctance of so many countries to upset China. But in the end, as a matter of principle, the UK should be making a stand. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will respond on the basis of the principles contained in Amendment 33. I am very glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I remain be-seated to beseech the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and others to support Amendment 45 in this group. I shall try to address some of her specific points about that amendment a bit later.

It was very helpful that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, was able to take part in the debate on this group, and it is a pleasure to follow him. What he outlined very clearly, in many respects adding to what my noble friends Lady Kramer and Lady Northover said, is that it is now almost impossible to strip out human rights considerations from global trade. We require a degree of pragmatism from our Government in the scope of how much extra global trade we can have. Over the last couple of years, there has been a huge narrative saying that, once we are free of the shackles of the European Union, there will be massive growth potential in untapped markets around the world. Of course, there are constraints on that: in opening up those markets, there can be unfair access to our country that puts us at a disadvantage, or we can reduce standards or set them aside. That means setting aside new international norms on human rights and sustainability, inasmuch as they are a legitimate restriction on total and unlimited free trade.

The narrative therefore needs a degree of adjustment. I wish to address Amendment 45, which I hope is a reasonable addition to this debate but should also be seen within the package of Amendments 23 and 39, which are not in this group. It is about an overall framework of what the restrictions should be on our entering into trade agreements, the level of scrutiny that should exist and how we report on their impact. I hope that together they might allay some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, given what he said in the previous group about the need for a proper level of scrutiny.

Every year the Government publish a human rights and democracy report. This year, Human Rights and Democracy: the 2019 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report ran to nearly 70 pages. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, prefaced it, after the Foreign Secretary, by saying:

“Every day, across the globe, UK Ministers and officials stand up for a set of universal rights that, if fully realised, would afford everyone, everywhere, dignity and allow people to flourish.”

I agree with him, and I am not sure that anybody would disagree with that. It is now inevitable, since we have an independent trading policy, that the impact of our trading relationships will have to be incorporated into our reporting. I am fairly open-minded as to how that is done, as long as it is done, and I am very happy to develop the idea further along the lines of the discussions suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. But I want to give a reason why it is also important and raise some questions for the Minister.

As we have said, it has become the practice for human rights to be part of the political and social chapters of trade deals. That has been the case over recent years and it has been the case in the EU common approach to the use of political clauses agreed in 2009. According to EU practice, in trade agreements human rights are to be included in EU political framework agreements under “essential elements clauses”. EU FTAs are to be linked to those political framework agreements. If no political framework agreement exists, essential elements clauses are to be included, and serious breaches of those clauses may trigger the suspension, in whole or in part, of the overall framework agreements. All the agreements, including the trade agreements, are linked. Are we seeking to continue this approach to future trade agreements? Will we deviate from an approach that we helped design in 2009?

My second point relates to Clause 2 powers, which we have already referred to this afternoon. I remind the Committee that it provides the authority to make regulations considered

“appropriate for the purpose of implementing an international trade agreement”,

including those that make provision for modifying primary legislation that is retained EU law. The Minister referred to that during debate on the first group. I remind the Committee that retained EU law includes primary legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, the Energy Act 2013 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, as referred to. Therefore, it is important to know that the implication of the regulation-making power in this Bill is an ability to change primary legislation on human rights. For example, the Equality Act gives effect to four EU law mandates: the race equality directive, the equal treatment directive, the equal treatment in goods and services directive and the equal treatment recast directive. Therefore, to allay many of the concerns, can the Minister tell us whether the Government will rule out using this regulatory power to amend primary human rights legislation? If he cannot give that commitment, I am afraid that he will have to appreciate that concerns about the Government’s intentions will remain, because the Bill has insufficient safeguards to ensure that human rights legislation, debated and voted on in primary legislation, cannot be amended by regulations.

Coming back to international trade, my final point concerns continuity and pragmatism. It is not the case that there has been no consideration of human rights in continuity agreements so far. I am a member of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, which has written to the Government and the Minister about human rights considerations regarding trade and continuity agreements with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We have agreements, that have been EU agreements, with Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Eswatini, Iraq, Kazakhstan and the Palestinian Authority. They are all classified by Freedom House as not free, but all those agreements have human rights components within them. I will be the first to say that this is not a panacea and that some—with Vietnam, for example—are fairly problematic, but they all exist. Therefore, if the Government are seeking powers over the next five years to amend those agreements by regulations, what are their intentions for the human rights clauses of those continuity agreements? If the Minister can clarify that, it will be very helpful.

Canada has been referred to in debate on this group and it is a very interesting example. The approach for Canada has developed beyond simply those that we have had for other continuity agreements. A European Parliament briefing on the CETA says that

“a particularly serious and substantial violation of human rights or non-proliferation, as defined in paragraph 3, could also serve as grounds for the termination of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.”

Therefore, for the first time, what is envisaged is not simply the suspension of trading relationships but the termination of those relationships—a nuclear option, as it were. One would imagine that that would never become the situation between Canada and the EU, but the possibility exists.

Given that it is government policy to have a Canada-style agreement, there is no reference in the draft text from the Government to the EU that they published over the summer to any equivalence for human rights. There is none at all. The only reference to human rights in the draft text would be to deny most favoured nation status to other third countries if they violate human rights. If we are to trust the Government, which the Minister says repeatedly for us to do, why is it that in their draft text for the EU agreement, they have not put in any draft text for any human rights clauses as far as we operate with the European Union? The very least we can do is to have the ability to ask the Government to report on its impacts.

With reference to the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—and I will conclude on this point—the Government publish a comprehensive human rights and democracy report every year. That is not onerous; that is what the Government do. As they say, it underpins their foreign policy. With regard to sectors in our amendment, they are sectors linked to all of the sections within the agreement. That is fairly straightforward. When it refers to our commitments, and the countries we have signed commitments with, yes, it is the whole lot, because that also covers what we currently have within the Commission.

The only reference to human rights, in what the Government are proposing with future trade agreements, is other countries not adhering to them. We do not believe this is sufficient. I am very happy to speak to the Minister, and to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and others, if there is a better way of having this. Given the fact that trade is going to be a fundamental part of our foreign policy and our foreign relationships, we will require a reporting mechanism of the impact of trade on human rights for the United Kingdom and those we trade with.

Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, before I come to Amendments 11, 18, 33 and 45, I want to put on record that we have heard some very powerful views on human rights expressed by noble Lords in the Committee today. I deeply respect those views and when I say, with all due respect, they are not relevant to this Bill, which is about continuity agreements, I hope that is not in any way taken as me belittling those views that have been expressed. I would also like to put on record that we do not see it as a choice between securing growth and investment for the UK, and raising human rights. There is not a trade-off here that we are looking to make.

The UK is active in raising human rights concerns. In the case of China, it raises those concerns both directly with the Chinese authorities and in multilateral fora. For example, on 30 June the UK delivered a statement on behalf of 28 countries at the UN Human Rights Council, highlighting some of the matters that noble Lords have raised today—that is, highlighting arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly those targeting Uighurs and other minorities, and urging China to allow the UN high commissioner for human rights meaningful access to Xinjiang. When I say these concerns are not relevant to the Bill, I am in no way say these concerns are not relevant in a wider context and deeply felt.

Coming to the amendments we have been debating today and turning first to Amendment 11, I am proud to say the UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. This will not change once we leave the EU. We have always been clear that we have no intention of lowering protections in these areas, as the Prime Minister set out in his Greenwich speech earlier this year. We are not engaged, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said or feared, in a race to the bottom. The bottom would not be an appropriate place for the United Kingdom to find itself.

It should come as no surprise that our continuity programme is consistent with existing international obligations as it seeks to replicate existing EU agreements which, of course, are fully compliant with such obligations. By transitioning these agreements, we are reaffirming the UK’s commitment to international obligations on labour and human rights. As noble Lords know, we are seeking to provide certainty and stability in trading relationships for UK businesses and consumers through our trade agreement continuity programme.