Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill [Lords] Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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First, let me say that we on the SNP Benches are also not looking to divide the House. I thought that I might get the opportunity to pre-empt the jibe that is often made about how my party is against trade deals, but the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) got there first. I saw that those on the Labour Front Bench also took a sideswipe with their rather nonsensical jibe. I freely admit that we have yet to find a deal signed by this Government that we are happy to support. Fundamentally—I say this again—we are in favour of good trade deals and we are not in favour of poor trade deals. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Totnes is very, very excitable. For the purposes of Hansard, he is asking me to name one, but the sad fact is that I cannot name one that has been signed by this Government. Trying to help those on the Treasury Bench and Back Benchers understand the difference feels a bit like Father Ted trying to explain to Father Dougal the difference between cows that are small and cows that are far away.

In common with the shadow Minister, we are not saying that there cannot be some advantages of the CPTPP deal, but what we could not be clearer about is that, taken in their totality, all the trade deals signed to date—or even those that could have been signed had negotiations not failed to get off the starting block, or those that have hit the buffers in recent days—are a very poor substitute for the trade deals that we have left behind. In the manner in which it chose to leave the European Union, the UK managed not only to create trade borders with 27 other countries, but, unfathomably, to create one with itself, when it created a trade border down the middle of the Irish sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the CPTPP, we have essentially swapped the four freedoms in Europe of goods, capital, services and people, in a market of half a billion people with a GDP of over £15 trillion, which was right on our doorstep and which already took over 40% of our exports, with a much lesser deal, with a combined economy of almost half the size, on the opposite side of the world, which currently takes only 8% of our exports. A great deal of growth would need to happen in that market—somewhat implausibly I have to say—even to come close to matching what has been left behind.

The economic benefits of joining the CPTPP are pretty small. I know the Government do not like these figures being repeated—which seems as good a reason as any to go on and repeat them—but the UK Government’s own impact assessment indicated the long-run increase in GDP would be £2 billion, or 0.06% of GDP. The OBR even had it as 0.04% in the long run. As John Maynard Keynes said:

“In the long run we are all dead.”

In a written answer to me dated 11 September last year, the then Minister of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), said that the impact assessment, where the £2 billion figure had come from, had

“been independently scrutinised by the Regulatory Policy Committee”.

I went and had a look at what the Regulatory Policy Committee had to say in order to get an idea of what “the long run” might actually mean. The Committee’s document said:

“When compared to projected levels of GDP or trade in 2040 without the agreement, the FTA’s main impacts (based on central estimates and in 2021 prices) are that…UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to increase by £2.0 billion.”

What the Minister said in his reply will therefore be correct, just not for a further 16 years or so. In the meantime, we have a real, immediate drop of 4% in GDP resulting from Brexit, leaving our economy permanently driving with the handbrake on.

I understand that the Government intend to adhere to the Sewel convention on this occasion and will seek the legislative consent of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies for the Bill. The Government should do that for every piece of legislation that comes through this place, not just performatively whenever they are confident of getting a positive response. While the benefits of free trade are obvious, there is also an obvious benefit to having tariffs in place. Tariffs serve a purpose; they are not just about protectionism, as some would have it.

I was encouraged to hear the Secretary of State say that we would never compromise on animal welfare standards, but one sector where that is in real danger of happening is the egg production sector. I see the Minister for Trade Policy wrinkling his brow. He and I have had an exchange on this before. The sector is worth over £1 billion to the UK economy. Tariffs exist currently to protect the industry from imports from mass-producing jurisdictions such as India and Mexico, which have lower standards than we insist on for our domestic producers, and that our consumers rightly demand.

The Minister responded, again not inaccurately, that the UK does not import many eggs. Well, eggs are quite fragile. It is difficult enough sometimes to transport them from the shops back to our kitchens intact, let alone right around the world—but of course the egg products that we are talking about are liquefied or even powdered egg products, which once put into a shipping container can be transported around the world at comparatively very low cost. It would not require a huge amount of displacement in the market to get a foothold if those products were allowed in under the terms of the CPTPP. Let us be under no illusions: for all that it is a £1 billion domestic industry, once egg producers are gone, they are gone and they are not coming back, so there is a real risk of harm and of our standards being undermined whatever level we choose to set them at domestically, because the tariff that was there to maintain a block on imports that did not meet those standards will effectively have been taken away.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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I am not sure that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) quite understands what is about to happen with the border target operating model that fits alongside the legislation. A health check certificate and a consignment charge will be required for eggs and egg products imported from Europe, with no equivalent health check or standard required for eggs imported from CPTPP countries, thus creating an imbalance and making the scenario that the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) is talking about more likely, because of the way in which eggs are produced in this country in collaboration with Europe.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. One of the ironies here is that because our borders will no longer be protected by food import checks at Rotterdam, there has basically been a free-for-all in terms of the standard of products that can come in. I welcome the fact that there will be checks in order to protect our biosphere, but that comes at a financial cost that will hit consumers hard at a time when food inflation remains high and we are in the middle of a cost of living crisis. That is just one example of the red tape that we were told would be cut by Brexit not being cut sideways; it has been cut lengthways, creating far more of the stuff.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
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Moving away from eggs, which I do not think will be the major export from Malaysia or other far-eastern members of the trans-Pacific partnership, let us look at the opportunities for Scotland. In the last year or so there have been bumper sales of Scottish whisky. Whisky sales in Singapore are up by some £90 million, and in Malaysia they are up over £30 million. The opportunities arising from being able to export tariff-free to Malaysia will mean a substantial increase in our single most important food and beverage export. Does the hon. Member agree that we should not underestimate the opportunities for Scotland in all this?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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My point about eggs—I will stay on this subject for a bit—related to India and Mexico, which are major producers. Of course Scottish MPs are interested in good trade outcomes for Scotland, but we look to trade more than just whisky. While any increase in our share of the international spirits market is welcome, it would have done us much more good if the Government with control over domestic duties had not whacked an 11.1% increase in duty on that product last year. I say as gently as I can to the hon. Member that it is not just tariffs that are significant; many jurisdictions take their cue for the taxes levied on a product from the duty set in this country. I contend that we set a very bad example—I hope that he might agree—when whisky is taxed so highly in comparison with other alcohol products in the UK domestic market. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I did not quite catch that. I invite the hon. Member to intervene on me, if he wishes to make a point.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
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I was just making the point that taxation raised here is spent on important issues in the United Kingdom. That of course includes, under the Barnett formula, significant subsidies by the English of Scotland.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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What a load of absolute codswallop. It may have escaped the hon. Member’s notice that every part of the UK is in deficit. I do not think that a single part of the UK, perhaps not even London or the south-east, raises more in taxation than it receives in public expenditure, so can he please park the patronising trope about England subsidising everywhere else? Scotland creates one of the highest levels of gross value added of any part of the UK outside the vortex of London and the south-east, which suck in every aspect of capital and talent.

Mark Garnier Portrait Mark Garnier
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In the spirit of trying to bring the debate back to the fantastic opportunities for Scotland, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brunei, I was delighted to go to Aberdeen to meet a number of Scottish companies in the incredibly important business of decommissioning and renewal in the oil and gas industry. Brunei has signed a deal worth, I think, £350 million with Scottish business. That is not subject to any controversy.

May I also say that the hon. Member’s contribution to this place is incredibly useful? It is a very good symbol of why members of the SNP and Scottish Members of Parliament are so valuable to the Union, and to debates such as this in the British Parliament. Long may you be welcome here in Britain.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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We seemed to be being pulled back to the topic, but now I am being tempted to go off down another rabbit hole. While I thank the hon. Member for his generous comments, I know exactly what side my bread is buttered on. I am a long-standing supporter of Scottish independence because I have a simple belief that the best people to run Scotland and make decisions about Scotland are those who have chosen to make their life there. With all due respect to this place and its traditions, I think that we could do a far better job from the Parliament in Edinburgh.

I will get back to the purpose of the debate, as entertaining as that no doubt was for all concerned. The SNP retains concerns about the ability to apply investor-state dispute settlements under the CPTPP. A deal for Canada has, for now at least, hit the buffers, but it was concerning that there was no indication from the Government of any side letters about investor-state dispute settlements similar to those applied in respect of the FTAs with Australia and New Zealand. There is real concern that investor-state dispute settlements could have an impact on standards and decisions taken here.

We firmly believe that trade deals done right can channel and create potential to support decent jobs and raise standards, not just domestically but globally. It is therefore worrying that the ethos of the CPTPP means effectively abandoning the precautionary principle, which places the burden of proof on the producer to show that a product is safe. Instead, the burden will be on the regulator to prove that something is a danger before action can be taken. That can only act as a downward pressure on standards. The committee on regulatory coherence will no doubt also become a focus for this issue, whether we are talking about antibiotics in agriculture, the impact of decisions on deforestation, or something as iconic as palm oil; we have already agreed a 12% tariff on imports from Malaysia, irrespective of the impact that that would have.

We have further concerns about the impact on workers’ rights and domestic conditions. There is the risk of being undermined by lower costs elsewhere, resulting from lower standards on labour rights and obligations, or lower regulatory standards more broadly. We are concerned about the impact that that could have on our public services, and our ability to set domestic laws and regulations could come under challenge, either from the economic forces that are unleashed or through the ISDS mechanism.

All things considered, the Government have made a blustery and boosterish contribution, while being very blasé about and dismissive of the concerns raised. As I said earlier, the SNP will not seek to divide the House on the Bill this evening, but we certainly look forward to exploring all those issues further in Committee.