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The Government's failure to outline how trade policy would work, post-Brexit


Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 21st January 2019

My Lords, as we start the Committee stage of the Trade Bill, my motion seeks to be helpful to YLH in providing a constructive framework for further scrutiny of this Bill following Committee.

It’s now well over a year since the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and 132 days since the Second Reading in YLH, which may be a record.

Following consideration in the Other Place it was passed to us to undertake our responsibility of scrutiny in the normal way and we will fulfill that obligation.

My amendment recognises that whilst in 2017 it was perhaps understandable that the Government introduced a skeleton bill. However, as time has moved on it is essential that we conclude our deliberations within a clearer policy framework, before this Bill returns to MPs for further consider.

There are 3 key reasons I ask the Government to accept my amendment today.

First, at its core this is “no deal Brexit” Bill, dealing with a situation which only very few want to see happen, and indeed which the Other Place has already indicated its clear intent that it must not happen. 

MPs from all parties are urging the Prime Minister to take action to rule out such a catastrophic outcome, as indeed has YLH in the motion passed last Monday by an incredible majority of 169. That alone makes it hard to justify taking this Bill in its current form.

Second, when first introduced, the Government presented this as a short and uncomplicated Bill, dealing with issues related to a possible no deal scenario.  Indeed, the NL the Minister, described it as “pragmatic” and “technical”.

We were informed that the substantive issues about how Government would deal new international trade agreements,  once the UK was in a position to do so independently of the EU, would be in a second Bill. 

I am aware that the Government is consulting, but no further legislation has been introduced - not a White Paper, or even a Green Paper, and time is running out.

It is not unreasonable that, before we complete our consideration of this Bill, we should have more information about, and proposals on, such an important policy issue. Also, I have carefully read the Report of our Constitution Committee, which refers to this Bill as a “framework” measure providing Government with extensive delegated powers to effect new trade policy. They raised several issues of concern.

At the time the Government justified the loose drafting because it claimed the need for flexibility given the uncertainty over the withdrawal agreement. My Lords, with no second Bill the time for flexibility is disappearing fast. Decisions have to be made and mechanisms and processes have to be in place.

Third, we should welcome that in recent months we have seen a growing public interest in how and on what basis we should be negotiating and operating our trade policy in the future. That is partly due to recognition of the misplaced and misleading optimism by ministers and others, who told us all how easy trade agreements were going to be.

This isn’t an issue that ministers can just make up as they go along. It needs serious forensic, evidence-based policy making.

We know that terms of future trade with the EU remain unclear. And now, the true picture of the lack of progress in securing the ‘roll over’ deals to replace those we currently have with non-EU countries -  through our membership of the EU - has also been exposed by the Financial Times.

The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, is on record telling us how easy it was all going to be: "The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history." And he said that all agreements would be ready and in place one second after Brexit,  with no disruption to trade. So not only were these statements irresponsible – they were also gravely wrong. 

Now the International Trade Secretary only says that he ‘hopes’ they will be in place but it depends on whether other countries are “prepared to put the work in”. Apparently, he has signed a ‘mutual recognition agreement’ with the Australian High Commission in London to maintain all current relevant aspects of the agreement it has with the EU.  But the EU doesn’t have a free trade agreement with Australia.

When this legislation was going through the Commons, we argued that legally distinct new trade agreements were required.  The Government claimed they could simply ‘roll over’ the existing agreements, but that it clearly not the case.

Our country needs a sensible and appropriate scheme for trade, rooted in reality - not fantasy.

Trade negotiations are complex and difficult, requiring a proper and effective system involving Parliament and the devolved administrations -  in relation to both a negotiating mandate and final agreements. And ML, we should also engage civil society, feeding in the views of consumers, trade unions and companies.

In conclusion, we will be unable to fulfil our obligation of scrutinising this Bill effectively without further information on how the government intends to provide proper accountability and scrutiny of current and future trade agreements. 

We need to know how the devolved administrations will be involved. We need to be assured of the mechanisms for ensuring that our trade policy is compliant with our international obligations. And we need legal commitments that in any future independent trading policy there will be no reductions in employee rights, or consumer or environmental standards for example.

One way the Government can do this by tabling amendments to the Trade Bill. There may be other mechanisms.

My amendment doesn’t dictate what those should be but merely states that this House should not receive the committee’s Report on this Bill until both Houses of Parliament have received proposals for a process for making international trade agreements, once the UK is in a position to do so independently of the EU.

As report Stage is expected by the end of February, and the leave date is 29th March, it is not unreasonable to expect the policy framework by then.

My Lords, my amendment is designed to assist this House in its deliberations. I hope that the Government will accept it.

If the Government is unable to do so, given the seriousness of the issue, I will seek the opinion of the House.

I beg to move.

- Ends -

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