I have received a lot of correspondence on the different clauses and proposed amendments to the Trade Bill both when it had its second reading last year, and now after it recently had its third reading. Although I had already published a statement last year outlining my thoughts on the Bill, I have now updated it to reflect the concerns that were raised more recently by my constituents. I did, however, think it best to answer all queries and concerns in one statement.
First, it is important to bear in mind that the Trade Bill is a continuity Bill. The powers within the Bill could not be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the United States. Instead, the Bill only allows for trade agreements that we have been party to through our EU membership to be transitioned into UK law. The Trade Bill is an important piece of legislation which has a number of practical functions.
I recognise the strength of feeling about the provisions in new clause 17 and the more recent amendment 11 tabled in the House of Lords. However, for what I believe are sensible and practical reasons, I did not support the clause. That’s because the NHS is already protected by specific carve outs, exceptions and reservations in these trade agreements. It has been made continuously clear from my Ministerial colleagues that there is no intention of lowering standards in transitioned trade agreements. As I mentioned above, the purpose of the agreements is to maintain and replicate the existing commitments in EU agreements. Furthermore, I can reassure you that none of the 20 continuity agreements signed have resulted in standards being lowered.
I also want to be clear that no future trade agreement will be allowed to undermine the guiding principle of the NHS: that it is universal and free at the point of need. The Government has amended the Bill to ensure that continuity trade agreements must be consistent with maintaining UK publicly funded clinical healthcare services. I also welcome the separate clear and absolute commitment from Ministers that the NHS will be protected in any future trade agreement. Indeed, the price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table and nor will the services the NHS provides. This was a commitment in the manifesto on which I stood.
If you want to read more about my views on the NHS and the Trade Bill, please find my statement here.
For those of you who had further concerns about ISDS, I also want to stress that Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) does not, and cannot, force the privatisation of public services or oblige the Government to open the NHS to further competition. There has neither been a successful ISDS claim against the UK, nor has the threat of potential disputes affected the Government’s legislative programme.
I want to be clear here that the Trade Bill will not undermine food standards. Although, as I stated above, future trade agreements are outside the scope of the Trade Bill, the Government has made a clear and absolute commitment to uphold the UK’s high animal welfare, environmental, food safety and food import standards in any future free trade agreement. I know Ministers do not intend to compromise the UK’s domestic welfare production standards either. You can read more about my views on the importance of maintaining our high food standards here.
Without exception, all animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements from all trading partners, including the EU and others, will have to meet our stringent food safety standards, as they do now. As I say in my statement on UK food standards, our independent food regulators will continue making sure that all food imports into the UK comply with those high standards.
In contradiction to the fears that have been stirred up by the Opposition, not one domestic standard in relation to animal welfare, the environment, human rights or labour has been eroded by any of those agreements.
Clause 4 – Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals
I do appreciate the strength of feeling about the amendment on Parliamentary scrutiny made to the Trade Bill in the House of Lords - which peers have decided not to insist on.
I agree that Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade policy and free trade agreements. It has an important role in debating and scrutinising the Government’s domestic and foreign policies.
That is why I am glad that the Government has made a number of important steps in enhancing Parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy. This includes sharing extensive and comprehensive information with Parliament ahead of negotiations with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach. Ministers have also published their negotiating objectives prior to the start of trade talks and held open briefings for MPs and Peers.
Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations and I know that my Ministerial colleagues at the Department for International Trade will also be engaging closely with the International Trade Committee and the Lords International Agreements Committee as negotiations progress.
The Government has told MPs that it is committed to a transparent trade policy with comprehensive engagement with Parliament. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, Parliament can also effectively veto trade agreements by resolving against ratification of a treaty indefinitely. The Government has also made repeatedly clear that where necessary it will bring forward primary legislation to implement new free trade agreements, which will be debated and scrutinised by Parliament in the usual way.
While I did not support the amendment, I am confident that the right measures are in place to provide Parliamentarians with the ability to scrutinise new trade policy in the future.
Overall, I personally believe this approach strikes an appropriate balance. It respects the UK constitution, ensuring that the Government can negotiate in the best interests of the UK, while making sure that Parliament has the information it needs to effectively scrutinise and lend its expertise to trade policy.
I want to reassure my constituents that my opposition to the amendment does not diminish my commitment to upholding the UK’s international and moral obligations. I take the issue of human rights abuse extremely seriously.
I oppose the latest amendment from the Lords on constitutional grounds. I believe that this amendment, as with previous Lords amendments, would continue to blur the distinction between the role of Parliament and the courts. The amendment would allow a new Parliamentary committee, composed solely of former senior members of the judiciary, to make a determination on genocide. The Government has been consistently clear that it is for competent courts not committees to make determinations of genocide.
The creation of a Parliamentary Judicial Committee would be a fundamental constitutional reform. It would upset the balance of power in our constitutional system. The amendment the Government previously supported in the Commons avoided this. It required the Government to set out its position in writing in response to a report of genocide and gave a House of Commons committee the power to draft a motion for subsequent debate.
I am proud that the UK plays a leading international role in holding China to account for its abuses, through leading joint statements at the UN, repeatedly underlining concerns to senior Chinese authorities and reviewing UK export controls applied to Xinjiang. I must also emphasise that there are no current plans to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement with China.
I do hope that this statement provides some clarity as to how and why I voted in the way I have, and thank you to all those who contacted me about this and raised their concerns.