Many constituents from across Somerton and Frome have taken the time to contact me with important questions relating to my votes this week on the Trade Bill. There is a huge amount of misinformation circulating online about this Bill that is being maliciouly used to fuel anger and I hope that this update will address the concerns that have been expressed.
Having received representations on the Trade Bill expressing pretty much every conceivable shade of opinion, there are three separate (but interlocking) questions which have excited the most concern – food standards, the NHS and the process by which future FTAs can be most effectively scrutinised.
It’s worth saying from the start that the Trade Bill at question – the one currently going through Parliament - has nothing to do with any new free trade agreements that we may conclude in the future with the USA, Australia or anyone else. Indeed, as the Bill states, “regulations under sub-section (1) may make provision for the purpose of implementing a free trade agreement only if the other signatory…and the European Union were signatories to a free trade agreement immediately before exit day”. That is to say, this Bill is designed, specifically, to replicate, or roll-over, our existing agreements that were agreed as part of our EU membership. That’s it. And, of course, those existing agreements don’t imperil the NHS or compel us to compromise on food, environmental protection or animal welfare standards. Given that, and the fact that the provisions of this Bill have nothing to do with any new free-trade agreements, the idea that it could lead to the sell-off of the NHS or force our farmers to compromise on standards as a result of a future FTA with the US is entirely misplaced. Any new clauses or amendments which sought to protect against these types of events were therefore not only purely political posturing, but political game-playing, and had no other purpose.
As someone who recently broke a three-line whip by co-sponsoring (and voting for) a rebel amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have enshrined our existing food and environmental standards in legislation – as well as successfully lobbying for the new Trade and Agriculture Commission, this is something I take extremely seriously. Indeed, only ten days ago, I held a virtual meeting with local farmers and NFU representatives to discuss these questions and take their representations to the Secretary of State. And, having looked at the specific terms of reference which form the basis for the FTA negotiations with the US, Japan and Australia and New Zealand, they explicitly state that the NHS or any compromise in food standards are off the table in negotiations.
And on parliamentary scrutiny, of course it’s absolutely right that Parliament must have the final say on any future trade deals. But, like its predecessors, the Government have already pledged to bring any future FTA before Parliament for approval. In addition, any change to the NHS or food standards could only be accomplished through primary legislation – which means that it would have to come before Parliament and be approved by Parliament. And, in common with the vast majority of MPs on all sides of across the House, I would certainly not vote for any legislation which either reduced domestic food standards or threatened to compromise the integrity and structure of the NHS as a public service, free at the point of use. Of course, the NHS is a vital, indispensable part of our social fabric – now more than ever – and it’s absolutely right that the terms of reference for FTA negotiations make that clear. They state:
“The NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table. The services the NHS provides will not be on the table. The NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic. Any agreement will ensure high standards and protections for consumers and workers, and will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”
So once again these clauses were nothing more than political chicanery, designed purely to provoke headlines and inflame those who couldn’t be expected to be aware of the detail behind it. Indeed, even the independent Nuffield Trust have said that any trade deal "would not have the power to stop the NHS being a free, universal service”.
I do hope some of the above is useful in explaining my votes on the Bill and sincere thank you again to all those who have taken the time to get in touch on this.