The Trade Bill currently before Parliament is not concerned with new free trade agreements being negotiated with the USA or any other country. It is exclusively concerned with continuity agreements – ensuring that the UK is able to trade with other countries on the same basis it did while part of the EU. And it’s worth emphasising the enormous progress we’ve made in doing this – already, we have rolled-over 63 trade agreements worth a combined total of around £217 billion. Although such figures seem abstract, I’m conscious of how many jobs and supply-chains dotted around the country (including in our part of Somerset) that number represents.
However, I know that the maintenance of our existing food and environmental standards – together with protecting the NHS – are issues that (rightly) transcend economic graphs or GDP figures. And there is nothing in this Bill that threatens either.
On food standards, I should emphasise that not one of the 63 continuity agreements (which are the focus of the Trade Bill) has involved a lowering of domestic standards. And with the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission (which will publish advice relating to all future FTAs as they’re negotiated), we do have security against any possible erosion of standards. I followed the recent debate in the Lords very closely – and was delighted to see that an amendment has been put down which will establish the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing – redoubling the protections already offered by the Food Standards Agency. I’ll certainly be voting for that amendment when it comes before the Commons tomorrow.
There has also been much attention paid to amendments put down which preclude the NHS being part of any future trade talks. Given the astonishing resilience and altruism we’ve seen from healthcare workers over the last year or so, I fully understand the impulse behind these concerns. There are two issues here. The first is that this Bill is, as I’ve said above, exclusively concerned with continuity agreements, rather than future FTAs. And of course, none of those existing agreements we’re rolling over imperil the NHS or threaten to compromise its integrity as a public service, free at the point of use. However, the so-called ‘NHS Protection amendment’ would not merely fail to accomplish its purported end, but would threaten to disrupt all the existing continuity agreements upon which we rely for trade and vital imports. By introducing a new amendment that would be retrospectively applied, we may render all such agreements void – and force them to be reopened.
Given that, as I’ve said, none of these continuity agreements threaten the NHS in any way, such a move would be quixotic, at best. But 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 our 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”
Lastly, I know that many are concerned about the level of parliamentary scrutiny to which FTAs are subject – and there is, I know, a perception of these deals being thrashed out in smoke-filled rooms away from the public glare.
But I should emphasise that the mechanisms for scrutiny are now stronger than ever. The Government have committed to publish ‘Round Reports’ as negotiations progress and both Ministers and Chief Negotiators are in constant touch with the relevant Select Committees as negotiations progress. The Trade and Agriculture Commission will publish advice (made publicly available) as to any ramifications for our environmental and food standards. Then, in accordance with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, the completed deal will be published and placed before Parliament for 21 days – allowing ample time for the text to be examined line-by-line. These measures are in line with those that take place in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and are, in many ways, rather more robust.
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, just to emphasise, I would not, in common with the vast majority of MPs on all sides, 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.
So I was delighted to vote for the Bill to ensure continuity for businesses and imports. But there was one new Lords amendment which I did feel ought have remained attached to the Bill – requiring the Government to withdraw from trade deals with regimes that have been guilt of genocide. Although this amendment was voted down (with opponents citing the constitutional difficulties of the courts ruling about matters that should be the prerogative of Parliament), I expect a similar amendment to be tabled when the Bill returns to the Lords.
For me, this is of great ethical – and symbolic – importance. As we now adjust to life outside the European Union, the way in which we forge new relationships will define the way in which the UK is viewed, globally. And if we are to make the most of this new geopolitical agility, it’s vital that we can demonstrate a clear, consistent approach to defending the values we articulate.
So in the coming days, I hope to see a compromise emerge. One that gives Parliament the ability to define human rights abuses abroad – and ensure that we don’t give their perpetrators implicit endorsement through our trade relationships.