[Relevant Documents: First Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia, HC 444; Second Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Agreement with Australia, HC 117; First Special Report of the International Trade Committee of Session 2022-23, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia and Agreement with Australia: Government Response to the Committee’s First and Second Reports of Session 2022-23, HC 704]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am delighted that I have been able to secure this debate, and I am particularly grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the opportunity to talk about trade deals and the scrutiny process that goes with them. I am also very grateful to right hon. and hon. Members, who have heard me pontificate on this subject at great length on a number of occasions over the last two years. I should say that I am a member of the International Trade Committee.
I welcome the Minister back to his position as a Trade Minister. He is a friend and an extremely able Minister, and we are all delighted to see him back in his position, where he so rightly belongs. We very much look forward to working with him, both in Committee and in the main Chamber, where we will, I hope, have more opportunity to debate our trade deals.
I should start by saying that I am universally pro free trade and in favour of the Government’s agenda in the trade deals that they are signing. Our trade agreements have been an absolute litany of successes. Not only have we rolled over 70 trade agreements since our departure from the European Union, but we have signed deals with Australia and New Zealand. There are discussions under way about joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, and signing deals with the Gulf Cooperation Council, India and Canada. We have successfully signed a trade agreement with Singapore on a digital partnership basis, which is viewed as the gold standard in digital trade. We have signed a trade agreement with Japan, which is already opening up new markets and setting benchmark rates around digital concepts.
Those are all incredibly important agreements, and they matter because they make a huge difference to our economy, to how the Government interact with their allies around the world and to the businesses in our respective constituencies. They offer each and every one of us the opportunity to trade, to create global harmony and to open up opportunities for those who live and work in the United Kingdom, and those with whom we have signed trade deals. This is an important part of what was promised when we left the European Union, and I believe that we are being extremely successful in tackling the new trade agreements, although there have obviously been a few pitfalls along the way.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The hon. Gentleman and I sit on the International Trade Committee, and he is making a very good defence of the Government’s work. We heard in the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill Committee only an hour or so ago—it finished only 20 minutes ago—that British firms bidding in Australia will have disadvantageous terms compared with those of French companies, because the Australian deal weakens the global baseline.
These things are probably technical errors. They are things that were probably overlooked and that I hope are great mistakes; if they are not, someone in the Government should be hanging their head in shame. I think these mistakes would have been picked up with proper parliamentary scrutiny during negotiations, before the deal was signed or even ratified—just as happens in America and the European Union, and just as the French, Germans and most developed countries get in their national Parliaments. The International Trade Committee should be involved in the detail of the work on the negotiations before the text is published in camera, but this Government continue to refuse to allow that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on literally nothing apart from this point about scrutiny. I thoroughly enjoy working with him on this issue, because there is genuine cross-party consensus about the need for scrutiny. I say in response to him that trade deals are not static. We should not view them as static, because they can evolve and improve. To the point he just made, where there are pitfalls we should look to improve them, and to see how we can develop the agreements in the future. He is absolutely right; had we been given due process when we signed the free trade agreement with Australia, Parliament would have been able to debate this issue at length and we could have rooted out some of the issues before we ratified the agreement.
As we sign all the trade agreements, there is good news to be told, but a cloud has hung over all the excellent work. I want to raise four points—I am conscious that a number of Members of Parliament want to speak—that the Minister might consider and respond to. First, we must ensure that there is a long-term strategy for trade negotiations. We need better clarity. It is clear that the Government have a big appetite to sign new trade deals, and therefore they must consider how they will convey to Members of Parliament, trade bodies and the general public an understanding of their ambition. If we have a long-term strategy, we can at least understand the Government’s direction of travel, and we can scrutinise it to better effect to see whether the goals have been met. I really cannot think that any Member in this room is against the United Kingdom signing trade deals, but we need to understand whether we are meeting those goals and whether the Department for International Trade is improving or worsening in its ability to take on new trade agreements.
My second point is about issues on which our provision would not change in any circumstance, such as human rights. It is essential that there is a standard level of human rights clauses in our trade agreements. There is a moral obligation for us to do that.
My third and perhaps most lengthy point is about something that came into being in 1924, the whole premise and purpose of which was to give us a say over international agreements that were signed. It was updated in the late 2000s by the Labour Government in something called the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which basically said that we would have 21 days to ratify a new trade agreement. Within that, Members would be given time in Parliament to debate and vote on the issue, with a votable motion at the end of the debates. If it were rejected, there would be an extension of a further 21 days before ratification.
The previous three International Trade Secretaries have all affirmed the existence and the importance of CRaG and the need to use proper parliamentary scrutiny to get into the weeds of our trade agreements. In fact, the previous Secretary of State for International Trade said that CRaG provides a sound framework to scrutinise treaties that is less than a decade old. That is of real importance. Successive Ministers, including the Minister who is here today, have talked about the value of CRaG in ensuring that we, as Back-Bench Members of Parliament who are not in Government, can justify the agreements that we are passing and ensure that due process has taken place.
To the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) just a moment ago, the scrutiny has taken place; the value is there for British taxpayers, businesses and residents; and we are signing good deals. Ultimately, if we get these agreements right, we will only get better at this. If Members from all parts of the House are given due process to scrutinise trade agreements, we will only make better and more successful ones.
On 9 February, the Minister said that we have a robust scrutiny arrangement that allows Parliament to hold the Government to account. Let us take the Australia-UK free trade agreement, for which we were not given due warning of the CRaG process starting. There was not enough time for Ministers to come before the International Trade Committee to discuss the terms of the Australia free trade agreement. In fact, the previous Secretary of State was invited eight times and did not attend. When the CRaG process was started, the International Trade Committee had not even had time to publish its report. That is not the way it should be.
Let me make it crystal clear that the International Trade Committee should be given the right to publish its report before the start of the 21-sitting-day CRaG period, to ensure that due process is followed and that Members from across the House can read the report, digest it and prepare to debate and vote on the trade deal in Parliament. Can the Minister guarantee that a Secretary of State will appear before the Committee to discuss a trade deal ahead of our publication of any report on it? It should not be hard for us to secure a Secretary of State to discuss these trade deals of which we should, rightly, be so proud.
The important point, from my perspective, is that I am not asking for a veto. In fact, a vote to delay ratification does not change the terms of an agreement. It just delays it, and sends a very clear message that, should we sign another trade agreement, certain principles and concepts should be thought about again. We have to take that into account. I am not an extremist about the need for Parliament to come in, rip up trade agreements and decide what goes in or out of them. I am simply making the point that we must ensure that we have a say. We must have an opportunity to be constructive in a way that allows us to justify the creation of our trade deals and scrutinise their components.
Compared to other countries, we are behind the times on this issue. America has a more rigorous system. In Canada, Parliament has an opportunity to debate and—in some instances, although not in statute—to vote on trade agreements. Let us catch up with them. Let us justify it, because it will only improve the process.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument, with which I entirely agree. The UK has not done trade deals for many years, and there seems to be a slight lack of expertise out there, which is no fault of Government or Ministers. Does he think that that is a reason to have extra time for scrutiny? Also, there is plenty of expertise in the international businesses and industries that operate in the UK. Does he think that the Government should use that expertise more readily?
I thank my hon. Friend for his incredibly helpful intervention. Yes, I do. The International Trade Committee has sizeable limitations, and a number of trade deals are being signed. If we are able to discuss such matters with more people, open this up, and allow people to debate and scrutinise, we will be able to improve the actual process. If hon. Members were to ask anyone in the Department for International Trade whether they had learned lessons between the signing of the Australia trade agreement and the signing of the New Zealand trade agreement, they would clearly see that lessons have been learned: the situation has improved, and we are getting better and better. From the officials that have come before the International Trade Committee, it is clear that the Department is doing a fantastic job in tackling international trade agreements. It is learning each day how to do it, in a way that we have not had to for the last 40 years. It is right that we use the expertise in both Parliament and trade bodies across the country.
My last point is around the International Trade Committee’s resources. An extraordinary, dedicated group of people works to help us, as Members of Parliament, do our duty on that Committee. We have found it incredibly frustrating to see their hard work sometimes ignored and sometimes rubbished, because we have not had the access and due process—which was always promised to us, I hasten to add—to ensure that our reports can be produced, read and valued by Members of Parliament. We must change that system; otherwise, the International Trade Committee is completely redundant. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to what we are asking for. We are asking for access to Ministers and for time to produce our reports. We are asking for CRaG to be amended to include debates and voteable motions, so that we, as Members of Parliament, have opportunities to debate trade agreements.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to offer a view on whether there might be a fifth point for consideration. What has come out of the India discussions shows us that we must have a domestic politics that mirrors the approach in international trade. Otherwise, we will not have successful trade negotiations.
The right hon. Gentleman caught me from a surprise angle here. I do not know exactly what is in the India trade agreement, other than the rumours that have been reported. Our discussions about it have very much been on the basis of speculation rather than the reality of it. In all seriousness, if that is the case, it is something that we need to look at further.
There is value in ensuring that we get this issue right. We can improve the system, improve the value of trade agreements and ensure that there is greater buy-in from Members of Parliament. I hope the Minister will understand where I am coming from. I am not attacking the Government’s agenda, and I am not attacking the trade deals we are signing; I am merely asking that Back Benchers are given an opportunity to have their day in Parliament to discuss these very important trade agreements.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing the debate. Members will know that I have a very specific interest in ensuring there is ample scrutiny of these trade deals—notably, any one with India. My constituent Jagtar Singh Johal has been arbitrarily detained in an Indian prison for almost five years, and the authorities of the Republic of India seem unable or unwilling to address the allegations of torture, abuse of process and arbitrary detention that have dogged the case and my constituent.
Quite simply, as the Minister may or may not agree, this is a case that really gets to the root of both this debate and the UK Government’s ongoing attitude to pursuing these trade deals. This is a case where we see the power of the unstoppable force—namely that one of the largest supposed benefits of Brexit was the ability of the UK Government to gain unfettered access to the world’s fastest-growing economies—meet the immovable object, namely the UK Government’s clearly stated aim, articulated so well by the sadly departed Minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), that
“We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights”—[Official Report, 7 September 2022; Vol. 719, c. 258.]
It is a matter of some considerable record, because I speak about it quite a lot in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall, as hon. and right hon. Members will know.
The human rights failings in the case of Jagtar Singh Johal are manifest and egregious. Despite this, we continue with a policy where a UK-India FTA has now become probably the greatest prize in the view of the Government, as long as the US-UK FTA remains unachievable. What can the Minister say to us to demonstrate consequences for the Republic of India for its continued mistreatment of my constituent or, alternatively, what it would have to do for the UK to threaten to pull the plug on these talks? Either way, it appears unarguable that in continuing to pursue this trade agreement, the Government are setting a precedent for future deals that human rights, and the rights of individual UK citizens, are placed below the pursuit of growth. In that sense, those who seek to defend human rights can probably join that distinguished list of those that the Prime Minister has labelled “the anti-growth coalition”. We see plenty of evidence in other areas that the UK Government’s pick-and-choose attitude to human rights and free trade agreements is making any claims to democratic accountability and oversight seem quite ridiculous.
Take the glee with which the Prime Minister trumpets the UK’s determination to sign a free trade agreement with a host of Gulf states, while speaking about preventing authoritarian regimes—such as Russia and, rightfully, China—from having any leverage in the UK economy. It is a truly bizarre situation. While I and other members of the Scottish National party have long called for the UK to wean itself off Russian and Chinese investments that have made so many people in this city and this Parliament enormously wealthy, the Government seem to be seeking to replace those investments with ones from regimes whose human rights and democratic records are essentially the same, and that—as demonstrated by recent OPEC decisions—do not share our broader geopolitical agenda. While we can correctly cite Russia’s assassination of dissidents by regime-loyal criminals as a reason to sanction it, we do not apply the same rationale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it invites dissidents into one of its embassies and chops them up with a bone saw. While China is rightly criticised for its debt-trap diplomacy in places such as Sri Lanka, we rarely use the same rationale when we allow Emirati sovereign wealth funds to buy critical pieces of UK economic infrastructure, only for them to sack thousands of staff and threaten the Government with the closure of that infrastructure.
Quite simply, parliamentary scrutiny of these trade deals starts and ends with hard and fast rules, which this Government can use to build confidence in the House. Otherwise, I have to say: what is the point?
I would hope that my colleagues in the SNP and I—and, I am happy to wager, the vast majority of Scottish voters—would never stand for swapping the largest democratic free trade agreement and single market in human history for a series of piecemeal agreements that are, from my perspective, of dubious value. We will never stop shouting about the absurdity of leaving that single market, composed as it is of democracies with whom we share so much, in exchange for a sugar rush of cheap money and dealings with authoritarian regimes that share so few of the values that we here in Europe hold very dear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, I believe for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate.
Much of the political energy of this generation of politicians has been consumed by the fallout from the Brexit referendum in 2016. I remember visiting Washington with a cross-party delegation prior to the referendum. Ms Elliott, I believe that you were part of that delegation, so you may correct me if I am wrong, but nobody in that delegation believed that the UK would vote to terminate its relationship with the European Union. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that prior to the result of the referendum, not much serious thought had gone into what Brexit actually meant.
Following the vote, there was a political breakdown, as decision makers scrambled to interpret the result. Do people remember the period between the referendum and the 2019 general election? This place was consumed with debating different interpretations of the referendum result. I argued for the UK to stay within the European Union’s economic frameworks, for reasons that have become plain for all of us to see, as the dream of splendid economic isolationism from Europe in return for a mythical global Britain has turned to ash.
I suppose that if sensible voices had prevailed during that period, we would not be having this debate, because we would be safely within the single market and the customs union. However, the debate was won by the Brexit ultras, and the prize that they cherished above all was an independent trade policy.
We could have a long debate about how truly independent the UK’s trade policy has turned out to be. It seems to me that the British Government have been rolling over previous EU-negotiated trade deals. With the Prime Minister having admitted that there is no prospect of a trade deal with the US, I think that many of us will wonder what the point was of burning down those bridges with the European economic area.
Perhaps because we have been faced with these economic realities, we have seen the Prime Minister, in her first few weeks in power, endorse a strategy of thawing relations with the EU. To avoid being petulant in this debate, I welcome that. It is far from where the UK should be, but it might be the start of a journey back to reality.
May I therefore first associate myself with the comments of everyone who has spoken about the need for improved scrutiny of trade policy? The Great Brexit slogan of “taking back control” clearly did not mean bringing back power to Parliament. Instead, returning powers have been concentrated at an Executive level.
Each trade deal should be subject to a binding yes/no vote in the Commons; Parliament should agree the terms of negotiation before the British Government begin talks; and the International Trade Committee should—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Diolch, Ms Elliott. I believe I was about to make the point that the International Trade Committee should have a stronger role during negotiations.
On another visit to Washington with an all-party group to investigate the transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the US and the EU, I recall a meeting with representatives of the US food industry. At the time, there was some dispute in relation to genetically modified organisms and hormones in food products. During that meeting, we were left in no doubt that nothing would make its way through Congress unless there was movement on the EU side in the negotiations on those specific points. The point I am trying to make is that increased scrutiny would actually strengthen the hand of UK negotiators, as opposed to weakening it.
What I really want to highlight is the need for Wales and Scotland to also be involved in that scrutiny. Trade policy will impact on devolved policy areas, so it is completely unacceptable and unsustainable that the Welsh and Scottish Governments and Parliaments are excluded from decision making. From my perspective in Carmarthenshire, agriculture is extremely important. Agriculture is a devolved matter. For coherent policy, therefore, surely the Welsh Government and Senedd Members should play a full role in trade policy, including through a binding vote on deals in the Welsh Senedd, full scrutiny by the relevant Senedd Committees and a formal role for the Welsh Government in the negotiating process.
Belgium provides a good example. Its central state cannot ratify European trade deals without the support of its so-called sub-national Parliaments. As it stands, therefore, Wallonia has more power over EU trade deals than Wales has over UK trade deals. That is not a very good look for the British Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing today’s debate and on his excellent speech.
The Australia free trade agreement set a precedent. Unfortunately, when it comes to parliamentary scrutiny, it demonstrated what not to do. Select Committees were given insufficient time to prepare their reports; parliamentarians and key stakeholder organisations were given insufficient time to digest and scrutinise those reports; and, crucially, elected Members of Parliament were denied a meaningful debate and vote on the agreement.
It is worth repeating what the hon. Member for Totnes alluded to earlier. The relevant Select Committees were denied sufficient time to scrutinise and advise on the agreement. There were just seven sitting days between the Government publishing their section 42 report on the free trade agreement and triggering the CRaG period. At that time, the International Trade Committee had been able neither to take oral evidence from the Secretary of State nor to finalise its report on the agreement.
That evasion was facilitated by the vague language in the Government’s commitments. For example, they said that they would “endeavour” to share the signed free trade agreement with the International Trade Committee prior to publication, “where time allows”, and that they would ensure that Select Committees had a “reasonable amount of time” to scrutinise free trade agreements and produce reports.
This is easily fixed. The Government must replace these vague commitments with stronger ones containing concrete guarantees and well-defined timelines, which provide Committees with the time they need to undertake full and proper scrutiny of agreements.
My biggest concern, however, is the failure of the Government to facilitate a meaningful debate and vote on the agreement. That cannot happen again. A desire to hurriedly chalk up deals has left farmers and fruit producers feeling sold out by the Australia trade deal, with the services industry raising concerns over the India trade deal, which none of us has seen. The Government must ensure that they do not repeat their mistakes. I urge the Minister to strengthen the Government’s commitment to the parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements and to focus on the quality, rather than quantity, of the deals that his Department strikes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), whom I have the pleasure of serving alongside on the International Trade Committee, on securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union. The hon. Member and I undoubtably have major points of disagreement when it comes to not only the Australia free trade agreement, but trade policy more broadly. He has, however, raised a number of important issues and speaks for the entire Committee in expressing his frustration about Government conduct on this issue.
The UK has embarked on the most dramatic overhaul of its trading policy since its accession to the European Economic Community in 1973. The implications of the decisions that the Government make in the coming months and years for our labour rights, environmental standards and businesses the length and breadth of the country could not be more significant. It is essential that any new trade deal is subject to rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny both by the Select Committee and by Members of the House more widely. That is the model employed by our Commonwealth partners, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That is exactly what the Prime Minister committed to when she promised a “world-leading scrutiny process” when she was International Trade Secretary.
I am afraid that Ministers are failing to listen to the concerns of Members, businesses and civil society in their frantic dash to conclude new trade deals. In March, our Committee Chairman warned that the Government are failing to do enough to enable timely and appropriate scrutiny of trade agreements and accused Ministers of ignoring legitimate concerns and riding roughshod over Parliament. Yet the 21-day CRaG process for the Australia free trade deal had begun before our Committee had the opportunity to publish our report and even before the International Trade Secretary had bothered to come before the Committee to defend the agreement. When we requested that the CRaG process be extended to allow time for adequate scrutiny, our request was flatly denied. That was an unacceptable assault on the rights of Parliament and the people we are here to represent. I urge the new Secretary of State not to allow that deeply flawed process to set a dangerous precedent for future trade negotiations.
Finally, I want to raise an issue that I have spoken about a number of times in the Committee. Meaningful engagement with civil society and the inclusion of key stakeholders in the negotiation process is essential to achieving a trade policy that works in the interests of British workers, industry and our environment. However, the Trades Union Congress has also accused the Government of a lack of continued stakeholder engagement during trade negotiations and says that a failure to meaningfully engage with trade unions has resulted in the Government agreeing trade deals that lack adequate protections for workers’ rights. Yet again, Ministers are hiding from robust scrutiny because they know that the deals they are agreeing are simply not delivering for the British people. This is simply not good enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott.
I pay huge tribute to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate and for his excellent speech, much if not most of which I agreed with. Like him, I am a free trader. Free trade is massively important, and not just for prosperity; if we had more free trade with the markets on our doorstep, the cost of living crisis would not be as bad as it is.
Free trade is important for fairness and prosperity, but also for peace, because it integrates countries and makes conflicts between them seem much less plausible and more unthinkable. Let us remember that the European Coal and Steel Community, in its first few years in the 1950s, was about knitting together countries that had been at war. The accession of the eastern European states through the ’90s and noughties was about knitting together countries that had been enemies on either side of the cold war.
Free trade is dead important, and my criticism of the Australia and New Zealand deals is a criticism not of free trade but of deals that are not free—if they are not fair, they are not free. It is absolutely right that, as a country that has taken back control as a sovereign nation, we should be able to dictate the negotiating terms on which we go about setting up trade deals. How could Parliament have dealt with this better or be given the power to deal with it better? Most MPs on both sides of the House wanted Parliament to do its job better than it was allowed to, particularly on the New Zealand and Australia trade deals.
Better scrutiny means that Parliament should be able to sign off the negotiating mandate, and then sign off the deal itself. Surely, as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, we have a right as a country to dictate the terms on human rights, animal welfare, environmental issues and carbon reduction. They should surely underpin the negotiating mandate of any trade deal. Then, when a vote is taken, it must not be taken after the damage has been done.
The Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto stated:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
That is not true. That manifesto commitment has been broken.
Let us look in particular at the deal with Australia. The average suckler beef herd in Britain is 30 cows. In Australia, it is hundreds upon thousands of cattle. It is not that Australians are brutes and terrible at animal welfare, but the nature of farming in Australia means that it is cheaper per unit and crueller in practice. The same animal husbandry cannot be done for 1,000 cattle as for 30.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, but I urge a bit of caution on that point, because we would never sign trade agreements with other countries if we expect them to have exactly the same standards. As he rightly pointed out, we have the highest standards in animal welfare around the world. The hope is that, if we sign trade agreements with places such as Australia, they can start seeing how they can match our standards and rise up to them, rather than us lowering ours, because there is absolutely no intention of us doing that.
Well, that is the theory, but the Government’s own figures and modelling show that the Australia trade deal, for the very reasons I was just setting out, will give a £94 million hit to British farming. There is no doubt that the deal has sold out and—in the words of Minette Batters, the excellent president of the National Farmers Union—betrayed British farmers. The impact of the trade deal undermines British farming and the standards and ethics of the United Kingdom in general—in particular of the way we farm. That is added to a set of assaults on British farming.
The transition to the new farm payments scheme is in complete chaos. The removal of direct payments—20% by this Christmas—will plunge many farmers into poverty. Meanwhile, many farms are trying to engage with the new environmental land management system. Two years down the road, they will change their businesses, and now they do not know what to do. The Government have sort of part-listened and have thrown everything up in the air; it is total chaos. There is chaos in farming and in the market.
The greenest thing that the British Government could do is keep Britain’s farmers farming, because without farmers we cannot deliver the environmental goods. Likewise, we cannot deliver the food that we all rely on. If we become less and less self-sufficient, that has a moral impact as we push up the price of commodities for the poorest counties in the world. The failure to conduct fair and transparent trade deals with the scrutiny of this Parliament undermines British farming in general and puts at risk our environmental imperatives, our food production and, by connection, the poorest people in the world, whose food prices will go up because we cannot feed ourselves. That is why we must get it right next time. Free trade is important, but we must not throw our farmers under the bus in the process. Free trade that is not fair is not free in the first place.
I hope that this is an opportunity to reset our relationship. It is no secret that the relationship between the International Trade Committee and the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), was toxic. It was bad. She held the Committee in disregard and, frankly, the Committee held her in disregard. Let us be honest about it. The officials around her gave her bad advice. They gave her arrogant advice, and she encouraged it by responding and goading them to give her that advice. That needs to end, and it needs to end now.
The advice needs to be that the new Secretary of State has to make time in her diary to make sure that we are seen in a timely manner. The promises have to be fulfilled. The Secretary of State cannot expect to get away with what has been done in the past, because it was quite frankly embarrassing for everyone. Of course, it does not have to be like that. There are many other Departments that have very good relationships with their Secretary of State. I have sat on many other Committees in this House, and I have never seen such a dysfunctional relationship.
Order. It is usual that if a Member is going to directly criticise or mention a Minister, they give them advance warning. I am not sure whether that has been done, but if it has not, I would certainly be putting that right after this meeting.
None of this is new or not on the record. I think I have been even franker to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to her face in Committee meetings, including about her officials, but I will alert her to this because it is a speech that has come from my contemplation today.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not impugning officials at the Department for International Trade in that regard. I am not sure whether he was, but I am sure that he would not want to be questioning the integrity of the officials in the Department. Maybe I misunderstood him and maybe that was not the case.
No, I think their advice to her was bad. That is my honest feeling. It was not good advice on how she should conduct her relationship with the Committee. It does not need to be like that, because other Committees that I have sat on—and I have sat on many—have had very good relationships with officials. I do not think that the relationship with the officials and the previous Secretary of State was good. I am afraid it is not just about the Secretary of State on this matter.
When I was on the International Development Committee, the relationship was such that we had private discussions and briefings with the Secretary of State every month. They were private, off the record and totally in camera. We would discuss confidential issues relating to development spending—sometimes where it had been misspent or where there were problems. The Committee would then rally around the Secretary of State, the Department and their officials when things were happening. That is the kind of relationship that we need now, and it is the kind of relationship that I think we can have now.
We need to review CraG, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I also sit on, is doing that now. We need to strengthen CraG and we also need to have the following things, which I will list quickly and then finish. We need to ensure that heads of terms are presented to the Committee and signed off by the House, just like in America, the European Union and most other advanced democracies. We need to have private briefings at every single stage and on every single chapter. That is what the EU and the US get. If it is good enough for them, it needs to be good enough for us. We need to have embedded people in some of the key negotiations. Again, the US Senate has that, and that is what we should be expecting. It is not good enough for Ministers or the Department to tell us that these are confidential discussions. They are in the national interest and they must include the Committee. It is unacceptable for them to think that the Committee is not trustworthy.
We need a proper set of trade commissioners who give impartial advice to the Committee. The Committee needs to be given the resources for a set of sub-committees and staff. The Committee could then look at broad issues and the sub-committees could look at trade-by-trade issues. It is not good enough that the Committee is having to do all the trade-by-trade issues, which means that we are not looking at any of the broad issues in our scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott, I believe for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate and for his reasoned contribution.
I agree with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) about the importance of ensuring that Parliament can scrutinise trade deals. After exiting the European Union, the UK finds itself negotiating trade deals for the first time in over 50 years, yet with minimal scrutiny by this House.
Trade deals are no longer simply focused on tariffs and border crossings, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said. They touch on every element of our daily lives, from jobs and environmental protection to food safety and public services. Given that these trade deals will have a lasting impact on our constituents’ lives, the lack of scrutiny is disappointing.
The measures that do exist to scrutinise trade deals are simply not up to scratch. Recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand exemplify the disregard for proper parliamentary scrutiny, with those deals effectively signing away the livelihood of Scottish farmers. Under the current CRaG procedure, Parliament is granted little power in the scrutiny of trade deals. It cannot block or amend deals, but simply delay them. Despite the Government promising that this Parliament would have a full debate on the impact of the Australia trade deal, that has not taken place. It appears that the new Government wish to continue with this lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny.
On the topic of India, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) spoke incredibly eloquently about his constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, and I associate myself fully with all his concerns.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, scrutiny of trade deals by legislators is not uncommon. From an international perspective, the UK is an outlier in its lack of parliamentary oversight of international agreements. Our EU counterparts require parliamentary ratification for any deal negotiated, effectively giving them a veto over trade deals. A similar system is also in place in the US, with Congress outlining the objectives that the Government must follow in any negotiations. By allowing Parliament greater scrutiny over deals, we would be strengthening our system of oversight to match that of our international counterparts.
As has been said by hon. Members from across the House, parliamentary scrutiny matters. There was a refusal to enshrine basic animal welfare and environmental standards in the Australia deal negotiated by our current Prime Minister. As I have said, that effectively signed away Scottish farmers’ livelihoods. There is much concern in Scotland. Trade deals would greatly benefit from consultation with the devolved Administrations. The agreements have completely disregarded devolution and eroded the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland has its own legal jurisdiction over the environment, procurement, farming and health, yet it was not properly consulted about how the trade deals would impact those areas. It is vital that the Scottish Parliament has a greater role in scrutinising and approving agreements. It is unacceptable that the Scottish Parliament is effectively being ignored and lacks the power to delay or amend the terms of a deal that has huge ramifications for Scottish agriculture and industry.
The UK should follow the approach adopted in Canada in its recent negotiations with the EU. The Canadian Government consulted each of the provincial administrations and involved them at every stage of the negotiation. Similar systems, involving regional and devolved Administrations, are commonplace internationally, and the UK should look to emulate that by involving the Scottish Parliament in all future negotiations.
It is vital that we get the negotiation of trade deals right. Parliament must have a greater say in all trade negotiations, and the devolved Administrations must be involved. Once a trade deal has been ratified, it is incredibly difficult to amend the terms. We must therefore ensure that the negotiations are done correctly the first time. That can be done only if better mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the UK Government are properly scrutinised in their negotiation of trade deals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second time today, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate on scrutiny of trade deals.
The Government have simply failed to ensure that parliamentarians, businesses, non-governmental organisations, sector representatives, devolved Administrations—as the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), said—and civic society can scrutinise our trade policy adequately. Trade can and should be a force for good: it supports well-paid jobs here in the UK and overseas, it can reduce poverty around the globe and it can be a vehicle for tackling the evils of our world, from human trafficking to environmental degradation, to name but two.
Effective trade, however, needs effective scrutiny, as all other equivalent nations have. We in the UK could learn a lot from those nations, but for this Government “scrutiny” avoids engagement. The whole process they operate avoids scrutiny and engagement and actively harms the development of effective trade policy and trade deals. We are not dealing in abstract facts. When I met NFU representatives in Wales this summer, they told me about their concerns and worries about the deal, particularly for red-meat farmers. Moreover, when they did meet Ministers and civil servants, they felt that they were being ignored.
To top that off, we have seen the sordid spectacle of the Government hiding from a debate in the Commons. Before recess, the then Secretary of State tried to deflect one and to claim that no parliamentary time was available for a debate on the detail of the UK-Australia deal. As the answer to a written question that I tabled suggested, that was not true.
Why does this matter? This is not an abstract parliamentary topic; it is about ensuring that consumers, farmers, businesses, civic society, NGOs and Members of both Houses are involved in matters of national importance. With his US example, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) showed why engagement strengthens trade deals. That is why virtually every other modern developed nation has much stronger scrutiny requirements—not just parliamentary scrutiny—for trade deals, including the US, the EU and South Africa. I met parliamentarians in South Africa to discuss this very issue, and we could learn a lot from South African transparency in negotiating trade deals.
Effective scrutiny makes for effective deals. It increases support for trade deals if consumers, workers and businesses feel that they have been listened to as well as just consulted, yet the free trade deal with Australia has a climate-shaped hole in it. The president of the NFU has warned that
“this deal simply serves to heap further pressure on farm businesses at a time when they are facing extraordinary inflationary pressure”.
That happened because key stakeholders such as farmers were not included in the process.
As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, trade is not free if it is not fair. On the agreements with the Gulf, there are serious human rights issues in countries there, whether on the right to protest or the rights of women, migrant labourers or many others. We now know that the Government stripped human rights and the rule of law out of their objectives for a Gulf deal.
The FTAs with India and the Gulf would have huge implications for our climate commitments. My first question to the Minister is, what assurances will he give that human rights will now be raised as part of the process and that there will be proper scrutiny for any free trade agreement with the Gulf?
The Secretary of State has been critical of the Government’s own net zero pledge, calling it “arbitrary”. Perhaps that is why they might wish to avoid any scrutiny. When the Prime Minister was Secretary of State for International Trade, she selectively released partial polling data, only to be rebuked by the British Polling Council. We saw her ignore officials’ advice about the impact of the UK-Australia deal on UK farmers.
In the past year, the former Secretary of State dodged the International Trade Committee multiple times, as we have heard today. The Department was even issued with an enforcement notice by the Information Commissioner for delays to freedom of information requests, further suggesting a fear of scrutiny and openness. That suggests that the Government are avoiding scrutiny and debate in both Houses.
I have focused on the Government’s attitude to the parliamentary process, but we need assurances that Ministers are meeting, and actually listening to the concerns of, other stakeholders. The stakeholders we met feel there is too little consultation, and even when there is they feel like they are being talked at rather than listened to.
Will the Government grant a debate on the Floor of the House on the UK-New Zealand trade agreement before it is ratified? If the International Trade Committee requests a debate on the FTA with India, will the Government grant it?
Finally, the Labour party is a pro-trade party. We want to see the Government striking ambitious trade deals. We want to see trade deals that support British business, British values and economic growth. To do that, trade deals need to be accompanied by proper scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. It is great to be back at the Department for International Trade after a one-year gap. It is good to engage on a huge number of the issues that I used to engage on—I have had a quick crash course to bring myself up to speed after the last year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. He is a genuine champion for global Britain and brings great energy to the International Trade Committee—something I remember from when I appeared before the Committee a number of times. The Committee is extremely important to the work of the Department for International Trade, as is the Lord’s International Agreements Committee. Many important points have been raised during the debate, and I will strive to cover as many as I can. First, I will lay out a little context, but most of my speech will deal with the points that have been raised.
For the first time in nearly half a century, the UK is free to negotiate its own free trade agreements with the world’s fastest-growing economies. The rewards will be significant: higher wages, more jobs and more growth, with agreements specifically tailored to the needs of the United Kingdom. However, given that our free trade agreements equate to a significant shift in trade policy and in how this country does its trade policy, it is right that Parliament has the opportunity to fully examine them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes rightly says that the CRaG process came in during the last days of the Labour Government, in 2010. CRaG ensures that Parliament has 21 sitting days to consider a deal before it can be ratified. Only once that period has passed without either House resolving against the deal can it proceed towards ratification. The Government believe that CRaG continues to provide a robust framework, but we have added, in addition to CRaG, some important parts to this process. In both respects, the need for parliamentary scrutiny and the Government’s constitutional right to negotiate international agreements under the royal prerogative—
I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister is making the point that Parliament has the ability to consider these things under CRaG. Parliament only has that ability if the Government allow time for us debate and vote. We did not have that for the Australia agreement. I think most of us want the Minister to say today that, on the New Zealand agreement and the subsequent trade agreements, we will have that time allocated, as outlined under CRaG.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, I have only been back at the Department two days now, but I will carefully consider the representations that he has made on parliamentary scrutiny. As I am laying out, CRaG is a process that, I believe, works well overall. We have added elements to CRaG, on top of the situation we inherited in 2010.
I should stress that no international treaty—we saw this in the House earlier in the Committee stage of the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill—can of itself change the UK’s laws. That can be done only by Parliament. What is more, it is the long-standing practice of successive Governments to ratify treaties only once relevant domestic implementing legislation is in place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes knows, the Australia free trade agreement is not actually ratified yet, because the domestic legislation is not yet in place.
My hon. Friend made an excellent speech. He rightly praised a litany of successes and the importance of our trade policy in making a difference to businesses, exporters, and consumers. Having read through quite a few of these free trade agreements and international trade agreements, I can say that there is no point negotiating just for the sake of producing a doorstep-style document. The point is to have an agreement that works for our exporters, consumers and producers, as rightly pointed out by various hon. Members.
May I give some praise to my officials? I was a little perturbed by the points raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). Whatever officials may or may not have advised Ministers in the past, it is unfair to attack them if Ministers chose not to follow that advice or did something else. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to think about that and perhaps intervene on me to clarify what he meant.
What I should have said is that the Secretary of State hid behind her officials, claiming that it was their advice that she was following. I hope that that was not the case and I that officials were giving her good, broad advice—I am sure they always do.
Let me take that in the spirit in which it is meant. I think we will agree to move on, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point. I am just saying that Ministers are always responsible for the decisions and actions of their Departments. That is a very good rule for how our constitution works.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made various excellent points about better clarity and better comms. In my experience, there can always be better communication in the world of trade. There is always a huge amount of misunderstanding in relation to trade in general and free trade agreements in particular.
My hon. Friend mentioned outreach, which I will come back to. He also mentioned human rights clauses. The UK has an incredibly proud record—not only on our own human rights, but on the engagement we do around the world. Free trade agreements are not always the best way to engage on human rights—there are often better ways to do that—but we do make sure that, wherever appropriate, human rights are included in free trade agreements. We will certainly engage with all our trade partners on the issues that matter to the British people and the Government, be they human rights or trade union rights.
Let me deal first with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised and the specific case he mentioned. I will talk about CRaG in a bit more detail, but the other part of his speech was about respect for the International Trade Committee. I know from the times I have appeared in front of that Committee how important it is. It is ably chaired by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)—I have mutilated the pronunciation of the Western Isles, but I have done my best. I say to my hon. Friend that our system of scrutinising international agreements and trade deals is at least as good as that in other Westminster-style democracies, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Unless something major has changed in the year I have been out of the Department, I think the UK shapes up at least as well as those equivalent systems.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who is no longer in his place, talked about a lack of expertise in the Department, but I would say quite the opposite. I was there at the foundation of the Department in 2016, and we deliberately made sure that we had the expertise and the right people in place.
I am already overshooting on time, Ms Elliott. I have not done justice to a lot of the contributions that have been made, but I think that I have dealt with human rights. There was mention of China and Russia. Of course, there are no plans to make a free trade agreement with the likes of China or Russia. Trade policy is reserved, but we engage with and consult the Scottish Government and Welsh Government through the ministerial forum for trade, which I used to chair and which I think I will be chairing again.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) talked about meaningful debate. The Department for International Trade always has meaningful debate, and we always have outreach to stakeholders. People have specifically mentioned farmers. I cannot tell you the number of outreach sessions that I did with the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the Ulster Farmers’ Union. The number of Zoom and Teams meetings that I did with them all during the pandemic was absolutely extraordinary. We did a huge amount of outreach.
I say to hon. Members that it has been a helpful and interesting debate. It has been useful for me to get back up to speed on parliamentary scrutiny. I appreciate that Members want to see more scrutiny and more debate. I am open-minded on that, and I will have a look specifically at some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raised in relation to current free trade negotiations.
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. If he wants to come and talk to the International Trade Committee about human rights, we will raise it when we discuss the India trade agreement. I am trying to work on a cross-party basis, and we will raise that point.
When the Minister compares us with other countries—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).