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Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2023

Consideration of Lords amendment

Clause 2

Further provision about power

I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.

This Government amendment, tabled in the other place and agreed to, rectifies a minor and technical typographical error in the Bill, and clarifies the power available to Ministers of the Crown or a devolved authority under clause 1. The amendment inserts a single word, “different”, in clause 2(1)(a), making it clear that regulations under clause 1 may make different

“provision for different purposes or areas”.

The intention of the provision overall is to make clear that if it were wanted, the Government procurement chapters could be implemented differently for different types of procurement or in different sectors. The Government do not anticipate relying on this flexibility for the initial set of regulations implementing the procurement chapters, because the chapters will be implemented in the same way for the procurement subject to those chapters. None the less, it is important to retain the flexibility should the need arise in the future—for instance, if it were necessary or expedient for regulations to make provision implementing an amendment to the chapters in one way for utilities and a different way for local government.

The flexibility is also reflected in regulations that may be made to implement trade agreements within the scope of the Trade Act 2021. Section 4(1) of that Act similarly provides that regulations

“may…make different provision for different purposes or areas”.

However, I assure the House that any regulations made under the Bill can be made only for the purposes described in clause 1, namely implementing the Government procurement chapters and/or dealing with matters arising out of or related to those chapters.

Last week the Office for Budget Responsibility published figures on trade which changed the context for this debate on what is an apparently innocuous amendment from the other place. According to the OBR, we now face two years of declining exports, with a huge 6.6% drop in British exports this year, a further drop next year, and then an average growth in our exports of less than 1% for the next three years. We are reaping the results of the Conservatives’ failure to negotiate a better trade deal with the European Union or complete a trade deal with the United States, and the impact of significant cuts in support for attendance at trade shows and access to overseas markets is now all too obvious.

This amendment, and the debates in the Lords, strike me as a big missed opportunity—not for want of trying by Opposition colleagues—to start attempting to put things right. Abolishing the Department for International Trade and moving the deckchairs around in Whitehall is not going to hide away the Conservatives’ dismal record on trade and economic growth. We are lagging behind the rest of the G7 on exports to the world’s fastest growing economies in the G20, and nothing that the Minister has said so far, this afternoon or in previous debates, is going to improve the situation any time soon.

I do not want to detain the House too long, but while the amendment might involve the insertion of only one word in the Bill, the difference it makes does matter, both for what it does and what it does not do. Although there is support across the House to increase trade with our friends in Australia and New Zealand—particularly on the Labour Benches, not least because both countries are now led by progressive Labour Governments—there has also been widespread concern, among hon. Members and certainly outside the House, about what Ministers have negotiated, particularly in the trade deal with Australia. As I say, this amendment feels like a missed opportunity to begin to address those concerns.

We know that Ministers decided to throw British farmers under the bus, ignoring the concerns of the National Farmers Union. We know that the Prime Minister could have intervened, but did not. And we know that the desperation to get any deal meant that too much negotiating leverage was given up. One of the questions that the amendment raises is whether its wording in any way helps to offset, even just a little, those significant negotiating failures by the Government. We on the Labour Benches warned Ministers that the Australian deal would be used as a precedent by the other countries with which Ministers are negotiating, and as the Minister knows, that is exactly what is happening. The weaknesses in the deal that his predecessors negotiated are now being used to demand further concessions in our current negotiations, particularly by the countries with big agricultural interests.

I have considered carefully whether this amendment helps us to find any comfort following the devastating analysis of these trade deals offered to the House by the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), when he explained, back in November, that we

“gave away far too much for far too little in return”.—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]

He also said that

“the value of the UK agri-food market access offer was nearly double what we got in return”.

I have also considered carefully whether this amendment from the other place improved the scrutiny by Parliament, or even the scrutiny of how the regulations bringing into effect the procurement chapters of these trade deals are implemented. If the amendment had forced Ministers to consult with and in the nations and regions of the UK before the regulations were introduced, it would have been extremely helpful. After all, surely one of the most important lessons from these two trade deals is that the process of parliamentary scrutiny for trade deals is not fit for purpose.

Granted, Ministers in the Department for International Trade were busy disagreeing and attacking each other at the time, but when the then Trade Secretary failed to turn up eight times to give evidence before the International Trade Committee on these deals—and despite that, would not extend the time for the Committee to report on the deals to the House—it became clear that something was very amiss with the system of scrutiny. It is hardly surprising that the International Trade Committee has been abolished by Ministers, but instead of improving the scrutiny of trade negotiations, or even just the regulations implementing the procurement chapters of the negotiations, the amendment makes things a little easier for Ministers.

Will my hon. Friend confirm, notwithstanding the absurdities of the previous Trade Secretary, who was more concerned with a photo opportunity than a proper deal, and some of the other difficulties, that our position is that it is enormously important that we have good trading and all other relations with our great allies in Australia and New Zealand, particularly after we recently strengthened and deepened our strategic relationship through the very welcome AUKUS deal?

My right hon. Friend, as ever, makes a hugely important point. Australia and New Zealand, as I said earlier, are important allies of this country with whom we have crucial security interests as well as trade interests. I accept that anything that helps to maintain and strengthen those relationships is very positive, but I am sure he would agree that we need to learn the lessons from how Ministers carried on those negotiations, particularly with the Australians.

Given the specific context of the Bill and the focus on implementing the procurement chapters of the two trade deals, it is a struggle to see how this amendment will help to improve the implementation of the supposed better access to our partners’ procurement markets.

The leading procurement expert Professor Sánchez Graells set out clearly in his evidence to the other place, and indeed to this House, his concerns that the Australia deal worsens the protections for British businesses competing in the Australian procurement market. We are entitled to ask ourselves whether this amendment helps to address that concern in any way. Sadly, I do not think it does.

Professor Sánchez Graells also made clear his view that the benefits of the trade deal in terms of access to Australia’s procurement market have been significantly exaggerated. The noble Lord Purvis and Labour Lords also picked up on that point in the debates in the other House, but the one Lords amendment that the Government backed does not address this concern. What the amendment does, if anything, is ever so slightly increase Ministers’ powers to implement regulations, wherever and however they want.

Given how Ministers excluded some groups from the negotiations—including trade unions—given the disregard for the legitimate interests of our devolved nations, and given the failure to negotiate commitments on climate change or proper protections for specialist British brands such as Stilton cheese or Scotch whisky, Ministers’ apparent determination to try to claim a little more freedom to implement the procurement chapters does not encourage any sense that they have learned lessons from what has happened.

I have one specific question for the Minister on the implementation of these trade deals. It would be very helpful for small businesses across the UK if he set out the Department’s plan to support small businesses that want to access the Australian and New Zealand markets and take advantage of the trade preferences in these two deals.

We will not seek to divide the House, but this amendment is a reminder of the Government’s woeful performance on trade and exports, and of the desperate need for a new Government determined to lift up the living standards of everyone in this country, not just the already very wealthy, by delivering more exports and sustained economic growth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on taking such a great deal of time to find some contention in a single amendment that adds only the word “difficult.” I am afraid my remarks will be somewhat shorter.

The whole basis and value of this Bill, and of what the Lords have sent back to us, is in taking the opportunities presented to us by our trade agreements. It is undoubtable that, through the Australia and New Zealand trade deals, new trade opportunities have been delivered. We have to be clear about how those values have offered themselves, whether through defence agreements, through creating new digital partnerships, through joining new blocs such as CPTPP, through exploring the idea of the Gulf Co-operation Council, through signing memorandums of understanding with American states and trade agreements with Israel or through finding ways to join up with India to unlock services and industry opportunities for our country and our businesses.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about how we might be able to help small and medium-sized enterprises. Well, only this morning the Department for Business and Trade held an event in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House on how we can help SMEs achieve their true value and potential beyond our borders. I hope we see more of those events, because it is essential that we find ways to help our small businesses reach new markets.

I will come on to procurement and the amendment in a second, before I stray too far, but it is relevant to talk about the value of these trade deals. All too often, we are told that they are not of enough value to the UK economy, which is to presume that our trade deals are static and that no one takes advantage of them when they are brought into force. After they are brought into force, we always see them grow.

On the International Trade Committee, I always cite the example of the North American free trade agreement. The expectation when NAFTA came into force was that it would be of very little benefit to the signatories’ economies. In fact, the opposite was the case. It grew steadily over time and has evolved into what it is today under a different name. We should look not at the current forecast value of these trade deals but at how we can encourage businesses in each and every one of our constituencies, from Totnes in south Devon to Harrow West and Northern Ireland, to take full advantage.

We talk about procurement a lot and we are trying to shape it in a meaningful way in this House. So far, we are doing very well, with the Procurement Bill. However, as the Minister has rightly said, this is the chance to take the benefit of procurement opportunities that vary. Where there are differences—it will not just be in defence, as it might be in utilities, services, industry and so on—this will allow us to take the opportunity that comes with that range.

I do not think there is going to be much disagreement on this Lords amendment. At last, it shapes a Bill that—

Do we not have to be careful on public procurement and recognise the world as it is, notwithstanding agreements? Even when we were a member of the EU, we found that other countries gave considerable preference to their own producers within procurement. Our civil service and Treasury resolutely, adamantly and stubbornly refuse to support British industry, including small and medium-sized enterprises, and so when they go into the world market, they hear, “If you are not good enough for the British Government, why are you good enough for us?” They are being constantly undermined, even now, on small modular reactors.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. We have accepted in many instances the terms of the World Trade Organisation and the carve-out measures within them, so we are very compliant in many areas where we can be, for example, in this instance, a little more protectionist in respect of some of the key technologies we are developing in this country. There is a bit of give and take on that point. We do recognise it in some areas, although perhaps not to the extent that he would want to see.

As I was saying, I do not disagree with this Lords amendment, which is a perfectly simple one. There is always a lot in a word, but this will give us the opportunity to take full advantage in our trade deals and through procurement.

Out of all the potential amendments that could have come back along the corridor from the other place, this is not one that would have been top of my list. Let me surprise the Minister by saying that this is a very good trade deal—for those viewing it from Australia or New Zealand. It is not such a good trade deal—it is a pretty lousy one—for those viewing it from Scotland. We are dealing with a single-word amendment, and I can think of many farmers in my constituency who could probably sum up their views of this deal in a single word—none of their words would be parliamentary, I hasten to add.

I hear what the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) has to say about this not being a static arrangement, but even then it still requires a great deal of catching up in order to make up the ground here. The UK Government’s own analysis shows that the trade deal with New Zealand will bring in an increase of 0.03% of GDP over 15 years, with a figure of 0.08% of GDP from the Australia deal, all while the UK trade and co-operation agreement with the EU leads to a 4.9% fall for the UK over the same period.

The Scottish National party has a simple yardstick on trade deals: we will support those that are good and oppose those that are poor. Nothing that has come back alters our view of this particular deal.

I shall be brief. I thank Members for their contributions today. We have had two glass half empty responses and one glass half full one. That does not surprise me at all, because I am still waiting for the Opposition to support one of our trade deals. It is important to remember that the Australia and New Zealand deals benefit every nation and every region of the UK. I am disappointed to hear what the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) said, because the attitude of the Scottish whisky manufacturers might be slightly different, as huge benefits will likely come from these deals.

As I said in my opening speech, this Lords amendment is a minor and technical one. It ensures clarity on the point that the power in the Bill can be used only to implement and deal with cases arising as a result of these free trade agreements. Again, the Government do not—

I realise that the Minister probably does not have much more to say, but may I take this opportunity to press him to set out the plan to help small businesses benefit from the trade preferences in these deals?

The hon. Member is being slightly too impatient. I said that my speech would be short, but it is not too short. There are a couple of comments that I will come on to.

On the amendment, the Government do not anticipate relying on this flexibility for the initial set of regulations implementing the procurement chapters, but it is nevertheless important that the flexibility is retained should the need for it arise in the future.

I will respond to comments made by hon. Members. I have already mentioned the economic benefits of the Australia and New Zealand trade deals. They will generate billions of pounds of economic activity, to the benefit of UK businesses and, of course, the people we represent. This will lead to more jobs, which is why it is unfathomable that anybody would vote against this.

The scrutiny that we give Bills stacks up pretty well compared with other parliamentary democracies and, of course, is based on CRaG—the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act process—which I remind Opposition Members was developed and implemented during the time of the last Labour Government. If they do not like it, they are criticising their own legislation.

On protections to support the most sensitive parts of the UK farming community, we have secured various measures across both deals that are collectively available for 15 to 20 years for the most sensitive products. We have engaged, and continue to engage, with the farming industry. Of course, these and the many other deals we are negotiating are also ensuring that we are fit for the 21st century. We are no longer in a world where all we do is ship widgets from country A to country B via the countries closest to us. Services, particularly those delivered digitally, are now vital to the UK economy. They represent 80% of the UK economy and it is absolutely vital that they form a key part of our trade deals, as is the case with these two deals with Australia and New Zealand.

On support for businesses, of course, as the Secretary of State has said many times, we need to not only deliver on the deals but make sure that businesses, large and small, right across the country are able to benefit from them, so we will continue to support small and medium-sized businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) highlighted this morning’s export showcase event, at which MPs and Lords were surprised at the extent to which support is already, and will continue to be, available, whether in training, export support services or UK export finance. That is not just for big businesses; it is for small and medium-sized businesses as well. There will be extensive support because we want all businesses, large and small, to benefit from these deals.

The Bill’s measures might be technical in nature, but they will make a real difference for people right across our constituencies and right across the United Kingdom.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 1 November 2022 (UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords]: Programme), as varied by the Order of 1 February 2023 (UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [Lords]: Programme (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Message

(1) Proceedings on the Lords Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

Subsequent stages

(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Jacob Young.)

Question agreed to.