Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the case for ensuring that human rights are respected in any future trade deals with other countries.
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to the Dispatch Box. She is a stalwart defender of human rights, particularly the right to religious freedom, and we wish her well in her role.
The reason I am particularly grateful to have secured this debate is that throughout the world human rights seem increasingly under threat. There is hardly a country in the world where there is not some cause for concern, and in many there is a flagrant denial of the rights we rightly take for granted in this country.
Some today pooh-pooh the idea of rights and talk scornfully about the “human rights industry”, so let us remind ourselves of what they are really about. They are in origin about protecting the individual against the power of the state. In the aftermath of the terrible atrocities of World War II, great men and women enshrined this in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the other conventions and declarations that followed on from it, not least the European Convention.
I believe that future historians will look back on this legislation as one of the great achievements of the 20th century. Human rights are, in the words of the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, “trumps”. They outbid any reason of state to torture or deny due process to the individual. They are enshrined in law and depend on law for their effectiveness, but they are rooted in the equal worth and dignity of every single human being on earth. The value of the individual, as a number of recent books have stressed, has come about as a result of our Christian heritage—but today, of course, it is championed as often as not by secular humanists.
The Motion before us today is connected to trade, for the simple reason that, after Brexit, there will be desperate efforts to maximise trade wherever it can be found. The pressure will be enormous. At a time like that, it will be particularly important to keep in mind the fundamental values for which this country stands. The Motion before us can be looked at in two ways. First, it concerns the general record of a country on human rights. Secondly, it concerns those human rights that are specifically linked to trade agreements. The two areas are linked, but no doubt different noble Lords will want to focus on issues of particular concern to them.
The pressure to play down the importance of human rights comes about not just because of the desirable aim of maximising trade, but because of the rise of what are now termed “civilisational states”. There has always been pressure from nationalist states to deny the reality of human rights. The nation, which in practice may mean the rule of an authoritarian Government, it is argued, takes priority over individual considerations. But today this is sometimes done in the name of a civilisation. China, with its long civilisation, is of course the major culprit. From this perspective, there are Chinese values—or, more exactly, Chinese communist values. This, it is argued, is a superior alternative to the European insistence on individual rights.
Against this we should say unashamedly and unequivocally that human rights are a universal norm; a legal norm, as expressed in the UN declaration and other legal documents that flowed from it; and a moral norm, as underpinned by recognition of the equal worth and value of every single human being on earth. They are not just an expression of western imperialism, or a western point of view. They have universal validity and application, however often they are denied in practice.
Of course, global trade is a fundamental feature of our times and an economic necessity. Furthermore, in a flawed world, we often have to trade with countries whose policies we strongly disagree with. There is no question of totally clean hands: one value sometimes has to be weighed up against others, and some compromises have to be made. But the danger is that we will just shrug our shoulders and think, “Well, that’s life. That’s the world we live in”, and forget about human rights altogether. The point of my Motion is to bring to the fore the need not to forget them; to keep them in mind even in the rush to make new trade agreements; and to respect them in a world of some inevitable compromises.
At the moment, the UK is of course part of the EU, which has strong human rights considerations built into all trade agreements. I am glad to note that the Government have committed themselves to continuing with this approach, although wanting some flexibility. I believe we will need to watch those areas where this flexibility is claimed, so that it does not mean in practice that human rights considerations are totally set aside.
Everybody with an interest in these matters has argued that we need much greater scrutiny of free trade agreements by Parliament. It serves little purpose to show an agreement to Parliament after it has already been agreed. Parliament needs to be able to scrutinise it in the process of formulation. In its March 2019 report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights rightly noted, for example, that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU meant that there would need to be much greater domestic scrutiny of many international agreements previously negotiated at an EU level.
Towards this end, the Government have suggested an outline for this more extensive scrutiny process. This would include publishing an “outline approach” at the start of negotiations to include the negotiating objectives and the potential economic impact of the agreement. Parliament would have a role in scrutinising these documents. It would also include publishing a “round report” following each substantial round of negotiations, providing an outline of talks by policy area; establishing a,
“close relationship with a specific parliamentary committee in each House”,
to assist scrutiny of FTAs throughout the whole process; and publishing an Explanatory Memorandum and full impact assessment alongside each final treaty text when it is laid before Parliament.
On that final point, the Government have said that they had previously committed to a discussion of any “significant human rights implications” in each Explanatory Memorandum. The Government also agreed that the remit of the Joint Committee on Human Rights should include consideration of the Government’s international human rights obligations. All this is a significant step in the right direction, but we will certainly need to watch what happens after Brexit to ensure that it is actually happening.
One problem at the moment, as the Trade Justice Movement points out, is that free trade agreements tend to have a higher level of enforceability than human rights agreements. The movement says:
“Trade agreements must be structured to ensure primacy of human rights and sustainable development”.
In this House, it is right that different Members focus on different rights or different parts of the world where they have particular concerns. I will take this opportunity to mention very briefly four of my continuing concerns. One is India, which has an exemplary constitution, written by that great man Dr Ambedkar, who deserves to be as well known as Gandhi or Nehru. According to India’s constitution, everyone is to be treated equally—but sadly in practice this is far from being the case. Minorities, in particular the Dalits—the former Untouchables—and tribal peoples suffer by every indicator, not least when they try to obtain access to justice when yet another atrocity has been perpetrated against their community. India used to be a model democracy and it is tragic that in recent years under the Modi Government minority communities such as Muslims and Dalits are experiencing increasing marginalisation. NGOs there find it increasingly difficult to get visas. This is totally unacceptable, and in our great desire to do more trade with India we must not drop our concern that India must live up to its great constitution.
Then there is Indonesia, which in 1961 invaded West Papua, the country to the west of Papua New Guinea, and which has conducted a savage repression of its indigenous peoples ever since—one mostly ignored by the world, but now, thank goodness, the international community has been waking up to what is happening. It is colonisation of the worst sort, with West Papua’s massive resources of gold, oil and gas being milked by Jakarta.
In 2016, the then United Nations Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, Alfred de Zayas, called for all future trade agreements to,
“stipulate the primacy of human rights”,
and for existing treaties to be revised in the same way. He argued that some trade agreements have in fact had a negative impact on human rights, such as rights to self-determination; sovereignty over natural wealth and resources, especially of indigenous populations; life and health when access to generic medicines is impeded; peaceful assembly and association; and public participation. What is noticeable about this list is that it is directly applicable to Indonesia, for in the case of West Papua all those rights are denied.
Then there is the denial of basic rights for LGBT people in so many Commonwealth countries. This too we must not forget but must work for changes in the laws of those countries. We cannot accept that there is freedom for LGBT people in one country but not in others.
Finally, there is the vicious denial of religious freedom in so many countries. We think especially at the moment of China, where the Uighur Muslims are literally having their Muslim identity stripped from them, and countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where it is virtually impossible to practise a religion other than the state-sponsored one.
With the continuing denial of human rights in so many countries, it may be that any British Government would get weary of raising these issues with the Governments concerned. We must not get weary or shrug our shoulders. If those suffering individuals do not have a voice through us, where will they have one? We must continue to press for the observance of human rights wherever they are denied, even when we are anxious to trade with the countries concerned. After Brexit, this House and the other place will have a particular responsibility to scrutinise trade agreements, to ensure that maximising trade is not done at the expense of ignoring human rights considerations.
I end by paying tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which continues to press the issues that we always raise in this House—but I ask it to do so with increased determination and seriousness. I also thank those noble Lords on all sides of the House who raise these issues, not least those who will speak today and whom I look forward to hearing. All of us who do that continue to give voice to the voiceless, even when, sadly, so many Governments seem to remain deaf to their cries. I beg to move.
My Lords, to hear the noble and right reverend Lord is really like having an hour’s version of “Thought for the Day”; we all feel better and wiser. His measured tone and words of wisdom and the balance with which he puts forward the debate are incontrovertible and critically important at this time. He does not say that human rights should dominate trade deals, but that they should be respected. It is in that balanced mode that I want to make a contribution. I also want very warmly to welcome the Minister to her place. As a hugely impressive and highly ethical person, her involvement in this field is very welcome.
I have to make an abject apology to the House, because my own personal human rights and well-being will be severely curtailed if I do not leave by 6.30 pm. I had no idea that the debate would be going on so late this evening but I will have serious domestic difficulties, which I will not go into further detail about. I apologise to the noble and right reverend Lord, the Minister and the leaders of the Benches and I will most definitely read the material very carefully.
This debate focuses on two really important priorities in our country. Over the centuries, we have been a trading nation: an international perspective has long been at the heart of our commercial, social and political traditions. Similarly, part of our identity is a fierce commitment to promoting economic and democratic rights here and around the world, combating sources of exploitation and oppression. The noble and right reverend Lord mentioned some countries and areas where there is profound concern and, indeed, deteriorating situations.
Last week marked the close of the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, reminding us that support for human rights is a pillar of our responsibilities within the rules-based international system. I believe that we have a proud record of impactful action around the world, both independently and in bilateral and multilateral collaboration. I also want to praise the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID for their tenacious and principled work promoting human rights, which has included work with civil society organisations in Zimbabwe and with the Nepalese Government on capacity-building programmes; the conference held by the former Foreign Secretary and my constituency successor, Jeremy Hunt, on media freedom because of the appalling concern over the safety of journalists; and the work with Access Now and its #KeepItOn campaign to fight undemocratic internet shutdowns during elections. That has all been in the last year alone. There is also our work through the Human Rights Council, which only recently passed resolutions on Syria, Myanmar, Burundi, Yemen and the DRC. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy works in Mozambique, Kenya and Sierra Leone on disabilities. There has also been work in Uganda and Nigeria on underrepresented young people.
There are a huge number of areas where we have been willing and wanting to take a lead and to demonstrate our commitment. Perhaps most striking is the work of our former Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the Modern Slavery Act, both as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister. It is quite extraordinary: every company listed on the FTSE 100 has to make a declaration in its annual report that it has not been involved in modern slavery. This is quite a remarkable, almost draconian step, which I am delighted to say other countries are now following.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, has worked on religious rights, as the noble and right reverend Lord said, in Iraq, Sudan, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and so on and so forth. The Commonwealth also plays a great role. I would like to say more about the Commonwealth, like my noble friend Lord Howell; its commitment to human rights has also been extraordinarily important.
The link between human rights and trade deals is relatively recent. Talking of trade in general, free trade—in a rules-based system—has benefited the world enormously. It has taken more than a billion people out of absolute poverty, improving the fulfilment of the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to health, adequate nourishment, safe drinking water and sanitation. In addition, global poverty rates have fallen from 35% in 1990 to 10%; the global hunger index has come down 30% since 2000; there has been a 5.5 year increase in global life expectancy; the gap between the most and least developed countries has shrunk; and global illiteracy has halved since 1990. This comes from prosperity, wealth creation and trade, so I am an unequivocal believer in the idea that business and trade are the solution to, not the cause of, the world’s problems.
Deeply alarming instances of sinister protectionism are emerging on the world stage. We live in an incredibly interconnected world: the WTO says that the volume of international trade has multiplied 38 times since 1945, and the McKinsey Global Institute found that goods, services and financial flows increased by 400% between 1990 and 2012. However, while trade and connectivity have led to impressive strides towards many of the sustainable development goals, we are increasingly aware of ongoing and emerging global human rights challenges. This is extraordinarily worrying. This is the 13th consecutive year of global democratic decline, according to Freedom House. The noble and right reverend Lord has spoken about the situation in China and how sinister that is, and we all watch Hong Kong with great concern.
Trade and international agreements impact all areas of a country’s public policy, and we should take a holistic, inclusive approach involving comprehensive impact assessments. The Minister has already dismissed outright the idea that there will be a deterioration in the standard of human rights protection in the new world. It will be up to us in the United Kingdom to develop this instrument, to use it proportionately and in a balanced manner, and to energetically promote trade and human rights—which is always very much in our hearts. There should be no dogmatism. If, for example, we did not want to trade with people who still had capital punishment, our relationship with Japan, America, Singapore and others would not exist: it has to be proportionate.
I will say a little more about what business does on its own, without trade policies and agreements. When I was young, Barclays was vilified for trading in South Africa. One of my jobs in government was to take President Nelson Mandela, on his first visit to the UK after leaving prison, across to South Africa House. What did he say? He said that anti-apartheid was simple; what was difficult was building a country, and how indebted they were to all those enlightened international businesses that had hung on second South Africa and taught their people enlightened employment practices. My father was a management and leadership guru. He used to go to Anglo-American, go down the mines and train the supervisors on better employment practices. The commitment of many global businesses to female empowerment, anti-child labour practices, sustainability and anti-corruption measures is phenomenal. Whatever you think of Coca-Cola, it is a precious brand whose work in these areas is phenomenal.
Business organisations, therefore, and the new review of corporate governance in the United Kingdom—which is developing Section 172 of the Companies Act by talking about “purpose”, “mission” and “stakeholder commitment”—are showing a trend that says that business has to earn its right to trade. With support, encouragement and determination, trade agreements, the role of business and the development of human rights should be able to march hand in hand, as long as we remain vigilant, determined and committed to making the world a better place for us all.
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this debate with such passion and clarity, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, for explaining how trade and human rights—economic benefit and protection of human rights—do not need to be in contradiction. I recall that in the very early days of the last Labour Government my colleague, mentor and friend, Robin Cook, was often derided for advocating a moral foreign policy. In fact, he was never naive enough to say that; what he did advocate was a moral dimension to foreign policy. What I am advocating in this debate is a moral dimension to our future, post-Brexit international trade policy.
We may, to my regret, be moving into a post-Brexit situation within a few weeks. Some of the more extreme proponents, or at least the more vociferous proponents, of Brexit have always seen a future beyond Brexit of Britain acting as a buccaneering power doing trade with everybody all around the world. The point about buccaneers is that they do not obey the rules, but effective arrangements for international trade require rules—and they require rules to be understood and they require rules to be enforced. Just like some people’s approach to our relationship over the decades with the EU, many people approach trade as if it is a zero-sum game. It should not be; it should be to the mutual benefit—not necessarily equal, but mutual positive benefit—of both sides. That applies absolutely in this area.
As we move into new trade arrangements, they need to be used not only to stimulate economic benefit and therefore social benefit but benefit to the conditions under which the citizens of the countries with which we trade operate, whether it is their working conditions and workers’ rights—which are often either minimal or flagrantly ignored—or their rights as citizens in other respects. This of course is not a new concept, particularly in the labour area. In the 1920s, when we first established the multilateral machinery of the League of Nations, we also established the International Labour Organization. A few weeks ago, in the debate in this House initiated by my noble friend Lord Jordan, we debated the role of the ILO in the modern world. Historically, the adoption by the ILO of labour conventions in relation to anti-slavery and trafficking, working conditions, rights of worker organisations and rights on health and safety was often built into treaties and, post the Second World War, built into treaties on a multilateral basis under GATT and now the WTO. The Library briefing provided for us states with some surprise that human rights relating to workers were more often written into international trade agreements than were human rights in other respects. That is not surprising politically, because people who feel threatened by freer trade are often workers in higher-waged, more developed economies—they have to be politically squared, and rightly so. It is also because we established at a very early stage in such multilateral arrangements the ILO, its conventions and its follow-through, and they were reflected in a lot of agreements around the world.
In this post-Brexit global trading area, the expectation is that the UK can relatively freely negotiate with a whole range of nations. Some of this will be in rolled-over agreements, which will, if they are completely reflected, already have the EU’s stipulation—at least to some extent—in relation to commitments on human rights. However, the ambition of the free traders—the extreme free traders, if I can call them that—is to do deals with nations with which the EU does not have an arrangement and which may well have pretty poor human rights. China has already been referred to in relation to many aspects, but in recent weeks we have read about the treatment of the Uighurs—the Muslim minority in China. We have read of countries in the Middle East and their treatment of Christians and other minorities. There are major economies in South America whose human rights leave something to be desired. We could use trade to improve conditions for the citizens of those countries. We should have a commitment from the Government that when they approach new trade negotiations, they will insist from the beginning on a recognition of the need to observe at least minimum standards in relation to the treatment of workers, rights to equality, and non-discrimination by gender, sexuality, faith or ethnicity. These need to be written in, at least in broad terms, into those agreements.
The UK could take a lead on this. The United States, regrettably, at its present stage in politics, is not going to. The United Kingdom could do so, but unfortunately, the current indications from the UK Government are sort of in the opposite direction in that—the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is no longer in his seat, but he was very interested in this in the earlier Statement—the Government are reported to have said to the EU that they wish to withdraw the level-playing-field provisions which are currently in the political declaration on the future relationship with the EU. That refers to a level playing field in relation to employment rights, social rights and environmental protection. If that is our intention in relation to a free-trade agreement with our major existing trading partner, I shudder to think what it might be in relation to those potential partners where human rights are indeed a very serious issue.
I hope that the Government do not mean that or pursue that and I hope that they are prepared to argue for such clauses and for the enforcement of such clauses. If there is a clear breach of various provisions they should withdraw from the agreement and not allow long-term sunset clauses to prevent them so doing; they should retaliate in terms of trade with that country. We also need to ensure that such clauses are written into new arrangements within the WTO. My hope is that that will be the Government’s approach.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has already referred to my final point. To ensure that this happens, we need parliamentary scrutiny and some transparency on this issue. Hitherto, until 2010, treaties were not really scrutinised at all in Parliament, but now we at least have a CRaG procedure for that. In relation to trade negotiations, we need to have at least the equivalent rights of scrutiny, transparency and openness that the European Parliament has had for the last 40 years and, to a large extent, are present in Congress in the United States. We need a clear and powerful Joint Committee of both Houses on future trade negotiations in this Parliament.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to her position. She and I have had many an interesting discussion on the subject of equal rights and I look forward to continuing that in the Chamber as well as outside. I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for calling this debate, which draws attention to a part of the Brexit process that has received very little comment but is, for some of us, extremely important. I say that as a person who, as a citizen of this country, owes my equality—as a member of the LGBT community—to a string of court judgments that were fought tooth and nail by Governments of this country of different political persuasions. The European courts have been a source of great comfort to some of us from different minority groups and we are very fearful that we might have to live within a future where that protection is removed. I do not need to remind the noble Baroness that three times since 2016, the Conservative Party has announced that it will retain the Human Rights Act until 2020, at which point it will be replaced by what it refers to as “a British Bill of Rights”.
We are told that those rights will be equivalent but I have some fears, from where I stand, given the correlation between Members of another place who support Brexit and those who have been opponents of equality for people like me. There is a great deal of fear in our community that we will be in no position to tell the rest of the world how to maintain human rights, and that at a future point we may well diverge dramatically from a growing body of European law passed in the light of future judgments. I say that as somebody who has in recent years been able to see for myself the good effect that membership of the European Union has had in places such as the Balkans or in the Baltic countries, which, in order to meet accession terms, have had to put in place laws protecting the rights of minorities. I fear that leaving the European Union—if that were to happen—would undermine that quite considerably.
I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, in saying that I do not think any kind of theoretical commitment to human rights really matters; it is their practical effect. In our community, we are beginning to gather growing evidence to show that those countries with a good legal basis for equality—and which have good practice of equality—actually benefit from it in economic terms. Conversely, it is possible to draw a direct correlation between those with human rights abuses. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, there is considerable concern about leaving our largest market, in which the people with whom we trade are bound by common standards and laws in relation to equalities. I am sure we do business with some countries that have dreadful human rights. We do a great deal of business with countries with dreadful human rights records, but they are not now a sufficiently significant part of our trade to override our laws. We wonder whether they might be in future. We are talking, at the end of the day, about the capacity of people to start businesses and build jobs, here and abroad.
I want briefly to follow up the point of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about future scrutiny. I have a very personal view. When human rights are under threat, we have to be as vigilant as a hawk. There is much that this House needs to do to scrutinise future trade deals. Having done some research, as it stands there is only one example of an international trade deal that recognises gender identity and sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination in its labour chapter, and contains measures to ensure that these grounds are enforceable. It is, would you believe, Article 23.9 of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which says:
“The Parties recognize the goal of eliminating discrimination in employment and occupation, and support the goal of promoting equality of women in the workplace. Accordingly, each Party shall implement policies that it considers appropriate to protect workers against employment discrimination on the basis of sex (including with regard to sexual harassment), pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, and caregiving responsibilities; provide job-protected leave for birth or adoption of a child and care of family members; and protect against wage discrimination”.
My questions are as follows. Can we look forward—once we get beyond the platitudes we hear from some on the Government Benches that the level of rights and protections we have will, of course, in future be at least equivalent to what it is now—to a time when we have commitments of that kind in our trade agreements? Will we have a mechanism by which Members of both Houses of Parliament can scrutinise those agreements, not just when they are drawn up but when they are implemented? Or do we, as I fear, run the risk that the rights of people like me might just end up on the bonfire of some kind of ERG-DUP Brexit?
My Lords, I also warmly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to her post and wish her every success in the fulfilment of a very important remit. I also congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries on securing this important debate and on his powerful opening speech.
As your Lordships may be aware, I spend much of my time with my small NGO—Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART—supporting our partners in remote locations which are generally unreached by major aid organisations for political or security reasons. In seeking to reflect their priorities, I am sorry that mine will not be a happy speech. Often, Her Majesty’s Government have elected to prioritise trade and economic interests over human rights.
Time only permits four examples. First, there was the war fought by Azerbaijan to achieve ethnic cleansing of the Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—part of historic Armenia relocated by Stalin into Azerbaijan. I was there many times during the war which occurred between 1990 and 1994. I used to count 400 Grad missiles a day, fired by Azerbaijan on to the small city of Stepanakert, together with the low-flying aerial bombardment of civilian targets with massive, 500-kilogram bombs. On one visit I took photographs of children shredded by cluster bombs. I showed these photos to a very important senior person in the Foreign Office. When I asked if Her Majesty’s Government would make representations to the Government of Azerbaijan to stop dropping cluster bombs on civilians, in contravention of international law, I received this reply:
“No one has an interest in other countries; only interests. We have oil interests in Azerbaijan. Good morning”.
Secondly, the present Government refuse to recognise as genocide the ongoing and widespread attacks on Christians in Nigeria’s northern and central-belt states. The Nigerian House of Representatives has declared recent killings to be genocide and the statistics are certainly compatible with this definition. The refusal of Her Majesty’s Government to recognise this absolves them of the duties to respond appropriately. In recent years, several thousand Christian civilians have been slaughtered and more than two million displaced, following Boko Haram and Fulani insurgencies. Yet our Government have not responded with appropriate political or humanitarian support for victims of Fulani attacks and land grabs.
In Anguldi IDP camp in the central belt, we were told:
“In more than 20 years of crisis in Jos, local people observed a connivance of militants with the military on many occasions. For example, the Government sent in a helicopter with military, and Fulani met them. The Fulani herdsmen now go about with AK47s”.
Last year, Nigeria’s former Army chief of staff and Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Theophilus Danjuma, said that the armed forces were, “not neutral; they collude” in the,
“ethnic cleansing in … riverine states”,
by Fulani militia. He insisted that villagers must defend themselves because,
“depending on the armed forces”,
it will result in them dying “one by one”. The ethnic cleansing must stop. In this context, can the Minister reassure the Nigerian people as to how the United Kingdom will engage with the Nigerian Government and balance conflicting priorities between human rights and other priorities, notably trade?
Thirdly, in Sudan, the regime of the notorious ICC-indicted President al-Bashir, who was in power from 1989 until this year, was responsible for three million deaths, five million displaced and tens of thousands of women and children abducted into slavery. Yet, last year, the Foreign Office declared that it was changing its relationship with Sudan from “sticks” to “carrots”, apparently in order to co-operate with Khartoum to promote its own interests in the region.
Such a change of approach warrants serious scrutiny, not least because it bestowed credibility on the now deposed President without yielding any tangible results for the United Kingdom or for the Sudanese people. I have raised this issue in your Lordships’ House, claiming that the regime was enjoying munching the carrots, but asking what the conditions were. Can the Minister say what Her Majesty’s Government’s position was regarding the policy of carrots? Presumably, it was partly associated with the promotion of trade with Sudan and its allies, but it happened in the context of continuing offences against civilians. To date, I have received no satisfactory reply.
Finally, during my visits to Syria, local people have consistently emphasised their profound concerns over the devastating impact of British foreign policy, including the horrendous effects of sanctions. These greatly harm civilians for whom it is very difficult to obtain adequate supplies of food, medicines, medical equipment or employment.
The situation has worsened devastatingly since the crisis was highlighted in the medical journal, the Lancet, in May 2015:
“The economic losses of the country at the end of 2014 stood at US $143.8 billion, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty, of whom a third … were in abject poverty, unable to obtain even basic food items. Life expectancy has been reduced from 75.9 years in 2010 … to 55.7 years in 2014—a loss of 20 years ... The cost of basic food items has risen six-fold since 2010, although it varies regionally. With the exception of drugs for cancer and diabetes, Syria was 95% self-sufficient in terms of drug production before the war. This has virtually collapsed as have many hospitals and primary health-care centres. Economic sanctions have not removed the President … Sanctions are among the biggest causes of suffering for the people of Syria”.
Given that sanctions are central to the question of trade, can the Minister clarify their impact, since their imposition in 2012, on the Government of Syria and on the economic well-being of Syrian civilians? Does she appreciate that using human rights to justify the imposition of sanctions on weak countries whose Governments our Government wish to remove is as bad as subordinating human rights to economic interests?
In conclusion, we in HART often feel that in our work, we suffer what I call the double twist of the knife. We return from being with people and witnessing their excruciating pain to raise these tragedies with our Government, who do not want to respond with any assistance. It is the local, innocent civilians in these and other countries who suffer the harsh effects of Her Majesty’s Government’s interests when trade overrides humanitarian aid. I very much hope that this debate will highlight some of those issues for future trade deals and promote policy changes to bring desperately needed help to civilians now in dire need, who are currently left to suffer as political pawns.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate. It is not just a one-off event for him: his whole political life has been committed to this area.
The Government—I am sure that on this, we will all commend them—frequently express their commitment to the overseas aid programme. That programme is not just about getting the GDP of various countries to rise; it must surely be about how the condition and well-being of the people rise, and how individuals become able to live fuller lives, developing their potential.
In that context, trade deals become very important. Of course, trade deals can lead to increased growth in national wealth, but I dare to say that that is not necessarily to be welcomed if it is not reflected in the well-being of individual people. That is why it is essential that, when we are making trade deals, we take very seriously our commitment to human rights.
However, “human rights” is a term that can become a nice generalisation. What matters are the specifics. What are those trade deals doing to improve the condition of women and the fulfilment of their rights? What are they doing to grapple with the issue of the maltreatment, relative poverty or disadvantage of vulnerable minorities? What about the issues of gender? What about the appalling story of attitudes in some countries towards homosexuality, for example? These are all real human issues, and we need to be very clear that we are pushing our trade deal agreements as far as we can push them in the direction of dealing with specifics and not just generalisations. That is the first point I wanted to make.
The second is that it depends on will and motivation within our Governments and Administrations. Is our commitment to a theoretical agreement minimalist? How far does it constrain all the liberal freedom we would like to see? How far do we have to go in meeting what must be met in terms of legal formalities? How far are we pursuing these matters with a positive approach, saying, “What are we doing to ensure that the spirit and purpose of the details of the agreement are being fulfilled”? Other noble Lords have referred to this. What does this mean for our ability to scrutinise, in Parliament and publicly, what is happening? All these things are very important.
Our record—we must face this—is not altogether convincing. In my past I have been a Minister both at defence and for overseas development, and one of my long-standing concerns has been the importance of the arms trade in Britain. I have come to the very firm conviction that in the highly volatile, dangerous world in which we live, arms are not just another good to be exported. They have the potential to create havoc and great suffering and to provoke conflict and instability. Therefore, my view is that arms exports should really be only to countries with which we have a close alliance or countries in which—on a very specific basis and with a very clear foreign policy objective—they are an essential ingredient. Of course, this is not the way it operates. I am bound to say that, from my own experience and what I have seen over the years, it appears that arms are treated just as other goods unless there is some blindingly obvious reason why we need to restrict their sales. That, I suggest, is historically an irresponsible position.
When I say that our record is not altogether convincing, I must take the case of Yemen. The suffering, death and destruction, the orphans and the bereaved—it is a terrible story in Yemen. Yet, of course, we have been exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, which has played an increasingly significant part in that conflict. We know that the court ruled that the export of arms as we have been pursuing it in the context of Saudi Arabia was not valid and acceptable. I simply make the point that this goes back to a minimalist approach in the operation of our obligations under arms deals. We must have a proactive approach. It is absolutely terrible that there have been two recognised instances of continuing the export of arms to Saudi Arabia after the court’s rulings. We really have to pull our socks up and demonstrate that we are committed not only in theory—because it is on the practice and rigour with which we pursue our objectives that we will be tested.
My Lords, this is a short diversion from the main theme of the debate—which I will return to, of course. Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, talking about her father’s experiences and approach to life, as well as the point by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that trade should be a win-win situation, I was reminded that I was the architect of the Aktau Declaration on Joint Actions, which set out to unify the endeavours of foreign oil and gas operators in a post-Soviet CIS world. This was to encourage organisations from the West—particularly the UK—to partner local endeavours, in order to strengthen their ability to bring up their manufacturing and service industry standards, so that they could then embark upon a world of their own as their standards came forward. It was a successful endeavour. To me, it shows the power of trade, if conducted in the right way. It is away from the principal theme, but I was just reminded of it.
A main priority of the Government is to pursue a wide-reaching and independent trade policy once departure from the European Union is assured. An unequivocal benefit of our membership over these past 45 years has been safety in the knowledge that, when the European Union has negotiated trade deals on behalf of the UK and other EU member states, it has done so in a way that safeguards and upholds fundamental human rights.
As the UK spreads her wings and embarks on an aggressive trade strategy on a scale not seen since the 1950s, it is vital that she upholds the torch of freedom and acts as a beacon for the promotion, protection and enhancement of human rights across the globe. After all, these are core values that define us as a nation. To ensure that human rights are respected, the transparency of trade negotiations is paramount. At EU level, the European Ombudsman has been successful in encouraging transparency from the Commission, especially in respect of the SIA processes for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will promote transparency in future trade negotiations? What body will fulfil the role of the European Ombudsman following EU departure?
As the pressure grows to cut trade deals, we must not forgo the standards that define us. Being on the United Nations Security Council, the UK has a special and enhanced responsibility to ensure that, when engaging in trade, the people on the ground share the freedom and standards that we as British citizens too often take for granted. It is sadly true that the cost of implementing human rights in developing nations often proves economically disadvantageous in the short term. However, as the sixth largest economy in the world, the UK should mitigate the financial burden of this responsibility if seeking to benefit from new trade deals.
Fifty years ago, the UN Conference on Trade and Development called on developed nations to help developing countries integrate into the global economy. Today, the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences—GSP—removes the burden of import duties on some two-thirds of tariff lines from vulnerable developing countries, alleviating poverty and creating jobs based on international values.
It would be poor form—I had in mind to use the word “travesty”—if Britain did not maintain the principles of the GSP mechanisms currently in place. The GSP+ scheme is designed to help developing countries assume special burdens and responsibilities resulting from the ratification of 27 core international conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance, as well as effective implementation. I hope the Minster will be able to assure us that the UK will continue with the eight GSP+ beneficiaries post Brexit. This point was most eloquently and forcefully underlined by the new ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to the UK, who called on me this morning; he has, by the bye, certainly hit the ground running.
I want to continue the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the theme of gender. Last November, women MPs from around the world graced the Chamber of the House of Commons and shared their stories of global struggle for the basic right of gender equality. I was moved by their interventions; it was a very moving experience. Through globalism and advances in technology, we are at the forefront of unparalleled change and with this change comes the responsibility to tackle issues such as gender inequality.
The Minister may wish to reflect on the interventions made in the Women MPs of the World debate, especially in their plea for a woman’s right to education. As we embark on a journey of new global trade negotiations, it really would be a testament to this nation’s proud trading history if the UK could enshrine the equal rights of women, particularly equality of education, in all future trade deals.
After Brexit, the Government should anticipate greater scrutiny of future trade agreements. In that regard, I foresee—this point has also been made—a role for this House in holding the Government of the day to account. I hope that the Government will therefore ensure that Parliament has a key role in scrutinising the full human rights impact assessments and the draft treaty texts of any new trade agreements proposed.
As all noble Lords will know, today is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom. I conclude by remembering Eliza Cook, the great mid-1800s poet and proponent of workers’ rights, particularly in the north. Her strong, timeless words include these:
“There’s a heart that leaps with burning glow,
The wronged and the weak to defend;
And strikes as soon for a trampled foe,
As it does for a soul-bound friend …
’Tis a rich, rough gem, deny it who can;
And this is the heart of an Englishman”.
That is the spirit which should guide us as we seek to ensure that human rights are upheld in future United Kingdom trade arrangements.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for initiating this debate. I also warmly welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. Her role here is much deserved and I look forward to hearing what she says in the period to come. I am going to speak about the broader trends which are more relevant to the future and nature of free trade agreements, although I agree almost entirely with everything said by all the speakers who have gone before.
Our conceptions of free trade agreements are on the whole related to manufactured goods—agri-products or commodities—in other words, physical things or tangibles. Even the creation of the WTO, following the GATT, focused on tangibles. The challenge that has remained unaddressed through the WTO, the UN, the EU and other large trading countries, such as the US and China, is establishing frameworks for the exponential rise of intangibles as a huge segment of trade. We in Parliament are also in danger of focusing on the narrowing proportion of exchange in goods rather than concentrating on the rise of digital globalisation, which is taking place on platforms, in data agglomeration and through innovative technologies. In preparation for this debate, I drew on the McKinsey Global Institute report Digital Globalization, which was published in 2014, so the figures I shall share are already out of date. The current figures are undoubtedly higher.
In the decades since 1990, when political barriers in the developed world came down, the world’s trade in goods, including commodities, finished goods and intermediate inputs, grew roughly twice as fast as global GDP. The large multinationals expanded their supply chains and established new bases of production in countries with low-cost labour—offshoring, as we know it. Global trade in goods went from around 14% of world GDP in 1986 to 27% in 2008, on the eve of the great recession.
In the period since, trade in finished and intermediate manufactured goods has declined, thanks to several structural forces. The makers of many finished goods are beginning to place less importance on labour costs and more on speed to market and non-labour costs. As a result, production is moving closer to end consumers—the practice we now know as reshoring. That is without any help from Mr Trump. In the decade ahead, the global goods trade will continue to decline relative to world GDP, due not least to a reduction in factor costs but also to technology such as 3D printing and other new forms of manufacture, which will transform how and where goods such as electronics, vehicle parts, machinery, electrical equipment, medical instruments and apparel are produced.
On the question of what countries can do in requiring others to up their game in defence of their citizens’ human rights, I argue that this area of nation states’ leverage will become a less potent tool with the advance of the trends that I have spoken about. High- and middle-income countries, where digital globalisation is providing the richest rewards, are the very ones where the defence of human rights is relatively secure. The countries that matter, where human rights are least upheld, are the very ones where digital globalisation might well leapfrog traditional manufacture—the focus of most regulation of trade. If it does not they will be better and more directly assisted through ODA, as their participation in free trade agreements is limited, in any event.
Let me give the concrete example of the WTO’s Trade in Services Agreement, known as TiSA. This is the first plurilateral trade deal in 20 years. It aims to liberalise trade in services by reducing non-tariff barriers such as technical standards, licensing, permits and qualification requirements. Trade in services is already more than 60% of modern domestic economies, with the top three exporters being the US, the EU and the United Kingdom. Fifty countries are taking part in TiSA, of which 42 are high-income and 28 of which are in the EU. Seven are middle-income and only two, Paraguay and Pakistan, are low-income. Future trade agreements—in the areas where regulation is most significantly needed—will be in intangibles, to protect citizens’ rights and to improve environmental protections and standards, privacy laws and non-discrimination in qualifications. But even in these areas progress has stalled because those talks are not going anywhere. At the UN and the OECD, two significant bodies in international agreements, the concentration is on fair taxation. I would argue that is extremely important but not the same thing as human rights.
Looking at human rights, let me turn more directly to what Parliament can do in the here and now on the UK’s position on safeguards in future trade agreements, post Brexit. I welcome the fact that the UK has committed to staying within the EU approach towards human rights standards, including impact assessments and human rights clauses. In so far as the UK rolls over existing EU FTAs: so far, so good.
The question arises as to the future. Here, the most important thing is for Parliament to have access to the Government’s outline approach, and oversight and scrutiny at every stage of the negotiations, even if that is on a restricted-access arrangement for scrutiny committees. My point is that every FTA will be different and merit different areas of scrutiny and suspension or exemption clauses—hence my preference for scrutiny committee oversight. Were the UK ever to conclude an FTA with, say, Saudi Arabia—a country already mentioned—the case for an intense and deep use of human rights clauses would indeed be merited. On the other hand, an FTA with the US would merit a closer regard to non-tariff barriers than to human rights. So Parliament would need to look forensically at each agreement on its own merits. I would also favour a periodic review of agreements, particularly in the light of legal actions taken by private investors in the investor-state dispute settlements area.
I argue that the UK must continue to maintain, at minimum, the UN’s universal human rights standards and should preferably follow the EU’s approach. But it should also be a first, or at least principal, mover in attempting to gain agreement on regulating digital globalisation, which, as I said, is growing exponentially. This is not to suggest that it cannot do valuable and meaningful work to expand human rights in its several networks across the Commonwealth, the UN and other strategic alliances. It should do so with all the levers at its disposal: soft power, development assistance and technical co-operation, within and beyond its trade deals as they come about. That, in my view, would be the balanced and proportionate approach post Brexit.
My Lords, I start with an apology to the House: I am not my noble friend Lord McNicol, whose name appears on the Order Paper. In no sense do I wish to try to substitute for him; I am afraid the House has me in the raw because he had another engagement that he felt that he had to attend and he did not want to let down the House by leaving midway through so he asked me to take this on, which I have been happy to do.
I join others in welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to her new position. This is my first opportunity to debate with her on one of these occasions since her appointment. I am sure that, as has been said already, her knowledge and experience on some aspects of this issue will come forward in what she has to say, and I look forward to hearing that.
I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on getting this debate. It is a debate that we have been having in many separate parts over the last year; certainly, a number of the points that have come up today were made in the Trade Bill. It also taps into a wider sense in which suddenly trade has become a big issue in our civic discussions and debates. Those of us who have ploughed a long furrow on this have felt for some time that we were not the only interested parties and others should have joined in earlier. Trade has a lot going for it in terms of the wider issues of the politics and policies of our times. The noble and right reverend Lord set out the reasons for that with great clarity and lucidity in a wide-ranging conspectus about why this issue is important. He gave some compelling reasons why the Government should think hard about how to do more in this area, should responsibilities come to them either sooner or later as a result of Brexit.
I want to build on a number of points made by my noble friends Lord Whitty and Lord Judd, not because I wish to select them particularly but because they chime with how I want to shape my remarks today. So I shall pick up on their particular points, although others have made very good points that I shall also allude to, including those relating to LGBT people.
Good businesses need to build respect for human rights into the business that they do. I do not think this is something that the Government have to impose, and the Government are making a mistake if they think that is what the issue is about. This is really about how to help businesses do their work better. Good businesses which have a respect for human rights will find that it improves the bottom line just as much as anything else they might do in other areas.
I will give a brief example of something that relates to that. In an earlier life, I ran a think tank. One of the issues that we looked at was future prospects for trading with China. This was a number of years ago, in the early 2000s. Labour was in power and through the usual channels I was able to get a Cabinet Minister to speak at and open the debates. The audience was made up largely of businesspeople, because that was the group that we were trying to tempt. When our Cabinet Minister made the introductory remarks, the issue that we were particularly discussing was how our Government could best support the businesses that were making good and successful efforts to trade with China, as far as we could tell.
The interesting point was that the Cabinet Minister concerned—I will not name him because he is still around and he may be embarrassed to be reminded of this—was at pains not to frighten the horses. It was interesting, because he departed from his brief a little. His thesis was that he did not want to give the impression that the Government had any view at all about what businesses did in China. He just thought it was a good thing that they did it and he was delighted that it was happening. He and, I think, the 60 or 70 people present at the seminar were rather astonished to discover that that response did not go down well with the businesspeople, several of whom stood up and said: “Minister, the thing is that you are not doing nearly enough. When we work in China”—remember, this was 20 years ago—“we find it a bit difficult if we behave in a way that we think we ought to in terms of good business, good practice, human rights and everything else. We discover that that doesn’t go down terribly well with our government hosts. We want you to get on a plane and get out there and start arguing the case for human rights a lot more than you are doing at the moment”. I think that is what the Minister should have said anyway, but he got the message and went away somewhat muted by the comments he received. I think that business does get this. No preaching is required. There is no message to sell. This is just how we should be doing business and that is the message.
I also want to pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Judd in relation to his tremendous experience in the field as a human rights practitioner and as a Minister. He is right to warn us that we should not get hung up on the term “human rights”—that is an important point. We are talking about the damage to and suffering of our fellow human beings that can happen as a result of businesses not being properly organised and run, whatever labels they carry. Of course, the labels help get to the heart of what is happening. It is a question of basic equity and that should always be at the heart of what we are talking about.
A good example of that is the need to take a very long-focused lens to this issue. We can and should focus on the rights of LGBT people, religious freedoms, labour standards and environmental issues, but we cannot forget the impact of arms sales. The point was made by my noble friend Lord Judd. I hope the Minister, when she responds, will update us on where we are with Saudi Arabia and the mess that the Government have made on that.
We need to think about investor-state dispute mechanisms. I am not sure that I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. I think a whole problem here needs to be unrolled and looked at again, in terms of the rights that are accorded to investors as against those who are affected by decisions to go into trade agreements.
What are we going to do about the extractive industries and the way in which they are often brought in at the wrong time in the development cycle of emerging countries and as a result perhaps do more damage than good? When people are affected by trade agreements which are imposed on them, perhaps without their consent, what rights do they have to sue and how and where will they do that? These are very big issues.
I have two final points. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, that if you read the close detail of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents about all this, they are extremely good. I have no complaint with what I have seen on much of the writing on this issue. The FCO has taken the recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council and the principles proposed by it under the chairmanship of Professor John Ruggie and built them into its policies. I applaud that. The problem is that the implementation, which is led largely by BEIS and DIT, is lamentable. I hope the Minister can give us some hope on how action will be taken to try to translate the good words on the printed papers, which infuse all the documents that the FCO puts out, and make them apply when trade deals are being discussed.
However, as others have said, this will not happen with our existing systems of parliamentary scrutiny. If you look at what the EU is currently doing—after all, we are talking about what will be done in the UK after, or if, we leave the EU—it has done a pretty good job with trade policy. It has a committee in the parliament and involves civil society, businesses and consumers—they all play a part. The process may be lumbering and difficult, but it is pretty good and certainly compares very well with what we have seen in the UK in the past. The best example is probably the USA, where there is a very strong role for Congress, which has control of the process. The model is one which recommends itself and I hope the Government are looking at it.
Whatever we may say about other models, the status quo of using the CRaG Act, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Whitty, is simply not acceptable. Although post-agreement ratification gives both Houses of Parliament a chance to discuss these issues, it does not give us the element of control we need. During the consideration of the Trade Bill, an amendment in my name had support from all around the House and from all parties, and was agreed by a significant majority. Had it been applied, it would have set up a structure for the future consideration of trade deals which would require either separate committees or a Joint Committee in Parliament to agree mandates, receive progress reports and make recommendations to both Houses about whether or not they should approve the resulting trade deal. Can the Minister say where the Government are on the Trade Bill and whether that proposal will be part of any future discussions? We are a bit short of time if we are going to move this in a no-deal situation. If she is able, will she agree to meet me to discuss further how we might make progress on this issue?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on securing today’s debate, which comes at such an opportune time—a time of continuity and exploration. I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this informative debate on human rights and future trade deals. As a former project director for a Commonwealth initiative on freedom of religion or belief, as a member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief and after eight years of contributions in your Lordships’ House, I am grateful for the acknowledgement that this is an area close to my heart. I am delighted that my first opportunity to speak in a debate from the Front Bench is on a subject such as this.
Overall, this is a debate about means and not ends. I hope that I will be able to allay some of the fears and frets around this issue. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we need to be watched like a hawk, and I fully expect noble Lords to do that over the coming years. I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that we will defend the wronged and the weak who were described in the poetry he read.
The United Kingdom is often referred to as a force for good in the world. We are the country of the Magna Carta and common law and we have enshrined in statute the 0.7% of GNP on overseas aid. We have a strong history in protecting fundamental rights and freedoms and promoting those values around the world, most notably, as the noble Viscount mentioned, as a permanent member of the Security Council. We are the first country to produce a national action plan to implement the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, on which the FCO and BEIS lead a co-ordinated cross-Whitehall effort. Central to our foreign policy is a respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and we will continue to advance those values through diplomacy, working with the private sector and supporting civil society, and through our flagship Magna Carta Fund, which spent £10.6 million on supporting human rights objectives in the last year.
The UK’s exit from the European Union gives us an opportunity to promote these values around the world even more effectively. It allows us to explore the best levers that we can use to promote human rights, as we will have our own independent trade policy for the first time in 50 years. It is a time of exploration and innovation, while of course aiming to maintain continuity of the trade arrangements that we currently participate in as a member of the European Union.
Another way in which the UK as a member of the EU has protected human rights through trade—as has been mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—is through the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences. Under the scheme, countries are encouraged to abide by the principles of 15 international conventions on human and labour rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I take this opportunity to assure noble Lords that, due to the passing of the legislation in this House of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act, those preferences will be replicated into UK law and the eight countries that benefit from GSP+ will have those benefits.
In relation to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on arms, the noble Lord will be aware that under the three-tier system, even for the least developed countries that get duty-free and quota-free trade with us on their exports without us having to allow imports in return, it is everything but arms. Arms are treated very differently in relation to trade agreements. Much of today’s debate has obviously centred on those free trade agreements and how we can balance, on the one hand, signing agreements that maximise trade and, on the other hand, either refraining from entering agreements with those countries that violate human rights, or using the agreements that we enter into as a lever to encourage human rights compliance.
It is also important to note that trade and human rights are not mutually exclusive. Trade deals do not always need trade-offs. Trade is central to global growth and prosperity, which in turn supports social cohesion, political stability and respect for human rights. The Government will therefore explore how the United Kingdom can most appropriately use free trade agreements to uphold human rights, while recognising the need for a balanced and proportionate approach. I refer to the concluding outline and agree that we need the balanced and proportionate approach outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. It would be easier for parliamentarians, business and civil society groups to have their voices heard, as these decisions will be here in Whitehall, not in Brussels.
For each country with which the UK is considering a trade deal, there will be many opportunities for consultation and input. At the moment, for instance, there is a call for inputs with regard to Japan. Japan is obviously not a human rights violator, but I hope noble Lords get the point. That is in yellow in my brief, so I must say it: Japan does not violate human rights. However, there is an opportunity, in that process and in future ones, to input in a way that perhaps is not the case with the EU at the moment.
Also, Her Majesty’s Government accepted, in response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on this area, that the Select Committee should have, within its remit, the consideration of the Government’s international human rights obligation—again, another opportunity for input which is just down the Corridor. I draw the attention of noble Lords to the outline in the very good Library briefing of the system of scrutiny that there will be. It will be different from treaties that are laid and then debated. There is a difference in the treatment of free trade agreements, recognising that Parliament’s role will be more extensive.
Noble Lords will also know that the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 provides powers for the United Kingdom, after we have left the EU, to make secondary legislation to impose sanctions. This will include accountability provisions in order to deter systematic and serious human rights violations. This is another domestic tool, which I expect the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will be tenacious in making great use of in the future.
The goal is to maximise the benefits of trade, while ensuring that we stay true to our core values, including the promotion and advancement of international human rights obligations. After Brexit, we will have the opportunity to promote these values as an independent champion of free, fair, rules-based international trade, striking out to seize the golden opportunities to strengthen our trading relationship with fast-growing economies around the world.
Noble Lords have raised a number of interesting points. To begin with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, I should point out, as he outlined correctly, that free trade agreements will be scrutinised by Parliament. There will be opportunities for that going forward, and these matters are being brought closer to home. On the concerns he outlined in relation to India and Indonesia, he will see that they are within the GSP, the current EU system, which, when we exit the EU, will be in UK law. Therefore, the opportunities to make those representations will be there. We will not grow weary; no one will be growing weary in relation to human rights and trade agreements, particularly because I expect that your Lordships’ House will be acting like hawks on us. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Bottomley for drawing attention to the modern slavery issue and how businesses now have to report, and for paying tribute to the work of the former Prime Minister.
In preparation for this debate, I asked to see a trade agreement. Thankfully, the officials wisely only photocopied the index, which went to 12 pages. There were 30 chapters, but I am really pleased to note that there were significant human rights protections in them. The environment and climate change also appeared in there and there has been a growing inclusion of labour rights, particularly that there should be no child labour and no enforced labour. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, business knows that this is the right thing. There is obviously now global trading and global communication. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that we intend to take a lead on this matter.
On having a Joint Committee of both Houses, I do not think that it is in my remit to recommend to parliamentary authorities on my first occasion at the Dispatch Box what they should be doing. I welcome him taking this matter forward and the Government are welcoming the scrutiny. Obviously, it is the whole point that we can scrutinise here at home and there can be more accountability.
I am sorry to intervene so early on, but it is worth reflecting on the use of words here, because it is quite important. The model described as being the one the Government are favouring is very much consultative. The model proposed and indeed agreed by this House as a way of doing trade deals was to provide power to Parliament to set the mandate to review progress and finally to recommend. Does the Minister agree that there is a difference of view here that needs to be bottomed out?
On the process for trade agreements, I can only say that there will be direct communication. The Government agreed in relation to trade agreements that there would be the outline approach, the round report and a close relationship with a specific parliamentary committee in each House. It is obviously not for me to dictate what role Parliament will take and what that arrangement ends up being, as I said in response the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, but the overall principle is, as I am outlining by the various changes, that this will be a matter that the UK will negotiate, not the EU.
On the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, the equality protections are enshrined in UK legislation anyway. They will not be affected. Also, any transition of EU standards that have been incorporated into our law under the Equality Acts are there for everyone’s protection. On trade agreements, the GSP includes conventions relating to CEDAW, equal pay and the ICCPR, but I will have to come back to her on her specific question relating to the USA-Mexico type agreement.
Sadly, I will have to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on her specific questions on Sudan and Nigeria. Nigeria is within the GSP regime, as I stated. Regulations are already in place on the Syrian sanctions so that, in the event of us exiting without a deal, the sanctions regime will be carried over.
On the other comments from the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Stevenson, on the situation in Yemen, there has been a full apology by the Secretary of State and to the court relating to the arms export licences that were mistakenly given for certain components. An independent inquiry is under way, led by an independent senior official but under the authority of the Permanent Secretary. In the meantime, the system has been changed, so that any applications for licences are dealt with by senior officials and any approval is now made at ministerial level. I can say nothing further than that there has been an apology, the system has changed and we await the outcome of the independent review within the department to advise us on how it happened and what the system should be going forward.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way and for replying on these points. The apology may be welcome, but what I am concerned about is: how did it happen? The point is about whether we have effective measures operating in Whitehall. Is there a culture within Whitehall where, with a situation like that in Yemen, rather than looking at how we can help to overcome the conflict, we are instead looking at what we can get away with in terms of our sales to Saudi Arabia?
I agree with the noble Lord that an apology is not enough. There has been an apology, but we must await the outcome of the independent review within the department to know fully how this happened and whether any permanent changes to the systems need to be taken going forward. I have outlined the interim changes that have been made.
In relation to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, I have hopefully outlined that the GSP system will be coming over and there is a big “Yes” for the eight countries.
The GSP+? Just for clarification.
Yes, the GSP+ eight. There is also the GSP, which will be transferring into UK law. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that we intend to use all the levers at our disposal. I am grateful for the outline and the positivity from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in relation to the role of business. One can see from what happened, for instance, with workers in Bangladesh that companies care about their supply chains and they are important to them. There have been changes for workers in Bangladesh. I will have to write to the noble Lord, as I do not have the particular information about the Trade Bill at the moment. I do not know whether it will be in the Queen’s Speech and what stage it is at, but I will certainly make sure that he is informed about that going forward.
It is, I repeat, a pleasure and an honour to have this as my first debate as Minister. I assure your Lordships’ House that the Government are considering all options as to how best to advance the cause of environmental, social and human rights matters in our post-Brexit independent trade policy. Today’s debate has made a valuable contribution. The UK has long supported the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights and I can state categorically that this will continue as we leave the EU. The Government will not pursue trade at the expense of human rights; they can and should be complementary. More trade should not and will not come at the expense of workers’ human rights or the growth of the least developed countries. The Government’s objective is to ensure that growth and trade, sustainable development and human rights advance hand in hand. It is right that we explore all available policy levers to advance that. I once again thank noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate.
I thank all those who have spoken in this debate. There have been, quite properly, different perspectives on different parts of the world and different aspects of human rights. That has all been very valuable. I think the message from this debate is really twofold: one general point is the crucial importance of continuing to speak up for human rights at this time—we are of course all totally agreed on that—and the second is on looking for the appropriate mechanism whereby this House can be involved in the proper scrutiny of trade agreements in the future.
The Government have brought forward a very useful framework—as set out in that House of Lords briefing and repeated by the Minister—to show that this House will be involved in every stage of negotiations, but how will this be fleshed out? The Government have suggested that there might be a new committee, perhaps a special committee to look at trade agreements in addition to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Since Brexit may come very soon, can the Minister, in addition to meeting the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, write to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate to explain how far the Government are along the road towards setting up this rolling process, because we need something in place fairly soon—if Brexit comes soon—to carry this forward? We would all find it helpful to have an update on that.
House adjourned at 6.45 pm.