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Trade Agreements

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether clauses (1) protecting human rights, and (2) maintaining environmental standards, will be inserted in the trade agreements being negotiated as a result of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

My Lords, protecting human rights and maintaining environmental standards will always be at the front of our minds when negotiating trade agreements. We have a strong history of safeguarding rights and promoting our values globally. Although our approach to negotiations will vary between partners, it will always allow Her Majesty’s Government to have open discussions on these matters and include provisions as appropriate.

The Minister speaks of open discussions, but he does not satisfy the parliamentarian’s concern or explain the Government’s reluctance to involve Parliament in these trade negotiations, particularly with the EU. Your Lordships’ International Agreements Sub-Committee reported last week that even the devolved Administrations had been shut out of these negotiations. So, in spite of his assurances, will the Minister at least confirm that Parliament will have a say in these trade negotiations?

My Lords, the report to which the noble Lord referred actually complimented my department for the way that it has interacted with the IAC. Before we commence negotiations, we make available a full pack of information, including an economic assessment and the results of our consultations. At the end of each negotiation, we have committed to follow the criteria and to make sure that the IAC has details of the negotiated treaty in good time to be able to report to the House.

My Lords, just this week we have heard reports of poor working conditions and pay in factories in Leicester, but the UK is also heavily reliant on international supply chains. Will the Minister specify what steps the Government are taking to ensure that trade agreements insist that all UK imports are produced by workers with good conditions and dignified pay?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an excellent point. The UK is committed to working with international partners and businesses to tackle modern slavery in global supply chains. It is vital that increased trade is not based on the exploitation and abuse of workers.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the business and human rights policy developed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, specifically under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Hague? Will he commit to ensuring that those principles underpin negotiations in relation to future trade discussions to ensure that human rights are an essential part of any trade that happens, either into or out of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, we are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of our rights and responsibilities. Political freedom and the rule of law are vital underpinnings for both prosperity and stability; we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international rights and obligations during our conduct of trade negotiations.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all international agreements should undergo a net-zero assessment prior to ratification in Parliament so that we, and the public, understand the full emissions implications of the international trade deals that HMG enter into on our, and all our citizens’, behalf?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. Not just for ourselves but for the generations coming after us, we all rightly attach huge importance to these matters. We will make sure that they are taken fully into account in our negotiations.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Haskel’s important Question raises the intended and unintended consequences of trade deals and their implications for the vulnerable, not only in our own society—where the problem is acute enough—but among the poor of the world. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, in the new combined department, those Ministers and officials with specific responsibilities for development and overseas relations will each have a part to play in ensuring that the well-being of the international community, and the vulnerable within it, is safeguarded in any trade deals?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. We work closely with our colleagues in other departments to ensure that those matters are fully taken into account. My belief is that the new changes to the machinery of government will make our voice even more effective in these matters at the country level.

Rights and standards were a part of the human rights clauses that we insisted were in our trade agreements when we were a member of the EU. We are negotiating with the US, a country which has ratified only two out of the eight core fundamental ILO conventions, whereas we have ratified them all. On climate, the US has refused to include a climate chapter in its negotiations with us. Can the Government allay fears by giving a simple undertaking: that no EU-retained law on human rights, labour standards, climate or environment will be amended or repealed by any trade agreement or partnership agreement?

My Lords, the series of trade agreements in effect at the moment—to which we were bound by our membership of the EU—are being rolled over into various continuity agreements. I can confirm that all those continuity agreements will contain within them the appropriate provisions in relation to human rights and environmental standards.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister explain to us what the role of the trade commission will be and why it is being set up for only six months? How can it achieve anything in such a short time? Will he reassure the House today that no animal product imported into this country will be produced to a lower standard of animal welfare than we expect our farmers in this country to meet?

My Lords, our manifesto was clear that in all our trade negotiations we will seek to maintain our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We have recently announced the setting-up of the Trade and Agriculture Commission to ensure that the strongest possible range of views is made available to us in our policy-making. There is always a trade-off between getting on with things and time taken; in consultation with members of the commission, we felt that six months was the right time to allow for this work so that, in due course, its results can be made available to the House.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Haskel mentioned the recent report of your Lordships’ Sub-Committee on International Agreements. The Minister will be aware that that committee has announced a significant change in practice: in future, it will assess all new trade agreements on their merits and flag up issues that this House might wish to debate prior to ratification. Will the Minister join me in warmly welcoming this long-overdue first step towards proper parliamentary scrutiny of future trade agreements?

My Lords, I am a huge champion of transparency and open dialogue in these matters. I believe that we will come to better decisions with such transparency and I welcome the work that the IAC is doing to bring these matters, in due course, before the House.

My Lords, can the Minister ensure that, once we are no longer part of the EU FTA with Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, our continuity agreement and any subsequent bilateral or regional FTAs will include not only a human rights clause, as at present, but the teeth of a review mechanism and sanctions; and that specific reference is made to the rights of indigenous communities before any British-run companies—particularly from the extractive industries —take action which affects the livelihoods and environments of these communities?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. The UK is a world leader in human rights policy. We were the first country to produce a national action plan for the implementation of UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and we are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of our rights and responsibilities.