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Trade Policy: Environmental Considerations

Volume 815: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what environmental considerations influence their trade policy.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to upholding the UK’s high environmental standards in our trade policy. We consider a wide range of environmental issues in our trade policy and in what we are seeking to pursue in multilateral fora, as well as under our new free trade agreements. This includes upholding commitments in the Paris Agreement, maintaining our right to regulate to meet net zero and, of course, co-operating on issues from forests and fisheries to greenhouse gas emissions.

My Lords, the Government’s trade strategy seems to aim to increase trade with geographically distant countries, but this does not make much environmental sense. Have the Government conducted an assessment of their trade policies on harmful climate emissions, by air or sea? Will they raise the environmental impact of trade policies at COP 26?

We will certainly raise the impact of trade policies at COP 26. On the noble Baroness’s point about where our trade agreements are being made, of course it might have been better if Australia and New Zealand were close to Europe, but they are not. They are important countries to make trade agreements with, and that trumps the question of geography, in this case.

Would the Minister explain the process within government to audit trade or other policies to ensure that climate catastrophe is given priority in these considerations?

The most effective audit we have is the deep scrutiny that noble Lords give our trade agreements and trade policy. We have some of the most advanced scrutiny mechanisms in the world, and noble Lords do a good job of auditing us and holding us to account.

Let us test that. On 14 September, the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that the Government were kicking the can down the road or “running the clock down” on the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Can the Government update us on when it will be established on a statutory basis? For full scrutiny, will the Minister ensure that the scrubbed legal texts of the Australia and New Zealand deals will go to the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission, so that it can fulfil its duty and report to us, before we are asked to ratify those agreements?

My Lords, as soon as I heard the magic words “Trade and Agriculture Commission” being mentioned by the noble Lord, I thought he was going to congratulate me on that fact that the Government have today published our response to the report of the Trade and Agriculture Commission on how best to advance the issues of British farmers, food producers and consumers in future trade policy. As to his point, there is a very narrow difference between the TAC that has been set up and the statutory TAC. As the noble Lord knows, that difference entirely arose because the Trade Act last year did not allow the payment of allowances to commission members given the way it was assembled at that time. It has become clear to us that, to allow for the best membership of the TAC, some form of allowance—not generous, I hasten to add—should be paid to its members. The members who will form part of the statutory TAC are those who have been appointed today to form this new TAC, and we should welcome them to their important roles.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister and all the other Ministers in the trade department on securing a trade deal with our friends and allies in New Zealand. Is he aware of reports that show that the carbon footprint for New Zealand lamb eaten in London is lower than for domestic lamb, because the vast majority of carbon emission is in the production phase, on the farm? The economies of scale and efficiency reforms that have made New Zealand lamb affordable have also reduced carbon emissions. Is not the best thing we can do for the environment to make the world richer, and is not freer trade an important lever to pull in that regard?

My noble friend makes some excellent points. I wish I had made his point on lamb myself, so I thank him for that, and for drawing the House’s attention to the agreement in principle with New Zealand being reached, as announced today. The environmental chapter of that agreement will break new ground for the UK and New Zealand in supporting our shared climate and environment goals, clean growth and the transition to a net-zero economy. I am pleased that the mood of the House is to welcome the approval in principle of this very important agreement.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests, as set out in the register. The Minister will recall the discussions we had on these issues during the passage of the Trade Bill through this House. In his comments then, and today, he was reassuring about government policies in this area, yet government practice on the Australia deal has been far from reassuring. I reiterate the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and ask the Minister whether the Government will be fully transparent and open about the terms of both the Australia and New Zealand deals to allow the scrutiny of the House, of which he is so flattering.

The noble Baroness is right to draw attention to scrutiny. I am always happy to repeat our commitment to scrutiny from the Dispatch Box. Both the Australia and New Zealand agreements are at the in-principle stage, at the moment. The full texts will be published in due course. They will be made available to the House in good time and will be scrutinised by the TAC and by your Lordships’ International Agreements Committee. We will make sure that there is time for all those processes to be completed thoroughly and to the standard that noble Lords wish.

Documents leaked to Sky News reveal that the Department for International Trade can drop both the climate asks on precedence of multilateral environmental agreements over FTA provisions and on the reference to the Paris Agreement temperature goals. This is of great concern. Can the Minister say whether the Norway agreement last week was one of very few including such clauses because Norway insisted, and otherwise, for a Conservative Government, it is always trade deals at all costs, irrespective of other issues?

My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to comment categorically that the leaked document to which the noble Lord refers is not government policy and is not being considered by Ministers.

Will my noble friend reaffirm that the Government’s trade policy is based on the facilitation of trade by the reciprocal removal of barriers, not on seeking excuses to retain protectionist restrictions we inherited from the EU, or signalling our approval or disapproval, or trying to influence non-trade policies of other countries except as part of multilateral agreements? Will he remember the 19th-century dictum that free trade is God’s diplomacy?

My Lords, it is of course a great pleasure to have God on our side in these matters. The noble Lord is right: we are a global trading nation. Our future prosperity depends on us being a global trading nation. This will remain one of the core priorities of this Government.

The Minister seems to be ignoring the fact that Australia has much lower food standards—incredibly low. It uses paraquat, which has been banned for years here in Britain, and antibiotics, which are also banned. Of course, we now have a trade deal with New Zealand—are we going to fly those kiwi fruits in? Australia also has incredibly low animal welfare standards. The Minister is ditching our better food for the sake of some boastful statement he can make here in the House.

The noble Baroness’s question veers toward the unfair. What do I see when I read the Australia free trade agreement? I see a comprehensive environment chapter with Australia that protects our rights to regulate to meet net zero, sets our shared commitment to building mutually supportive trade and environment policies, and establishes co-operative efforts to support our green economy through trade in a range of areas. That seems to fit the bill.