Skip to main content

Trade Talks with India, Greenland and Israel

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the opening of trade talks with the governments of India, Greenland, and Israel, what steps they intend to take to support parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating objectives.

My Lords, the Government welcome parliamentary scrutiny of our negotiation objectives. The India objectives were recently published, and we will publish our negotiating objectives for our updated Israel agreement in due course. The Government are negotiating to swiftly restore the terms of our trading relationship with Greenland. If the IAC should publish a report on these objectives, of course the Government will consider it with interest and facilitate a debate on the objectives, subject to parliamentary time.

My Lords, in addition to that, I should say that the Minister very nicely, at 10 pm last night, sent me an extremely helpful letter which said that, as the International Agreements Committee had been asking, there would be an exchange of correspondence between the Government and our committee about how we deal with scrutiny. We have been asking for that since September, so I welcome the letter sent last night. In light of that, it would be a bit churlish, perhaps, to say that it was a shame that the New Zealand agreement was published before it had been shared with our committee, so let us put that to one side. For the moment, I thank the Minister for managing to engineer this big move forward and just ask him to confirm that when that exchange of letters has been agreed, it will be published in the normal manner.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be congratulated by the noble Baroness; I have a high respect for her and for the committee she chairs. I apologise that there was a little bit of confusion in the timing of the New Zealand publication. It was a bureaucratic error because so much was going on, and I apologise to the noble Baroness and the House for that short delay.

My Lords, Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union deals with all agreements between the EU and third countries. It says:

“The European Parliament shall be immediately and fully informed at all stages”.

Through this article, the scrutiny processes of the committee of this House were engaged. Why was this piece of EU law not retained?

My Lords, the Government have put in place a suite of enhanced scrutiny arrangements that go well beyond our statutory obligations, so we have no need to refer back to EU law in that instance.

My Lords, the Government have inserted in the Health and Care Bill, which is currently going through your Lordships’ House, a clause on reciprocal healthcare agreements beyond the existing arrangements with the EU, EEA and Switzerland, because we know they work well. Will reciprocal healthcare agreements form part of the trade talks with India, Greenland and Israel?

My Lords, I am not yet in a position to give an answer on that. We are at the very beginning of our journey with India but, as always, we will report progress to the House as the talks progress.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to promote trade with all countries, particularly the three countries listed in the Question? Therefore, does he hope, as I do, that the whole House condemns the approach taken by certain local authority pension funds in imposing boycotts, divestment and sanctions on just one country: Israel?

My Lords, I think the House recognises that trade is one of the surest ways to economic advancement for a whole range of countries. The UK is strongly committed to our trade and investment relationship with Israel, one of the Middle East’s most dynamic and innovative economies.

My Lords, will the Minister commit the Government to including in the parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating objectives the aim that global companies that try to abuse and infiltrate food markets—I am not suggesting that any of the three countries mentioned are included in that—should be excluded? Should we not exclude in our negotiating commitments all companies that have proven criminal records in food markets?

My Lords, the Government and I have made clear on a number of occasions that we will never enter into a free trade agreement which in any way diminishes the high standards of food in this country.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on opening negotiations with Greenland, and I declare my interest as someone of half-Danish heritage and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Denmark. How will this negotiation differ from the arrangements we had through our membership of the EU? Will he join with me in recognising the importance of Greenland, with its rich fisheries, oil and minerals, and its lithium deposits?

My Lords, my noble friend always makes a good point, and the negotiations with Greenland provide the opportunity to recognise the UK’s broader bilateral relationship with it. Greenland is an important strategic partner for us, and this agreement will allow us to identify areas for future co-operation, including on UK priorities such as science, research, sustainability, gender equality, critical minerals, a stable Arctic and climate change.

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity and I am not as kind as my noble friend Lady Hayter, so I will be churlish. Can we return to the issue of parliamentary scrutiny? The letter that my noble friend alludes to is about trade treaties and is not much wider than that. Is the Minister aware that the diplomatic missions of the countries with which we are seeking to strike agreements watch how Parliament discusses these issues? If there is not proper scrutiny, they will conclude that there is an attempt to hide our failure, there is incompetence, or we have a Government who do not take parliamentary scrutiny into account.

My Lords, “churlish” is an adjective that I would never like to apply to the noble Baroness. I think I have made our attitude towards scrutiny of free trade agreements very clear. Of course, I will draw to the attention of my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office her comments on other treaties and agreements.

My Lords, it is very encouraging to hear that we are now negotiating with Greenland. Can the Minister tell us what British export sectors will benefit most from a trade agreement with Greenland, and does he think that that will help in a significant way to counterbalance the deterioration of our trade with the European continent?

My Lords, I am very happy to deal with that. Greenland is an important exporter of seafood to the UK, accounting for 40% of the total value of UK imports of cold-water prawns in 2020. For those who enjoy their prawn cocktails, I can think of no better statistic.

While I join the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in congratulating each other on the Government deciding not to resile on trade agreements and commitments made by the noble Lord himself at the Dispatch Box, I do find their letter a little unsatisfactory in that it is limited to trade, thus meaning that we are still much less well informed than we were when Article 218 of the treaty applied. Also, it casts some doubt on the Ponsonby rule, which has governed the Government’s provision of information on international agreements to Parliament for 98 years. Would the Minister confirm that the Government have no intention of resiling from the Ponsonby rule?

My Lords, first, if I may just offer a small correction to the noble Lord, the Ponsonby rule survived for 86 years before it was supplanted by CRaG. I can completely confirm that now that they are governed by CRaG, the Government will abide by CRaG in all the appropriate circumstances.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that however much Parliament oversees free trade agreements, it cannot amend them?

My Lords, I recognise the point, but free trade agreements are negotiated under the royal prerogative. The House has full opportunities to scrutinise these agreements as they move to ratification, and I believe this should be sufficient for noble Lords.

My Lords, could the Minister and any of his colleagues who have contacts with the Government of India suggest they take a more robust attitude in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?