House of Lords
Monday 11 July 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Harrison
My Lords, I should like to notify the House of the retirement, with effect from today, of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to the House.
Information Commissioner’s Office Report
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to implement the recommendations of the Information Commissioner’s Office report Who’s Under Investigation: The processing of victims’ personal data in rape and serious sexual offence investigations, published on 31 May.
My Lords, the Government are committed to improving protections for victims of rape, so that they are not subjected to unnecessary and intrusive requests for information. We have changed the law to minimise requests for digital information, and we are consulting on new statutory duties to ensure that police requests for third-party material are both necessary and proportionate. We are working closely with the police and other criminal justice partners to consider the ICO recommendations.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is hardly surprising that rape prosecutions fell by nearly 60% in four years, even though the number of reports to the police increased, and that the proportion of rape complainants dropping out of cases has risen from 25% to 43% over the last five years. It must be partly due to the fact that, when someone summons up the courage to make a complaint about rape, they are asked to sign a form agreeing access to any information that the police or CPS might care to go fishing for—counselling, school reports and, of course, social media. Does the Minister care to confirm whether, if a rape victim seeks support and rape counselling during the period between reporting the rape and the case coming to court, the police may also access that information if they choose? As the ICO put it, “If you don’t comply, we will come back with an enforcement hat on”. What is the timescale for the change?
That point about “If you don’t comply” is absolutely the opposite of what the Home Office, the police and the CPS’s approach will be. The aim is to encourage victims through a very clear process on whether to hand over digital information. Our aim is to have that processed within 24 hours, because it is not right that someone feels compelled to hand over their phone or feels that the prosecution will not go accordingly if they fail to do so.
My Lords, yet again it appears that the law, and the rules set by the police and the CPS restricting access to rape victims’ sensitive personal information, are not making a practical difference. Is this not a reflection of a culture in the police, the CPS and the courts that does not treat women fairly? What will the Government do to address this?
I cannot disagree with the noble Lord that the rape review and the things we are doing for victims now are long overdue, and that there has been a culture along the chain of letting women down. Indeed, we should be making sure, and we are, that both referrals and prosecutions go forward.
My Lords, concern about non-disclosure of evidence was an issue a long time ago, when I was Attorney-General. The balance has swung the other way, to excessive intrusion. As defence counsel in many rape cases, there is an even more fundamental problem in ensuring that justice is done, as juries are reluctant to convict where the defence is consent. Will the Attorney-General lean on the DPP to publish statistics distinguishing consent cases from stranger-rapes, so that effective prosecutions can succeed in the former?
My Lords, can the Minister readdress my noble friend’s question about counselling? It is a real concern of women that after they have made a report, they should be able to get some help—some therapy or counselling—in the considerable period before trial. The fear that that might be exposed to a fishing expedition will affect attrition rates.
I do apologise: I only answered one part of the noble Baroness’s question; I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has come forward. I do not know if she is aware of Operation Soteria, a process through which the victim would be supported through the system from end to end, notwithstanding the need to secure justice and the right outcome based on evidence. I believe that five forces were initially part of the pilot. There are now 14 more, so I hope this will be a way of following due process and being consistent nationally, and a model for the future.
My Lords, the Minister will be well aware, as is widely reported in the media, of children not being believed by police officers when they report rape, including in places such as Rotherham. Does she believe there are some significant changes in that pattern of behaviour by police officers in particular forces? On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, about support for women and children, organisations that offer such support, particularly those through which women support women, have been decimated. Does she believe that adequate resources are available through the Government and local authorities?
On funding, our VAWG strategy comes with a significant amount of funding. On children and Rotherham, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. In fact, I can think of other parts of the country where the culture makes some of its leaders completely blind to what is going on under their noses.
My Lords, the Minister has already confirmed that she does not believe that the price for justice for rape victims in this country should be that their whole personal life is laid bare. It is causing victims to walk away before their case even reaches court, making them feel doubly victimised. The recommendations in this report are very modest to say the least. Why can the chief constables and the CPOs not just get on with implementing them now? Do they seriously need to be officially told to work together to implement consistent and proportionate treatment of victims—or will we just stand by as our already dismal prosecution rates get even worse?
One thing I feel a bit disappointed about is that the report does not reflect some of the powers that I know the noble Baroness was instrumental in bringing forward within the PCSC Act. They will both help to protect privacy and, I hope, improve consistency across the piece.
My Lords, no one is more concerned than I am that people who have been the victims of rape should be dealt with sensitively and properly, but could I put a point which may not prove popular here? Surely, there is always the possibility in the system that someone might make a malicious charge. It is therefore important to have sufficient evidence and if all, or a lot, of that evidence is closed off it could again cause problems and injustice for somebody else.
I totally agree with my noble friend and refer her to the comments I made earlier. Nevertheless, it is also important in that whole balancing act that people do not feel they have to hand over their mobile phones or that their prosecution will not go forward if they do not.
My Lords, other victims of crime are not expected to hand over such sensitive information as in the case of rape; that is what is unfair. Actually, the victim in such cases can be asked to divulge far more information than the person accused. I hope the Minister can confirm that women should not expect to have personal information about the impact that attack has had on them shared with the defendant—the person who has raped them.
I hope the noble Baroness will agree that I have made that point throughout my answers. It is all about the balance between justice being served and evidence being brought forward but victims, in particular, not feeling coerced into having to do it.
My Lords, it is clear that things are complex in relation to charges of rape and the information you may or may not have to hand over. Obviously, at that moment somebody has had an enormous trauma, whether it turns out to be a criminal offence or not. Can my noble friend please outline what awareness and publicity the department is providing to make sure that women generally are aware of what you can and cannot be asked at that moment, before they are in that unfortunate situation?
What we are working towards and hoping to implement by the beginning of the next Parliament is that the process and the regulations around it are absolutely clear about what is expected of the police, and that there is training to back this up on what people will be asked to hand over. There is an aim towards it being for not more than 24 hours because for many people, it is not only their phone but their entire life.
The Government want to ensure that people, regardless of their background or income, have access to useful, affordable financial products and services. To tackle financial exclusion, the Government convene the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum, which brings together Ministers, regulators, industry and the third sector to provide leadership and promote collaboration. Since 2019, the Government have allocated £100 million of dormant assets funding to support Fair4All Finance’s work to improve access to affordable credit.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that financial inclusion brings not just economic benefits to the individual but economic, social and psychological benefits to all of us? To that end, does she agree that it is high time that we revisit the question of a “have regard to” financial inclusion duty for the FCA?
My Lords, I absolutely agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend about the importance of financial inclusion. The Government recognise that there has been strong interest in the proposal for the FCA to be given a separate “have regard to” financial inclusion duty. However, at present the Government’s position remains that the FCA’s existing objectives and regulatory principles are already well aligned with the objectives of financial inclusion. We do not believe that a separate “have regard to” financial inclusion duty would necessarily lead to a different approach or tangible improvements over the current arrangements with regard to the aim that we all want to see: greater financial inclusion and less exclusion.
My Lords, the Government say that they are in favour of this, but they are watching as banks close in many communities. Many poor areas have no bank, at a time when those banks have seen soaring profits. When are the Government going to act to do something about this, to make sure that people have access to banking services?
My Lords, there are existing obligations, which are enforced by the Payment Systems Regulator, but noble Lords will also know that the Government are committed to legislating to protect access to cash. Those measures will be included in the forthcoming financial services Bill.
My Lords, does tangible improvement include wider social ownership of assets—wider ownership of popular capitalism? At the moment, capitalism is not very popular at all. So maybe there should be some reinforcements to spread the benefits of capital, beyond those who benefit anyway because they have capital in the first place?
My Lords, the biggest barriers to financial inclusion are poverty and regressive taxation which robs people of disposable income. Some 14.5 million people already live in poverty. The poorest 10% of households pay 47.6% of their income in direct and indirect taxes, compared with 33.5% by the richest 10%. Can the Minister explain how and why the Government have created this shameful position of exclusion?
I say to the noble Lord that the £37 billion of financial support offered to people this year to support them with the high costs of living has been targeted at those on the lowest incomes and those least able to pay. So the Government have taken progressive measures to help protect people against rising costs of living.
My Lords, I agree that school is a very important place to start for people’s life chances, and also their financial understanding. I am pleased to say that under this Government, the achievement gap for children at school between those in the poorest households and those in the wealthiest households has narrowed. That is something that we need to continue to make progress on.
My Lords, pursuing the point on poverty that we have just heard about, is the Minister aware that the poverty premium—the extra costs that people in poverty or on low incomes pay for essential products or services—costs the average low-income household some £430 a year? That is the equivalent to some 10 weeks’ grocery bills. Could the Minister explain why she does not think that giving the Financial Conduct Authority specific powers to tackle financial inclusion, including the poverty premium, is a good idea? I just do not understand it.
My Lords, I am aware of the poverty premium: it can exist in different ways in different sectors. There is already work under way to tackle that poverty premium; for example, the other week in Questions I spoke about work in the insurance sector to ensure that those with pre-existing conditions or those who are older can access products. We are continuing to work through the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum to make sure that things such as the poverty premium are tackled.
My Lords, according to evidence from the National Centre for Financial Education, financial habits are formed at around the age of seven. It also says that only 20% of primary schoolchildren are receiving financial education, despite personal, social, health and economic education being a compulsory subject—it is probably too wide for many teachers to cover everything that is required. What is the Treasury doing to work with the Department for Education to ensure that every child gets decent financial education from primary school upwards?
Financial education is taught in schools through a number of different avenues, including the maths curriculum, citizenship education and PSHE. The Government are well aware of the importance of this topic and continue to work with the Department for Education to make sure that schools and teachers have the resources to ensure that children can learn about it.
My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, about the poverty premium, which sees those who can least afford it being forced to pay more for essential goods and services, what are the Government doing to work with energy providers to prevent them charging more for electricity that is accessed via a pre-payment meter?
My Lords, pre-payment meter customers are covered by the price cap, so they receive protection from that, but they pay a higher rate, which Ofgem believes is necessary to reflect higher operational costs and risks. However, a robust set of rules is in place to protect pre-payment meter customers, ensuring that, if suppliers identify that they are in a vulnerable situation, including where they are self-connecting or self-rationing their supply, they must be offered additional support credit. In doing so, suppliers must also consider people’s ability to pay back that credit. So a robust set of support is available to people in that situation.
My Lords, although the Government have done well in reducing the taper rate, is it not still the case that people in work on universal credit are paying an effective marginal tax rate of 55%, which is 10% more than the highest-paid people in the country? So, while we are talking about tax cuts, as we appear to be doing in the Conservative Party at the moment, would it not be a good idea to reduce the effective marginal tax rate of those who are poorest in order to encourage people back into work and to encourage those who are in work to value their contribution to society?
I agree with my noble friend’s sentiments. As he pointed out, a cut to the taper rate of universal credit is essentially a tax cut for those on the lowest wages, and it makes sure that the incentives are aligned for them to take on more work and bring home more money. So I totally agree with him, but I cannot speculate on any future policies in that direction.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, on his tenacity on this subject, which has made this fact stand out to me: 22% of adults have less than £100 in savings. They are not just unlucky; they are victims of the policies of firms, ranging from car parks to banks, to reduce costs and hence make more profit. We need a comprehensive and holistic approach, and the Government are going some way down that road, but the Financial Inclusion Commission wrote to Mr John Glen, setting out a comprehensive way forward, including the concept of a “have regard” duty on the FCA. Is that letter being responded to, and how does it fit in with the Government’s general approach?
My Lords, I am sure that that letter will be responded to, although I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my honourable friend John Glen, to whom the letter was addressed, as Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He has done a huge amount in post to promote financial inclusion, and I reassure noble Lords that that work will continue. For example, the FCA has consulted on its new consumer duty. The noble Lord referenced those who do not have access to savings. Of course, the Government have the Help to Save programme to ensure that those who are on lower incomes get more support to save so that they have a financial buffer for when times are tough.
Broadcasting Sector White Paper
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how their white paper Up Next—the government’s vision for the broadcasting sector, published on 29 April, will support (1) original British content, and (2) the creative industries in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, as set out in the White Paper, the Government are taking action to support British broadcasters and our creative industries more widely. Among other things, we are supporting original British content by including it in a new and more focused public service remit for television. We will continue to support our highly skilled and innovative creative industries through world-leading creative sector tax reliefs and by protecting the UK’s hugely successful terms of trade regime.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Our PSBs are the backbone of our creative industries; they support original British content, talent, skills and exceptional journalism. Does the Minister agree that this will become increasingly difficult as BBC funding continues to be depleted, coupled with the commitment to sell Channel 4 off? This is something that the independent film, TV production and advertising sectors are against. Will the Minister accept that pursuing this is completely inappropriate, considering that it is deeply unpopular among the industry and the public—92% of those responding to the Government’s own consultation were against it—it is not a manifesto commitment, and the noble Lord is now a Minister in a caretaker Government? I see no mandate there.
My Lords, it remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that our public service broadcasters are equipped for the decades ahead. As we have discussed, although we may disagree on this issue, I hope all noble Lords agree that Channel 4 needs the investment to be able to compete with the American streaming giants. I look forward to debating this more with noble Lords.
The BBC will continue to receive around £3.7 billion in annual public funding, which allows it to deliver its mission and public purposes.
My Lords, does the present political interregnum not give the Government the opportunity to think again about their whole broadcasting policy—and not just for television? If they are pushing ahead, will the Minister say what the Government’s future policy is on supporting BBC Radio, which still has a massive audience in this country—and abroad, for that matter—and today serves us well in its reports on the Ukraine conflict?
The noble Lord is absolutely right about the vital role played by BBC Radio, including both national and local radio stations. I greatly enjoyed the programme last night celebrating the centenary of The Waste Land, which, like the BBC, turned 100 last year. That is the sort of distinctly British content that only the BBC can provide. I am sure that any incoming Prime Minister and Administration will see the same challenges that beset the BBC and Channel 4 in continuing to do their excellent work in an increasingly competitive field. They would want to address things such as the declining number of people paying the licence fee for the BBC and Channel 4’s reliance on live advertising to ensure that they continue to be sustainable in future.
I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on staying in his post; he is a sea of calm amid a frenzy of turbulence. I also congratulate the Government on the broadcasting White Paper; I know my noble friend the Minister had nothing to do with it, but it is a truly excellent piece of work. I thought I would be dramatically changing the subject, but the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, already raised the importance of radio. I point out that radio is one of our most successful creative industries, so can my noble friend the Minister update us on the progress of digital radio, where Britain leads the world?
I am conscious that I still have many years to go to equal my noble friend’s length of tenure in office. The Government remain committed to legislating to give effect to the conclusions of the 2017 consultation on radio deregulation as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are also very keen to continue the co-operation between the BBC and both commercial and community radio, as the digital radio and audio review encouraged.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Wales has a vibrant television and film industry and that back-to-back films have been exported to over 100 countries. Given that ministerial responsibility for the creative arts in Wales is devolved but that for television is not, will he ensure that S4C is adequately funded to maximise the benefit that comes from this sector?
The forthcoming media Bill will remove the current geographic broadcasting restrictions so that S4C can broaden its reach and offer its content on a range of new platforms throughout the UK and internationally. The recent funding settlement ensured that S4C was able to continue the work that is much valued in Wales and more widely.
My Lords, the Government’s Up Next policy paper claims that
“public service broadcasters … develop skills and talent, drive growth right across the creative industries”.
Will the Minister undertake to widen the Government’s vision for broadcasting to ensure that we also hear how skills and talents will be developed among pupils, students and young performers and designers when at present curriculum incentive and public investment are so often lacking in this area in our schools, colleges and universities?
The right reverend Prelate points to an important issue in talking of skills. The British Film Institute has looked at this very carefully and published its film and high-end TV skills review at the end of last month, which we strongly welcome and look forward to discussing with the industry to see how it engages with the findings. The Government are doing their bit by, for instance, the new pilots of flexible apprenticeships and through our regular support of more than £2 million a year to the National Film and Television School.
My Lords, given that the current cost of living crisis is problematic across all sectors and can have a particularly adverse impact on the creative industries, which are sensitive to changes in economic conditions even without the continued fallout from the pandemic, what assessment has the department made of the impact of inflation and energy price increases across the whole sector, whether on huge production companies, small venues or the dedicated workforce that keeps the show on the road?
We talk about inflation and energy bills with all the sectors and industries that the DCMS has the privilege of representing. I spoke about them this morning at the Imperial War Museum when I visited it. Our settlement for the BBC will, as I say, ensure that it continues to receive around £3.7 billion in annual public funding, which will allow it to deliver its mission and public purposes.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a television producer. The White Paper gives the public service broadcasters the right to move their content to less-watched digital channels. Can the Minister confirm that if Channel 4 is privatised, the new owners—and any other public service broadcaster—will have the right to move, say, “Channel 4 News” to a digital channel such as E4, or even a specially set up obscure digital channel?
These details and more will be set out in the media Bill, which I look forward to debating with noble Lords. Giving Channel 4 the freedom to diversify its revenue streams as well as to address issues such as the intellectual property of the content it provides are important in making sure that it can continue to compete in the years to come.
My Lords, very few people agree with the Minister’s analysis or the solutions he has put forward for either Channel 4 or the BBC. I put it to him again that it would be far better to withdraw this rather ill thought-out White Paper and allow the new Secretary of State coming into office in September to look at these matters afresh. If he does not think that there will be a new Secretary of State, would he like to take a bet on it?
My Lords, the independent television sector in Scotland is worth more than £300 million to our economy. I declare an interest as a board member of Creative Scotland. Why do a Conservative Government propose to undermine the successful and growing business model of entrepreneurial producers to create a bureaucratic, grant-giving, centrally directed levelling-up fund, and how would that fund support the regional production centres in any way more efficiently or successfully than the current ownership model of Channel 4?
My noble friend points to the success of independent production companies that are privately owned. We want to ensure that Channel 4, whose remit was to promote that important sector 40 years ago, is able to continue to commission from those companies at a time when costs are going up because of the greater budgets and commissioning spending of the American streaming giants.
TRIPS Agreement: Vaccines
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how, and to what extent, the temporary waiver of provisions of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), agreed at the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference on 17 June, will expand access to current and new vaccines, given that it does not include a waiver of trade secrets.
My Lords, the consensus-based agreement reached at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference streamlines compulsory licensing processes for developing countries to manufacture and export Covid-19 vaccines while preserving the incentives to innovation that the international IP system provides. We welcome that the agreement does not undermine the existing IP framework, which has been key to the effective response to the pandemic.
My Lords, regrettably, the Minister’s Answer—I do not blame him for this as he was probably following his brief—did not address the issue that, without the inclusion of a waiver of trade secrets, essential access to critical manufacturing know-how and clinical data, and therefore to the ability to manufacture new vaccines, is denied. Why is this our Government’s policy, and why did our negotiators, who spent 18 months resisting this waiver completely, try to weaken the text further by requesting the deletion of the reference to the possibility of expanding the agreement in TRIPS on Covid-19 to include therapeutics and diagnostics in six months’ time? Who on earth instructed them to do that?
I disagree. This is a very good agreement, and the Government have seen no evidence that IP rights, including the protection of undisclosed information or trade secrets, are any barrier to accessing treatments for Covid-19. The problem now is that we are seeing supply effectively outstrip demand, with the current level of vaccine production. There is evidence—reports of a South African Covid-19 vaccine plant being at risk of closure because it has no orders, and the Serum Institute of India halving production of AstraZeneca’s vaccine due to no new orders.
My Lords, I hear what my noble friend the Minister says around supply now but, if all the vaccines that the G7 committed to had been donated in 2021, around 600,000 lives would have been saved. I would like to ask about the finances. The UK has delivered some of the vaccines that it committed to, but I understand from the British Medical Journal that the Government have charged donated vaccines to the aid budget at much more than they paid for them, which has meant that there have been further cuts to life-saving UK aid programmes. Why have the Government counted each vaccine as £3.26 of aid spending, despite paying just £2.30 for doses in the first place?
I thank my noble friend for the question. All vaccine dose donations will be reported as official development assistance and be included in the 0.5% total. Expenditure for 2021 has been published in the UK Statistics on International Development, and by the OECD Development Assistance Committee. In 2021, we donated 30.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, which we reported at cost in line with the DAC guidance.
My Lords, what are the Government doing to prepare for when the next global pandemic comes along, to make sure that there is better and more equitable distribution of vaccines to developing countries? If this is such a wonderful agreement, why were we the last people to accept it?
The noble Lord makes a very good point, of course. The best answer to future vaccine development is achieved by preserving the intellectual property system. It is a good, consensus-based agreement that all member states can go along with, and a good agreement for vaccine manufacturers and developing countries.
My Lords, under the existing intellectual property system, as of June this year 72.9% of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine whereas only 17.94% in low-income countries have been vaccinated. The UN special rapporteur on discrimination and the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights have attributed this directly to the existing TRIPS intellectual property system. What is the moral justification for that?
My Lords, I think the noble Lord is wrong: the problem is not with vaccine production, as there is now an excess number of vaccines being produced; the problem is with the healthcare systems of individual countries that are unable to store, distribute and inject those vaccines, which is why we are working with developing countries to help them with that. We know that this is the case because of the problems we had rolling out the vaccine in this country, which of course has a very advanced healthcare system. I repeat the point: the problem is not with vaccine production, as there are already excess vaccines being produced; the problem is with the healthcare systems in those countries which enable them to be distributed and put into peoples’ arms.
So why was it that the Government cut by nearly 60% their support for countries to have the health systems to distribute the vaccines when they became available? Why was it that when countries needed the vaccines, at the early stage of this, the Government vehemently opposed this move at the WTO? Returning to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, can the Minister be very clear as to whether vaccine support is within or over and above the 0.5% cap? In March, in relation to a donation to Bangladesh, the Government said:
“The cost of this donation has been funded through UK Overseas Development Assistance and will come over and above the ODA spending target of 0.5% of GNI if needed.”
That is not what the Minister just told the House, so which is it?
The position is as I repeated to my noble friend Lady Sugg: all vaccine dose donations will be reported as overseas development assistance and be included within the 0.5%. I think the noble Lord is being very unfair about the UK’s support. We are in fact a leader of international support in response to the pandemic; we have spent more than £2.1 billion since 2020 to address its impacts and that includes up to £829 million to support the global development, manufacture and delivery of vaccines, treatments and tests in lower-income countries.
My Lord, the deal agreed at the WTO conference obviously fell short of what was initially proposed. Even after 18 months, discussions on extending the waiver to treatments and tests have been postponed again by another six months. Surely sharing clinical data and research on vaccine production is in our own self-interest, but a poor substitute would be having a relationship with or speaking to the pharmaceutical industry. Have Her Majesty’s Government had any representations with British pharmaceutical corporations to try to bypass the obstacles that exist?
The UK Government have regular meetings with pharmaceutical companies. Of course we want to see the maximum amount of support offered to lower-income countries. I just outlined the support we are providing, but we agreed at the meeting to a consensus-based decision that does not waive IP rights but streamlines the processes for developing countries using compulsory licensing to produce and export Covid-19 vaccines.
My Lords, I have been listening very carefully to what the noble Lord has said so far; I did not hear him answer the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, asked him, which was about the difference between the price that was paid and the price that was charged for the vaccines. Will he have another go at explaining that difference?
My Lords, this question of intellectual property is going to be really important in future pandemics. It is not absolute. We gave up liberties. People stayed at home and did not go to work. All sorts of sacrifices were made. Why cannot big pharma make its little bit of sacrifice as well?
It is making sacrifices. I agree with the noble Baroness about the sacrifices that have been made, but if we want big pharma and the private sector to invest, then we need to preserve the intellectual property regime, because next time it will require billions of pounds of investment, production and research. That is best achieved by preserving the intellectual property regime, but we need to make sure that developing countries have access to these vaccines, which we have done. Many of these countries do not have the facilities, the knowledge, the expertise or the know-how to produce these vaccines.
My Lords, developed countries have been accused of aligning themselves with the narrative of the pharmaceutical industry. Does the Minister accept that the development of these vaccines was not dependent on the innovation of the private sector, but rather came out of public investment and research? Can he explain why these companies were allowed to influence these vital discussions?
The noble Baroness is partly right; of course, there was substantial public research, but we needed the facilities in the private sector to help with the development, production and distribution of those vaccines. It was a partnership. The House is eager to criticise big pharma, but AstraZeneca produced all these vaccines at cost and donated many of them to the third world; it has done a fantastic job, for which we should be grateful.
Coronavirus: New Cases
Private Notice Question
We continue to see Covid-19 case rates and hospitalisations rise in all age groups, with the largest increases in hospitalisations and ICU admissions in those aged 75 and older. A large proportion of those hospitalised are admitted for reasons other than Covid. However, Covid is identified due to the increase in case rates in the community and the high rates of testing in hospital, including among those with no respiratory symptoms. Current data does not point to cases becoming more severe.
My Lords, with a stark rise in infections, many people—particularly the clinically vulnerable, carers and older people—are feeling anxious, yet the Government have been noticeably silent, perhaps being somewhat distracted. We might be through the worst of Covid but evidently it has not gone away; individuals, organisation and businesses still want guidance. I have two questions for the Minister. Are the Government planning any campaigns, perhaps involving scientists and others, to highlight current risks and to encourage the take up of booster jabs? Are there plans to reintroduce mandatory mask wearing in hospitals, which the chair of the JCVI considers sensible?
I have to strongly disagree with the noble Baroness when she says that the Government are doing nothing. We are reliant on the UKHSA, which monitors rates and gives us advice, along with the JCVI. In my briefing from the UKHSA, it said it is continuing to monitor cases. As many noble Lords will remember, when we announced the living with Covid strategy we said that we are always ready to stand up measures should case rates rise so much that our health system was under pressure. We managed to break the link between infections and hospitalisations and hospitalisations and death; if that gets out of control then of course we will stand up the measures that we had previously.
The noble Lord will be aware of the different balances and trade-offs that the Government have to consider. At one stage, I think we spent £2 billion in a short period on testing, and a number of people in the health system said that surely that money would be better spent elsewhere, given the backlog due to lockdown. It is always a difficult trade-off on where you spend the money. At the moment, there are people who are still eligible for free tests: certain social and healthcare workers, and also people visiting and some carers. All this will continue to be monitored. Should the number of cases spiral out of control, clearly we would look to reintroduce free testing at some stage, should that be needed.
My noble friend raises a very important question. We are waiting for advice from the JCVI, coming later this week, on the autumn programme. There have been various reports, but we are waiting for confirmation of whether it will be the existing cohort of 75 and over, 70 and over, or whether it will be given to wider groups. That is being considered and will be announced later this week.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned £2 billion being spent in a month on Covid tests, which includes PCR tests as well. What proportion of that £2 billion was spent on lateral flow tests? If necessary, looking down the road to this winter, are the Government prepared with vaccines, free lateral flow tests for businesses and citizens, and the antiviral programme? Are we ready just in case?
We continue to monitor the situation. The Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with the UKHSA, which tells us about the various issues of concern. Noble Lords will know about the outbreak of monkeypox in certain communities and the discovery of the polio vaccine in sewage, though not leading to cases. Clearly, we constantly talk about Covid cases. We are monitoring numbers, and the UKHSA looks at the ONS numbers as well. We are planning for the autumn, but we also have plans should the number of infections start leading to hospitalisations and possibly deaths.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Merron is absolutely right: this appears to be creeping up on the Government unawares. The level is going up and is particularly high in Scotland. The last time around, there was a lot of confusion, because different reactions were evident in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. In order to deal with this quickly and in a co-ordinated way, can I ask the Minister to get together the Chief Medical Officers of all four countries as quickly as possible to come up with a plan?
I am sure the noble Lord will have been in meetings with the devolved Administrations; sometimes they want to go their own way. For example, when we reduced some of the measures in England, the devolved Administrations were sceptical of what we had done. When the data showed that the measures left in place in Scotland were no more effective than us removing some of those restrictions, it demonstrated exactly why, although we talk to the devolved Administrations all the time, we also respect the devolved settlements. We have to agree to disagree at times.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we have lived with flu all our lives? I completely agree with his assertion that if this illness is not proving more deadly than illnesses we have lived with for a long time, what would be the purpose of upsetting the economic recovery and causing so much extra cost to the public purse—unless, as he rightly says, serious hospitalisation cases and deaths were to increase suddenly?
My noble friend makes a very important point. You always have to look at these things in the round and you have to look at the trade-offs. Many noble Lords will recognise that, when we went into lockdown, there were build-ups in many parts of the NHS backlog and an increase in people suffering from mental health issues—the numbers were even larger than they were before—so clearly, we have to look at this as a trade-off. We have a living with Covid strategy. We constantly get updated by the UKHSA, which is looking at all this data. We are ready to stand up should we need to.
My Lords, the recent welcome inroads into NHS waiting lists are now being reversed. What plans do the Government have to ensure that, as Covid pressures mount, over the winter in particular, crucial NHS services and diagnoses are sustained—particularly, for example, early diagnoses of cancers?
The noble and gallant Lord makes a very important point: we have to continue with the living with Covid strategy, and keep an eye on the Covid cases, but also be aware that we need to clear the backlog, and that people have missed appointments. One of the things we are doing is looking more at diagnostics. Many noble Lords will be aware that about 80% of the waiting list is people waiting for diagnosis. Of those waiting for surgery, about 80% of them do not need to stay overnight in hospital. We want to make sure that we get the right balance between monitoring what is going on with Covid and at the same time clearing the backlog.
My Lords, I declare my interest as in the register as a non-executive director of Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Following on from the last two questions, last year, the Government awarded £6 billion extra to the NHS to deal with Covid cost pressures. There was an assumption that there would be no Covid in the NHS by June, and all funding stopped. In the light of rising cases and the issues caused by the pressures, will the Government reinstate NHS Covid money? If not, this will eat into the day-to-day budgets of our NHS.
As I said, we are keeping everything under review. We called our strategy Living with Covid-19 as opposed to “We’ve Got Over Covid-19” because we knew it could come back at any time. We have seen that, with the omicron variant, some medication is less effective. We continue to monitor that, and we are ready to stand up the measures that may be needed if the number of cases dictates that, on the advice of the JCVI and the UKHSA.
We are finding that vaccination is clearly the best way to break the link between catching Covid and hospitalisation. Sadly, a large part of our population still has not been vaccinated. Even with the third booster, 80% of that age group have come forward but 20% of the older age group still have not done so. We are trying to target groups that have not yet been vaccinated to make sure that we offer them the best protection possible.
Undoubtedly there will be an inquiry; in fact, the Government announced that there would be one. There will also be lots of independent inquiries and academics writing about what different countries got right and got wrong. When speaking to my friends who are Health Ministers in other countries, we all say that, looking back, there are things that we could have done differently, in various ways, if we had had that knowledge. But we also have to be very careful about the fallacy of hindsight, and of saying that we would have acted differently had we been in that situation. We can learn from hindsight, and we need to make sure that we do so for future pandemics.
My Lords, will the Minister take up the offer made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, of a meeting of the four chief medical officers of the regions and nations of the UK to explore further possibilities and solutions in relation to Covid? Only last week in Northern Ireland I heard two separate virologists indicating that to reduce the advisory limit for self-isolation to five days was a dangerous precedent because many people in that group would remain positive, thereby spreading Covid in their local area. In view of that and the rising levels of Covid and other respiratory viruses, will the Minister immediately talk to his ministerial colleagues and set up such a meeting?
One of the things we do in the Department of Health and Social Care is to have regular meetings with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations—all the Ministers do. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, shakes his head, but I can tell him that we regularly have meetings with the devolved Administrations. I commit to go back to the department and see who is next due to have a meeting with their devolved counterparts, and ask whether we can put Covid on the agenda.
Does the Minister agree that his dismissal of hindsight is one of the most useless ways of looking at this? Surely with continuing infection like this, hindsight is really important, and we should be looking all the time to see how we can change our practice.
I was making the point that there is the benefit of hindsight but also the fallacy of hindsight. The benefit is that we learn from mistakes we made in the past. We learn from previous actions what worked and did not work, particularly in a local context. Some of my friends in other countries tell me that what we did in England may not necessarily have worked in their country, and vice versa. There is also the fallacy of hindsight, when people say that in the same situation, 18 months or two years ago, they would have done something completely different with the information we had then. That is what is known in social sciences as the fallacy of hindsight.
My Lords, I just want to be clear about something. One mistake we made before was not paying attention earlier to predictive modelling from the NHS. Are we sitting on any information that we are getting from the NHS now about what exponential rate may occur in this virus? Please can the Minister reassure me on that.
We rely on data from the UK Health Security Agency. It monitors this, and looks at ONS data, data on hospitalisations and the capacity of the NHS to absorb the increase in patient numbers if there is one. That is where we take our advice from and that is what would trigger future action, should it be needed.
My Lords, I confirm that there is anxiety about the rise in Covid cases, but less about the virus itself than a worry that politicians might reintroduce some of the over-the-top restrictions that led to such collateral damage during the past two years. Hindsight or not, I make the point that people are nervous. Very specifically, will the Minister comment on the fact that, for example, some care homes are using the rise in Covid cases to lock down homes and carry on restricting visits with relatives—which we now know is damaging the mental and physical health of so many elderly care home residents, who suffered so inhumanely, not from Covid but from our response to it? Will he encourage those care homes to open up and be a bit more confident?
I start by paying tribute to the noble Baroness for her championing of civil liberties issues and making sure there was a debate on them. I will, with pleasure, take back her point on care homes to my ministerial colleagues who are in charge of social care.
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill
A Bill to authorise the use of resources for the year ending with 31 March 2023; to authorise both the issue of sums out of the Consolidated Fund and the application of income for that year; and to appropriate the supply authorised for that year by this Act and by the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2022.
The Bill was brought from the Commons, endorsed as a money Bill, and read a first time.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That, in the event of the Energy (Oil and Gas) Profits Levy Bill having been brought from the House of Commons, Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Wednesday 13 July to allow the Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
That, in the event of the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill having been brought from the House of Commons, Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Wednesday 13 July to allow the Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.
UK Infrastructure Bank Bill [HL]
My Lords, before we progress with Third Reading, I shall make a very brief statement on legislative consent in relation to the Bill. My officials have worked closely with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations throughout the set-up of the bank and the passage of this Bill. All three Administrations have welcomed the establishment of a national infrastructure bank. The bank has also been developing its own relationship with the devolved Administrations and their institutions—for example, the Scottish National Investment Bank. I am pleased that the bank has now completed a deal in all four nations of the UK. We continue to discuss the requirements for legislative consent with the devolved Administrations, and I am grateful for their continued engagement on this. I beg to move that the Bill be read a third time.
My Lords, much has happened since last week’s Report stage, when your Lordships passed two sensible amendments. These changes would considerably strengthen the Bill’s climate and levelling-up credentials, ensuring greater external support for the bank and its work.
The Prime Minister has rightly said that the business of government must go on over the coming weeks and months. In that spirit, I hope that the Treasury will reconsider its opposition to these amendments. This will ensure that the next Prime Minister gets a stronger Bill on the statute books. If Ministers, whether the current crop or their successors, do not like the current wording, they are welcome to change it. However, simply overturning the amendments would show poor judgment. The economic picture has become gloomier, while dealing with the climate and biodiversity crisis is ever more pressing. Through this revised Bill, the bank can play an important role in both battles, supporting the creation of good jobs and doing more to protect nature. When one of the many leadership hopefuls assumes the office of Prime Minister, these issues must be at the front of their mind.
Until then, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, and the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, for taking this Bill through its Lords stages. They have been ably supported by a range of Treasury officials, to whom I am also grateful. I am even more grateful to my Labour Party policy adviser, Dan Stevens, for his invaluable advice and help.
In the meantime, I wish the bank well as it continues to find its feet and comes to its initial investment.
My Lords, obviously my colleagues and I support the creation of the UK Infrastructure Bank. We regret that it does not have the genuine operational independence that was a clear statutory characteristic of the Green Investment Bank, which was sold off by this Government as soon as the coalition ended, but we are where we are.
The work of this House has improved the Bill significantly. The Government amended it to provide absolute clarity on the UKIB’s role in supporting investment in energy efficiency; we thank the Minister for that. Noble Lords from all sides of the House also supported further changes to establish that the bank’s objectives extend to nature-based solutions in a circular economy. I hope that the Government will not attempt to reverse these meaningful improvements.
However, the Bill has followed what has become a consistent government thrust: diminishing Parliament and enhancing the power of the Executive; I will not repeat all our previous arguments about Henry VIII powers and the power of direction. The Government have promised to amend the framework document by the end of the year to assure us that not only the directions, including their content, but any objections made by the bank to such directions, including letters of reservation, will be made public. This transparency is vital; I thank the Minister personally for making sure that we got a meaningful response to this issue with a commitment not just to removing the gagging clauses originally in the framework document but to ensuring full transparency through the publication of the relevant documents.
I thank the Minister and her team for their openness and willingness to meet. I thank Peers around this House who worked together to get improvement—they are too many to name—but I believe that the Government’s nightmare is an amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, supported by the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Vaux, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and me.
Last of all, I thank my own ranks. I thank Sarah Pughe and Mo Souidi in the Whips’ Office, who provided us with organisation and backing. I thank my noble friends Lord Sharkey and Lord Teverson, who brought their particular and extensive expertise to bear on this Bill; they have earned and enjoy the respect of this House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their constructive approach to each stage of this Bill. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer.
The level of scrutiny and debate on the Bill demonstrates the importance of the bank’s mission and has served to demonstrate once again the expertise of this House on topics from corporate governance through to the definition of infrastructure and our target for tackling climate change. Although this is a short Bill—something that may be welcomed—it is an important one given the bank’s potential to deliver a step change in tackling climate change and supporting levelling up through supporting the development of high-quality infrastructure across the whole of the UK.
I am therefore pleased to see the Bill progress towards becoming law, supporting the bank to become a fully-fledged, operationally independent institution able to deliver on its mandate as agreed by this House. I thank noble Lords on all Benches for working constructively on this both during debates and in the many separate discussions that I have had on this Bill.
Finally, I recognise the work of the parliamentary counsel in drafting this Bill and in supporting its passage so far. I also thank the House staff, the excellent Bill team, and my noble friend Lord Younger for his support. I am not alone in this House in looking forward to seeing the impact of the bank’s investments in improving the vital infrastructure of this country. I beg to move.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Australia Free Trade Agreement
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the Free Trade Agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Australia, laid before the House on 15 June.
Relevant document: 4th Report from the International Agreements Committee (special attention drawn to the agreement)
My Lords, I thank and pay tribute to the very recent Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, who worked very closely and openly with the committee, not just to facilitate our access to documents and briefings and to answer our many questions, but to negotiate within Whitehall that very welcome exchange of letters on how future trade deals will be handled. Of course, his resignation, rather different from the other 60, except for that of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, took place on Friday, and was not to get rid of Prime Minister Johnson but was a result of Mr Johnson’s leaving. In the Lords, we always do something a little different.
Having gone through four Ministers when I was dealing with Brexit on the Front Bench, and having now lost a Trade Minister in my new role, I am beginning to take this slightly personally. However, I welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, to the wicket. I hope that he found time during the Wimbledon finals—sorry, Australia—to peruse the 2,000-page document on the Australia deal, and that “team Grimstone” will be there to help him answer our many questions.
This debate is important for three reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the first time that this House has debated a new, post-Brexit trade deal which is not just a rollover from our EU days but is a from-scratch, non-European trade agreement. Secondly, it gives the House a chance to consider the deal within the Government’s wider diplomatic, defence, foreign affairs, environmental and domestic objectives—at least, it would be good to debate it within that context if only the Government had set out a trade policy which went wider and beyond the nebulous “global Britain”, which is simply about more trade. Thirdly, again from it being a novel agreement, and the first since 1973 for which our Government have had responsibility and come to our committee, it gives the House the opportunity to consider whether our ability and our powers to scrutinise negotiating objectives and the resultant deal are sufficient for the task given to us.
Beginning with the first of those points, the actual deal: how do we assess it? The International Agreements Committee welcomes the agreement, especially the provisions facilitating trade in services, including financial and legal services; mobility; digital; consumer protection; and its support for SMEs. In particular, improved mobility for UK professionals seeking to work in Australia, a new framework on mutual recognition of professional qualifications, and the ban on data localisation, are all likely to be beneficial. We note, as the Government acknowledge, that the expectations of increased trade are not enormous—0.08% of GDP by 2035—and only very slight in goods, given that existing Australian tariffs are already very low.
However, the deal has other advantages, not least in helping pave the way for the UK’s potential entrance into the CPTPP. It was right for the Government to prioritise Australia as a segue into that. However, we queried whether the desire for speed reduced the chance of obtaining more from the negotiations, and we highlighted the fears of many in our farming communities, particularly in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, that they may have been sold short, with safeguards for their produce insufficient for the new competition they could face, particularly given the differences in Australian farming practices.
It is true that Australia’s focus on Asia might mean that our farmers will be insulated from competition from this deal, but there is a fear that the unconditional approach to removing agricultural tariffs could set a precedent. If a similar approach with the US, Brazil or Argentina had a cumulative effect, it could be damaging to our farmers and our wider agri-food sector. Although the TAC and the FSA/FSS—food standards and all of that—did not raise any significant worries about food standards and safety, the impact of increased competition on vulnerable farming communities remains of concern.
More time in negotiating might also have enabled our negotiators to obtain more on climate than is in the deal with what is now, of course, the former Australian Government. Given that the new premier and his Government are far more sympathetic to tackling climate change, we have urged Ministers to seek more ambitious moves in this direction through the joint committee set up under the deal. More generally, the desire for a quick result, and with a trusted ally, might have led to Australia’s very clear trade objectives and focus giving them a better deal than perhaps we could have obtained.
I turn to my second point. Given that this is the first deal negotiated from scratch, it provides an insight into the Government’s vision for post-Brexit trade. However, the committee finds it regrettable that the agreement cannot be placed in the context of a published trade policy and thus be understood in relation to other policy priorities, such as on climate, or in line with our diplomatic or defence alignments, or indeed with the Government’s own desire to safeguard their right to regulate for public policy reasons, including the promotion of public health and morals.
Since all trade deals involve trade-offs and compromises, Parliament needs to be able to judge the outcome of any FTA against the Government’s overall objectives, but these need to be set out in an agreed policy with Parliament and made publicly available. We asked Ministers a year ago to set out their ambitions for trade in this new era. Without such a framework, Parliament cannot judge the success or otherwise of a trade agreement. The Government demurred, leaving us scratching our heads as to the extent to which any outcome meets the Government’s wider objectives for their trading partnerships.
This may not matter so much with Australia—it is a friendly nation and a close ally, with which we already have extensive and pretty much free trade—but not all future deals will look like this. Following the invasion of Ukraine, with its impact on global security, food security, supply chains and vulnerabilities, just-in-time processes, our environmental commitments, and the need for strong, resilient relations with friendly states, such an overarching framework is even more urgent. Furthermore, as Russia, perhaps alongside China, has devalued any commitment to a rules-based global order, on trade or anything else, the UK needs to ground its trading and international relations firmly in a trusted, ordered and rules-based environment. That is what we need the Government to spell out.
Our committee is not alone in seeking a proper trade framework. The International Chamber of Commerce says that the UK has an opportunity to design a trade policy that creates an economy that is prosperous, fair and green. It should not be difficult for Ministers to lay out their trade ambitions, acknowledging their wider global objectives. Much is scattered around among various official documents listing the Government’s commitment to universal human rights, the rule of law, fairness and equality as guiding
“all aspects of our international policy, including our approach to trade”
—so they say it sometimes, but not in that framework. Indeed, the DIT’s strategic approach for a deal with Mexico highlights its commitment
“to uphold … high environmental, labour, public health, food safety and animal welfare standards”
and the interests of “consumers, producers, and businesses”.
Given the annunciations emanating from Anne-Marie Trevelyan, why the resistance to publishing the objectives and red lines as a trade policy? Such a benchmark would help us understand how the emerging agreements with individual American states, such as the one with Indiana, and those with India and the Gulf fit into the picture and embed respect for human rights and the environment within them. Without a trade policy against which we can rank any deal, what exactly are we are meant to conclude?
Thirdly and lastly, in this new trading environment is our committee, on behalf of the House, able to scrutinise trade deals effectively? The answer is yes and no. In the case of Australia, the Government gave us three months with those 2,000-odd pages—delivered to me on Boxing Day—to study, take evidence and report, but the Act requires only 21 sitting days. That is impossible for any trade deal. We would like the Minister to give us an assurance that months, rather than days, will be available to us to do the job we have been given.
In addition, we are uncomfortable as to whether the devolved Governments have sufficient input into trade agreements that impinge on their competences. We also lack environmental impact assessments. Indeed, we do not have sufficiently granular impact assessments even to judge the Government’s projected outcomes, let alone to test these against other data or to hear from independent analysts of the likely impacts.
Above all, of course, the Lords can only opine on a deal. Even the Commons can only delay ratification. This is far less traction than the European Parliament, the US Congress or other legislatures have. Yet if parliamentarians are excluded from greater oversight of agreements with major impact on people’s lives, we risk worsening public concerns about trade impacting negatively on some sections of society. If we believe in free and increased trade, as we do, any lack of trust in it cannot be a good thing.
While we welcome the Grimstone rules and the Grimstone commitment to a debate on negotiating objectives, which we saw in action on CPTPP and expect to have with our report on India, that offer came too late for this set of negotiations. We hope to have greater input in future. We are delighted that this first opportunity to report to the House is on a deal with a friendly, reliable ally and that the agreement, with some hiccups, is one we can endorse. I thank our committee and secretariat for the amazing work they have done on this, and the witnesses for their input and insight. I beg to move.
My Lords, I offer congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on securing this debate. I am sure that anybody who has read the report will have something to say about it. I declare my interest as a member of the NFU in Scotland, a former president of the National Sheep Association and a long-term sheep farmer.
The UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement has, inevitably, been a baptism by fire for the Trade and Agriculture Commission. The fact that the International Agreements Committee’s report, including at paragraph 70, states that its findings in a limited number of areas were mainly positive makes one wonder whether it has an adequate remit to do the job that we expect of it. The briefings I have had from several agricultural bodies said quite the opposite. In its call for evidence from the agricultural community, the TAC’s main question was whether the agreement would affect the maintenance of the UK’s regulatory standards in animal or plant health, welfare or environmental protection. From that, it appears that we have is a regulation and agriculture commission and not a Trade and Agriculture Commission. Would my noble friend the Minister not agree that the remit should ensure that greater emphasis is placed on trade for any future reports?
The only reference to agricultural trade that found its way into the report we are debating today is the government estimate that the agreement would lead to a 0.07% drop in gross value added for agriculture, forestry and fishing. Then it mentions that the fall expected in the price of beef and sheep products is up to six times that value. As far as I can see, most sections of the agricultural industry have made their excoriating views known whenever they had a chance. The NFU’s brief sums it up by saying that it is a one-sided deal, with Australians achieving all that they ask for and British farmers sacrificed for political gain.
There are great misgivings at the promise of achieving a zero-tariff regime for this and subsequent trade deals, though presently it will be cushioned by a 16-year lead-in period. Even in our agreement with the EU, where we have a much more level playing field, if we exceed our tariff rate quota for beef, I believe we would be subject to a 20% tariff. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the most favoured nation rules of the WTO will mean that any agreement hereafter with other countries will be required to follow this pattern, or will zero tariffs be the rule?
The report states that the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s findings were mainly positive. This might be true for the criteria at the level of carcass meat imports we can expect from Australia, but it may not take long before we see producers beginning to press for more of the animal welfare and climate change standards that apply in that part of the world to apply to our production here. I will give two examples. First, our animal health standards are enforced by law. In Australia, at the federal level, they have only non-binding guidelines. In the deal, we have undertaken not to go back on ours, so their animals in fields do not have to be checked every day, whereas we have the cost of doing so. Secondly, in the agricultural community we have been subject to constant reductions in animal transport times and distances, as many noble Lords will know, so that some areas cannot sell their stock unless they break the journey for livestock with an enforced rest period. The RSPCA found that in Australia sheep and cattle are transported for up to 48 hours in hot weather, sometimes without food or water, to mention only two of the anomalies. What hope can my noble friend the Minister offer that the Australians will be anxious to move towards our restrictive practices when they are quite happy with what they have now and the agreement states clearly that they should be under no obligation to do so?
The same thing applies to our regulations and undertakings on environmental issues. When I attended the COP 26 in Glasgow this summer, we were treated to a stream of UK Ministers and under-Ministers telling us that the country was going to be in the forefront in achieving the Paris Agreement, and telling everyone else that they should do so. Yet when we come to conditions for an agreement on investment and services, all that flies out the window and we have an agreement at the level we see in this treaty.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the UK hydrogen commission. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and, as a member of the International Agreements Committee, I pay particular tribute to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and to our committee clerk Jennifer Martin-Kohlmorgen and her team for producing such an informative report.
I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, has stood down from his ministerial post, although, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, I am surprised that it was because Boris Johnson was leaving rather than because he was staying—a decision entirely beyond my comprehension, I have to admit. Nevertheless, the noble Lord was a capable Minister who engaged constructively with our committee, and we will miss him in our deliberations.
I intend to focus most of my remarks on the environment chapter of the Australia FTA but, before I do so, I want to touch briefly on the wider context of the deal and the circumstances in which it was concluded. We are debating this free trade agreement against the backdrop of a catastrophic decline in the UK’s trade performance. Just last month, we learned that the current account deficit stood at a staggering 8.3% of GDP in the first quarter of 2022—the worst figures ever recorded. This has further weakened sterling and added to upward pressures on inflation.
As Howard Dean, the former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, once remarked:
“Unfortunately, ‘I told you so,’ is an incredibly unsuccessful campaign slogan”.
Of course, he is correct, yet the Brexiteers in this House and the other place cannot be allowed simply to slip away from the devastating consequences they have inflicted on our country and its economy; nor is it any good for them to try to blame Covid for our woes, because our trade performance is shocking not only in absolute terms, it is even more so in comparative terms. The Government’s own assessment predicts that the UK-Australia FTA will have a positive impact on GDP, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, of 0.08%. This is a welcome, albeit modest, contribution to our national wealth but it hardly lives up to the deluded imperial nostalgia of the Brexiteers, who seem to think that the old empire was just waiting to fill the trade gap left by Brexit.
The biggest impact of the FTA, as we heard from the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, will be found in agriculture, where tariffs will, in effect, be removed altogether, albeit with some emergency brake safeguards. The clear beneficiary of this part of the deal is Australia because it is a major agricultural producer gaining access to a much bigger market, and because UK farmers already had tariff-free access to the Australian market. Of course, all trade deals are trade-offs and, I hope, mutually beneficial ones. But with such a major concession on offer to Australia, it is regrettable that the UK conceded a potentially strong negotiating position by making its desperation for a deal so glaringly evident.
One area where we could and should have insisted on more progress is in relation to the environment chapter. There were certainly positive aspects to this chapter—for example, as the report notes, the RSPCA’s evidence to our committee stated that the language on the conservation of marine ecosystems was particularly good—but, none the less, stakeholders viewed the chapter overall as, at best, a missed opportunity.
Certainly, the contrast between the respective chapters in the New Zealand and Australia FTAs, which is highlighted in our report, is stark, particularly in respect of fossil fuel subsidies, carbon pricing and trade in environmental goods. Notably, the Australia chapter does not include specific reference to the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, which, it is reported, were taken out on the insistence of the then Australian Government.
Although the UK’s impact assessment finds that UK-based production emissions should remain largely unchanged, our Government do not seem to have taken enough account of the dangers of carbon leakage and the reliance of the Australian power sector on dirty coal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has said, we urged the Government in our report to take advantage of the election of the new Australian Government to look at this chapter again.
The evidence we received from a range of stakeholders indicated concerns about the precedents that this FTA could set in future trade agreements with trade partners with low environmental standards, such as the United States and Brazil. The lack of an overall trade policy means that the Government do not seem to be gaming the impacts that concessions to achieve quick-fix FTAs such as this one will have on our future negotiating position. It is hard to imagine the US, for example, agreeing to a future trade deal that had more onerous environmental demands that those agreed with Australia.
In addition, the Government did not take advantage of the opportunity to conclude agreements on green technology and on green energy co-operation. One area we might have looked at is green hydrogen. This is an area where mutually beneficial agreements might have been arrived at, given that the UK is the home to cutting-edge technology—we have in Sheffield ITM Power, which is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electrolysers used in hydrogen production—and Australia has huge interests in hydrogen production through solar and wind. But these sorts of opportunities seem to have fallen victim to the desire for a quick deal, rather than a comprehensive deal.
Given that the UK’s net zero commitment is a legally binding obligation on our Government, it follows that it must be their central policy objective over the years to 2050. But somebody needs to inform the trade department of this fact, so that environmental objectives are not seen as a “nice to have” but are regarded as central to our trade policy.
As a liberal free trader, I conclude by welcoming this trade agreement, despite its flaws. However, I hope that as this is our first full trade deal post Brexit, the Government will take the time to absorb the negotiating lessons they have learned, and in particular that they will recognise the need in future not to appear such an eager, if not desperate, suitor. I hope that in his reply, the Minister will reflect on which lessons the trade department intends to take on board as a result of these negotiations—the first, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, conducted by a British Government since 1973.
I hope the Government will also recognise that improving our trade position will require much more than a flurry of quick-fix trade deals. It requires an overarching policy—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, stressed—that has a strong focus not just on concluding trade agreements but on trade promotion and building the enduring relationships with business and with countries around the world that help sustain and nurture trade and investment. At the moment, too many nations regard us as an unreliable partner, unwilling to enter into real partnerships or engage on equal terms.
Our country and economy are in deep, long-term trouble: productivity is stagnant, GDP growth is anaemic and in the G20, only Russia’s economy is predicted to fare worse than ours. Our trade position has deeply deteriorated. None of this will be fixed by the fantasy economics that most of the Tory leadership candidates seem determined to peddle. Unless we are able to restore our trade position and provide a concerted solution to the structural problem of low productivity, we will find ourselves an ever-poorer and more unhappy country.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register. I am involved with a number of Australia-facing organisations, not least as a non-executive director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Having said that, I do not look at the situation of our trade deal with Australia through rose-tinted spectacles—I will come to that later. I pay tribute to our chair and our previous chair, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and to the team of civil servants and advisers who have helped with the complexity of this—we are doing these trade deals for the first time in a very long time.
A week is a long time in politics. The shenanigans of the past week affect all of us, and it is not for me on this side of the House to cast aspersions elsewhere, because everyone who is involved in the political process has suffered as a consequence of what has happened over the past few weeks. This spotlight on British politics affects all of us: there are questions about professionalism, integrity and competence. Every one of us now has to show that we live by the Nolan principles and that our partners can deal with us, knowing that we are not just competent but ethical, which is why we have to adopt a serious and informed view of trade deals such as this.
I want to get rid of the hyperbole that has surrounded the publication of this deal. It is historic—okay, it is the first one, so that is fair enough. But, frankly, if a Conservative Government in the United Kingdom cannot not do a deal with a Conservative Government in Australia, no doubt with some Australians who have a right to British citizenship—more of that later—they should give up the ghost.
Hyperbole comes up when we discover how much has been left out of the agreement. Previous speakers’ points on the climate emergency—notably those of the noble Lord, Lord Oates—and the problems with animal welfare brought up by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, are really serious. I agree with much of what the noble Duke said; standards are lower.
I will tell a funny story that my colleagues will know. I made the point that we have limits on how long a beast can travel for. As the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, pointed out, a beast can travel for 48 hours in Australia in heat above 40 degrees, which makes today’s weather here seem cool. The response was: Australian cows are tougher than British cows. I thought that that was a joke, and it was perhaps a mistake to laugh at it. It is also extremely interesting that one of the big holes in this deal is climate change. The deal was done with a climate-sceptic Government, but that Government no longer exist: they were voted out to a very large extent because of the position they took on climate change.
Returning to hyperbole, it is important to note that Australia is 10,000 miles away and has a population of about 25 million, so the impact it can have on our economy is limited. My noble friend—and he is a friend—Lord Goodlad has a postcard that shows the United Kingdom as part of one county in New South Wales. It is a huge country with economies of scale, particularly in relation to agriculture, that we cannot even conceive of. I agree with the point made by both the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and our chair that GDP is estimated to go up by 0.08% by 2035. That is £2.3 billion, which the MoD and the Scottish Government could probably spend in a morning. These are not the kinds of sums that we are looking to see coming back to our economy.
Throughout all our hearings, the NFU has been particularly critical of this deal, bearing in mind the economies of scale that Australia can have. The Government claim that UK consumers prefer British products. Well, if you go into a shop and only have a pound to spend because of the cost of living crisis, you are not going to spend it on British products sold at £2; you are going to have to buy what you can afford. This is one of the consequences of the cost of living crisis: people are not able to choose what they want; they must buy what they can afford. The growing cost of living crisis will affect that. The real fear among farming communities is that the Australian deal could undercut the UK industry, especially if Australia is frozen out of Asian markets. That could happen; there is an intense dispute between Australia and China, and a real risk that Asian markets could be opened up. Why did the Government not insist that increased access to the UK market should mean adherence to the core standards that the noble Duke, Lord Montrose, talked about on the environment and animal welfare?
Back to hyperbole again: I am sceptical about the CPTPP—the trans-Pacific partnership. This deal has been done with countries that have agreed to a set of principles not all of which are aligned to what we in Britain would seek to have. Also, it is at the other end of the world, and we are joining it because we left our neighbours. Our neighbours were in a deal to which we contributed, and now we are saying, “We want to sign up to the CPTPP”. I will have to get a whole lot of new evidence that the CPTPP will work for us, and that we will be accepted into it. The deal on acceptance may be completely different from anything we can sign up to.
During the negotiating period, the UK signed up to AUKUS, the nuclear submarine deal. Where will that fit into this deal? The rumours are that the US will get the lion’s share of contracts.
One of the most exciting things that has happened in the past six weeks is that the new Government in Australia are not climate-sceptic. Has contact been made with the new Australian Government to reopen the discussions on climate change, maybe even getting them to commit to limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade? Here, as in Australia, no Government can bind their successor. That is something we should be moving on now, and not at some point far into the future. The Rudd Government signed the Kyoto Protocol within days of being elected in the mid-2000s; why could the Albanese Government not have been asked to reopen the climate change sections that are so absent from the existing deal?
Coal is a driving force in Australia. In the UK, we are establishing a real lead in carbon capture, storage and use. Years ago, development programmes took place in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. Why is that not included in the deal? Some years ago, a carbon capture and storage international programme was started in Australia, long before the climate-sceptic Morrison Government came on the scene. There are opportunities there for British business, and I should say that I am president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association here in the UK. We are in a position where we can move into the leadership on carbon capture and storage, and there are many jobs tied up with it.
Noble Lords will be delighted to know that there are some parts of the agreement that I am actually very happy with. I am very happy with the professional services deal, and hope that many new opportunities will open up to British business. We benefit particularly here in London from many Australian professionals, many not needing visas as they have dual nationality, which is very popular in Australia—except in Parliament where only Australian citizens may sit. Frankly, the Home Office has a very busy time before elections while everybody who is a candidate revokes their British citizenship, and a very busy time after elections when those who have not won go and take up their British citizenship again.
That is how close the relationship is and I hope it is something we can build on; it is one area where hyperbole is uncalled for. With Australia we are among friends, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, pointed out. But the flowery language used to justify a trade deal that could have been so much better is uncalled for. Now with a new Government in Australia, it is time to get that deal augmented without resort to hyperbole. It is a deal that we can work on, but the Government need a commitment to look hard at what Britain really needs, not headlines about doing the first trade deal.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell. She is always trenchant and always expert and was extremely popular in Australia when she was high commissioner there; she is popular at this end too. I follow her part of the way. I certainly follow her in her tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for conducting our debates with such skill and style and, as usual, pinching all the points I was going to make today—although I am sorry to tell the House that I will make them all the same.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, whose dialogue with us, although it was not always very deep, was carried out with impeccable courtesy at all stages. I also had the feeling that he might know what he was talking about and that he might have liked to tell us a bit more than he was allowed. I hope that he will be back in order that I can test my theory.
If this report is a good one, and I think it is, that owes a great deal to the help that we in the committee had from our clerk, Jennifer Martin-Kohlmorgen, and our policy analyst, Andrea Ninomiya. My thanks to them.
I am less critical of this agreement than most of those who have spoken so far. The key point to make for perspective is that it is no big deal. The Government themselves maintain that its economic effects, although probably positive—trade liberalisation usually is—will be extremely marginal. In my view, it is not a bad deal; liberalising is generally a good thing to do, and there are genuine gains in this agreement for UK exporters of services.
On goods, of course, there is absolutely no doubt that the deal massively favours the Australians, principally because their own tariffs were already very low. It was hailed in Australia as splendidly asymmetrical, and their negotiators were congratulated on achieving the impossible. They believe that the greater market access that they have secured here for their agriculture producers will result in economic gains to them—so they share some of the views that the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, put forward. They would argue that the hill farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are right to be concerned about this deal. I think that the hill farmers are right to be surprised about it, because there was no attempt to prepare the ground—it came as a shock to them—but I do not believe that they will be hard hit in the end because, for Australia, the Asian market will always be the principal one for farm products. It is a pretty inexorable rule in trade in goods that trade halves as distance doubles. Overall, this deal is no big deal but no bad deal.
I would hope that the Minister in replying to this debate would be briefed to reply to some of the questions that we raised in our report. The two that I would particularly like to hear an answer to are the questions that we asked in paragraph 34 on data adequacy and in paragraph 42 on investor-state dispute settlement, where the policy of the Government simply is not clear to me. But my concern about the agreement was more about what it did not say than what it did say, and more about the unsatisfactory features of the process that produced it.
I shall make three points, one specific, one general and one purely about process. First, on the environment chapter, of course the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Liddell, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, are right that the environment chapter is extremely disappointing. I agree with him that the contrast with the New Zealand deal is quite striking. The New Zealanders signed up to work with us on carbon pricing and reduction of fossil fuel emissions, but there is nothing comparable in the deal with Australia. Yet, as has been discussed, in other parts of the agreement we conceded quite a lot to the Australians; they are not necessarily very damaging, but those concessions were seen as considerable in Australia. I do not know what price we got for them, but it certainly does not look as though we got a price in the environment chapter.
I do not understand why we pressed ahead to do the deal with the Morrison Government, who had demonstrated at COP 26 that they did not attach a very high priority at all to reducing carbon emissions; they attached a higher priority to maintaining a massive coal export industry. As the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, said, the polls showed that the Morrison Government were in trouble and an election was coming up, and the wildfires had caused the Australian public to be more concerned about global warming and emissions reduction. Maybe we did try to extract a price—but why did we give up? Why did we not wait to see whether the polls were correct and the Labor Party were going to come in with a very different approach to environmental policy? I do not know the answer to that; it looks like a mistake, but I hope that the Minister can elucidate.
Of course, it is not possible now to make our concessions in this agreement contingent on Australian action on the environment—the deal is the deal, it is written down and there is nothing we can do about it. One of the oddities of our scrutiny system is that we are allowed to debate it only when we can do nothing about it; still, that is where we are. I echo the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Liddell, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in saying that I hope we are, nevertheless, in discussions with the Albanese Government about whether, in addition to this agreement, there can be some new UK-Australian agreement to work together on climate change.
My general point springs directly from that specific one. I do not know—I do not think any of us knows—what view the Government take on linking trade deals to wider non-trade policy objectives. We do not know because the Government have not published a trade strategy or any hierarchy of priorities. We can deduce one or two things. We can deduce from what has been said in other contexts that the Government’s number one priority in trade deals is securing greater access for service exports. I do not disagree with that. We can also deduce from what has been said in other contexts that the Government would not do a trade deal with a country demonstrating egregious contempt for human rights—okay. That is about as far as we can go, I think.
I was puzzled to hear the outgoing Prime Minister saying in April that he wanted a full free trade agreement with India done and dusted by October—with remarkable speed. In other words, there was no question of any linkage with Prime Minister Modi’s policy on Ukraine. The Indian Government refused to criticise the invasion which happened in February or to join in any sanctions, yet our Prime Minister in Delhi in April was saying, “Let’s go steaming ahead and do as wide a free trade deal as we can by October.” I genuinely think that the Government need to tell us to what extent trade policy is to be joined up with foreign policy, environment policy, energy policy, human rights policy or development policy. I think, and I think the general view in this House is, that they need to be mutually supportive. I am a free trader, but I do not think that trade liberalisation can be ring-fenced overriding all else. Napoleon was wrong: we are not just a nation of shopkeepers, but we need to demonstrate that with a strategy that links our trade objectives to wider objectives and sets out a hierarchy of priorities.
My last point is that chapter 8 of this report points out that something is still not quite right in our trade negotiators’ relationship with the devolved Administrations. It is well illustrated by the alarm in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast about the tariff reductions on farm products, which so alarmed the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. The Welsh Government told us that
“as the setting of tariffs is a reserved matter, limited information is shared with Devolved Governments and we were unable to have meaningful discussions with UK Government on this issue … This lack of discussion makes it difficult for us to ascertain whether our interests in this area are being protected as negotiations progress.”
That is a very fair point and I think the UK Government owe the Welsh—the Scots say much the same—an answer. The friction with the devolved Governments was clearly not a priority for the outgoing Prime Minister, but I hope it will get more attention from his successor and that the Government will drop the absurd objection, encapsulated in paragraph 147 of our report, where they say that
“sharing information on tariff liberalisation … could jeopardise overall negotiations.”
That is the reverse of the truth; it is not just wrong, it is absurd. It is extremely useful for a negotiator to be able to point out that a proposed concession could cause serious problems back home; it is extremely useful if one wants to reject it and even more useful if one aims to extract a higher price for it. Having an informed instructing constituency back home strengthens one’s negotiating position; it does not weaken it. It also avoids surprises of the kind that clearly struck the hill farming community when the deal with Australia took place.
I believe that the devolved Administrations should have been represented in the negotiating teams that negotiated with Australia, at least on farm products. They should be represented in the teams that negotiate—if such negotiations happen—on agriculture with Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil and, of course, the United States. These countries—which are much closer—will offer much greater competition to our farmers if tariffs come down. It would also make sense for wider reasons: to heal this running sore in Whitehall’s relationship with Belfast, Cardiff and, particularly, Edinburgh. I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, will take this point on board more than most, and I very much hope that he will take it back to Whitehall.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, with whom I used to sit on this committee. We sparred a little; he particularly did not like my suggestion that smoking in the committee should be banned, even when it was on Zoom. But never mind—I think other members of the committee will understand that.
I, like him, am broadly philosophically a free trader—not totally, but broadly philosophically one. I thought I would be the first person speaking in this debate to welcome the free trade agreement but the noble Lord, Lord Oates, welcomed it, albeit with quite a few reservations. I do welcome it, wholeheartedly. The report, which I have read is mostly—this is not meant to be condescending—extremely sensible and raised some very reasonable points.
I was on the committee at the beginning of the investigation. It was extremely well chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and I regret that he has felt the need to stand down from the House of Lords because of rather controversial issues about declarations. I thought he was a really good chairman and extraordinarily balanced. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, is similarly balanced and a good chairman, but I have no experience of that.
I shall just explain why I left the committee, which is slightly illustrated by this debate. I left because I was too often the sole voice on the committee who wanted the trade agreements to work. I am afraid that too many on the committee wanted to see post-Brexit trade deals fail because they wanted Brexit to fail. I found this extremely sad because I am interested in the good of this country, not in party-political—or whatever—machinations.
This UK-Australia trade deal is far from perfect—we have heard about a lot of the defects in it—but please show me a free trade agreement that is perfect. When we were in the European Union, the EU agreements were extraordinarily torturous and slow, often reaching no conclusion at all, not least because they were trying to satisfy 26 or 27 members of the EU. They were looking after French farmers, for instance, which is more important in the EU than the benefits of a free trade agreement to consumers and society as a whole.
I am a farmer, as declared in the register of interests, and I know things can be very hard. However, interestingly—I would like my noble friend to confirm this when he sums up—I understand that the current quotas of beef and lamb imported into the UK from the antipodes are not nearly filled, so this free trade agreement will not make things worse. I have to say that some of the arguments being advanced have echoes of the corn law debates.
The common agricultural policy—of which we all have experience in one way or another—is very expensive, extremely disruptive to agricultural communities and, frankly, madness. Surely it is better to be out of that. I would love to hear somebody among those who will speak later defend the common agricultural policy. It has hugely harmed the agricultural sector in so many ways—I agree that perhaps it needed sprucing up, but, nevertheless, it really has.
Climate change has been much mentioned. I have been banging on about climate change and environmental issues since I got into the House of Commons, 30 years ago. When I first mentioned climate change, it was thought to be a rather eccentric obsession; it is not anymore. However, I have to say that the report is somewhat nitpicking on the issue of Australian coal. I agree with the sentiment, but those with nostalgia for our imperial past may not have realised that Australia is a sovereign country now, not one of our colonies, so it is up to Australia to decide what to do. Yes, we can lobby for it, but hold on, how many of us are not wearing something—in my case, it is my socks and shirt—that were not made in China?
Are the noble Lords sure? They should check where their shirts were made—or perhaps they are Jermyn Street only.
China is belching forth fumes from coal-fired power stations, yet we have the belt and road initiative pouring goods into our country from China. We do not very often hear people saying, “Well, we can’t possibly let those in because the Chinese are using so much coal”.
I am going to tell one illustrative story about the committee, which perhaps explains why I left. Tony Abbott seems to have fallen by the wayside, but he was touted as an adviser. At one meeting, this was mentioned, and he was roundly slagged off for not knowing anything and, even worse, for being conservative. I think it was the next week that George Brandis, the high commissioner, came to speak to us. I had done a bit of research and knew that George Brandis had been in his Cabinet, so I asked—innocently, as always— whether he thought that Tony Abbott’s advice could add anything to our free trade agreement. He said, “Tony Abbott? Fantastic guy; absolutely brilliant. He knows so much about trade”. If it is possible on Zoom to see crests falling, I can promise your Lordships that there were a lot of crestfallen faces around.
In summary, I found being on the committee a less than edifying experience. I am sorry about that, because I thought it would be really interesting. However, I think the report is fairly balanced and makes some very good points. It is a pity that there was not greater enthusiasm in the report, or on the committee, for a free trade agreement, however imperfect, because, like the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I think that free trade benefits everybody. The agreement was reached quickly—perhaps too quickly, indeed—but it was for the benefit of this country and its people, and for the benefit of Australia as well.
My Lords, I will restrain myself from commenting on the published taxation proposals of candidates for the Conservative leadership, save to say that Charles Dickens might have wickedly asserted that there was the smell of an Eatanswill election. I am pleased to tell the House that I am not aware of any personal taxation temptations in this agreement. However, this is an important agreement with Australia—the first trade deal, from scratch, post Brexit.
First, have we prioritised speed of the negotiation at the expense of the UK’s leverage to negotiate a better outcome for the environment? Could we have had some influence on Australia’s use of coal? Have the agreement and the report by the committee on which I served been overtaken by a change of Government in Australia? Will the Government use the joint committee to explore possible changes in the environmental and climate change provisions in the agreement? It is an important issue and the machinery is there, so do they intend to use it?
Secondly, although hitherto the amount of beef inputs to the UK have been small, there is no guarantee that there will not be an upsurge in the future. Are the provisions, criticised by the farming organisations and referred to in a trenchant speech by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, sufficiently robust to deal with what may happen over the next 10 to 15 years? As in the report, I declare my non-financial interests in the occupation and livelihood of many members of my family.
Some Australian commentators have called the agreement a win-win result for Australian agriculture, with some envisaging the prospect of a tenfold increase in beef exports. Proximity and practice have meant that, hitherto, Far Eastern markets have been more attractive to Australia. However, I note a recent 38% decline in beef exports to China for political reasons. Have the Government taken this possibility properly on board? I would not wish, as a former MP and a representative of consumers for 41 years, to be unduly protective, but it is obvious to some that if this agreement is used as a template for an agreement with New Zealand, British agriculture could be adversely affected. It is beyond argument that there is nothing in this agreement for British agriculture, and I am sure that the noble Duke will agree with me on that.
My third point is more specific, on whether the agreement will be used generally for our entry into the CPTPP—the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Will it be the template for general negotiations? Frankly, I am much more concerned about the dangers of a substantial increase in New Zealand lamb inputs, however desirable this might be, to cushion gaps when our lamb is not available. As always, the danger lies in untimely, unregulated excessive imports. In the post-Brexit era, there is a case for a proper agricultural policy on imports which would both ensure the prosperity of British agriculture and take advantage of cheaper imports for the British housewife. I assert that livestock rearing is more important in the devolved nations than in many other parts. I compare the size of the average farming unit in the antipodes with those in this country; the advantage of size and climate should make us wary of uninhibited imports.
I again mention my dissatisfaction expressed in earlier debates with the degree and manner of the Government’s involvement with the devolved Governments—the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has referred to this already—and repeat my rejection of the Government’s defence for not forwarding the views of those Governments because of the danger of jeopardising the Government’s negotiation with other parties. The committee has therefore been driven to seek the views of the devolved nations directly.
It is not on to operate in this way, when agriculture has been devolved and when any negotiations in this field can have a tremendous effect on the culture of the nations that I am interested in. The Government must start afresh by taking the views of the devolved nations into account. If they maintain the defence that that would jeopardise their negotiating position, could we not be told in confidence, and then the committee could make its proposals known so that the House could take a view? There is no basis whatever for this defensive attitude.
My last point is to welcome the Government’s commitment to produce monitoring reports of the agreement every two years, as well as an evaluation report after five years. I hope the House will consider my reservations about some aspects of this agreement.
My Lords, I paid full credit to the Department for International Trade for having rolled over more than 66 EU bilateral free trade agreements in time for the transitional period. As president of the CBI at the time, I was proud to play a role in making that, including the Canada deal, happen. The UK-Australia free trade agreement is the first the UK has negotiated from scratch since leaving the EU and was signed on 16 December here in the UK and, because of the time difference, on 17 December in Australia.
It will always remain to be seen how trade flows will be affected once implementation of an agreement takes place. I am sure the Government will agree that is it is one thing signing a free trade agreement, it is another ensuring that businesses in both countries make full use of them and are aware of all the provisions and improvements in the FTA. What plans do the Government have to communicate those benefits to businesses here in the UK, in particular? Organisations such as the CBI will have a major role to play in that.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the International Agreements Committee on its report, Scrutiny of International Agreements: UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement. It clearly states:
“Imports from Australia will lead to greater consumer choice, which is welcome. Consumers could also benefit from lower prices for imported goods.”
The Secretary of State, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, has described the agreement as
“historic … setting new global standards in digital and services and creating new work and travel opportunities for Brits and Aussies”.
Of course, it will help create new opportunities for businesses in both the UK and Australia.
For example, it gives guaranteed access to bid for an additional £10 billion-worth of Australian public sector contracts and allows young people—and “young” has been extended from 18 to 35—to work for three years unrestricted in each other’s countries. The New Zealand free trade agreement now also has this provision, which I am delighted to hear. For the first time, UK service suppliers, including architects, researchers, accountants, lawyers and scientists, will have access to visas to work in Australia without being subject to Australia’s changing skilled occupation list. This is more than Australia has ever offered to any other country in a free trade agreement. The big thing about this is that it removes all tariffs, making it cheaper to sell our products, including Scotch whisky, to Australia, and for Australian wines to come over here. So that is a big aspect, and I do not think people appreciate that the UK has traditionally been the second-largest services exporter in the world, so it is very important for us.
This is, in my view, the most comprehensive free trade agreement in the world. It covers many different areas, which I shall go into, including 32 chapters, from trade in goods to trade remedies, rules of origin, trade facilitation, customs procedures, financial services, investment, the environment, trade and gender equality, dispute settlements and an impact assessment—and it has the first-ever dedicated innovation chapter in any free trade agreement in the world, which is fantastic news.
The Government’s impact assessment estimates that this agreement could increase trade between the UK and Australia by more than 50%, representing
“around £10.4 billion in the long run”.
That is fantastic. Of course, this increase
“is driven by reductions in regulatory restrictions to goods and services trade, tariff reductions, income and supply chain effects as the UK economy grows.”
Other speakers have mentioned that the impact on our GDP is relatively modest, at 0.08%.
On the restrictions and concerns around agriculture, there is a 15-year phasing-in period for beef and sheep. Of course, as Anne-Marie Trevelyan said, this is
“only a small fraction of our overall beef imports. Just 0.1% of all Australian beef exports went to the UK last year. Also, it is relatively unlikely that large volumes of beef and sheep will be diverted to the UK from lucrative markets in Asia, which are much closer to Australia”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/1/22; col. 66.]
It is important that we debate this agreement because it is a forerunner to future agreements. A New Zealand one has just been agreed, an India free trade agreement is being negotiated and other agreements are now being uprated. We are also starting to upgrade some of the 66 bilateral agreements that were rolled over from the EU, such as the one with Mexico, to make them bespoke to us. The CPTPP was also mentioned; I will come to it later.
When it comes to digital and data provisions, as the Lords International Agreements Committee asked, how will the Government
“ensure that UK citizens’ personal data exchanged under the agreement will be protected and offer commitments that digital trade provisions in future trade agreements will not put at risk the UK’s data adequacy decision with the EU”?
Can the Minister address that? The committee’s report also referred to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s
“finding that the FTA is unlikely to lead to substantive increases of imports into the UK of goods produced to lower standards, including animal welfare standards.”
This will be a concern for many people. The committee recommended:
“The Government should continue to monitor the levels of”
items; for example,
“pesticide residue on imported goods from Australia”.
Do the Government agree?
There is a chapter on small and medium-sized enterprises. The agreement will be advantageous here, but how can we encourage SMEs to export more? At the moment, only 10% of our companies export; of those, only 14% are super-exporters that export more than 10 different products to 10 different countries. Compare that with a country such as Germany, where it is 40%. The export strategy is absolutely vital, and we need to do much more to promote exports.
Going back to my role with the CBI, I personally played a major role in helping this particular free trade agreement at various stages, including helping it get over the line. We worked with not only the DIT on our side but Dan Tehan, the Australian Trade Minister who was the vice-president of the CPTPP accession committee at that time, and, of course, His Excellency George Brandis, the then Australian high commissioner. We have similarly been working with the New Zealand Trade Minister and the New Zealand high commissioner, Bede Corry. This way of working—getting business organisations such as the CBI to help the Government get these deals over the line and bringing stakeholders face to face with both sides—has worked extremely well; I would recommend it for all future negotiations, including the continuing India negotiation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, expressed some scepticism about the CPTPP. I think that it will be a fantastic thing for Britain. It covers 13% of the world economy; if you include the UK, it is 16%. It gives the UK access to the fast-growing Indo-Pacific region. We will be with allies of ours. We will have huge benefits, including modern digital rules and the elimination of tariffs. Of course, as the impact assessment says, the Australian FTA is a big
“stepping stone to our accession to CPTPP”;
I imagine that the Government would agree with that.
It will allow us to eliminate tariffs on UK exports more quickly—for example, whisky can come down from 165% duty to 0% in Malaysia, and car duty can be reduced to 0% in Canada by 2022—if we complete these negotiations. These are huge benefits to us. We also have the rules of origin, allowing content from all CPTPP countries to be cumulated, so that if goods have at least 70% CPTPP content, they qualify for preferential tariffs. It is great that 70% can come from any combination of CPTPP countries.
What stage are we at now with the CPTPP agreement? Will we gain accession by the end of the year, which was the target? We already have, if we include New Zealand, bilateral agreements with nine of the 11 countries—leaving only Malaysia and Brunei—equating to £110 billion worth of trade with the UK. That is higher than China, which has just under £100 billion. This is one of the largest free trade agreements in the world and key to the success of global Britain. Its members are the fastest-growing economies in the world, with expanding middle classes, an appetite for British goods, products and services, and a respect for brand Britain. For the UK to remain competitive, it must position itself as a trading partner of choice in that region.
On the environmental provisions, the FTA refers to the Paris Agreement but has been criticised for the lack of explicit reference to limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.
Can the Minister provide some clarity on the interaction between the Northern Ireland protocol and the FTA? It appears that exports from Northern Ireland to Australia will benefit from the FTA but that there are complications with goods entering Northern Ireland, including from the UK. This is further complicated by the protocol. Please, will the Government sort out the Northern Ireland protocol? Let us deal with the practicalities. I have visited CBI members on the ground in Northern Ireland. They just want to get on with it and get this protocol resolved using a practical mindset, because once we resolve the protocol, we can work on the biggest trade agreement that we have, which is with our neighbour on our doorstep. Some 45% of our trade is with the European Union, and the trade and co-operation agreement needs to be upgraded in a huge way, which we cannot do unless we sort out the protocol. Similarly, the Horizon project, which was so valuable for research between European universities and British universities, is under threat of being lost unless we sort out the protocol. There is an urgency over there.
The United Kingdom published our first integrated review on 16 March 2021. It talked about a tilt to the Indo-Pacific. Policy Exchange, of which I am proud to be a trustee, was ahead of the game. It produced a report, A Very British Tilt: Towards a New UK Strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region, in November 2020. It is so sad that the foreword of that report was written by the late Shinzo Abe.
Professional services and the recognition of qualifications in the FTA are hugely important, providing a pathway towards a mutual recognition of professional qualifications, which, again, would be very useful for our services exports. On legal services, it provides an agreement allowing UK and Australian lawyers to advise clients. If only we could have this in the India free trade agreement as well. Temporary entry for UK businesspersons is very useful for us, as is youth mobility, which I referred to. The agreement also includes provision on market excess for investors. Digital trade is covered, which is fantastic, as well as digital facilitation, data governance and data protection, technologies in data innovation, and consumer protection. It also has a very strong intellectual property chapter—again, I advise that we have the same in the India deal—and covers procurement, and the areas of beef and sheepmeat that I touched on earlier.
That said, the Government’s impact assessment shows a negative effect of the FTA on agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the semi-processed food sector. Do the Government agree? This is why the FTA is generally regarded with concern by the farming sector. The NFU warned that the agreement could have a significant impact on UK farming, with livestock and sugar particularly affected because of the lower cost of production in Australia compared with the United Kingdom.
Security and trade go hand in hand. Australia is a member of the Quad, along with Japan, the United States and India. I have suggested that the UK should join the Quad, making it Quad Plus, thereby encircling the world. We have AUKUS as well.
The speed of this deal was fantastic—one year, or one and a half years by the time it was signed. India signed deals with the UAE and Australia in under 90 days, but they were much lighter in content. It is very important that we do this thoroughly, and we have done that here.
Finally, trade deals such as this are all very well, but we must continue to be a magnet for inward investment as a country. We cannot do that if we have the highest tax burden in 70 years. That also comes into play. All in all, I am all for the deal and I congratulate the Government on securing it.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I wonder whether his asking for lower taxes was his pitch to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.
I will start with the noble Lord’s comments about the Northern Ireland protocol. Clearly, it needs to be revised, but I add some words of caution: it is a fundamental part of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement. We need to treat that very sensitively indeed.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and her committee on not just preparing the report but bringing the debate to the House this afternoon. I add my thanks to and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Grimstone, who was extremely assiduous, charming and generous with his time at every stage of every debate he participated in. I pay a personal tribute to him and wish him well. I am sure we have not seen the last of his interventions as a Minister.
My approach to this free trade agreement is cautious. I highlight the fact that criticisms have been made, notably in the report before us but also by the EFRA Committee next door and others, and the fact that the Trade and Agriculture Commission can examine agreements only once they have been signed, which has been criticised in previous debates. I think we in Parliament would all sign up to the fact that the commission should be able to intensively scrutinise and make recommendations on each agreement before it is signed. I hope that is something the Government might keep under review.
In that regard, these agreements are seen to fall short in content and scrutiny. I add to that my criticism that there appears to be a lack of strategy in negotiating trade agreements, which is illustrated by this agreement in particular. I am grateful that the committee has annexed to the report in its appendix 3 an extract from the UK Government’s strategy for the UK-Australia free trade agreement. The Government published their public negotiating objectives for a free trade agreement with Australia but there does not seem to be an overarching strategy.
I single out the two paragraphs that relate to sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Here, the Government commit to:
“Uphold the UK’s high levels of public, animal, and plant health, including food safety”
“Enhance access for UK agri-food … to the Australian market by seeking commitments to improve the timeliness and transparency of approval processes for UK goods.”
My first question to the Minister is: how can we hold the Government’s feet to the fire on sanitary and phytosanitary standards? It strikes me, and I am not the first to mention this in the debate, that this agreement is yet another asymmetrical deal that benefits the other side, the Australians, much more preferentially than the UK. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will agree because he made the same point when debating other agreements. I also point out that it adds value of only 0.02% to the UK economy, so I really have to hesitate before we congratulate ourselves too warmly in this regard.
The Government were elected, what seems like a long time ago in 2019, on a manifesto that committed to maintaining high standards of production and, in particular, of animal welfare, environmental protection and food hygiene and safety. Not long after that election, the NFU ran a very successful campaign and persuaded 1 million people in this country to sign a petition calling for these standards to be maintained. Yet, as the Great Yorkshire Show starts tomorrow and runs for the rest of this week, the farmers will explain to all, including one of the leading negotiators in Defra, Janet Hughes, who is looking at future farming policy in this country, how vulnerable farmers feel at this time. I entirely endorse the comments of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose in this regard.
It is the hill farmers and the uplands of the north of England that are suffering, as well as other parts of the UK. We have seen rising energy costs, higher fuel prices and an acute shortage of labour, which means that many fruits and vegetables, including salads, will simply not be picked this year. We are about 40% down on the labour we would usually have through seasonal workers. That is partly because the Ukrainians cannot come and help, but we simply have not attracted enough seasonal farm workers this year. I hope that will be put right in the SAWS agreement on seasonal agricultural workers in 2023.
If we do not resolve these issues, particularly as regards suckler cows and spring lambs in the hill farms and uplands of the north of England, and other parts of England and the United Kingdom, we will have the most severe social crisis for generations in our countryside. That is the backdrop against which the Great Yorkshire Show will meet this year. I hope these pleas will not fall on deaf ears in the Government.
I conclude by asking my noble friend the Minister what he feels that the agreement that is the subject of the report this afternoon will offer us, over and above what we would have had in the rollover agreements. What will particularly benefit UK farmers and other industries in this country?
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, who was a very good Minister. He always attempted to answer our questions and treat Members of Parliament with seriousness. He approached his job as a Minister with a level of seriousness that some members of the Cabinet would have done well to follow. Secondly, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Hayter for producing this very good, balanced report. It is a bit kinder to the agreement than instinctively I am, but it is an important job of scrutiny well done. The only tragedy about parliamentary scrutiny is that we do not have in the British Parliament what exists in the European Parliament: a trade committee that follows and comments on the negotiations by the Commission at every stage. It is not much use having scrutiny only when the whole thing is over, so I hope we will press that point about future scrutiny and continue to press it.
My general view of this is that, as we are outside the EU, we have the ability to conclude our own trade agreements. This is what we should do, as it is in the national interest, but in this agreement—this is the central point I want to make—we are heading for a post-Brexit political economy that I am not particularly enthused about. That is a political economy based not on a European model of high standards underpinning our society, but a model based on Britain becoming Singapore-on-Thames and being part of a deregulated Pacific community, which could have consequences for the British people.
That is my worry about this agreement, but let us first examine its practical content. I am an instinctive free trader, like most of us in the Chamber, I suspect. I have always thought that consumers do well out of cheap goods, and therefore free trade and competition is a good thing. However, when I worked in the Cabinet of my noble friend Lord Mandelson when he was Trade Commissioner, I learned a few things about how others approached trade negotiations. Certainly, in Brussels, I remember asking senior officials questions about this, and they said, “Roger, what you’ve got to do is work out your offensive interests in any trade negotiation. Then you have to work out what you will defend to the last that the other side will want”. I think Britain has interpreted its offensive interests, in a simple way, as being strongly in services liberalisation. I think that is correct; that is where our great competitive strengths are. The question is whether, in order to pursue modest gains in services liberalisation, we are prepared to make large sacrifices—the common external tariff that we used to have with the EU, which to a large extent we have taken on ourselves—and whether we are prepared cut our tariffs. Of course, that policy pursued to its logical conclusion will be pretty ruinous for British agriculture and for large sections of our manufacturing that will have very little protection. Thinking about Britain, as opposed to London and Singapore-on-Thames, we have to ask whether this pursuit of services liberalisation, above everything else, will fit with the levelling-up objectives of our much-lamented Prime Minister.
I tried to find out what academics think about this agreement. There is a UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, and its conclusion based on its modelling is that the deal will boost Australian exports to us six times more than any benefit the other way, to the UK. That is a considered, academic view, and I will give you the numbers. It estimates that
“the UK may see an increase in exports of 0.35%, while Australia’s exports are simulated to increase by 2.2% once the free trade agreement is in force.”
That is why the forecast gain to our GDP of 0.07% is so small. The practical benefits are not that huge, and we ought to bear that in mind.
We have given a lot away, it seems, for not that much in return on services. But it is a modest step and therefore one should not be too critical, I suppose. There are some aspects of it that I really like: it is great that the working visas are to be expanded for people aged under 35, whereas previously they were only for those under 30, and from two to three years. That gives young people a tremendous opportunity to work in another country. I only wish that the TCA with the European Union had a similar agreement. If it had, a lot of the problems that we presently witness in the creative sector, with young people who are touring around Europe and all that, would just disappear. This model of the liberalisation of visas for young people, enabling them to work to pay for their stay in another country, is one that we should try to extend more generally.
Coming on to my reservations, I think the Government see—I should like to know whether the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, agrees with this—the main benefit of this agreement as unlocking the door to our membership of the CPTPP, the Pacific Rim trade agreement. This is the wrong post-Brexit political economy for Britain. It is true that it plays to our economic strengths, which are in services, and that Asia is an area with tremendous potential for growth. But within this economic area, there is very little concern for standards and the predominant view favours deregulation. This is particularly true of environmental standards and, on that point, the deal with Australia is absolutely shocking.
At present we are looking, along with the European Union—this is one area where there is alignment—at whether we should impose a carbon border adjustment mechanism on countries that do not stick to their climate change commitments. This deal with Australia has absolutely nothing to say about that question, yet this is a pretty fundamental point for the future. Our ability to use our economic strength, in Europe and Britain, to force other countries to take their obligations seriously will be important in tackling the climate crisis in future, and I worry that this trans-Pacific thing is an obstacle to that.
I also worry, as a Labour man, about labour standards, about whether trade unions are recognised and about whether there are minimum wages. What standards are there, and are people working in safe and reasonable conditions? If we keep alignment on these questions with Europe, as we were promised by this Government in all the Brexit negotiations, there will be at least some minimum standards. But are those minimum standards to be included in this Pacific agreement? I do not know, and I have doubts.
This seems to fit in with the tilt to the Pacific included in the recent defence review. With the war in Ukraine, however, do we really think that our central security interests are in the Pacific? Is that what people such as my friend the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, over there really think? Surely, our central security interests remain in Europe.
I agree with that as well, but there is also a contradiction about this focus on the Pacific: the reason it is an economically dynamic area is because of the dynamism of China—it is China that drives the Pacific area. If with one hand we are saying we want economically to be a beneficiary of this but with the other hand saying we think there is a major security threat here, I do not know quite where we are going to end up. I just raise that as a question, but it seems to me to be an important one.
I have doubts—I am not saying I rule it out—about whether this Pacific tilt is wise. I worry that any trade agreement we make that does not meet European standards raises issues about trade with the single market in Europe, which is still by far the most central part of our economic interests.
My Lords, I stand, I think, as one of the few to welcome what is a landmark deal. It is an ambitious one and quite an exciting one, because it is the first of the new form of deals that are being struck. It is also a rekindling of our historic and important relationship with Australia through free trade. It is part of our post-Brexit journey. It is also a moment when we can go back to what we used to have with that country and to those relationships which were so brutally terminated when we joined the EU. We have a real chance to develop this further, and I will talk about the CPTPP in a minute. It is all about global Britain and the opportunities that exist.
In speaking, I draw attention to my interests, which are declared in the register, including my work for HSBC bank. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for getting this debate. There is another thank you I want to make, and that is to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone. It is very sad that he has given up as the Trade Minister. I am one of the few, probably, in this Chamber who have seen him at work, actually negotiating. He was an impressive operator. It will be very difficult to follow him, and he is going to leave a real gap.
The report before us rightly points to the identification of several risks. However, I want to observe that, in our long and very proud history as an island trading nation, I cannot point to a single moment in time where we entered in good faith into trading arrangements without there being some element of risk. Our task is to scrutinise FTAs that come before Parliament. It should not focus solely, as some Brexit-loathing commentators would have it, on risk alone, for our task is to weigh up risks against the opportunities that will come, and to seek to hold the Government to account on how they unlock these opportunities to the benefit of every part of the United Kingdom.
A lot has been said on the topic of agriculture. Indeed, the National Farmers’ Union, among others, has tried to peddle a myth that this agreement fails to deliver for British farmers and that our standards will somehow be eroded. I put it to your Lordships’ House that such assertions are wrong, as the Government have been successful in achieving significant safeguards for British farmers, namely through the tariff rate quota, the product-specific safeguard and the bilateral safeguard measures.
When it comes to food standards, it is worth noting that the FTA does not create any new permissions for imports from Australia, and that our stringent world-class import requirements and independent food regulations all remain. Perhaps it is for some an inconvenient truth, or it simply goes against the Brexit-bashing narrative to which some have become accustomed, to accept—as we should all proudly accept—that the UK is already globally renowned for our agricultural excellence, animal welfare and food safety standards.
There is nothing in this agreement that farmers should fear. Like those in most other sectors, they would do well to ignore the Brexit doomsayers who will always try to spread fear in the hope of overriding the largest democratic mandate in British history and the sound decision of the British people to seek a new global outlook, free from EU protectionism. I fully concur with the views of the honourable George Brandis, who in an interview with the Financial Times called for farmers to be
“more open to the benefits of trade and international competition”,
and for the
“culture of fear of global trade”
to come to a swift end.
I am sorry to interrupt, but does my noble friend share my concern that there should be a level playing field, so that any imports into this country from Australia should not be produced with pesticides which are banned in this country or the rest of the EU, and should not be raised to standards which we and British consumers would not accept? If that is the case, I think that he will share my concerns about the agreement as negotiated.
I am afraid that I do not agree with this, because I think that the standards that exist in Australia are not that different from the standards here. I would also suggest that, certainly on animal husbandry, there are many other countries in the world with which people would have a lot more difficulty than they do with Australia—I can think of parts of eastern Europe where probably the standards are well below those which we are currently getting from Australia.
The deal is our gateway for joining the CPTPP. With demand for beef and lamb increasing in the Asian markets, there is an unprecedented opportunity for our farmers to capitalise on what is going to become exports of very high-quality British meats—but of course they are going to have to be of a standard and are going to have to be marketed in the right way.
The deal supports British farmers, protects our standards, advances animal welfare through non-regression clauses, and creates new and incomparable opportunities for our food and drink exporters. Our free trade agreement with Australia will not only unlock over £10 billion-worth of additional bilateral trade but, as the global economy increasingly centres on the high-growth, high-tech Indo-Pacific region, as I mentioned just now, we must remember that our accession to this agreement is an integral component of the United Kingdom’s journey to joining the CPTPP. The importance of this cannot and must not be downplayed, for our accession to the CPTPP will give the UK access to a free trade area encompassing 11 strategically important states, with a combined GDP of some £8.4 trillion.
It is estimated that there are currently 15,000 UK businesses that are already exporting goods and services to Australia. Through breaking down regulation, protecting innovation, enhancing consumer protection and creating new visa pathways, this agreement has the potential to deliver for each and every one of them.
The Government will be tested on how effective they are in supporting UK businesses to make the most of this landmark agreement. I would welcome comment from my noble friend the Minister on what work is being done by the Department for International Trade to ensure that UK businesses are engaged and ready and waiting to unlock the ultimate potential of an FTA.
I further welcome how this agreement will create new opportunities for the UK’s world-class legal profession. It is universally acknowledged that our legal, financial and other professional services are among our greatest exports, and I commend the way in which Her Majesty’s Government have sought to protect and enhance the UK’s interests here, from providing UK law firms with legally guaranteed access to Australian government contracts for legal services to improving the mobility of lawyers in order to enhance their experience by working abroad. I stand encouraged by the way in which the Government have listened to the sector and hope that the support shown for our professional services sector in this agreement will set a precedent for future FTAs.
I am further pleased to note Her Majesty’s Government’s success in achieving their negotiation objective on digital trade across all sectors of the economy. I concur that there is still a lot of work to do in fine-tuning the regulatory framework and putting this into practice on the ground, and thus I would welcome some reassurances from my noble friend that the department are undertaking further work in this area.
The opportunities for this free trade agreement should motivate and excite us, whether you want to see the UK’s high-tech industries of AI and space exploration thrive, are a young person seeking exciting opportunities down under or are simply a consumer—like many of your Lordships, dare I predict?—looking forward to tariff-free wine or Vegemite. To conclude, there is something in this agreement for everyone, and I wish the Government godspeed in making sure that it delivers for everyone and as part of the United Kingdom’s journey towards the CPTPP.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s observation leads me to two regrettable observations. Trade is one of those nebulous facts of life that requires a greater degree of attention. However, just today, a senior trade writer at the Financial Times asked whether any of the candidates for Conservative Party leader will improve British trade policy—we certainly hope so. Additionally, I was dismayed to receive a message from an exasperated exporter today:
“I have a problem getting any information about the procedure and protocol from DIT on matters relating to my business”.
These issues require urgent attention.
The current limbo presents an opportunity to underpin Parliament’s contribution to governance and generally across the board, not just in relation to FTAs. The committee’s comprehensive report has met with varying degrees of support. Wherever one stands on the content of this FTA—our first negotiated from scratch post Brexit—it has significant implications in key policy areas, including food standards, animal welfare standards, environmental standards and procurement.
The FTA also sets an important precedent for how similar such agreements will be negotiated and ratified under the Government’s future programme. This is important because, as has been pointed out, it also represents the first-out-of-the-blocks forward thinking for the CPTPP discussions. Although we tend to go around this in circles, as delay in ratification is the norm of the day, many conclude that this ratification process is not adequate. Completing agreements with New Zealand, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council in the coming months is the goal, but there has been little opportunity to debate the Government’s original objectives, and we have not received comprehensive negotiation updates.
Parliamentary colleagues in Australia say that their Government will not establish their standing committee on treaties until the end of July, at which point they will embark on a scrutiny process lasting around three months. What is the rationale, therefore, for pushing this through in the UK—in the face of calls to delay across both Houses in Westminster—thus putting pressure on the 21-day CRaG period being used effectively for comprehensive scrutiny in both Houses?
There is still no clarity about whether the Government will grant time for a vote or even a debate on the UK-Australia FTA during CRaG in the other place. What is to be the process by which Parliament can secure a vote on a trade agreement? CRaG suggests that Members in the other place should resolve against ratification to allow further time for scrutiny, but there is no clear precedent for what form this might take. Possibly, we ought to consider delaying ratification and thus be in line with Australia’s timetable, giving a period to consider from Australia’s perspective some of the differing policy issues that have been touched on this afternoon, and to consider those forthcoming in the UK.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, as I frequently do in these debates. I enjoy his contributions, and the debates, and I will touch on his substantive point on the scrutiny period in a moment. Given his comment, combined with that of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, on these issues, discussing the quality of the horse’s breeding after it has bolted, I am willing—unless the Minister is able to be reassuring—to table a Motion to extend the scrutiny period beyond 20 July. I have done this before and will do so again, because we need to properly discuss these issues in both Houses.
I pay tribute to the committee for its work; I have done so before and I will continue to do so. Its reports are for debate in this House but they also inform it and the public, and they do a great constitutional service. My noble friend Lord Oates and I are literally Liberal free traders, and we therefore welcome the agreement, especially the parts on services, recognition of professional qualifications and the movement of people, which the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned. In supporting free, fair and open trade, many of our debates are more about non-tariff barriers than tariff barriers. This was particularly the case with Australia, as was mentioned, because its tariffs on UK exports were already low, and the regulatory elements of alignment are therefore very important.
There are questions about services support and facilitation, such as data transfer, where the committee highlighted that there is no data equivalence with Australia. This may cause difficulties for our combined services trade with those with whom we are seeking equivalence agreements. So I hope that the Minister will be able to say whether we expect to take forward in a meaningful way the discussions on data equivalence agreements with Australia to support the reassurance of consumers as well as trade facilitation.
I also enjoyed the debate because there were a couple of areas where there was not total unanimity. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, was a case in point: I enjoyed his personal resignation statement—obviously, he felt left out—and I agree with him on China. I flippantly said that I do know where the cloth that I wear is from; I was an ambassador for the Scottish College of Textiles in my former constituency, and these are important issues.
The noble Lord raised a point with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on where we are geopolitically with our agreement with Australia, and with New Zealand, which we discussed. One of New Zealand’s oldest trade agreements is with China and, at the same time, the UK now has the biggest trade deficit of any country in our nation’s history: we have a trade deficit with China of over £40 billion in goods. This means that we need to debate this open-eyed. I smiled when the noble Lord seemed so envious of the French power to do harm to our farmers that he wanted to bring that back so that we could do harm to our own farmers—
No, but we did not see output of beef and hill sheepmeat going down 5% and then 3% with any individual agreement, which is what we have seen with the Australia agreement. Perhaps those Brexit-supporting farmers now see the reality that the Government’s own impact assessment says that output will go down 5% and then 3% over 15 years in these sectors. Because I formerly represented a hill-farming constituency, I do not think that this is simply a case of doomsayers; these are genuine issues about the sustainability of our farming industry.
I pay tribute not only to the committee but to the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, who has resigned from the Government; I enjoyed being his Liberal shadow. I look forward to the seventh Trade Minister whom I will shadow in this place when she or he takes office. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that it is not her—it is me.
I agree with the overarching twin themes of the committee’s report: first, that this agreement was negotiated in the absence of a wider trade policy—in certain areas, it sits slightly alongside the Government’s export strategy, which I welcomed, but I have not yet seen too much read-across between the two—and, secondly, that the desire to move fast was to secure some boosterism and headlines between our Prime Minster and Australia’s, or, as the press reported at the time, between “BoJo and ScoMo”. We can reflect that neither is in office just months later, so we can question why there was such a rush.
When the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, introduced the Queen’s Speech debate on trade, he wanted to reassure us that all parts of the UK would benefit from the 0.08% bounty over 15 years of this agreement—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, said, that there is something in it for everyone. However, when I raised the fact that this had been oversold, I was wafted aside. It appears that it was quite hard for the Government to dismiss the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is tasked with reviewing what the Government say in their impact assessments. It was interesting to note that the Government had to bring forward a second impact assessment after the Regulatory Policy Committee published its initial review. On page 5 of this review, the committee said:
“As originally submitted, the IA was not fit for purpose as the results in the IA were presented in a way that disproportionately emphasised the beneficial impacts with very limited discussion of the risks, disadvantageous impacts, and potential mitigations. In addition, the IA did not adequately describe a range of significant risks and uncertainties associated with the impacts and did not contextualise the estimates sufficiently. The IA suggested a greater degree of certainty and accuracy to the projections than was supported by the underlying evidence and modelling.”
In a way, that neatly sums up how this Government sell their trade policy. Presenting the higher case not “supported by … evidence” means that, when we scrutinise the agreements, they turn out not to be as promised—this seems to be the approach across the Government. I say “the Government”, but it seems as if we have more than one at the moment: there is Liz Truss, the free trade fighter, alongside Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is breaking WTO rules to have protectionist steel tariffs. Some Ministers on the one hand claim that we are seeing developing standards in nature, biodiversity and animal welfare; I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, will say in his speech that this is the case. Other Ministers, apparently in the same Government, are saying the opposite: for example, the Foreign Office Minister the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said yesterday:
“Rishi Sunak has evidently agreed to make Mark Spencer the … DEFRA Sec of State. Mark was the biggest blocker of measures to protect nature, biodiversity, animal welfare. He will be our very own little Bolsonaro. Grim … for nature. But great news for political opponents”.
It would be helpful if the noble Viscount could outline which measures have been blocked by the Treasury because, if a serving Minister says it, we should know about it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and others have indicated, this is in the context of now seeing that the evidence has been very clear that our trade with the European Union has declined. This means that the concern raised by some of the witnesses to the committee—that some of the benefits of the Australia agreement might simply be those of displacement, rather than new and additional trade—is very relevant. That even means that the issue that consumers might seek cheaper prices will not necessarily be realised. It also means that the issues raised by some, including the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, will be relevant for our consideration: that we will not have a level playing field and we would prevent some of our agricultural industry from using certain materials and practices that would be permitted from shipped-in products from Australia—a point raised by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose. This is not protectionism; it is realism.
One area which is striking—and especially astonishing given what Liz Truss and every Minister in the department had previously said—is that the UK failed to secure any protection for those goods that have geographical indicators, as the committee indicated. Why? We have heard time after time, during debates on the then Trade Bill and elsewhere, that GIs would be protected, but they are not. This is from Liz Truss, who made her name championing cheese in that famous speech, but has now raised the white cheesecloth on supporting products with geographical indications. We have now fully entered the Wonderland of Alice, because we will be able to protect those products which have geographical indications only should Australia sign an agreement with the European Union, because the European Union would provide the protection—I think the term is “give back control”.
This is a “landmark”, according to the Government’s statement and the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, but my understanding is that landmarks are so called because they are followed. However, from reading the committee’s report, I think it struggled to get clarity from the Government as to whether this will set some form of precedent for other areas. The Government will no doubt say—I have heard them say it previously—that each agreement is negotiated on its merits, et cetera. However, at the same time, we hear the Government saying that this is a gold-standard, “landmark” agreement. This, therefore, raises questions about the impact on diagonal cumulation for developing countries and uncertainty as to that policy; uncertainty to the policy on ISDS, because it was to be reviewed in Canada; and about the situation with Japan. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, was a supporter of ISDS; will any new Minister have the same approach?
On the question of standards, which I have raised previously, for genetically modified products or the use of pesticides, is it okay to bring in produce that has been reared using banned products? Will they be approved for our consumers simply because those banned products are at a low level? The Government should be clear about their intentions.
The final point which has been raised—a very relevant one—regards the remaining lack of clarity as to when there will be sufficiently strong guidance for those operating within Northern Ireland.
We support this agreement, but we are not blind to the realities that it will have a negative impact for certain sectors. We certainly think that involving Parliament with less of the boosterism and headline grabbing, and more of the serious work of proper consideration of what trade policy would look like in future, would result in stronger agreements which are less rushed and more sustainable. Ultimately, they will help the British economy, so that it would not be 0.08% but considerably more.
My Lords, like nearly all other speakers, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town and pay tribute to her and her committee on the detailed and balanced report that has been debated this afternoon. I share the overall analysis from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that it is cautious in nature. I think that is fair.
After leaving the European Union it is of course vital that Britain seeks free trade agreements across the world, but there are standards that these agreements must be held to. The deals that we negotiate must benefit UK interests, UK workers and UK businesses. As we have heard, the UK had not negotiated a full free trade agreement from scratch since 1973. I think the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, was very young then.
I was four. Negotiating from scratch in itself should not have been an issue, but analysing in detail the Australian agreement raises very real concerns about what has been negotiated and what has not. Parliament has been virtually neutered in the whole process. The Australian agreement was signed in December 2021 and the New Zealand agreement in March 2022. We are now in July with just over one week before Parliament rises. Yes, it has been examined by the International Agreements Committee and the International Trade Committee in the other place but it will then be laid before Parliament similar to any other statutory instrument.
I wonder, as many other noble Lords have this afternoon, whether better parliamentary scrutiny would have led to a better, fairer, greener and more equitable agreement. There is a paradox at the heart of the Australian deal—the Government’s own impact assessment estimates that our farming, forestry and fishing sectors will take a £94 million hit and our semi-processed food industry a £225 million hit. Yet, again by the Government’s own predictions, overall trade will increase by less than 0.1% of GDP by 2035, while there is fear of real damage to some of the UK’s most important sectors.
As many other noble Lords have this afternoon, I worry that the prize of the deal, the prize of the headline, the prize of being first was more important to the Government than the detail of the agreement itself. As my colleague Nick Thomas-Symonds MP said in the Commons:
“Other countries, in future negotiations, will look at what was conceded to the Australian negotiators and take it as a starting point.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/1/22; col. 67.]
UK exports to Australia as a result of this deal are supposed to rise by 53%, but I see no great basis for that optimism. Few trade deals have ever had that kind of impact, and certainly not those between two countries where there is already a good trading relationship with historically low tariffs. The 53% is also somewhat higher than the original estimate. Can the Minister explain this leap in optimism between the original estimate and the secondary estimates?
As we have heard from the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, the labour, environment and animal welfare chapters are pretty weak and do not necessarily focus on UK interests. Would the Minister care to elaborate on any specific improvements negotiated which will bring a positive benefit to our labour, environmental or animal welfare standards?
Minette Batters, the NFU president, said:
“The government needs to level with farmers about the commercial reality of this and ditch the soundbites that lost any meaning a long time ago.”
“It needs to set out a detailed agri-food export strategy, with complementary policies that will enable UK farmers to compete and adjust.”
Those were some of her more measured words, but she is right.
As always, agreements include carve-outs. How confident is the Minister about the predicted rise in exports given the protections to Australia’s services market? This is in stark contrast to the lack of protection given to the UK food sector in the tariff schedules. Were any of our devolved nations involved in adding to our 12 pages of carve-outs? As I understand it, the Australian states were consulted and state protections included. Were any of the concerns of the UK’s devolved authorities recognised and incorporated into our carve-outs?
I fear that the Australian agricultural corporations will not be held to the same high standards as our farmers. Animal welfare standards have been mentioned a number of times, but what the Government have agreed is a non-regression clause. To be clear, that does not mean that the standards will be the same in both countries. What will actually happen is that meat produced to lower animal welfare standards will get tariff-free access to the UK market. So much for the promise that the Government had no intentions of striking a deal that did not benefit British farmers. Australia’s former negotiator said:
“I don’t think we have ever done as well as this.”
How much engagement did the National Farmers’ Union have after the agreement in principle was published? Was the NFU given the opportunity to raise concerns or make counterproposals? More importantly, was it able to assess the true impact of the FTA before it was finally signed?
The UK granted Australia generous agricultural market access. Why was this not leveraged to press Australia for more ambitious commitments on climate change? As we have heard, there is no reference to the temperature goals which were fundamental to the Paris Agreement, nor to reducing Australia’s reliance on coal, which was addressed in the free trade agreement with New Zealand. As my noble friends Lady Liddell and Lady Hayter have said, we now have a Labor Government in Australia so there is an opportunity to revisit it.
With the energy security Bill making its way through Parliament, this feels like a missed opportunity for the Government to show leadership on the world stage on an issue which is increasingly global, instead of taking an insular approach. Tariff-free access to our UK markets is a prize that Ministers should not give away easily. However, looking at the concessions made by this Government, are we not right to worry? This was a deal the UK Government “were advised” they had to do for the bigger prize of CPTPP accession. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on that.
I return to my opening point, and I cannot put it any better than the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, with regard to this Australian deal. We are allowed only to debate it; we can do nothing about it.
My Lords, I start by acknowledging the opening remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who paid tribute to my noble friend Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, as did other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who made some generous comments about him. I, too, regret that he has decided to step down. He worked very closely with many noble Lords in this House to advance and explain the Government’s free trade agenda, and this was acknowledged in the IAC report that we are debating today. He gathered a number of considerable achievements under his belt while working as the Minister for Investment. Notably, he shepherded the Trade Act on to the statute book, and noble Lords, me included, who took part in the debates on that legislation know that was no mean feat. Beyond his work in Parliament, my noble friend will leave a lasting legacy through his efforts to transform the Government’s approach to investment. The success of the inaugural Global Investment Summit, not to mention the significant sum of overseas investment secured under his tenure, offer no better evidence of his effectiveness in the role.
I suppose that today I come in from extra long leg to bat. I shall be batting but I shall, I hope, be doing some bowling—and, yes, I spent some of the weekend reading through this excellent report. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, chair of the IAC, for securing this debate and providing the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I also wish to thank her for the report.
Let me start by saying that I am pleased that the committee has welcomed this FTA today. It is good to have some reasonably positive feedback, including from the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Oates, and perhaps more effusively from my noble friend Lord Robathan, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister. I am particularly pleased that the committee has formed the view that the Department for International Trade has conducted scrutiny beyond the statutory commitments set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. I place on record the positive and constructive engagement that the IAC has had with DIT, culminating in the exchange of letters in May, which pulls all the Government’s transparency and scrutiny commitments into one document.
I shall just address some points made about the devolved Administrations, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord McNicol, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris. DIT officials continue to work closely with their colleagues in the devolved Administrations to ensure that their views are considered in the formulation of the UK’s trade policy—I make that opening statement. Our chief negotiators provide regular updates on the progress of negotiations. For example, during the Australian negotiations, our chief negotiator, or their deputy, briefed devolved Administration officials multiple times on all aspects of the programme. That is in addition to sharing draft texts for consultation with the devolved Administrations, regular policy forums at official level and discussions at ministerial level. I am sure I could give some more reassurance on that point.
I shall look into it but I do not think that I agree with that point. As I said, I think the devolved Administrations have been kept on board with the negotiations that have been going on—I really do. I certainly would like to reassure noble Lords further on that point.
I am sure that the devolved Administrations were informed in the sense that they were told that there had been a round and various things had been discussed, but it is clear that the result came as a surprise—that there should be such an asymmetrical deal on farm products. I do not myself believe that it is a disaster, but it certainly came as a surprise. Would the Minister agree that it would be better if the documents that the Government published at the start of a negotiation—the negotiating objectives documents—were a little more specific? They are cast in such broad-brush terms that it is very difficult to deduce from them what a likely outcome might be, so the risk of a surprise is quite high.
I would like to park that—I am not going to be drawn into it—but I would like to move on to discuss scrutiny, which is probably along the lines of the noble Lord’s question. This is an important matter, raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord McNicol. Again, I hope I can give some reassurance on this.
The Government have made extensive commitments to support robust scrutiny of the new free trade agreements. As the International Agreements Committee acknowledged in its report, we have upheld those commitments. In particular, the Government committed that we would ensure that there would be at least three months for Parliament to scrutinise the agreement and for Select Committees to produce reports before the formal scrutiny period under CRaG. In fact, there was six months of scrutiny time prior to commencing CRaG, and I was very pleased to receive the IAC’s report on 23 June. In addition, we published the advice of the Trade and Agriculture Commission on 13 April, two months before commencing CRaG, and our own Section 42 report on the impact of the agreement on relevant domestic regulatory standards on 6 June. Of course, I am delighted that we are here today taking the opportunity to debate the agreement as part of that scrutiny process. In total, by the end of the CRaG period, the agreement will have been under the scrutiny of Parliament for over seven months and benefited from the formal views of three Select Committees.
Might the Minister consider the possibility that there could be two new policy decision-making approaches in play here, coincidentally at broadly the same time, with a new Conservative policy circumstance and a new Government in Australia? Is there any possibility that the period being discussed might take into account any policy changes, which should be included in the final draft?
The noble Viscount makes a good point, and I shall certainly take that back. I shall make one or two points about the new Australian Government in my remarks.
I should also like to address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about extending CRaG in this respect—again, I would like to row back on what he was saying. He asked whether we would extend; this of course is a decision not for me but for the Secretary of State for International Trade. However, we are confident that the arrangements that we have put in place for scrutiny are robust. The agreement has been under scrutiny for over six months now and benefited from three very valuable reports from parliamentary Select Committees, including the International Agreements Committee in this House.
The Minister will know that the Liaison Committee in the House of Commons has written formally to request an extension of the scrutiny period. Have the Government responded to that, and what is their position with regard to the concern in the Commons that the Secretary of State has not met the committee to respond to the very questions that we have raised in this debate today?
I am not able to say whether we have responded, but I shall certainly get back to the noble Lord to find out exactly where we are on that process.
The IAC’s report acknowledged that the Government have upheld their commitments with regards to scrutiny of this agreement. However, I acknowledge the points that the committee made on scrutiny—first, that there is dialogue with committees prior to mandates being set for future agreements and, secondly, that we notify the IAC of all significant amendments to FTAs made after ratification. We are carefully considering the IAC’s report and will, of course, respond in due course. That, I hope, leads me to answer a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on lessons learned. He made a very valuable point there.
I move on to the agreement itself. In response to the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister, he is right that this is not only the first FTA negotiated from scratch by the UK Government since leaving the European Union but the first trade deal to be signed by the UK as an independent free-trading nation in nearly half a century. Since the Secretary of State for the Department for International Trade put her signature to the deal in December, she has gone on to sign an FTA with New Zealand and a digital economy agreement with Singapore. This means that we have now secured trade deals with 71 countries, on top of the trade deal with the EU. Together, these countries accounted for £808 billion of UK bilateral trade in 2021. This is an immense success story.
This FTA was negotiated quickly and efficiently, despite the turmoil brought about by Covid. It shows the world what global Britain can do as a truly independent nation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, that we would not have been able to negotiate this agreement as a member of the European Union. Having left the EU, we are pursuing arguably the most ambitious programme of free trade agreements that this country has ever seen. As we speak, the Department for International Trade is conducting FTA negotiations with India and Canada. Negotiations have also been launched with Mexico and with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a customs bloc of six countries made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Negotiations will soon be under way with Israel too and the department has a packed programme of FTA negotiations coming down the track.
What we have achieved through this agreement, the UK-Australia FTA, is just the beginning. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, described the deal more eloquently than I am able to just now, but this is a world-class deal between two like-minded nations, friends and allies, that will bind us together for years to come. Australia is already an important trading partner for the UK—last year, our trading relationship was worth £14.4 billion—but the ties between our two countries go far deeper than that. It is a relationship forged through a shared history and a common language, a relationship that has an unyielding belief in democracy, liberty and the rule of law.
I shall attempt to answer a point raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. I will not be able to answer it in full and I may need to write a letter, but whether we have a trade strategy is a very fair question. We do indeed have a trade strategy and we have communicated it publicly through several publications, such as the integrated review, the plan for growth and strategic cases for each trade partner we are about to enter negotiations with. I probably need to write a letter, but the headlines concern what type of trading nation we want to be, what our aims for UK trade policy are, how we will try to achieve these aims, the connections to the export strategy and the strategic case for FTAs. We believe it is all there but I think I need to put that in writing for the House.
I shall move on to the benefits—which were questioned, by the way, by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. We believe that the FTA we have agreed will ensure that future generations continue to benefit from this relationship in more ways than one. We will be able to work together like never before to tackle existential challenges, such as climate change, health pandemics and threats to global security. This deal will deliver benefits to people, businesses and communities in every corner of the UK, playing a key part in levelling up our country.
I do indeed and if my noble friend will allow me, I shall come to that. To continue my so-called peroration, the deal will increase trade with Australia by 53% and boost the economy by £2.3 billion. I take note of the rather negative view of the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, and I will explain what the extra benefits of this deal are. It will enable the 15,900 businesses that already export goods to Australia to sell their products in ever greater quantities, while opening the door for thousands of other businesses to start their exporting journey. This means exciting new opportunities for Scotland’s world-renowned whisky distillers, Wales’s fintech companies and Northern Ireland’s leading medical and pharmaceutical firms, as well as the north-east’s car manufacturers and aerospace companies in the West Midlands.
My noble friend Lord Udny-Lister asked about the reach of this agreement—another good question. I shall just mention SMEs, because this deal will benefit businesses of all shapes and sizes, not least the UK’s SMEs—the backbone of Britain—which comprise more than 99% of all private sector businesses, employing 16.3 million people and generating £2.3 trillion of income.
I come to investment. The deal will unlock further investment potential between our two countries too, with UK investors able to benefit from broader and deeper market access than Australia has ever guaranteed in a previous trade agreement. This will allow us to build on the £37 billion already invested in Australia’s economy in 2020. Of course, there will also be benefits for UK consumers, who will be able to enjoy more of their favourite Australian products, such as Jacob’s Creek and Hardy’s wines or Tim Tam biscuits.
The subject of services was raised, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. I was pleased to read the comments of the IAC in its report, welcoming the provisions that have been secured. The services sector, as we know, is of huge importance to the UK, and we believe we have negotiated a deal that plays to these strengths. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that Australia has gone further than ever before in granting access to its market in several areas, with unprecedented levels of regulatory transparency. UK services from architecture and law to financial services and shipping will be able to compete in Australia on a guaranteed equal footing. This could increase exports of UK services to Australia, which were worth £5.3 billion in 2021.
The “Professional Services and Recognition of Professional Qualifications” chapter will support work towards mutual recognition of professional qualifications. This could lead to professionals such as lawyers, engineers and accountants no longer having to requalify to practice in one another’s countries. On mobility, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, is right; this is a good part of the agreement, whereby there is a way in which our people can have good movement between one another’s countries. For the first time, UK service suppliers, including architects, scientists, researchers, lawyers and accountants, will have access to visas to work in Australia without being subject to its changing skilled occupation list.
I also acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about innovation. This agreement contains the world’s first dedicated innovation chapter, underlining the important role that innovation will play in the future. We want to take full advantage of this, particularly in terms of technological developments.
On agriculture, which I definitely want to come on to, the committee noted the concerns of the farming community, specifically that the agreement may lead to potential surges in agricultural imports to the UK. I want to provide some reassurance. We have secured a range of measures to safeguard our farmers, including tariff rate quotas for a number of sensitive agricultural products; product-specific safeguards for beef and sheepmeat, which were raised today in the debate; and a general bilateral safeguard mechanism providing a temporary safety net for all products. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, we should remember that Australia’s focus is on exporting to lucrative markets in the Asia-Pacific region, and it is relatively unlikely that beef and sheep would be diverted to the UK from Asian markets in very large volumes, although I note the slightly pessimistic view of the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell.
Finally, answering the points made by my noble friend Lord Robathan, our estimates suggest a reduction in gross output of around 3% for beef and 5% for sheepmeat as a result of liberalisation, relative to the baseline. These estimated impacts would be felt gradually over the staging period. It is likely that the increase in imports will primarily displace beef imports from the EU and sheepmeat imports from New Zealand. Further testing suggests that, given the strong consumer preference for UK meat, gross output could fall by as little as 1% in beef and 2% in sheep.
The environment was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell. I note the disappointment expressed but, to come back to noble Lords on this, we have secured the most substantive climate provisions that Australia has ever committed to in an FTA. The deal also recognises our right to regulate to reach net zero and affirms our mutual international environment and climate commitments, including the Paris agreement. There is a lot more I could say about that, but I want to move on and finish—
Before the Minister sits down, he has not responded to my question about geographical indicators. There is no protection for Scotch beef or lamb, Welsh lamb, Stilton cheese, Cornish pasties, clotted cream—there is a very long list. There is a side letter to the agreement from Dan Tehan, the Minister, which states categorically that there is no legal protection for any of these protected products. Why?
Okay, so that is a series of questions. I am going to agree to write to the noble Lord on that point because time is running out and I want to cover a number of other issues.
When it comes to animal welfare standards, I particularly want to address remarks made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, because I want to quote from the agreement:
“Each Party shall endeavour to ensure that its laws, regulations and policies provide for and encourage high levels of animal welfare protection and shall endeavour to continue to improve their respective levels of animal welfare protection, including through their laws”.
Therefore, I hope that we have given reassurances on animal protection, in not just this debate but others.
On ISDS, in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I note the committee’s recommendation that we clarify our position on ISDS and I am happy to confirm that in light of our investment relationship, the UK and Australia decided it was not necessary to include ISDS in this new agreement. What we did do is negotiate a dedicated state-to-state dispute settlement chapter; this is the central pillar of our agreement that will provide an effective method for enforcing commitments made in the deal.
Very quickly on CPTPP, there is a lot I could say about that, but I do believe that this is a historic deal, a very important deal, and will lead into this, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has also said. I think I should conclude on that; I feel that there is a letter that the House is due from quite a few questions that have not been answered. I think I should finish, if I may do this, so—
I will guarantee to write a letter—I will write one letter—on the basis of this debate but I cannot guarantee when it will come, if that is the question that the noble Lord is asking; as soon as possible, I will write a letter.
Just to conclude, this is a bold and ambitious FTA that will carry both the UK and Australia forward into a bright new future, and we all look forward to it being brought into force.
I thank the Minister for batting at such late notice, and I thank all speakers—especially the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, and the noble Lords, Lord Oates, Lord Kerr, Lord Morris and Lord Udny-Lister, who serve on the committee, and indeed the former member, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and I are in competition for how many ministerial scalps we have taken but he has not had a member of the committee resigning before the chair took her place for the first time. The noble Lord’s place was, of course, taken by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, but very sadly he is going to be leaving this House. I take this opportunity to thank both noble Lords for the time they spent on the committee.
I will not try to cover the whole debate; the Minister has tried his best. I think it is true to say that there was broad support for this deal, although the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, it is “no big deal”. “It could have been so much better”, said my noble friend Lady Liddell and “cautious” said the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, of her approach. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was perhaps less kind as he said it is “not that huge” and it gave away a lot for services, I think he said, with not a lot in return. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said he supported it but was not blind to its inadequacies, and that sums up what our committee was saying: there are some inadequacies. My noble friend Lord McNicol said the fear was that the price of speed meant that it was at the cost of quality—they may not have been quite his words, but I think that was the spirit of it.
Clearly, agriculture is the big divide. The consumers, as some have said, will benefit—I thought the Minister was scraping the barrel to talk about biscuits as the great “up” that was going to come. But there are undoubtedly worries on the agriculture side about standards and about the impact, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, on our communities. Agriculture is not just like any other good; it is about communities, it is about support for a way of life, and it seems to me, and maybe the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said this, that had the DAs been involved all the way through, greater sensitivity to that might have achieved something that would have led to fewer worries. I think the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, basically was asking a very broad question about whether the remit of the TAC was too narrow, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked whether earlier scrutiny would have helped.
The environment was mentioned by a number of speakers: the noble Lords, Lord Oates, Lord Liddle and Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, along with a number of others, on a range of issues on which more should have been got. My noble friend Lord Morris says that he hopes the new Government will use the context of the joint committee to move further on some of those shortfalls on the environment. As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, reminded us, there is not just a new Government over there but we are about to have one over here—let us hope that the combination of those two move forward.
Finally, on the broader issue of scrutiny—to which we are going to have to return as a House, I think—the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that we can debate only when we can do nothing about it, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked whether even the way we are doing it is sufficient. I think there is something really important about this; it is how trade fits into our security, our defence, our foreign affairs and our development, as well as our domestic agenda. But just looking at trade itself, what is it that this Government want? We just saw a wonderful example of it. We were asked about standards by my noble friend Lord McNicol, and others, but I thought one of the most interesting exchanges was between my noble friend Lord Liddle and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, about CPTPP. If this is the push for this particular agreement. and we hear there may be real questions about that Pacific tilt—some very supportive and some asking whether we have really thought about this—surely that is a debate that should take place in this Chamber, but it is also a debate that should take place and be on the record from the point of view of government. It is so important, not just how for trade fits into other things but on whether we have the right focus for trade.
Therefore, although this debate was about the particular deal with Australia and, as I said at the beginning, perhaps it is good that it was with a friendly ally with whom we do much work already, it has raised some very broad issues, both for the Government and for this House. For the moment, I thank everyone who has contributed, and I beg to move.
M56 Motorway (Junctions 6 to 7) (Variable Speed Limits) Regulations 2022
Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the M56 Motorway (Junctions 6 to 7) (Variable Speed Limits) Regulations 2022 do not sufficiently take into account recent evidence about the risks of smart motorways and the use of the hard shoulder as a running lane, nor the concerns raised by the House of Commons Transport Committee, which recommended the pause of the rollout of future All Lane Running smart motorway schemes until a full five years’ worth of safety data is available. (SI 2022/607).
Relevant document: 5th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, I am pleased to see that the Minister is still with us to answer this debate. There were times last week when I began to wonder whether she would be. In these surreal days, it is reassuring that she will be able to bring her experience of this issue to bear on the debate, because we have discussed the safety of smart motorways before. An essential part of my weekly reading is the email report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose work I cannot praise too highly. Its weekly reports are focused, specific and pull no punches. The Minister will know that Department for Transport legislation features rather too often in those reports.
First, on the detail of these regulations, they permit variable speed limits between junctions 6 and 8 of the M56 as part of an “all lane running scheme”, known as a smart motorway, near Manchester Airport. It will be operational from 12 September, with the hard shoulder converted to a running lane with emergency refuge areas. The decision to press ahead with this came as a surprise because the Secretary of State back in January had made a very firm statement that he would pause the rollout of future smart motorway schemes until a full five years of safety data was available. That very welcome commitment was made following the Transport Select Committee’s report on smart motorways last November, in which it concluded that
“the scale of safety measures needed to effectively and reliably mitigate the risks associated with the permanent removal of the hard shoulder on all-lane running motorways has been underestimated by successive Administrations, the Department for Transport and National Highways”.
The committee goes on to recommend that the department and National Highways should
“retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running motorways to make them a maximum of 1,500 metres apart, decreasing to every 1,000 metres where physically possible”.
The strange thing about this SI is that the Explanatory Memorandum makes no mention of the Transport Select Committee’s critical report or of the Government’s commitments to deal with safety issues. This is legislation in a vacuum, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee refers to it as “inexplicable”. It is at best shoddy and at worst an attempt to lull us into thinking that this is an insignificant routine measure that we do not need to worry about looking at in detail.
The Government’s commitment to pause the development of new smart motorways came with the caveat that those over 50% complete would proceed. But that caveat came with a promise that there would be retrofitting of existing schemes to reduce the distance between emergency areas. Apparently, this scheme is one of six where development work will proceed, as the Minister’s reply to the committee chair eventually spelled out, including schemes on the M1, M4, M6 and M27. So, the letter of the Secretary of State’s promise is being adhered to, even if the spirit is broken.
What of the promise that the frequency of emergency areas will be increased? That is at the core of safety concerns. The original concept of smart motorways envisaged emergency areas at around every kilometre, and the Transport Select Committee recommendation accepted by the Secretary of State was for between 1 kilometre and 1.5 kilometres. But the Minister has confirmed that this new stretch of motorway on the M56 will go ahead with four emergency areas, every 2.5 kilometres on average. At least this is the figure in the original Department for Transport response, but the Minister later wrote to the chair saying that they are on average 1.07 miles apart, or 1,721 metres. The Department for Transport seems to be taking on board the advice of Jacob Rees-Mogg and has moved back to imperial measurements, which might confuse us, but looking at it in metres, there is still a very significant difference between the original DfT response and the second one. So, my first question to the Minister is to ask her to clarify exactly what the distance is between the two emergency areas on either side of the M56 between junctions 6 and 8 because of that vast difference between her two answers.
I am surprised that the Government are not taking the opportunity to build these two new sections of smart motorway up to the full safety standards from the start. Given that they have decided to go ahead and finish the job they have started—I understand that decision—why not improve them as they do it? Surely it will be cheaper and less disruptive to traffic to do the job properly and maximise safety from the start. What feasibility assessment and cost assessments have been made of the additional costs of improving this stretch after it has opened? Will the Minister give us a commitment that the distance between emergency areas on this stretch will actually be improved, as promised by the Secretary of State? I note that the Minister’s letter talked in general about large sums of money and neatly avoided specific commitments to this scheme. What about the five other schemes on the list that are being completed? Can she give us similar commitments on them?
The Minister’s letter also claimed that smart motorways are safer than ordinary ones, but again there is a whiff of casuistry here. The Government’s own stocktake of safety, ordered in October 2019, showed that the risks of vehicles stopping in a live lane and changing lanes dangerously increase on smart motorways, while other risks, such as driving too fast, decrease. None of that detail is spelled out in the letter, and it becomes even clearer that frequent emergency areas are the key to safety when you take that into account.
I put down this regret Motion for two reasons. I had greatly welcomed the Secretary of State’s commitment at the start of the year, and I really regret the Government’s failure to implement the clear spirit of the commitments he made by ensuring that this stretch of the M56 is not brought into use without a safe number of emergency areas. I also put down this regret Motion to express concern at the continuing poor quality of some Department for Transport legislation, or at least the EMs associated with them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s additional explanations of why this SI is flawed in the ways that I have pointed out.
My Lords, I support most of what the noble Baroness said in introducing this short debate. We are starting to hear that the Government are changing metres into feet or miles, but that is completely irrelevant. I suspect that, as the noble Baroness said, this regulation and the policy behind it—if you can call it that—will cover the whole of the country before long. I believe that there are already 236 miles of smart motorway, and that 200 more miles are planned.
I will say a few words about safety, because that is what it is all about. The distance between the places where you can get off the motorway must relate to what happens to your vehicle and the fact that you need to stop. The noble Baroness mentioned a variety of distances between 2,500 metres and 1,000 metres, but there will be situations where even 1,000 metres is not long enough; it depends on the gradient, the speeds and everything else. It is relevant that the AA has banned its recovery crews from dealing with cars that have broken down on smart motorways because it is too dangerous. There has to be a solution. I do not know what the right distance is; it is sad that the Government have not got some proper data on all this—probably over five years, as the noble Baroness and the Transport Committee suggested—so that we have some information to talk about and to see how safety is affected.
Two things are pretty obvious. The first is around the enforcement of speed on these motorways. There may or may not be variable speeds, but it needs to be much more effective and consistent. The electronic vehicle detection machine is supposed to be the Government’s flagship—in other words, if a vehicle breaks down not in a layby but in the left-hand lane, variable message signs immediately come up, saying “Slow down: lane is blocked.” But the figure I have seen shows that this works in only 62% of the examples where a vehicle has stopped, presumably in the nearside lane. That is much too low, because it means that, for the other 38%, there is a good chance that the vehicle behind will run into the one that has stopped. I cannot see why that cannot work properly. The Government should avoid bringing any more of these into effect until they can get this vehicle detection system working.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. As the noble Baroness said, I am pleased she is here, because she has a lot of experience on roads and transport. This is a terrible mess. Frankly, when the Government ignore the House of Commons Transport Committee’s sensible report, and receive the comments that the noble Baroness mentioned in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report, it is as if they just want to ignore the whole lot and battle on regardless. I hope I am wrong.
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises some serious and good points. However, I gently remind noble Lords of how these smart motorways came to pass. I recall that, in my time in the European Parliament as the transport spokesman—obviously covering road, rail, aviation and maritime—the huge push for smart motorways came from the regulations and directives in the European Parliament some years ago. This was not just about the UK. We found that many member states were having problems with capacity due to the growth in traffic, and it was about trying to look at a way that we did not have to build motorways in different parts of the country but just expand the ones that we had.
I fully acknowledge that there have clearly been some awful accidents due to the fact that there was no hard shoulder. When motorways were built in the first place, it was known that there could be a risk of accident—obviously, there is always the risk of accident—and it was paramount that there needed to be a safe space to go. I also understand that in some cases where there have been accidents, it has been very much a technological failure because the notification above the lane that it was closed, or the X, was not showing. People have then got confused, and of course some of the results of that have been appalling. There are also appalling accidents even for the miles of motorways where we have hard shoulders, which is why we have tried to make sure that people are alert if they pull in and why we now tell people to get out of their cars, notwithstanding the size of the lorries that sometimes have to pull in.
Can my noble friend say whether the Government are looking at how, for example, the technology can work, notwithstanding that we have spent millions expanding these motorways? I use the M6 with great frequency when I drive down here, and the M56 too, which the noble Baroness mentioned, and we have miles of full lanes where we are doing 60 miles an hour. We have had years of this expansion—obviously not of infrastructure—for all the right reasons on the motorways, to get the capacity, and we have been under terrible restrictions with roadworks; it is now even more infuriating that we have four lanes but are still all crawling along half of the time.
Notwithstanding the issue of technology, which clearly needs to be seen to be working and to work properly so that people and organisations have confidence, I look forward to the response from my noble friend. We need to move this on. As the noble Baroness opposite said, there is clearly a need for more laybys to access. This will take some time, because more roadworks will have to be started, but it is imperative that those can be put in place as quickly as possible.
My Lords, the Government’s failed rollout of smart motorways costs lives, which is exactly why Members of this House have long warned of serious flaws. It is a tragedy that lives were lost before action was taken, and it is thanks only to the dedication of bereaved families that the rollout was paused at all. It is therefore beyond belief that the Government are still pressing ahead with new introductions.
Even in their current form, smart motorways, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose, and clearly no adequate explanation has yet been offered for their further introduction. Unfortunately, the reality of this new scheme is even worse. The emergency areas in this new scheme have average spacings of 2.5 kilometres, which is much greater than the recommended separation of 1.5 kilometres. Before pressing ahead, the Minister needs to offer proper reassurances on the monitoring of CCTV, further reviews of the evidence and improved distances between refuge areas, at the very least.
Besides the well-noted safety concerns, there are also serious issues with the scrutiny afforded to these changes, not least the fact that the Explanatory Memorandum does not address any of these obvious issues. I hope that the Minister can provide such assurances today and address the points made in the noble Baroness’s Motion.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. I am also fairly grateful to still be here; I have enjoyed being the Roads Minister for the past three years, and I know a fair amount about smart motorways, so I shall try to answer as many questions as have been raised, but of course I will happily write with more detail because I suspect that I will not be able to get through everything.
This is an opportunity to remind noble Lords of the commitments we have made in our response to the Transport Select Committee report. Noble Lords will recall that the second anniversary progress report was published earlier this year, in March 2022, and set out the progress we are making on the action plan we set out in 2020 on smart motorways. That was when issues about their safety first came to the fore and were picked up by the media. The Secretary of State and I did an awful lot of work on that to ensure that smart motorways are not only as safe as they possibly can be but feel as safe as they possibly can.
They are the type of road that gets the greatest amount of scrutiny in our country. I also note that this country has very safe roads relative to pretty much any other country in the world. Interestingly enough, smart motorways are the safest roads we have in the country with regard to the killed and seriously injured figures.
We are talking about roads that are already very safe—compare them to the average rural road and you will see that they are far safer, as we must always recognise. However, the Government remain determined to continue to make people safe, and feel safe, on these roads. That is why we agreed to the Transport Committee’s report and all the recommendations therein. This included an agreement to pause the rollout of all future all-lane running motorway schemes until five years’ worth of safety and economic data are available for those schemes that opened before 2020. In our response, we also clarified that we would continue with those roads that were more than 50% complete.
Why, many years ago now, did we start the smart motorways scheme programme? We need greater capacity on our roads, as was noted by my noble friend Lady Foster, and smart motorways offer a way to get that. We get improved reliability, reduced journey times and smoother traffic flows, which is key for safety. Much of this does not appear in the safety stats for these roads, but we also shift traffic from less-safe roads, because capacity on the road increases, so some people using less-safe roads will necessarily move to these roads. They require much less land take, so they have a lower environmental impact, including on biodiversity. They cost 50% to 60% of the amount that would be spent on a traditional widening scheme—significantly less of a call on the taxpayer—and they can be done more quickly.
The M56 is no different. It was included in the June 2013 spending review, which seems like a very long time ago, and it was confirmed in the first road investment strategy in 2015. The main construction works on the scheme began in November 2020 and, as noble Lords have pointed out, it is due to open later this year. It is well over 80% complete.
The M56 scheme is four miles long and has four emergency areas. Here we get to the problem that we had in the Explanatory Memorandum, and I can only apologise that the wording in the Explanatory Memorandum is incorrect. The spacing of 2.5 km, or 1.6 miles, refers to the maximum spacing between places to stop in an emergency. That was the design standard when this scheme was designed. In reality, there is an emergency area every 1.7 km, or 1.07 miles, on average, on this stretch. It was built and designed to the design standard in place at the time, which I think all noble Lords would expect, and actually has emergency area spacing of far less. We may well go on to include further emergency areas on the M56, but this will be considered as part of the emergency area retrofit programme, which will be available later this year.
As with all smart motorway schemes opening now, this scheme will open with stopped vehicle detection. This is radar-based technology, further elements of which I shall come to later. Essentially, it looks at the road and sees where vehicles have stopped and then provides an alert to the regional operating centre, and various things then happen as a result of that.
Let us think about the smart motorway safety data. It is important to bear in mind that the latest data we have available is for 2020, so the data available is from before any of the interventions that the Government set out in the smart motorway action plan, back in 2020, were put in place or had any impact. This data is from before the Government intervened, as we have now committed.
A conventional motorway has 1.45 killed and seriously injured per 100 million vehicle miles. I encourage noble Lords to keep that in their heads. An all-lane running motorway has 1.38, so 0.07 fewer. It is safer when it comes to killed and seriously injured. That is before the widescale rollout of stopped vehicle technology, before the commitment to retrofit emergency areas, before the signage improvements we have committed to and put in place, before the recent communications campaign which told everybody to go left, before the upgrade to the HADECS cameras for Red X enforcement, and before all of the 18 measures which the Government said they would do in 2020. I am fairly convinced that those 18 measures will improve safety further.
On the basis of the 2020 data, an all-lane running motorway is already safer than a conventional motorway when it comes to killed and seriously injured. For all these people who say, “Put back the hard shoulder; let’s go back to conventional”, I do not know on what evidence that would be remotely the right thing to do. If the evidence changes, of course we should look at it again, but I cannot see at this moment—and after how much scrutiny?—that the evidence exists to even contemplate ripping out these motorways, removing capacity, putting some of those people on less-safe roads and, for the people who stay on the motorway, making them slightly less safe. I cannot see it myself.
I will happily explain that. All the evidence I just outlined was in the progress report—as I said, there was an enormous amount of scrutiny. If I had my time again, would I have put all that evidence in the Explanatory Memorandum? No, because Explanatory Memorandums cannot possibly include every bit of evidence on which the Government have made a policy decision. This M56 variable speed limit SI is very standard—I cannot even begin to tell your Lordships how many we have done. However, I wish I had included a paragraph with links to all the different reports we have already done into smart motorways. There is a balance between providing sufficient information and links and ending up with an Explanatory Memorandum that becomes unwieldy. We could provide those links though.
My recollection, though I may have got it wrong, is that the standard for Explanatory Memorandums requires them to be easily understood by a person with no previous knowledge. The arguments that she has revealed to us, which may or may not be persuasive, are not available to people with no previous knowledge.
That is exactly why, as I set out, we will update the Explanatory Memorandum. Am I going to regurgitate everything in the progress report, the response to the Transport Select Committee, the progress report from last year, and the original 2020 action plan and stocktake? No, because it would become a document of several hundred pages. We must be selective, but I think we can include links to other reports to explain it to people.
However, let us be absolutely clear that all this SI does is allow a variable mandatory speed limit to be put in place. Will that have any impact on road safety for that stretch? No, it will not. In allowing a mandatory speed limit to come in, it will probably make it safer. If the Government are then required to do an entire Explanatory Memorandum about the much broader policy, we will end up with some very lengthy Explanatory Memorandums.
The Minister has illustrated that it can be done in a reasonably concise way. She just went through all the arguments—I cannot say that I am convinced because I cannot see them all together on a piece of paper—but the length of her speech is not that long compared with the paucity of information in the Explanatory Memorandum.
I could speak about smart motorways for ever—and I have not finished yet. I will happily set out in a letter to the House exactly where all these links are—I am sure the noble Lord knows where they all are—and summarise all the data that is out there at the moment, and make sure that a copy is placed in the Library. I am sure that it will be incredibly helpful.
I want to move on from the focus on safety data. The Transport Select Committee agreed with the Government that reinstating the hard shoulder and going back to a conventional motorway was not in the best interests of either our economy or the safety of the people using our motorways, and we were pleased that it reached that conclusion.
On the schemes that we are not pausing, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, noted that six schemes will continue because they are more than 50% complete. We feel that the disruption and challenges to road safety that leaving traffic management in place for any significant period of time would cause—because roadworks can be quite unsafe—make it not a viable option. Of course, with roadworks in place, many drivers would also use less-safe roads than the motorway. We therefore took the decision to continue with those schemes that are more than 50% complete. However, we did say that stopped vehicle detection will be in place for all the smart motorways that we are opening, and that is indeed the case. I did not mention cost in that, but the cost of reverting a motorway back to where it was before is fairly significant.
I want to cover a couple of points on which noble Lords have asked for clarity. I think that I have set out the Explanatory Memorandum issue. Again, I apologise that the original memorandum was incorrect. We put in various safeguards to ensure that people not connected to the Explanatory Memorandum read it. Clearly, even in those circumstances, it did not pass the sniff test, so we are going to get better—we really are.
The topic of more frequent emergency areas is an interesting one. As noble Lords will know, the spacing between emergency areas has come down. In 2011, it was 1.5 miles; in 2017, it was a mile; in 2020, with the new one, it was 0.75 miles, and obviously there are maximums in there as well. Does that necessarily mean that roads built to a more recent design specification are more dangerous than those built to the previous specification? The jury is still out; it is really interesting. One thing we said in the stocktake that we would do is put 10 more emergency areas on the M25. That was done, and they have been in place for well over a year now. The data from them on how many live lane stops there were and the impact on safety is being collated at the mom