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Trade Agreements

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 15 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to ensure future trade agreements (1) are compatible with the terms of the United Kingdom-European Union Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and (2) take into account relevant regulatory changes by existing trading partners and international organisations.

My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement that we have agreed with the European Union does not require us or the EU to align rules with the other party. This ensures that the UK is in control of its own legislation and that we are free to make other free trade agreements around the world. All these trade agreements are capable of accommodating the consequences of regulatory changes by either party, now and into the future.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. The purpose of my Question was to explore the priorities and processes that determine the Government’s trade policy. In a way, what I am asking is the mirror image of the replies that he gave on the Northern Ireland protocol. As far as I can see, the Government’s trade policy is focused very much on the Asia-Pacific region, which brings benefits but not terribly big ones by comparison with the overwhelming importance of our trading relationship with the European Union. Do the Minister and the Government’s trade policy recognise that fact and that it will be the case for decades to come? Do the Government take into account that any divergences that we negotiate from EU standards in other trade agreements are bound to cause some friction in the EU relationship? Does he accept that they are going to make the Commission more reluctant to explore—

—the flexibility that he is seeking in the Northern Ireland protocol and does he want to build on the spirit of the trade and co-operation agreement to deepen the trading relationship with Europe?

My Lords, this is clearly an extremely complicated issue and a lot can be said on the subject. I am not sure that I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s underlying judgment. Our trade with the EU has been falling fairly consistently for a decade or two now. Our trade with Asia is rising. Most people think that that is likely to continue to be the case and that the strategic emphasis on Asia is right. As regards the relationship between our regulation and other countries’ regulation through FTAs, of course there are choices to be made, but they are the same choices that every country in the world engaging in an independent trade policy undertakes. They seem to manage it and I am sure that we will as well.

I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.

My Lords, when granting the data adequacy decision, the European Commission imposed a four-year sunset clause over fears of UK divergence from GDPR standards, especially in transfers of data to third countries. The Government are none the less forging ahead with international agreements on data transfers such as with the US, the trans-Pacific partnership and Asian countries. Their recent digital policy paper envisaged the Information Commissioner having a key role in communicating the benefits of data sharing—there was me thinking that the Information Commissioner’s role was to safeguard privacy rights. Have the Government done an assessment on the dangers that their data policies could pose to the adequacy decision?

My Lords, we are obviously very pleased that the EU granted us data adequacy last month. We think that that was the right thing to do and a correct reflection of the situation. The EU grants data adequacy to other countries around the world as well which do not operate identical or close analogues to the EU’s legislation. That does not prevent the grant of adequacy. We think that it is entirely consistent with security of data to look at our own ways of doing these things and that is exactly what we are reflecting on.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the UK does not intend to align its regulations with the EU’s in order to help the situation in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that there are other ways of reducing the administrative controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, such as a veterinary agreement based on mutual recognition of underlying product regulations, as the EU has agreed with New Zealand?

My Lords, I have said it before and I will say it again: we will not align dynamically with the rules of the EU on agri-food or in other areas. That was the approach that we took into the negotiations last year and that is the consistent approach now. My noble friend is absolutely right that there are other ways of doing this and he is absolutely correct to point to an equivalence-based veterinary agreement as the way forward. That is exactly what we have proposed to the European Union and I am very hopeful that we can discuss that at the Specialised Committee created by the withdrawal agreement when it meets on Monday.

My Lords, the free trade agreement between the UK, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein was signed on 4 June. This is a most important agreement between friends and trading partners of the UK, yet Parliament to date has had no opportunity to scrutinise it. Does the Minister regret that? Can he tell us when the agreement will be laid before Parliament?

My Lords, this is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade rather than for me. There are, of course, procedures under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which sets out how such treaties will be considered by Parliament; I think that is the intention. Obviously we welcome the fullest possible debate on the contents of that treaty.

The Minister had to sit through some very difficult negotiations and, some would say, a lot of attempted bullying by the EU. Can he confirm that any trade agreements are for the benefit of the UK and will avoid alignment where it is not to our benefit, and that enormous benefits will flow in the course of time from the trade extensions and the deal with Japan, the deal with Australia and now the potential deal with the CPTPP, which begins to be tantalisingly close? Can he assure the House that he will be looking at them and the benefits and not listening to the EU?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is obviously responsible for most of those negotiations. I am in 100% agreement with her that they offer huge opportunities for this country. The ability to trade freely with a larger number of countries around the world, while setting our own rules in a way that suits us and this economy, will be of huge benefit to us in years to come and we are all looking forward to that.

The Minister has admitted that the extra barriers caused by the protocol have had a dampening effect on free trade, but he does not seem to accept that the extra barriers between us and the EU similarly have an effect on the freedom of trade and the amount we will export to the EU, which is still our nearest and biggest market. Indeed, exports of food and drink—our major export industry—fell by 47% and increased by a mere 0.3% outside the EU. We have to continue to trade with Europe. Will he set out how the Government propose to reverse the export fall to Europe?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is a little over-pessimistic about where things stand at the moment. The latest trade figures, which came out last week, show that our exports to the EU are now well above the average levels of last year and are almost at the levels of 2019 and 2018. Our business has done a great job in dealing with that. I have never sought to hide the fact that leaving a customs union creates new barriers. I am very happy to see that our businesses are dealing with them very successfully. They are different in nature from barriers within a country, and that is the difference between some of the effects that we are seeing with our exports to the rest of the European Union and the chilling effect on trade within the United Kingdom because of the way that boundaries currently operate.