I want to assure you that the Government is committed to being transparent and enabling the effective scrutiny of its trade agenda. Ministers have listened to the concerns of both Houses throughout the passage of this Bill. The Government has moved significantly to further improve Parliament’s enhanced transparency and scrutiny arrangements for new free trade agreements. This includes putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing and publishing a comprehensive suite of further commitments, as set out in the Secretary of State’s Written Ministerial Statement of 7 December1. Ultimately, Parliament will retain the power to prevent ratification of any trade deal through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act procedure and the scrutiny of necessary implementing legislation
The debate on standards, including any impact on the NHS, has been an important one throughout the passage of this Bill. The Government has consistently stated that it will not be lowering standards. The UK has a proud record of championing high animal welfare, workers’ rights, and environmental protections. This has been reflected in the trade agreements that the UK has signed with 63 partner countries to date, covering trade worth £217bn in 2019 numbers. These trade agreements entered into effect on the 1 January 2021 and as the Government promised, standards are not being undermined in fields such as animal welfare, the environment, human rights, equalities, or workers' rights. The position on the NHS is clear and unequivocal . The Government is wholly committed to ensuring that the NHS remains universal and free at the point of service. The NHS, including the price it pays for drugs, is off the table in each and every negotiation and is a clear red line.
The House of Lords had passed a revised amendment on genocide, which had the same issues as the previous amendment which I had voted against.
This amendment still created a new role for British courts, creating a court process whose sole purpose would be to make a preliminary determination of whether genocide has occurred for use in a decision in relation to a free trade agreement. I believe this undermines the separation of powers and democratic accountability by eroding Parliament’s function in holding the Government to account for the conduct of international relations.
The Government should conduct international relations, not the High Court – and it is for Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account for this, on behalf of our constituents.
I supported the amendment tabled by my backbench colleague Sir Bob Neill MP, the Chairman of the Justice Select Committee, which strengthens the role of Parliament over Free Trade Agreements. His amendment ensures that a debate and vote in Parliament will take place once the responsible Commons Committee publishes a report stating that there are credible concerns of genocide in a country with which the UK Government is proposing a new free trade agreement.
If the Commons Committee are dissatisfied with the Government’s initial written response to this then it would be empowered to demand a debate and vote on a substantive motion in the Commons, with the Committee itself providing the wording for the motion. The Government would be bound by law to make time for that debate and vote in the Commons.
This process guarantees a clear role for Parliamentarians on the issue of genocide in the context of trade agreements and places a specific duty on Government to act where the responsible Committee has published its concerns. Should the Government’s response be judged insufficient, MPs will have the ability to set out precisely what action they believe the Government should take.
The Minister for Trade has provided assurances that Government is entirely committed to ensuring that trade policy is consistent with the UK’s human rights obligations.
The UK’s global leadership role in standing up for the rights of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang was shown at the UN Third Committee in October last year, 38 countries joined the UK in calling for China to end arbitrary detention and allow unfettered access to the region for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary announced further targeted measures to help ensure that British organisations are not complicit in, nor profiting from, the human rights violations in the region. These include a review of export controls as they apply to Xinjiang and a commitment to introduce financial penalties under the Modern Slavery Act.
You can read my previous statement on the Trade Bill below, which has further detail.
I agree with about the importance of effective Parliamentary scrutiny; however, it is my view that the provisions outlined in New Clause 4 are not necessary.
At its core, the Trade Bill is a continuity Bill. It cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the US. Instead it can only be used to transition the free trade agreements that the UK has been party to through EU membership. All these agreements have already been subject to scrutiny as underlying EU agreements, through the European Scrutiny Committee process or equivalent.
Regarding future trade agreements, public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach. Ministers have also published their negotiating objectives prior to the start of trade talks and held open briefings for MPs and Peers, for example at the launch of talks with the US and Japan.
Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations too and I know that the International Trade Committee and the Lords International Agreements Committee will ensure my Ministerial colleagues at the Department for International Trade co -operate, consult and are scrutinised closely as negotiations progress
In many cases primary legislation is required to implement new free trade agreements, which will be debated and scrutinised by Parliament in the usual way. Furthermore, any Treaty cannot be ratified by the Government unless it is laid before Parliament for 21 sitting days and the House of Commons does not object to its ratification. Therefore, the House of Commons has a veto over the ratification of treaties.
I have also continued to receive correspondence on food standards. Ministers have consistently stated that this UK Government will not compromise on our standards. The manifesto was clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards and we remain firmly committed to upholding them outside the EU. The EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book and so they will be embodied in UK law.
These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcases. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament.
The UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide advice to the UK and Scottish governments. They will continue to do so in order to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreement.
I fully support and will not compromise our world-leading food, health and animal welfare standards and I will not support any measure which lowers our standards as we negotiate new trade deals.
You can read correspondence I have received from the Government and the Food Standards Agency on this topic below.
Finally, with regards to the NHS and future trade deals, I cherish our National Health Service and the role it plays in ensuring that no-one is denied medical treatment because they cannot afford it. The Government has been repeatedly clear that our NHS will never be on the table in any trade agreements, a position I fully support. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table, and nor will the services the NHS provides. Unfortunately the amendments and new clauses proposed would not have increased protection for the NHS given the existing government guarantees, and were more aimed at party political point scoring.