This briefing paper summarises proceedings on the Trade Bill 2019-21 at Committee Stage in the House of Commons.

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Introduction

The Committee Stage of the Trade Bill 2019-21 took place over eight sittings between 16 and 25 June 2020. The first three sittings heard evidence from witnesses while the remaining five sessions scrutinised the Bill in detail.

A large number of amendments and new clauses were debated at Committee Stage. A number were pushed to a vote but the Bill was not amended. The Bill goes forward to Report Stage unchanged from its introduction into the House of Commons.

Much of the debate was on transparency and Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements. There was also some discussion of the role of the devolved governments. Concerns over the implications of a trade deal with the US were raised during the Committee Stage.

Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements

The Opposition argued that the current UK system gave Parliament only a minimal role in scrutinising treaties through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). When the UK had been an EU Member State, there had been extensive scrutiny of trade treaties by the European Parliament. The Opposition argued that the Bill provided an opportunity to create a new statutory framework for treaty scrutiny, which should apply to future trade agreements (such as with the US), not just EU trade agreements which were being rolled over into UK agreements. It was not enough to rely on assurances from Ministers.

The Opposition proposed a number of amendments and new clauses designed to increase transparency and scrutiny. These included requirements for:

  • Parliamentary approval for the start of trade negotiations
  • Impact assessments
  • Negotiation texts to made available
  • Select committees to have the power to trigger debates when they have concerns about trade negotiations
  • Parliamentary approval of trade agreements

Some Government amendments to the previous Trade Bill, but removed from the current Bill, were tabled again by the Opposition. For example, an amendment was proposed requiring the Government to produce a report showing the differences between the UK agreement with a third country and the EU agreement which it replaced. The Minister said that the Government would provide these reports on a voluntary basis.

The Government argued that the powers in the Bill were needed to ensure that the UK benefited from continuity agreements. The Government argued that:

  • The agreements had already been scrutinised at EU level so further detailed scrutiny was unnecessary
  • The regulation-making power in clause 2 would be subject to the affirmative procedure
  • The regulation-making power in clause 2 would also be subject to a five year sunset period which could only be extended with the consent of Parliament
  • Initiating, negotiating and signing international agreements were Executive functions under the royal prerogative. The amendments would limit the government’s ability to negotiate effectively.

New agreements vs continuity agreements

In the Government’s view, the Bill was about the continuity agreements not new agreements with countries which did not have an agreement with the EU. On new agreements, such as with the US, the Minister said that the Government’s commitment to scrutiny was demonstrated by the fact that it had published negotiation objectives and an economic impact assessment. The new agreements would also need to go through the CRAG procedure. Any legislative changes required by a future trade agreement would have to through Parliament in the usual way. The Minister said that his door was open to further discussions with opposition parties about the scrutiny of future trade agreements.

International obligations

The Opposition tabled a number of amendments which sought to ensure that regulations implementing trade agreements were consistent with a range of criteria, including the sustainable development goals, human rights law, workers’ rights, labour standards and environmental regulations. In response, the Minister said that the rolled over agreements were consistent with international obligations and that none of the continuity agreements already signed had reduced EU standards.

Food standards

A number of amendments were proposed with the aim of protecting UK food standards, including food production standards. The Minister said that the UK was committed to high standards in food and farming. All imports would have to meet UK import requirements and food safety standards.

Labour and the SNP tabled new clauses designed to ensure that imported food met the same standards as food produced in the UK. The Minister said that the EU approvals regime for agricultural products would be transposed onto the UK statute book. Imports under the UK’s continuity trade agreements would continue to comply with existing import standards. However, banning safe food imports which met import standards but did not follow UK production methods would disrupt the food supply chain.

Devolution

The SNP proposed an amendment requiring Ministers to gain the consent of the devolved administrations before making changes to regulations that directly affected them. Mr Hosie referred to commitments given to a Scottish Minister by the former Minister for Trade Policy. These included a commitment that UK Government Ministers would not normally use the Bill’s powers in devolved policy areas without consent and never without consultation. The UK Government also committed to consulting the devolved nations before extending the sunset power in clause 2. The Minister restated these commitments. However, the Government rejected a statutory consent provision for the devolved administrations as this would give them a veto over a reserved matter. The Minister said this would be constitutionally inappropriate.

A further amendment would require the approval of the devolved parliaments before implementing any trade deal agreed after the passage of the Bill. It was argued that modern trade agreements could cut across devolved policy areas. It was, therefore, important to give a statutory voice to the devolved nations. The Minister said that it was a principle of the UK constitution that negotiation of international agreements was a prerogative power of the UK government. It would therefore be inappropriate to give the devolved nations a veto.

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