Emily Thornberry – 2020 Speech on the Trade Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, in the House of Commons on 20 May 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House recognises that upon leaving the European Union, the UK will need effective legislation to implement agreements with partner countries corresponding to international trade agreements of the European Union in place before the UK’s exit, to implement procurement obligations arising from the UK becoming a member of the Government Procurement Agreement in its own right, to set out the basis of a Trade Remedies Authority to deliver the new UK trade remedies framework, and to establish the powers for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect and disclose data on goods and services exporters; but declines to give a Second Reading to the Trade Bill because it fails to set out proper procedures for Parliamentary consultation, scrutiny, debate and approval of future international trade agreements, fails to protect the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty in respect of the implementation of international trade agreements previously negotiated by the European Union and in respect of changes to existing government procurement regulations arising from the UK’s or other countries’ accession to the Government Procurement Agreement, fails to establish sufficient scrutiny procedures to replace those that have pertained while the UK has been a member of the European Union, fails to guarantee that the UK’s current high standards and rights will be protected in future trade agreements, and fails to render the Trade Remedies Authority answerable to Parliament or representative of the full range of stakeholders who should be included in its membership.​

In moving this amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, I am conscious that, for many of us, there will be a strong sense of déjà vu: the personnel may have changed, but we have all been here before, with the same Bill, the same amendment, and the same arguments. For once, the Government are correct when they say that nothing has changed. The inescapable truth remains that this Trade Bill, as it currently stands, is a massive missed opportunity for the Government, for this Parliament and for our country.

For the past five decades, our trade policies have been set at European level. Indeed, there is not a single Member of this House who was in Parliament the last time the UK set its own trade policies, so, like it or not, this Bill carries an historic significance, and that is what I want to address today. Is this Bill, in its current form, fit to rise to its historic challenge? After five decades, in which we have seen tremendous upheaval in our global economy, does the Bill provide the legislative framework and the bold and far-reaching vision that we need to underpin Britain’s trade policies for several years to come? After five decades, does the Bill ensure that issues such as climate change and human rights, which were barely a consideration the last time the UK set its own trade policies, are now at the heart of our decision-making and central to our relationships overseas? And after five decades, does the Bill give a proper voice to the devolved Administrations, who did not even exist back then, and to all other private, public and civic-sector bodies whose ideas and insights constantly improve our policy-making and remind us that Whitehall does not know best?

Finally, after five decades, does this Bill restore full sovereignty to Parliament over Britain’s trade policies, especially when it comes to the formulation, scrutiny and approval of new trade agreements? Those are the questions I asked myself. As I will explain, the answer that came back, on every front, was a resounding no—even worse, a warning cry that far from restoring the powers of Parliament when it comes to trade policy, this Bill erodes them to nothing.

Let me begin with the first question, namely whether this Bill gives us a legislative framework and a bold new vision for decades of trade policy to come. Here we find ourselves in the strange position of having Ministers themselves tell us that the answer is no. They say that there is nothing of significance in this legislation, and that it is simply a continuity Bill that is designed to maintain the status quo beyond 31 December. I will come back to whether that is right, especially in respect of new trade agreements, but one thing is for sure: there is no bold, long-term vision in this Bill. There is no great legislative framework for the future, and when it comes to the UK shaping its own trade policy after five long decades, this Bill certainly was not worth the wait.

That brings us to the second question, namely to what extent the Bill reflects the necessary and welcome widening of Britain’s trade policy objectives over five decades, and the extent to which it puts at the heart of our future trade agreements the issues of climate change, environmental protection, human rights, workers’ rights, sustainable development and gender equality. Again, we should all be ashamed to say that the answer is: not at all.

I will take just one of those issues, namely human rights. It is disappointing enough that the Government are failing to make it a key priority in negotiating new ​trade agreements, but what is truly damaging is the Government’s willingness to omit from their rolled-over trade agreements the human rights clauses that are now mandatory in all deals with the EU. If the Government want to refute that, the Minister of State has a simple task when he closes the debate later. He should guarantee that the rolled-over trade agreements that the Government are still trying to negotiate before 31 December with Cameroon and Egypt will both contain clauses enabling the UK to terminate the agreements if those countries continue their horrendous abuse of human rights. Will he ensure that the same policy applies to Turkey, Singapore, South Sudan and every other country with whom we are in negotiation?

The third question was whether the Bill marks a decisive break with the “Whitehall knows best” attitudes that dominated policy making five decades ago, and instead paves the way for Britain’s new trade policies to be formed in a transparent and inclusive way, for example by consulting the elected representatives of our regions and devolved Administrations, benefiting from the expertise of our development and environmental non-governmental organisations, or listening to the concerns of British businesses and their employees. Again, the answer, sadly, is no.

We see that most starkly when it comes to the Bill’s proposals for the membership of the trade remedies authority. That will be a vital body with a vital task, but it will have no guaranteed representation from the UK’s industry bodies and trade unions—the representatives of the people most affected by the unfair practices that the TRA is supposed to prevent. No wonder there are such concerns and suspicions that the Government’s true agenda for the TRA is not to defend Britain against underpriced imports, but somehow to balance the damage they do to domestic producers against the perceived benefits for domestic consumers. That is not the job of the trade remedies authority. That is why we instead need there to be proper representation on the board for the businesses and workers that it has been set up to defend, and why we need the TRA to be accountable to Parliament rather than Government.

That brings me to the final question, which is of the greatest immediate significance: whether, after five decades, this Bill succeeds in restoring parliamentary sovereignty over our country’s trade policies or whether, in fact, the opposite is true, as Members here and in the other place—all formidably led by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner)—have consistently said over the past two and a half years.

Let us take an example. The Secretary of State is a fan, it would seem, of the Government procurement agreement. As my colleagues have pointed out in the past, no matter how much we agree with the GPA, it is still incredible that the UK can accede to the GPA and MPs have no practical means to stop it; that the UK’s coverage schedules can be sent to the WTO and MPs have no opportunity to approve them; and that changes can be made in the future to the UK’s commitment under the GPA, and MPs will have less chance to scrutinise them than we did when Brussels was in charge and the European Scrutiny Committee was in place. So in an area such as Government procurement, the Bill does not advance parliamentary sovereignty—it does not even leave us standing still. The Bill takes us backwards.​

Let us look at a more contentious area: new trade agreements. The Government have tried to convince us that, because the Bill only seeks to provide the basis to roll over existing agreements, we do not have to worry about the almost complete absence of accompanying parliamentary scrutiny or approval. But the reality is that in many cases there are or will be major differences between the UK’s third country agreement and the EU equivalent it is opposed to replicate.

Let us look at some of the examples we have seen. We have agreements with five countries in a trade bloc where the UK only covers three. We have EU agreements with mandatory clauses on human rights that the UK has agreed to drop. We have an EU agreement with Turkey based on a customs union, which the UK has explicitly rejected. We have an EU agreement with Japan, which both the Secretary of State and her Japanese counterpart have said our bilateral deal should go beyond, and that will doubtless be true of the Canada deal as well.

In short, we will end up with several major new trade deals all significantly different from their EU equivalents, but all subject to the same minimal amount of parliamentary scrutiny and approval, as proposed in the Trade Bill. That is not a restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. That is not anywhere near the gold standard of parliamentary consultation, scrutiny and approval of trade deals that we see in Australia or the United States. That is not therefore what I would call taking back control.

In conclusion, I believe that this Trade Bill offers a historic opportunity, but that opportunity has so far been missed. Instead of a bold, strategic vision for the future of our trade policy, we have a stopgap piece of legislation that even Ministers are trying to talk down. Instead of issues such as climate change and human rights being put at the heart of our trade policy, they have been ignored or consciously dropped. Instead of opening our trade policy to the expertise of others, the Government are denying them even a seat at the table. And instead of restoring Parliament’s sovereignty over trade policy, this Bill leaves MPs even more powerless than before. That is why I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to support the Opposition’s amendment. After five decades, let us spend the time and effort we need to get this historic Bill right.