Emily Thornberry – 2021 Speech on Global Britain

The speech made by Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, in the House of Commons on 11 January 2021.

Let me thank the Secretary of State for holding this debate, albeit in the very strange circumstances we find ourselves in today. I said many months ago, when I came into this role, how important it was that we should have an open debate in Parliament and with the public about the challenges and opportunities that we will face after Brexit as an independent trading nation. Now, as 2020 is finally skulking away, those challenges and opportunities are upon us, and today’s debate is, if anything, long overdue, but no less welcome for that.

However, I think it would be remiss of me, as I think it was remiss of the Secretary of State, not to start by acknowledging the severe and rising problems affecting businesses engaged in trade across the channel and the Irish sea today. Trade that flowed freely just a few weeks ago is now grinding to a halt because of the barriers and bureaucracy that the realities of Brexit require. Let me be clear: those problems are always to some extent inevitable—they could only have been mitigated, not avoided entirely, by the adoption of a different approach to our deal with the EU—but three things that were not inevitable, and indeed were totally avoidable, are the lack of time that businesses had to prepare, the lack of support that they have been given to prepare and the lack of help available to them now. I recognise that not all of that is down to the Department for International Trade, but I do have three questions that I hope the Minister of State will be able to address later.

First, I asked the Secretary of State seven weeks ago if she would establish a dedicated helpline for companies facing problems with their exports after 1 January, and I was told in response that the Department already had a dedicated helpline for trade-related queries, which is the one it shares with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That is all very welcome, except that if any businesses had called that number this weekend to ask for help with their problems at Dover or Holyhead, the automated response would have told them that the office was closed and that they should ring back at 9 o’clock on Monday.

I hate to break this to DIT Ministers, but the import-export trade does not operate on office hours. That is why round-the-clock support was needed, especially during the period of transition, adaptation and confusion. I could see the clear need for that seven weeks ago; it is extraordinary that the Government still cannot see it now.

That lack of foresight could be related to my second question, which falls squarely on the shoulders of the Secretary of State. Given all the problems that were inevitable on 1 January and the consultation and preparation that were required to mitigate those problems, does she regret her decision last July, which I warned her against at the time, to scrap the advisory groups her predecessor set up to deal with customs issues and continuity of trade post Brexit? Does she also regret her inexplicable decision to remove from the advisory group on transport issues the representatives of the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the British Ports Association? At exactly the time she should have been listening to the experts, she was shutting them out of the room.

Thirdly, and finally, on the current issues affecting EU trade, will the Minister of State tell us at the end of the debate who in the Government is now in charge of that brief? Is it still the Minister for the Cabinet Office, his colleague the Secretary of State, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, or the Chancellor, given his responsibility for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs? Looking at the chaos our exporters are facing today. I think we can all agree that someone in government has to get a grip and it would help if we all knew who is supposed to be doing the gripping.

Speaking of getting a grip, I come to the flurry of continuity agreements secured by the Secretary of State in December. Welcome though they were, there is something strange about the process followed for those agreements in the past year. Whenever I asked why no progress was being made, why the agreements were taking so long and why no deals were signed in the first nine months of the year, I was repeatedly told that they were very difficult and detailed negotiations which we could not expect to be done quickly. But when we look at the final text that emerged in December of one agreement after another, we see that they are clause for clause, word for word, identical to the EU treaties that went before them, apart from the words “European Union” being replaced with “United Kingdom”. The question is, therefore, exactly what were they discussing all that time?

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con)

The right hon. Lady will remember from our discussions about this that they were continuity agreements, and although, understandably, many of the partners with which we were seeking agreements had the ambition to do more at that time, we were seeking continuity. We explained to them that we would do more in due course, but we needed continuity to protect the terms of trade as we left the European Union. As for why it took so long, many of our partners did not think that we were actually going to leave and realised only late in the day that they needed to sign the agreements with us to protect our mutual trading arrangements.

Emily Thornberry

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but it looks to me a bit like two people meeting to play chess and the two of them sitting there looking at the board, not moving the pieces, and eventually deciding to shake hands and declare a draw. The Secretary of State might say that that is what continuity agreements are and the Government just kept things as they were, but if that is her argument I do not understand why the deals were left until the last minute and why a number were not done at all. Most fundamentally, what is the point of being an independent trading nation, what is the point of choosing to negotiate our own trade agreements, if we are happy to just replicate every deal that was done years ago by the European Commission, rather than include any new provisions of our own?

Anthony Mangnall  (Totnes) (Con)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Emily Thornberry

Let me make a little progress, then I will.

In many areas, the failure to make these deals is particularly stark, including the total lack of progress on any of the aspects of future job growth the Secretary of State highlighted in her speech, on just two of which I shall focus now. First, it is amazing and deeply disappointing that in the 30-plus continuity agreements secured by the Government over the past two years there is not one single new provision that strengthens the global fight against climate change—not even in the enhanced agreement with Japan. Secondly, it is not just a missed opportunity but a failed responsibility that there is no sign in any of the 30-plus agreements of the Government giving even the slightest consideration to human rights.

Egypt and Cameroon are by any standards among the most brutal regimes in the world today, yet the Government signed deals with both countries in December, with no apparent hesitation over their human rights records at all, and no apparent effort to strengthen human rights provisions in those agreements to gain some leverage over their behaviour. With Singapore, Vietnam and Turkey, the Government went one step further, signing new trade agreements which contain no substantive clauses on human rights at all, and not as much as a side-letter to address the issue. Is it any wonder that Members in the other place, with an increasing number in all parts of this House, believe that the only way to get Ministers to take human rights seriously when it comes to future trade deals is by obliging them to do so by law?

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con) rose—
Daniel Kawczynski rose—

Emily Thornberry

I will take one more intervention and then I need to make some more progress.

Henry Smith

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. What is her view of the recent agreement struck between the EU and China when it comes to human rights?

Emily Thornberry

Given the time that I have available, although I would be happy to sit and—[Interruption.] No, no, I would seriously be very happy to sit and talk to the hon. Gentleman about this issue and about the issue of China, because it is a challenge for all of us to work out exactly what the right way of proceeding is, and we need to ensure that we listen carefully to the variety of views, and we need to ensure that we make progress together on this.

On the subject of amendments to the Trade Bill, we will also soon be considering proposals to ensure that Parliament is properly able to scrutinise, debate and approve new trade agreements before they become law, and if it was not already clear why those agreements are required then the absolute farce of the last few weeks surely makes that case. We saw 11 new trade agreements or memorandums of understanding take effect on 1 January: none of them have been debated or approved by this House; none of them have completed the ratification process; four of them were not even published until new year’s eve; and one of them, that with Cameroon, is still to be published. The whole process makes an absolute mockery of the current procedures for the scrutiny of trade deals, and when the Trade Bill comes back to this House, Ministers surely cannot tell their Back Benchers with a straight face that those procedures should stay as they are.

As I said earlier, if any of this was a case of incredibly detailed treaty negotiations coming down to the wire in an effort to get the final text right, we might all accept it. But then we might have come back with something more than this—the agreement with Mexico, just five pages long with an eight-page annexe; then they really would have no excuse. But then there is the unfortunate reality of the 30-plus continuity agreements signed by the Government these last two years: no ambition, no improvements, no action on the environment, no progress on workers’ rights, no consideration of human rights, no time for parliamentary scrutiny, and not a single benefit in terms of trade that we did not already have. So I am grateful to hear all the talk from the Secretary of State regarding the new trade deals which she aims to sign this year and next, and I am sure that this is the first of many debates that we will have on those prospective deals.

Mrs Theresa May  (Maidenhead) (Con)

Yet again the right hon. Lady is raising the issue of continuity agreements, but may I just gently say to her, echoing the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that many countries were not willing to go beyond the continuity agreement until we had actually left the European Union? What was important for business was that word “continuity”—signing those agreements, so that at the point at which we left they could carry on trading on the basis on which they had been. Excellent work was done, not just in the past year but in the year or two beforehand by the previous Secretary of State for International Trade as well.

Emily Thornberry

I understand entirely what the right hon. Lady is saying. It is interesting, is it not, that half of the agreements were done in six months by the previous Secretary of State for International Trade, and the other half have been done over an extended period of time under the current Secretary of State? Indeed, many of these agreements, as the right hon. Lady has said, were done on the basis that the European Union deal was likely to be quite different from the one that we actually have now. That is one reason that we had this condition, yet we end up with cut-and-paste agreements coming down to the absolute wire at the end of last year, without our being able to do any scrutiny. As the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) has said, there are many issues that Members would want to raise and would want to have considered before we make any trade agreements, but as things stand, there is very little time for us to debate these matters.

Daniel Kawczynski

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Emily Thornberry

In the limited amount of time that I have left, I will not be taking any more interventions; let me just get to the end of my speech, because we already have only three minutes for each Back Bencher to make a speech in any event.

I would like to talk about the Secretary of State’s plan—as she has called it—on CPTPP, and to make a plea to her with regard to it. She has spoken many times about this matter. She talks as if the only issue to consider is whether we can persuade Japan, Australia and Canada to get on board, but I respectfully say to her that before she can win the argument for accession with them, she needs to start by making the case in Britain first. We have been through five years of division and debate in this country over leaving a trade bloc with our closest neighbours. Are we going to do that just in order to go and join another trade bloc on the other side of the world, simply because Tony Abbott thinks that it is a good idea? He might well be right—it may offer tremendous benefits for our country—but we cannot even start to judge until we know the terms on which we would join, and whether those terms are right for us.

There is a danger that the Government might even persuade themselves that this debate has already been had, thanks to the 14-week public consultation that was carried out back in 2018, but let me remind the Secretary of State of three things. First, only 81 business groups, non-governmental organisations and members of the public sat down and wrote formal responses to that consultation; in my book, that does not amount to proper engagement with stakeholders. Secondly, according to her Department’s own national survey conducted after that consultation, only 10% of the people of this country said that they knew what CPTPP was and supported joining it. That does not amount to a proper mandate in my book either. Thirdly, if she goes back to the consultation process responses, she will see that it is clear that many were based on very different assumptions about the outcome of our EU trade negotiations from the outcome that we have actually got. What is this about? In my view, it does not amount to a proper and reliable base of opinions.

For all those reasons, my plea to the Secretary of State today is for her to open up the consultation process again and to give business, unions, civil society and the public a chance to voice their opinions about whether joining CPTPP is the right next step based on where we are now and what we want to achieve as a country. The reason why that is crucial brings me back to what I said at the outset, about the chaos that is building at our ports and the crisis that is growing for our exporters. This is not a partisan statement; it is a simple statement of fact. We are going through all this pain because of a fervent belief on the Government Benches that the gains to be had from doing our own free trade deals with the rest of the world will eventually outweigh the losses from damaging our trading relationship with our nearest neighbours in Europe. That is the Government’s leap of faith. Even if I and many of my colleagues have fervently disagreed with that argument in recent years, we are now in a position where, for the good of our country and the communities we serve, we have to hope that we are proved wrong and that the Government are proved right—but, as things stand, that is not the case.

With every hour of delay that passes at Dover, every consignment that is turned away, and every product that is, after all, having to face tariffs because of rules of origin, British businesses are losing money. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, we have not gained one single penny in extra trade from the Government’s leap of faith: not one single agreement that we did not have before, and not one single export facing lower tariffs than it did in December. Indeed, as we heard the last time we were here, according to the Government’s own figures, our country is forecast to be worse off and to make lower exports thanks to the Secretary of State’s enhanced deal with Japan compared with the deal that we had before.

So it is understandable—perhaps inevitable—that when the Government resume their talks with Australia, New Zealand and America; when they start their talks with India, Brazil and the Gulf states; when they try to turn 14 pages of cut and paste into proper treaties with Mexico, Turkey or Canada; and most of all, when they make their formal bid for accession to CPTPP, they will be desperate to do these new trade deals at any price, to make up for our losses with Europe.

But no matter how desperate the Government get, they should not be allowed to do these deals at any price. These deals must not come at the cost of domestic British jobs and business. They must not come at the cost of our farmers and our food standards. They must not come at the cost of our ability to protect the NHS from marketisation or put environmental protection before corporate profits. They must not come at the cost of our principles when it comes to human rights, democratic freedoms and the future of the planet. To guard against all those things, every one of us should make clear that they will not be allowed to come at the cost of proper scrutiny and debate by this House.