John Montagu – 2023 Speech on the Australia/New Zealand Trade Deal (11th Earl of Sandwich)

The speech made by John Montagu, 11th Earl of Sandwich, in the House of Lords on 9 January 2023.

My Lords, I shall start with enthusiasm, but I may not be able to keep it up. The Australia and New Zealand agreements have been trailblazers among the FTAs post Brexit and I am glad that the Minister and the International Agreements Committee, to which I belong, have helped to see them through government as well as Parliament. They are, in general, excellent and productive agreements with two old friends and allies which bring undoubted benefits to this country across the whole spectrum of goods and services.

We should also acknowledge the co-operative attitude of the Government, or the various Governments, to our committee and our various reports. I thank successive Ministers for recognising the critical role of Parliament in scrutinising these agreements—the new Secretary of State’s response to our Australia report has confirmed this—but the CRaG process itself is inadequate, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, have said so well already. The committee itself has pointed out several times, over nearly three years, that to have any useful role we have to assess the negotiation objectives of an agreement right at the start. The noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, said that the Government have everything to gain by this. We also need to discuss the outlines of the agreement, without of course giving away any of its content, in which case the NDA process would be involved. I am not convinced that Ministers have gone far enough to meet these requirements but, since we have had more than one change of personality, maybe we will be better understood in future. Our relationship is still being developed. We have not yet received the response to our New Zealand report, and when we do, the horse will have long bolted.

I recognise that this is a somewhat artificial procurement Bill due for instant repeal, but it seems appropriate to make concluding remarks on the FTAs themselves, as others have. On the content, we were concerned about three issues on Australia in particular: agriculture, the environment, and the role of the DAs in both these agreements. I suspect that none of us was wholly satisfied with the way these three issues were handled. I shall use the helpful “Myth” and “Reality” sections in the DIT explainer accompanying the Bill. On agriculture, HMG persist in saying that 15 years of TRQs and safeguards provide sufficient protection for UK sheepmeat and beef producers, simply on the grounds that “it is unlikely” that Asian and Pacific countries will cease importing Australian meat. The noble Lord, Lord Frost, for example, said this was much too long and that we need adjustment and competition. On the contrary, it is just the sort of thing that could happen given an unfavourable political climate in China or elsewhere in Asia. It remains unsettling for farmers planning ahead. Here I also speak as an NFU member.

On animal welfare, it is quite true that standards are going up and the TAC did provide convincing reassurance, as the Minister said, that Australia was raising its animal welfare performance. However, the Government admit that they are raising standards only to the level of many other countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned the procedure of mulesing, for example, and she should know. It seems that higher standards apply only to RSPCA-approved farms, so there is still a way to go.

On pesticides, Defra says that the results of monitoring are published after consideration by its Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food. Public concern about residue levels seems to us to justify a more specific monitoring exercise relating to Australia, and perhaps the Minister could say if this will be undertaken. Apart from this, the side letter on GIs and the chapter on SMEs are both to be welcomed as promising support for small businesses, including farmers. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, mentioned migrant workers which was extremely helpful because it has not been covered.

Moving to the environment, I say that the new Government in Sydney are likely to prove much more positive about climate change, although it is too late for the FDA itself. Our Government claim that illegal logging will be tackled under the agreement, but there are no policy statements or details as to what happens in the separate states of Australia. It is another case of wait and see and further monitoring. Australia’s reliance on coal remains a major issue, but the Government have promised that the committee will receive reports and updates over time. This is welcome, and perhaps the Minister will confirm it. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is no longer in her place, pressed the Government on monitoring, so I hope the Minister will be able to respond fully.

I need say only one word about the devolved Administrations. This has been said time and again and I am surprised it has not come up today: devolved matters are not just matters for consultation. They are integral to the national policy of each of our member nations. This means that agriculture in the DAs comes right at the front of negotiations. This did not happen in the case of these agreements. I believe the Government still claim that the DAs have been fully engaged. Of course, the overlap of policy in different departments does make life more difficult for them.

I have touched on only three issues, and I have left New Zealand to last. On agriculture, environment and climate, New Zealand is and has been a model country. We can learn a lot from her. I recognise the other benefits that have come in, such as extending copyright—another thing not mentioned—and the growing importance of motor vehicles and machinery in UK exports by value under this agreement. New Zealand has been a model in one other respect: it has published an exemplary policy document summarising its aims and objectives in trade agreements, including more difficult issues such as human rights. I could spend some time on this, but I will not. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said that trade is not a watertight department. It is surely natural to discuss wider policies with friends who are also our trading partners. The Minister knows from our recent meeting that most of us in the committee have strong views on this. As we have heard today, we are hoping that the Government will take them seriously.

Finally, I should add that our application to the CPTPP will be greatly assisted by these two FTAs, while providing access to new markets in Asia and standing up to China, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, given all his experience, fluently reminded us. But that will be a subject for another day.