Nigel Huddleston – 2022 Speech on the Australia and New Zealand Trade Bill

The speech made by Nigel Huddleston, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, in the House of Commons on 12 December 2022.

May I say what a pleasure it is to speak on behalf of the Government today as we scrutinise this landmark piece of legislation? I thank colleagues for their contributions to the debates on this Bill, including the general debate, where many of the points raised today were also covered and responses were given by my hon. Friends on the Government Benches. I will try not to repeat that debate now.

The Government are of the view that the amendments tabled are ultimately unnecessary, and I hope that I will be able to persuade right hon. and hon. Members to withdraw them. The new clauses that deal with issues on impact assessment are unnecessary, as the Government have already committed to undertake assessments of impact of these deals at regular intervals.

First, the Government have committed to publishing a monitoring report every two years and a compressive evaluation report for each of the agreements within five years of their entry into force. Those evaluation reports will aim to show how, why and for whom the agreements and their implementation have delivered, addressing many of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate.

Hywel Williams

Can the Minister therefore confirm that there will be detailed assessments for Wales, including within regions and sectors in Wales?

Nigel Huddleston

We will be happy to discuss with many stakeholders the precise nature, content and scope of those reviews, and we will do that in due course.

This Bill is based on procurement, but while procurement is the only area that requires primary legislation for implementation, it should not be the only area that is subject to review. Therefore, publishing and considering impact assessments that only cover procurement implementation would not be an effective use of parliamentary time, nor would it give parliamentarians a full picture of the economic impact of the agreements. On multiple levels, the proposed amendments relating to impact assessments would not be fit for purpose.

Regarding the negotiation of the procurement chapters, both chapters build on the baseline in the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on Government procurement, or GPA, setting new international precedents, notably on data transparency and facilitating SME involvement in procurement. While all negotiations are different, my Department is committed to learning from each negotiation and applying those lessons directly to its work. I am confident that that approach towards negotiating procurement chapters allows for high-quality chapters that work well for British business and consumers.

As mentioned by several hon. Members today, the Bill Committee heard evidence from Professor Sanchez-Graells. We respectfully disagree with the professor’s reading that the chapters do not align with the GPA or that suppliers will not have access to legal remedies against contracting authorities and so cause confusion for and disadvantage British businesses. We do not believe that is the case. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), wrote in detail to the Committee on that and I have nothing more to add.

The Government are resolute in our determination to protect the NHS, recognising that it is an institution that is very important to the UK and its citizens. That is reflected in the specific protections negotiated in respect of the NHS in the agreements: health services are expressly excluded from coverage under the procurement chapters and both agreements specifically refer to the NHS and the general exclusions that apply to it.

On small businesses, the procurement chapters in both agreements include articles on facilitating the participation of SMEs in procurement. We will have people on the ground in the UK, Australia and New Zealand to help to fully exploit the opportunities, and I can assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that we will be providing that support across the UK. The Government have an active agenda of facilitating SME participation and continue to advance that agenda across the free trade agreement programme. We have consulted with businesses throughout the negotiations, including with small and medium-sized enterprises, and will continue to do so throughout the implementation.

On protecting farmers—again, a hot topic in previous debates—in both the Australia and New Zealand FTAs, the UK secured a range of measures to safeguard our farmers, including tariff rate quotas for a number of sensitive agricultural products and product-specific safeguards for beef and, for Australia, sheepmeat, alongside a general bilateral safeguard mechanism providing a temporary safety net for all products. Equally, this Government are committed to ensuring that UK farmers have the tools they need to secure the export benefits of these trade deals.

Additionally, it is unlikely that products from Australia or New Zealand will flood the UK market. In 2021, more than 80% of Australian beef exports and nearly 70% of Australian sheepmeat exports went to markets in Asia and the Pacific. New Zealand already has a significant volume of tariff-free access into the UK for sheepmeat but used only a third of that quota in 2021, meaning that New Zealand could already export more sheepmeat to us tariff-free, but chooses not to.

Geraint Davies

If New Zealand is not utilising its current quota, why have we chosen to give a completely unlimited quota in 15 years’ time? Given the Minister’s reasoning, New Zealand presumably does not need it, and it just exposes us to unnecessary risk.

Nigel Huddleston

All negotiations involve give and take. The hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge, I am sure, that we are also seeking market access right across the globe for farmers and our fantastic food and beverages—for example, by opening up the market in the US for sheepmeat for the first time in 20 years. At the same time, we are seeking opportunities right around the world. Of course, as several hon. Members have mentioned, we are proud of our high animal welfare and food safety standards, which is why we are ensuring that this deal does not compromise on them and that no new permissions for imports such as hormone-treated beef were granted.

On the Government’s engagement with the devolved Administrations, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that the Minister for Trade Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), chairs the inter-ministerial group for trade, previously known as the ministerial forum for trade. That forum provides an opportunity for discussion on all matters of trade policy, including the implementation of UK free trade agreements. The forum is not the only opportunity for ministerial discussions; there are frequent bilateral meetings between Ministers. Indeed, later this week, my right hon. Friend is set to meet the Scottish Minister for Business, Trade and Enterprise, to whom I spoke last Tuesday. I also spoke to the Welsh Minister for the Economy on 1 December on a similar basis. In addition to ministerial engagement, discussions with devolved Administrations at official levels have totalled hundreds of hours across the Australia and New Zealand FTAs, including frequent updates by chief negotiators and detailed discussions to draft text.

It may be helpful to also remind the House that on Second Reading, the previous Secretary of State for International Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is sitting near me now, committed at the Dispatch Box never to use the power in clause 1 without consulting the devolved Administrations first. That is a sincere commitment, and one that we will honour.

Hywel Williams

Is not the Minister confirming that taking back control extends to Ministers and officials in the devolved Governments but not to the elected representatives?

Nigel Huddleston

I am afraid that the hon. Member is misrepresenting the situation. In terms of concurrent powers, this is an established part of our devolution settlement. We are not, in these proposals, proposing anything unusual.

The breadth of our trade agreements means some policy issues will be within the competence of the devolved Administrations. The Government have always recognised that modern trade deals cover an increasingly broad array of policy matters. To enable more technical discussions, of course, we share draft treaty text with devolved Administrations for comment. That facilitates more detailed and comprehensive discussions between Department for International Trade officials and officials in devolved Administrations. There have already been discussions with the Scottish Government on the drafting of secondary legislation. In respect of the amendments, I understand that the Scottish Government wish to make the necessary statutory instrument to amend Scottish procurement regulations.

On new clause 12 and its consequential amendments, the super-affirmative procedure is used for statutory instruments when an exceptionally high degree of scrutiny is thought appropriate. An example would be remedial orders, which the Government can use to amend Acts of Parliament should the courts find them in breach of the European convention on human rights. It is therefore wholly disproportionate to use that process to approve a minor technical change needed to implement procurement commitments in the Australia and New Zealand deals. The potential unnecessary use of the affirmative or super-affirmative procedure could lead to delays in those agreements entering into force.

The Government are working to enter the agreements into force to ensure that UK businesses and consumers can benefit from the significant economic advantages as soon as possible. That is, of course, also the desire of the Labour Governments in Australia and New Zealand.

I hope that I have reassured hon. Members and that they will not push their amendments.

Gareth Thomas

It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister, but it was rather striking that not one Conservative Back Bencher was willing to come along tonight to defend their party’s deal. We have nevertheless had an important debate with important speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), and the hon. Members for Gordon (Richard Thomson)—whom I congratulate on his appointment—for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Arfon (Hywel Williams), as well as important interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord).

Ministers know that there are real concerns about the Australia deal and the precedent that it sets for future deals, and that here have been real concerns across the House about the parliamentary scrutiny of all trade deals, particularly the Australia deal. The behaviour of the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), has only underlined those concerns. Many have noted the huge giveaway of access for Australian farmers and how little we have secured in return in the same space. That is the fault not of the Australian negotiators but of the Government’s own wilful determination to get a deal by an arbitrary deadline, whatever the price.

The House will inevitably return to the issue of procurement. We will certainly encourage those in the other place to explore the concerns that I in particular have articulated in the debate—particularly as negotiations on CPTPP accession are moving forward. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.