Ranil Jayawardena – 2022 Statement on the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement

The statement made by Ranil Jayawardena, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, in the House of Commons on 19 July 2022.

I have been asked to reply. Our Anglo-Australian trade deal will play an important role in levelling up the United Kingdom. It is expected to increase trade with Australia by 53%, boost the economy by £2.3 billion and add £900 million to the wages of hard-working households across our country in the long run. Her Majesty’s Government have stated on a number of occasions that the agreement will be ratified only once it has passed its statutory scrutiny period under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and, in addition, the necessary implementing legislation must have passed.

Her Majesty’s Government have made extensive additional scrutiny commitments, which include allowing a reasonable amount of time for the Select Committees to produce reports prior to the statutory scrutiny period under CRaG. We further set out that, for the Australia deal, this would be a period of at least three months. In actual fact, double the amount of time has now been provided: the agreement has been available for scrutiny for over six months. I should also point out that, before starting CRaG, Her Majesty’s Government published two reports to support scrutiny: the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission’s report on 13 April, and the Government’s own report under section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2020 on 6 June. Both reports were provided to the relevant Select Committees prior to publication to support their scrutiny work.

Her Majesty’s Government have now started the CRaG process, following this six-month scrutiny period, which was in addition to the statutory period provided for by CRaG. By the end of the CRaG period on 20 July, the treaty will have been under the scrutiny of this House for over seven months. The House will undoubtedly have benefited from reports from three separate Select Committees—the International Trade Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and the International Agreements Committee in the other place.

In addition, the agreement can only be ratified once Parliament has scrutinised and passed the implementing legislation in the usual way. The agreement requires primary legislation, and the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill is currently before the House of Commons and will have its Second Reading in due course. This legislation will be fully scrutinised and approved by Parliament in the usual way. I should point out that we expect Australia to conclude its parliamentary process before we do. Therefore, any delay to our process slows the deal’s economic benefits from being felt across Britain.

Let me say this to my hon. Friend: he knows that my brief usually covers other markets, but the principles remain the same. In my view, it is important to strike the right balance between the scrutiny of trade deals and bringing them into effect in a timely way so that our consumers and businesses can reap their full rewards. I believe that the balance is right, and that this House and my Department should continue to harness the power of trade to create jobs, boost wages and secure prosperity.

Anthony Mangnall

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question on the Australia free trade agreement. The UQ is supported by the whole International Trade Committee and the Chair, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who cannot be with us but is here in the guise of his favourite Scottish export spirit—whisky, of course. The Chair of the Select Committee and I have very different perspectives on the Australia free trade agreement, but despite that we both wholeheartedly believe in the need for scrutiny in this place of that agreement.

This is the first wholly new trade agreement that we have signed since leaving the European Union, but unfortunately it has not had the scrutiny it deserves. On 8 October 2020, the then International Trade Secretary, who is now the Foreign Secretary, said that

“we will have a world-leading scrutiny process, comparable with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. That will mean the International Trade Committee scrutinising a signed version of the deal and producing a report to Parliament, a debate taking place and then, through the CRaG…process, Parliament can block any trade deal if it is not happy with it.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; Vol. 681, c. 1004.]

I ask the Minister whether the Government are still committed to that point of principle. The Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for International Trade have made those commitments to right hon. and hon. Members of this House, and we deserve our say on a trade agreement that makes a significant difference. On the Australia free trade agreement, the Government began the 21-day CRaG process before the International Trade Committee had even produced its report and even before the Secretary of State had come before us to defend the agreement in the first place. The Government refused to grant the Committee’s request for 15 sitting days between the publication of the section 42 report and triggering CRaG, thus denying us more scrutiny. As I have already said, the Government have failed to provide a Minister in good time and good order. In relation to the first report the Committee wrote on this, the Secretary of State was asked eight times to come before the Committee to discuss the agreement. She only did so a week and a half ago. The Government have failed to provide a debate and a vote on the agreement, so will the Minister, as the Liaison Committee and many other Members across the House have asked, delay ratification for the further 21 days and allow us to have a proper debate on this issue? Will he ensure that every future free trade agreement is signed and drawn through the CRaG process, as you have suggested, Mr Speaker? Will he ensure that Ministers are made available to discuss trade agreements ahead of time?

We are asking for nothing that we have not been promised at the Dispatch Box. It is time we are given that.

Mr Jayawardena

We have a system that compares very well with other parliamentary systems around the world. We will not be extending the CRaG period, given the extensive scrutiny time that Parliament has had—as I set out earlier, seven months by the end of the period—and we will not be able to offer a debate. The Secretary of State said that she felt the agreement could benefit from a general debate, but that is a matter for business managers in this House. The Labour party was very keen to have another debate yesterday, which took a whole day of parliamentary business from this House.

The section 42 report is there to inform the scrutiny period, not create an additional scrutiny period above and beyond CRaG. We published that report on 6 June. As my hon. Friend says, it was sent to the International Trade Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the International Agreements Committee in the other place on 27 May to ensure they had ample time to consider the report. There is a balance, as I say, between ensuring sufficient time for robust scrutiny and ensuring agreements come into place quickly. I think we have got that balance right.

On CRaG, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 was introduced by the Labour party. It gave the opportunity for parliamentary disapproval of treaties statutory effect and it gave the House of Commons the power to block ratification. Members across the House will know the answer to that. I am more than willing to set out the process, but in the interests of time and allowing people to come in I shall sit down for now.