The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on the Working Practices – International Agreements Committee Report on 19th May 2022:
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Although I am not a member of this committee, I am very grateful for this report and enjoyed reading it, including its stress on the role of Parliament, not just in approving what has been decided but in the issues we are discussing now.
I found the previous speech very helpful. Why is there such reluctance to allow Parliament—both its Houses—to engage at a much earlier stage? This House is renowned for its extraordinary levels of experience, both in international diplomacy and negotiation and in the actual substance of many of the areas in which we are trying to get treaties and memoranda of understanding. Surely all it will do in the long run, if we can simply go ahead and give Parliament time, is to allow that experience to come out and be brought together. This is precisely what we should be doing.
Reading through the report made me decide to speak in this debate to just say one or two things. I will focus on UK agriculture, an area I particularly focus on. Reading the report, one gets the sense that the Government are very reserved about the level of scrutiny they wish to afford to Parliament, to committees and to bodies such as the trade advisory groups. This is fundamental to the work we should be doing. For that reason, I strongly welcome paragraph 48 of the report and the recommendation to consolidate the various commitments and provide certainty on the exact functions, procedures and levels of oversight afforded to the various bodies. That seems to me to be a really helpful proposal.
It is disappointing to hear that the Government do not believe they can support the draft concordat in appendix 2. I understand the need for flexibility—after all, after five decades of having no independent negotiated trade agreements, we are still getting back up to speed and getting used to negotiating these. Nevertheless, we are two years on from our departure from the EU, and I share the anxiety that many Members have for a clear scrutiny framework that provides Parliament with the oversight that other western economies simply take for granted; this is just the norm.
I am pleased that the new Trade and Agriculture Commission is well up and running, having produced its assessment of the Australian free trade agreement. On a personal front, as a lay person when it comes to complex FTAs but as a Member of this House who works closely with farmers and rural organisations, I welcome the candour of its assessment. It is positive to learn that existing protections concerning animal welfare and environmental standards will not be compromised. I found the breakdown of products by prospective future import levels fascinating, but the competition aspects of this agreement are deeply concerning, particularly in setting precedents that could be replicated in other trade deals. Irrespective of my personal reflections regarding the FTA, I am glad that the TAC has begun to act in accordance with its role. I hope that the criticisms that emanate from its Australia FTA report will inform future objectives. For that reason, I look forward to the publication of its assessment of the New Zealand FTA in providing agri-food producers with an accurate picture of this predicament.
It is disappointing to hear that trade advisory groups feel inadequately informed or consulted in relation to free trade agreements. One hopes that this is currently being resolved, as the report suggests, but I also hope that the Government do not view the TAGs as a box-ticking exercise to give the appearance of keeping business and trade bodies onside. Speaking at least for the agri-food sector, I know that the organisations listed have a huge amount of expertise and advice to offer, not just on the specific details of trade agreements but in devising strategies to help make British agri-foods a world-leading brand capable of boosting our exports. For example, the NFU has set a commendable ambition to increase our agri-food exports by 30% in the next decade. I strongly commend its report, Growing our Agri-Food Exports to 2030 and Beyond, which outlines a series of recommendations to make this happen. Surely it is bringing huge expertise and offering help. We need to integrate it as we develop into the future.
We need the ambition of our industries to be truly matched by the Government. I hope that in the coming years we see TAGs playing a more active and effective role in helping to formulate future trade policy.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord McNicol of West Kilbride (Lab): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans asked why the Executive do not agree with the report and are nervous about detailed scrutiny, especially given the expertise within your Lordships’ House. I think he answered the question himself, but if he did not, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, did in his eloquent and analytical analysis of Minister Milling’s letter.
Since the report was published last September there has of course been a response from the Government and a subsequent back and forth, some of which we have already heard about today. As has been noted, there appears to be a fundamental difference between the approach of the DIT and that of the FCDO. I am sure that the Minister in responding can bring some light to those differences and, I hope, some solutions. The findings and recommendations of the report have been discussed over the last nearly two hours now, so I will try to look at where we are now and where I believe further questions still need to be answered by the Government.
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con): On the comments by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and a number of other speakers, I welcome their having highlighted the trade advisory groups in particular and the important role they play in promoting, among other things and other sectors, the increasingly important agriculture sector.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab): Clearly, important statements were made about our negotiating objectives, and the need for us to discuss those, by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, my noble friends Lord Hendy and Lord McNicol and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. As well as my noble and learned friend Lord Morris, I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley also mentioned the devolved Administrations. As well as involving them, there is a clear need to get other stakeholders involved in this, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned, particularly in relation to TAGs. Personally, I was rather disappointed that Which?, the only independent spokesperson for consumers, was excluded by the Government from the domestic advisory group, or DAG—albeit on the Europe issue, rather than on what we deal with. This suggests that the Government do not really want to listen to other voices.