Treaty Scrutiny: Working Practices (EUC Report)

Lord Taylor of Warwick’s speech in the House of Lords, 7th September 2020

My Lords, I thank the committees and their chairs for their hard work, expertise and excellent reports. In my view, it is only right that any trade deal or agreement has to result from proper vetting, not just voting. Scrutiny does not mean mutiny. The Government do not need to fear that the direction they are sailing in will be hijacked by a rebellious crew. On the contrary, scrutiny provides opportunity. It allows the UK Parliament the chance to examine closely, and influence positively, trade and other international agreements. After all, this is in keeping with the whole rationale of Brexit.
Transparency is vital because treaties will directly affect our daily lives. The Government have already started discussing important trade agreements with America, Japan and other major economies. These agreements will affect jobs, services, prices and the availability of goods in our shops. As we know, Parliament’s role has been defined by the Ponsonby rule, which is nearly 100 years old. Maybe it is symbolic that the initials of the CRaG Act also describe a high and rough mass of rigid rock that sticks out from the land around it. It is no longer fit for purpose.

It seems that the committees have come up with four very sensible recommendations, and I would like the Minister to indicate whether he is sympathetic to them. The first is that Parliament should be regularly updated during these agreement processes; the second that there should be a general presumption of transparency from the Government. That is not a legally codified or binding point, but just a presumption. There should also be a draft text of the agreement proposed and parliamentary trade reports from the Government, indicating full impact assessments on different sectors of the economy and labour markets. All this would be subject to confidentiality and security provisions. Will the Government indicate when they will give a formal, published response to these recommendations? The concept of a group of counsellors or advisors scrutinising such agreements goes back, in principle, to the Old Testament. This is a tried and tested principle: it is nothing new.

Brexit allows us to trade with the entire world. No longer is this great trading nation shackled by the European Union but, in a true democracy, those trade agreements must have effective scrutiny and that should come from Parliament. Parliament is more than an ornament.