The Trade Bill – busting some myths

A number of residents have been in touch in recent days regarding the votes last Monday on the trade bill and the (mis)representations of that vote which they may have seen on social media and in the press.  Given the level of interest, and those misrepresentations, I wanted to offer some more detail about what happened and why certain MPs, including myself, voted in the way we did.

Apparently, according to some reports and some of the emails I received, on Monday night, I:

  • put the NHS on the table in a future trade deal;
  • agreed that food standards could be significantly lowered in a future trade deal;
  • agreed that animal welfare standards could be significantly lowered in a future trade deal, and;
  • to top if off, voted to stop Parliament having a say on any future trade deal.

If it is true, that was quite the night on Monday that we had.  Look at what those terrible Tories have done again: swiping the nice food on my plate, trying to be mean to animals, removing my free health care and kowtowing to [insert world leader who people don’t like here].

The problem, though, is that none of the statements above are true.

None of them.

They might make punchy headlines or attention grabbing social media posts but every single one of those statements are false.  And it just highlights one of the problems with how some people, organisations and ideological groups twist, mislead and misrepresent – and it needs to stop.

Here’s some of the (many) reasons and problems why all of the commentary is wrong.  The explanations may not conveniently fit on a tweet or a pithy Facebook headline but that is often the issues – the misrepresentation can fit in a sentence whilst the actual, true explanation takes longer to explain:

Problem #1: The bill wasn’t even about future trade deals at all

What’s the thing that connects all of these accusations together?  That all of them are about future trade deals.

And the first problem on that is that the bill on Monday wasn’t even about future trade deals.

That bill, the Trade Bill, was not about deals that we may strike with America, Australia, India or any other country in the future.  It wasn’t about what things might or might not be acceptable, what our strategy is on or how we build closer relationships around the world over the long-term.

Instead, it was about something much more mundane than that; tidying up our legislative framework in readiness for when we leave the European Union transition period at the end of the year.  A lot of Parliament’s work currently is to ensure that we have functioning legal frameworks in the future, particularly as we take back control and powers from the EU.  It was, in the parliamentary parlance, a “continuity bill” – i.e. making sure we can continue to do what we are largely already doing after the transition period, rather than particularly change it at this stage.

So, the actual issues we were dealing with were not the NHS, food standards or animal welfare but, instead, the following:

  • making sure that we roll over existing trade deals, signed by the EU on our behalf in previous years, so we still have those relationships as an independent nation state;
  • making sure we are still part of a global agreement (the Agreement on Government Procurement) that we are currently members of through the EU but which we need to join independently as we take back powers over trade;
  • creating a UK Trade Remedies Authority to replace what the EU does for us today in case any country around the world starts competing unfairly, and;
  • allowing HMRC to collect and share data on trade in the future.

So when some MPs, mainly in the Labour and Green parties, tried to propose amendments dealing with how we negotiate future deals to a bill which doesn’t primarily deal with them, we didn’t agree them.  That seems pretty sensible to me – if a bill is about something else, we need to focus on that, particularly when the issues brought up are being dealt with elsewhere and by other means.

Problem #2: We’ve already confirmed that we will protect the NHS

And on that very point, completely separate to this argument this week, the UK Government has repeatedly already confirmed our approach on the NHS.  Here’s some examples:

“The NHS will not be on the table” (UK’s negotiating mandate for a US-UK free trade agreement, p.5)

“The Government has been clear that when we are negotiating trade agreements, we will protect the National Health Service (NHS)” (UK’s negotiating mandate for an Australia-UK free trade agreement, p.5)

“The Government has been clear that when we are negotiating free trade agreements, we will protect the National Health Service (NHS)” (UK’s negotiating mandate for a New Zealand-UK free trade agreement, p.5)

“The Government has been clear that when we are negotiating trade agreements, we will protect the National Health Service (NHS).  Our objectives reinforce this.” (UK’s negotiating mandate for a Japan-UK free trade agreement, p.5)

“The NHS is not on the table.  The price the NHS pays for drugs is not on the table.” (Secretary of State for International Trade, House of Commons, 17 June 2020)

And there are literally dozens of other confirmations, too.  The Government has made its policy really clear here.

At the same time, I would just caution constituents about the direction that some people seem to want to push the wider debate here.  We can be quite clear that the NHS is not going to be sold off (as we have been) whilst still, at the same time, be willing to take ideas from other countries and work with them where it is in our interests.  I want to find out how other countries are doing things that we can learn from, how we can improve treatments to make more people in the UK better and how we can learn from research, development and treatments being developed elsewhere.  We must not shut our borders like some ideologically-driven shrill voices seem to be suggest and I don’t want to be an MP that says to people in North East Derbyshire that makes it harder for them to have treatment, to benefit from other research or slows down access a new drug just because it was developed outside of the United Kingdom.  That won’t help anyone in the long-term and could, instead, do some real harm.  We can absolutely ensure that the NHS is not for sale whilst still wanting to cooperate with other countries in the future.

Problems #3 and #4: We’ve already confirmed that we will have high food and welfare standards

Equally, on food and animal welfare standards, the same points apply as the NHS.  We have confirmed in all of the mandates we have set out for negotiations underway with other countries that we seek high food and animal welfare standards.  You can find dozens of confirmations in those documents and in statements to Parliament by Ministers.

Problem #5: Beware of unintended consequences

Another problem is that some of the proposals put forward in Parliament on Monday night had potentially significant unintended consequences.  Even if put aside my issue that this bill wasn’t about future trade deals for a minute, and even if I had been willing in principle to legislate on a subject which wasn’t part of the scope of the laws we were debated, I still wouldn’t have voted for some of these proposals given the way they were written and the potential implications they had.

Take, for example, one of the proposals that some MPs wanted to be added to the Trade Bill: new clause 11.  That clause states very clearly that agricultural goods would not be allowed to enter the UK in future unless they were produced to standards “as high as, or higher than, standards which at the time of import applied under UK law” relating to animal health and welfare, protection of the environment, food safety, hygiene and traceability, and plant health.

That amendment looks innocuous and acceptable at first glance.  Yet, it actually has the potential to have huge implications for our existing trading relationships, never mind the ones we might or might not strike in the future.

If the UK passes a law which says that the production of agricultural goods absolutely everywhere in the world must be at the level of what the UK decides then we aren’t actually dealing with potential future trade but, instead, potentially impacting the trade which we already do – and which no-one has raised an issue about and which were negotiated on our behalf by the EU.  The Minister on Monday evening in the Commons highlighted the potential unforeseen consequence as part of a slightly broader point here:

“the Opposition think they are talking about chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, but are they actually able to look people in the eye and say that cocoa from the Ivory Coast has been produced to at least as high environmental standards as in the UK?  Are they able to say that beans from Egypt are being produced to at least as high labour standards?  Are they able to say that tea from Sri Lanka comes with the same high labour standards?  I think they are putting a lot of this country’s existing trade at risk.”

Problem #6:  Parliament already has the ability to scrutinise future trade deals

Contrary to some of the statements and myths, it simply isn’t true that Parliament doesn’t have the ability to scrutinise or vote on future trade deals when it comes forward.  Parliament already is able to review, scrutinise, vote on and, for all intents and purposes, stop the implementation of trade deals should they wish through the Constitutional Reform & Governance Act (2010).

At the point in the future when the Government has negotiated a draft trade deal, they will have to lay that draft treaty in front of Parliament and give MPs or Lords 21 days to review it.  Parliament is free to say that the treaty shouldn’t be ratified and, should it wish, can repeatedly delay that ratification – indefinitely if it wants to.  In addition, if a treaty requires changes to domestic legislation in order for the UK to comply with the terms of the negotiation, then that legislation would need to be voted on in Parliament and MPs, again, are free to reject the changes if they so wish.

I absolutely accept that there is a debate about the best way for Parliament to be involved on reviewing trade deals and I know that others take different views about whether existing processes are sufficient at the current time.  Yet, it is not true to suggest Parliament does not have the ability to review, discuss, debate, vote on and, should they wish, delay and practically stop implementation.

 

So, after all of the noise since Monday night, where are we?

Well, on Monday morning the UK Government was committed ensuring the NHS wasn’t sold off, committed to high food standards in any future trade deal, committed to high animal welfare standards in any future trade deal and there was a law that had already been in place for ten years which ensured scrutiny and oversight of trade deals.

Then Monday night came along and MPs, such as myself, voted on a continuity bill which wasn’t supposed to be about future trade deals.

And, on Tuesday morning, nothing changed.  The UK Government remained committed to ensuring the NHS wasn’t sold off, high food standards n any future trade deal, high animal welfare standards in any future trade deal and the law remains in place still allowing scrutiny of any trade deals which the Government signs by Parliament.

Instead, what has actually happened is that a number of groups and people, some with pretty crude political and ideological motives, have caused unnecessary concern and anxiety by misrepresenting what happened.  And this is happening, currently, every few weeks – as certain organisations and parts of the media play games with the Parliamentary process and what we are doing.  We had the same histrionics and same media outlets accuse us of voting to lower food standards over the Agriculture Bill a number of weeks ago as we did this week over the Trade Bill.  Some of the press stories and posts could almost have been cut-and-paste word-for-word statements.  And, each time, these bills are about something else and the Government’s intention and approach do not change irrespective of what is alleged.

For me, putting aside all of the silly political game playing (as frustrating as it is), the heart of this issue is the UK becoming comfortable again with controlling trade policy.  The EU has dealt with our trading relationships with other countries since 1973.  It has signed trade deals on our behalf (too slowly, in my view).  It has negotiated on behalf of us.  We have forgotten how trade works and the need for a proper conversation about how it works.

For the first time in half a century we are taking back control over our trade policy.  We are learning again, as a country, how trade negotiations work, how things take time, how we need to allow space for proposals to be brought forward.  And, in the interim, a lot of loud voices are trying to skew the debate, claim things are happening that aren’t and scare people about trade.  I make no bones about it: I’m a proud free trader.  Trade deals have lifted billions of people out of poverty around the world in recent decades, brought countries closer together, created wealth, generated jobs and helped the United Kingdom prosper.  Thousands of jobs in North East Derbyshire alone depend up trade.  And we can create thousands more in the future if we can strike good, mutually beneficial trade deals with all of the countries the EU wasn’t able to do in previous decades.  We shouldn’t be afraid of those potential deals.  Of course we need to have red lines, to debate extensively and have clear objectives.  At the same time, we also need to be willing to make compromises and find agreements which are mutually beneficial and agreeable to countries over the long-term – but without crossing the red lines that we have.

So, next time you see an accusatory headline about trade policy on Facebook or Twitter, be sceptical.  If it accuses Conservative MPs of basically eating babies, then it’s probably not true.  There’s always an explanation for everything.  Our system does not, never has and, frankly, could not, deal with everything through law alone.  There is a process in place on tidying up our domestic legislation (like on the Trade and Agriculture bill) to get us ready for the end of the transition period and there is a separate process underway on striking future trade deals.  Let’s let both of them continue, based on the explanation above.  It’s hugely disappointing that Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems, certain campaign organisations (38 Degrees and the like) and many parts of the media continue to play games on trade policy but, as an MP, I can’t stop people doing that if they want to.  What I can do, however, is vote on laws in a sensible way, approaching them based on the scope that was intended and recognising that the Government has already made strong commitments on many of the issues under debate.

And, finally, one of the big issues that all of these debates highlight is the propensity for misinformation and misrepresentation across social media and the press.  I’ll come back to this in the coming weeks as we need to debate and discuss that more as a constituency.  Yet, just because a screaming headline makes strong claims doesn’t mean it is right.  And just because an explanation takes more than a single tweet (as this one did today on the Trade Bill), doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.