Thank you for your email about the Trade Bill, a new free trade agreement with the US and parliamentary scrutiny. The Trade Bill is an important piece of legislation which has a number of practical functions.
The UK has been working to reach continuity agreements with countries who we currently trade with through EU trade deals. The Trade Bill will enable these continuity agreements to be embedded into UK law so that the agreements can be fully implemented.
In addition, in leaving the EU, the UK will be acceding to the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) in its own right. The Bill’s provisions will make sure the UK can implement procurement obligations under the Agreement, ensuring continued access to £1.3 trillion per year of global procurement opportunities for UK businesses.
The Bill will also facilitate the creation of a new Trade Remedies Authority (TRA), to deliver a new UK trade remedies framework, which among other things will include protections for UK businesses from unfair trade practices or unforeseen import surges.
It is important to make clear that the Trade Bill is a continuity Bill, and its functions are largely distinct from the Government’s future trade agreements programme. Indeed, the Bill cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the US. The Bill simply enables the 40 free trade agreements that the EU had signed with third countries before the UK exited to be transitioned. Separate work on the future trade agreements programme is of course also pressing ahead, with negotiations already underway with the US and Japan.
Generating more trade will be essential in helping the UK overcome the unprecedented economic challenge posed by COVID-19. I welcome that an FTA with the US could bring about new opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs in the UK and help provide better jobs.
I am reassured by my Ministerial colleagues’ commitment not to compromise the UK’s high animal welfare, environmental, food safety and food import standards in any future FTA, including one with the US. Ministers do not intend to compromise the UK’s domestic welfare production standards either. I want to reassure you that the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions onto the UK statute book. This includes current import requirements, which for example ban the use of artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products, and stipulate that no products besides potable water are approved to decontaminate poultry carcases.
The UK remains committed to the delivery of Sustainable Development Goals too, and will continue to meet all of its international commitments following a potential US trade deal.
I want to be clear that the NHS will also be protected in any future trade agreement, including one with the US. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table, and nor will the services the NHS provides.
I know that my Ministerial colleagues have no intention of lowering standards in transitioned trade agreements, as the very purpose of these agreements is to replicate as close as possible the effects of existing commitments in EU agreements. You will be pleased to hear that none of the 20 continuity agreements signed have resulted in standards being lowered.
Technical amendments will of course sometimes be necessary to ensure the agreements remain operable, for example it may be necessary to remove or replace references to the EU in the text of the agreement. Any changes are detailed in Parliamentary Reports which are published alongside signed agreements.
Moreover, the powers in the Bill to transition the trade agreements are subject to a five-year sunset clause to ensure that the UK can maintain the operability of transitioned agreements beyond the end of the transition period. Any extension of this five-year period will require explicit consent of both Houses in Parliament.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act allows Parliament to scrutinise agreements for 21 sitting days, provides for a report on the agreement from the relevant Select Committee as well as the option for debates on the agreements and the power for the Commons to restart this 21 day period if it is not satisfied.
Finally, I would like to add the following with regard to New Clause 4, which has been tabled to the Trade Bill. I do appreciate your strength of feeling about this Clause and I agree with you about the importance of effective Parliamentary scrutiny. However, I do not believe that the provisions outlined in New Clause 4 are necessary.
At its core, the Trade Bill is a continuity Bill. It cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the US. Instead it can only be used to transition the free trade agreements that the UK has been party to through EU membership. All these agreements have already been subject to scrutiny as underlying EU agreements, through the European Scrutiny Committee process or equivalent.
Regarding future trade agreements, public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach. Ministers have also published their negotiating objectives prior to the start of trade talks and held open briefings for MPs and Peers, for example at the launch of talks with the US and Japan.
Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations too and I know that my Ministerial colleagues at the Department for International Trade will also be engaging closely with the International Trade Committee and the Lords International Agreements Committee as negotiations progress.
The Government has also made repeatedly clear that where necessary it will bring forward primary legislation to implement new free trade agreements, which will be debated and scrutinised by Parliament in the usual way.
Overall, I believe this approach strikes an appropriate balance. It respects the UK constitution, ensuring that the Government can negotiate in the best interests of the UK, while making sure that Parliament has the information it needs to effectively scrutinise and lend its expertise to trade policy.