Trade Bill - scrutiny, protection of the NHS and safeguards for the environment - February 2021

Dear constituent,

Thank you for contacting me about the Trade Bill.

In relation to parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, there is no prospect of decisions being made on the issues that you outlined without proper scrutiny. Indeed, I asked the minster about future scrutiny of trade deals during the July 2020 debate on the Trade Bill – https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2020-07-20a.1870.2&s=speaker%3A24787#g1890.4. I agree that Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade policy and free trade agreements. It has an important role in debating and scrutinising the Government’s domestic and foreign policies. That is why I am glad that the Government has made a number of important steps in enhancing Parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy. This includes sharing extensive and comprehensive information with Parliament ahead of negotiations with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

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.

Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations 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.

There was also some concern, however, that the amendment made in the House of Lords could have placed restrictions on the Government’s ability to enter into treaty negotiations and to ratify treaties. Ministers have said that giving Parliament a veto over negotiating objectives would curtail the royal prerogative and would limit the flexibility to negotiate in the best interests of the UK.

The Government has been clear that it is committed to a transparent trade policy with comprehensive engagement with Parliament. 

Equally, the Government has been clear on protecting the NHS.  The Trade Bill is a continuity Bill, and it cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements with countries such as the US. Rather, the Trade Bill is designed to enable the free trade agreements that the EU had signed with third countries before the UK exited to be transitioned. The NHS is already protected by specific carve outs, exceptions and reservations in these trade agreements.

I know that my Ministerial colleagues have no intention of lowering standards in transitioned trade agreements – the very purpose of these agreements is to replicate as close as possible the effects of existing commitments in EU agreements. Indeed, I can reassure you that none of the 20 continuity agreements signed have resulted in standards being lowered.

In future trade agreements the Government has made a clear and absolute commitment that the NHS will not be on the table. Indeed, I note Ministers have made clear they will ensure rigorous protections are included for the NHS in all trade agreements to which the UK is party, whether transitioned from an EU context or as a result of future negotiations. Rigorous checks and balances on the Government’s power to negotiate and ratify new agreements also already exist, including through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. 

Moreover, trade agreements cannot by themselves make changes to our domestic law. Any legislative changes required as a result of trade agreements would be subject to the separate scrutiny and approval of Parliament in the usual ways.

The Minister summarised the situation well during the recent debate, when he said: “May I first remind the House of a simple fact that underlines our entire trade policy? It is that we are wholly committed to ensuring that the NHS remains universal and free at the point of service. Our position could not be clearer: the NHS, the services it provides and the price it pays for medicines will remain off the table when we are negotiating free trade agreements. These are not just words. I am pleased to confirm that none of the agreements we have signed with 63 partner countries has threatened the delivery of a free and universal NHS. Not a single one of those agreements has affected our ability to protect the health service.

The powers contained in this legislation are required only to provide continuity with the existing EU trade agreements. The NHS was always protected by specific exclusions, reservations and exemptions in the EU trade agreements, which we have rolled over into our continuity agreements. We do not see the need for this amendment, as protecting the NHS is already a top priority in negotiations. We have all witnessed the heroic efforts of the NHS through the covid-19 pandemic, and we are immensely grateful for all that it has accomplished. The idea that we would now seek to sell off the NHS to foreign corporations is, frankly, offensive and absurd. The NHS is not on the table. The NHS is not and never will be for sale."

Finally, your email refers to environmental protections and animal welfare.

The Government has been clear that it will uphold environmental standards. There is no intention whatsoever of lowering standards in transitioned trade agreements, as the very purpose of these agreements is to replicate as close as possible the effects of commitments in EU agreements. Although future trade agreements are outside the scope of the Trade Bill, the Government has made a clear and absolute commitment to uphold the UK’s high animal welfare, environmental, food safety and food import standards in any future free trade agreement. Neither Ministers nor I intend to compromise the UK’s domestic welfare production standards either and I welcome the creation of the Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise the Secretary of State on protecting these standards while capitalising on trading opportunities.

I am glad that the Government has amended the Trade Bill to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing and confirmed that the body will produce a report, to be laid in Parliament at the start of each 21-day scrutiny period, on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture arising from each new free trade deal.

Without exception, all animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements from all trading partners, including the EU and others, will have to meet our stringent food safety standards, as they do now. The UK’s independent food regulators will continue making sure that all food imports into the UK comply with those high standards.

Since first being elected, I have met regularly with local farmers to listen to their concerns and to take forward issues to DEFRA on their behalf, particularly with regard to the Agriculture Bill. Shortly after being elected, I convened a Farmers' Forum which has met a number of times now and I have liaised with the local and national NFU during the pandemic about specific issues which have affected the farming sector during the pandemic and, of course, food standards have been a very important issue as part of those discussions.

The manifesto I stood on was clear that in all trade negotiations, our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards will not be compromised. The Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers. All food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements.

The EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book. These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Please be assured that any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before Parliament.

I welcome the announcement that a Trade and Agriculture Commission has also been established – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-and-agriculture-commission-tac. This is something which local farmers have been calling for and is supported by the NFU. The Government has listened to their concerns. During the passage of the Agriculture Bill, I called for its oversight to be strengthened. The Commission will focus on ensuring that farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined. I continued to press the Government with regard to the remit of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and I was pleased when the Government agreed that is was extending the Commission, and placing it on a full statutory footing in the Trade Bill, giving farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy. Further details on this on my website - https://www.richardfuller.co.uk/news/farmers-given-stronger-voice-trade-policy

Our high animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards will continue to be met in a number of ways: by the existing manifesto commitment, the transfer of all EU food safety standards in the EU Withdrawal Act which will convert all EU standards into domestic law, the ability of Parliament to scrutinise future trade deals and the strengthened Trade and Agriculture Commission.

Thank you for getting in touch.

Yours sincerely,

richard fuller