All Peter Grant contributions to the Trade (Disclosure of Information) Act 2020

Wed 16th December 2020
11 interactions (1,311 words)

Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill

(2nd reading)
Peter Grant Excerpts
Wednesday 16th December 2020

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for International Trade
Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to rise in support of this Bill. When I saw that we had six hours to debate this Bill and only 10 speakers down to speak, I thought that at last I might have just enough time to begin to outline some of my thoughts on this particular measure.

Behind that, there is a serious point, as we enter the Christmas and new year period: too often this year there has been very little time for anyone making a speech in this House. We are frequently limited to two or three minutes, and not all of us are, as Lincoln, able to summarise our thoughts in 272 words or less. If it is possible for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to talk to the Speaker to see whether there are ways of amending that in the new year, it would be a very nice new year’s resolution.

While I am in that spirit, perhaps I may address a comment to the Minister. Frequently this year, and maybe for good purpose, the Government have come forward with measures a day or two ahead of their being placed before this House, and they have then gone through the House in a single day. For minor measures such as this one, there is very little to be concerned about, if questions are answered adequately by the Minister, as I am sure they will be. However, the Coronavirus Act 2020, and any potential free trade agreement with the EU, are very significant measures to be passed in a single day, and I am not sure the governance of this country is fully served by such oblique reference to the legislature.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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The hon. Gentleman stood last year and was elected, as were the majority of Members of this House, on a manifesto that included an unconditional guarantee of a free trade agreement with Europe. Do his comments of a few moments ago indicate that he now is not convinced that a free trade agreement with Europe is the best way forward?

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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No, I have full faith in my commitments in the manifesto and in the election, and full confidence in the Prime Minister. I only wish that the separatists from the Scottish National party would have the same full confidence in their words ahead of any referendum on their future, but that is not for today.

I want to press the Minister on some issues largely to do with information. I think he has mentioned some of them, but it would be reassuring to have them more fully expanded upon, because information is the currency of modern wealth creation in many instances, and it is certainly a source of competitive advantage.

I am not clear—perhaps the Minister could clarify this for me—to what extent the permissions in the Bill relate to sharing information solely within the borders and boundaries of the United Kingdom, and to what extent any such information will be shared with third parties. What reassurance can the Minister provide that the scope and format of data sharing, either within Ministries or externally, will not result in a loss of competitive advantage to an individual business, an industry sector or the nation state?

It would be helpful to have a little more clarity from the Minister on the scope of data. He explained that it is to do with trade, but that is a very wide-ranging remit. He said that it is to do only with data that is currently held by public bodies, but public bodies in this country hold almost every piece of data imaginable on us as individuals and on corporations and business activity. Perhaps he cannot say explicitly what will be included, but what sorts of things might be included? Perhaps he could also explain what might be excluded.

Will the Minister clarify that no demands will be made for new data disclosures, essentially protecting people from other burdens—additional data that may be required —in this short period? If there may be demands for additional data disclosure, what might they be?

What provisions are there for the anonymity of data, particularly in relation to the sharing of data with other nation states? Even if the data is at commodity level, that may be a concern. Some sectors have one or two main UK providers, so just because the data is at the level of a standard industrial classification code does not necessarily mean that it does not disclose information that may be relevant to a particular competitor.

I think the Minister was clear about the oversight of data rules in the case of a breach, saying that existing legislation will be covered. If that is not correct, perhaps he could advise us.

A particular bugbear of mine is HMRC’s influence over the Government, which is undue in many respects at the moment. Can the Minister assure me that the provisions of clause 2(4) will specifically restrict HMRC from cross-sharing data with other elements of its work, most explicitly to do with the taxation of enterprises in the UK?

I was interested to read that clause 2(11) defines a public authority as

“an authority exercising functions of a public nature,”

which did not seem to take me very far at all. Will the Minister advise whether the phrase “a public nature” is a defined term in law? If it is not, will he explain what it might mean? Does it include, for example, regulatory agencies, private organisations that are fulfilling public contracts, or organisations that are recipients of public moneys, all of which one could claim are “exercising functions of a public nature”? It would be helpful to get some scoping of what is included here.

The Opposition spokesman and the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) referred to a trade deal with the EU. There has been some press speculation—it is just speculation—that the European Union, in its discussions, has proposed pre-emptive tariff regimes as part of its approach to the UK. Can the Minister reassure me that no provisions of the Bill would require information to be disclosed to the European Union as part of a negotiation of any pre-emptive tariff regime in the intervening period? I think that is highly unlikely, but because there has been some speculation, it would be useful to have clarification.

When it comes to agricultural products—the Opposition spokesman mentioned this, but I emphasise it in particular —many people who are farming producers or who are interested in food standards are very reassured by the Minister’s amendments to the Bill, both in this place and in the other place, regarding food standards. As many farmers will be looking particularly intently at this Bill, will he provide reassurance that nothing in this Bill will do anything to undermine the measures under- pinning standards on agricultural products and trade in agricultural products?

I shall give up my ambition to fill six hours and retire, not hurt but early. I commend the Bill to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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I echo much of what the Labour and SNP spokespeople have said. There is little that can be added, certainly with the Bill being brought forward in the manner that it is today and the time that we have. That is indicative of the shambles of the Government’s handling of our exit from the EU and the end of the transition period. I am not sure how the Government expect industry and business to be prepared for 1 January when this expedited legislation illustrates just how unprepared the Government themselves appear to be for the end of the transition period.

The Liberal Democrat party and I agree that we do need, upon leaving the EU, legislation to make trade deals with other countries, but perhaps we are in this situation because many of us do not agree that the Trade Bill—the original Trade Bill—is the way to do it. It has failed on several counts, but particularly in setting out proper procedures for parliamentary consultation, scrutiny and approval of future international trade agreements.

This Bill is, as the Minister said, necessary in order to allow our authorities to function properly on 1 January. However, if the Government expect, understandably, this place to recognise the need for flexibility to cope with this lack of preparedness, surely businesses and companies across the country should be able to expect a similar understanding. I appeal to the Government to recognise, and urge the Minister to take back to his colleagues, the need for an adjustment period for businesses to implement change, because if we are going to accept that this is a difficult period, as it is because of the lack of the deal on which we are still waiting for word, then surely business can demand the same sort of understanding that the Government are asking of the House.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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I am very pleased to be able to speak in this Second Reading debate. This is actually the first time I have spoken in the Chamber since I contributed to the debate on the Chancellor’s financial statement immediately before lockdown. The reason for that is that I believe it is incumbent on all of us not to be here unless we absolutely have to. I greatly regret the fact that the Government have not brought forward proposals to reactivate the full remote participation in debates that we had for a short time earlier in the year.

Obviously I did not travel down here to take part in this debate, because we did not know that it was taking place. I did so because of two important pieces of secondary legislation on the Order Paper that are no longer there. I was on the train yesterday morning on my way down especially to speak on those two items when I got an email saying that they had been pulled and asking if I would mind contributing for the SNP on this one. Rather than have a situation where the taxpayer was paying for me to travel from Fife, have a couple of nights in London, and then go back up again when I did not need to be here at all, I was tempted to make sure that they got their money’s worth, and every penny of it, by taking up the full three hours that is allocated to this Second Reading debate. However, my reading of the mood music is that that would not endear me to anybody here or to anybody else, so I will not do it.

That trivial example of the impact that this has had on my planning for today is a tiny fraction of the bigger picture. The only reason this Bill has had to come forward at all just now, and the reason it is having to be brought forward in such a hurry, is that the Government do not have control of the process. A process that was supposed to be about Parliament taking back control is now seeing Parliament having its business chopped and changed at a few hours’ notice. At the moment, the hundreds of people who work here—not just MPs but staff of the House of Commons—do not know whether they will have to come to work next week. The Prime Minister wanted to ensure that everybody had certainty as to the rules about visiting loved ones at Christmas, but Members and staff of the House of Commons do not know for certain whether they will have to be at work at the start of that period. Parliament is not in control of the process, and the Government are not in control of the process, and it is difficult to see whether anyone is in control of the process.

I fully understand that we now need to get this legislation through in a hurry. I was unhappy about some details of the coronavirus legislation, which the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) mentioned earlier, but I fully understood the need to get it on the statute book as quickly as possible. The emergency we face now is not of the same type; this emergency is entirely of the Government’s making. It is not the fault of those who voted in the referendum four and a half years ago. Those who voted to leave had a reasonable right to expect that the Government would have delivered on their wishes before the last minute, as is happening now. Not only are the Government not delivering on time; they are not delivering at all. They promised to deliver a free trade agreement with Europe—that was in the manifesto and was mentioned several times—but they have not delivered that.

The explanatory notes to the Bill indicate that parts of it would have been needed even if we had that free trade agreement with the European Union, but the vast majority of it would not have been, and we certainly would not have been under this exceptional time pressure if the process had been managed by a Government who were competent had some idea of where they wanted to get to, instead of being continually obsessed with where they were trying to get away from.

As the Minister said, and as others have alluded to, the Bill simply extracts a few clauses from a Bill that has already been through a detailed scrutiny process, and that eases the concern a bit, but the wider problem is still there. What other emergency legislation will the Government have to bring through, possibly before 31 December, if not very early in the new year, that we do not know about and that has not been through the full scrutiny process as part of another piece of legislation? This process is supposed to be about Parliament taking back control, but I have never seen so much legislation having to be rushed through Parliament, with little time for scrutiny and with some of that legislation possibly having a profound effect on the lives of people and on the way the economy gets back on its feet when the covid pandemic is finally brought under control.

As for the detailed content of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who speaks from the Front Bench, referred to some of the issues. I think the Minister gave assurances in his opening comments that all the requests the Scottish Government made in relation to this Bill and the main Trade Bill have been picked up. In effect, this Bill picks up parts of the Trade Bill as amended with the agreement of the Scottish Government. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the fact that the negotiation of international trade treaties is reserved to Westminster does not mean that the devolved Administrations have little or no responsibility for making trade work for their countries, their communities and their businesses. A lot of the decisions taken by the United Kingdom in the negotiation of trade agreements can be made to work only with the full involvement of the devolved Administrations.

I understand that there have been discussions—I do not know whether at Minister level, officer level or both —over the past few days about this Bill, and I would certainly commend that if it has taken place, but there needs to be much closer and much more co-operative working across the four nations than there has been until now on Brexit. Otherwise, we will find that legislation and trade agreements that are passed purely at the will of Government Ministers in London will have little relevance, or sometimes a negative effect, for Governments, Administrations and citizens in other parts of the United Kingdom.

When we, presumably, agree to the Bill later, I hope that those comments will be borne in mind. I would also appreciate it if the Minister could tell us in his closing remarks what other emergency legislation he is aware of that the Government expect to bring before the House between now and 31 December.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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Clearly, this is a significant but quite straightforward technical Bill, as the Minister set out. However, last year the Government led people to believe that they had a deal ready to go. They said we were all set to sever ties with Europe and go our own way. In the last few weeks, we have heard Ministers spinning the airwaves, desperately trying to explain that the oven-ready deal they boasted about referred only to the withdrawal agreement and not the substance of the trade deal with Europe. Mr Deputy Speaker, if this is an oven-ready deal, please remind me never to take up an invitation to Christmas dinner with the Minister, because clearly this is just not good enough.

Today, after three long years and repeated promises that things would be sewn up by now, the Trade Bill has yet to pass into law. This House has yet to discuss the amendments from the other place, and the Government have yet to guarantee that in any future deal we will not see regression on our environmental, food, animal welfare and agricultural standards. There have been no guarantees on protections for our NHS, no guarantees on full parliamentary scrutiny of any future trade deals and no guarantee that human rights will remain enshrined in our future trading relationships across the globe.

Instead, just two weeks before the end of the transition period, we are discussing a non-controversial, technical proposal, which allows HMRC to share data with other bodies. People with an eye on this Chamber would be forgiven for thinking that Ministers are making this up as they go along. Either that or they are using this quick-fix, rushed legislation to kick the Trade Bill into the long grass and avoid tackling the amendments from the other place on protecting the NHS, parliamentary scrutiny and human rights. I hope that is not the case.

What assurances can the Government give that the Trade Bill will not be unduly delayed and kicked down the road, following this Bill? What assurances can the Minister give me that they will uphold any amendments on protecting the NHS and social care in trade deals? If, as Ministers claim, this Bill is not a replacement for the wider Trade Bill, when can we expect that Bill back in the Commons?

Enough of the spin and delay. Businesses are crying out for clarity on arrangements after the transition period. The Government must commit to the full passage and implementation of the Trade Bill, with full consideration of the amendments, support for human rights, and protections for our NHS and environmental, agricultural, food and animal welfare standards.

--- Later in debate ---
Greg Hands Portrait Greg Hands
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To respond to what I think has been a very constructive debate on Second Reading of this Bill, can I first welcome the tone that has been set? The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and his neighbour—I think she must be his neighbour—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), made similar points about the passage of the Bill. I have to say that nobody, I think, would be more pleased than I to see the Trade Bill finally reach Royal Assent, as during my previous time at the Department I was here at the Dispatch Box introducing that Bill in the spring of 2017. I am told that the overall passage of the Trade Bill then and now has involved some 130 hours of scrutiny and debate. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), who did preface his remarks by saying he had not been here to debate for some time, and I understand his reasons for that, may have implied there had been insufficient scrutiny of some of these measures. I can reassure him that there has been very extensive scrutiny. But I do say a couple of things.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Could I just correct his understanding of what I said? I made it perfectly clear that I appreciated that this Bill in another way has had significant scrutiny. My concern is that there might be other emergency legislation on its way through the pipeline that we will not have time to give sufficient scrutiny. That was the point I was making.

Greg Hands Portrait Greg Hands
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I appreciate the hon. Member’s clarification. It certainly is not my job to outline whatever other legislation may be out there. That would be entirely a matter for the Leader of the House of Commons, who, as we know, made a statement on other legislation earlier this week.

The Member speaking for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, says that he supports the Bill, he supports the continuity agreements, he supports its procurement measures, he supports the trade defences, he supports the data sharing—but he has used every available opportunity to vote against the Bill. He voted against it on Second Reading, he voted against it on Third Reading and it has been voted against at every available opportunity by the official Opposition and by the Scottish National party as well. He says that the concern is that we might kick the Trade Bill into the long grass. No, we very much want the Trade Bill to get Royal Assent as soon as possible. It has very important provisions in it, such as allowing domestic law to remain amendable for continuity trade agreements and the Trade Remedies Authority. It is a very important piece of legislation.

But I did welcome the hon. Member’s commitment to conclude the Trade Bill by the end of January. I see the current Government Deputy Chief Whip here—the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). As a former Government Deputy Chief Whip, I and, as a former Chief Whip of the Opposition, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that that is not entirely in the hands of the Government and that, actually, it is very much as well in the hands of the whole of Parliament. But I will take that as a submission to the usual channels that the official Opposition want the Trade Bill to achieve Royal Assent by 31 January, which is what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said. I will take that as a submission of the Opposition’s intent—good intent—to get it through as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member says he was against CRaG, but I remind him that it was the last Labour Government who introduced CRaG. His boss, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), actually voted for CRaG. He also propagated this deliberate confusion about the oven-ready deal. It is quite clear that that referred to the withdrawal agreement that the House of Commons voted on a year ago. I would just ask him: is he going to support the further trade deal, if there is one, with the European Union? We have heard silence from the official Opposition on that.

To turn to the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who also had a very constructive tone, in areas of devolved competence we have been clear. I am repeating the same commitments made at the Dispatch Box during the passage of the Trade Bill, including in the Committee stage of the Trade Bill, that he remarked on at the time and he will remember well. I am making those same commitments today. Overall, we wish to work with the devolved Administrations, particularly in areas of devolved competence, where they have a clear role, such as the management of highways, around ports and other things that relate to facilitating trade.

The hon. Member added, notwithstanding that, that he did not want me to think this was a sudden conversion, with him agreeing with the Government trade policy—definitely not. As I have pointed out from the Dispatch Box a few times, the Scottish National party has not supported a single trade agreement proposed either here or in Brussels.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) that these are not new measures in any sense. They are taken directly from the Trade Bill. The HMRC powers were published in 2017. The further powers were published in July on Report. We are introducing this legislation purely because the Trade Bill probably will not get Royal Assent before 31 December.

I reassure my hon. Friend that there are safeguards on the data. It is data that is already collected. There is no new disclosure of data. Specific named authorities are discretionary to support a Government Minister’s function in relation to trade. In terms of such things as anonymity, the existing restrictions around the General Data Protection Regulation and the UK Data Protection Act 1998 kick in. On taxation, there are already strong measures in place to protect the data of taxpayers. The Bill is clear that data can be shared only where disclosure would support functions related to trade. It could not be disclosed for any other purposes.

My hon. Friend also asked about a private company performing a function on behalf of a public authority. That is possible, but it would operate under the same restrictions and the discretionary powers would apply—GDPR and so on. He asked me for a Dispatch Box commitment on agriculture and food standards. Our commitment is absolute. The commitment that he and I made individually and collectively in our general election manifesto this time a year ago continues as well.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) called for an adjustment period, which I think is a new term for a transition period. She is calling for a transition period from the transition period, which would increase uncertainty. The UK is leaving the single market and the customs union on 1 January, and an indeterminate postponement of that would, by definition, only increase uncertainty.