My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and the right reverend Prelate on their excellent maiden speeches, and I welcome the Bill; it is necessary and workmanlike. But neither critics nor supporters should exaggerate its importance. Critics claim that it would lead to privatising the NHS, undermine environmental standards and threaten animal welfare. They have nothing to fear. Those things are outside the scope of the Bill. The Government certainly have no such intentions, and Parliament would not let them happen. But there is a tendency on all sides of the debate to exaggerate the importance of trade deals. They are useful and desirable, but their impact is much smaller than generally thought.
This was brought home to me when I was Trade Secretary. I had to implement the single market programme, held as the deepest ever free trade arrangement. I also had to negotiate the Uruguay round, which halved tariffs and set up the WTO. I made bullish speeches about both, and how they boosted our exports, but neither had the impact I anticipated. Indeed, UK exports to the 14 original members of the single market have stagnated since then, having grown at less than 0.5% per annum—barely 10% over the past 20 years. By contrast, our exports to the 14 largest countries with which we trade just on WTO terms have risen by 88% and now account for 37% of our goods exports worldwide. Our exports to countries with which the EU had negotiated trade deals—the subject of this Bill—have risen considerably faster than our exports to the EU itself, but by less than our exports to countries with which we have no trade deals, and therefore trade on WTO terms.
I have sympathy with noble Lords who call for a greater role for Parliament during trade negotiations. I felt uneasy about the lack of accountability to Parliament when negotiating the Uruguay round. Accountability can strengthen a negotiator’s hands, not just in dealing with the other side but in galvanising his own. Civil servants work their socks off when they know a Minister will have to defend their actions in Parliament, but if that synergy does not exist—how should I put this to the Minister who was an official when I was a Minister?—officials feel freer to pursue their own agendas. But I reluctantly concluded then, as I do now, that though we should consult and report to Parliament, since nothing is agreed until everything is, so negotiation is inevitably a matter for ministerial prerogative and Parliament can only accept or reject.
I urge noble Lords to support this Bill, which will carry forward the modest benefits that existing trade agreements provide. But let us recognise that what really drives trade is producing goods and services that people want to buy and getting out and selling them.