My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, and, like previous speakers from the International Agreements Committee, I pay tribute to our excellent chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and to her predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.
As previous speakers noted, the report that we are debating today follows on from a previous report on working practices published in July 2020, and the reports on the scrutiny of international agreements published in 2019 by the Constitution Committee and the European Union Committee. These reports had a variety of recommendations, but the central conclusion of all of them was that current arrangements are poorly designed to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements, and that conclusion remains as valid as ever today.
Our committee has been fortunate to have met often with the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, on trade issues and, as many noble Lords have mentioned, he has engaged extremely positively. By contrast with his constructive approach, we could look at the Government’s responses to the recommendations contained in the report, which are depressingly consistent. In many cases, our concerns are airily dismissed, and, even where the Government do move towards them in terms of making commitments, the commitments are heavily caveated. Indeed, in their response to the committee report, the Government would not even commit to notifying the committee of significant non-trade agreements before they were laid. Despite recognising the value of notification of forthcoming treaties, their response went on to underscore that this is not a government commitment.
Although I join my colleagues in welcoming the fact that the Government have put some of their previous commitments in writing—I am not sure if I am a half-full or half-empty person, but I do not want to be accused of being a pessimist, so perhaps I am a quarter-full person—the problem with this exchange of letters, although it is positive in as far as it goes, is that the commitments contained in it can only be regarded as the absolute bare minimum of what a Parliament might require. As has been noted already, they apply to trade agreements only, rather than to all international agreements.
Overall, it seems to me, from the Government’s response to our report, that they seem determined at all costs to resist a rules-based response to scrutiny, preferring to keep at their discretion what they choose to share with Parliament and what they do not. I think it is vital in the long-term to look again at the overall role of Parliament in scrutinising treaties and agreements, and I strongly support the recommendations that Parliament’s consent should be required before the ratification of all trade agreements. This is in part because I think that that would make the Government more responsive in providing information at an earlier stage, in the same way as happened, as my noble friend Lady Ludford explained, as a consequence of the European Parliament’s rejection of one treaty.
I want to touch on the issue of non-treaty agreements, which other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy, Lady Hayter and Lady Liddell, have referenced. They spoke specifically about the memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, but there was also an agreement last year with the Government of Zimbabwe on the resumption of deportations of foreign national offenders. To my knowledge, that has never been published. There was a reason why those deportations were suspended, which was the gross abuses of human rights in Zimbabwe. The Government have never come forward and explained why the criteria changed.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Liddell, raised the issue of the security guarantees offered to Finland and Sweden. This was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, in our committee this morning. What status do those agreements, or declarations, or statements, have? I hope the Minister will be able to tell us in his reply. Will they subject to parliamentary scrutiny? As has been said, there could scarcely be a bigger commitment than that we would be a security guarantor and would go to war on behalf of another country. If that is the case, we should have the chance to debate and scrutinise that commitment.
Finally, I want to refer to recommendation 27(a) of our report, which is that “Parliament should be given a formal role in influencing the objectives” of trade agreements
“when mandates are being set”.
This is perhaps the most important area for parliamentary scrutiny, because it is the point when we can actually influence the process and the outcome. One area particularly close to my heart—and, indeed, the Minister’s—where we might want to influence mandates is on climate and nature objectives in FTAs. The striking contrast between the Australia FTA and the New Zealand FTA in this regard only underlines to me the importance of this issue.
The House will not be surprised to know that the Government rejected this recommendation on the grounds that it was “not suited to the UK’s … settlement”, which regrettably seems to mean that the Executive alone will determine what Parliament gets to scrutinise and what it does not. In as much as this view of our constitutional settlement provides for any accountability, it is, as a June 2019 report of the European Union Committee noted, “accountability after the fact”. In reality, that is no accountability at all.