Draft European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Colombia and Peru Trade Agreement) Order 2013
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Coe, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Draft European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Colombia and Peru Trade Agreement) Order 2013
This deep and comprehensive agreement forms a small but important part of the EU’s ambitious programme of bilateral trade negotiations which this Government have championed consistently. The programme of negotiations aims to liberalise trade with economies right around the world: small and large, east and west, developed and emerging. We have ongoing negotiations with the USA and Japan, and negotiations were concluded recently with Canada and Singapore and now Colombia and Peru. This trade deal will benefit the economies of Colombia and Peru, assist UK companies in accessing these emerging markets and, I hope, stimulate other Latin American countries to open their markets in pursuit of open trade over protectionism.
Of course, trade agreements with these two countries will not unlock the kinds of immediate economic benefits that free trade agreements with the USA or Japan could have. Nevertheless, they are good for Britain and good for the many British companies already doing business in that part of the world. Our analysis shows that our economy could benefit from this agreement over the long term by up to £400 million per year.
This trade agreement is comprehensive. It includes substantially improved market access for our exports to Colombia and Peru through tariff elimination, the removal of technical and procedural obstacles to trade, improved market access in government procurement and services, common rules to level the playing field in areas such as the protection of intellectual property, and greater transparency on subsidies and processes to settle disputes. The agreement comes at a time when Colombia and Peru have the potential to become increasingly important commercial partners for the United Kingdom. These are growing markets. Colombia has approaching 50 million people and Peru some 30 million people, and the Government want to ensure that British companies have good access to these rapidly growing markets.
Between 2007 and 2012, overall UK exports to Colombia and Peru taken together almost doubled, and with a free trade agreement in place such rapid growth will be supported even further. We are seeing an increasing and diversified number of UK companies setting up business
Colombia and Peru, I am happy to report to the Committee, are both deeply pro United Kingdom and there is strong demand for British goods and services. The Government have been working hard to promote opportunities not just for large firms but for SMEs.
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): My right hon. Friend is outlining a fantastic opportunity for British companies in south America. Could he outline the work that UK Trade & Investment is doing to expand exports from British companies in these markets?
Michael Fallon: I am happy to do that. This year, the Trade Minister Lord Green and the Minister for Universities and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), visited Columbia. The Lord Mayor of London visited Peru and Colombia in July. And just last week the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), headed a UK infrastructure mission to Colombia. In addition—this directly answers my hon. Friend—the Government launched UK Colombia Trade, a new business-to-business entity to support UK SMEs doing business in Colombia. Earlier this month, UK Colombia Trade hosted an event at the ambassador’s residence in Bogota to showcase the commercial opportunities that flow from the free trade agreement. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science launched that new body, which is co-located at the British embassy, in April. Colombia is one of only 20 markets in which we are undertaking such a specific initiative, which reflects the crucial importance of Colombia to the Government and in boosting UK exports.
UK Colombia Trade will become part of a cohesive, accredited global business network, offering a package of practical, comprehensive and coherent business support to UK small and medium-sized enterprises on a par with the services on offer to competitors. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UKTI will continue to promote the benefits of the free trade agreement.
The coming into force of the agreement provides the UK with tremendous opportunities. It makes for a safer, more predictable business environment for our firms to operate in in Colombia and Peru, giving them a sure foothold in an expanding market, which will strengthen trade relations between the UK and other markets in Latin America.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am not a member of the Committee, Dr McCrea, but I am glad to be here. All the Minister’s comments so far have been about benefits. He uses the word “safer”; is he aware of the concerns about human rights in Colombia and Peru expressed by MEPs, and that conditions were set down but have not yet been met? Is he happy that things will “safer” for the people of Peru and Columbia, as much as they will be for UK businesses?
Michael Fallon: I am certainly aware of the concerns over human rights, but we regard trade agreements as important for economic growth and prosperity in both developed and developing countries. The promotion of our prosperity and human rights are mutually supportive priorities at the heart of foreign policy. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is right to engage with Colombia commercially, as we would with any other emerging power. There are real opportunities for British companies in Colombia, but we will continue to work with our businesses and the Colombian Government to ensure that we can mitigate the concerns he expresses.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): By what mechanism will the British Government or the EU monitor human rights issues in Peru and Colombia? How will they report? What mechanism will review the agreement with the Colombian or Peruvian Governments?
Michael Fallon: The hon. Gentleman asks a detailed question. We have a UK action plan on business and human rights, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary launched on 4 September. It sends a clear message to British companies about the standards expected of them overseas. We are working with the Colombian Government as they create their strategy and the standards they want to deploy. The free trade agreement itself does not have monitoring of human rights abuses as a primary function—its function is to support trade and therefore economic growth—but increased prosperity in itself should help to increase respect for human rights. The role of monitoring human rights, which the hon. Gentleman asked about specifically, rests with domestic and international human rights bodies.
Michael Fallon: I was asked a specific question on the role of monitoring human rights. That role rests with domestic and international human rights bodies. We would expect human rights abuses serious enough to trigger the human rights clauses of the free trade agreement—there are such clauses in the agreement—to be publicised by those bodies, and then it is for EU mechanisms to collect that information.
It will, however, be important for those monitoring the progress of the free trade agreement to be aware of the ongoing human rights situation and for that situation to be reflected in reporting back to both the Council and the European Parliament.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Can the Minister give any more details on the clauses on human rights? Obviously, they are referenced at paragraph 7.8 of the explanatory memorandum, and I share the concern of the hon. Member for Islington North on human rights.
Michael Fallon: I would be delighted to do so. The agreement itself runs to several hundred pages, but there are references to human rights in articles 1 and 8. The monitoring provisions, such as they are, are dealt
It is right that we are reducing the barriers to these countries doing business with us. Trade agreements bring competition to the marketplace. They increase choice for consumers and for companies that want to source inputs from overseas. It is right that we are bringing down barriers, and not just for our traditional trading partners. I hope the Committee will agree that increasing trade and investment is essential for generating strong, sustainable and balanced growth. The United Kingdom has been influential in making sure that trade liberalisation is central to the European Union’s growth strategy. I would like to see the UK ratify this free trade agreement rapidly, to show the world that the UK believes strongly in liberalising trade and to ensure that businesses here can quickly benefit from the free trade agreement. I commend the order to the Committee.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I rise to oppose this free trade agreement, and I do so on the basis of having visited Colombia and seeing first hand some of the atrocities that have been carried out by Government forces. I note with some concern the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk on human rights, and how quickly the “however” kicked in—the Minister is saying, “We know that there is a human rights problem, however, we have to soldier on.” It is concerning that UK companies want to make money—indeed, the Government support them in doing that—with the blood of Colombian people on their hands. That is somewhat distasteful.
A number of people have seen the atrocities in Colombia. It is not a pleasant place for someone to be if they are a trade unionist, a journalist or an academic, or if they hold a different point of view from that of the Colombian authorities. To their credit, they are seductive at telling people that things are getting better. That usually means something like there being one less death this year. I have seen that—colleagues were over there last year—human rights atrocities are still going on. That is why I will oppose the order, and I hope other colleagues will join me.
Some of the atrocities might be covered later, but recently, on Sunday 25 August, Huber Ballesteros, one of the country’s most high-profile union and opposition leaders, was arrested. He is still in prison without charge. He was one of the 10-person committee set up for any eventual negotiations with the Colombian Government. He was due to fly to Britain as the TUC’s main international guest at congress. As well as being a member of the Central Union of Workers national executive committee, Ballesteros is the vice-president of Colombia’s largest agricultural union, which is a long-standing partner of Unite and the United Steelworkers of America. He was the national organiser for the Patriotic March, a social and political movement grouping of more than 2,000 organisations.
On the US and its attitude to free trade agreements, the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labour Rights in Colombia visited the country in August and reported back. It was reviewing action taken by the Colombian
“reports of worsening labor rights conditions in Colombia provide an important lesson when developing trade policy…murders and threats against union members and harmful subcontracting persist in Colombia largely unabated…Weak enforcement of existing labor laws and continued violence against labor leaders in Colombia more than a year after the implementation of the US-Colombia Labor Action Plan should offer important lessons of what not to do in future trade agreements…The members of the delegation conclude that the Government of Colombia is woefully falling short of compliance with the Labor Action Plan, and in many cases, these shortfalls have made working conditions for workers worse than before it came into effect…Before asking Congress to approve another trade agreement, such as the TPP, which poses similar labor and human rights issues, the Administration must first demonstrate concrete and effective improvements in workers’ rights on the ground in Colombia under the LAP.”
As I said earlier, a number of colleagues and I have visited Colombia, on a cross-party basis—some colleagues from your party, Dr McCrea, have visited and returned with the same conclusions. It was heart-rending to see peasants displaced from their lands by large companies, and particularly UK companies, which the Minister has mentioned. Those companies are displacing people from their land. The people have nowhere to go and are forced to live in horrible conditions just to accommodate large, multinational companies, which refuse to go through the proper process and to provide people who have lost their land and homes with some kind of compensation.
The Labour party has a long tradition of supporting people suffering from human rights abuses. I would be interested to hear what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South, has to say. I sincerely hope that, as a party, we will vote against the motion on the basis I have set out. Not to do so would send the wrong message, not just to human rights campaigners throughout the world, but to the international trade union movement, to journalists throughout the world who are being persecuted, and, most importantly, to the current peace talks in Cuba. If the President of Colombia sees clearly that the Labour party of the United Kingdom is not going to do anything to support people and their human rights under his regime, the British Labour party will be sending a sad message.
There are a number of atrocities that I will not rehearse because they have all been rehearsed in the past, such as people being murdered. The clearest example of such atrocities that I saw when I was there was a murdered young man who was found with three shots in his back. The authorities put a FARC uniform on the body to claim that the man was a member of the FARC regime. Strangely enough, there were no holes in the uniform. How did that young man get three holes in his back and not get any holes in the uniform? I will leave that to people’s imaginations.
As I have said, I sincerely hope the Labour party will take the right step and reject the proposal to accept the free trade agreement. Yes, we want free trade, jobs and employment, but we do not want them with hands stained with blood from the people of Colombia.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful for your flexibility in allowing my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, who I know has a pressing engagement he was not able to change, to speak in this debate, because he has been to Colombia, and he brings back a great degree of experience.
This debate is important because it provides us with an opportunity to talk about some of the issues that go to the heart of such free trade agreements and how trade affects both the United Kingdom and the partner countries. We very much support the principle of free trade as a means of promoting not only economic growth and development, but social change. The Minister was right to mention the ongoing trade agreements with the USA and Japan, which we hope will come to fruition relatively quickly, and the recent trade agreements with Canada and Singapore. One thing those countries have in common is that they are relatively mature and developed democracies. That is why an explicit human rights clause has been included in the free trade agreement with Colombia.
The Minister detailed the benefits to British business and I will not rehearse those arguments here. There are also significant benefits to Colombia. More than a third of Colombia’s population still lives in poverty. The European Commission states that the FTA could boost Colombia’s gross domestic product by 1.3%, and its imports and exports by 6% in the medium term, and by between 8% and 10% in the longer term. The tariff savings for Colombian exporters in the agriculture sector will be particularly significant because the measure is expected to have a direct impact on growth, jobs and well-being. I shall reflect on the agriculture sector in a moment.
The FTA will facilitate more co-operation to improve competitiveness and innovation, and support foreign direct investment in Colombia. We have heard from the Minister that direct investment can potentially happen with British businesses. The modelling analysis predicts that real incomes in Colombia are projected to increase by up to €2.8 billion as a direct result of the FTA with the EU. However, it also means that we should assist Colombia where possible to ensure that there are improvements at every level, and rigorously monitor compliance with article 1 of the agreement which includes
We must recognise that, based on the principles outlined in the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, the European Union is committed to signing treaties with countries that meet its values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. As a consequence, a clause on human rights must always be included in European free trade agreements. The violation of human rights by any country would warrant suspension. However, given the uncertainty regarding human rights violations in Colombia and some human rights violations in Peru, the usual clause on human rights was deemed not sufficient to satisfy opponents of the treaty. Therefore, the EU Parliament adopted some additional measures aimed at tackling the human rights situation in Colombia, which shows how seriously the EU takes human rights.
“Respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the principle of the rule of law, underpins the internal and international policies of the Parties. Respect for these principles constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.”
“Without prejudice to the existing mechanisms for political dialogue between the Parties, any Party may immediately adopt appropriate measures in accordance with international law in case of violation by another Party of the essential elements referred to in Articles 1 and 2 of this Agreement. The latter Party may ask for an urgent meeting to be called to bring the Parties concerned together within 15 days for a thorough examination of the situation”.
“Each Party commits to the promotion and effective implementation in its laws and practice and in its whole territory of internationally recognised core labour standards as contained in the fundamental Conventions of the International Labour Organisation”.
It goes on to state everything from freedom of association, elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour and the effective abolition of child labour. I doubt that any member of the Committee would deny that those are fundamental human rights that people should be given with regard to employment and labour. FTAs need to ensure that we protect the human rights of individuals as well getting the benefits of the trade. That is why we should always stand up to persecution and promote human rights. It is important to restate that we should never sacrifice human rights, the forming of trade unions, freedom of assembly or the scrutiny of national Governments for trade, but how can we use trade to improve those things?
Historically, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Labour Government’s approach to Colombia was to seek to improve the material circumstances of people via trade, and to trade to get better human rights for the people of Colombia. Although those issues are paramount in Colombia, they are equally relevant to Peru. All members of the Committee have been contacted by the Peru Support Group, a non-governmental organisation that has raised its concerns in a similar fashion.
It is for those reasons that we could not support the FTA if we did not believe that President Santos and members of the Colombian Government were making progress economically and politically in Colombia. The danger of not doing so would be to see the FTA as a reward to the Colombian Government. That cannot be the message from this House given the recent reports on the lack of progress being made. The Minister has said that the UK was a tremendous influence on those countries and so we should use that influence to drive home the message that some of the atrocities that we have been hearing about, which are well documented, should be dealt with and every letter of the human rights articles in the FTA should be adhered to.
It is right that the UK and the EU can speak frankly about our continuing concerns and the clear human rights shortcomings in Colombia. It was previously reported by the UN that the Colombian Government were working towards a peaceful solution and that progress was being made. Its report from 2012 stated:
“Colombia remains an FCO country of concern, but the 2012 annual report noted the further progress made by the Colombian Government and its commitment to ‘zero tolerance’ of human rights violations by state actors.”
“Significant legislative and public policy initiatives were undertaken, human rights violations were condemned and action against corruption and illegal land appropriation was taken. However, these efforts have yet to achieve the desired results at the local level.”
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognised, the Colombian Government have made efforts to strengthen the rule of law, condemn human rights violations and take action against illegal land appropriation, and that they have undertaken significant legislative and public policy initiatives. However, reports from visitors—my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North went on the trip with a number of parliamentarians from across the EU and north America—show that, on the ground, things are going backwards. I pay tribute to the work done by Justice for Colombia and many other NGOs. They have exposed those injustices and highlighted them to the House.
Negotiating the agreement provided an opportunity for the EU and Parliament to exert pressure on Colombia in respect of human rights and labour standards, but it appears that that has fallen on partially deaf ears. The measure must be seen to be a sufficient in the country of Colombia in order to be effective. The UN report said that, although the situation on the ground is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, things had got marginally better. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to the US Congress report, “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground”. I hope the Minister has a copy. It is relatively comprehensive and corresponds clearly to report from the UN human rights inspector in saying that things have gone backwards since the summer. I should like to give some examples that are included in that report and information that is publicly available.
I referred earlier to agriculture. There has been a crackdown on peasant farmers worried about the US free trade agreement. Trade union leaders and opponents of the Government have been imprisoned without proper justice and there are still some high profile cases in Colombia. This year, 37 human rights defenders have been murdered, and around 20 trade unionists and 16 activists were killed directly by the army and police during strike action over the summer. There are also strong views that the Colombian Government could even be complicit in that.
We are in favour of free trade and know that it is an avenue to helping people and improving human rights, but given that the Colombia situation is so fluid and unclear on the ground, will the Minister agree to delaying
May I ask the Minister four questions that refer to both the Colombia and Peru parts of the free trade agreement? He has already answered the first question slightly but it would be useful to get some clarity. What is the Government’s assessment of the situation on the ground in the roll-out of the labour rights map that was included as part of the negotiations? Secondly, what analysis has been done by the UK and what are our diplomats saying in the country? There is no mention of that in the impact assessment, which concentrates merely on the business impacts.
Thirdly, a crucial part of the debate is the human rights clause of the draft agreement. The Government have not given any indication of the mechanism for enforcing that or adhering to it. Will the Minister outline what will happen and how it will be monitored beyond what is said in article 280? Will the UK Government—I say the UK Government specifically—take action to ensure the establishment of effective mechanisms for monitoring the human rights clause of the EU FTA, and enforcing the environmental and labour standards of the sustainable development title of the agreement? Will the Minister tell us whether, at EU level, there will be a monitoring process in the agreement, if it goes through as it is, and what the sanctions will be? I believe that no sanctions have been taken on any EU free trade agreement in recent history.
I conclude by saying to the Minister in all sincerity that he should delay the implementation of the FTA until he can be sure that the strengthened human rights articles of the agreement are being met, or at least that there is progress towards their being met. The evidence for that would appear sketchy on the ground—it does not appear to be the case.
We must send a message to Governments that we will not blindly implement free trade agreements without tangible proof that conditions included in such agreements are being met. Otherwise there is only carrot and no stick. If the Minister will not agree to delay the statutory instrument, the Opposition will not be able to support it and will abstain on any vote in the Committee. Trade is mutually beneficial, but that comes with responsibilities. We should not shirk those responsibilities, either at home or abroad.
Michael Connarty: I should explain to the Committee that I am the chair of the all-party group on Peru and have served on the European Scrutiny Committee for 15 years, where I have looked at many of these agreements in some detail.
It would be counter-intuitive for a Scots person to argue against free trade, given that Adam Smith worked out the law of comparative advantage on which it is based. However, many people do not know that before he wrote that, he write a book about the moral
The Minister said that most countries are pro-UK. Quite frankly, having been to Peru as the chairman of the all-party group, I can say that, considering the way we abandoned such countries after the Iraq war—we took away all our money for helping their people, which was given in the form of incentives to NGOs or distributed through the embassy—it is remarkable that they still see us in any friendly manner at all. I can recall that the previous Government there made pleas to Secretaries of State to reinstate some financial benefits to them. My colleagues and I also made pleas that fell on deaf ears.
I notice that my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South, talked about the 15-day rule and the fact that it should be looked at again. Sadly, it is the trade committee that has the power to monitor the impact of any part of the trade agreement. No separate commission of any kind would be looking at human rights issues separately from the trade committee. That basically means that trade advantages would be advanced over the human rights concerns of the people. That has sadly been the case so far.
I have been to Peru on a number of occasions, with the Vine Trust and also to look at proposals for major mining interventions. We met people who had been on protests and their family members had been shot by armed guards taken on by companies to impose their right to mine areas—particularly in the north, in the heights of the mountains—by cutting the top off the mountain. They melt it down and send the copper slurry to the coast. They dump all the abandoned pyrites and stone into the mountainside, where of course it then causes pyrites to be washed off into the rivers, contaminating the farm land below. People who protest against that in Peru are likely to get shot by private guards hired by private companies.
If the Government are not aware that that is happening, they are obviously not talking to the right people. If they are not concerned about it, they are not using the right monitoring tools or the right parameters to judge whether free trade agreements would be good for the countries. I want to see free trade agreements—I am not against them—but they should be done in such a way that they advantage the people of the country, without in any way incentivising misbehaviours by companies
There is a question for the Government. They seem to suggest that it is someone else’s role—the European Union, the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament—to police this, but the impact assessment describes major problems, such as no means of enforcing labour or environmental standards, as well as abuses and violations of human rights. MEPs were advised that the agreement
MEPs asked Peru and Colombia to produce human rights roadmaps to set out areas of concern. Key measures of the Peruvian roadmap are not being upheld, including the full implementation of the law on the prior consultation of indigenous peoples and the publication of a national human rights plan. Those elements are missing, so will the Government take any action to establish an effective mechanism for monitoring the human rights provisions in the EU treaty with Peru and Colombia? Is there any way of enforcing the environmental and labour standards of the sustainable development title of the agreement? Do the Government simply want to sign it without any responsibility thereafter?
I remind the Government of the separate and parallel debate in the House about modern day slavery, with promises by the Government of a new anti-slavery Bill. I am the vice-chair of the all-party group on human trafficking and modern day slavery and have been working on that. I also tried to get through the House a private Member’s Bill on the auditing and reporting of UK supply chains—an anti-slavery Bill. Clearly, we are now going to have a Bill, and I understand that the Minister’s own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is supportive of including the auditing and reporting of UK supply chains, which would presumably take into account human abuse and labour abuse—the exploitation of people—in such countries. If the Government are to have that law, yet without a monitoring process in the free trade agreement, then on the one hand they are signing up to an agreement with no teeth, but on the other hand they are promising to bring in a Bill to challenge modern day slavery, which includes the abuse and exploitation of labour in those countries.
Peru in particular hopes for the expansion of its extractive industries. I remind the Committee that Walk Free, an organisation of 5 million people worldwide, was set up by the owner of Fortescue, one of the biggest extractive industry companies, based in Australia and working throughout the world. The owner of that company had found that there was massive abuse of labour in the extractive industries in which he was making his money, and he has eradicated such abuses from his own company. That should not, however, be left to a private individual or a campaign run on a voluntary basis—it should be done by Governments, and by this Government if they are going to sign up to such agreements.
As for the position of the indigenous people in Peru, 78% of the children of the indigenous peoples are calculated to be under-nourished. The EU impact
What are the Government going to do to ensure that the free trade agreement does not exacerbate that situation? As British companies seek profits, they might find that the Peruvian Government are willing to turn a blind eye to abuses against labour, individuals and the environment by companies seeking profits from the free trade agreement, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said has happened in Colombia.
One thing that struck me is that the wealth of Peru is said to be asymmetric, which is an interesting word to use. What is meant by that is clear if someone goes, for example, to Lima. I have been to the Nacional Club in Lima—probably more palatial than most of the big hotels in this country—where the rich live. Within a half-hour walk is a suburb—not a barrio—with no made-up roads, where the people are fed in soup kitchens. Those are the very people taken from the city on the backs of lorries to pick the asparagus that we buy cheaply in our supermarkets, because most of the supermarket asparagus comes from Peru. Do Sainsbury’s, Tesco and all the other companies that claim to have quality assurance, and that sign up to conditions that are supposed to be contingent on human rights, actually ask how the produce gets on their shelves so cheaply from so far away in the world?
Michael Connarty: I do not recommend not buying asparagus. I love asparagus, particularly European asparagus, which is different from the asparagus we buy and stick on our plates. Good asparagus is white and big and fat, like a spring onion. It is big, fat, white and juicy. It is not green and dried up.
We do not want people to stop buying asparagus. I understand pennies would go on to the cost of each of the items if we treated people properly, if they were not exploited and not driven to work long hours and to live in poverty. That would put very little on to the cost of our supermarket shopping, but we have become so driven by cheap food in this country. In fact, we throw away so much cheap food, it is disgusting. It might be fair for our Government to say, “Yes, we will have this agreement”, but we want a commission that will monitor the environment, and the human rights and the labour conditions of the people we will trade with.
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Without prejudice to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, it would be wholly remiss of me as the MP for South Herefordshire not to point out that the finest asparagus in this country is produced by John Chinn in the Wye valley in my constituency.
My main point concerns the impact assessment from the EU, to which the Minister did not refer at all. The Commission said there are serious dangers in the free trade agreements. The EU has said it does not think it has the tools to make sure the agreement is enacted responsibly. I certainly hope that we do have a new slavery Bill in the UK and that it has a monitoring of supply chains condition in it. I hope we ask the people who supply the final goods and make the final profits in this country to justify how they treat people in terms of human and labour rights, and also how they treat the environment when they make the money in those countries.
There are major problems in Colombia that massively outweigh those in Peru in terms of the absolute direct violence against organised labour or against organised academics who speak against Government policy. I do not think that that is the situation in Peru, but there are still massive problems with human rights, labour exploitation and environmental degradation that could come with this free trade agreement. I am grateful that there are people on the Committee who can vote—sadly, I am not one—who will not vote for this.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am grateful to have been called to speak in this debate. I want to follow the points made by my colleagues. I have visited both Peru and Colombia, and my most abiding memory of visiting Colombia was spending a morning at the agricultural workers’ union quarterly conference. The first 45 minutes of that morning’s session was taken up with reading out and eulogising union activists who had been killed over the previous three months for defending their colleagues working in fields or on plantations. The labour laws situation in Colombia might be one thing; the reality of the treatment of those who are elected to represent their fellow workers is very different, and there are more trade unionists killed in Colombia than in almost any other country in the world, and the same applies to journalists who start to investigate the human rights abuses that go on there.
If we are to endorse a trade agreement between the European Union, Colombia and Peru, the least we should do is have some regard for the standards that we want for ourselves. We pride ourselves in this country on having the right to organise as trade unionists, to represent people, and for journalists to go about their work free from the threat of death, and we would also expect any extractive industry to fulfil a number of quite stringent environmental conditions, as we would expect in the agricultural sector. I ask myself: if we agree a trade process between Peru, Colombia and the European Union that is deliberately set at lower standards in all those areas than anything enjoyed across Europe, what is the effect on us and on poor and marginal people who live in those countries?
I want to put three points to the Minister and I hope he can answer them. First, on human rights monitoring, it is all very well for a trade agreement to include a clause saying that there must be observation of international human rights standards in the country that signs the agreement. Good, but it will only mean anything if
The second point, following what my Friend was talking about, is the consultation with indigenous people. The mining companies of the world are queuing up to extract mineral wealth from Peru and Colombia. It is on a par with the Spanish Conquistadores doing exactly the same several hundred years ago. They are very happy to go ahead with it, because they can get hold of indigenous people’s land and extract the minerals, while the indigenous people get little, if any, compensation for it, or any opportunity to relocate to anywhere else or to continue their practices. Often, the restoration of the land is also inadequately done. At the least we should insist on International Labour Organisation standards for those working in those industries, but also a proper dialogue with the representatives of indigenous people before the mining interests actually take over.
Nothing that I have read of these agreements indicates that this will be the case. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but if this trade agreement goes ahead and is approved by the European Parliament, the Commission and member states of the European Union, it can be withdrawn only with unanimity within the European Union. That is extremely unlikely ever to happen, so I urge that we stop here and until the concerns have been properly addressed, we do not go ahead with this agreement.
My third point concerns environment protection around polluting industries. Again, the points made in the interchange about asparagus production could be said for almost any other crop. Quite rightly, we have in Europe quite strict controls on the levels of pesticides used, nitrogen levels and many other things that pollute local water courses. The same things do not apply in either Colombia or Peru, so we have the rather unpleasant spectacle of poor people having their surroundings damaged or destroyed by run-off in order to produce high-quality vegetables which are then air freighted to Europe for us to buy, while the children living around these plantations cannot afford to eat properly and are seriously malnourished. Those are issues about an economic and development model in both Colombia and Peru that does something to redress the imbalance between the rich and poor. The parallel of that is the inter-trade pact of Bolivarian nations—Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela—which requires agreement on reducing of the gap between the rich and the poor, while the EU and US trade agreements make no such requirements whatsoever.
I hope that we reject the agreement. I was pleased with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and for Edinburgh South and I hope that the Minister recognises that if we want to be, as I hope we become, members of the UN
John Hemming: I listened carefully—while I was not making up the quorum in the Backbench Business Committee—to the Opposition’s arguments and I have a lot of sympathy with them. We need to try to drive up standards across the world through these treaties. The difficulty is that the treaty is long and we face a situation where today’s vote has no effect, but when it hits the Floor of the House, I want to see the Government produce a much more substantive argument as to how that will act to drive up standards.
From my point of view, paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory notes is positive in how it talks about these matters, but the question is: what teeth does the process have? I accept the argument that the monitoring processes would be not built into the treaty, but external. There was the case of X v. Croatia in the European Court of Human Rights that was accepted to have exhausted domestic proceedings on the basis that there were no domestic proceedings, so the absence of those does not necessarily make it impossible to get things considered by transnational courts. The Government, however, need a substantive answer on that point before it hits the Floor of the House.
Michael Fallon: This has been an important debate and wholly legitimate concerns have been raised about the trade agreement that we ask the Committee to approve. I do not think, however, that those who are have quite legitimate concerns about human rights in both Colombia and Peru dispute my central assertion that these polices can be mutually supportive: driving up trade can improve human rights. Whatever the individual concerns about particular abuses, I do not think that that central tenet has been challenged today.
Let me turn to some of the specific points raised. With the Committee’s leave, I will certainly undertake to write to any Member whose point I may inadvertently miss out. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, who I think has had to leave the Committee, made a number of points. First, he was critical of companies who want to make money out of Colombia. I have to say to him that a number of respectable British companies trade in Colombia and want to do more trade. The Scotch whisky industry is represented by some of those: 15% of our trade to Colombia is Scotch whisky. I am advised that when the agreement is fully implemented, it will be of significant benefit to that industry: some £5 million a year. British industries are involved and at stake here.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific issues about human rights. First, he asked what we are doing about the trade union situation in Colombia. We
The hon. Gentleman also asked about individual cases. Our embassy there is very active on human rights issues. It regularly raises individual human rights cases with the Colombian Government. It visits communities that are at particular risk and it does meet with individual human rights defenders. Staff from the embassy have attended the trials of certain academics and trade unionists. The embassy has also made an application to visit Mr Ballesteros, who has been referred to, in prison, and it has asked the Government for further details of the charges against him.
The British Government are concerned about high levels of impunity in Colombia, as we said in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2012 human rights report and in our statement at Colombia’s universal periodic review at the human rights council in Geneva in April. We continue to press the Colombian Government to address that fundamental concern, and we commend the work of the national protection unit, which protects more than 10,000 Colombians.
Finally, I was asked about land restitution, as noted in that same FCO report on human rights. Some progress has been made on that issue, and 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under the Victims and Land Restitution Law. The Colombian Government are taking steps to reform the judicial system, and we will continue to press them to speed up the progress of cases and to reduce impunity. Last year, experts from our own Land Registry provided technical advice to the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on land registration issues. Security for claimants and those returning to their land is a key concern, and the embassy has funded a security risk analysis in potential restitution zones.
The hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk asked me some questions arising from his interests. I believe that he has visited Peru, just as his colleague the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North has visited Colombia, and he has brought that experience to the Committee. He asked me about extractive industries, and Peru is now compliant with the extractive industries transparency initiative. Our embassy in Peru has been an active participant in the working group on the voluntary principles on security and human rights, and we have recently organised events in Peru on the voluntary principles. Private companies are no longer allowed to hire Peruvian police for their own security purposes. That was made illegal almost a year ago. Those measures are not the whole answer to the kinds of abuses that he described for the benefit of the Committee; they are small steps, but they are steps in the right direction, and we should encourage them.
The hon. Member for Islington North spoke in a similar vein on the human rights abuses in those countries, and he made three main points. First, we need to find some independent means of monitoring, which is not easy in a country such as Colombia or Peru, and it will fall to international bodies and to oversight by the European Parliament. Secondly, he made the associated
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked me about indigenous rights. Officials at our embassy in Bogota regularly meet indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. We have funded a project in Colombia aimed at developing the role of organisations in protecting communities’ rights to the territories. He will know that the Peruvian Government have recently passed a law on consultation, which should ensure that local communities’ concerns are fully taken into account when agreeing to mining investments. I assure him that our embassy in Lima is specifically pledged to continue to monitor the implementation of that law. We work with companies and the Peruvian Government to encourage responsible corporate behaviour. As I said earlier, we encourage all UK-registered businesses to respect agreed standards and voluntary instruments for responsible business conduct, such as the voluntary principles, the global compact of the United Nations and the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.
The hon. Member for Birmingham Yardley spoke too of the need to give agreements like this more teeth for monitoring purposes. This is a trade agreement so it is quite difficult to see how it could have been incorporated more directly in the monitoring process, but I am very happy to reflect on that and get back to him.
In indicating that, on behalf of the Opposition, he was not prepared to support this trade agreement at the moment, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South suggested that we delay it. I do not think that would be the right course of action. This agreement is already provisionally in force, has been passed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament and a number of other member states have already ratified it—I think some half a dozen member states.
Before I forget, the hon. Member for Islington North asked me very specifically what would happen if we felt the agreement itself was disintegrating and not working, and whether or not it could be withdrawn. He is right to say that to renegotiate the agreement, which is not impossible in the future, would require unanimity among the member states. The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have already approved this free trade agreement and it is now provisionally in force and beginning to apply, subject to ratification by the member states. I do not think it would be right to delay approving this agreement tonight. There is certainly room for improvement in some important areas in these countries.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): The Minister raises a fundamental issue. If, when we meet as a Committee and put to our Parliament a treaty that we believe, because of the ratification by others and because it has gone through the European Parliament, it is a fait accompli, we are effectively saying that there is no point in us meeting.
Michael Fallon: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who is very experienced in this area, but I do not think that is wholly right. Although we have ceded, in this House, overall control of trade policy through our membership of the European Union, these individual agreements have to go through this House and have to be ratified. We could choose not to ratify so we still retain that element of sovereignty, and there are parts of this agreement that do not fit under EU competence, for example the clauses related to weapons of mass destruction and so on. Therefore, I do not think he is wholly right about this.
Ian Murray: I am grateful to the Minister. He has obviously indicated to the Committee that he is not willing to delay this process to get some further advice on what is happening on the ground in Colombia because there is some uncertainty and confusion. I wonder if, before this comes back to the House—which I believe will probably be tomorrow or indeed a deferred division on the following Wednesday—there is any mechanism for getting a report from the diplomatic service or the FCO on the ground in Colombia and placing it in the House so there can be some comfort on this side of the House that some of the issues that are being raised in terms of human rights are at least being addressed. Confusion has reigned and it is a very influential report from the US Congress in terms of the way the US FTA deal with it.
Michael Fallon: I am aware of the US Congress report and of course our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office produces its annual report on human rights, which covers the situation country by country. If there is sufficient time I am very happy to check and see whether some additional information can be made available to members of this Committee as to the latest situation on the ground in Colombia and Peru. If that will help the Committee I will see whether something like that can be done.
There is an advantage, both for British business and for the future prosperity of Colombia and Peru in ratifying this particular agreement. Trade liberalisation, as I said at the beginning, is a source of prosperity, and prosperity in itself is a source of political stability. I hope it will encourage step by step improvement in some of the areas that have been of concern to members of this Committee. With that, I hope the Committee will now proceed to approve this instrument.