WATCH: Tory rounds on government over 'scandalous' handling of trade bill

Tory grandee Ken Clarke

Labour has accused the government of a trade policy "power grab" as veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke criticised his frontbench for a "scandalous abuse" of Parliament.

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The comments came as MPs resumed debate of the Trade Bill, which is one of a series of "Brexit Bills" that intend to adjust UK legislation in preparation for when Britain leaves the EU.

Mr Clarke rounded on ministers at the outset of the debate, criticising the "limited opportunities" for discussion of the Bill's implications.

The Father of the House said: "The moment that we have an important Bill like yesterday and today, the government is anxious that the House of Commons should have no opportunity to talk about it, limited opportunities to vote about it and it should be got out of the way as quickly as possible and I really do think the convention needs to be challenged."

Speaker John Bercow sought to reassure Mr Clarke, telling MPs that "on the matter of votes, the speaker will do everything possible to facilitate votes that members wish to have".

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International trade minister George Hollingbery, introducing the Bill at report stage on behalf of the government, said the legislation was about "continuity".

The Bill does not address trade agreements themselves - these can only be struck after the transition period - but gives the government powers to change domestic legislation to fulfil obligations.

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A number of amendments have been tabled by MPs to the Bill, including one by Remainer Tory MPs which seeks to ensure the government negotiates involvement in a customs union with the European Union.

Mr Hollingbery, moving the Government's amendments to the Bill, said: "I recognise that members are seeking reassurance that the government will be transparent about the content of these transitioned agreements and what might need to change to deliver this continuity that we have championed for so long."

He added that reports published by the government on future agreements would "signpost" any changes in a bid to enhance parliamentary scrutiny.

Tory former minister Jonathan Djanogly, who tabled amendments designed to curb ministerial powers in the Bill, welcomed the government's amendments and said he would support them.

Shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson accused the Government of a "power grab", saying that currently the UK has scrutiny on trade agreements through the European Parliament and through the EU Scrutiny Committee which will be lost in this Bill.

He said: "The government is not proposing any equivalent scrutiny processes for agreements that will replace those we currently have through our membership of the EU, this lack of scrutiny is a major issue and we raised the concerns of business, trade unions, civil society, consumers and many more at committee."

Former trade minister Greg Hands said Labour was "barking up the wrong tree" with their concerns as the legislation was dealing with existing agreements that have already been scrutinised.

Mr Esterson responded: "The new UK agreements would not just be legally distinct but they could include substantial amendments including new obligations, in other words they will not just be rollovers, they will be new treaties that can introduce wholly new terms of trade between the UK and our trading partners.

"Terms that will be binding on us for years to come."

Tory MP Gillian Keegan (Chichester) later drew upon the Rolling Stones over Brexit, telling the Commons: "I can't help think that if we'd been offered a deal a few years ago that ended free movement, stopped future payments to the EU, continued frictionless trade, regained control over our fisheries and farming policies, with no hard border in Northern Ireland, we'd have readily agreed to this - in fact, we'd have bitten their hand off.

"Every successful negotiation requires compromise, and perhaps the Rolling Stones expressed our current predicament best in one of their greatest songs - you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you can get what you need."

Labour's Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) said many other countries with which the UK enjoyed free trade agreements by virtue of its membership of the EU customs union were now starting to say they would like a few significant changes.

He said: "These 40 free trade areas would be far safer if we remained a member of a customs union."

Speaking about the EU's free trade agreement with Japan, he said: "By taking some of the decisions that we might be doing to leave a customs union, we are putting at risk the stability, the frictionless trade capacity that we have with the EU, but also now with that wider part of the world.

"I hope that we can stay in that arrangement and protect the jobs and the livelihoods of our constituents."

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