MPs influence over post-Brexit trade deals to be downgraded

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Matt Grady looks at how the government's Trade Bill, currently being debated in parliament, prevents effective scrutiny of the UK's trading arrangements. 

Speaking in Oxford recently Michael Gove indicated that it will be up to the UK Parliament to ratify trade deals in the future with an option to decline those that don’t satisfy public interest. While this is a welcome intervention from the Environment Secretary it’s a commitment not currently matched by his colleague Liam Fox or the Government’s legislative programme.

On the 9th of January the second reading of the Trade Bill will take place. As the Prime Minister reiterated in her Florence speech, one of the prizes of Brexit was supposed to be the restoration of Parliamentary sovereignty. You’d be forgiven then for expecting the Trade Bill to legislate for an increased role for Parliamentarians but unfortunately the opposite is true.

The Trade Bill will confer powers on the Government to transition existing EU trade agreements using statutory instruments in what is suggested is a technical exercise. Dig a little deeper and it’s clear that Ministers and senior civil servants anticipate substantive changes to these existing deals which will require implementing significant policy changes without due parliamentary scrutiny. Criticism of the way EU trade policy was handed down to UK politicians, with minimal oversight, was one of the clearest complaints about UK membership of the EU yet, in this landmark legislation, the Government is set to bypass parliamentary scrutiny.

The Trade Bill will set the tone for future trade policy and it is vitally important that the principles and processes are established at the start. Central to this is the ability of elected parliamentarians to scrutinise trade negotiations on behalf of voters, to debate the impacts and to approve or reject deals with a guaranteed vote. Pro-Brexit MPs on Theresa May’s backbenches will surely not accept the prospect of having less say in UK trade deals after Brexit than MEPs enjoy now. While the EU process for trade deals is far from perfect, the European Parliament is a co-legislator with the Council of the European Union, MEPs are provided with regular updates on trade negotiations and given a full vote before deals can be implemented. While UK parliamentarians should expect Brexit to provide an opportunity to improve on existing EU processes they certainly shouldn’t accept anything that doesn’t at least match the influence enjoyed by MEPs.

MPs should get a vote to approve negotiating mandates, informed by independent assessments for future trade deals, including existing EU deals proposed for transition, identifying the economic and social impacts in relation to consumer protections, product standards, environmental sustainability and the UK’s international obligations.

There should be full public consultation, publication of negotiating texts and complete transparency to ensure that future trade deals benefit all in society rather than selected influential sectors. The UK should refuse requests from prospective trading partners to withhold information from the British public. Anything less than full transparency and parliamentary scrutiny would be an affront to Britain’s hard won reputation as a beacon for democracy around the world and would make a mockery of a vision for Brexit where power is restored to Parliament and the UK electorate.

Matt Grady is Traidcraft Exchange's Senior Policy Adviser.

Traidcraft's briefing for MPs on the Trade Bill can be found here