Not even close to what is needed - a few thoughts on Liam Fox’s statement to Parliament yesterday

It is testament to the thousands of campaigners and parliamentarians who have been saying loud and clear to the Department for International Trade that our future trade policy needs to be properly scrutinised, that Liam Fox felt compelled to make a statement to the House of Commons yesterday. He was obviously also trying to avert defeat on today’s Trade Bill by reassuring parliamentarians that they will have their say. But a close reading of what he said reveals serious cause for concern.

Leave aside for a moment whether other countries will actually want to negotiate with the UK (which depends hugely on the deal – if any – we eventually strike with the EU) Fox’s statement seems designed to give the appearance of saying all the right things, while actually saying very little of substance.

First the status of a ‘statement to the House’ is extremely unclear and surely could be reversed by a subsequent ‘statement to the House’ in the future. Our trade policy will affect our food, our jobs, our health, our commitments to developing countries (with jobs and lives on the line there too). It is too important to leave to chance, especially as we are living in the most uncertain period of recent history. Fox should instead propose to future-proof scrutiny processes by enshrining them in legislation.

A second concern is to which deals the proposals will apply. Fox makes clear that it is future deals and not the ones he hopes to transition from the EU. But these replicated deals will have to be changed to reflect that they are now with one country, not a bloc of 28. We have already heard that a number of countries are fully expecting this. As essentially new deals  - some of which have huge and potentially damaging implications for developing countries – it is absolutely critical that they are properly examined and that parliament retains the right to send them back or amend them. MPs attending today’s debate should make this point loud and clear.

And then we come on to Fox’s proposals for consultation and scrutiny of future trade deals. Here we see the right words – ‘primary legislation’, ‘impact assessment’ ‘public consultation’ – accompanied by caveats which render them all but meaningless. Primary legislation is only ‘if required’ ‘if there are not existing powers’ – it is not a requirement, so who knows whether in the future parliamentarians will actually get a say over future FTAs. ‘Impact assessments’ are only promised ‘at the appropriate time’. To be meaningful impact assessments must be done prior to negotiating mandates being set, so they can influence the substance of the negotiations. They must not be reduced to providing window dressing to deals that can’t be changed. And the promised 14 week consultation period for the public, which is designed to learn the lessons of TTIP is there to enable ‘people to express their views’ and ‘feel these have been taken into account’, but no clear process is set out for HOW these views will be taken into account in practice. A cynic could see these as a huge distraction for important interest groups such as trade unions and NGOs.

It may be that Liam Fox’s proposals are more well intended than I am giving them credit for, and the aim is really to try put in place mechanisms that enable those with interest and expertise – including MPs - and those who will be directly affected to have a say over our future trade policy. If this is the case – and I very much hope it is - then I suggest they need a serious re-think, to be given the status of legislation which cannot be subject to the whims of one government or the next and for parliamentarians to be given the duty and right to accept or reject deals that have such profound consequences for our society.

Liz May is Traidcraft Exchange's Director of Policy and Advocacy