What happened with the Trade and Customs Bills?

After all the huffing and puffing and dramatic headlines, you might be wondering what the implications of the Trade Bill and the Customs Bill are for development.

First, a comment on process. It took the Government 6 months to bring forward these bills after they completed Committee stage in January. They then chose to squeeze debate into a few hours for each bill. This is not because there was a crammed parliamentary agenda or any urgent business. This was done purely to limit opportunities for scrutiny and debate. Hardly a reassuring approach from a Government claiming that they have listened to concerns about scrutiny.

During his closing remarks Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, paid tribute to the evidence given by experts yet it’s hard to see where this input is reflected in either bill.

It’s clear that parliamentarians are beginning to grasp the importance of sustainable trade policy and this was reflected in some really good amendments being tabled. Unfortunately efforts to include sustainable development within a list of criteria the Government must consider when setting import and export taxes were resisted by the Government. This means that neither this Government nor those in the future have any obligation to ensure that trade policy supports development.

In the Trade Bill, we had the bizarre situation where MPs voted against an amendment that would have given them proper powers to scrutinise and vote on trade agreements. Constituents might wonder why those MPs, predominately Government MPs, thought it unimportant to scrutinise trade agreements that impact on all areas of public life. This recent blog outlines just why Government proposals are not adequate. Unfortunately in the votes yesterday MPs seem to have fallen for Government claims that that recent amendments to the Bill and future promises have given them power to scrutinise. In fact the Government has created a limited scrutiny process, applicable in narrow circumstances. The headlines might suggest that the public and Parliament will be able to scrutinise trade policy but the reality is very different.

So what are we left with?

We are left with a customs bill that ensures that goods from developing countries can enter the UK cheaply but excludes sustainable development as a pillar of trade policy.

A trade bill that has no mentioned of sustainable development whatsoever and has almost no scrutiny powers for Parliament or the public.

There is still time for the Trade Bill to be improved as it passes through the Lords this autumn, hopefully that gives the Government time to reconsider its approach.

The Government has always maintained that the Trade Bill was not about future FTAs but about copying existing EU trade deals. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need strong scrutiny processes in the Trade Bill, we do. But if the Government maintains that there will be improved processes for future deals then we need further legislation to ensure that all deals are subject to independent impact assessments, parliamentary approval of negotiating mandates before negotiations begin, full transparency during talks, public consultation and guaranteed parliamentary debate and votes to ratify deals. Trade agreements impact on all areas of public policy including worker and consumer rights, environmental protection, health and education with implications for developing countries.

The passage of the Bill through the Lords is another opportunity to press for changes to ensure the democratic scrutiny that was promised, when we were told that Brexit meant bringing power back to Parliament. Anything less will be a huge mistake and leave us lagging behind other countries, leave trade policy open to the whims of the Government of the day and whichever interest groups have their ear.

Matt Grady is Traidcraft's Senior Policy Advisor