Comment: We need more scrutiny on trade talks

By the Uncivil Servant, our anonymous columnist with an insider’s view of government

The second reading of the Trade Bill in the House of Lords, on 8th September, was the first opportunity for Lords to debate the bill and flag up any concerns or areas where they think amendments are needed.

Hopes were pinned on Peers supporting the need for an amendment first tabled in the Commons by Conservative backbench MP for Huntingdon, Jonathan Djanogly, which calls for Parliament to be given much more involvement in negotiating and approving future trade agreements. Compared to the pretty much zero say they have now.

Under the amendment, the government would have to lay any UK free trade agreement (FTA) negotiating objectives before Parliament, get approval for them in both Houses, and repeat this process again before signing them. Currently Liz Truss merely wafts them under the noses of backbenchers for information.

The amendment was initially defeated in the Commons, much to the disappointment of many – including the NFU who see the Clause as a safety net for ensuring any draft agreement lives up to UK food safety, welfare and environmental standards. 

It’s already too late for the trade talks with the EU, US, Australia and New Zealand, but given that the Government plans to have 80% of trade covered by Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) within three years, and considering the consequences to the UK economy of getting it wrong, it would represent a step-change in parliamentary process. 

Many a Lord got behind the need for enhanced scrutiny of trade deals during the lengthy debate, but despite the obvious support, Trade Minister Lord Grimstone, closed the session with a strong case for keeping the status quo. “The UK has scrutiny mechanisms…whereby Parliament can see exactly what we have negotiated and can, if it chooses, prevent ratification by voting against the treaty.”

It’s not over yet as the Bill goes forward to committee stage, but the overtones are not encouraging. The Department for International Trade (DIT) has, meanwhile, launched 11 Trade Advisory Groups, including one on Agri-Food, as part of a major new business engagement drive designed to support the UK’s trade negotiations.

Much like the Trade Commission itself, we will have to wait and see how effective these forums are. I preferred the sound of the amendment personally.






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