Sarah Olney MP writes: Elected MPs must be given a say on trade deals

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The Trade Bill is ping ponging its way back to the House of Commons today for MPs to consider the latest set of Lords amendments. One of these is Lord Lansley’s new scrutiny amendment that combines many of the elements of Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Purvis’s scrutiny amendment, which was previously voted down in the Commons.

The scrutiny amendment proposes that governments will have to publish their negotiating objectives for future trade treaties in advance and have them voted on in both houses of Parliament. This amendment is crucial because the existing process for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals is highly inadequate.

The Bill fails to set out proper procedures for Parliamentary consultation, scrutiny, debate, and approval of future international trade agreements. MPs will have no say over any agreement made with other countries, giving the Government free rein on deals. Despite the inherent impact of trade deals upon human rights, public health, food standards and more, MPs will be barred from voicing their concerns and representing their constituents’ views. In comparison to the US, EU and Japan, which all provide guaranteed debates and votes on new trade agreements to their legislative representatives, the UK will seem embarrassingly undemocratic.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, the UK has the power to set its own trade policy. The Government are negotiating new trade deals, not simply rolling over old deals that had been negotiated through the EU. We have an opportunity to use trade as a force for good and to pursue a modern approach to global trade that creates truly ambitious policies which raise standards both domestically and internationally. Enhancing Parliament’s role will increase the quality of decision-making, and, as many trade experts have pointed out, will strengthen the Government’s hand, giving more political strength to the negotiators.

If the scrutiny amendment does not pass, the Government will rely on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG). This piece of legislation was never intended to be used for trade agreements. When it was passed, we had separate procedures for EU agreements. There is a clear loophole in CRaG which urgently needs to be closed.

Draft treaties will be laid before Parliament 21 days before they can be ratified during which MPs will only have the power to delay it. If no time is found for debate within 21 days, the Government can ratify the treaty with no input whatsoever from MPs. Therefore, there will be no opportunity for scrutiny. British MEPs had more say over the EUs trading arrangements than MPs will have when the Trade Bill becomes law, making a mockery of Parliamentary sovereignty and idea that the UK is “taking back control”.

A report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated”

The current system intended to ensure Parliament has information about the human rights implications of proposed agreements is not working. Parliament has not received adequate or timely information from Government about the potential human rights implications of international agreements being negotiated or those subject to CRaG scrutiny.

Trade negotiations are complex and delicate. Securing access to international markets for one sector may mean conceding international access to our domestic markets for another. Securing preferential treatment on tariffs for some of our goods may mean relaxing import controls on something else. We need to balance all the competing pressures from different economic sectors and geographical regions, fully considering the impact on different groups of workers, and determine whether we prioritise climate commitments over economic growth. CRaG simply does not have the strength to deal with the complexity and weight of our future trade negotiations.

In accordance with the democratic mandate to achieve net zero carbon by 2050, our economy is slowly transition away from carbon emissions. Such progress must be underpinned in every trade agreement we strike. Our commitment to net zero cannot be shelved in pursuit of other goals.

In recent months we have been forcefully reminded of our need to use our trade agreements as leverage powers to influence foreign partners to respect human rights. Our trading relationships with states should not be isolated from our human rights and foreign policy. We must lead by example, and that example starts with parliamentary oversight of negotiating mandates and trade deals.

This should not be party political. Parliamentary colleagues from both sides of the House contend that all MPs need a say. If the Government is allowed unchecked powers, this Bill should not pass into law.

* Sarah Olney is the MP for Richmond Park. She joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and won a spectacular victory in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. She lost the seat by a heartbreaking 45 votes in the 2017 General Election, but then regained it resoundingly at the 2019 General Election.

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  • Colin Paine 9th Feb '21 - 11:44am

    Exactly the kind of post Brexit approach we should be taking…promote liberal democratic values in the new world rather than just wishing the old one back.

  • Barry Lofty 9th Feb '21 - 12:05pm

    It is just typical of the self righteous arrogance of the present government and all MPs from all parties should be very wary of the undemocratic powers they are trying to impose on our governance.

  • This is a quite farcical idea as a trade deal would take 20 years to complete with all kinds of dogmatic nonsense impeding action.

  • David Evans 9th Feb '21 - 3:12pm

    Although I agree wholeheartedly with Colin’s point about “promote liberal democratic values in the new world rather than just wishing the old one back”, I really think we need to work out how we can promote liberal democratic values in the UK first.

    That is really vital on May 6th.

  • Helen Dudden 9th Feb '21 - 4:44pm

    David Evans, I agree, we are sadly lacking transparency and democracy.
    If there are to be any changes at the ballot box, there needs to be. Either it will be a poor turn out, or a very varied approach in the outcome.

  • It is not the role of MPs to micro-manage the government, such as by setting its negotiating mandates. It is the part of the role of the Commons to hold the government to account by requiring that the government have the confidence of the House; but so long as it enjoys that confidence, the government must be allowed to get on with the business of governing, not merely carrying out instructions given it by Parliament.

    The government is not Parliament’s executive agent.

  • David Evershed 10th Feb '21 - 11:55am

    Trying to use a trade deal to impose our values on other cultures would mean no trade deals getting done.

    Colonisation days are long gone.

  • @Dav – “The government is not Parliament’s executive agent.”
    It is – remember Parliament is sovereign, not the Executive.
    This also what many Brexiteers said they wanted when they rejected the UK’s membership of the EU.
    The problem has been that for too many years Parliament has been full of sheep, all to willing to tow their party line and let the ‘Monarch’ to continue to rule.

    >It is the part of the role of the Commons to hold the government to account by requiring that the government have the confidence of the House; ….
    So once an Executive has signed a Trade agreement – which it can do without involving Parliament, how do you propose Parliament holds the Executive to account, when it has no say in the contents of a trade treaty and its ratification?
    It is far better that it becomes standard practise, for the Executive to actively gain “the confidence of the House”; or don’t you want the UK become more democratic?

  • Thank you, Sarah, an excellent article.

    It’s a perfectly reasonable – important even – for government to set out its negotiating objectives in advance. Doing so does NOT amount to micro-managing the government.

    For what it’s worth, Sarah and others are right to be suspicious of the government’s motives. See, for example:

    The CPTPP looks awfully like a junior far eastern version of the EU. Boris has some explaining to do.

    Meanwhile, Liz Truss has been boasting that “membership [of the CPTPP] will position the UK at the heart of some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.”

    Narrowly true. But did she miss that, with the exception of Vietnam and Singapore, the fastest growing members are all resource-exporters whose economies have been supercharged by Chinese demand in recent years? That’s not a club we qualify for.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Feb '21 - 5:29pm

    Successful trade deal depend on economic, political and other factors. Like investments it was thought that green investments did less well financially. This is no longer true. We need a government that realises that in the long term. trade deals will prove good or bad in all these areas concurrently.

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