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Committee sets out approach to free trade agreement scrutiny

13 July 2023

The Business and Trade Committee has published a new report setting out its intended approach to scrutinising prospective free trade agreements (FTAs).

The Committee intends to take a targeted, thematic approach to scrutiny of FTAs, and the Committee will usually publish a report that assesses the likely consequences of a prospective FTA. In most cases, the Committee will call for a debate on the Government’s negotiating objectives.

This approach continues the method recently used by the former International Trade Committee (ITC). The Business and Trade Committee acquired the ITC’s remit to scrutinise the Government’s trade policy, including how it negotiates and enacts free trade agreements. The ITC was disbanded in April 2023 to mirror the abolition of the Government’s Department for International Trade.

This approach, the Committee finds, will be “more productive than exhaustive textual scrutiny of an agreement that has been finalised and signed, and when no scope for influence or manoeuvre remains.” Rather than waiting to carry out line-by-line analysis of an already finalised FTA, the Committee may be able to influence the eventual content of an agreement.

Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance (CRaG) Act 2010, the Government is required to put a treaty requiring ratification before Parliament for 21 sitting days. In some cases, the Committee would press for a debate on the agreement on a neutral motion, which simply asks Members to consider a given topic, with no binding outcome.

However, if concerns previously raised in a Committee report on an FTA were not adequately addressed in a final text, and the Committee believed that the agreement should not be ratified, it would ask the Government to enable debate on a substantive motion, which would require the House of Commons to take a view on the subject.

Chair's comments 

Darren Jones MP, Chair of the Business and Trade Committee said:

“We have asked ourselves how we can best contribute to Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s approach to negotiating and implementing free trade agreements.”

We believe the targeted approach taken by the former International Trade Committee – analysing negotiating objectives for an FTA and identifying key policy issues – is the most useful way to equip the House for debate and empower it to hold the Government to account.

Line-by-line scrutiny of agreed texts, which are sometimes thousands of pages long, would take up all of our limited time and resource and would not enable the House to effect positive change.

I will lay out further our position in a Select Committee Statement to the House on Thursday 13 July, and look forward to carrying out our role in scrutiny of the Government’s trade policy.”

Further information

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