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Government riding roughshod over Parliament on trade deal scrutiny

24 March 2022

The International Trade Committee today publishes correspondence from the Secretary of State for International Trade on Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.

In response to letters from the Committee Chair, the Government again declines to confirm that the Committee will be able to publish its reports into the recently signed trade agreements before it launches the ratification process in Parliament. Once triggered, MPs will have just 21 days to scrutinise these international agreements, which include thousands of pages of detailed legal text.

The Government also fails to provide the key timelines for when the Australia trade agreement will be brought to Parliament, saying that they will be published at “an appropriate time”, and does not commit to allowing the Committee time to review its “Section 42” report on the agreement, swerving a request from the Committee.

The Chair has written to express the Committee’s frustration that the Government has yet again failed to stand up to its commitments to the thorough scrutiny of free trade agreements by Parliament. The Chair calls for the Government to tell the Committee when key documents on the agreement will be published, and when the ratification process will start.

Commenting on the correspondence, Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, Chair of the International Trade Committee, said:

“The Government needs to show Parliament the respect it deserves and open itself up to thorough and transparent scrutiny of trade deals. The International Trade Committee must have the opportunity to scrutinise these deals, which are negotiated behind closed doors, and present its findings in good time, and certainly before MPs are made to vote on the agreements.

“Again and again we have been told by the Government that it is committed to Parliamentary scrutiny, yet we are not seeing that in practice. Nearly three months into the scrutiny process for the Australia agreement, the Government still hasn’t told us how much time we have to conduct our scrutiny before the ratification process starts. Despite asking repeatedly my Committee still doesn’t have an answer – just warm words.

“The Government says it is going beyond its statutory requirements, but these are historical and a very low bar. It is not doing enough to enable timely and appropriate scrutiny. Trade deals will have an impact on businesses and individuals up and down the country. By operating behind a smokescreen, the Government is ignoring their legitimate concerns and riding roughshod over Parliament.”

Baroness Hayter, Chair of the House of Lords International Agreements Committee, said:

“If the Government does take Parliamentary scrutiny of agreements seriously, it must be clearer about the timelines involved. Not knowing when to expect the Government report on the Australia FTA required by Section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2020, or when the Government intends to trigger the formal 21-day ratification period under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, are significant obstacles to our Committee’s ability to do its job.

“Simply being told that we will hear ‘at an appropriate time’ will not do, and compares poorly with the scrutiny of trade deals possible when the European Parliament had jurisdiction over these on our behalf. I urge the Government to specify the timescales for the publication of the Section 42 report and the formal laying in Parliament of the Australia FTA.”

The International Trade Committee has previously expressed disappointment that the Government had rejected the recommendations of the International Affairs Committee Working Practices report, and called for scrutiny commitments made by the previous Secretary of State to be honoured. In his letter, the Chair welcomes the Government’s agreement to confirm all existing commitments relating to the Australia and New Zealand agreements in writing, and calls for this to be completed promptly.

It has also expressed concerns that the Government’s approach to scrutiny of the New Zealand trade deal represents a “severe discourtesy” to Parliament.

Further information

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