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International Trade Committee: Mechanisms for trade deal scrutiny not fit for purpose

27 October 2022

The International Trade Committee today demonstrates that the mechanisms for Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals are not fit for purpose.

In a new report, the Committee outlines that the Government’s commitments to support scrutiny do not go far enough, and need reviewing and extending. It calls on the Government to agree to scheduling a Parliamentary debate on all new trade agreements. MPs must be given the opportunity to use their ability to delay ratification of a deal if they consider this the most appropriate course of action.

The cross-party Committee of MPs calls for the Government to ensure it can always publish its verdict on the trade deal under discussion before any debate is scheduled, within the timeframe when it can delay the deal if necessary, in order to inform the decision making of MPs.

The Committee asks the Government to undertake a full review of how it engages with Parliament and Select Committees before, during and after trade negotiations. It recommends the Department for International Trade allow time for the consideration and debate of its negotiation objectives before discussions begin, giving MPs the opportunity to influence them.

The MPs reiterate their demand for a single trade strategy which sets out what the Government wants to achieve from its negotiations and how new deals will support this.

The Committee expresses concern that, by dropping human rights provisions from UK trade agreements, the Government may have relinquished an important lever for promoting so-called ‘British values’ abroad, and it is unclear of the benefits of taking this approach. The MPs ask the Government to clarify how it will address related issues, such as human rights, labour rights and the environment.

The Committee also repeats its recommendation that the Government should produce a document which demonstrates how new trade deals are affecting the UK’s economy, at the national, regional and sectoral level, and update this following the ratification of each new agreement.

While the Government has made some recent positive steps to support additional scrutiny, the Committee seeks to continue this movement in order to secure better scrutiny of trade agreements.

Chair's comment

International Trade Committee Chair, Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, said:

“Since leaving the European Union, the UK has negotiated two brand-new free trade deals. Despite warm words, the Government has swerved our scrutiny and deliberately prevented MPs from being given a proper say on these vitally important agreements. It’s clear that the current approach is not fit for purpose. That’s why the Government must commit to full and proper scrutiny of trade agreements and accept our recommendations as a matter of urgency.”

Key findings and recommendations

Select Committees

The Government should undertake a full review of how it informs and engages with others before, during and after trade negotiations. The review should include consultation with stakeholders and others, with a public report produced before the next parliamentary Session. We specifically ask the Government to consider how it involves Parliament and its committees. (Paragraph 8)

Trade strategy

We reiterate our call for the Government to produce a single strategy document that sets out what it wants to achieve with its negotiations and how the agreements it is negotiating will collectively support this. (Paragraph 15)

We are concerned that, by not pursuing the inclusion of a standard human rights clause in trade agreements, the Government has relinquished an important lever for promoting 'British values', and it is unclear what the benefit is of taking this approach. (Paragraph 20)

The Government should publish a clear set of core common negotiating principles. These should be updated and revised as necessary to take account of any shifts in the Government's baseline negotiating position resulting from trade negotiations. (Paragraph 25)

We repeat our recommendation that the Government should produce a document which demonstrates how new agreements are affecting UK trade and the economy, including at the national, regional and sectoral levels, and update this following the ratification of each new deal. (Paragraph 27)

Parliamentary arrangements

The provisions for parliamentary scrutiny of treaties set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG) are not fit to scrutinise future trade agreements. (Paragraph 32)

While we welcome the Government's commitment to support scrutiny, the additional non-statutory undertakings it has given for scrutiny – as set out in the exchange of letters between Lord Grimstone and Baroness Hayter – do not go far enough. The Government has at times shown a reluctance to meet the spirit, if not the letter, of those commitments. The Government's rejection of our requests to be allowed to publish our report on the Australia agreement before it triggered CRaG, and for it to provide time for a debate on our report, suggest that these commitments are either not firm enough or not clear enough. (Paragraph 33)

Before negotiations

Despite the Government's prior commitment to do so, Parliament has not been 'consulted' before or during trade negotiations – rather, Parliament has merely been informed of decisions and outcomes after the fact. This needs to change. (Paragraph 54)

The Government’s approach – launching negotiations soon after publishing negotiation objectives – leaves too little time for us to examine those objectives and seek debate before the negotiations have begun, removing any scope to potentially influence them. (Paragraph 55)

The Government must leave more space between its 'public bundle' being published and the start of negotiations, allowing time for meaningful consideration and any debate. It must also strengthen its existing commitment to ensure that a debate is granted where one is requested by relevant committees. (Paragraph 55)

After negotiations

The Government must continue to work with us to coordinate when it triggers CRaG, for future trade deals, to ensure the House of Commons can consider our report before it debates the agreement within the CRaG period. (Paragraph 67)

The Government must strengthen its commitment to granting a post-negotiation parliamentary debate, ensuring that one is granted if requested in a timely manner. (Paragraph 72)

The House of Commons must have the opportunity to not only debate a trade deal, but also to vote on a substantive motion during the period in which it retains its power to delay ratification, if it considers this appropriate. (Paragraph 78)

The Government must commit to accepting a timely request for a debate on a substantive motion for any new trade agreement, rather than seeking a general debate instead. (Paragraph 78)

Further information

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