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Government transparency needed for effective Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements

8 February 2022

The International Agreements Committee have written to the Foreign Secretary, with concerns about the Government’s response to its Working Practices: one year on report.  

In the letter we call on the Government to rethink its rejection of key proposals for how the committee and the Government could work to enable effective scrutiny of treaties, including trade agreements. 

The letter highlights that commitments made by a Minister at the Despatch Box appear to have been watered down. It calls for commitments made by Ministers on the scrutiny of trade deals to be documented, providing a clear framework to allow agreements to receive consistent scrutiny. This has the support of the House of Commons International Trade Committee.  In our report we had also asked to be given notice of when other, non-trade related agreements were about to be laid in Parliament—a proposal the Government has refused.  

We additionally recommended that substantive changes to international agreements and any significant political deals called “Memoranda of Understanding” (MoU) be deposited with Parliament for scrutiny. The letter emphasises that without predictable criteria for such amendments or MoUs to be laid before Parliament, scrutiny will effectively become optional.  

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

“I strongly urge the Government to reconsider its response to my committee’s report Working Practices: one year on, on the scrutiny of international agreements. 

“Arrangements for scrutiny need to be clear and transparent. The watering down of previously made commitments on trade deals and the rejection of pragmatic recommendations, such as that there should be a single written record of all commitments in respect of scrutiny of trade agreements, is deeply concerning.  

“The Government also refused to address the absence of clear criteria for when Memoranda of Understanding and amendments to existing treaties should be deposited in Parliament. Or even to give the committee advance notice of pending agreements. 

“When the Government does not constructively engage with committees, the effect is that parliamentary scrutiny becomes less effective and democracy suffers.  

“We invite the Government to provide assurances that previous commitments will be respected and recorded in an exchange of letters; and for it to engage constructively both with our committee and with any other relevant parliamentary committees. Doing so will lead to stronger, fairer international agreements, to the benefit of all.”  

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