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UK parliament given limited powers of scrutiny over new FTAs

Members of the British parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise new international trade deals as they are concluded by the British government – but no opportunity to vote against them if these accords are deemed to be deficient.

This, in a nutshell, is the new scrutiny framework for free trade agreements announced on Monday (12 October) by the UK’s international trade secretary, Elizabeth Truss.

According to Truss, the new system represents a best in class approach to transparency and openness to scrutiny by Parliament,” and one which “goes well beyond many comparable Parliamentary democracies.”

Critics have however been less impressed by the new framework, with David Henig, UK Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, describing the approach on Twitter as “wholly inadequate”, and indicative of “a government trying to get away with as little consultation as possible.”

Truss’s statement was issued in conjunction with the confidential circulation to key MPs of the text of the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, or CEPA.

But the release of the new scrutiny framework also coincided with the likely parliamentary adoption of the UK’s new Agriculture Bill, in which the government was set to reject a House of Lords proposal which would require all agri-food imports to be produced to domestic UK standards.

The latter issue has stirred up considerable public interest within the UK, and thrown a critical spotlight on the government’s free trade agenda.

Scrutiny processes outlined

So how will the UK approach FTA negotiations from now on?

Truss’s written statement to parliament included a pledge to published negotiations objectives, along with a scoping assessment, in advance of the launch of any FTA negotiation. This has already been done not only for the UK-Japan agreement, but also for ongoing negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, and for the proposed accession talks with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There will also be public consultation on the proposed agreements – again, as already done in the case of the negotiations currently under way.

The process of negotiating any deal will, however, remain purely a government competence. This is in line with standard practice in global trade negotiations.

However, once a deal is concluded, the scope for parliament scrutiny is closely prescribed.

“We will share future trade agreements with the International Trade Committee in the House of Commons and the International Agreements Sub-Committee in the House of Lords, in advance of being laid in Parliament,” Truss said in her statement.

21 days for parliamentary scrutiny

“We will always endeavour to make sure the committees have at least 10 sitting days [i.e. parliamentary working days] to read through these on a confidential basis, as we are doing for [the UK-Japan deal].”

Once the text of the final agreement has been ‘laid in parliament’ – and hence effectively made public – it will be open for scrutiny procedure for 21 sitting days.

“This will ensure the House has sufficient time to scrutinise the detail of any deal,” Truss said – rather surprisingly, given that many trade agreements run to thousands of pages.

Should MPs ultimately be unhappy with the deal negotiated by ministers, however, the options for registering opposition seem limited.

The two Select Committees in the Commons and Lords – effectively, parliament’s trade policy specialists – “may choose to produce independent reports on the agreement”, but these will not have any binding effect.

And despite the fact that many of the areas covered by typical free trade agreements, such as food standards and food labelling, fall under the legislative powers of the UK’s devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the written statement makes no mention of any consultation processes for these legislatures.

No powers to vote FTAs down

Moreover, there will be no up / down vote to approve or reject a deal, as has been common for many years in both the European Parliament and the US Congress. The UK classifies FTAs as ‘international treaties’, the adoption of which is a matter for the government

“Ultimately if Parliament is not content with a trade deal, it can raise concerns by resolving against ratification and delay any implementing legislation indefinitely,” Truss’s statement suggested.

Critics noted that the plans fell some way short of the recommendations set out in a 2018 paper on trade deal scrutiny tabled by a coalition of business organisations, trade unions and NGOs.

This called, among other things, for “a guaranteed debate and vote to ratify the deal in both UK parliamentary chambers after the agreement is finalised and without which it may not enter into force.”

It also demanded the “involvement of the devolved administrations and legislatures throughout the process including their full involvement in the processes of mandate preparation, oversight and approval.”

No upgrade likely for Trade and Agriculture Commission

One new element in oversight and scrutiny of trade policy in the UK this year has been the Trade and Agriculture Commission, a body created by the government in the summer to report, on an advisory basis, on issues relating to food and agriculture in future trade agreements.

In its proposed amendment to the Agriculture Bill, the House of Lords recommended that the Commission should become a permanent part of the trade policy scrutiny system, and that it should be given powers to require amendments to any trade deals which in its view were harmful to UK interests.

But the Lords’ amendments are set to be thrown by the House of Commons in the final vote on the Bill this week.

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