This post is by David Lawrence, senior political adviser at the Trade Justice Movement.
The UK has not had the power to strike its own trade agreements for nearly 50 years, due to EU membership. However, many people – and indeed many MPs – will be surprised to learn that, even after Brexit, parliament will have virtually no say over our trade agreements.
This is due to a constitutional convention which dates back to the first world war, which was designed to deal with secret defence treaties and limit how much say MPs had over them. After the transition period, the UK will revert to this old, rather archaic system of treaty scrutiny. In practice, this means that MPs will have less say over new deals, such as a US-UK trade deal, than they do over the building of a new high speed rail network, or a new runway at Heathrow.
Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals might sound like a boring technicality, but it is absolutely critical for ensuring that our new trade agreements are good for the economy, for society and for the environment.
The deal with the US is likely to drag down UK standards
Scrutiny matters because trade matters. As has been widely reported, a new US-UK trade deal is likely to lead to the lifting of a ban on chlorine washed chicken, which could soon be on our supermarket shelves. However, chlorine washed chicken is only the tip of the iceberg.
The US lags behind on a whole host of animal welfare, environmental and public health regulations, and employs many practices which are banned in the EU. From sow crates and GM crops to pesticides and hormone-treated beef, a US trade deal could put downward pressure on our existing high standards.
Furthermore, US negotiators have explicitly requested that the US-UK trade deal does not mention climate change. While the UK government has pledged that it wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and will host the next UN climate conference, the US has not implemented the Paris climate agreement and plans to withdraw from it in November.
The Trade Bill is a chance to improve scrutiny
Scrutiny is essential if we want to avoid the potentially damaging environmental impacts of new trade deals, such as the prospective one with the US. The Trade Bill, which has its Commons report stage coming up soon, is an opportunity to change this.
Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly, with Environment Committee chair Neil Parish, has tabled an amendment to the bill which would ensure scrutiny and transparency in all future trade agreements.
In practice, Djanogly’s amendment would mean three things for every new trade agreement: (1) before negotiations begin, there would be a guaranteed debate and vote in parliament on the negotiation objectives; (2) a requirement for the government to report on how the deal will affect regulations, including on food standards and the environment, and including a Sustainability Impact Assessment; (3) after negotiations, there would be a guaranteed debate and vote on the final deal.
Giving elected representatives a say over trade deals is not a novel concept: both the EU parliament and the US Congress have guaranteed votes for representatives. Unless the government takes on board Djanogly’s proposals, our MPs will have less say over trade deals with the EU and US than their counterparts in Brussels and Washington.
Scrutiny doesn’t stop trade from happening, but it does mean that the government is held to account. It is an opportunity for constituents, businesses and NGOs to engage more actively with the negotiation process, through working with MPs. It makes the whole process more transparent, so that people know what is being negotiated behind closed doors.
Our new trade policy will have far reaching implications, and could make or break the UK’s environmental ambitions. Voting for parliamentary scrutiny of deals in the upcoming Trade Bill is an essential first step in making sure that our trade system works for people and the planet.