It has been a trade-heavy summer, with the government busy negotiating trade deals, the Department for International Trade reviewing the way it engages with stakeholders and rumours that former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott could get a top UK trade role.
As parliament returns this week, MPs and peers will have a much needed opportunity to grill the government on its commitments to a trade policy that does not undermine its environmental commitments.
The environment has been a priority in discussions about trade
Before the summer recess, the Trade Bill passed its last Commons stages unamended but not without significant criticism from MPs of all parties. Two issues dominated: lack of scrutiny of deals and the impact of import standards.
The environment and climate featured heavily in these debates. Concerns were raised about the risks of trade deals exacerbating deforestation, undermining environmental protections, jeopardising domestic low carbon industries, offshoring the UK’s environmental footprint, and undercutting British farmers. MPs urged the government to ensure deals will not compromise our international environmental commitments, such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Although none passed in the end, four amendments were pushed to a vote, including a cross-party amendment on the scrutiny of trade agreements, which would ensure MPs had a vote on future trade deals, and a Labour-led amendment on import standards. Twelve Conservative MPs rebelled on the first and two rebelled on the second.
Peers were not much more impressed by the government’s proposals on standards. In an Agriculture Bill debate on import standards, only four spoke in favour of the government’s Trade and Agriculture Commission, out of more than 50 peers who spoke. The commission, set up by the Department for International Trade is an advisory-only body that will run for six months, which means it will not properly hold the government to account on trade deals.
In parallel to concerns about legislation, parliamentarians have also called for more transparency around the negotiations. Over the summer, the government pursued talks with the US, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. We have no way of knowing in detail what was discussed and what the UK government is prepared to concede, despite the many known environmental risks of trade deals with these countries.
The public is worried about the direction of policy
Despite the Conservative manifesto commitment not to compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, there are, as yet, no legal commitments to back this up.
The public is also concerned that standards could be watered down. The Department for International Trade’s (DIT’s) own survey found that maintaining current UK food standards is the second highest concern for the public when it comes to US trade negotiations.
A petition started by the National Farmers’ Union to protect food standards has received over a million signatures. Greenpeace and the RSPCA have started similar petitions, mobilising large numbers of their supporters.
These concerns have been heightened over the past few days with reports that Tony Abbott will be appointed to the Board of Trade, which advises the government on post-Brexit trade relationships. Abbott is well known for having denied the climate crisis and he is no fan of environmental standards, so this appointment would signal a worrying direction for the government’s trade agenda.
To make matters worse, DIT has disbanded advisory groups that provided a forum for NGOs, businesses, unions, and more, to discuss the government’s approach to new trade deals. The new groups set up by the department now only represent business organisations, leaving out environmental, consumer and labour voices.
Two bills will show the government’s intentions
Parliament returns from recess today. As early as 3 September, the government will be quizzed at the DIT’s departmental questions on its progress in the negotiations, Tony Abbott’s appointment and trade advisory groups.
A few days later, on 8 September, the Trade Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords. Peers are now very well versed in the debate around standards and the environment, and the House of Lords is known to advocate for greater parliamentary scrutiny.
The government should reflect these concerns by consolidating the Trade Bill to ensure adequate scrutiny of trade deals, non-regression on import standards and trade policy that is aligned with its environmental commitments.
The Agriculture Bill is expected to follow shortly after for its report stage. Peers will put forward amendments covering different areas of the bill, but import standards will be high on their list of priorities. It is crucial that the government amends the bill to reflect its own assurances on non-regression.
Through these two bills, the government can legislate for a post-Brexit trade policy that bolsters its climate and environmental goals, and does not undermine them. Parliamentarians – including Conservative backbenchers – are not done talking about this issue, and the government should be listening.