I’ve highlighted before the damp squib that is parliament’s role in the scrutiny of trade agreements. Parliamentarians are not given a vote on trade agreements. They aren’t even guaranteed a debate on the detail of deals that impact all our lives. But this is only one facet of a much wider problem.
The opportunities for meaningful public participation and consultation are also far from adequate. With the Greener UK coalition, we previously looked at this in great detail, using the poor scrutiny process for the UK-Australia trade deal as an example.
People are being given no say
Since leaving the EU, new deals have largely been negotiated behind closed doors, with the public and parliament having little or no opportunity to shape the detail of final agreements. The poor precedent set by deals negotiated to date, the lack of meaningful public engagement and the toothless capacity of parliament to scrutinise deals has resulted in growing and widespread concern from parliamentarians, civil society representatives, academics and businesses.
That’s why Green Alliance, with partners WWF-UK, Greenpeace, Trade Justice Movement, Compassion in World Farming, Tenant Farmers Association, Soil Association and Sustain, have submitted a complaint, arguing that the lack of adequate consultation and scrutiny in trade policy decisions violates the UK’s commitments under the Aarhus Convention.
This convention (otherwise known by the much bigger mouthful: the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) is one of the only globally binding instruments that exists on environmental democracy and access to justice.
The UK was one of its original signatories. All signatories agree to a range of commitments, structured around three pillars: access to information, public participation and access to justice.
Our complaint falls under the second which states that parties to the convention “shall strive to promote effective public participation at an appropriate stage, and while options are still open.”
This applies to any legally binding regulations which may have a significant impact on the environment. We argue that includes trade agreements, given their potential for considerable climate and environment impacts, for example through consumption emissions and carbon leakage, and the offshoring of environmental harms.
Our complaint has been allowed to proceed
Our complaint was ruled preliminarily admissible, and we have recently received the government’s initial response. We were of course hopeful it would substantively engage with the issues raised in our complaint and set out what the government would do differently to ensure compliance with its commitments under the Aarhus Convention.
However, the government has instead argued that the Aarhus Convention does not even apply to free trade agreements, but also that, if it did, there’s nothing wrong with the current extent of public engagement. One of the reasons for this argument is that trade agreements are often bilateral. This conveniently overlooks the various multilateral agreements the UK is pursuing, including the recent agreement to join the 11 member Pacific trade bloc.
As we have seen time and again, when it comes to trade negotiations, public consultation and scrutiny opportunities have been perfunctory at best, and the government has consistently been reluctant to improve the processes when pushed on this point.
The deals already done are worrying
The UK-Australia free trade agreement, signed last year, went through the parliamentary process without a debate in the Commons, a move widely criticised at the time. This deal was also strongly criticised for its impacts on British farmers, exposing businesses and consumers to imported products which would be illegal to produce domestically, undercutting UK standards and creating unfair competition for domestic producers. As a result, the prime minister has set out six principles to ensure farming is not an afterthought in future trade deals. A rather stunning repudiation of the agreements struck to date.
As mentioned, the government has also recently concluded negotiations to join the Pacific trade bloc (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP), again with very little scrutiny from the public and parliament. In a recent oral evidence session with the International Trade Committee (which has since been disbanded), the secretary of state for business and trade was unwilling to confirm whether a debate on the CPTPP deal would be granted when it comes before parliament.
The CPTPP deal, as with the Australia deal, presents significant environmental risks, potentially increasing deforestation, exposing public finances to anti-climate litigation, and exposing consumers to more imports that do not meet UK standards. Just how this multilateral agreement should be considered exempt from the UK’s Aarhus commitments is unclear. The potential environmental impacts shows why proper scrutiny and public consultation in shaping trade deals is essential. It’s worth reiterating our top recommendations for how the government could substantively improve trade scrutiny.
First, it should publish an overarching trade strategy, subject to regular review, and consult the public on it. A vote in parliament and public consultation should be guaranteed on the negotiating objectives of trade deals. The government should ensure greater transparency in the process of negotiations, including publishing draft UK negotiating texts. The role of select committees should be strengthened during negotiations. There should be meaningful public consultation during negotiations, including strengthening official stakeholder engagement opportunities. And the involvement of devolved administrations should be increased. Last, parliament should be guaranteed a debate and vote on the final deal.
Proper scrutiny is, of course, crucial to get the best possible outcomes for UK businesses, consumers and the environment. Our recommendations would not only improve environmental outcomes but would strengthen the hand of our negotiators, by delivering a democratic mandate they can point to in holding the line on the UK’s priorities.
As our complaint progresses, we can only hope the government will change its stance and more fully engage with the serious concerns we have raised. Regardless of the ultimate outcome in this specific case, there is much room for improvement when it comes to trade scrutiny, and we will continue to push for a greater public voice on trade deals and all issues that directly impact the environment.