Trading strategies

Wilf Stevenson on the latest attempt to get a Trade Bill through Parliament

Trade has long been a key component of our success as a nation. Yes, the balance between physical goods and provision of services has shifted significantly in the last decade or so. But as Adam Smith pointed out in the 18th Century, a high standard of living and relative prosperity depends on what our native talents and competitive advantages allow us to produce and sell – both at home and abroad.

As the EU transition period comes to an end, and the UK regains responsibility for its own trade policy, you would expect the government of the day to do two things. First, set out its long-term vision in the form of legislation. Second, reveal detailed policies to secure growth, protect rights, safeguard supply chains, and tackle global challenges. Doing so not only shows intent and purpose but helps build public, and indeed market, confidence – something that matters even more in uncertain times, such as now.

The Trade Bill that gets its second reading in the Lords on Tuesday does none of this. The government describe it as a “continuity” bill and says that its limited scope is to ensure the UK continues to benefit from the Free Trade Agreements negotiated by the EU.  It has tried and failed with this argument before and will do so again. Should it get Royal Assent, the Bill as it stands means UK trade policies will be determined with less scrutiny and debate than currently happens within the EU. Ministers, meanwhile, will be free to negotiate future deals by using archaic Royal Prerogative powers, with almost zero parliamentary accountability. 

No other major trading country prevents its elected representatives from reviewing and agreeing their trade policies. And no other area of public policy in the UK is off-limits to both the Commons and Lords. Our democratic system depends largely on checks and balances on the executive being exercised by both Houses. 

When considering the predecessor Trade Bill in 2019, Peers made some 30 amendments – covering employment, food and environmental standards, customs arrangements, Northern Ireland, and future EU collaboration. As the then Minister put it: “no legislation passes the scrutiny of this House without being improved. This is unquestionably true here.”

But those changes have been stripped from the current Bill. Even the government’s own amendments on gender equality and reporting to Parliament are gone. During the Commons debates, MPs expressed wide support for new scrutiny arrangements, but they were rebuffed. Our Labour colleagues proposed amendments to formally involve the devolved governments; protect current standards on animal welfare, the environment and food quality; and guarantee rights and protections for working people and the NHS within future trade negotiations. While Ministers rejected all of these and more, Labour Peers and others will challenge those decisions during the Lords Committee stages.

We believe strongly that the government needs to establish appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, whether this is significant changes to the existing EU ones or new free-standing FTAs. The International Trade Select Committee and the Lords’ new International Agreements Committee should have early access to and the right to propose changes to negotiating mandates; receive ongoing negotiations reports; and the powers to make recommendations for the final approval of trade treaties and agreements. We must also ensure that consumers, trade unions and wider civil society, and the nations and regions of the UK are fully engaged in trade policy. 

Trade will continue to play a vital role in our country’s economy, beyond both Brexit and the devastating effects of the Covid pandemic. The government should welcome Labour’s offer to help get this Bill right and at the same time recognise that involving Parliament, the devolved administrations and wider society will significantly strengthen its negotiating hand. 

Wilf Stevenson is Shadow International Trade Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @WilfStevenson

Published 4th September 2020

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