Watchdog supposed to scrutinise Australia trade deal still will not exist when deal is signed

Exclusive: Liz Truss accused of ‘subverting’ commitment to parliament by blocking access to agreement until autumn

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 05 June 2021 15:57
<p>The trade secretary has yet to begin the seach for members of the Trade and Agriculture Commission</p>

The trade secretary has yet to begin the seach for members of the Trade and Agriculture Commission

A watchdog designed to ensure the Australia trade deal does not undermine UK food and animal welfare rules will not be set up until months after it is signed, it has emerged.

Liz Truss, the trade secretary, is accused of breaking a commitment to MPs and farmers by shelving scrutiny until the autumn – when it is feared it will be too late to make any changes.

The formation of the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) was conceded by the government last year, after protests that the rush to strike post-Brexit deals threatens to breach standards and hurt farmers.

It was expected to be in place by the spring or early summer – as the Australia talks accelerated – to scrutinise the deal as it is being negotiated and assess the implications for shoppers, agriculture and the climate.

Instead, the hunt for members has yet to even begin and The Independent has learnt the TAC will not be allowed to view the agreement until after a “legal scrub”, probably in the autumn.

The delay has “alarmed” Tim Smith, the head of a temporary commission which was wound up in March, who has also criticised a refusal to involve the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments in the talks.

The watchdog badly needed to examine “both the mandate and the execution of the trade deals”, Mr Smith told MPs, in order to advise negotiators.

“Looking at the impact of a free trade agreement at the point at which it is about to be, or has been, signed is not particularly helpful,” the former Food Standards Agency chief said.

The criticism was echoed by Neil Parish, the Conservative chair of the Commons environment committee, who accused the government of “wasting time”.

“Parliament cannot be unsighted on the principles of the deal, as it will be too late to make any amendments once the deal is put to the Commons,” he told The Independent.

The National Farmers Union has warned “the clock is ticking”, adding: “As we are so close to finalising these deals, its critical the TAC is set up urgently so that it can prepare in good time for the vital job of scrutinising”.

And Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow trade secretary, called for the looming agreement with Australia to be blocked until the government changed course.

The deal – offering Canberra zero-tariff, zero-quota terms, despite farmers’ fears of ruin from cheap and lower-quality meat imports – is expected to be sealed immediately after next weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall.

“This is no longer just a case of Liz Truss avoiding the verdict of the Trade and Agriculture Commission on the sell-out offer she has made to Australia,” Ms Thornberry told The Independent.

“She is actively subverting the statutory role that the commission has been given by parliament to inform scrutiny of such trade deals. That is an unacceptable breach of the commitments made.”

Anger has been fuelled by Ms Truss’s failure to respond to March’s report by the temporary commission, with 22 recommendations on everything from animal welfare and labour standards to the climate crisis and food labelling.

Mr Parish has demanded that Ms Truss explain the delay, adding: “It is essential we get a response from the government regarding the TAC’s report as soon as possible.”

The Department for International Trade declined to respond to the criticisms, but it is understood to believe the TAC – enshrined in the Agriculture Act – does not need to start scrutiny until after the text of a deal has been agreed in order to comply with the law.

When she announced it last November, Ms Truss described the commission as “an important part of our vision”.

“It is about putting British farming at the heart of our trade agenda and ensuring the interests of farmers and consumers are promoted and advanced,” the trade secretary promised.

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