For the past 40 years trade policy has languished as some obscure aspect of government, far removed from the heart of political debate. Now as we negotiate Britain’s departure from the EU, the realisation that trade agreements create international commitments that bind our country for decades is dominating Whitehall. Trade agreements influence the standards, protections and regulations that shape the kind of society we live in.
And so it is, that one of the most essential questions arising from our exit from the European Union will begin to be answered this week: the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill will begin to set out the framework upon which our commercial relationships will be formed over the next quarter century.
Such a framework will be required regardless of the detail of the Brexit talks because whatever our future relationship, we will require new institutions to replace those that previously were provided by the EU. This repatriation of powers lays a responsibility on Parliament to set out a transparent process by which this fundamental area of public life should be governed.
Yet, This is not what is happening in the trade bills. Instead of setting out a new transparent democratic framework, the Conservative Government - just like they did with the EU (Withdrawal) Bill - is attempting yet another appalling power grab. I campaigned to remain in the EU, but I am 100 per cent sure that those who voted to leave did not vote for powers to be taken from bureaucrats in Brussels and handed to Liam Fox!
The trade bill includes "Henry VIII powers" which enable ministers to modify primary legislation by fiat, cutting MPs out of the process. Whatever their agenda might be – and they certainly appear not to want anybody scrutinising it – we must ensure that it is controlled by our sovereign Parliament. This is Labour’s task this week.
Any binding trade agreement should be subject to impact assessments, proper consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, debate and votes. Currently these are provided partly by the Commission and MEPs and partly through the European Scrutiny Committee in Westminster. But once we leave the EU, these institutions are stripped away. We will fall back upon the 1924 Ponsonby Rule. This arcane procedure allows the Government to ratify a trade agreement simply by laying it before the House for 21 sitting days. No need for a debate, no need for a vote. This is simply not good enough in a modern democracy. The world’s fifth largest economy should not govern itself after the fashion of a tinpot dictatorship.
What this means became clear this November when US Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross came to speak at the CBI Conference in London. If the UK wants a trade agreement with the US, we were told we must abandon our own standards and align our regulations more with the US rather than the EU: but these are regulations that give us security at work, protect our health and stop our air and seas being polluted. Regulations which currently prohibit products such as chlorine-washed chicken from entering our market.
The concerns around these now infamous chickens are not just about food safety but also about the farming conditions maintained during the animal’s life and slaughter which necessitate the carcass to be dipped in chlorine in order to wash off dangerous pathogens. In the UK we have traditionally preferred to farm in such a way that animal welfare and sanitary farming practices ensure there are no pathogens that need washing off in the first place! Fox sees regulations as simply a burden on business that stop the consumer getting cheaper products. In fact they are about the sort of society we want to be and the quality of the lives we want to lead.
Trade policy should be subject to the most rigorous parliamentary procedures. That is why the upcoming trade bill is a crucial piece of legislation. As it stands, however, the bill makes no mention of consultation or scrutiny, and gives no powers to Parliament to influence or monitor trade policy.
No minister should be able to whisk through Parliament agreements that are negotiated behind closed doors. And that is how Liam Fox seems to prefer to do them: just before Christmas we found out that his department has colluded with its American counterpart to keep all information on US-UK trade talks confidential for four years after their conclusion. Our democracy will be diminished if the Government is allowed to get away with this constitutional outrage.
The irony is that a Secretary of State who was most strident in demanding that we take back control of our trade policy from Europe, is not returning it to our sovereign Parliament but keeping it as his private fiefdom and conducting it in secret as far away from the scrutiny and debate of Parliament as possible.
As this legislation proceeds in the coming weeks, Labour MPs will be demanding transparency and proper parliamentary scrutiny because we believe our trade policy should be conducted for the many, not the few.
Barry Gardiner is Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade
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