Drawing upon successes and failures from past trade negotiations around the globe, the report called for a meaningful role for parliament before, during and after trade agreements.
It urged Government to adopt a presumption of transparency in relation to negotiating documents, and for greater representation of business, civil society, devolved administration, and local government interests in the formulation of trade policy.
Commenting on the Government’s response, Committee Chair Angus Brendan MacNeil MP said:
“We have just 21 days to go until the Government plans to begin negotiating trade deals around the world. With so much at stake for the UK, we are concerned about the Government’s hesitance to put proper consultation and oversight mechanisms in place. The Government is dragging its heels, meaning we may be walking into major negotiations without proper advice from those who stand to be affected.
“The Brexit process has shown that the Government must keep Parliament informed and onside if it wants to achieve its Brexit ambitions – central to which are free trade agreements. The Government’s failure to provide Parliament with a meaningful role before and after negotiations may come back to haunt it in the months and years to come.
“Our report criticised Government plans for the transparency and scrutiny of future trade negotiations, and whilst we welcome their engagement with our recommendations in this response, the proof will be in the pudding over the coming weeks and months, as we wait to see if they put in place the commitments they have made. The recent cancellation of business briefings regarding DIT’s progress in rolling over of EU FTAs does not inspire confidence in the Government’s commitment to transparency and scrutiny.
Role of Parliament
The report stated that the Government should provide Parliament with a yes / no vote on the ratification of future trade deals. In its response, the Government rejects this recommendation, arguing that the current framework for Parliamentary dissent to be registered through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG) provides ‘a sound framework’. This is despite the Minister for Trade Policy, George Hollingbery MP, telling the Committee it would be “disingenuous” to state that Parliament can indefinitely delay ratification of a treaty under CRAG in November 2018.
The Committee also called for the Government to provide Parliament with an opportunity to debate the Government’s ‘outline approach’ (negotiating mandate) for new trade agreements on a substantive, amendable motion prior to negotiations taking place. The Government agrees “that Parliament should be given the opportunity to debate the Outline Approach to a proposed trade negotiation” but does “not believe that a substantive debate on an amendable motion would be appropriate.”
Role of a Parliamentary Committee
The report accepts the Committee’s recommendation that “a parliamentary committee should be charged with the detailed scrutiny that will be required for future trade negotiations” and that such a Committee should “have full access to all negotiating documents, on a confidential basis when required, and should receive regular updates, in private, from ministers and civil servants who are involved in ongoing trade negotiations.”
It also accepts the Committee’s recommendation that the Committee should be provided an opportunity to report to the House of Commons before a trade treaty and laid and begins its formal scrutiny process. The Government does not specify which committee should have this responsibility.
Role of the devolved administrations
The Committee called for the formation of a “statutory UK intergovernmental international trade committee”. The Government has stated that it will “form a new inter-governmental Ministerial Forum for future trade agreements”. Details of such a forum, and its statutory basis, remain unclear.
Role of local government
The Committee called for greater acknowledgement of, and engagement with, local government in the trade policy process. The Government “welcomes this recommendation and is currently exploring options for formalising its approach to engagement with Local Government on trade policy and negotiations.”
Role of business and civil society
The Committee called for Government to “redress the imbalance between big business, small and medium business, civil society, trade unions and consumer groups” in the Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG) – which has been formed to allow civil society and business groups to be consulted before, during and after trade negotiations.
In its response, the Government states that “It is our intention that once it is up and running, the membership of the Group will be reviewed in the first year with the Chairs and others, in particular to ensure the Group is sufficiently representative.”
In its 6 March evidence session with the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox MP, the Committee raised concerns that Membership of this group had still not been announced – despite the Minister for Trade Policy, George Hollingbery MP, telling the Committee in November this would take place ‘within the month”.