Drawing upon successes and failures from past trade negotiations around the globe, the report calls for a meaningful role for parliament before, during and after trade agreements.
It demands 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.
Launching the report, Committee Chair Angus Brendan MacNeil MP said:
“The UK is set to begin negotiating its own trade agreements for the first time in 40 years. These agreements have the potential to affect every part of every UK citizen’s life – from the quality of the food we eat to the money in our pocket. We have seen what happens when the public and parliament are deliberately kept in the dark over trade negotiations. With so much to gain or lose, everyone has the right be heard.
“Current Government plans for the transparency and scrutiny of future trade negotiations are characteristically vague and attempt to dress poor planning up as pragmatism. Our report makes an unequivocal argument for transparency over secrecy, consultation over concealment, and parliamentary debate over simple rubber-stamping.
“The Government should allow Parliament, devolved government, business and civil society to contribute positively to the development of a negotiating mandate. It should guarantee Parliament a vote on the ratification of trade deals and give our Committee the tools we need to oversee and scrutinise negotiations as they progress. It should ensure that devolved government has a statutory and meaningful role and expand its means of consultation with business and civil society.
“If the proper processes and protections are not put in place from the outset, the Government may fail to realise the UK-wide post-Brexit benefits it has gone to such lengths to promote.”
The report identifies four key principles that must underpin the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy. Firstly, it accepts that while trade negotiations are the prerogative of Government, Parliament must have a meaningful role throughout. The ability for MPs to represent the views of those that stand to be affected – consumers, businesses and workers – will lead to fairer outcomes for all.
Secondly, trade policy must be open and inclusive and maximise benefit throughout the UK. When formulating policy, a wide range of stakeholder groups from across all nations must be represented.
Thirdly, the Government must operate from a presumption of transparency rather than secrecy. Whilst the Committee accepts that certain documents must remain confidential, it must justify its decisions to withhold information.
Finally, processes must be formalised without delay and, where appropriate, be placed on a statutory footing. All parties who will be affected by trade policy outcomes must understand how the process works, particularly when and how they can contribute.
Trade, trust and transparency
The report highlights transparency commitments made by the European Union in response to criticisms levelled at it during the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. It argues that these should form a baseline for the Government. Anything less would undermine the process from the outset, making it impossible to win the trust of consumers, businesses and workers. Information should be presented in clear, accessible terms on the gov.uk website, accompanied by summaries and with impenetrable jargon kept to a bare minimum.
The role of Parliament in trade policy
Parliament should be involved throughout the process, beginning with a debate on a substantive, amendable motion once the Government has agreed an Outline Approach, and before negotiations are underway.
Such a debate would not only allow Parliament to express its concerns or objections at the outset, but also lower the risk of it rejecting eventual negotiated agreements – as Government would be required to take Parliament’s view into account before mandates are set and negotiations commence.
During the negotiation process, the report calls for regular updates from Ministers and civil servants, along with relevant documents, to be provided to the International Trade Committee, which will be charged with ensuring detailed oversight of negotiations.
The Committee should report on the final text of agreements ahead of a final parliamentary debate on ratification. The Government should also update Parliament via Ministerial Statements throughout negotiations.
The role of devolved administrations
The report argues that current structures would not provide for sufficiently comprehensive consultation with devolved administrations, and that the Government should therefore establish a statutory intergovernmental international trade committee, comprised of representatives from each of the devolved administrations.
Such a committee should be consulted on negotiating mandates, kept abreast of developments during negotiations, and consulted on the final agreement text prior to the debate on ratification. The committee should be supported in its work by a Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG), which Government would engage with throughout the negotiating process.
Engaging business, civil society and local government
Drawing further lessons from the EU’s TTIP negotiations, the report recommends consultation mechanisms to ensure business and civil society viewpoints are reflected in trade policy. It notes the strengths of those at an EU level and suggests improvements where necessary.
Government should be required via statute to hold regular (at least quarterly) consultation meetings with businesses, organisations and individuals. These meetings should be attended by negotiators and officials from the Department for International Trade, and provide an opportunity for interested parties to give their views on the mandate and scope of future agreements.
Meetings should be supplemented by comprehensive engagement with the STAG, the proposal of which by the Government is welcomed by the Committee, albeit with the caveat that further work is required to ensure that it fully represents the range of businesses, civil society, trade union and consumer groups that are active across the UK.
The Committee views the STAG as being a particularly valuable contributor to the development of economic and non-economic impact assessments relating to trade negotiations.
The report also highlights the extent to which local government and the individuals it serves are directly affected by trade policy; and calls on the Government to outline proposals for involving it in trade policy development and scrutiny in its response to the report.