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Ministers' failure to set out trade talk red lines a ‘recipe for disaster’, think tank warns

Ministers' failure to set out trade talk red lines a ‘recipe for disaster’, think tank warns

The UK has already entered into talks with US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan (PA)

3 min read

The Government's failure to set out red lines on key issues in the post-Brexit trade talks is a “recipe for disaster” and could delay new trade agreements, a leading think tank has warned.

A new report by the Institute for Government (IfG) said ambiguity over the UK’s stance could lead to pressure from potential trading partners to lower standards. 

The group is now calling on the ministers to set out clear red lines for future negotiations, set up a new decision-making structure, give Parliament greater scrutiny of negotiations, and to do more to involve the devolved administrations.

But a Government spokesperson hit back at the "misleading" report, insisting that trading partners to not make decisions on regulation.

The latest round of talks on a post-Brexit agreement broke up with “substantial areas of disagreement" still remaining, with just four months before the transition period between Britain and the bloc ends on 31 December. 

“Three years ago we warned that the government had not set up the necessary structures for effective decision making on key trade policy issues,” said IfG researcher Maddy Thimont Jack.

“The government did not heed that warning then, but it now needs to move urgently to put them in place. Otherwise, it will find itself losing control of trade and regulatory policy to better-prepared partners.”

The IfG report claimed Britain has made an “unforced error” in entering talks with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan before reaching a firm decision on what type of deal it wanted.

And the think tank suggested that indecision under Theresa May’s government meant “the UK’s red lines became progressively pinker and the EU was able to set the agenda”. 

Rows over ‘chlorinated chicken’ imports in future US trade deals highlighted public concern over such regulatory change, the IfG added, while reports of tension between government departments over such animal welfare issues were a “bad sign” for future trade talks.

It is now urging ministers to publish a broad statement on the UK’s approach to serve as “guidance” for regulators and “strengthen the government’s nerve” when defending controversial decisions. 

But ministers have repeatedly insisted that environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards won't be compromised in future deals, which includes banning hormone-fed beef and chlorine-washed chicken.

A new decision-making structure is also needed, the think tank adds, as the current system is too “top-heavy” and risks overwhelming the EU Exit Strategy Committee—which oversees trade negotiations—and the Department for International Trade (DIT).

“A group chaired by the prime minister and attended by the foreign secretary, home secretary, chancellor and minister for the Cabinet Office necessarily has limited time and attention to spare,” the report added.

“The lack of a clear and empowered structure underneath it has already meant that relatively minor trade policy decisions have gone to the most senior levels.”

Meanwhile, the IfG is also calling for select committees in Parliament to have access to negotiators and negotiating texts to ensure sufficient scrutiny of and decision.

And the think tank warns it is not “politically prudent” to exclude devolved administrations from negotiations, “especially at a time when support for independence in Scotland is strong”.

A Government spokesperson said: “This report is misleading. The UK Government makes decisions about our own domestic regulation – not our trading partners.

“We have published our negotiating objectives which are clear that we will never sign a trade deal that compromises our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

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