Government cannot afford to rush scrutiny of Australia trade deal
Much has been written about the “good chaps” theory of government, under which the so-called UK constitution is meant to run, namely on trust – that those in power will behave honourably and abide by their word.
That’s fine in theory. Sadly, the absence of such conventions in practice could not be demonstrated more starkly than in the conclusions the International Trade Committee has today reported on its experience of scrutinising the UK’s trade agreement with Australia.
We find that the Government has undermined good scrutiny and shown great discourtesy to Parliament, including breaching a commitment made to the Commons Speaker– all the while displaying an unhelpful and high-handed attitude.
Two weeks ago, the Australia trade deal was laid before Parliament. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG), this triggers a scrutiny period of 21 sitting days. During this, MPs can debate the agreement and potentially vote to delay its ratification.
We have previously called for the Government to allow us enough time to publish our report analysing the deal before triggering this countdown clock. Our report, currently being prepared for publication in the coming weeks, will play a pivotal role in that scrutiny process, helping MPs to hold an informed debate on whether the deal is the best possible for the UK.
Last year, the Secretary of State told the Speaker that the Government wished to “ensure that there is sufficient time for Select Committees to produce reports” before triggering the scrutiny process.
Before we can publish our report, we need to be able to question the International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, about the agreement.
That questioning is only taking place today, two weeks after the scrutiny process has begun, because the Secretary of State has failed to make time to give evidence before us on multiple occasions.
The Trade Secretary previously told us she feared “a prolonged period of Parliamentary scrutiny” could get in the way of “prompt ratification”. But there are significant pitfalls in overhasty ratification of a critically important agreement.
It is notable that Australia is not rushing with Chamberlain-esque haste, shouting “trade deals in our time” as the UK is pointlessly trying to do. Note that, for the agreement to come into effect, Australia will also need to ratify, which will seemingly not be very soon.
In this haste, potential disbenefits of the deal may be overlooked or disregarded. Elbowing aside Parliamentary scrutiny in such a way sets dangerous precedents for future trade deals.
The Government has the power to extend the CRaG period. We today recommend that it does so, to allow time for MPs to absorb our analysis before a debate occurs.
Should the Government fail to act, we call for a debate in the House on a substantive motion to resolve that the treaty should not be ratified. By so voting, MPs could effectively extend the scrutiny period.
It is important to stress that this would not be fatal to the treaty with Australia; it would simply allow an extension of just a few weeks for further debate.
The request for time to produce our report is not unreasonable. Our function as a Committee is to thoroughly analyse and consider the implications of trade agreements for businesses and consumers up and down the country.
The role of our scrutiny is to help the Government, not to hinder it. This is the first wholly-new trade agreement negotiated since Brexit, and the precedent-setting nature of this deal makes it all the more important that we get this process right. The political sphere is busy with the urgent, however it cannot ignore the important such as this, which could have effects for years to come in ordinary life.
Effective parliamentary scrutiny of Government requires both sides to act in good faith. This breach of that principle must not set the pattern for the future.
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