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Government must ensure post-Brexit trade agreements receive parliamentary scrutiny

3 min read

Ever since 2010, Parliament has had an enhanced – though not decisive – role in agreeing international treaties negotiated by the government, with treaties having to be laid in both Houses at least 21 days before ratification.

That 2010 law was passed well before Brexit, when trade deals were still done by the EU, and elected MEPs in the European Parliament scrutinised the progress and outcome of negotiations. Once it became clear that, after Brexit, the UK government would start negotiating new trade deals, the Lords set up an International Agreements Committee to take on this role – for all treaties not just trade.

After about a year of this work, we produced a report on “working practices”, setting out how we and the government could best work together to scrutinise their negotiating objectives, the progress of talks, and the final treaties themselves.

The Committee is at risk of being used to rubber stamp the outcome of a deal, rather than helping inform the progress of talks

Sent to the government in September, it has now sadly received the dustiest of responses. Essentially, despite promises made at the despatch box by trade minister Lord Grimstone during the passage of the Trade Bill, and in a letter from the then Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, to a Commons Committee, the Foreign Office (now led by Liz Truss) is rowing back on this commitment and has failed to provide an agreed approach on how we do our work. The Committee is at risk of being used to rubber stamp the outcome of a deal, rather than helping inform the progress of talks.

Our suggestions for scrutiny were modest and simple. To know in advance when deals were in the offing, discuss negotiating objectives, receive updates, have a debate before ratification when requested (subject to parliamentary time), and for implementing legislation to not precede ratification. All this any other parliamentary system around the world would take for granted.

In addition, we urged the government to agree the criteria to decide whether other arrangements, for example amendments to existing treaties and political deals, should come before parliament (essentially fulfilling the 1924 Ponsonby rules). This they have also declined to do – indeed they have even questioned whether such a rule exists!

These requests – especially for a single piece of paper with our shared understanding of how trade and other negotiations would be treated – were endorsed by our sister Committee in the Commons, but it too has received a similar rejection of the idea.

None of this is good for democracy, and the relationship between the Executive and Parliament, to which ministers are accountable. It was indeed of note that the Foreign Office’s response to our report grabbed hold of that old excuse, “the Royal Prerogative”, as if this gave them some exquisite rights. All it means is that ministers can decide to do something in the name of the Crown. But it provides no cover for why they should not answer to Parliament.

Whether a “leaver” or a “remainer”, the promise to the British people was to “take back control”. That control should be to Parliament, holding government accountable for international agreements made on behalf of the UK. The Foreign Office’s dismissal of our proposals to make this work does not bode well for the relationship between government and Parliament. It should think again.

 

Baroness Hayter is a Labour peer and chair of the Lords International Agreements Committee.

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