Unamended, the Trade Bill will give MPs no say on future trade deals
When the US makes strong demands on food standards, NHS drugs pricing and climate change, it is understandable that MPs want to make sure they have a say over these agreements, writes David Lawrence. | PA Images
Amendment 6, tabled by Lord Purvis, will set in law a guaranteed debate and vote on any trade negotiations and agreements. Parliament must seize this opportunity to take back control.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but this time last year the country voted in an election which was triggered by a stand-off between the executive and Parliament, as MPs refused to support Johnson’s Brexit deal and demanded more say over the Brexit process. One Conservative leadership election, prorogation, general election and global pandemic later, the same debate faces Parliament today with the Trade Bill.
From January, Parliament will revert to an archaic process for approving trade deals known as the Ponsonby Rule, designed to limit MPs say over secretive defence treaties of the kind that were thought to have led to the First World War. Under the Ponsonby rule, MPs have no guaranteed vote on trade deals, and the government can initiate, negotiate and sign trade agreements without informing Parliament.
This may come as a surprise to many Brexit supporting MPs, who will have less of a say over trade deals than their counterparts in Brussels or Washington DC. It may also be a surprise for many voters across the country - over a million of which signed the NFU’s petition against low-standard food imports - that their MPs won’t necessarily get a say on the controversial US-UK trade deal, or indeed Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
MPs are increasingly concerned about trade in relation to food standards, consumer interests and national security
That is why a cross-party group of peers led by Lord Purvis have tabled Amendment 6 to the Trade Bill to give Parliament a guaranteed role in trade deals. The amendment is very similar to one tabled by Jonathan Djanogly, Neil Parish and other Conservative MPs in the Commons stages, which triggered a rebellion at the time. This list of disgruntled Conservatives is expected to grow - especially as MPs are increasingly concerned about trade in relation to food standards, consumer interests and national security.
Amendment 6 would essentially do three things. First, MPs would get a guaranteed debate and vote before new trade talks begin. While in practice the government often allows a debate anyway, this would set it in law, and mean MPs have to be satisfied with a deal before talks begin.
Second, the government would be required to report on how they expect the deal to impact on environmental, food, animal welfare and health standards - some of the thornier issues within trade agreements.
Third, MPs would have a guaranteed vote on the deal after negotiations, before ratification. In practice, the government’s large majority means that MPs are unlikely to block a deal, but it will force ministers to defend controversial provisions and respond to MPs’ concerns.
Parliamentary scrutiny matters because trade matters. Since the Ponsonby rule was first introduced, trade deals have grown to cover huge swathes of everyday life: from food standards and environmental regulations to health services and data privacy. When the US makes strong demands on food standards, NHS drugs pricing and climate change, it is understandable that MPs want to make sure they have a say over these agreements.
As the UK adopts an independent trade policy for the first time in nearly 50 years - one of the great prizes of Brexit - Parliament must seize this opportunity to take back control.
David Lawrence is Senior Political Adviser at the Trade Justice Movement.