The Tory trade bill threatens parliamentary sovereignty

Barry Gardiner
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Two and half years on from its first appearance, the government is bringing back the trade bill to the House of Commons this week. Embarrassed by the public outcry over chlorine-washed chicken and stymied by Labour amendments insisting on proper democratic scrutiny, the government had been reluctant to risk putting the bill to a final vote when it had a working minority of 42.

To bring it back at this time of crisis – knowing that in normal times it would engender considerable public concerns – is inexcusable. Those concerns relate to how free trade agreements can impinge on our rights and liberties, our labour standards, environmental protections, food safety regulations, animal welfare laws and the capacity of our public services to continue to operate in the public sector. If this bill goes through unamended, the government will have afforded itself unchecked powers to lock the UK into binding obligations under international law that may profoundly impact upon each of these areas. Parliament would have no say.

The procedure for ratification of international treaties is laid out under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAGA). This legislation stipulates that any treaty need only be laid on the floor of the House for a period of 21 sitting days – if there is no vote against it during that period, it passes into law. But the government decides on the business of parliament and can simply arrange that no vote takes place. The only possible block would be an opposition day debate, which the government can simply choose not to grant.

When CRAGA was introduced, there were a huge number of scrutiny processes in place throughout the EU. The government would have a say in any negotiation mandate at the European Council, there were consultation procedures, and the European parliament committee on international trade would scrutinise the treaty before passing it to the European parliament to vote on. It then came to the EU scrutiny committee in the Commons for further examination before the CRAGA process ratified it. Under this bill, all that is left is the rubber stamp of CRAGA. All other layers are gone.

That is why it is of the utmost importance that in next week’s debate we should demand a proper legislative process and scrutiny framework that ensures formal consultation with key stakeholders, trade unions and devolved administrations as well as a formal role for parliament. Now that we no longer participate in the scrutiny layers that exist in the EU, it cannot be right that we find ourselves in a situation where there is no democratic oversight of trade agreements whatsoever.

For the past four years, the Labour frontbench in both the Commons and Lords have fought to defend the sovereignty of parliament and insisted that there be a proper ratification process. MPs may disagree about whether a free trade agreement will benefit jobs and the economy, or whether it will adequately protect our rights and environmental standards. But they should at least have the right to debate these matters and hold the government to account. This bill denies us that right. This is not parliament taking back control – it is government snatching it from parliament.

Of course, we are all pre-occupied with Covid-19. I am too. But I urge colleagues to fight this awful piece of legislation as never before. And show that, even in a time of lockdown at the other end of a Zoom call, we can fulfil our role as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and expose the dangers of this bill.

The use of investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms in future trade agreements should be ruled out in any form. They give higher rights to foreign investors than to our own domestic companies, allowing them to sue our government for policy decisions that impact upon even their potential profits. The high costs of defending these cases in private courts creates ‘regulatory chill’, where governments back off from sensible public policy decisions. So much for gaining freedom from a supranational court.

Negative lists of those services to be liberalised should be banned because of the way that they prevent government from regulating emergent or future services not yet invented. So much for making our own way in the world.

Last week, we saw the government refuse to amend the Agriculture Bill to safeguard our existing environmental protections, food safety regulations and animal welfare laws. But simply keeping our regulations for our farmers here does not protect them in a free trade agreement. Allowing the importation of goods produced to lower standards, or made in conditions which would be illegal in the UK, will undermine our own producers and lead to a race to the bottom. So much for not lowering our food standards.

Then there is the innocuous sounding provision for the “restructuring of pharmaceutical pricing models”. This is the way you undermine the health service by downgrading our bulk purchasing power against big pharmaceutical companies. So much for the NHS being safe in their hands.

Labour MPs must demand that this bill sets a proper regulatory framework for our independent trade policy. This means formal consultation before the start of any negotiations including formal engagement with stakeholders, business organisations, trade unions, civil society groups and the devolved administrations.

It means full, bespoke, UK-specific, impact assessments addressing the economic benefits and losses anticipated from any trade agreement and the impact on rights, standards equalities and climate goals. It means parliamentary approval of negotiating mandates and a parliamentary vote to approve a trade agreement prior to ratification. And it means a properly independent trade remedies authority that reports to parliament on its decisions.

The debate this week is about more than trade. It is about the balance of power between parliament and the executive. It is about the sovereignty of parliament – something that every Tory who will vote for this obnoxious bill swore to defend in their manifesto.

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