Government must ensure post-Brexit trade deals are subject to parliamentary scrutiny

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Baroness Hayter

3 minute read

Since 2010, parliament has played an increased – although not decisive – role in approving government-brokered international treaties, with treaties having to be tabled in both houses at least 21 days before ratification.

This 2010 law was passed long before Brexit, when trade deals were still struck by the EU, and elected members of the European Parliament reviewed the progress and outcome of the 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 and not just the trade.

After about a year of work, we produced a “working practices” report, outlining how we and the government could best work together to review their negotiating goals, the progress of the talks, and the final treaties themselves.

The Committee risks being used to rubber-stamp the outcome of a deal, rather than helping to inform the progress of the talks

Sent to the government in September, it unfortunately received the dustiest responses. Essentially, despite promises made to the shipping box by Trade Secretary Lord Grimstone when the Trade Bill was passed, and in a letter from then Trade Secretary Liz Truss to a Commons committee, the Foreign Office (now led by Liz Truss) backtracked on that commitment and failed to deliver an agreed approach on how we do our job. The Committee risks being used to rubber stamp the outcome of an agreement, rather than helping to inform the progress of the talks.

Our review suggestions were modest and simple. To know in advance when agreements are in sight, discuss negotiation objectives, receive updates, have a debate before ratification on request (subject to parliamentary time) and so that implementing legislation does not precede not ratification. All of this, any other parliamentary system in the world would take for granted.

In addition, we urged the government to agree the criteria for deciding whether other arrangements, for example amendments to existing treaties and political agreements, should be brought before parliament (essentially adhering to the Ponsonby Rules of 1924). They also refused to do so – in fact, they even wondered if such a rule existed!

These requests – particularly for a single piece of paper with our common understanding of how trade and other negotiations would be handled – were approved by our sister committee in the House of Commons, but it also received a similar rejection from the ‘idea.

None of this is good for democracy and relations between the executive and parliament, to which ministers are accountable. It was indeed noteworthy that the Foreign Office’s response to our report seized on that old excuse, “the royal prerogative”, as if it gave them exquisite rights. It simply means that Ministers can decide to do something on behalf of the Crown. But that doesn’t cover why they shouldn’t answer to Parliament.

Whether ‘Leaving’ or ‘Remaining’, the promise to the British people was to ‘take back control’. This oversight should rest with Parliament, holding the government accountable for international agreements made on behalf of the UK. The rejection by the Foreign Office of our proposals to make this work does not bode well for relations between the government and Parliament. We would have to rethink.

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

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