I attended a really interesting Trade Bill Briefing Session in the House of Lords today – in the same room I sat in as a young researcher 20 years ago fearfully presenting my ideas for an independent police complaints system to the great and the good. I was a lot more relaxed today! But at the same time a lot more depressed by current parliamentary process than I was 20 years ago. Let me briefly explain why.
In today’s session, Amnesty International UK, Liberty, the TUC and Traidcraft presented their perspectives on the Trade Bill that is going through Parliament. I have posted before on my concerns about the Trade Bill. These were reinforced by the presentations I heard today. From the dangers of the Bill taking extensive law-making powers from Parliament and granting Ministers the ability to amend primary legislation for a range of broadly defined reasons, to the lack of any kind of scrutiny of the human rights and development impacts of future trade agreements, to the dangers of erosion of workers’ rights as a result of future trade deals, the discussants presented a compelling picture of critical potential problems with future UK trade policy that the Trade Bill fails to address.
As various House of Lords peers told us, one of the key problems with suggesting amendments to the Bill to include consideration of these issues, is that the trade Bill is presented in very narrow terms. All it does is ‘roll over’ existing EU trade agreements into UK law. There is, therefore, no need to create a comprehensive trade policy framework at this stage. That can all be done later when the UK government signs new trade deals.
Lots of reasons were given for why this is not a ‘rollover’. But it is difficult to convince MPs to take it seriously because it all gets very technical very quickly. One very clear example of the rollover fallacy that struck me as I was listening to the discussions is the fact that every trade agreement is a ‘living instrument’ with its own committees, groups and other bodies to implement it.
Take the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters of all recent EU trade agreements. Each chapter has a set of institutions including a joint governmental committee and domestic advisory groups made up of civil society representatives which work on sustainable development issues in relation to the agreement. How do you simply ‘roll over’ these committee structures? Impossible. The EU won’t let the UK government borrow theirs.
The UK government will instead have to create them afresh for its ‘rollover’ trade deals. It will have to decide who will be selected to sit on these bodies, how they will function etc. And before you know it, you are creating a framework for how UK trade policy operates, which will then, surely, be carried over into new agreements that the UK signs. This should all be done within a pre-existing trade policy framework, which should be set out now in the Trade Bill now passing through Parliament.