With the Conservative Party leadership contest heating up and the Prime Minister facing his final weeks in office, you might be surprised to hear that the trade agenda was still being pushed ahead right up until the summer recess. Last week, the government took a significant stride forward after the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – the first ‘new’ trade deal signed since Brexit – passed through its latest parliamentary stages.
While this is as an important step in the UK’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a free trade agreement between 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Australia – many have been critical about the government’s rushed approach after promising a ”world leading scrutiny process”.
Throughout the passage of the UK-Australia FTA, the International Trade Select Committee (ITC) argued that their work had been “hindered”. On multiple occasions, International Trade Secretary Anne Marie-Trevelyan cancelled her oral evidence sessions and then failed to agree a new date to appear before the committee. While the committee was unable to question Trevelyan, the government triggered the process under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG) – which gives MPs 21 sitting days to scrutinise trade agreements prior to ratification. It did so before the committee had concluded its analysis of the deal and was despite previous commitments to allow “sufficient time for relevant Select Committees to produce reports”.
With their continued frustration, the ITC called on the government to extend the 21-day period to allow MPs more time to examine the trade agreement. However, this was rejected by both Trevelyan and Leader of the House of Commons, Mark Spencer, as they stressed that the Committee had sight of the Australia FTA for six months – significantly longer than the three months originally committed to.
While it’s debatable whether the ITC required more time to assess the trade deal, it could be argued that the extension was crucial for MPs. In the end, the UK-Australia FTA passed through Parliament without MPs having the opportunity to debate the agreement. In spite of multiple pledges, the government failed to find time in the parliamentary calendar before the CRaG period expired.
Shadow International Trade Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds declared that the government’s failure to make adequate parliamentary time was “completely unacceptable and a clear breach of promise”, while Conservative MP Alicia Kearns questioned why she and other MPs were not given a chance to have their say on the deal.
Although there is no requirement for a vote or debate on the agreement, given the impact the deal could have on UK agriculture, industry voices have also raised their concerns. The National Sheep Association said it was “highly disappointing” to see the deal pass without parliamentary scrutiny, and it could also “damage public trust”.
As the deal with Australia now moves to ratification by ministers in the autumn, some have claimed it sets a worrying precedent of not giving MPs enough time for scrutiny.
With the UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement next in line, and the government intent on ‘seizing the opportunities of Brexit’ through the next raft of trade deals under negotiation, we will not have to wait long to see if a pattern has been established.