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Free Trade Agreements: Transparency and Scrutiny Arrangements

Volume 685: debated on Monday 7 December 2020

I am today setting out transparency and scrutiny arrangements for our new international trade deals with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and for the UK’s proposed accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership (CPTPP). This includes a clear statement of intent by the Government and reflects our commitment to transparency and effective scrutiny of our trade agenda. Furthermore, my Department will continue to work closely with the International Trade Committee and the International Agreements Sub-Committee to review these intentions.

We have committed to publishing the objectives for new free trade agreements and scoping assessments at the outset of negotiations. The Government led a comprehensive public consultation before commencing its negotiations with Japan, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Just as happens in the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand systems, the Government have kept Parliament updated on negotiations as they progress, including close engagement with relevant Select Committees.

The Government will continue to keep Parliament and the public informed of progress for these negotiations through the publication of “Round Reports”. The Government will also continue to hold regular briefings for parliamentarians so that they are kept informed and can ask questions of Ministers. We will work constructively with the relevant Select Committees to keep them apprised of negotiations, including through public and private briefings with Ministers and chief negotiators.

The Government have further built on commitments to transparency and scrutiny through the recent announcement of the extension of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. The Trade and Agriculture Commission will now be placed on a statutory footing in the Trade Bill. It will provide advice on the impacts on farming and animal welfare arising from these new free trade agreements before they are laid in Parliament, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 procedure.

In addition, the Government will work with the International Trade Committee and International Agreements Sub-Committee to ensure they have treaty text and other related documents or reports on a confidential basis, a reasonable time prior to them being laid or deposited in Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act procedure. This is to enable the Committees, should they decide to do so, to produce a report on these new free trade agreements. As with the Japan agreement, this will provide parliamentarians with an additional reference point on which to scrutinise what we have negotiated.

When a signed treaty text is laid in Parliament, it will be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum and the Government will publish an independently verified impact assessment which will cover the economic and environmental impacts of the deal. Parliament will then have 21 sitting days to scrutinise the deal. Should the International Trade Committee or International Agreements Sub-Committee recommend a debate on the deal, the Government will seek to accommodate such a request subject to parliamentary time. The Government want these agreements to be examined by parliamentarians and effectively scrutinised.

Widespread prior consultation and the publication of detailed impact assessments and objectives upfront allow informed debate at the start of the negotiations. Extensive stakeholder engagement on the detail of the negotiations as they proceed, and confidential briefing of relevant Committees, combined with the confidential sharing of text at the end of negotiations mean the Government will have provided Parliament with the information to provide effective scrutiny at all stages of the negotiations. This approach to transparency and openness to scrutiny by Parliament and other stakeholders is at least as strong as any other Westminster-style democracies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

These arrangements are appropriate to the UK’s constitutional make-up and separation of powers. Ultimately, if Parliament is not content with a trade deal, it can raise concerns by resolving against ratification and delay any implementing legislation indefinitely.

This Government are committed to ensuring that no trade deal undermines key industries or lowers standards for consumers. The Government are concluding free trade agreements that benefit all parts of the UK by creating opportunities for our world-leading industries, and maintaining high standards while increasing choice for consumers.

To ensure that the arrangements set out today remain fit for purpose and enable the International Trade Committee and the International Agreements Sub-Committee to conduct their important scrutiny role effectively, the Government will work with the Committees to review further the detail behind these arrangements. For trade agreements beyond the scope of this statement, the Government will always ensure that the appropriate transparency and scrutiny procedures are put in place and will provide further clarification at the appropriate time.