The government's landmark Trade Bill is being published today. So let's talk about the current trade system we have in the UK, why trade democracy matters, and how our system needs wholesale reform to put parliament front and centre, rather than being relegated to a helpless bystander in deals that will reshape rules and regulations in the UK.
1. Treaty making is a prerogative power
First, we need to talk about prerogative powers. They are a feature of the UK’s uncodified constitution, and are relics from absolute monarchy. These powers were historically exercised by the reigning monarch. They’ve been gradually delegated to government ministers or made accountable to Parliament or as the UK has evolved into a democracy.
When using a prerogative power, the government is not accountable to Parliament. Many countries have prerogative powers, but they are usually explicitly limited by a country’s constitution to prevent abuse.
In the UK, prerogative powers are ill-defined - there is no list of prerogative powers. These powers often rely on unenforceable conventions so it’s hard to tell when the government is acting out of line, and even harder to hold them to account when they do.
That brings us to treaty making. A treaty is simply any formal agreement between two states, so this includes trade deals. And treaty making is a prerogative power. This means that when it comes to shaping and ratifying trade deals, the government is allowed to act unilaterally, without the consent of Parliament.
2. This means there is no statutory role for Parliament - not in setting negotiating objectives, scrutinising the deal, or getting a vote at the end
As treaty making is a prerogative power, Parliament has no statutory role in the process. Parliament - and the elected representatives of the people - doesn’t get to feed in to negotiating objectives, scrutinise what chips the government is placing on the bargaining table, or get to vote on the final deal.
There are no requirements for the government to seek consent for their negotiating position, or even provide Parliament with any information about how the deal is shaping up.
Why does it matter that Parliament has a say in shaping deals and scrutinising negotiations?
Modern trade deals have far reaching implications, often touching many areas of goods and services, and impacting the everyday lives of the people of the UK. Everything from food safety standards, through to the NHS, is a potential bargaining chip.
The Prime Minister herself has already left open the option for US based private healthcare companies to be involved in the NHS when she visited Washington D.C. earlier this year. More recently, one of Donald Trump’s most senior advisors told a conference hosted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that the UK should not “hinder development of a closer post-Brexit US-UK relationship by continuing divergent standards and regulations.” In other words, UK food standards (like chlorine chicken or hormone beef) were getting in the way of business and should be scrapped.
3. If nothing changes, the sweeping power to do trade deals will be concentrated in the hands of a few ministers
Now, there is certainly a debate to be had about what kind of standards and regulations the UK wants to adopt post-Brexit. But that debate must happen in Parliament. Our food standards shouldn’t be allowed to be reshaped simply through a handshake between Liam Fox and one of Trump’s advisors, behind closed doors. If ‘taking back control’ is to mean anything, then it has to involve a greater role for people and Parliament in deciding what the future of the UK looks like.
We don’t think it should be left to Liam Fox and lobbyists to decide what our future food standards are, whether or not our beaches are clean, or whether we maintain our existing environmental commitments, behind closed doors.
4. It doesn’t have to be like this
The UK stands out among our counterparts as having unacceptably low levels of democratic scrutiny, accountability, and transparency in trade. If the government tells us it can’t be done, what they really mean is that they don’t want it to be done.
When the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada was ratified, for example, the Belgian regional Parliament of Wallonia was given a vote, in line with their constitution. In the UK, our Parliament wasn’t even allowed to debate the deal, let alone vote on it.
Liam Fox didn’t give MPs any say on CETA, and he didn’t have to - as making trade deals is a prerogative power. He was hauled in front of the European Scrutiny Committee after the fact and grilled about his decision to not give MPs any opportunity to debate the deal, instead making the unilateral decision on behalf of the whole country to sign the UK up to the deal. At the end of the day, Parliament was powerless to do anything about this.
MPs, as our representatives, must be at the heart of trade deals - from setting negotiation objectives through to scrutinising and voting on deals
5. From what we’ve seen so far, the government has no intention making UK trade fit for a 21st century democracy by giving parliament a say
What’s worrying is that in the government’s white paper on trade they didn't make any concrete commitments to overhauling the UK’s trade system so that Parliament would be at its heart, rather than a helpless bystander. We blogged earlier this month about the trade white paper’s implications for democracy.
What can we do about it?
Unlock Democracy will be closely following the Trade Bill closely and advocating for a greater role for Parliament and the people. Sign up to our mailing list to keep on top of actions you can take.
You can also read more about the in our report ‘A Democratic Brexit: Avoiding Constitutional Crisis in Brexit Britain’.