What you need to know about the government’s trade white paper

The publication of the white paper ‘Preparing for our future UK trade policy’ was the first chance to see the government’s detailed thinking on Trade. A quick read shows that the intentions of the government regarding transparency and public scrutiny are worryingly  vague. There’s no new role for Parliament, the devolved legislatures or the public, but a seat at the table is being kept open for big business.

Why does trade matter for democracy?

Trade is one of the areas in which Brexit is going to have significant impact. This is because the framework in which the United Kingdom has been - and will be until ‘Brexit day’ - buying and selling goods with other countries has been determined by the European Union. When the UK leaves the EU, we will be also leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. This means that by then, the UK government will have had to finalise a trade deal agreed to by all 27 countries of the EU in order to continue to be able to exchange goods and services freely.

Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, has promised to sign 40 new trade deals with non-EU countries the moment that the UK leaves the European Union. While that could be possible, the white paper does not include any detailed mechanisms for how parliament will be able to influence those deals. As you can imagine, trade is something that greatly impacts all of our daily lives: from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, and the prices we pay for those goods and other services.

Treaty-making is a prerogative power, which means the government can act unilaterally without the consent of parliament and the devolved legislatures. Parliament has no mandatory role in setting the government's negotiating objectives, influencing deals, or even having a vote on any deals that are agreed. Without change to the way trade is done in the UK, lobbyists will have more of a say over whether you eat chlorinated chicken or not.

It’s important that your voice is taken into account when these new trade treaties, which will affect us enormously in the years to come, are negotiated. Parliament and the devolved legislatures (Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont) are vital for representing the  views of the people in a democratic society.

Prerogative powers are left over from the days when England was an absolute monarchy and had even fewer check and balances that we have now. Even today the limits of what the government can or cannot do is not well-defined, as we saw in the lengthy legal battle over the triggering of article 50. Not having a codified or (written) constitution means that unless the government is challenged in their interpretations in a court of law, they can decide what limits they will abide by.

Key points from the white paper

Given that Theresa May called a snap-election last April to try and win a strong mandate for Brexit, it should be a no-brainer that losing a majority and having a hung parliament gives her the mandate to look for consensus in what perhaps the most important negotiations in  the UK’s history. This has not been the case so far, and the new policy paper on trade just promises more of the same.

Whilst it makes the point that the government will give the opportunity to different stakeholders to engage and contribute to UK’s trade policy it fails in explaining how and when this will happen.

  1. Reforming trade ratification and negotiation mechanisms in the UK - No meaningful reforms are proposed regarding the role of Parliament in negotiations and ratification,  And grants Parliament no new powers in addition to their current power to reject a finished treaty.

  2. No commitment to democratising trade - The report repeatedly states that the government will consult Parliament, devolved administrations, devolved legislatures, business and civil society ‘in due course’. They will also ‘in the coming months’ engage with different stakeholders in round-tables in order to develop mechanisms for securing their input in the future. However, they don’t explain how and no detailed timeframe is set. What is meant by ‘in due course’ is unknown.

  3. Prioritising Parliament and the devolved legislatures - Parliament and the devolved legislatures, which are the voice of the people and nations, instead of being recognised as a vitally important standalone actors, are listed alongside a long list of different actors.

  4. The government gives no voice to devolved administrations - Trade deals will affect current legislation in the devolved administrations. However, the white paper sets clear that government wants to set up new mechanisms for the devolved administrations to implement the new trade deals. But the white paper sets no mechanisms for engaging them in the process of treaty-making. 

  5. Protecting our rights and maintaining high standards - as previously mentioned, treaty making is a prerogative power and so control over what is in trade deals lies with ministers. The modern trade deal isn’t simply about tariffs - they cover many areas of goods and services. Worryingly, the white paper does not detail how the consumer, workers, environmental and intellectual property rights are going to be protected.

  6. Prioritising big business over people - While the paper lacks any kind of detailed plan for how citizens and Parliament will be able to engage in trade deals, the government has made sure to not make big corporations feel left out, going into plenty of detail about their plans to help businesses have their say.

Given the importance of trade in your future, we believe that the government should be held accountable to you - your voice should be heard. Government should allow Parliament and devolved administrations to participate in the development of the UK’s future trade treaties, having a meaningful role in the negotiations. After a divisive referendum and inconclusive election, parliamentary involvement would help build cross-party and cross-country consensus by encouraging the government to appeal to a broad range of interests.

‘Preparing for our future UK trade policy’ continues on the line of giving a vague idea of government’s plans, without giving enough detail to scrutiny and transparency. Given the lack of a codified constitution limiting prerogative powers, Theresa May’s minority government is trying to impose their own view on trade without consensus, knowing that this is something that will affect enormously our lives in the years to come.

What you can do

Unlock Democracy believes that the government is too powerful because we don’t have a written constitution. This process shows just how not having clear limits, checks and balances can affect your voice being heard. We need to tell our MPs that we want them to fix our broken democracy. You can do that by joining or setting up an Unlock Team.

Will you?