How Liam Fox read 60,000 comments on the trade consultation in a few hours
22 November 2017
Liam Fox must be a very fast reader
Superhuman in fact. Because just hours after the ‘consultation’ on the trade white paper closed, the government proposed a new Trade Bill.
Given the fact that many charities, businesses, trade unions and individuals submitted their comments, either Liam Fox just ignored the consultation or he is actually Superman. I know which one my money’s on…
In any case, the Trade Bill proposed by Liam SuperFox is, on the face of it, rather boring. It is mostly about making it easier for the UK to recreate the deals it already enjoys as part of its EU membership. So, for example, it would facilitate the replication of some the terms of the EU-South Korea free trade agreement in any UK-South Korea trade agreement.
It also sets up bodies that are needed in order for the UK to function as a country with an independent trade policy.
But what’s most important about this Trade Bill is not what’s in it but instead what’s missing.
At the moment, parliament has very few powers over trade. MPs and Lords cannot set a mandate (i.e. a set of negotiating priorities) for trade negotiations. They can’t get access to negotiation documents or draft agreements. In most cases, they can’t even vote to approve or reject trade deals that have already been negotiated.
The only power parliament has is to pass a motion to delay ratification of a trade agreement. If this happens the government can come back to parliament and explain why it wants the deal accepted anyway. If parliament does nothing then the trade agreement is ratified automatically after 21 sitting days. The House of Lords can only delay ratification once, but the House of Commons might have to pass a motion every couple of months forever or else the agreement gets ratified.
This is not a democratic system. The UK parliament has less power over trade than the US Congress, the European parliament, or even provincial assemblies in Belgium. If the Trade Bill passes unamended, we could be stuck with this undemocratic system not just for the Brexit transition process but for the foreseeable future. This is because the government may not need to legislate on trade again, as the government already has all the powers it needs. Liam Fox may just decide his superpowers are so great that he doesn’t need the help of pesky MPs in negotiating trade deals with lovely people like Donald Trump. And one superpower the current setup certainly does grant him is the use of the Royal Prerogative – the use of the Queen’s power to make agreements with other countries without Parliament.
So what can be done about this?
Plenty. MPs can vote to amend the Trade Bill and insist upon proper parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals. They also need to ensure that there is a decent public consultation process that doesn’t require the use of superhuman powers and make sure devolved legislatures have a say in the process too. And, while there is no such thing as a perfect system, they can also look to how other countries and organisations do things for inspiration.
Take Canada for example. Trade agreements are officially the sole prerogative of the Canadian federal government and must be ratified by the Canadian parliament. But deals are also not effectively binding upon Canadian provinces without their consent and during CETA negotiations provincial officials were represented on trade delegations as observers.
Belgium goes even further, requiring trade deals that fall into the competency of member states to be approved by its three regional parliaments (Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels) as well as by the national parliament.
The USA has a mandatory consultation process that takes at least 90 days and involves a system of 28 advisory committees and around 700 citizen advisors who have access to confidential information and comment on draft agreements.
In Denmark, the government has to gain a mandate from the Danish parliament’s European Affairs Committee prior to developing positions in the European Council on important issues including trade. Similar systems of ensuring that parliament is involved in trade negotiations from the outset rather than just at the end exist in the Netherlands and Finland.
None of the above countries have perfect systems. The US system, for example, gives corporate lobbyists far too much influence. But all of these countries give their legislatures more say on trade policy than Westminster has in this country. And if we are willing to look beyond other countries to multilateral organisations, we can see that bodies like the World Health Organisation and the UNFCCC (on climate change) even publish full negotiating documents. Even the EU has begun to move in this direction and has published some negotiating texts. The EU has also committed to publishing negotiating mandates as soon as they are agreed.
What is certainly unacceptable is the status quo as represented by the Trade Bill. If this passes unamended, we may have lost the only chance we’ll get to drag democratic oversight of the UK’s trade policy into the 21st century. And we’ll be left solely at the mercy of whatever Liam Fox decides is best for us – whether he has superpowers or not.