Democracy has been kept out so far. But the Trade Bill battle is far from over

21 February 2018

Liam Fox’s Trade Bill is nearing the end of its time in the House of Commons, and so far our efforts to amend it have been frustrated.

The committee stage, where bills are reviewed line-by-line and frequently amended, was the obvious place to do so. But the Trade Bill committee failed to pass any amendments after the government was able to appoint a majority of loyalist Conservative MPs to vote along narrow party lines.

19 MPs, 5,000 emails

Global Justice Now ran an action to get people to email the 19 MPs on the committee, and our director, Nick Dearden, gave evidence to it. The 10 Conservative, 7 Labour, and 2 SNP MPs each received more than 5,000 emails calling for trade democracy during the week of public hearings, and our action was a hot topic of discussion during the sessions.

Mostly this was smoke and mirrors, with Conservative MPs and the trade minister, Greg Hands, complaining theatrically that most of the emails were not from constituents. This ignored the fact that for a short time, those MPs took on a national role, in helping to shape legislation that will affect everyone in the country. Labour’s Faisal Rashid MP spoke up about it at the committee hearing:

This is a national issue; it is not just a constituency-based issue. I understand that there is parliamentary procedure and that we do not have to reply to all those emails if they are not from our constituents. However, surely it tells us, as parliamentarians, that the problems and issues among the general public and in the business environment are quite immense.

This is the first time I’ve seen MPs in parliament squabbling over how much they should listen to one of our campaign actions! So although we weren’t expecting individual replies from MPs (and their auto-responses will have said as much), we certainly registered the extent of public concern to good effect.

Predictably, however, the ten Conservatives MPs on the committee chose to ignore the thousands of emails, and the arguments made by both campaigners and some business figures throughout the hearings, and voted with the government against the amendments.

Rattling Liam Fox

Despite this setback, we upped the pressure earlier this month with the Trade Bill Takedown, two days where activists came to London for discussion, education, protest and lobbying.

Fifty people participated in a walking tour of the City of London, calling in on the offices of lobbying outfit TheCityUK, legal firms who profit from and extol the virtues of corporate courts which sue governments for policy changes, the Bank of England, Mercers Hall (the site of the launch event of the Initiative for Free Trade) and Trump Street.

Later we held a public meeting with Labour’s Barry Gardiner, shadow secretary of state for trade, and Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas MP. The meeting certainly had an effect. Liam Fox took to the web pages of the Independent to denounce the meeting and its aims, summarily missing the point throughout the article. We responded to the piece here.

The next day, after a protest outside the Department for International Trade, scores of MPs were lobbied and given fresh and informative reasons why the bill must be changed – or indeed taken down.

What happens next

There is still hope that an amendment may successfully be tabled at the report stage, which is the last chance in the House of Commons. We currently expect this to happen in early March, so we do still have time to ask our representatives in the Commons to table and support amendments.

This time all MPs will get a vote, but in order to avoid a repeat of the narrow majority at second reading there will need to be an effective backbench Tory rebellion. This makes putting pressure on all MPs crucial in the coming weeks.

Immediately after report stage, the bill will have its third reading and MPs their final vote. If everything runs to Liam Fox’s liking, the bill will be passed to the House of Lords for their consideration. The stages follow a similar pattern there but the committee stage is open to all Lords.

This means there are still plenty of opportunities for us to influence the bill. This battle has some distance to run.

Photo: Tug of war stunt in front of the Department for International Trade, part of the Trade Bill Takedown in February. Credit: Guy Smallman



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