Government in court over secret trade deal talks
Date: 20 September 2021
- Department for International Trade must not have a “get out of jail free card” to sign away rights in trade negotiations, says Global Justice Now
The Department for International Trade (DIT) faces a Tribunal hearing today, in a dispute over whether a heavily redacted copy of papers from post-Brexit trade Deal talks met the government’s Freedom of Information (FOI) obligations.
The Tribunal appeal could impact future FOI requests and rules surrounding the secrecy of post-Brexit trade talks.
Global Justice Now obtained an almost entirely redacted copy of the notes from trade deal talks with the US and with other countries in 2019. The redacted US negotiation notes were held up by Jeremy Corbyn in the general election debates, sparking furore about what the government was willing to give up in trade deal negotiations.
Now, an appeal tribunal will decide whether the government was right to withhold the information on the basis of exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.
The government claims that the trade talk notes were exempt from FOI law, as they could prejudice international relations or the development of government policies.
Exemptions must undergo a public interest test for each piece of information, to decide whether the sensitivities outweigh the public’s need to see the requested information.
A previous tribunal found that the public interest balance fell in favour of withholding some of the requested information.
But lawyers representing Global Justice Now argue that not all of the information should have been redacted. They say the previous tribunal made a legal error by aggregating the public interest factors rather than considering each exemption in turn, and in its analysis of whether the exemptions were engaged.
Global Justice Now says shrouding negotiations in secrecy is “utterly undemocratic” and that exempting them from FOI law would hand the Department for International Trade a “get out of jail free card’.
The group warns that “people have a right to know if their rights, their food standards, or their public services are being sold off” in post-Brexit trade deals.
The case raises “important points of legal principle” on how the public interest is weighed under Freedom of Information law, according to Leigh Day.
Nick Dearden, DIrector of Global Justice Now, said:
“Trade deals sign entire countries up to a litany of rules and regulations that impact our daily lives. From the NHS to workers’ rights, to environmental protections – everything can be up for grabs in trade negotiations.
“It’s utterly undemocratic to shroud these negotiations in secrecy. People have a right to know if their rights, their food standards, or their public services are being sold off.
“This isn’t just about the US trade deal. We are forging new post-Brexit trade deals across the world. We can’t just hand the Department for International Trade a ‘get out of jail free’ card in these negotiations when so much is at stake.
Erin Alcock, a lawyer at Leigh Day representing Global Justice Now, said:
“Our client’s appeal raises some important points of legal principle relating to the operation of the public interest test within the Freedom of Information Act, which is used to decide on the release of information that might otherwise be exempt from disclosure.
“It is crucial that the test is correctly applied to ensure all information that should be publicly available is released into the public domain. In this case, the information sought is needed to feed into the important public debate about post-Brexit trade deals and their impact on individual rights in the UK and abroad.”
Notes for editors
The appeal tribunal for Montague & Department for International Trade will be a public hearing at 10:30am in Court 5, The Rolls Building, 7 Rolls Buildings, Fetter Lane, London, EC4A 1NL