UK trade policy transparency and scrutiny Contents


As a result of leaving the EU, the UK will be developing its own independent trade policy for the first time in over 40 years. We felt that it was important for us to consider how the Government would involve others in trade policy development. Specifically, we were interested in the role that Parliament, the devolved administrations, local government, and businesses and civil society would have in the process. We were also keen to hear about the levels of transparency that the Government should commit to. We found that there are examples of good practice used throughout the world, and that the UK has an opportunity to learn from these when developing its own, unique processes.

During the course of our inquiry, a number of key principles emerged. We consider that these essential principles, taken together, should be a central part of any future arrangements concerning transparency and scrutiny in UK trade policy. The Government must accept these principles as central tenets of how it should develop UK trade policy. These principles are:

(1)Conducting trade negotiations is the prerogative of the executive, but there must be a meaningful role for Parliament in the trade policy process.

(2)Trade policy must be open and inclusive, and maximise benefit throughout the UK.

(3)Government must operate from a presumption of transparency.

(4)Consultative processes must be formalised.

There is currently huge public interest in the UK’s future trade policy and trade agreements, and if the Government wishes to increase public trust in UK trade policy, it should operate with a presumption of transparency. All documentation relating to trade negotiations should be made available, unless there is a genuine and reasonable justification for keeping specific documents confidential.

Allowing Parliament to engage fully with future trade agreements will improve trade policy outcomes. Parliament should be given an opportunity to debate the Government’s Outline Approach on an amendable, substantive motion, before the mandate is set and negotiations commence. We also found that current processes for treaty ratification under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 are insufficient and determined that the House of Commons should have a final yes / no vote on the ratification of trade agreements. The House of Commons should be provided with updates on negotiations, through general statements to the whole House.

A parliamentary committee should be charged with the detailed scrutiny that will be required for future trade negotiations, and we feel that, at present, the most suitable Committee is our own. We should have full access to all negotiating documents, on a confidential basis when required, and should receive regular updates, in private, from ministers and civil servants who are involved in ongoing trade negotiations.

We must be provided with the power to scrutinise negotiating mandates, and the final text of agreements, before they are presented to Parliament for debate. We would expect to make a report to the House on the final text of agreements before a vote on ratification takes place, and the Government should ensure that, where possible, there is sufficient time between a final text being agreed and it being presented to Parliament to allow us to do this.

We also considered the role of the devolved administrations and determined that it is crucial that the Government take account of the views of each nation and region within the United Kingdom when formulating UK trade policy. Current structures are not sufficiently robust to provide for structured engagement and extensive consultation, and so we are calling on the Government to form a statutory UK intergovernmental international trade committee. The UK Government should have a duty to: consult the committee on the mandate for future trade negotiations; regularly update the committee on progress with negotiations; and consult the committee on the final text of an agreement prior to ratification. We also call on the Government to include a representative from each of the devolved administrations and the Local Government Association on the Strategic Trade Advisory Group, to allow the Government to consult with them in detail throughout the negotiation process—in addition to the intergovernmental committee.

Our report also considers the role that business and civil society should play in assisting in the formulation and oversight of trade policy. The Government should adopt a number of the consultation mechanisms used at the EU level—such as regular, open dialogues. It should also learn from practices in other jurisdictions, including Canada and the USA. It should be under a statutory requirement to engage in open and inclusive consultation with business, civil society, and the public, on the mandate for, and scope of, future trade agreements. The Government should hold open, accessible and regular meetings for all interested businesses, organisations and individuals.

We believe that the Government’s proposals for the Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG) are a step in the right direction, but the current membership of STAG is imbalanced between business and civil society, and does not allow for the breadth and depth of representation necessary for effective consultation during trade negotiations. As such, the Government should redress the imbalance between big business, small and medium-sized enterprises, civil society, trade unions and consumer groups, and further create sub-committees for each of these representative categories within STAG. This will allow the Government to efficiently receive confidential feedback from an increased pool of expertise. STAG should act as a “room next door” during negotiations, and its members and sub-committees should consist of vetted advisors with full access to negotiating documents. The membership and application processes for these groups should be transparent, and the balance and membership of its stakeholder groups should be reviewed and changed at regular intervals.

Finally, we considered the impact of trade policy on local government, and noted how the latter’s areas of competence are directly affected by national trade policy decisions. In addition, local government is well placed to understand the effects of trade policy on the individuals and organisations whose interests it represents. Local authorities are, therefore, well placed to be involved in the development and scrutiny of trade policy. Local government should have a voice in all aspects of the trade policy process, and the Government, in its response to this report, should set out how it plans to facilitate this. The Government should consider whether it would be appropriate to include local government representation on STAG.

Published: 28 December 2018