UK trade policy transparency and scrutiny Contents

1Introduction and core principles

1.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 to ensure that such decisions are made fairly, with full knowledge of the possible impacts. 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 in terms of publicly stating its objectives for future trade negotiations and publishing other relevant documentation.

2.We considered that it was crucial to hold this inquiry now, given that the UK is scheduled to exit the EU in a matter of months. We will soon be able to negotiate new trade agreements, yet the Government’s position on how it will involve the aforementioned bodies and groups is still to be fully determined. We are currently awaiting purportedly imminent updates on the composition of the Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG—see Chapter 5) and the arrangements for involvement of the devolved administrations in future trade policy (see Chapter 4).1

3.There is also currently huge public interest in the UK’s future trade policy and agreements. The Secretary of State, Dr Liam Fox, told us earlier this month that 600,000 responses had been received by the Department for International Trade (DIT) for its recent consultations on trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, and accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.2

4.This inquiry, and, therefore, this report, have intentionally focused on the approach taken to concluding new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We do not consider the Government’s overall trade strategy, which we hope to return to in future work. As part of evidence-gathering for this inquiry, we heard from 21 witnesses and received 38 pieces of written evidence. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to provide us with their views, which were very helpful.3 An overview of our proposals is given in Annex 1.

Core principles

5.During 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 the transparency and scrutiny of UK trade policy. The evidence supporting these principles, and further findings, are set out in the remaining chapters of this report: Chapter 2 focuses on public trust and transparency; and Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 consider the roles that Parliament, the devolved administrations, business and civil society, and local government, respectively, should have in the formulation of trade policy.

6.The following are clear, binding principles that have emerged from the evidence to our inquiry. The Government must accept these principles as central tenets of how it should develop UK trade policy.

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

Conducting trade policy negotiations with third parties is the prerogative of the executive, but as the UK develops its own independent trade policy, it is essential that Parliament has a meaningful role throughout the process. This will result in fairer trade outcomes, due to clear and direct input from Parliament, with its Members representing the views of those that stand to be affected.

Trade policy must be open and inclusive, and maximise benefit throughout the UK

Trade deals involve more than just tariffs, and regulatory change can positively or negatively impact consumers, businesses and workers. It is, therefore, essential that that there is a fair and broad representation of interests in trade policy formulation across all nations within the UK, and that this involves a wide range of stakeholder groups. This will lead to a more inclusive and effective trade policy.

Government must operate from a presumption of transparency

The levels of public trust in trade policy are low. To address this, the Government should work with a presumption of transparency, rather than of secrecy, regarding the publication of documentation relating to trade policy and negotiations. We accept that certain documents are sensitive and must remain confidential to avoid undermining negotiations, but the Government should only keep documents secret on this basis when absolutely necessary.

Consultative processes must be formalised

To achieve the best trade policy outcomes, it is vital that all parties who stand to be affected understand how the process works, and when and how they can contribute to it. Certain elements of consultation and oversight should be made statutory, to ensure that the system inspires the trust of stakeholders and mitigates concerns about unchecked executive power over trade policy. These processes should be put in place as soon as possible, in order to provide proper oversight and scrutiny of future trade agreements, negotiation of which could begin as early as April 2019.

2 Oral evidence taken on 5 December 2018, HC (2017–19) Q471

3 All evidence can be viewed on the International Trade Committee website.

Published: 28 December 2018