UK trade policy transparency and scrutiny Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Introduction and core principles

1.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. (Paragraph 6)

Trade, trust and transparency

2.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, such as the risk of undermining the UK’s negotiating position. The Government must, as a minimum, publish trade policy documentation equivalent to that which is published at the EU level. The EU’s transparency commitments have been developed in direct response to public and stakeholder concerns raised during the TTIP negotiations. To deliver anything less would risk undermining public trust in UK trade policy from the outset. (Paragraph 20)

3.We welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing an Outline Approach for each negotiation—but note that it has provided limited information about what will be included in this document. This Outline Approach should be equivalent to EU trade negotiating mandates, setting out clear instructions for UK negotiators. The Government should ensure that such a mandate includes no less information than the EU provides—notably, for instance, in the recently approved mandates for negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. (Paragraph 21)

4.All information published by the Government relating to each trade negotiation should be available on a single page on the website. It should be presented in a clear and easily navigable way, and jargon should be avoided where possible. The Government should also publish accessible summaries or factsheets in relation to negotiating documents. (Paragraph 22)

Parliament’s role in trade policy

5.Parliament should be given an opportunity to debate the Government’s Outline Approach on a substantive motion before the mandate is set and negotiations commence. We welcome the indications to us that it is the Government’s aim to provide for a debate on the Outline Approach, but the Government should confirm that such a debate would be on an amendable, substantive motion. The motion, and debate, will provide an opportunity for Parliament to express any concerns and objections regarding the proposed mandate, and allow the Government to modify it if necessary. (Paragraph 54)

6.Current processes for treaty ratification under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 are insufficient. While Parliament can theoretically block indefinitely the ratification of a treaty, or decline to legislate its provisions into domestic law, doing so in practice would be a difficult and unsatisfactory means of rejecting a trade agreement which does not have the support of Parliament. The House of Commons should have a final yes / no vote on the ratification of trade agreements. (Paragraph 55)

7.A parliamentary committee should be charged with the detailed scrutiny that will be required for future trade negotiations. At present, the most suitable committee to take this responsibility is ours. We could draw on the experience of other Committees, such as the European Scrutiny Committee, in carrying out this task. 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. The International Trade Committee 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. (Paragraph 56)

8.In addition to private updates to this Committee, the House should be provided with updates on negotiations, through general statements to the whole House. (Paragraph 57)

Devolved administrations

9.It is crucial that the Government take account of the views of each nation and region within the United Kingdom in formulating an independent trade policy. Current structures are not sufficiently robust to provide for structured engagement and extensive consultation. (Paragraph 83)

10.The Government should 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. (Paragraph 84)

11.A representative from each of the devolved administrations and the Local Government Association should be included on the Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG), to allow Government to consult with them in detail throughout the negotiation process—in addition to the intergovernmental committee. (Paragraph 85)

Business and civil society

12.To provide appropriate business and civil society engagement in trade policy, the Government should adopt similar mechanisms to those used at EU level, where they are seen to be effective, and either dispense with or refine EU mechanisms where they are ineffective. It should not ignore the valuable lessons regarding consultations that have been learnt by the EU in negotiations such as those over TTIP. It is crucial that systems for engagement are open, accessible and understandable, to ensure that the Government receives a wide range of contributions. (Paragraph 128)

13.The Government 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 deals. The Government should hold regular (at least quarterly) meetings which are open to all interested businesses, organisations and individuals. Government should provide updates on all ongoing trade negotiations and allow attendees to make representations in the presence of negotiators and Department for International Trade officials. The Government should ensure that such a forum, which could in many ways mirror the Civil Society Dialogue at the EU level, is transparent and accessible to all. (Paragraph 129)

14.The proposals for the STAG are a step in the right direction. 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 consultation during trade negotiations, as it does not include all stakeholder groups that should be represented. The Government should redress the imbalance between big business, small and medium business, civil society, trade unions and consumer groups, and report back to us on how it has done so. (Paragraph 130)

15.The Government should create a STAG sub-committee for each representative category in the current STAG proposals. This sub-committee should feed its conclusions upwards through the lead STAG member at points where the Government is seeking feedback on negotiating texts and positions. This will allow Government to efficiently receive confidential feedback from an increased pool of expertise. The Government should create ad-hoc sub-committees where there is a need for additional expertise not currently covered by STAG members—for instance, services or digital trade policy. (Paragraph 131)

16.STAG members and sub-committees should be vetted advisors with full access to all negotiating documents to allow them to provide the best advice to Government. The membership and application processes to these groups should be publicly available and fully transparent. The balance of stakeholder groups, and the members of each group, should be reviewed and changed at regular intervals, to avoid concerns about preferential treatment of specific businesses or organisations. (Paragraph 132)

17.STAG should act as a “room next door” during negotiations, allowing it to provide Government with swift advice and calling on the expertise of its sub-committees when doing so. Where STAG identifies that a change in the negotiating position could have significant impacts not covered in the impact assessment, it should have the power to recommend the production of a new impact assessment, which must be completed before negotiations progress further. (Paragraph 133)

18.Business and civil society groups should be involved in the production of impact assessments. These assessments should be produced before negotiations are initiated, as well as following the conclusion of negotiations (before a deal is presented to Parliament). They should use consistent metrics and analyses, and consider economic as well as non-economic impacts. (Paragraph 134)

Local government

19.Local government and its 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 throughout 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. (Paragraph 144)

Published: 28 December 2018