Progress with trade negotiations – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committee of Public Accounts

Related inquiry: Progress with trade negotiations

Date Published: 18 March 2022

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Summary

The Department for International Trade (the Department) has a target for 80% of UK trade to be covered by free trade agreements by the end of 2022. It has a challenging programme ahead which includes concluding ongoing trade negotiations, launching negotiations with new partners, joining a complex trade bloc, implementing signed deals and reviewing existing agreements. However, there is a lack of clarity about how the Department will measure whether it is achieving benefits from its programme of trade negotiations so that Parliament can hold it to account for its progress. The Department currently publishes the impact assessments it makes prior to trade agreements being implemented, but the Department has not set any associated targets. There is no guarantee that the agreements will deliver actual economic benefits unless the Department provides vital support to help businesses use the agreements, particularly for smaller businesses wanting to export worldwide.

The Department needs to ensure that its approach to trade has coherence and that there is sufficient clarity about how government is making trade-offs across different policy areas, such as agriculture, the environment and human rights. For example, UK farmers are concerned about facing competition from imported products including beef and lamb, and the environmental impact of increased trade with countries at a distance from the UK remains uncertain.

Despite additional commitments from the Department, Parliament is still not getting sufficiently timely access to the privileged information it needs to perform its important scrutiny role. For example, Parliament does not see the government’s negotiating objectives so does not know what a trade deal has achieved against those objectives. The Department needs to provide clearer and more complete information to Parliament and the public to improve transparency, communications and understanding of trade agreements and their practical real-world impact.