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Trade Bill: Jonathan Djanogly calls for more Parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements

20th May 2020

Now that the UK has left the EU, Jonathan Djanogly calls on the Government to ensure more Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deal negotiations by setting up a new Commons Treaty Committee and making the scrutiny process under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (“the CRAG process”) more user-friendly.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con) [V]

Now that we have left the EU, it seems that 20 continuity agreements have been signed with some 48 countries and that a further 20 have been negotiated, so will the Minister confirm whether there are any countries that do not wish to deal with us at the current time? It seems that Canada and Japan are refusing to be rolled over, so to speak, and want to start negotiating from scratch, so should we not now treat these unsigned countries as new FTAs, rather than including them in this EU roll-over package? Does not clause 2 in effect represent a moment of time that has now passed? In that regard, I think we should take this opportunity to recognise the friendly and co-operative attitude of those countries, such as Switzerland, Israel and Georgia, that did sign up before Brexit.

I understand the need for statutory instruments to be used to effect these roll-overs, but will the Minister confirm that, for the most part, they will be transcribed into our laws by the withdrawal Act, and that these SIs are effectively intended to deal with deal variations? The problem that we debated on the Trade Bill two years ago was that the statutory instruments’ scope could be so wide that they could be used as a Henry VIII provision for anything to do with the roll-over countries other than tariffs. Indeed, I cannot see how it is possible that they could not be used as part of a deal to issue visas, say, in return for trade access, or indeed to add on military or intelligence provisions. I believe that this could apply to amendments made to these deals for five years, even after they have been initially concluded. For instance, I do not see that there is any level of deviation from the EU deals with such counties that would necessitate a Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 process. This situation led to no little disquiet last time this Bill came around, and the Government eventually came up with amendments that have now only partly been readopted.

When the Bill was debated two years ago, the first change that was made was to make the SIs affirmative. That has been retained, which is welcome. The second change was to have a three-year sunset period, and that has now been changed to five years, which seems unnecessary. The third change was to have reports produced by the Minister before the first SI, setting out all the proposed changes. In practice, this is sensible in that it will assist scrutiny and also provide a framework if there are multiple SIs. The Minister advised me that he was supportive of using reports, but he did not think they needed to be legislated for. Parliament might like to look at that again.​
The fourth change was to provide that these reports should be laid 10 sitting days in advance of the first SI. This would allow comment to be made before the SI was laid, which would be more effective from a scrutiny point of view. Ministers have suggested that this procedure will be used to tie up loose ends or legislate for trade-related variations, but they will appreciate that we as legislators need to scrutinise this legislation with an eye on what it could be used for.

When the Trade Bill was debated two years ago, Parliament was promised a new FTA scrutiny regime, yet we have not put that in place, despite trade talks with the US starting. Now that Brexit has happened, the Commons has lost its European standing Committee, which reviewed the EU’s monitoring and negotiation of trade agreements. No equivalent Committee has been formed to replace it, and we have obviously lost the scrutiny previously provided by the EU itself. Keep in mind that the European Parliament’s consent to a new treaty is needed, in a way that does not happen in the UK, where there is no obligation to inform or consult Parliament, no structures for reviewing treaties, and no debate or approval needed prior to signature. There is only the CRAG process to delay ratification, which, in its April 2019 report on scrutiny of treaties, the Lords Constitution Committee described as “anachronistic and inadequate”.

I am not calling for an end to the prerogative power to agree treaties—although we need to appreciate that many pressure groups are—nor am I calling for Parliament to be able to amend draft treaties as the US Senate can, but I am calling for a proper process whereby policy objectives of treaty negotiations are published at the outset and treaty rounds are reported on. If Parliament is not to get a veto, at least CRAG should be reformed. I suggest that should include a new Commons treaty Committee and extending CRAG debates and presentation periods so that they are made more user-friendly. Brexit should involve more UK scrutiny of FTAs, not less.



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