Liam Fox’s plans for post-Brexit trade deals were dealt a blow by the Scottish Parliament yesterday as Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee advised MSPs not to give consent to the controversial Trade Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords.
Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, also told MPs on Westminster’s International Trade committee that the Department for International Trade was failing to allow either the public or MPs basic information which would allow them to prevent a disastrous trade deal with Donald Trump’s USA.
Dearden told MPs that it was impossible for the public or MPs to debate or hold the government to account on trade deals when no detail at all was provided on the government’s strategy or objectives.
Freedom of information
Dearden pointed to official statistics which show that in the last quarter of freedom of information requests submitted to Dr Fox’s department 48 percent of requests were completely rejected and only 27 percent of requests were met in full.
Meanwhile the department holds the record for being the least punctual - 34 percent were not answered in the permitted time period in the last quarter.
Dearden said: “We have had the most basic information requests turned down – like when and where do Liam Fox’s trade working groups meet with other countries. What can possibly be the justification for withholding such information?
"It bodes extremely ill for our ability to hold Fox to account for post-Brexit trade deals, and means we could easily walk into a ‘race to the bottom’ deal with Trump. The government must understand that trade deals are not corporate deals, discussed behind closed doors. They affect all of us – our food quality, our NHS, how we treat the banks.
"Transparency is vital if we’re not to repeat the disaster of TTIP.”
Scotland has the right to withhold consent for Fox’s Trade Bill, which lays out a process for agreeing some post-Brexit trade deals. Yesterday’s cross-party Holyrood committee brought that reality one step closer.
While the decision would not necessarily scupper the bill, it would set up a constitutional battle between Holyrood and Westminster, and drain the government’s trade strategy of much needed legitimacy.
Importantly, the Holyrood committee has also stated that it is essential that the devolved institutions are involved at all stages of the trade negotiation process and is also challenging the UK government to publicly respond to that.
Liz Murray, head of Scottish campaigns at Global Justice Now said: “It’s clear that the UK government’s trade bill is really testing the devolution settlement and raising important questions about where the power lies over trade deals that the UK government makes after it leaves the European Union.
"For many months, we’ve been calling for Scotland and the other devolved nations of the UK to be given a formal say over post-Brexit trade deals since the impacts of those deals will be felt across the UK. In their report today, Holyrood’s finance and constitution committee are absolutely right to recognise that trade agreements include a wide range of issues that fall within devolved areas.
“The extent of modern trade deals is so far reaching that this includes not just the obvious devolved areas of food safety, farming and fishing, but also public services such as health, water provision and even education. It’s absolutely vital that members of the Scottish parliament get a say in post-Brexit trade deals before, during and after their negotiation. The best way that we have to make sure this happens is for the UK trade bill to be amended.”
The Trade Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords in September and is awaiting a date for committee stage. At least six trade democracy amendments have so far been tabled.
A UK Government spokesperson said:
“The Trade Bill is about ensuring continuity for businesses and consumers across the UK and our international trade partners, ensuring that the essential legal structures that will enable the UK to operate an independent trade policy are in place.
“Additionally, the UK Government is committed to seeking the input of the Devolved Administrations on future trade policy, recognising the role they will have in developing and delivering it.
“Last year, the Department for International Trade published a White Paper preparing for the UK’s future trade policy, in which the Government’s commitment to the transparency and inclusiveness in future trading arrangements was set out. Also, the establishment of the Trade Remedies Authority, a vital new agency to safeguard UK industry as the government prepares for an independent UK trade policy, will protect the interest of industries across the UK.”
Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Global Justice Now.