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A crucial opportunity for UK trade reform as the Trade Bill enters the House of Lords

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As the UK Trade Bill undergoes analysis in the House of Lords, the UK has a crucial opportunity to update the process of negotiating and ratifying trade agreements. As a member of the EU, any trade deals that the UK entered underwent close scrutiny by the EU Parliament. Now that the UK has left, it is reverting to a centuries-old process for ratifying trade agreements that provides little room for parliamentary scrutiny. As it stands, the UK Parliament is guaranteed neither a debate nor a vote on an agreement before ratification; without reform, the UK’s future trade deals will therefore receive less scrutiny than the trade deals it entered as part of the EU.

In their recent working paper, ‘Ripe for reform: UK scrutiny of international trade agreements’, Emily Jones, Director of the Global Economic Governance Programme (GEG), and Anna Sands, GEG Research Officer, carried out a comparison of parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals between the UK and the USA, EU, Australia and Canada. They demonstrate how parliaments in the US and EU have extensive powers of scrutiny, including oversight of the negotiations, and a debate and vote on the trade agreement before it is ratified. Meanwhile, in the UK, Australia and Canada, the negotiation and ratification of trade agreements is an executive power. Parliaments are not guaranteed a debate or vote on trade agreements before ratification – rather, their main role is to enact any legislation that is needed for the trade agreement to come into effect; however, only some parts of an agreement may require implementing legislation, and this may be secondary legislation which is not subject to parliamentary debate.

In a recent blog for UK in a Changing Europe, Emily and Anna summarise the current context and outline how the multitude of ways in which trade agreements affect citizens’ lives – from food standards, as exemplified in the well-publicised concerns over chlorinated chicken entering the UK market, to healthcare – provide a compelling reason (among others) for strengthening Parliament’s scrutiny role. In a blog for the UK Trade Policy Observatory, they evaluate current processes in further detail and outline concrete steps the UK can take to strengthen Parliament’s role in ratifying trade agreements.