International agreements must be brought before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which gives MPs 21 sitting days to scrutinise the deal. Earlier this month, the Government triggered this process, despite previously committing there would be “sufficient time for relevant Select Committees to produce reports” beforehand.
In the first of two reports on the trade deal, the cross-party Committee of MPs concludes that, by failing to uphold this commitment, the Government has shown great discourtesy to Parliament.
The Committee calls on the Government to extend the 21-day period to give MPs more time to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the agreement. Should they fail to do so, the Committee recommends that MPs vote against ratification, which would extend the scrutiny period.
The report follows eight requests for the Secretary of State to agree a date to answer MPs’ questions on the deal. The Committee outlines that these delays have hampered its ability to conduct timely analysis, as it calls for the Secretary of State to commit to giving oral evidence on trade agreements before triggering the Parliamentary scrutiny period in future.
The MPs argue that any potential disadvantages of the deal could be overlooked or disregarded if the Government ratifies it too hastily. The Committee calls for MPs to be given the opportunity to debate the agreement – and vote on it – in the coming weeks.
The Committee also stresses the importance of being able to respond properly to the Government’s statutory ‘section 42 report’, which outlines how a trade agreement affects health, animal welfare and the environment. The MPs repeat their call for a guaranteed ‘window’ of 15 sitting days between the publication of this report and the triggering of the statutory scrutiny process. This would give the Committee time to take the Government’s report fully into account before publishing its own report on the agreement.
Commenting on the report, Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, Chair of the International Trade Committee, said:
“The agreement with Australia is the first wholly new trade deal negotiated by the Government since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is therefore vital that we take a thorough and considered view of the agreement and its implications. Sadly, we have been consistently hindered by the Government throughout this process.
“Overhasty ratification means that any potential disadvantages of the deal are not fully uncovered or understood. This could have damaging effects for businesses and communities across the UK. Given that Ministers are keen to extol the virtues of this deal, it is beyond belief that the Government is so eager to rush it through without appropriate scrutiny, especially considering that the Australian Government is not rushing to ratify on their side. The Government rushed the scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and we can all see the consequences of that now.
“It’s disappointing that, while Trade Minister Lord Grimstone appears to have been able to develop a constructive relationship with our counterparts in the House of Lords, all our efforts to build something similar have come to nothing.
“We look forward to putting these points, and many others, to the Secretary of State later today. After months of obfuscation and delay, answers are long overdue.”
The Committee was due to question the Secretary of State for International Trade, Rt. Hon. Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, on the UK-Australia free trade agreement at 10am on Wednesday 29 June but it was cancelled at short notice.
Summary of the report’s conclusions and recommendations:
- By failing to keep its commitment to allow us enough time to conclude our scrutiny in full before triggering the statutory scrutiny period, the Government has shown great discourtesy to Parliament.
- We must have a reasonable opportunity to take evidence from the Secretary of State and publish our report on an agreement before the statutory scrutiny process begins. For future trade agreements, the Government must give an undertaking that there will be at least 15 sitting days between the laying of its “section 42 report” and the commencement of the statutory period of parliamentary scrutiny. It must also undertake that the Secretary of State will attend the Committee to give oral evidence on the free trade agreement before the statutory period is initiated by the Government.
- We acknowledge the hard work of the Government in negotiating the free trade agreement with Australia but also note that various areas of concern have been raised about this agreement. The House of Commons should be given the opportunity to debate the agreement before the expiry of the 21 sitting day scrutiny period.
- There will be very limited time available before the scrutiny period expires for MPs to consider our full report in preparation for such a debate. The Government should extend the statutory scrutiny period, providing more time for the House to examine and debate the agreement. Failing this, the Government must guarantee that the debate we have requested should be scheduled between 13 and 19 July and be on a substantive motion to resolve that the treaty should not be ratified. Such an extension would give Members more time to consider the agreement, the Secretary of State’s evidence and our report before a debate.