When on 12 May the leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg pushed for an end to the virtual parliament and an early return of MPs to Westminster, he said the House of Commons needed to get on with “challenging the government and holding them to account”.
It’s deeply ironic that one of the key bills now going through parliament specifically excludes MPs from any meaningful scrutiny.
The Trade Bill, which has its second reading on 20 May, could have signalled a new start in the UK’s approach to trade negotiations, giving MPs the chance to debate and vote on negotiating objectives, with regular updates during negotiations and a vote on any final deal. In other words, the sort of democratic oversight that members of the European Parliament have long taken for granted.
But instead our post-Brexit trade talks are taking place behind closed doors and in secrecy. The key documents from a US trade deal won’t even be published until five years after the deal has been signed.
This would be bad enough during normal times, but these are not normal times. Despite us being in the middle of a global health crisis, this government is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the EU, recklessly taking us towards the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year, while at the same time desperately pursuing a US trade deal on almost any terms.
We have already seen what that may mean in any trade deal with the US – an abandonment of our food standards to give access to hormone-reared beef and chlorine-washed chicken.
There is nothing in the Trade Bill that will protect the food standards which keep us safe, nor safeguard the livelihoods of our farmers who follow much higher animal welfare standards. This is a race to the bottom.
On 14 May, we learned that the government was planning to slash tariffs on US food imports, caving in to the demands of American agri-business so it can agree a quick deal. No wonder the National Farmers Union has expressed alarm, and demanded details of how the government plans to honour its pledge not to undermine farming and food production standards.
It’s not only food and environmental standards that are at risk. Trade decisions have the potential to change public services, undermine workers’ rights and restrict the ability of governments to address social and environmental challenges.
Yet they are being made with no democratic oversight. MPs have had more of a say over HS2 than they will have over deals that could shape many aspects of our lives.
Even our EU negotiating partner, Michel Barnier, has expressed frustration at the government’s refusal to properly consult parliament or civil society – and Brexit leaders say leaving the EU was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty!
There is another missed opportunity with this bill, and that is the chance to exclude the invidious Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism from future trade agreements. The ISDS system allows foreign investors and companies to sue states in international tribunals for lost profits, and it’s been used in the past to challenge policies designed to control pollution or ban fracking. Evidence is emerging that ISDS might even be used to seek compensation for corporations whose profits are being affected by the response to the coronavirus crisis, raising the prospect of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of multinational corporations at a time when public finances will be more stretched than they have been for generations. Even when cases are unsuccessful, they can cost governments millions in legal fees.
If the Prime Minister’s boasts about creating the “cleanest, greenest country on Earth” are to mean anything, they must be underwritten by a trade policy that doesn’t simply export our emissions, but supports sustainability and helps achieve the Paris Agreement’s ambition of limiting the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.
Yet there is nothing in this bill that will help deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement’s climate goals.
Instead, in the midst of a global health crisis that will undoubtedly change the world in which we live, we have a Trade Bill that doesn’t address existing challenges, let alone prepare us for those to come in a post-coronavirus world.