Was Liam Fox’s consultation on the Brexit Trade Bill a sham?

The government's consultation on a crucial Brexit bill closed a matter of hours before Ministers were announcing the final document on the airwaves.

Question: When is a consultation not a consultation? Answer: When there is no time for the responses to be considered. 

Last night, the consultation on a new Trade Bill for Britain to steer through Brexit closed.

Yet at 7:10 this morning, trade Secretary Liam Fox went on Radio 4’s Today programme to effectively launch the Bill, which is being laid before Parliament today. Just before 4pm it was published. They’re quick writers at the Fox’s Department, clearly.

But there is a serious point: the Minister and his Department for International Trade appear to have not only preempted the consultation responses. There is simply no chance they could all have been fairly considered.

This is a hefty and significant piece of legislation – to which everyone from the CBI to the TUC, car companies to Unison submitted responses.

How could those voices from civil society be heard if the Bill was already being drafted? And are organisations which deserve and need to be heard on Brexit now of the view this was a sham consultation?

The government’s own description of the Bill outlines that it will:

1. Create powers to assist in the transition of over 40 existing trade agreements between the EU and other countries.
2. Enable the UK to become an independent member of the Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) ensuring UK companies have continued access [to government contracts and procurement opportunities in 47 countries
3. Establish a new independent UK body, the Trade Remedies Authority, to defend UK businesses against unfair trade practices
4. Ensure the UK Government has the legal abilities for gathering and sharing trade information

Campaigners War on Want handed in a detailed response to the government’s consultation. But they now feel it was certain to be ignored from the start.

War on Want’s Senior Trade Campaigner Mark Dearn said:

“It’s clear from the decision to launch the trade bill within hours of the government’s consultation closing that it has utter disdain for public opinion. Thousands of people took the time to respond to the government’s call for input because they care about transparency and democracy in this country – we would like to know what Mr Fox has to say to them.

“This bill is being presented as a mere technicality to transition existing EU trade deals, but it’s about much more than that. Mr Fox repeatedly tells us a deal with Trump is his number one priority, and that means everything from the NHS, to food safety and climate change rules could be on the table in a secretly negotiated trade deal which MPs would be effectively powerless to stop.”

More than 2,000 War on Want supporters submitted responses to the Department for International Trade.

What are they supposed to think now?

The Department for International Trade did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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