The Department for International Trade must be more transparent
The new Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) is claiming it doesn’t exist in order to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
The TRA is intended to be a new arms-length body to investigate complaints from UK businesses about unfair practices in international trade after Brexit. It replaces something currently done by the EU.
In one sense, it clearly doesn’t exist. The proposal to set it up is contained in the Trade Bill which is currently stuck in limbo in Parliament, and until that bill is passed, it hasn’t been created.
On the other hand, it has a budget of nearly £9m that was specially agreed could start being spent in advance of the bill being passed, it has an office in Reading, it has staff, the chair and chief executive have been appointed, and it has been contributing to ‘no deal’ guidance.
Parliament’s trade committee would like the chair and chief executive to come before it. The TRA needs to be in place by Brexit day so that there is no gap in what is known as ‘trade defence’, and the committee wants to know how prepared it is.
The role of deciding what is a fair or an unfair trade practice is also highly sensitive – without the right structures and balance for independence, it can be subject to political pressure, and it is not yet clear if that balance has been achieved.
But the Department of International Trade (DIT) says nobody from the TRA can come and answer questions because the TRA doesn’t exist yet. It might exist in practice and be doing work, but it can’t be accountable to Parliament because it doesn’t exist in law.
It’s a Kafkaesque excuse for avoiding scrutiny. On its own, it’s just silly. Unfortunately, it’s not the only example.
At the same time, the trade committee is having to chide the trade minister, Liam Fox, for more straightforwardly trying to slide out of appearing before it – he is just claiming he has no time to meet them until March.
This is part of a pattern of DIT trying to do all its work behind closed doors.
The department is currently trying to replace around 40 trade deals with 60 plus countries that the UK currently has as part of the EU, while also trumpeting its plans for possible trade deals with the US, Australia, New Zealand, and for joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Yet we don’t know where they are with these plans, what’s on the table or even who they are talking to. The department has refused requests even just to publish a schedule of when they’re meeting and who is attending.
Modern trade deals aren’t just about details of tariffs charged on goods crossing borders. They affect everything from food safety standards, to jobs, to the NHS, to our ability to respond to climate change or prevent future financial crises.
These are crucial issues, which need to be part of public debate and parliamentary oversight, not sewn up in secret trade deals. The public wants a voice on trade deals – a recent DIT consultation had 600k submissions.
Our current procedures on trade policy are 40 years out of date.
Parliament’s trade committee last week called them ‘insufficient’ and called for parliament to have a vote on trade deals.
MPs and peers have been trying to introduce a modern framework for democratic oversight of trade into the Trade Bill.
The public strongly support this – 267k signed a petition to DIT, thousands wrote to MPs and 67k petitioned the House of Lords.
But Liam Fox has insisted there is no need for any legislation to require this, because we can trust DIT to be voluntarily open and transparent.
Yet the convoluted excuses that DIT is currently making to evade having to answer questions shows that can’t be relied upon.
We need basic rules in place to ensure our trade policy is democratic, and we need them now.
Jean Blaylock is a Senior Campaigner at War on WantLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.