The UK Government needs a greater commitment to ensuring effective scrutiny of free trade agreements by Parliament – and even more so of non-trade agreements, a House of Lords committee has reported.
In its second report on Working Practices, the House of Lords International Agreements Committee calls on the Government to sign up to a concordat to consolidate commitments made so far in relation to parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements. It states that while improvements have been made over the last 12 months, much more needs to be done as commitments made to date, while welcome, have been subject to "frequent and iterative change".
A concordat would demonstrate that these are minimum requirements, that they are fixed and certain, and that they should be respected by this Government and any future administrations.
The peers say that for scrutiny of trade agreements to be meaningful, it must not be a rubber stamp at the end of the process to convey simple approval. Instead, the committee should be consulted on a draft negotiating mandate, so that the process can be informed by Parliament, with dialogue continuing throughout the negotiations.
As regards scrutiny of non-trade agreements, "In too many instances over the last year, the committee was not made aware when such agreements were being finalised, and was only notified when they were formally laid in Parliament. This reduced its ability to seek expert input and report within the 21-day scrutiny window set by Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). It is therefore asking for a formal ministerial undertaking that, in future, the committee will receive advance notice of all treaties."
The report also makes a series of further recommendations to help improve the scrutiny system, including on when amendments to treaties ought to be referred to the Committee. Ultimately, however, it concludes that, even with the improvements called for in the report, CRAG 2010 is insufficient to facilitate real and meaningful scrutiny. It has therefore put forward three improvements that should be prioritised: (1) ensuring that Parliament has a formal role earlier in the process; (2) that Parliament is provided with treaty text in advance of signature; (3) that Parliament’s consent be required for all significant treaties, including trade agreements, which the Committee has drawn to the special attention of the House.
Lord Goldsmith, chair of the International Agreements Committee commented: "A key issue of concern is that the formal points for committee engagement are always in response to a fait accompli: we may have parliamentary debates on negotiating objectives of trade agreements, but by then the mandate will already have been set; we can have advance sight of the text, but only after it has been signed and agreed.
"Parliamentary scrutiny should not be a rubber stamp at the end of the process that conveys simple approval. For the system to function effectively, there must be meaningful consultation between the Government and Parliament. In particular, for agreements that have significant implications for the UK's domestic policy and regulatory framework, such as trade agreements, it is important that this consultation and dialogue takes place before a mandate is established, so the final mandate can be informed by Parliament, and continues throughout the negotiation process. This engagement with Parliament is a key part of engaging also with civil society and taking into account citizens’ rights and interests."