The trade bill has been dropped – and now MPs have no way to stop bad deals after Brexit

Posted on September 16, 2019
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Boris Johnson’s controversial decision to prorogue parliament did many things, but at its most basic level the break from ordinary parliamentary business simply means that an old legislative session comes to an end and a new one begins. The government decides which unfinished bills it wants to keep and reintroduces them in the new parliamentary session. The rest are simply dropped.

The trade bill, once considered one of the most important pieces of Brexit legislation, is one such bill to have been abandoned.

It is always unusual for a government to deliberately drop legislation – why introduce something you don’t intend to pass? – but the case of the trade bill, in particular, should concern us all. Its death means MPs now won’t get a say on our post-Brexit trade deals. Politicians in both houses of parliament worked to amend the bill over a period of two years. The amendment gave MPs a guaranteed vote on post-Brexit trade agreements, such as any deal with Donald Trump.

Believe it or not, without the amendment proposed in that bill the UK’s system of trade deal ratification doesn’t give MPs any meaningful or guaranteed say over the country's trade agreements. So as things stand, after Brexit we will revert to a World War I convention called the "Ponsonby rule" for ratifying international deals. This convention severely limits the role of MPs; it was created to deal with secret defence treaties, long before trade deals were as globally significant as they are now.

The amendment would have replaced this outdated system with a meaningful vote for MPs on all trade deals. The concern felt by many MPs and Lords reflected that of many civil society organisations – including trade unions, faith groups, environmental NGOs and consumer groups – that, without accountability to parliament, the government would sign deals which are politically expedient and yet bad for the country.

Democratic scrutiny of trade deals matters because trade deals themselves matter. Reports about chlorinated chicken are just the tip of the iceberg: post-Brexit trade deals could see an overall shift away from the EU’s regulatory system towards a more US-style system. The US has a more business-first approach to regulation, which allows practices including hormone-fed meat, the routine use of antibiotics in agriculture, GM crops, poor animal welfare protections, the use of pesticides banned in the EU, and more. For many ardent Brexiters, escaping EU regulations is a key benefit to leaving. For civil society organisations, losing these regulations would be a disaster.

Trade deals also affect our public services, and could be used to "lock-in" privatisation of the NHS. Trump has made it a priority to tackle what he sees as an unfair drug pricing system, which keeps prices low for patients but disadvantages US pharmaceutical firms, and this is likely to be a key demand in US-UK negotiations.

Trade deals also increasingly include Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms which would allow foreign multinationals to sue the UK government for policies which harm their profits. ISDS has been used to challenge important environmental legislation in the past - including measures to control water pollution and ban fracking. It is difficult to see how this is compatible with the UK’s Paris climate change commitments, let alone the legally binding pledge for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Regardless of your views on American food standards, privatisation of the NHS or ISDS arrangements, it is essential that our elected representatives get a say on these issues. While parliament’s prorogation has rightly provoked outrage for taking power out of MPs’ hands, our approach to ratifying trade deals is not very different. Our own MPs would struggle to stop a US trade deal even if it were roundly unpopular and believed to be harmful.

The democratic scrutiny amendment passed through the Lords, defeating the government with the support of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and crossbench peers. It was therefore written into the bill that was ready to be returned to MPs in the Commons. This final stage then never happened – possibly because the government knew it would face defeat and that important amendment would become law.

Whether the next few months see a general election, a new legislative agenda or no-deal Brexit, it is essential that MPs are given a say on any new trade agreements. The Queen’s Speech is an opportunity to reassure MPs that they will have this say; otherwise, Boris Johnson should expect repeated defeats on any future trade legislation.

By David Lawrence

This article was originally published in The Independent, and is available at