Concerns about the UK government’s openness to scrutiny over the conduct of its trade policy re-emerged this week after the UK-Australia free trade agreement was ratified by default – without a vote, or even a debate, in parliament.
The deadline set out under Britain’s constitutional process for ratifying international treaties expired at the end of Wednesday (20 July).
In the absence of any vote by members of parliament to extend this deadline, the UK-Australia FTA therefore now stands formally approved.
MPs were not given any opportunity to vote on the agreement by government business managers, and the MPs’ theoretical right to prevent the deal going through was thus negated.
Even an ‘urgent question’ on the matter called on Tuesday (19 July) by Anthony Mangnall, a Conservative MP who is a prominent member of the Commons’ international trade committee, yielded no change of heart on the part of the government.
‘We deserve our say’ on new FTA, says Conservative MP
Speaking on behalf of the committee, Mangnall reminded the minister of state of trade, Ranil Jayawardena, that the government had previously given assurances that MPs would be able to debate new FTAs, and would have the power to block or at least their adoption if ultimately they were not happy with them.
“These are commitments that were made to this House, and we deserve our say on a trade agreement that makes a significant difference,” Mangnall said. “We are asking for nothing that we have not already been promised.”
A last-minute request for a pause in the 21-day ratification period set out under CraG – the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act – to allow a vote to take place fell on deaf ears.
“We do have a scrutiny system that compares very well with other parliamentary systems around the world,” Jayawardena claimed.
“We will not be extending the CraG period, given the extensive scrutiny time that parliament has had since the FTA was signed seven months ago, and we won’t be able to offer a debate.”
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that she would have favoured a parliamentary debate on the subject – but parliamentary business managers had failed to find time for one before the CraG period elapsed.
Ratification process for UK-New Zealand FTA to start after summer recess
The whole issue will come to the fore once again in the autumn, when the UK-New Zealand FTA comes up for parliamentary approval.
In a letter to international trade committee chair Angus MacNeil on Tuesday (19 July), Trevelyan made some minor conciliatory gestures towards MPs, promising that in the case of the New Zealand agreement, the 21-day review period mandated under CRaG would not be launched “until Parliament returns in September, at the earliest”.
She also promised to make herself and senior officials available “to privately discuss prospective negotiations [on future FTAs] with you … prior to negotiations being launched”, and for any significant amendments to any FTAs to be notified to the committee even where there was no constitutional requirement to do so.
But there was no promise that MPs would not once again be denied a vote on the New Zealand FTA when the ratification period got underway.
Formal ratification delayed by enabling legislation on government procurement
Despite this week’s parliamentary non-events, the UK-Australia FTA has not yet formally passed into UK law.
This will only happen when a piece of enabling legislation – the so-called ‘Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill’ – has been duly adopted by parliament. This bill specifically gives powers to implement the new commitments on government procurement which arise from both the Australia and New Zealand FTAs.
Although these provisions are not controversial, the bill has only just started its passage through the legislative process – and hence it is unlikely to be legally adopted until the autumn.
This process may also have the effect of shortening the gap between entry into force of the Australian and New Zealand FTAs – given that this Act will also cover the New Zealand FTA once it has been ratified under CraG.