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The Trade Bill is a Power Grab, and It Must Be Stopped Fast

Our constitution is being rewritten, under the rubric of carrying out the ‘will of the people’, by a government which wants to keep as much power as possible to itself.

Autumn’s battle over the EU Withdrawal Bill saw the government giving itself unprecedented ‘Henry VIII powers’ to make decisions outside of parliament, and fail to properly protect workers’ rights, human rights or environmental policy. Now we turn to the Trade Bill, which received second reading yesterday, amid intense debate on the floor of the Commons.    

Trade is too often seen as a technical issue that concerns only ‘experts’. But that’s not true. Those of us who have spent four years defeating the US-EU trade deal known as TTIP have learned that modern trade deals are about every aspect of our lives, from food standards, workers’ rights and environmental protections. They are about how we run public services, whether we can afford essential medicines, how finance is regulated and what tech giants like Amazon and Google can do with our private data.

When our Trade Secretary Liam Fox rolled out the red carpet to Trump’s trade negotiators before Christmas, Trump’s Commerce Secretary, the so-called ‘King of Bankruptcy’ Wilbur Ross, said that lower food standards will be a prerequisite for any US-UK trade deal. So TTIP’s infamous chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-filled beef are likely to appear on the British menu. We also know US politicians are desperate to open the NHS to US healthcare multinationals.

And that’s before we start worrying about other people’s rights. Fox, friend to some of Trump’s inner circle, has a trade strategy which his own staff mock as ‘Empire 2.0’.

Fox is flying around the world talking trade to governments from Saudi to the US, Brazil to the Philippines (apparently he shares core values with that country’s murderous President Duterte). Fox is in formal talks with countries with atrocious human rights records, and we know that he’s pushing the interests of big pharmaceutical corporations, supermarkets, tech giants and the financial sector.

And here’s where it gets really frightening: Fox is largely operating under royal prerogative. Neither parliament nor the public has a right to know what he’s talking about or to whom. The trade deals he’s discussing require no consultation or impact assessment. And when he’s completed his talks, and signed a trade deal, MPs can’t amend it or stop it. If they’re lucky, they might just get a debate.

That’s why the Trade Bill is important. The Bill technically allows the government to renegotiate trade deals we currently have as part of the EU with third countries. As with the EU withdrawal bill, we’re told this is largely a cut and paste job. But this isn’t true, these deals will need to be renegotiated – they are new deals. Yet the Trade Bill gives MPs no powers to oversee this process, to read the negotiating texts, to scrutinise Fox, or to halt toxic deals.    

As a Guardian editorial explained, the Trade Bill “is a coded way of saying that Dr Fox reserves the right to do whatever he likes without pesky MPs getting in the way”.

A campaign is being waged by a range of organisations including the Trade Justice Movement and Unison. Labour, SNP, Green, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru MPs have committed to amending the bill.

Our demands shouldn’t be controversial in any modern democracy – that parliament gets to set guidelines for trade deals, that it can scrutinise the work of ministers while negotiations take place, and that it gets to stop deals it doesn’t like. Devolved administrations must get a say when their powers are involved, human rights and environmental impact assessment must be mandatory, and there should be as much openness as possible.  

This Bill is our only opportunity to change the system before Brexit. We have a couple of months to change this situation and amend the bill. If we fail to amend this bill, we’ll have handed huge amounts of power to the executive and TTIP mark 2 gets one step closer.

Remember too that this procedure will be used to pass any post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal. As things currently stand, Brussels MEPs will have far more power over such a deal than Westminster MPs. In fact, depending on the content, it might well be that the deputies in the regional parliament of Wallonia will have more say than our MPs.

So much for parliamentary sovereignty. We have a few months to stop this.