Peter Aldous is the Conservative MP for Waveney.
With its departure from the European Union, the UK has the opportunity to develop its own trade policy for the first time in nearly 50 years, enabled through the Trade Bill returning to the Commons for ping-pong this week. Now that we have left the EU, we must put in place new arrangements for scrutinising trade deals to ensure our future ones carry public support and fully represent British interests.
Trade deals have changed radically since the Government last had competency in this area nearly 50 years ago, and modern deals are likely to have implications on almost all spheres of public policy. Indeed, over the last two years, debates on this Bill in Parliament have raised an expansive breadth of concerns – from protecting British food and animal welfare standards, to using trade and investment policy to achieve sustainable development goals, to securing workers’ rights across supply chains and safeguarding creative and cultural assets.
Of particular importance is the impact trade policy will have on the UK’s ambitious climate and environmental agenda. Climate change can only be tackled on a global level, and free trade agreements present opportunities for the UK to promote ambitious environmental standards abroad and strengthen its economic competitiveness through exports of low carbon goods and services.
This is significant as the UK’s low carbon economy is estimated to grow by 11 per cent every year to 2030, by which date the global market for low carbon goods will be worth more than £1 trillion a year. Trade measures can also play a role in preventing “offshoring” of emissions, by providing a level playing field to protect domestic industries innovating in the green economy and in doing so creating jobs across the country.
Alongside the opportunities, under current precedent trade deals also pose often unintended but acute risks to the ambitions of our climate and environmental agenda. These include UK environmental and climate standards being diluted by provisions to reduce regulatory barriers, the competitiveness of innovating British industries being undermined by lower standard imports, and a rise in the unsustainable use of natural resources/emissions in exporting countries.
To respond to this challenge, UK trade policy must set an ambitious precedent, which promotes a race to the top for environmental standards. Looking ahead, UK trade policy needs to be aligned and integrated with the most urgent climate- and environmental-related priorities: reaching its net zero emissions target by 2050, reversing the decline of its natural environment within a generation and supporting the competitiveness of UK businesses during this transition.
The need to obtain parliamentary approval would give negotiators an additional argument to support their objectives. Indeed, both US and EU negotiators utilise the requirement of Congress and EU Parliament respectively to vote on trade deals to underline their red lines. This strategy will not be accessible to UK negotiators if Parliament cannot reject the deal outright, as is currently the case. Additionally, lack of public trust in trade negotiations outcomes have contributed to the failure of major trade negotiations, including the US-EU trade deal (TTIP) – in part due to environmental concerns.
It is crucial that MPs have the opportunity to fully consider the wide ranging implications of the UK’s trade policy. The Trade Bill currently misses the opportunity to give Parliament the ability to fully consider the opportunities, risks and transition impacts that trade agreements can have on big businesses, SMEs, civil society and consumers. I therefore will be supporting the Purvis amendment on Parliamentary approval of trade agreements, and believe it is essential for ensuring future UK trade policy has sufficient democratic oversight.