PARLIAMENT will have the powers to scrutinise any trade Bill negotiated after Brexit to ensure that it meets standards on human rights, if a significant amendment to the Bill passed in the House of Lords on Monday is also agreed in the Commons.
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, was a principal supporter of the cross-party amendment, which requires the Trade Secretary to provide, for every proposed deal, an assessment of its impact on “human, animal or plant life and health, animal welfare, environmental protection, human rights and equalities, and employment and labour”.
Speaking in the debate on Monday, he said that modern trade agreements affected huge swaths of public policy, and that MPs, who represented constituencies and a variety of stakeholders, deserved the right to assess the consequences of an agreement.
“It has been argued that Brexit is about the UK taking back power, but I fear the Government have perhaps not moved past the 2016 divide, and view Parliament as a body waiting for a chance to take us back into the single market and intending to scupper any agreement,” Dr Smith said.
“That is not the case. Colleagues only want their best for their constituencies and our nation. Any suggestion that the Government may be ruling through fiat will inevitably produce poorer outcomes.”
He described the proposed amendment as “far from radical. We are currently outliers on parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals. The UK lags behind on transparency and accountability compared to the US, the EU, and Japan, among others. These are fair and reasonable measures that will protect the interests of local businesses across the UK; this amendment will allow us to strike deals that benefit the whole economy.”
The Lords passed the amendment by 308 votes to 261. The Earl of Caithness, one of its staunchest supporters, said that the trade deals negotiated 50 years ago were very different from those being negotiated now. “Today’s deals are much more complex, and involve not only trade but each and every one of us: the environment, biodiversity, the way we live,” he said. “Therefore, it is important that Parliament is properly involved.”
Dr Smith said on Tuesday that it had been particularly gratifying to see the high level of support from across the benches for what was an attempt to give a moral lead in the world. “It is highly significant, and brought in some of the most interesting campaigners and some of the finest legal minds to work out how to do it,” he said.
“It is the House of Lords at its best, analysing issues with forensic precision and working out how the Lords can give a moral and ethical lead. We were looking at economics, but also at morality, and what we need to do to use our authority and role in the world to make a real and significant difference to people who are suffering.”
The Bill will return to the Commons, where, Dr Smith said, the size of the majority vote would be “a powerful signal to the Government of the strength of feeling on this issue.”