Britain Quietly Passes Vital Brexit Amendment That Could Hurt World's Poorest
Without much fanfare, something huge just happened.
It’s not just on the news — it is the news.
Brexit, Brexit, Brexit: It became omnipresent once more on Tuesday, as British MPs cast their votes on how the UK will make trade deals after departing the European Union in March 2019.
And beneath all the jargon, something big happened — and it could hurt the world's poorest people.
Everybody is talking about Theresa May’s narrow victory on July 17 to keep Britain out of a customs union with the EU.
It means the UK will likely now have to find a new arrangement to avoid tariffs on any goods we exchange with the EU. It was one controversial amendment of the wider Trade Bill that sparked huge debate, and passed by just six votes in the House of Commons.
But there were many other amendments, too, and one in particular that experts warn might have both local and global consequences. And it goes by a super catchy name: New Clause Three (NC3).
House of Commons rejects New Clause 3 of the #TradeBill by 314 votes to 284.— UK House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) July 17, 2018
This clause would have ensured that all new free trade agreements were subject to parliamentary scrutiny and consent. pic.twitter.com/IwJo3B97iZ
Basically, NC3 would have required all future trade deals to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas put the clause forward, and it won wide cross-party support. But it failed in the House of Commons, losing by just 30 votes.
As a result, the government may soon be able sign new trade deals in the dark, without parliament or the public having a say in most circumstances.
“In the Trade Bill, we had the bizarre situation where MPs voted against an amendment that would have given them proper powers to scrutinise and vote on trade agreements,” said Matt Grady, senior policy advisor at Traidcraft. “Constituents might wonder why those MPs, predominately government MPs, thought it unimportant to scrutinise trade agreements that impact on all areas of public life.”
“We are left with a customs bill that ensures that goods from developing countries can enter the UK cheaply but excludes sustainable development as a pillar of trade policy,” Grady added.
“A trade bill that has no mentioned of sustainable development whatsoever and has almost no scrutiny powers for parliament or the public.”
Unsurprisingly but shamefully MPs have voted to not have any meaningful power over trade. Once again, democracy must be won in that most undemocratic of places - the House of Lords. The #tradedemocracy fight must go on! We at @GlobalJusticeUK will not surrender. https://t.co/0oIf7jwsBP— Alex Scrivener (@alscriv) July 17, 2018
The bill in its current form also means that parliament cannot act to remedy the potential impact of any trade deal — even if the deal puts human rights in jeopardy, exacerbates poverty, or threatens the environment. In a statement to parliament, Liam Fox, international trade secretary, promised that the government will publish impact assessments for new trade deals, but gave no detail on what issues these would cover, or what bearing they would hold upon negotiations.
It allows the government to overlook any issue without listening to what parliament — and therefore the public — thinks.
Any deals struck could negatively impact the world's poorest countries, and only with transparency can MPs and the public change or stop the process.
For example, if Britain chose to import sugar from Australia over an existing deal with Malawi for more favourable terms, it could plunge Malawian farmers into poverty. It’s vital that parliament has the power to intervene and protect the people who could be hit hardest.
Fox passed amendments which means reports must be issued on any trade deals that replace existing ones if there are significant differences — which introduces more scrutiny than was originally proposed. But it also allows the government to avoid this process at their own discretion — and doesn’t give parliament the opportunity to act on the reports.
But it’s not over just yet.
Next, the bill will go to the House of Lords, and activists have vowed to continue to fight for the amendment to be passed into the trade bill.
“Caroline Lucas’ amendment today would have given MPs the ability to scrutinise, change and, if necessary, stop bad trade deals,” said Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now. “Unfortunately on the big question, the government has refused to give real power over trade deals to parliament. This is a defeat for democracy.”
“We certainly haven’t given up hope,” he added. “The Bill now goes to the House of Lords in September and we will continue to fight for parliament’s right to hold the government to account for trade policy.”
Watch this space to find out how you can get involved.