Latest in the Brexit trade campaign
Trade has been making headlines in the past weeks – but what’s the deal for people in poorer countries?
If you’ve followed Traidcraft Exchange for a while you’ll know that we’ve campaigned on making sure that Brexit works for people in the poorer countries. In short, we’ve been calling for the UK to offer trade arrangements that support job creation, manufacturing and better conditions for farmers and workers in countries like Bangladesh and Tanzania – to enable more people to work their way out of poverty.
Making this a government priority wasn’t an easy task, but thanks to thousands of people who signed petitions and got in touch with – or even met – their MPs, we got their attention. In June last year, Trade Secretary Liam Fox announced that the UK will offer the least developed countries ‘preferential access’ – a type of trade arrangement that supports development by enabling products from poorer countries to enter our market duty-free while asking for nothing in return.
This was a big campaign win, which will secure the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of producers in the world’s poorest countries. But the story doesn’t end here.
Trade goes to Parliament
In January, the government presented two Bills to Parliament which set the rules on how the UK will conduct trade after Brexit. Commonly referred to as the Trade Bill and the Customs Bill, these two Bills include principles that will guide our future trade, the way trade agreements are negotiated, and what kind of relationship the UK will have with the EU.
On the positive side, the Customs Bill included the government’s commitment to the preference schemes mentioned above. However, there were also big gaps.
Notably, the Bills don’t require the government to consider sustainability when setting tariffs and deciding future trade policy – or anything else to ensure that future UK trade policy supports development.
And more worryingly, the Bills don’t give our elected MPs the right to vote on future trade deals, or those copied from the EU, nor do they guarantee transparency or give the public a say. Without these democratic mechanisms in place, it will be much harder to make sure the voices from people in poorer countries are taken into account.
Done and dusted in a few hours
After months of uncertainty and back and forth, MPs finally got a chance to debate the Bills in July. But the debate took just a few hours – far from sufficient given the range of difficult decisions and contentious topics that were covered.
Many of you contacted your MPs about the Bills, and behind the scenes Traidcraft Exchange’s policy experts were busy talking to MPs and civil servants and presenting evidence for our case.
One of our two main asks was about sustainable development. While the government didn’t agree to put it in the legal text, both ministers and civil servants acknowledged the importance of this issue and we will continue to press for it as new trade agreements are negotiated.
The other ask was about democracy in trade. Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas put forward an amendment that would have ensured that MPs get to vote and scrutinise trade agreements. Unfortunately – and rather ironically – MPs voted against this amendment which would have given them a say over trade after Brexit.
Two steps forward, one step back
Our campaigning has yielded some important results, but the lack of democratic accountability in the Trade Bill is worrying.
Yet there is still scope for change. This autumn, the Trade Bill will move to the House of Lords where peers will debate and vote on amendments.
While Caroline Lucas’ amendment didn’t win a majority in the House of Commons, it was backed by 284 MPs and lost by a small margin of just 30 votes. It also gained a lot of public support, with a range of organisations campaigning for it, including the Fairtrade Foundation, Global Justice Now and Global Citizen.
Members of the House of Lords will be aware of this public and parliamentary support. If the amendment passes it will go back to MPs for another vote and opportunity to ensure democracy in trade. We will keep working behind-the-scenes and keep you updated on any changes and new actions on the Bills.
Emilie Schultze is Traidcraft Exchange’s Campaigns Officer