What do you consider the role of an MP to be? 

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Today, MPs will have a rare chance to debate trading arrangements with African countries – despite the fact that these agreements have already been ratified. Matt Grady examines what this means for the credibility of the UK’s democratic scrutiny process.

Some people view elected politicians as representatives of constituents, believing that they should reflect the views of the electorate when debating and voting in Parliament. Others think they should be leaders, that the electorate vote for them based on their virtues and they should be free to use their own judgement to decide what’s best.

But what is the role of politicians when opportunities for debate come after decisions have been made, and their votes are meaningless? 

This week, parliamentarians will debate the merits of the UK ratifying Economic Partnership Agreements with groupings of African countries as a member of the EU. This all sounds very democratic until you realise that the ratification has taken place already via statutory instruments, using a negative procedure. The consequence of which is that the treaties are automatically ratified a few weeks after tabling if there is no vote against them. When does this opportunity to vote against them take place, you might wonder? Well, it doesn’t. At least not automatically. The only way a vote can take place is if the Government allocates time, backbenchers secure a debate or if the ratification period happens to coincide with opposition days and the opposition chooses to use its precious time on this topic. 

Ordinarily there’s no debate, no vote and no realistic opportunity for parliament to halt ratification.

Even this rare debate that is taking place is limited. It will take place in a Delegated Legislation Committee which excludes most MPs from having their say. The committee will discuss a motion that they have considered the instrument to label these EPAs as EU treaties. They won’t even get a token gesture vote to indicate whether they support ratification or not. 

The limitations on debate means less opportunity for MPs to highlight the flaws in EPAs. 

Concerns about the developmental impacts, and the consequences for tackling poverty, may go unheard. Suggestions about how we should improve how we approach trade with African countries may not be raised. Criticisms of the woefully inadequate impact assessments to support the agreements will be curtailed. 

What lessons can we learn about how to improve democratic scrutiny? 

  1. The current process is totally inadequate for a modern democracy and must be reformed.

  2. There should be a new process which guarantees a debate and vote on any trade agreement before ratification.

  3. Debates should be informed by independent impact assessments.

  4. All of this should be preceded by parliamentary approval for negotiations to begin in the first place.

  5. This must all be enshrined in legislation. 

We will need to wait and see how the UK Government responds and what processes are adopted, particularly after Brexit, but initial signs are not encouraging. It seems that ministers are satisfied that current process passes as scrutiny.

Matt Grady is Senior Policy Adviser at Traidcraft Exchange. @MattGradyTwit