By Chaminda Jayanetti
All future British trade agreements, including a potential deal with Donald Trump's US administration, should be subject to the "consent" of MPs, a senior Labour figure has demanded.
The move would shackle Theresa May in securing a trade deal following Britain's departure from the European Union, with MPs potentially voting down agreements that exposed British producers and services to cheap imports or weakened safety regulations.
In a statement to Politics.co.uk in the wake of May's meeting with President Trump last week, shadow international development secretary Barry Gardiner said: "Parliament should have scrutiny of all future trade agreements that the UK enters into. The British people were promised that Brexit would bring a return of sovereignty to the UK parliament. Trade agreements signed behind closed doors do not mark a return of sovereignty.
"As we set out to forge new global trade agreements MPs, as the elected representatives of the British people, must be able to examine and give their consent."
Gardiner's spokesperson then clarified that "consent" in this context meant either MPs voting on all trade agreements, or a scrutiny panel of MPs deciding which agreements warranted votes and which did not.
May has already promised parliament a vote on the final deal with the EU, but the prospects of a deal with President Trump has pushed parliamentary scrutiny of other trade agreements up the agenda.
Many EU members have laws requiring parliamentary consent for trade agreements. The devolved Wallonian parliament in Belgium almost scuppered the EU's proposed trade deal with Canada late last year by voting against it.
But no such requirement currently exists in Britain, giving the government free rein to sign whatever deal it wants, on whatever terms it sees fit – or is bargained into.
Gardiner is advised by John Hilary, the former head of campaigning anti-poverty charity War on Want and a critic of secretive trade deals. Given Labour's internal procedures, it is not yet official party policy that trade deals should be subject to a vote, but is increasingly the position of the Labour leadership.
Trump's talk of 'America first' has raised fears over the extent to which any trade deal would suit British interests.
There are also concerns that the US will want to reduce safety regulations in healthcare and agriculture as part of any deal.
While supporting a trade agreement with the US in principle, Gardiner wrote to May late last month expressing concerns over specific issues, including:
- the lowering of sanitary controls on imports from the US, which could lead to "an influx of cheap chlorine washed chicken, and meat produced with growth hormones"
- the downgrading of workers' rights in either Britain or the US
- the removal of the 10% tariff on car imports, which "could have a significant and devastating effect upon our domestic manufacturers"
- the safeguarding of licensing demands for medicines and other public health and safety standards that "many American companies … do not wish to comply with when trading here"
- the possible creation of a supranational commercial court dispute settlement procedure which could overrule British courts
May is expected to trigger Article 50 before the end of next month and will try to secure trade talks as part of the European divorce process.
Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter here.