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UK delivers “disappointingly brief” trade bill

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The UK government has published a trade bill that details its post-Brexit trade policy.

The bill, which the government says aims to avoid overnight changes to trade for businesses and a cliff edge for exporters, has been met with disappointment both in its detail and its delivery.

Key sections of the bill include plans to implement 40 existing EU trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU; enable the UK to become an independent member of the Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) ensuring UK companies have continued access to £1.3tn-worth of government contracts and procurement opportunities in 47 countries; and the establishment of a new independent UK body, the Trade Remedies Authority, to defend UK businesses against unfair trade practices.

The trade bill received a first hearing in parliament earlier this week, but was published after a public scrutiny deadline, meaning it avoided any debate at this stage. No date for a second hearing, during which it will be debated by other members of parliament, has been set.

Tax and tariff-related elements of the UK’s trade policy will be set out in a separate customs bill, for which a publication date is also yet to be set.

Responding to the bill, chair of the international trade select committee, member of parliament (MP) Angus MacNeil says that while the bill was a positive move it was “disappointingly brief”.

“With only a little over a year left to run on the Brexit negotiations, progress must be swift. In the Trade White Paper, the Department for International Trade (DIT) undertook to introduce legislation to ensure continuity of the UK’s trade relationships, create a UK trade remedies framework and create a unilateral preference scheme for the world’s poorest countries. The trade bill does not appear to achieve all these objectives, and until we see the customs bill there will continue to be a lack of clarity on how the UK’s future trading interests will be protected,” he says.

MacNeil also expressed disappointment that the bill was introduced a day after the close of the public consultation period for the white paper. The government has been criticised for its attempts to bypass parliament throughout the Brexit process so far. On the future formulation and ratification of trade agreements, MacNeil points out that while the UK is leaving the EU, it should not be leaving behind the mechanisms the EU parliament has developed for ensuring effective scrutiny of trade deals.

“At first glance, the bill appears to confer considerable power on the government with only the most limited parliamentary scrutiny. The international trade committee will certainly be paying close attention as both bills make their way through parliament,” he says.

Trade organisations and charities have also responded with dissatisfaction with the bill and the handling of its publication.

Head of policy at the Fairtrade Foundation Tim Aldred comments: “The trade bill looks like a missed opportunity for the government to place poverty reduction at the heart of future trade deals, and to ensure open and democratic scrutiny of future trade negotiations. It is vital that all forthcoming deals are properly assessed to avoid unintended knock-on damage to poverty reduction and human rights. Without a clear requirement to prioritise positive outcomes for developing countries, in line with the UK’s commitment to the sustainable development goals, developing countries could all too easily end up with a raw deal.”

Maritime UK, a body representing UK shipping, ports and marine services companies, tweeted: “As the government publishes the trade bill, let’s remember maritime is a fundamental enabler of UK trade.” The organisation’s chairman, David Dingle, has previously called on the government to do a better job of looking out for the sector and accused it of overlooking an industry that manages 95% of UK imports and exports.

The Trade Union Congress, which represents public sector workers, tweeted: “The trade bill offers no protection for workers’ rights, no protection for public services – it would let MPs push though dodgy deals.”

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