MPs mustn't allow Fox free range to negotiate an ‘America first’ trade deal

Liam Fox wants to offer Trump everything from agriculture to the NHS in exchange for getting the City of London greater access to the US economy – and most government MPs seem completely relaxed about that.

Nick Dearden
22 February 2019
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Image: Donald Trump visiting Theresa May in 2018. Whose agenda will dominate post-Brexit trade deal talks? Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images, all rights reserved.

Remember all that talk about parliamentary sovereignty a couple of years ago? Remember being told that a key reason for Brexit was having control of our own trade policy? And that Brexit would mean we wouldn’t have to sign up to any undemocratic trade deals like TTIP?

Well it turns out it that those arguments were about as much hogwash as the £350 million extra a week which Boris Johnson desperately wanted to spend on the NHS. We saw that yesterday, when MPs debated Britain’s post-Brexit trade deals with countries including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, as well as signing, however geographically improbably, the Transpacific Partnership.

Or at least, some MPs debated those deals. The government benches contained no more than five MPs. Which is extraordinary given that this is possibly the only guaranteed debate MPs will get before a standard-slashing “America first” trade deal is brought back for them to approve. And approve such a deal they will have to do, because yesterday government ministers confirmed that in Brexit Britain the mother of parliaments will be effectively unable to stop any trade deal, however much they dislike it.

In a democratic country, Thursday’s debate would have been the point at which parliament saw Liam Fox’s negotiating objectives for the trade deals under discussion. They would have been able to question his red lines (assuming he has any), and to apply some sort of framework which lays out the type of trade deal Britain wants. They would have seen scoping documents and impact assessments, laying out what such deals would mean for different parts of the country, for different industries, and for our ability to protect public services, our environment and our welfare. They would have been promised access to all the negotiating documents so they could keep the Secretary of State on the straight and narrow. Scrutiny committees would have been established. Consultations with the public would have been launched. Devolved nations would have been given a specific say on what they wanted and didn’t want from a trade deal.

But, as Barry Gardiner, Labour’s trade spokesperson commented: “Today’s debate certainly cannot be considered to constitute that important discussion. It is a general debate on a Thursday, in a week that was intended to be recess, talking about potential agreements before Parliament has even debated the whole process of consultation, impact assessment, negotiating mandate, parliamentary debate, transparency of negotiation, ratification and subsequent review and periodic appraisal that should constitute a framework within which the Government intend to bring such agreements into being.”

As the SNPs trade spokesperson Stewart Hosie summed up: “Current procedures are such that this could be the only opportunity MPs have to debate four major trade deals. That would be woefully inadequate.”

Yesterday’s debate was a sham, which exposes the democratic black hole at the heart of Brexit. A hole which the government plans to fill with numerous trade deals which will affect everyone in the country, but which we are allowed no voice on. To be clear, MPs were told yesterday that there was no guarantee of another debate, of a written mandate to guide trade deals, of them being allowed to access any papers, of a proper scrutiny process or of a final meaningful vote.

Huge public concern

To be fair, there has actually been a public consultation. It was even accessible online. And a massive 600,000 people and organisations took part. That’s a record for such a consultation, and shows very clearly how interested and concerned the public are by trade policy. The majority of respondents are believed to have raised concerns that these trade deals could change the sort of food of we eat for the worse, could threaten the livelihoods of farmers, could undermine the NHS, and could introduce a “corporate court” system which would open our government up to being sued – in secret – for introducing perfectly reasonable environmental protection, public health standards and improving workers rights.

Yesterday, Liam Fox simply dismissed most of these concerns. But in any case, the consultation wasn’t in any way ‘meaningful’: it didn’t set out the type of deal the government wanted to do with these countries, or make any assessments of the changes the deals might bring about. It did little more than ask the anodyne question: Is trade with these countries a good thing?

But too bad. That was your chance. There won’t be another one.

Why does all this matter so much? Well in just over five weeks time, Fox can head to Washington to face the most experienced negotiating team in the world, determined to force Britain to accept chlorine-washed chickens and allow big business to get its hands on the NHS. This is not scare-mongering. We know precisely what US multinationals want because they told us last month: standard-slashing policies that includes allowing meat filled with antibiotics and steroids onto our shelves, as well as vegetables covered in chemical residues and milk with more pus in it. And less labelling on that food. It includes more expensive medicines, costing the NHS billions of pounds, and new data rules allowing Big Tech to use and abuse your data at will. It includes more GMOs, and worse chemical standards, and a corporate court which can be used by US multinational to challenge government decisions. By and large, the US administration agrees with this wish list.

The threat to the NHS is mostly that posed by the corporate court system. And it is not made up. Stewart Hosie pointed out how it might affect government decisions yesterday in parliament:

“In Scotland, when cleaning was contracted to the private sector, hospital-acquired infection rates went up. We then took a decision to bring back NHS cleaners, and hospital-acquired infection rates came down. Had that contract been won under the terms of one of these agreements, we could have been sued and challenged.”

He’s quite right, which is why many campaign groups launched a campaign against these awful courts, known as ISDS, this week. Such a system is already part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Fox wants the UK to sign after Brexit. The deal has been widely criticised by trade unions and campaign groups across the world for entrenching deregulation and liberalisation. Signing this deal would also move us away from the EU “precautionary” system of trying to prevent harmful products coming onto to the market, to one which says, “let’s not worry until something really bad happens”.

Most of this won’t concern Fox, who seems to know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. His belief is that the free market will work its magic to provide us with cheaper goods, and that will be beneficial for consumers. No matter that consumers are largely also producers – and that some cheap clothes made in appalling conditions doesn’t make up for losing your job. Fox is full throated in his support of ISDS, and yesterday said that the EU-Canada deal CETA was a great basis for future UK deals. CETA also includes ISDS.

So things are now serious. In fact it’s always been the case that many hard Brexiteers see trade deals as a way of entrenching deregulation and privatisation in the British economy. Fox told business leaders a couple of weeks ago, that in the event of a no-deal Brexit he was favourable to applying zero tariffs to all goods coming into the country. It’s astonishing this didn’t generate more headlines given that it would decimate British farming and lay waste to large parts of industry. But then again, that’s not a problem to those who see Brexit as a means of completing the Thatcher project.

Do we really want to give this man royal powers to negotiate our future relationship with the world? It’s actually turned out to be the House of Lords who have most firmly stood up to Fox. Peers have put Fox’s Trade Bill on hold until he outlines his proposals to give parliament a proper role in overseeing trade policy. They will certainly be disappointed with his response, and it’s to be hoped that at that point, expected to be reached in the next two weeks, they use their powers to radically amend the Bill and force the government to implement a democratic system for holding the secretary of state to account for his trade policy.

If we fail in this task, then we need to prepare for a long campaign ahead. It’s been more than two years since we beat the dreadful EU-US trade deal known as TTIP. What we’re looking at now is TTIP on steroids. We must defeat this threat.

The government’s strategy, away from the scrutiny of parliament, is to give in to the US on agriculture, in return for the US letting the City of London run amok in the American economy. Finance and services are the bit of the British economy Fox seems to really care about, in his desire to create a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames. This would be bad for British workers, bad for creating a more equal country, and bad for the rest of the world which needs to deal with the damage of our financial giants. We need to stop it.

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