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THERESA MAY’S government is the weakest in 40 years, yet it is stealthily trying to undermine our constitution to make itself the most powerful.
The weakest because the Prime Minister has no majority and no authority. Any previous leader of the Conservative Party would have sacked a Foreign Secretary who deliberately undermined her by sabotaging her major reset speech on the EU.
The most powerful, because it has packed the Commons standing committees with extra Tory MPs and it is assuming ministerial control to change the laws brought back from Europe through the Henry VIII powers it voted through in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
But if you thought this would be the outrageous limit of this government’s assault on democracy, just wait until you see the Trade Bill.
It will determine the framework within which Britain will once again, for the first time in 40 years, operate its own independent trade policy — and it will not be pretty.
Few people would believe how little transparency or scrutiny there is in Parliament before a trade treaty can be passed under our current broken system.
There is no obligation on our government to hold a vote to approve a trade treaty. There is no obligation even to hold a debate on ratification of new trade agreements, let alone submit them to proper scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
The only requirement is for the text of the treaty to be made available to MPs for a period of 21 sitting days. Even if there are objections, the government has the power to brush them aside.
Trade agreements are international treaties, and as such they set binding obligations that future administrations have to follow.
They cannot be repealed as domestic laws can, and should therefore require the highest level of scrutiny before they can be ratified. Instead they have the lowest.
The next five years will prove a decisive period for Britain’s future place in the world. The Trade Bill will be a crucial piece of legislation that determines how we interact with other nations.
It will decide whether our economic exchanges will do more than bring wealth to the few at the expense of the many.
The government is fond of saying that we are a proud trading nation — well, as they prepare to bring this Trade Bill before Parliament, I want to make sure that we have something to be genuinely proud about.
The Labour Party will set out its progressive vision of an open, rules-based trading system with strong social and environmental protections and labour rights built in.
Against this we will see the Tory desire for unilateral liberalisation and free trade that will bring deregulated chaos and undermine terms and conditions both here and abroad.
The Tory objective is to protect the interests of the few, in a race to the bottom.
Key sectors of our economy could be wiped out for ever if the government is allowed to act without restraint. The libertarian Economists for Free Trade, which lists Tory MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg and Owen Paterson as its advisers, has admitted that its proposal of unilateral tariff liberalisation would “effectively eliminate manufacturing” in the UK and lead to the loss of 2.7 million jobs.
And it is not just workers in manufacturing who would suffer. The 466,000 people who are directly employed in agriculture in this country would be brought into unfair competition with overseas producers who do not have to meet the same animal welfare and food hygiene standards that our farmers do.
Yet the Conservative government has worked at the European level to block the action necessary to protect our industries from unfair competition.
In addition to the well-publicised case of British steel, there are real fears that our ceramics, paper, chemicals, glass and mineral products industries are also at risk.
At the same time, few believe that Tory ministers will have any qualms about using trade agreements to dismantle our prized social and environmental standards by the back door.
Tory Trade Secretary Liam Fox has written in glowing terms of the “low taxation and low regulation” Britain he wishes to create post-Brexit. And he knows that trade negotiations held in secret are a perfect way of sidestepping public resistance to such an agenda.
I was the first British MP outside of the government to be allowed to read the text of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and US.
After months of pressure, the Department for International Trade finally opened a secure reading room to make the documents available to me for just one-and-a-half hours every Wednesday afternoon. I had to deposit all my electronic devices in a safe and sign a non-disclosure agreement before being allowed access.
This is not an acceptable way for Britain to negotiate its future trade agreements — in secret. We need an open transparent process from the prior consultation with industry, unions and sectoral organisations, through to a debate on a negotiating mandate from Parliament, powerful parliamentary scrutiny, oversight and debate resulting in a ratification vote and post-implementation monitoring and review.
It would be outrageous if Brexit brought back powers from Europe — not to a sovereign Parliament but to enable the government ministers in the executive to negotiate in secret and pass onto the statute books trade treaties to undermine British jobs and British standards.
It was public fury at the threat of deregulation that blocked TTIP as people discovered that what the government called “barriers to trade” were actually our food safety standards, animal rights and environmental protections.
Theresa May has spoken of her desire to revive TTIP, as the basis for a new British-US trade deal. Fox confirmed in Washington that we cannot trust him to defend our interests in any forthcoming negotiations, whether from chlorine-rinsed chicken, hormone-injected beef or genetically modified crops.
And in her trip to Ottawa last week, May pushed for a British-Canada agreement based on the controversial Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU (Ceta), rejected by trade unions for fear of its impact on jobs and public services.
Labour is committed to enhancing our social and environmental standards, not downgrading them in secret trade talks. We see decent jobs, public services, public health and ecological sustainability as essential pillars of a progressive society, not chips to be bargained away behind closed doors.
One might expect a Tory government to be careless of these things, but surely even they have the self-interest to see that British businesses will be blocked from trading in Europe if they fail to meet the standards we currently share with the EU, and that will lead to the loss of thousands more jobs.
The EU will remain our most important trading partner for the foreseeable future, so it is madness for the Tories to pretend that we can turn our back on such a crucial market without a new trade agreement in place.
Yet May’s handling of the Article 50 process has been so chaotic that we are already out of time to finalise a new trade deal by the deadline of April 2019.
That is why Labour is calling for a transitional period which offers continuity to both sides while our new trading relationship is thrashed out.
The Trade Bill will be a critical parliamentary battle. It will determine the process by which Parliament can hold this government to account for its trade policy decisions and our economic future. We need cast-iron assurances that there will be proper parliamentary oversight of all future trade matters.
Only Labour offers a serious trade policy to challenge the Tories’ deregulated, tax-free gig economy, and the stakes could not be higher.
This week’s conference is our opportunity to prepare for the battle ahead.
Barry Gardiner MP is shadow secretary of state for international trade.
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