Having decided to leave the European Union following the 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom has begun the process of forming an independent trade policy for the first time in forty years. This provides an opportunity to shape a new gold standard for rights-based trade deals, underpinned by a transparent process in which parliament, citizens and civil society have a role in scrutinising trade policy.
However, NGOs, trade unions and business groups have been critical of the UK’s approach. The Trade Act passed in April 2021 without any provisions allowing for a parliamentary vote on trade deals, or public scrutiny of those deals. All that the UK government has committed to is the so-called ‘Grimstone Rule’: that future trade deals will not be without a parliamentary debate, if one is called for by parliamentarians.
In 2021, the UK intends to negotiate new trade deals with partners such as Australia, New Zealand and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The UK will also be ‘rolling over’ existing deals with Canada and Mexico. These negotiations are being watched closely by groups concerned about issues from consumer rights to food standards to public healthcare. ISDS clauses, which give corporations the power to sue governments for decisions that damage the value of their investment, may be included in future deals.
Because trade policy could have a wide-reaching impact on workers and communities around the world, it should be shaped through rigorous participation and effective consultations to ensure that deals can be platforms to push for greater corporate accountability and to discontinue trade agreement models that only further exploit the vulnerabilities of weaker economies, their workers, and their communities.