Current procedures for scrutinising trade deals are woefully inadequate, and will need beefing up if farming is to be protected in the coming years, says Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion and Plaid Cymru’s agriculture spokesman in Westminster.
There can be no doubt that last week’s General Election has transformed the political make-up of Parliament.
The sight of so many Conservative MPs struggling to squeeze onto the Government benches this week made it abundantly clear that the Prime Minister has the numbers needed to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore to secure the UK’s exit from the EU on January 31.
Of course, ‘Get Brexit Done’ featured heavily during the campaign as the Prime Minister’s go-to tagline, but in reality the election has only settled the question of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Important questions of our future relationship with Europe – and in particular trading arrangements – are still to be settled.
The process by which the question of our future relationship with the EU will be settled has not received a great deal of attention in recent months.
Given that our immediate future will be dominated by a series of trade talks, how the UK will negotiate, sign, and ratify international treaties, and what this might mean for agriculture, will be a hot topic in the new year.
As a member of the single market and customs union, a significant number of treaties – and trade deals in particular – are negotiated on our behalf by the EU, but from February next year, this work will be conducted solely by the UK Government.
Despite the Government’s substantial majority, ensuring representatives from different parties and industry bodies can contribute to the formulation of trade objectives, and thorough and effective scrutiny of negotiations themselves, will be crucial if we want trade deals which are fair for every sector of the economy, and for each country of the UK.
There is quite a bit of work to be done before we can be confident the existing process can deliver on this.
Parliament’s role at present is limited to only being able to accept or refuse a trade deal once the Government has agreed to it, meaning there is very little opportunity for MPs to contribute positively when it comes to trade policy – whether to promote the interests of a particular industry such as agriculture, or to defend them if necessary.
I hope to see the establishment of a select committee responsible for scrutinising the Government’s approach to different trade negotiations in the new year, but at least a body already exists to ensure different industries can influence the Government’s trade objectives in the form of the Strategic Trade Advisory Group.
The group and its sub-committees must be given due respect by the Government, and their recommendations should be pursued by negotiating teams.
I am conscious this focus on procedure might appear quite dry, but make no mistake about it, getting trade deals right is not easy.
If we are to make sure agriculture does not lose out in the forthcoming talks, the voice of the industry has to be heard as the Government pens its wish list, and representatives of rural areas need to be able to hold the Government to account on any promises made.
Now, I do not want to sound like Ebenezer Scrooge less than a week from Christmas, so I will not rehearse the challenges inherent in trade talks.
Instead, I will end by borrowing from one of Mr Johnson’s heroes, Churchill.
Although the question of the UK’s leaving the EU has been settled, when it comes to trade, I fear the election did not mark the beginning of the end, merely the end of the beginning.
Ben can be found tweeting at @BenMLake