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Can Parliament Prevent Dr Fox Ratifying a Terrible Trade Treaty?

August 12, 2018

Dr Fox is desperate to conclude any trade treaty with the US as soon as possible and to keep the details secret for as long as possible. It seems likely that the US will press for:

  • lower food standards, including, crucially, acceptance of meat contaminated with a high level of antibiotics administered as a preventative and growth promoter. (This threatens the future availability of antibiotics for curative and surgical purposes.),

  • Lower animal welfare standards, and

  • Wholesale privatisation of the NHS – this is already happening but a future government should be able to reverse it.

The deck is stacked against the UK because:

  • The US is in no hurry,

  • The US trade department is notoriously aggressive in pursuing US interests (forget the ‘special relationship’),

  • Dr Fox’s department is understaffed, and

  • Dr Fox is, I submit, more interested in concluding any deal than in serving the interests of the British people.

Up to now Parliament has had no role in determining whether a treaty should be ratified. However under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 there is a slim chance that it could. Sections 20 through 25 cover ratification of treaties.

I interpret section 20 as a process as follows:

  1. A Minister of the Crown lays a copy of the treaty before Parliament

  2. Each House of Parliament has then 21 sitting days (period A) in which vote against ratification. (this would only happen on an opposition day)

  3. If the House of Commons votes against ratification, (regardless of whether the Lords also votes) it is blocked temporarily, unless the Minister has laid before Parliament a statement indicating that the Minister is of the opinion that the treaty should nevertheless be ratified and explaining why.

  4. If the Minister does make such a statement, the House has the opportunity during Period B to vote against ratification. The trouble is that Period B is the 21 sitting days beginning with the first sitting day after the date on which the treaty was laid before Parliament, so that if the statement is laid towards the end of Period A, the House has no time to react.

  5. If the Commons has not voted against ratification, but the Lords has, the Minister may make a statement as to why the treat should be ratified and the Lords has no further recourse.

21 sitting days is a ridiculously short period in which to react to the text of a treaty. Section 21 allows the minister to extend Period A, but significantly not Period B. Section 22 allows the minister to override Section 20 in ‘exceptional circumstances’

In order to give the opposition parties a realistic chance of blocking ratification of a treaty whose provisions are clearly unacceptable to the people, ‘an humble address’ is needed asking the Queen to direct Her ministers as follows:

  • To invoke Section 21 to extend Period A to 63 sitting days (in two stages).,

  • If a minister intends to lay a statement under Section 20 (4) (a), he or she shall do so before the text of the treaty is formally laid under section 20 (1) (a) allowing such time (bearing in mind the timing of opposition days) as is needed for the Commons to vote against the text of the treaty under Section 20 (1) (c) and then to respond to the minister’s statement under section 20 (4) (b)

  • If a minister believes there are exceptional circumstances and intends to invoke Section 22, then the government shall provide an opportunity before the treaty is ratified for the following motion to be debated. “This House believes that in the case of a trade treaty there are no exceptional circumstances that justify a minister invoking [Section 22]”. The result of this debate shall be respected.

This humble address needs to be moved on an opposition day as soon as possible.

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From → Democracy, Trade law

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