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Next year, the government will negotiate important trade agreements with major economies around the world. These agreements need to be reviewed as they have a direct impact on people's lives in the UK.
Earlier this month, while much of the country's attention has been understandably focused on the corona virus threat and the prospect of major lifestyle changes, the House of Lords tacitly agreed to a less dramatic but significantly more positive change. On March 17, the House of Lords agreed to set up a new committee – the Contracting Subcommittee – to review the international agreements negotiated and signed by the United Kingdom.
Contract review is a crucial and evolving area for Parliament as responsibilities are returned to the UK after Brexit. Previously, much of the negotiation of international agreements was conducted on our behalf. The agreements have been examined in depth by the European Parliament, including UK MEPs. At home, the European committees of both chambers have examined the decisions of British ministers in the EU's main decision-making body – the Council of Ministers. These mechanisms have ended in Britain after we left the European Union on January 31, 2020.
At present – and relying on the review set out above – under British law, the contract review takes place in Westminster only after agreements have been negotiated and signed. The 2010 Constitutional Reform and Government Act (“CRAG”) gives the House of Commons very limited powers to delay ratification of treaties. However, this is too late to affect the outcome. The House of Lords can make a decision that a contract should not be ratified under the CRAG. In the absence of Commons approval, however, the government only has to make a statement to Parliament stating that, in its view, the treaty should still be ratified and explain why. And there is no mechanism by which Parliament can refuse to approve an agreement that it believes is not in the country's best interests.
Parliamentary scrutiny is important as contracts have an increasingly direct impact on daily life in the UK. We expect the government to negotiate important trade agreements with the United States, Japan, and other major economies next year. These agreements can affect jobs, as well as the price and availability of goods in stores.
New agreements can also affect Parliament's role by requiring it to legislate – or by preventing it from enacting laws that make the United Kingdom violate its international obligations.
The Ministry of International Trade (DIT) has recognized the importance of working with Parliament when new contracts and agreements take shape. Proposals for close engagement have been presented in a series of papers published in February and July 2019 and most recently in March 2020. In recent iterations, the DIT has helpfully suggested that Parliament's technical committees have access to "sensitive information". and "private briefings by negotiating teams" to ensure that parliamentarians can follow the negotiations and take a comprehensive and informed position on a final agreement.
However, the contract review is not just about trading. Agreements can include security, the environment, and other issues of public interest. In the future, it will be important for the UK Parliament to be well informed about all new international agreements and to be able to consult and contact the stakeholders affected by these agreements. It is also important for the government to work with decentralized administrations and legislators who have a legitimate interest in the agreements that are made on their behalf, especially when dealing with powers that have been delegated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland .
The difficult precedent to agree a withdrawal agreement with the European Union shows that we should not underestimate the challenges ahead. However, the new Lords Committee, which will work under the House of Lords EU Committee in 2020, will play an important role in ensuring that these new agreements get the test they deserve.
Lord Kinnoull is an unaffiliated peer and chair of the Lords EU Committee.