David Davis and Neil Parish: From trade with China to food standards, MPs must be given a guaranteed say on new trade deals

7 Feb

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden. Neil Parish is Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tiverton and Honiton.

This week, MPs have the opportunity to vote on two important amendments to the Trade Bill: one which would give High Courts the power to make a genocide determination for countries with which the UK has trade deals, and another which would give Parliament a guaranteed say on new trade deals after Brexit.

Both these safeguards are essential for an independent trade policy which protects human rights and maintains high standards Brexit offers an enormous opportunity for British trade. We have the chance to trade with countries on our own terms, strike new deals and look beyond the European Union.

Brexit is also an opportunity to develop a trade policy which reflects our values.  Last month marked 76 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, when the world declared that we would never again allow the horror of genocide – the targeted destruction of a people group and its culture.

Yet as recenly as last week we have heard harrowing stories, reported by the BBC, of rape and torture of Uyghur Muslims in Chinese camps. The camps are the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust.

Despite this, China’s veto power in international bodies means that no international court has ruled that the Chinese government has committed genocide. That is why MPs are calling for an amendment to the Trade Bill which would empower a UK court to make a ruling on genocide in Xinjiang.

Incredibly, the UK has ongoing trade and investment agreements with China. One of these, the UK-China Bilateral Investment Treaty, protects Chinese investors in the UK and offers them preferences. This includes companies like Huawei and Bytedance, who are accused of complicity in the Uyghur abuses in Xinjiang, and whose directors are ultimately accountable to the Chinese Communist Party.

It is unthinkable that the UK’s trade policy does not guard against human rights abuses on the scale of the camps in Xinjiang.

One of the weaknesses of the UK’s trade policy is a lack of democratic scrutiny. The government can initiate, negotiate and sign trade agreements without informing Parliament or the public. MPs have no say in setting the mandate for negotiations, and don’t even get a guaranteed debate or vote before they are ratified.

This system needs to change. From the events in China to food standards, our trade policy has wide reaching implications. It is essential that the UK’s trade reflects our values, whether it’s the farming practices that we allow to make our food, or striking deals with genocidal regimes.

If the government were to sign a trade deal with China today – or if China were to join a plurilateral trade agreement that the UK is already in – MPs would get no say over this. This needs to change.

That is why we are supporting Lord Lansley’s amendment on parliamentary approval of trade agreements, which would give Parliament a guaranteed say on all new deals. When Brexiteeers campaigned to “Take Back Control” the intention was to bring back control to Westminster. Not Whitehall. The House of Commons’ voice is now more important, not less.

Parliament having such a say on new deals is essential for ensuring that our trade policy after Brexit reflects our values, protects our standards, and allows us to take back control.