Minister: Government may extend scrutiny window for trade deals beyond January 1

The Government may need to extend the scrutiny window for MPs to analyse trade deals beyond January 1 to “avoid any cliff-edges”, a minister has admitted.

International trade minister Greg Hands said that whilst all the signed agreements would be subject to the statutory scrutiny process, “it is possible that the scrutiny window for remaining agreements extends beyond January 1 into the New Year”.

His comments came as shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry accused her counterpart Liz Truss of “sheer bumbling incompetence” and questioned how the Government will ensure the remaining 15 trade agreements get over the line before Christmas.

International Women’s Day
Greg Hands’s comments were in response to a question Emily Thornberry (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Answering an urgent question on the proposed parliamentary scrutiny of future continuity trade agreements in the Commons, Mr Hands told MPs: “All the signed agreements would be subject to the statutory scrutiny process as set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act providing a guaranteed period for Parliament to scrutinise and debate these agreements.”

He added: “As we approach the end of the transition period, it is possible that the scrutiny window for remaining agreements extends beyond January 1 into the New Year.

“This means that we may need to use provisional application for a short period in order to guarantee continuity of trading relationships and avoid any cliff-edges.”

Mr Hands told MPs that “many EU trade agreements were or are being provisionally applied”.

Unimpressed with the situation, Ms Thornberry replied: “The Government has literally had years to protect our free trade with countries like Canada, Singapore and Mexico and with just six weeks to go until the end of the transition period, 15 of those continuity agreements have still not been secured, leaving £80 billion of UK trade at risk – that is two and a half times our trade with Japan.

“15 agreements which have been left so late that the Government will now have to ride roughshod over the rules of parliamentary scrutiny to implement them in time.”

She added: “How can ministers continue to defend the adequacy of the rules of parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals after the absolute mockery that they have made them today?”

Responding to Ms Thornberry, Mr Hands said the department of International Trade is “working very hard” on the remaining trade agreements.

He added that when it comes to trade and trade agreements “successive Labour leaders can’t decide whether they want these agreements or not”.

SNP chair of the International Trade Committee Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) called on the Government to “get its act together and quick”.

He said: “We were told in that period that all the agreements would be signed about a minute after midnight on March 29 2019 and it’s still a huge concern that we still don’t have 15 of these deals done.”

Justin Trudeau
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has said that a trade deal may not be in place by the end of the year (Steve Parsons/PA)

Mr Hands replied: “The fact of the matter is that we’ve done deals, rolled over deals with 52 countries. That is a very, very strong achievement.”

In response to SNP international trade spokesman Stewart Hosie’s (Dundee East) concerns over the existing scrutiny process on trade deals for MPs, Mr Hands added that the Government is “confident that CRAG represents a robust way of ratifying trade agreements and for Parliament to have its say”.

Responding to Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough), Mr Hands added that there is “no rush” to get free trade deals concluded and that instead, it is about getting “the right agreement”.

Asked by Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) whether the UK is in an “embarrassing situation” after recent comments made by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Mr Hands replied: “As I’ve already said, we are in a good position with Canada. I am confident that we will be getting a deal.”

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