The UK government has failed to demonstrate the economic benefits of its post-Brexit trade deals and must do more to consult with business and consumers over future free trade agreements, MPs have warned.
In a mixed verdict on the first year of post-Brexit dealmaking, the House of Commons public accounts committee said it was doubtful that the government would hit its target of ensuring that 80 per cent of all UK trade was covered by a free trade deal by the end of this year.
In a report published on Friday, the committee urged the government to be more transparent about its dealmaking by consulting better with parliament, industry and special interest groups, such as farmers and environmentalists, about the shape of future deals.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the deputy chair of the committee, said the department for international trade was “really struggling to point to tangible wins for British business, consumers or our own agriculture sector”.
The government was accused of “betrayal” by the National Farmers’ Union after it signed a new deal with Australia in December 2021 which farmers claimed penalised British agriculture.
The post-Brexit deals signed so far, including EU-era agreements that were converted into bilateral deals, cover a combined total of 64 per cent of UK trade. The UK has launched negotiations with India and hopes to improve existing deals with Canada and Mexico.
But the report said that with Washington ruling out reaching a quick deal, the government would face “significant challenges” reaching the 80 per cent target, given that the US accounts for 16.8 per cent of UK trade.
Even completing a deal with India and joining the transpacific CPTPP trading bloc — both deals the government has in its sights — would contribute only 0.4 per cent and 1.5 per cent, respectively, to that target.
Trade policy experts, consumer, farming and environmental groups all welcomed the committee’s calls for more transparency and consultation over future deals, accusing the government of giving ground on important principles in its haste to reach its target.
David Henig, a former UK trade negotiator, said the government was “in denial” about how far it was falling short of international best practice on consultation and scrutiny. “Hopefully this new report will provide an impetus for improvement,” he said.
Nick von Westenholz, director of trade at the NFU, said the government’s own impact assessments showed that trade deals with major agricultural exporters, like Australia, would hit UK farming output, but little was being done to help farmers adapt.
“Hopefully this report is a wake-up call that we need far better co-ordination between domestic and trade policy, and we need to properly monitor the impact of trade deals as they come online, to better design and adapt policy to ensure farm businesses benefit,” he said.
Sarah Williams of the Greener UK coalition, which represents 12 major environmental organisations, said she was concerned that the government was rushing to sign agreements with partners like India and Gulf states, where environmental standards and human rights issues were a concern.
“We’ve already watered down climate commitments to help get the Australia deal over the line,” she said. “We need a coherent strategy with trade-offs laid out during, rather than after, negotiations.”
The government said that it had deliberately set a high bar with its 80 per cent target and had launched a new strategy last year to help business export.
It added: “We take parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements very seriously and have made enhanced commitments to scrutiny and transparency at every stage of negotiations, going far beyond our statutory requirements.”