No wonder the government sneaked out its new ‘take back control’ bill. It contains a really ugly detail.

Johnson Fox Trade
Tracy Keeling

The government quietly released its new Trade Bill on 7 November. Ramping up trade deals is one of the major ways it plans to ‘take back control’ of Britain. But there’s no wonder it did so discreetly. Because it contains a horrific detail. One that would potentially give the Department of International Trade (DIT) its very own ‘Henry VIII‘ powers.

Worship at the altar

There’s rarely a post-referendum day that passes by now without a government minister applauding [paywall] free trade. ‘We must persuade people that trade deals are the answer to their prayers’, they essentially argue. A Conservative MEP has even started his own Institute for Free Trade. It launched at the Foreign Office with Boris Johnson as a speaker.

But some have been asking, at what cost? And the government’s new Trade Bill gives us the answer. The DIT says the bill will:

put in place the necessary legal powers to operate a fully functioning trade policy and set the groundwork to becoming an independent global trading nation.

And the details it lays out about international trade deals show how far those powers may reach. Because it’s calling for [pdf, p6] “an appropriate authority” to be able to make the “regulations” that it deems appropriate “for the purpose of implementing an international trade agreement”.

This means that the bill calls for the DIT, for example, to be able to make certain arrangements to get a trade deal through. And what might those arrangements be? Well, this is the first one the bill lists [pdf, p6]:

modifying primary legislation that is retained EU law…

“Retained EU law” refers to the laws transferred from the EU to the UK. In other words, we’re talking about the Repeal Bill. So if this bill goes through in its current form, it appears that the ‘authority’ tasked with making international trade agreements will be able to ‘modify’ Repeal Bill laws to suit these trade deals.

The Canary approached the DIT for comment but had received none by the time of publication.

Double whammy

Parliament will debate the Repeal Bill again from 14 November. It’s been on hold since September because MPs proposed over 300 amendments to it. It’s that dangerous. One of the most contested aspects of the bill is the ‘Henry VIII‘ powers it grants the government; the ability to pass legislation without the will of parliament.

But this Trade Bill makes things even worse. Because it apparently suggests that not only can Theresa May use her powers of a renaissance monarch to discard the EU protections she deems unnecessary; but also that whoever negotiates our future trade deals can then dispense with the rest, if they see fit, in the name of trade.

And if past attempts at trade deals by the Conservative government are anything to go by, here are some of the areas of legislation that could be ‘modified’ if they’re still in place: protections for the NHS, food and environmental safety regulations, banking regulations, the little privacy we have left, and jobs.

You shall not pass!

To top this all off, the government also added a “chilling” detail to the Repeal Bill that could remove UK citizens’ right to sue the government for breaking the law. So there may be no recourse for citizens who want to hold the government to account if it breaks the few laws that remain.

It’s crucial that none of these proposals make it through parliament as they stand. Because once we’ve signed on the dotted line, it’ll take a small miracle to prise these sweeping powers from ministers’ hands.

Absolute power absolutely corrupts. And we can’t let them have it.

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Featured image via David Mirzoeff

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