Having decided to leave the European Union following the 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom has pursued an independent trade policy for the first time in forty years. This provides an opportunity to shape a new gold standard for rights-based trade deals, underpinned by a transparent process in which parliament, citizens and civil society have a role in scrutinising trade policy.
However, NGOs, trade unions and business groups have been critical of the UK’s approach. The Trade Act passed in April 2021 without any provisions allowing for a parliamentary vote on trade deals, or public scrutiny of those deals.
The UK has new Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand, as well as ongoing negotiations with India, Israel, Mexico, Canada and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Furthermore, in July 2023 the UK acceded to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
These negotiations are being closely scrutinised by groups concerned about issues from consumer rights to food standards to public healthcare. The ISDS clause, which gives corporations the power to sue governments for decisions that damage the value of their investment, appears in the CPTPP and may feature in future deals.
Because trade policy could have a wide-reaching impact on workers and communities around the world, it should be shaped through rigorous participation and effective consultations to ensure that deals can be platforms to safeguard human rights and push for greater corporate accountability. Without protections for rights, trade agreements can serve to exploit the vulnerabilities of weaker economies, their workers, and their communities.