UK government accused of breaching international law over trade deals

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The UK Government is facing legal action over its failure to give the public a say on post-Brexit trade deals, despite the risks they pose to the environment.  

Leading conservation, trade and farming organisations have taken legal action to challenge the UK Government’s failure to give the public a say on post-Brexit trade deals – despite the risks they pose to the environment – which they say is a breach of international environmental law. 

The coalition, including WWF, Green Alliance, Greenpeace, Compassion in World Farming, Trade Justice Movement, Sustain, Soil Association and Tenant Farmers’ Association, has said that existing arrangements for public scrutiny of new trade deals are inadequate, putting the UK Government in breach of the Aarhus Convention – an international agreement that sets out an obligation to ensure public consultation on decisions by the government or public sector that will impact on the environment.  

The group has filed a formal complaint to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee which will consider whether the UK Government is in breach of international law.  

If so, the committee has the power to make recommendations to ensure the UK public have a say in future negotiations. Ultimately, the UK Government could deliver this in many ways, for example by creating a Citizens’ Assembly to consider new trade deals.  

The legal challenge comes as the UK Government seeks to push a new trade agreement with Australia through Parliament without guaranteeing any time for MPs to debate or vote on the deal.  

Katie White, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF, said:  

“People don’t want the food on their plates to fuel the climate and nature crises. Yet  behind closed doors the UK Government has cut trade deals with Australia, an environmental laggard, opening our shores to imports without adequate safeguards for climate and nature. 

“It’s totally unacceptable that the public and Parliament have been denied a say on these trade agreements when their consequences will be felt for generations to come – full scrutiny is essential if we are to avoid a deal by default. 

“To live up to the climate and nature promises in their manifesto, the new Prime Minister and their government must guarantee meaningful public consultation on all future trade deals and set core environmental standards for all food sold in the UK, to ensure the UK’s transition to sustainable farming isn’t undermined by imports driving nature loss overseas.” 

The coalition has highlighted the fact that free trade agreements have a clear environmental impact. This is recognised in the UK government’s own environmental impact assessments of new deals, including with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The impact assessment for the UK-Australia deal states: “The agreement could impact on the environment through a variety of channels” and notes “there is evidence that agricultural activities (especially beef and dairy production) contribute to deforestation in Australia”

Although the public was consulted on the objectives prior to the launch of trade negotiations, this was several years before final terms were agreed, with no opportunities for public consultation in the interim, and no guaranteed opportunity for debate or a vote in Parliament.  

The organisations bringing forward the legal challenge will make the case that this amounts to a failure to comply with the Aarhus Convention, which requires opportunity for public participation “at an appropriate stage, and while options are still open”.  

Dr Nick Palmer, Head of CIWF UK, says: 

“Free trade agreements will have huge impacts on the UK’s environmental standards for decades to come. Yet the lack of scrutiny afforded by the UK Government of these deals, and the opportunity for the public to influence them, is appalling. This concern has been raised not just by civil society, but also by a number of select committee reports. 

“The Government has failed to meet the Aarhus commitments. There has been insufficient public involvement when the Government should be welcoming input from a broad range of stakeholders. Additionally, the UK Government should introduce a set of core standards for animal welfare and the environment that must be met for products to be included within the terms of any trade agreement.” 

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Shaun Spiers, executive director at Green Alliance, said: 

 “The government has resisted proper scrutiny of its trade deals at almost every turn – from publishing impact assessments after agreements have been signed to trying to pass the Australia deal without even a debate in parliament. 

 “Ministers often talk about the UK leading by example. They have the chance to show leadership through much more open consultation on negotiating objectives and texts.” 

Emily Armistead, Acting Programme Director for Greenpeace UK said:  

“There’s very strong public support for protecting the UK’s food, animal welfare and environmental standards, yet we know that free trade deals can undermine them. This is why it’s absolutely vital that these deals are negotiated in an open and transparent way, giving the public a chance to have a say – rather than being secretly struck with a handshake behind closed doors. Whoever ends up as the next Conservative leader would do well to remember that votes risk being lost through rushing through trade deals that undermine hard-fought environmental and social protections, in order to satisfy shadowy figures behind the scenes. Ministers should therefore welcome a healthy dose of public scrutiny at every stage of trade deal negotiations to prevent this from happening.”  

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