Toxic trade timeline

How can we stop the UK government rushing through dangerous trade deals with the US? Trade Campaigner Kierra Box highlights key moments and correspondence between government and Friends of the Earth over a forthcoming trade deal.
  Published:  23 Apr 2020    |      Last updated:  13 Oct 2020    |      4 minute read

Over the past 5 years, we’ve been monitoring and reporting on what Brexit means for the environment and what to look out for as the UK forges its own trade deals.

This year, we’ve focused on halting trade negotiations with the US while the coronavirus pandemic is still unfolding.

Timeline of 2020 trade campaign

  • March: Friends of the Earth joins other organisations in the Trade Justice Movement in a letter asking Secretary of State Liz Truss not to open new trade negotiations during the pandemic.
  • April: The government confirms plans to start trade talks with the US. Our CEOs write an open letter to Liz Truss (pdf), asking her to reconsider and halt the negotiations.
  • April-June: 115,000 of you add your names to the open letter.
  • 4 May: Government opens negotiations with the US, aiming to rush through a toxic trade deal before the end of the year.
  • 12 May: 21 Conservative MPs unsuccessfully rebel against the government and vote for a change to the Agriculture Bill that would have guaranteed standards in legislation.
  • June-July: Media outlets like The Independent report on our efforts to halt negotiations.
  • 16 July: We hand our open letter to Liz Truss (complete with 115,000 of your signatures) to the Department for International Trade.
  • 22 July: Government admits that a trade deal with the US is unlikely, partly due to concerns around food standards.
  • 7 August: We receive a response (pdf) to our open letter from Greg Hands (Minister for Trade Policy in Liz Truss’s department). It dismisses our concerns.
  • 15 August: The Mail on Sunday and the Mirror publish results of our investigation into food import standards.
  • August-September: Thousands of you write to Greg Hands to ask him to reconsider our concerns and send a proper response to our letter explaining what action he will take. We’ve seen some of his replies and they were not great (see below).
  • 23 September: Following briefings from Greener UK, the House of Lords passes amendments to the Agriculture Bill guaranteeing imports will meet domestic standards.
  • 28 September: Friends of the Earth supports the launch of the Future British Standards Coalition, an independent group aiming to scrutinise the UK's approach to food standards.
  • 12 October: The Future British Standards coalition launches its interim report, recommending import standards are protected in law.
  • 12 October: MPs vote to remove import standards requirements from the Agriculture Bill – we’re unimpressed.

The problem with government's response

We’ve been over the letter Greg Hands sent us (pdf) and found some major flaws.

Trade scrutiny and transparency

The current process for giving MPs a voice on future trade deals is weak, unclear and outdated  a view shared across the environment sector. That's why, in our letter, we called for "full public and Parliamentary engagement with appropriate scrutiny and transparency throughout the process." But the Trade Minister's response does nothing to address these concerns, and makes no attempt or pledge to improve the scrutiny system. Nor does it recognise the limitations that have already been placed on parliamentary debate by the pandemic.

Hands' response simply details existing arrangements, which suggests that government doesn’t value the input (or understanding) of our MPs, and doesn't consider it important that MPs have a say on which trade deals are approved. We think it would be entirely sensible to pause trade negotiations until processes impeded by the pandemic have been fixed, and the scrutiny system improved.

Upholding environmental standards

We’ve raised specific concerns about the planned US deal in the past, including the possible environmental impacts of the UK importing food and goods produced to lower environmental standards. The minister's letter says: "The 2018 Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book […] Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament." However, our recent research found that some food standards have already been taken out of legislation and will be set administratively in future. We think that government is misleading the public by claiming that they will keep all current standards in law when it's clear that they will be set anew behind closed doors.

The letter also mentions the new "Trade and Agriculture Commission" which government says will protect food standards. We’ve criticised it for lacking independence and power, and don’t think a commission alone can protect UK standards from being sacrificed for a trade deal. That’s why, in our response, we asked Greg Hands to make sure all our standards really are maintained in law, and to reinstate those that have been deleted. Government has now missed one opportunity to do that, but there is still time. This should happen before the UK continues negotiating, so that other countries can be clear on what our standards are.

Halting trade negotiations

In our original letter to Liz Truss, we asked for a formal halt to all trade negotiations with the US. The responses from Greg Hands didn’t directly reply to this request, and we know that negotiations have continued, with the fourth round in early September. But, thankfully, progress has been slow. It's already too late to agree anything beyond deals with the EU and Japan before the end of 2020, so there's no benefit to rushing these negotiations. We really need to get these things right, and that will take time.

We still think that Liz Truss and Greg Hands should reconsider our sensible and pragmatic proposal that the UK postpone these trade talks to ensure they lead to the ambitious outcomes we all want to see. We’re keeping an eye on negotiations and will keep the pressure on government to put people and planet before a rushed trade deal.