UK MPs and business figures seek to improve Brexit trade deal

A cross-party group of MPs and several business figures have set up an independent commission to scrutinise and improve the UK’s trade deals with the EU and the rest of the world.

The move comes after the government in January ordered the closure of a House of Commons select committee with a remit to examine Britain’s relations with the EU, leading to accusations from MPs that it was avoiding scrutiny of the Brexit trade deal.

The new trade and business commission, which formally launches this week, will involve MPs from all political parties and include Hilary Benn, Labour chair of the now defunct Commons committee on the future relationship with the EU.

“This is different from the select committee I chaired because it brings together parliamentarians and business leaders and will have an intensely practical focus on the problems businesses are facing,” said Benn.

Since the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement came into force in January, businesses have reported major difficulties with red tape.

UK goods exports to the EU fell 41 per cent in January after the Brexit transition period ended, according to the Office for National Statistics, while imports dropped 29 per cent. They were the largest declines since comparable records began in 1997.

In the Brexit treaty negotiations, the government was accused by business lobby groups of prioritising the recapture of sovereignty from the EU over the practical trading concerns of industries including carmakers and manufacturers of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Peter Norris, chair of Virgin group, who will sit on the commission, said he hoped the government would be receptive to ideas produced by the new body.

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“The [Brexit] trade agreement is not a complete body of work at this point,” he added. “It can be changed and added to and that needs to happen in light of evidence from practitioners on the ground.”

Roger Gale, a Conservative MP who will sit on the commission, said the impact of the Brexit trade agreement was being felt by businesses “in every sector and communities in every corner of the country” and the new body would look for improvements.

“This is about setting ideology aside and finding a pragmatic, evidence-based way forward,” he added. “We want to ensure opportunities are seized to promote frictionless trade and to help the UK economy bounce back from the pandemic.”

The commission plans to hear evidence every two weeks until December, when it aims to produce a report identifying areas for UK action or negotiation with the EU.

The first evidence session is due to take place on Thursday and will look at whether any losses caused by new trade barriers with the EU can be offset by commerce agreements with the rest of the world.

Other business figures on the commission include Fabienne Viala, chair of Bouygues Construction in the UK and president of the French chamber of commerce of Great Britain, and Andrew Ballheimer, former global managing partner of Allen & Overy. 

It is not clear whether the government will heed the findings of the commission, having argued when disbanding Benn’s committee that there would be “plenty of opportunities for questions, statements and debates” in the ordinary course of parliamentary business. 

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Alan Winters, a founding director of the UK trade policy observatory at Sussex university who will sit on the commission, said the government should look past ideological differences that have bedevilled the Brexit debate.

“Trade policy is still mired in partisanship,” he added. “The government seems to think this excuses them from listening seriously to anyone else. This commission aims to hear from business and consumers and make considered recommendations. It can only be a force for good.”


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