Business groups given unprecedented access to trade talks

Lizzy Burden
·2 min read
Liz Truss
Liz Truss

Farmers and business chiefs have been given a louder voice to ensure they do not lose out in trade negotiations as ministers bid for a raft of post-Brexit deals.

Bosses in 11 sectors including agriculture, manufacturing and financial services have signed non-disclosure agreements so they can help to shape potential agreements with other countries - including commercially sensitive rules on tariffs and rules of origin.

The change is part of a major overhaul of the Government’s trade machinery as talks intensify with the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Trade groups have previously expressed concern that such gagging orders would prevent them from fully consulting members on issues discussed on the panels.

But Trade Secretary Liz Truss said: “This is about bringing business closer to the negotiating table and using their expertise to help secure the best possible deals that deliver jobs and growth across Britain.”

The changes were inspired by the more formalised, structured relationships between industry groups and the governments of the US, Australia and Canada. They will give British business leaders unprecedented levels of access to the talks.

Notably absent from the group on agriculture and food will be representatives of the animal welfare lobby such as the RSPCA and consumer groups such as Which?, despite concerns that a UK-US trade deal could reduce food standards by leading to chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef on British supermarket shelves. The panel is the biggest of the eleven, with 26 members including the likes of the National Farmers' Union.

A separate Trade and Agriculture Commission was announced last month to ensure  that the sector remains competitive but animal welfare and environmental standards are not undermined. This also excludes the RSPCA, which described the commission as a “fig leaf”.

Food standards have been seen as a stumbling block in US-UK talks, particularly given the influence of agricultural groups in Washington, but Mrs Truss has repeatedly insisted that regulations will not be dumbed down in a US trade deal and will be protected by the Food Standards Agency.

Trade unions will also be missing from the revamped advisory groups. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “It is hard to see how our trade deals can be negotiated in the wider public interest if workers’ voices are excluded.” 

It is understood that DIT hopes to agree a deal in principle with Japan by the end of the month, to start talks with Canada imminently and to enter a second round of talks with Australia next month.