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The department, heading up by Cabinet minister Liz Truss, has secured a series of “continuity agreements” to ensure Britain can continue trading with countries outside of the European Union on similar terms. But with the Brexit transition period agreed with the EU expiring on December 31, time is fast running out. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (Crag) states international treaties have to be laid before parliament for 21 sitting days before they can be ratified.
However, with parliament due to break for Christmas on December 17, from Thursday, there are just the remaining 21 days scheduled before the end of this year.
The DIT has made some progress this week after publishing parliamentary reports with the Ukraine and Ivory Coast on Monday, while details of the agreement struck with Japan last month have already been published for MPs to scrutinise.
But huge fears are growing elsewhere, with trade talks not yet complete with 15 countries, including Canada, Turkey and Singapore.
Now Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry has piled the pressure on Ms Truss, writing to her to ask for an explanation on this delay and demanding she update parliament on the process.
In the letter, the Labour MP has made clear that during last year, there was “clear momentum behind this process”, with 20 continuity agreements made but warned that in 2020, this “momentum appeared to die out”.
Ms Thornberry said: “However, as your department’s focus switched in 2020 to the talks on potential new free trade agreements with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the (comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership) CPTPP, as well as an enhanced continuity agreement with Japan, last year’s momentum appeared to die out,” Thornberry said.
“Not a single additional continuity agreement was secured in the first eight months of 2020, and in their correspondence with the shadow international trade team, representatives of countries ranging from Cameroon to Montenegro have reported that no formal talks were even conducted in that period.”
The Shadow Trade Secretary added in her letter that while Ms Truss had promised agreements would be shared confidentially with the House of Commons International Trade Committee, this has failed to materialise for concluded deals with the likes of the Ukraine, Ivory Coast and Kenya.
The letter continued: “What makes this abysmal and shambolic state of affairs all the worse is that when we look at the length of time your department has had to get these agreements in place, ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny, and protect our continued free trade, it has been so totally avoidable,” the letter said.
“In many cases, your department has had more than four years since the Brexit referendum to secure the 15 outstanding continuity agreements.”
Ms Thornberry said the Government could use an “exceptional cases” provision under the Crag law to escape the 21-day rule or allow existing deals to continue pending the implementation of a replacement.
But the Shadow Trade Secretary warned it would be “very regrettable” to use either of these options.
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She added: “Those provisions exist to cater for unusual circumstances, not to cover for entirely avoidable incompetence.”
The Government and Ms Truss in particular will be coming under increasing pressure because without a continuity agreement in place, the UK’s trade arrangements with countries would revert back to World Trade Organisation terms, which could trigger huge tariffs on a number of goods.
On Sunday, Boris Johnson said Ms Truss and her department have made a “huge amount of progress” with the US on a post-Brexit trade deal.
The Prime Minister said there is a “good chance” of the UK securing an agreement with the US following Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump in the US presidential elections.
He told the AP news agency: “On the trade deal with the US, I’m a keen student of the United States’ trade policy and they’re tough negotiators.
“And I’ve never believed that this was going to be something that was going to be a complete pushover under any US administration.
“I think there’s a good chance we’ll do something.
“International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and her team have made a huge amount of progress and we’ll get on.”
But the UK has quickly been dealt a significant blow, with Democrat senator Chris Coons warning talks with Britain will not be an immediate priority for new President Mr Biden.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’re going to have our hands full working through the pandemic now that it is surging again in both of our nations, restring the vibrancy of our economy.”
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