The UK’s first post-Brexit free trade agreement with Australia from scratch was rushed and inadequate, reports David Hencke

The UK’s first free trade agreement negotiated from scratch with Australia was so rushed that environmental issues and protection for niche British products were overlooked, a report by peers says today.

The House of Lords International Agreements Committee says the agreement is important as it both paves the way for other agreements in future and for our entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a major Government objective. The deal is estimated to add only a 0.08% increase in GDP by 2035 and rising quotas will phase in tariff-free imports.

The deal will also mean Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, will have to liberalise immigration rules for Australians to come to the UK as part of a mutual arrangement which will allow British people and their families to work in Australia and allow young people up to the age of 35 to go there for three years. The former will be particularly beneficial for lawyers, who will be able to practice law in the UK and Australia, as their professional qualifications will be mutually recognised.

Other beneficiaries will be financial and digital services, architects and car exporters.

The report is highly critical of the speed of the negotiations which led to environmental issues like climate change being ignored. It will allow the import of Australian beef from deforested land, has no section on Australia reducing dependence on coal, and allow the import of crops where pesticides which are banned in the EU and UK have been used. 

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The deal is also bad news for products like Cornish pasties, Cornish clotted cream and Scotch whisky as there is no protection in Australian law, unlike when the UK was a member of the EU,  against rival products using their names.

The report says there are “some instances where differences in production and animal welfare standards could lead to UK farmers competing on an unlevel playing field, particularly for Australian agri-food products grown using pesticides not permitted in the UK. “

On pesticides and fungicides, the report points out that “Australian canola oil and chickpeas are produced using insecticides or fungicides banned in the UK” and “are likely to be imported in larger volumes due to tariff reductions.”

The UK’s right to regulate could also be constrained through decisions taken by the Joint Committee between the UK and Australia set up under the agreement.

The report is most critical of the failure to tie the agreement to the UK’s goals for climate change. The peers say: “it could have pressed for more ambitious commitments on climate change, stronger enforcement provisions, and for an explicit reference to the Paris temperature goals. A lack of tie-up of trade policy with the UK’s climate objectives is apparent. The recent change in government in Australia presents an opportunity to improve the environmental and climate change provisions in the agreement, and we urge the Government to do so through the Joint Committee.”

The report says: “There is a risk that this agreement could set a precedent for the negotiations with countries closer to the UK market, particularly with other large agricultural producers, such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The impacts of the UK-Australia agreement may therefore go well beyond this particular FTA.”

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They are also critical that the government did not consult the devolved governments over the deal. “Given the importance of agriculture to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, it is essential they are consulted from the outset and throughout the negotiations, and Parliament should be made aware of their views,” it says.

In Northern Ireland which is part of the UK and the EU single market, the report says it is not clear whether Australian tariff-free goods will be able to enter Northern Ireland under the protocol.

The report continues: “The Government has yet to articulate how the goods provisions in the Australia agreement will interact with the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. In response to the Introductory report by the Lords’ Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee, the Government acknowledged that “there are elements of the Protocol that are not benefiting Northern Ireland importers and consumers, particularly around the way in which the application of EU tariffs on goods ‘at risk’ of entering the EU is determined.”

Peers recommend the report be debated in the Lords.

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