Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
The government has been ordered to release more details about its post-Brexit trade talks, including with the United States, after transparency campaigners challenged its “extreme approach to secrecy”.
The information tribunal ruled that the Department for International Trade (DIT) must provide dates of all meetings of trade working groups set up with other countries to discuss future trade relationships.
It has also been told to reveal the agendas of the meetings as well as information about plans for the establishment of any new trade working groups.
The schedules of forthcoming meetings will also have to be released, the tribunal ruled in July.
The ruling came after the campaign group Global Justice Now challenged the government’s refusal to provide the details via a Freedom of Information request.
In its ruling, the tribunal accused DIT of having shown a “clear inability to provide answers on many points of detail” and of failing to approach some parts of the case in a “detailed and rigorous way”.
There is widespread concern among opposition MPs and campaigners that, despite government denials, public services such as the NHS and consumer standards could be on the table in any trade talks with the Washington.
The latest round of negotiations on a proposed UK-US trade deal kicked off this week.
Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, told HuffPost UK the government’s “hostile approach to Freedom of Information law has been exposed for what it is”.
“We have been vindicated in challenging the government’s extreme approach to secrecy when it comes to trade negotiations,” he said.
“The tribunal agreed with us as to the need for proper and detailed public debate and public information around trade deals — after all these deals will affect all of us, often in profound ways.”
The government successfully defended its decision not to reveal all the information campaign groups had asked for, however.
DIT said exemptions under Freedom of Information rules such as “international relations” allowed it to withhold information where there was a risk it would impact upon the UK’s relations with foreign states.
The tribunal upheld the use of this and other exemptions, finding “the public interest in maintaining the exemptions narrowly outweighed the public interest” in disclosing the information to the public.
Dearden said, despite this, he hoped the government would now recognise the “urgent need to open up its trade policy to public debate”.
As HuffPost UK reported earlier this year, the government is known to be seeking trade deals with the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, India, Japan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It also is known to have had talks with countries, including Norway, Mexico South Korea, Turkey and Israel, among others.
Erin Alcock, of the solicitors Leigh Day, said the ruling was a “positive step towards greater transparency in future trade deals”.
“Where so many fundamental issues such as environmental protections and food standards are at stake in post-Brexit trade deals, it is crucial that the public is kept informed, to the greatest extent possible, about what their government has put on the negotiating table and with whom it is negotiating,” she said.
And Sam Fowles, of Cornerstone Barristers, said the ruling had “relevance well beyond this one case”.
“The constitutional implications of this decision are significant,” he said. “The tribunal found, as a matter of fact, that international trade deals can drive primary legislation.”
A DIT spokesperson said: “Overall the tribunal found in favour of the Department for International Trade, with the exception of a few minor points such as plans for the establishment of working groups. The appeal was otherwise dismissed. We will comply with the tribunal.”