Hiding away in the Commons business papers is confirmation of last week’s rumours that the government wants to abolish the Commons International Trade Committee (ITC). This is a retrograde step for the Commons’ fledgling treaty scrutiny and for giving a voice to people whose rights are affected by trade treaties. Abolishing the ITC could hollow out the few existing government commitments on treaty scrutiny, cancel the committee’s existing inquiries into important trade treaties, and mean that vital experience and expertise is lost. This matters because of how much trade treaties now penetrate into daily life and domestic law and policy, determining matters from data flows to healthcare to environmental protection, and setting up powerful new bodies. Good scrutiny can help the government to build trust, consensus and better treaties. What is happening? Under the Government’s plans, the ITC would be abolished and trade scrutiny would move to a Business and Trade (BAT) committee. But instead of being a new committee, with new members and election for a new chair, the BAT committee would simply be a rebadging of the existing Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee with its existing members and chair staying in place. Although there is no date yet for this change, and it is formally a decision for the House of Commons, it is almost certain to go through given the Government majority – whatever the views of existing committee members. The way the Government has chosen to reflect these changes is by no means the only or even the best possible one The committee change follows recent changes to Government Departments, which Commons Departmental Select Committees usually – but not always – shadow. The Department for International Trade has been merged with parts of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to form a new Department for Business and Trade. But the way the Government has chosen to reflect these changes is by no means the only or even the best possible one – David Natzler, formerly Clerk of the House of Commons, recently suggested that the “least troublesome” move would be to transform the ITC into a BAT committee. What will change? The Government could use the committee change as an excuse to renege on its commitments to increased scrutiny of free trade agreements in the Commons, as many of those commitments refer specifically to the ITC. All the ITC’s current work is likely to be dropped. This includes inquiries on new trade treaties with India and the Gulf Cooperation Council that will have important rights implications, as well as on the UK-EU trading relationship and other UK trade negotiations. The UK’s imminent accession to Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would have been next on the ITC’s agenda: this will be a complex and politically contentious ratification process, and the Committee has been building expertise and taking evidence on CPTPP for almost eighteen months so that it could be properly equipped to scrutinise the accession process. Treaty scrutiny is likely to be squeezed into an even smaller space or de-prioritised altogether The Chair and members of the BAT committee are likely to start from scratch to understand treaties, why they matter, how and when to scrutinise them, and what scrutiny the government has previously committed to. Institutional memory of Commons treaty scrutiny and connections with Lords counterparts would vanish (unless specialist ITC staff are moved over to the BAT committee). The BAT committee would have a much larger remit than the ITC, so treaty scrutiny is likely to be squeezed into an even smaller space or de-prioritised altogether. As it was, the ITC often felt it did not have enough capacity to scrutinise treaties properly. The ITC was not perfect, but it did recognise the importance of treaty scrutiny and consistently push for meaningful information, enough time, and debates on treaties at a point where they could make a difference. For example, it played a crucial role in challenging the inadequacy of the treaty scrutiny process for the UK’s first from-scratch, post-Brexit free trade agreement, and obtained new commitments from the government on ensuring enough time for scrutiny. It also called out the government for pretending that a debate on implementing legislation was a substitute for debating a whole treaty. Why does this matter? Treaties now penetrate deep into many areas of daily life. Trade treaties are no longer limited to removing border taxes, but now aim at aligning domestic regulation in matters such as employment rights, data flows, environmental protection and healthcare. Many treaties also establish new bodies that can amend the treaty, and/or binding mechanisms for resolving disputes. Good treaty scrutiny could help build trust and a broader consensus around the UK’s post-Brexit priorities and place in the world. This expansion of the scope and effects of treaties has been intensified by the UK regaining responsibility for trade from the EU. Without a corresponding growth in scrutiny and accountability, this amounts to a shift in power to the executive. Good treaty scrutiny could help build trust and a broader consensus around the UK’s post-Brexit priorities and place in the world. Expert input, for example from committee witnesses, can help produce better treaties. Treaties outlive governments – sometimes even in their negotiations – and are often hard to amend or renounce, so they should not be narrowly party political. And even unincorporated treaties may be taken into account by courts in the UK and so should have at least some parliamentary imprimatur. What next? At a minimum, the new BAT committee should have fresh members elected by their parties, and its chair elected by the House of Commons as a whole. This could be done by MPs objecting to or seeking to amend the Government’s motion. As David Natzler said, if the Government’s proposition is not acceptable, “it is incumbent on parliamentarians to put it right, even if that delays the establishment of new committees”. Ultimately, for more parliamentarians to really see the value of treaty scrutiny, the system needs to change But more fundamentally, the change shows how fragile and contingent the current mechanisms for treaty scrutiny in the Commons are. To embed and develop this increasingly important work, the Commons needs to change. For example, all Commons committees should include treaty scrutiny in their core tasks. And like the Lords, the Commons should have a dedicated treaty scrutiny committee that can build up expertise on why treaties and other international arrangements matter, what Parliament’s constitutional role on treaties is, how treaty scrutiny work can be developed and joined up across the Commons and with the Lords and devolved legislatures, and what improvements are needed. Further, a Government-Parliament concordat on treaty scrutiny, setting out respective roles and responsibilities, should replace the existing exchange of letters with individual committees. Ultimately, for more parliamentarians to really see the value of treaty scrutiny, the system needs to change so that Commons consent is required for the most important treaties. This would give greater focus and power to committees’ treaty scrutiny, and mean that whatever the structure they could give a stronger voice to everyone affected by treaties and meaningfully hold the government to account.