UK negotiators have held trade talks with at least one unknown country in total secrecy, it has been claimed.
The news emerged during a tribunal in central London, where campaign group Global Justice Now is challenging the information watchdog to order ministers to publish data about government trade operations.
During the hearing, government lawyers disclosed that some preliminary trade talks have not been made public as they were deemed too sensitive for public consumption, director Nick Dearden and Global Justice Now’s legal team have said.
It comes amid widespread concern that public services, such as the NHS and the BBC, and consumer standards could be on the table.
Dearden told HuffPost UK: “The reason transparency is important is that trade deals today go much broader than tariffs.
“They can affect a government’s ability to maintain food standards, hence the concern about chlorine chicken. They can damage a government’s ability to protect public services, to fight climate change to regulate and tax big tech companies like Amazon and Google.
“Trade deals today create public policy. They change the lives of each and every one of us. And therefore it’s totally wrong that these things are negotiated in total secrecy, without any legitimate accountability to parliament.”
He added: “The government’s barrister admitted to 18 sets of trade talks that we knew had been happening, but also that there have been additional trade talks whose existence remains confidential.
“This evidence was heard in closed session. It suggests that the government has held trade talks whose very existence is not allowed to be disclosed to the public. How on earth can we have transparency in trade talks when we can’t even know who the government is talking to?”
HuffPost UK contacted the Department for International Trade about the claim and was referred to a written statement by trade secretary Liz Truss, which says the UK “must be ready to capitalise” on new trade opportunities.
Global Justice Now is asking the Information Commissioner’s Office to use its power to force Truss’s department to release more details about what negotiators are doing.
It comes after a freedom of information request by Dearden asking about the government’s trade working groups with other countries such as the US and Gulf states – including minutes, participants, agendas and meetings – was refused.
Ministers are known to be seeking trade deals with the USA, 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.
David Henig, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, is a former civil servant who helped to establish the Department for Trade in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
He told the tribunal the government has adopted a “closed approach” to trade policy and said the department was “at the far end of the secrecy” in terms of what it told the public.
“There have been few documents published, whether about ongoing negotiations, future policy positions, or even who in the department is leading on which countries, which was given to stakeholders before 2016,” he said.
“Answers to parliamentary questions have been vague. There has been no formal document outlining trade strategy or how DIT intends to consult on future trade agreements.”
He said the documents published so far were “inadequate for effective public scrutiny”.
He said: “The impression of business and NGO stakeholders is that the secrecy of DIT is excessive and counter-productive. Many are afraid they will not be allowed to attend even private meetings if they raise the issue.”