Meet The Anti-Regulation Groups Influencing Post-Brexit Trade Policy

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Brexit trade

A handful of prominent individuals from anti-regulation thinktanks with close ties to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss have been appointed to top government advisory boards guiding the future of UK post-Brexit trade policy.

Individuals from four groups associated with the 55 Tufton Street network of free-market, pro-Brexit groups have been named as advisors since April 2019, DeSmog has found.

Many have a history of rejecting mainstream climate science and have worked with US-based libertarian groups to push for the removal of food safety, farming and animal welfare standards as the UK negotiates new post-Brexit trade deals.

The groups will be vying for influence on the trade bodies with organisations lobbying for standards to be maintained, such as the National Farmers Union and the coalition of major environmental groups, Greener UK.

The inclusion of the opaquely-funded groups will add to fears that the government is willing to negotiate deals that would roll back standards, in a move that campaigners have said could “decimate” UK farming and lead to an influx of cheaper and potentially hazardous foods on supermarket shelves.

Responding to DeSmog’s findings, Transparency International, the UK’s leading independent anti-corruption organisation, said: “When it comes to environmental and climate issues, there cannot be any secrecy. Rolling back environmental regulations is not reflecting the views of the majority but a sign of the undue influence of a few.”

Initiative for Free Trade

The appointment of Tony Abbott to the government’s newly re-formed Board of Trade in September 2020 caused media and political outcry due to the former Australian Prime Minister’s record of climate science denial.

Less remarked upon was Abbott’s affiliation with the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), a Eurosceptic thinktank previously based at 57 Tufton Street, next door to the UK’s principal climate science denial group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to which Abbott gave a lecture in 2017 entitled “Daring to Doubt”.

The IFT, which Abbott advises, has worked with major US libertarian groups to push for deregulation in a US-UK trade deal, and is affiliated with a number of individuals and groups who have dismissed and downplayed the science of human-caused global warming.

Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, warned that the appointment of advisors such as Abbott risked endangering the UK’s reputation at home and abroad.

“When the Department of Trade appoints Tony Abbott, who believes climate change is a good thing, as a trade adviser, and then invites think tanks which lobby against environmental regulation to sit on its advisory board, it sends a very clear message about its intentions,” Lucas told DeSmog. “The Trade Secretary insists the Government will stick by its manifesto promise not to compromise on environmental standards in trade deals.”

Lucas also criticised the recent cut in foreign aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GDP, announced in this week’s spending review.

“We have seen one manifesto pledge dumped with the cut in overseas aid,” she said. “The Government's line-up of trade advisers suggests another one is being quietly abandoned too. This Government is rapidly getting a reputation for breaking its word, to other countries and its own citizens.”

In 2018, the IFT published a paper with the US libertarian thinktank, the Cato Institute, setting out a vision for an “ideal US-UK trade deal.”

The blueprint, described by The Guardian as advocating a “bonfire” of regulations, called for the removal of environmental, food safety, and farming standards through the elimination of the “precautionary principle” used to restrict products that are potentially hazardous to health and the environment including neonicotinoid pesticides and hormone-treated meat.

The Cato Institute, which was co-founded by oil tycoon Charles Koch, has released numerous publications rejecting mainstream climate science, principally through its “Center for the Study of Science,” led by prominent climate science denier, Patrick Michaels, until its closure in 2019.

Other Koch-funded US libertarian groups with a history of climate science denial also contributed to the report, including the American Enterprise Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, Mercatus Center, and Heritage Foundation.

IFT President, Daniel Hannan, a former Conservative MEP who has frequently dismissed concerns about climate change, has also been appointed to the Board of Trade.

As well as being one of the lead authors on the IFT-Cato Institute report, Hannan recently attended an event held by the Heritage Foundation on “UK Free Trade After Brexit”, where he called fears about the weakening of the UK’s food safety standards “bogus” and “unscientific”.

The Heritage Foundation is a powerful US conservative organisation which claimed it was behind many of the policies adopted by President Donald Trump. Recommendations included withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change, which president-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reverse. Senior representatives of the group have said climate change is an “unproven scientific theory” and “clearly not a crisis.”

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss also attended the Heritage Foundation event alongside leading Brexiteer trade advisor Shanker Singham. She previously met with the group, as well as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council, during a taxpayer funded trip to Washington D.C. in 2018.

In addition to its presence on the Board of Trade through Abbott and Hannan, the IFT was one of six groups invited to the launch of the Trade and Agriculture Commission which is tasked with ensuring the UK maintains high environmental standards but which has been criticised by its own members for inadequate representation of environmental and consumer groups.

An IFT spokesperson said its mission was to make “the moral and intellectual case for removing protectionist barriers to trade”. 

In a statement, they told DeSmog: “We respectfully disagree with those who reject climate science. We believe strongly in tackling climate-change and take a special interest in how market forces can be involved in finding solutions.”

They added that, while they considered environmental and consumer safety regulations “extremely important and most often legitimate barriers to trade,” they were keen to protect customers from “mercantilist abuses of regulation”.

Institute of Economic Affairs

Another group with a notable presence on the Department for International Trade’s (DIT) advisory bodies is the London-based free-market thinktank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

In July 2020, the DIT appointed Singham, an IEA Trade Fellow, and Sir Lockwood Smith, an IEA advisor, to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Three months later, the DIT appointed the thinktank’s Director-General, Mark Littlewood, as an expert to its Strategic Trade Advisory Group alongside two other representatives of groups in the 55 Tufton Street network.

The IEA is one of the UK’s most influential pro-deregulation thinktanks and was accused by whistleblower Shahmir Sanni of being part of a coordinated campaign for a “hard” exit from the EU, along with eight other organisations based in and around Westminster’s 55 Tufton Street.

Singham was the lead author on an IEA report, published in September 2018, which called on the UK to drop “restrictive” regulations including environmental protections. The IEA was forced to withdraw the “Plan A+” report for breaching Charity Commission guidelines and reissued a revised version the following year. In the intervening period, the Charity Commission withdrew its warning and closed the compliance case, saying the charity had taken remedial action and the commission’s handling of the case was “not as good as it should have been”. A spokesperson maintained, however, that the IEA’s report “crossed the line and represented a breach of charity law.”

In a comment provided to DeSmog after publication of this story, the IEA said it considered the commission’s temporary prohibition of the report a “breach of the Regulator’s Code and misapplication of charity law”. It also emphasised it was an educational charity and dismissed claims it campaigned with other organisations for a “hard” Brexit as a “bizarre conspiracy theory”. It previously told the BBC that meetings that took place between the groups ahead of the referendum had not been used as a forum for political campaigning and had been misrepresented.

Singham was previously listed as an expert on a now-deleted webpage of the US-based free-market thinktank, the Heartland Institute, which has been at the forefront of denying mainstream climate science in the US for decades.

Singham told DeSmog his report “does not urge the UK to drop regulations,” but instead seeks “good regulation” in line with World Trade Organisation rules. He said he had had no association with the Heartland Institute and “severed the very minor interaction” he’d had with them after learning he’d been listed on the group’s website.

Singham’s affiliation with the IEA was initially included but quickly deleted from the government’s press release announcing the Trade and Agriculture Commission, while Sir Lockwood Smith’s affiliation was not disclosed.

Smith, a former New Zealand Minister of Agriculture and International Trade, has downplayed public concerns about the rolling back of food safety and environmental standards in trade deals, saying public concerns over the import of products such as hormone-treated beef are not grounded in fact.

Littlewood, the IEA Director-General, who was quietly appointed to the Strategic Trade Advisory Group in October, said he hoped to bring some “sound free-market thinking to the government’s approach” on trade.

The IEA’s funding sources are opaque, with campaigners arguing a lack of transparency means the public does not know whose interests the organisation represents.

The IEA discloses some, but not all, of its donors on its website, arguing that some donors wish to remain private. In 2018, an undercover investigation by Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed revealed that it had received donations from British oil company BP every year since 1967.

The IEA Director-General became embroiled in a “cash-for-access” scandal as a result of the same investigation, where a reporter posing as a US agribusiness lobbyist was offered “intimate” access to UK ministers in return for funding an IEA report.

In an undercover recording taken by Greenpeace Unearthed, Littlewood said donors could influence the “salience” of IEA reports and the thinktank could ensure there was “substantial content” covering their area of interest. The IEA told DeSmog in a comment provided after publication of this story: “Yes, anyone can suggest topics for us to research. But funders are not permitted to influence the conclusions of our analysis. We have strict rules to protect our independence, including clear guidance to potential donors and a system of peer review. The interests Mr Littlewood represents are, therefore, the interests of the IEA, which seeks to put forward free market ideas.”

Following the Greenpeace story, the IEA faced investigations from the UK’s lobbying registrar and the Charity Commission, with registrar Alison White finding the group did not meet the statutory definition for “lobbyists” and the Charity Commission closing the case without taking action. The IEA denies any wrongdoing.

The lobbying register, which is overseen by the registrar, has been criticised by MPs and campaigners such as Transparency International UK for not being comprehensive enough to regulate all forms of lobbying. In 2015, the group estimated that the register covered just 4 percent of lobbyists operating in the UK.

A statement on the IEA’s website responding to claims that it has promoted climate science denial says that it does not dispute the greenhouse effect, but that “to frame the debate as ‘settled’ and the certain outcome as a ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency’ is a political view, not science.”

Dr Alex Lockwood, an academic researching the links between climate change and food who is also a member of Writers Rebel, an Extinction Rebellion offshoot that recently organised a protest outside 55 Tufton Street, said: “It is totally unacceptable that bodies who do not disclose their funding sources—who pay their cosy salaries—get to advise government. How could the public know what interests are being championed at the heart of decision-making otherwise?”

The Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies

Joining Mark Littlewood on the Strategic Trade Advisory Group in two other appointments in October 2020 are the Adam Smith Institute’s Deputy Director, Matthew Kilcoyne, and the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Robert Colvile.

The Adam Smith Institute (ASI) was named alongside the IEA, Centre for Policy Studies and other Tufton Street network groups as having coordinated strategies and media talking points to advocate a “hard” exit from the EU. It is based just around the corner from Tufton Street, on Westminster’s Great Smith Street.

While the thinktank does not disclose its funding sources, a 2013 investigation by The Observer found that the ASI had, along with the IEA, received tens of thousands of pounds worth of donations from tobacco companies.

It has published numerous articles casting doubt on climate science, including from its Senior Fellow, Tim Worstall, as well as on alternatives to fossil fuels, describing solar power in Britain as an “impossible dream.”

Kilcoyne, who was appointed to the Strategic Trade Advisory Group in October, has said he questions the “scientific basis” of global warming and called on the government to remove barriers to freer trade “with or without deals.”

Director Eamonn Butler, who was appointed to the DIT’s Free Ports Advisory Group in August 2019 has complained about “global warmists” and said that growing the economy is preferable to investing in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change now.

In a statement, the ASI said its record on climate change was “well established and clear”.

A spokesperson told DeSmog: “Climate change is happening, it is indeed something we must do about [sic] and further, it is humans causing the problem, and the answer is a carbon tax will target the social cost of carbon emissions.”

They added that the institute did not have a position on Brexit, but “allowed staff to take opposing positions and held events and produced papers examining both sides of the debate.”

Joining Butler on the Advisory Group is the Centre for Policy Studies’ Head of Tax, Tom Clougherty.

Clougherty, a former Executive Director of the ASI, previously held roles at the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, a libertarian organisation which has received over $2 million from Koch-related foundations since 1997, and which has put its name to claims that global warming could be of “net benefit” to humanity.

The Centre for Policy Studies, co-founded by former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has regularly published work by climate science denier and anti-renewables advocate Rupert Darwall, and, ahead of the UK's adoption of the Climate Change Act in 2008, published a report casting doubt on climate science.

In recent years, however, it has taken a more supportive stance towards climate and environmental action, publishing essays calling on Conservatives to show leadership on climate change and arguing in favour of a carbon border tax.

A CPS spokesperson told DeSmog the group “is intent on developing policies which help Britain to meet its legal commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and has published multiple reports addressing these issues in recent years.”

They added that allegations the CPS had worked with other groups to campaign for a hard-Brexit were “ludicrous, completely false and unfounded,” adding that the CPS “did not take a position on Brexit, and did not campaign either for or against.”

JCB

Among the business groups represented on DIT trade bodies is construction firm JCB, which has backed a number of groups based in and around 55 Tufton Street.

JCB Director Philip Bouverat is a member of the Strategic Trade Advisory Group as well as the government’s dedicated sector-specific trade group for the automotive, aerospace and marine sectors.

Owned by billionaire Lord Anthony Bamford, JCB and the Bamford family have donated almost £10 million to pro-Brexit and Conservative political causes since 2001.

This includes donations worth £1.2 million to the official Vote Leave campaign, led by founder and former CEO of the TaxPayers’ Alliance pressure group, Matthew Elliott.

Vote Leave was originally a resident of 55 Tufton Street alongside the Global Warming Policy Foundation and its members included several prominent figures associated with the group, including its founder, Lord Lawson, Trustee Graham Stringer and Adviser Matt Ridley.

JCB donated £63,000 to Grassroots Out, backed by Brexit Party and former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and co-founded by former Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson, both of whom have dismissed mainstream climate science.

Further JCB funding was sent to the Bruges Group, a group of Eurosceptic MPs which has hosted speakers including Shanker Singham and Dr John Hulsman, a former Senior Research Fellow from the Heritage Foundation.

Bamford is Director and Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies and a member of the Midlands Industrial Council, a secretive group of Brexit-backing Tory party donors which targeted almost £230,000 to Tory candidates in mostly “red wall” seats during the 2019 election.

The JCB Chair has previously donated to the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), a pressure group which, like many of the other groups in the Tufton Street network, does not disclose its funders and which has opposed government measures to combat climate change, including supporting the abolition of the Climate Change Levy, which incentivises businesses to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Last year, JCB hired former Brexit secretary David Davis as an “external adviser,” paying the former Brexit Minister £60,000 for 20 hours of work. The same month, JCB paid then backbench MP Boris Johnson £10,000 three days before he gave a speech at its headquarters praising its business acumen.

A JCB spokesperson told DeSmog the company believes British businesses are up to the task of making Britain “a global leader in free trade in the years ahead”, and that it had responded “quickly” to the environmental challenges posed by climate change.

DeSmog was unable to reach Tony Abbot and Sir Lockwood for comment in time for publication.

This article was updated on 23/12/2020 to include comments provided to DeSmog by the Institute of Economic Affairs after publication. The article has also been updated to clarify that the IEA does disclose some of its funders on its website; that official complaints following Greenpeace’s 2018 investigation were not upheld; that the Charity Commission later withdrew its warning to the IEA over its Plan A+ report, while maintaining that the IEA had breached charity law; and that the IEA accepts the science behind the greenhouse effect.

Photo credit: Garry Knight/Flickr/Public Domain.

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