London - The British government is under pressure to allow MPs to disclose sensitive information on one of the most secretive trade deals ever negotiated.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed US-EU trade deal for which negotiations have largely taken place behind closed doors.
The Centre for Economic Policy Research estimated annual trade gains of up to €119bn (£92.8bn) for the EU and €95bn (£74.1bn) for the US. But critics believe TTIP would see US companies winning swathes of health contracts - in effect, privatising the NHS, which ministers deny.
The government is about to set up a “reading room”, containing classified TTIP documents. This apes an idea used elsewhere in the EU, but European parliamentarians who have been to their reading rooms have complained that they are bound by confidentiality agreements.
Katja Kipping, a German MP, said she was given only two hours to read 300 pages and was handed a rulebook stating that she was being granted “an exceptional degree of trust”.
British MPs believe they should not be so restricted. The Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “A cloak of secrecy still surrounds TTIP. If the same rules apply here in the UK as they do in Brussels - which is what ministers are implying - then MPs will be bound by a confidentiality agreement if they want to see the text. This opaque process - which shuts citizens out of this crucial debate - is profoundly undemocratic.”
A shadow Cabinet Office spokeswoman, Louise Haigh, said: “We're not even sure if we can take a pencil and paper in with us, which makes a mockery of their claim to transparency. If we can't actually use any of the information in the documents to inform us when we're speaking in the House then what's the point of allowing access in the first place? And if we can speak freely in Parliament, then it's an established principle of parliamentary privilege that others can freely report what we say.”
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokeswoman said: “Due to the sensitive nature of these classified documents, all those who are granted access to them are expected to handle and protect them appropriately. Similar restrictions will apply to those accessing the room as apply to both MEPs and UK officials... in Brussels.”
What is TTIP? What's the background?
The US and EU decided in 2013 to kick-start their sluggish economies by overhauling trade tariffs. Negotiations are due to complete this year.
What will it do?
There are already few US-EU trade barriers but the deal will effectively eliminate nearly all tariffs.
Why is it controversial?
Opposition groups say the deal will undermine democracy as they claim it puts the interests of business ahead of people and the environment due a loosening of regulation.