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Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Thursday 3 November 2016

The Department for International Trade has three tasks: promoting UK exports to support a growing economy that serves the whole country; maximising opportunities for wealth creation, including through overseas direct investment to support the current account; and negotiating the best international trading framework for the UK outside the EU. Like the UK, my Department is open for business. Following my statement at our previous session of departmental questions, we received 111 applicants, in an international competition, for the post of permanent secretary, and we will shortly announce the successful candidate.

As a country, we need to export more. There are a lot of barriers to overcome to get businesses to start exporting or even to consider exporting, but we have a real opportunity to get existing exporters to export to more markets. Will my right hon. Friend outline the measures that the Government are taking to encourage and support small and medium-sized businesses to expand the number of markets to which they export?

Order. We must not expand the length of questions, I am afraid. I am sure it is a very important point, but let us have the answer.

I apologise for taking longer than usual to get to the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker—the last time I take my own advice about going to the gym to get fit. It is important to get more small and medium-sized enterprises exporting. If we look at the UK’s performance we see that only 27% of our GDP is accounted for by exports, whereas for Germany it is 48%. A lot of that difference is accounted for by a lack of SME exports. We will be announcing a range of measures soon, and there will be a pack setting out those measures available for all Members of Parliament so that we can all help the SMEs in our own constituencies.

The Government Front-Bench team has tried to suggest that the High Court decision that Parliament should have a vote before triggering article 50 is in some way antidemocratic or thwarts the referendum result. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the vast majority of Members in this House are now committed to honouring the decision to leave the EU, but that democracy demands that the terms of our leaving must be subject to the proper advance scrutiny and consent of this democratically elected House, and not negotiated in secret and smuggled through without the support of this sovereign Parliament?

There will be numerous opportunities for the House to examine and discuss what the Government are negotiating. When we are clear about the position we will adopt, article 50 will be triggered, but given the nature of the judgment this morning we will now have to await the Government’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

T3. Will the Secretary of State let us know whether, in his discussions with countries that have trade agreements with the EU, those countries have indicated their interest in continuing such arrangements with the UK when we leave? (907027)

As I said earlier, the EU has some 36 free trade agreements, which cover more than 50 countries. A very large number of those have already made representations to the United Kingdom to say that they would like those agreements to continue. We will explore and discuss that, because, as I have said, our aim is to have no break in access to markets and to achieve the transition as smoothly as possible, with minimal disruption to the international trading environment.

T2. The EU trade deal with South Korea has reduced the tariff on scotch whisky to zero, while whisky imported to Korea from elsewhere faces a tariff of 20%. Does the Minister agree with the Foreign Secretary’s new adviser, David Frost—a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association—who has said that we are much more likely to get such deals“with the weight of the whole of the EU behind us than we are in a negotiation nationally”? (907026)

I take an intense personal interest in this area, from long experience. I am delighted to see David Frost in his new position—he was so pleased with our policy he joined the company. It is very important that we get reductions in tariffs. One issue I will be raising in India next week is the very high level of tariff against scotch whisky there, to see whether we can make major reductions.

T4. Business in my constituency has praised the work of UK Export Finance but expressed some concerns about the bureaucracy and the length of documentation required to seal those deals. Will the Secretary of State please look into that? (907029)

May I first praise the work of UKEF? As a Government export credit agency it is the world leader and its practices are second to none. However, we are always trying to streamline and improve, and in fact have appointed a new chairman for UKEF, who will be announced shortly. When they are in place they will certainly be shaking up the organisation.

Some 80% of the fish caught around our coastline in the south-west goes straight for export to the rest of the European Union, and there is huge concern in the industry about the impact of tariffs if we leave the single market. Given that concern, and the excellent news from the High Court, would it not be wise of the Government not to invoke article 50 as early as March?

Export tariffs on food products, and on animal products in particular, are determined outside the provision of trade agreements. They are determined in terms of licensing based on the quality of the food products, on a separate basis.

T5. Yesterday I welcomed to Parliament a group of business leaders from Mendoza in Argentina. They want to increase our exports exponentially, which currently stand at 0.1%. Will the Minister assure me that everything will be done when we leave the EU to improve our trade relations with Latin America? (907030)

I commend my hon. Friend for his engagement with Argentina under its new Government, which he and I have discussed. As the Prime Minister has said, we will seek to be the global leader in free trade. While we remain a member of the EU, the UK will continue to press for and support an ambitious EU trade agenda, including its negotiations with the Mercosur bloc.

The Minister repeated the mantra that he wants the best possible deal for the life sciences sector, but does he agree with industry leaders that we need to be part of a European-wide regulatory system? A simple yes or no will suffice.

T6. Will the Secretary of State give us a progress report on new arrangements to be put in place with Gibraltar to ensure not only that there is a common market between the UK and Gibraltar post-Brexit, but that it has uninterrupted access to financial services for its financial market? (907032)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that. We have strong economic links with Gibraltar and 20% of the UK car insurance market is underwritten within Gibraltar. I stress that we have an interest not just in Gibraltar but in all the overseas territories. I met many of the leaders yesterday. They will very much be involved in the process of the negotiations of our deal with the EU as we progress through article 50.

Leaving the single market would mean that our agricultural exports would be subject to World Trade Organisation tariffs, which will have a hugely detrimental effect on a vital industry for Scotland. Does the Secretary of State plan to get farmers a special deal to ensure that they are not affected by sudden rises in tariffs to protect that vital industry?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that. It is incredibly important that we secure good tariff deals with other countries, and agricultural products suffer some of the highest tariff levies, but it is a two-way operation. On the one hand, exporters from Scotland to other markets may face big tariffs, but on the other hand, if we end up with a very low tariff barrier, we will have to impose it, which could mean that her farmers in Scotland are flooded by imports. It is a difficult and nuanced area to try to get right.

I refer to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on today’s article 50 ruling, which says that the trigger should be exercised within Parliament. I think my right hon. Friend said that the Government will appeal, but I ask him, on behalf of the Government, please to look at the learned judges’ ruling and understand that it is not about a re-run of the arguments of the EU referendum. It is all about Parliament’s sovereignty. In that event, will the Government look at it carefully to decide whether or not the learned judges are right, and that this place should and indeed will trigger article 50?

Not least we will bear in mind the importance of referring to international trade in responding to the right hon. Lady.

As this is now an ongoing court case, I have nothing further to add to the comments I made earlier.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues—demand invariably outstrips supply—but we will return to these important matters ere long.