The people of Britain voted to leave the European Union and that is what we will do. It is the job of this Department to maximise the UK’s trade opportunities, whatever the relationship with the EU that the Government ultimately adopt. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the UK’s agreement with the EU will get the best deal for Britain at home and abroad.
Via our membership of the customs union the UK has access to more than 50 international trade deals, which according to a parliamentary answer I received accounts for 15% of UK exports. In the event of Brexit outside the customs union, what estimate has the Secretary of State made of the length of time it will require to renegotiate those deals, bearing in mind that he will not be able to begin his negotiations until after exit in March 2019?
There are a number of errors in what the hon. Gentleman has said. The EU currently has 36 free trade agreements covering more than 50 countries. It is entirely possible for us to be able to transition those into UK agreements and we are free to discuss them with countries while we are still a member of the European Union. Our aim will be to have minimum disruption of trade and no gap in market access for British companies.
Although I welcome the Canadian-EU trade agreement, does my right hon. Friend share my concerns at the elements of protectionism that have emerged in this agreement? Do they not indicate that there are advantages to the United Kingdom outside the customs union in negotiating its own deals more rapidly, in defence of free trade?
In recent history, most of the trade deals done in the world have been bilateral, because it is clearly easier to get country-to-country agreement. One of the reasons why the European Union does not have an agreement with the United States, China, Japan, India or the Gulf is that it is rather difficult to negotiate with 28 different partners, especially if they retain a veto.
The creative industries are some of Britain’s most competitive and successful industries, and they depend on worldwide access and negotiation with many multinational organisations. How, post-Brexit, will the UK maintain relationships with multinational organisations such as the EU and worldwide broadcasting organisations?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The creative industries are incredibly important, and one of the jobs of the Department for International Trade is to promote them. When we take trade delegations abroad and when we make representations to other Governments, we will fully take those industries into account. Where we have got areas of excellence in our economy, we need to promote them—sometimes more than we have done in the past.
The Secretary of State knows about the growing opportunities for trade and investment, in both directions, with the countries of south-east Asia. Does he agree that next year’s 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations offers a great chance for the UK to demonstrate what a superb international platform we can be for all those countries’ exports and investment in both directions? Will he commit to DIT offering some finance to help this great session to go well?
I will certainly offer a great deal of help and goodwill. Mindful of the forthcoming autumn statement, I am not going to offer any sort of finance in advance of the Chancellor’s permission being granted.
May I say what a great job my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) does as one of our trade envoys? Our trade envoys have contributed hugely to our recent export gains. He makes the important point that trade has to operate in both directions, both in exports and imports and in outward and inward investment. It is very important that we maintain a balance if we are to have a chance of reducing our current account deficit.