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Commonwealth Countries

Volume 626: debated on Thursday 6 July 2017

1. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other Commonwealth countries on the future of trade and investment between the UK and those countries. (900255)

7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other Commonwealth countries on the future of trade and investment between the UK and those countries. (900262)

Ministerial colleagues and I regularly engage with business stakeholders and policy makers in Commonwealth partner countries. In March, my noble Friend Lord Price and I met over 20 visiting Trade Ministers at the inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting in London, and we discussed strengthening collaboration and deepening intra-Commonwealth trade and investment. We are now preparing for the Commonwealth summit in 2018.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Commonwealth is particularly up for doing trade with the UK, especially in Africa. The Secretary of State referred to intra-Africa trade. Can we be even bolder and encourage a continental—intra-Africa—free trade deal not only with our Commonwealth friends but going beyond our Commonwealth friends?

We are sympathetic to the concept of an African continental free trade area, and we are in favour of a range of initiatives to help foster wider and greater intra-Commonwealth trade. There is a great deal to be gained for all Commonwealth partners from closer co-operation. The Government’s aim—including through the development agenda championed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—is to create sustainable prosperity, and helping developing countries to enable them to trade their way out of poverty is an essential and key element of that strategy.

Britain and the Commonwealth nations share a great history, and over the years have formed many great links across academia, sport, culture and numerous other areas. What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to expand this co-operation with Commonwealth countries to include a free trade agreement, so that we can add business and commerce to the long list of Commonwealth co-operative endeavours?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, and it actually contains a number of very disparate economies. We are liaising with several Commonwealth partners about bilateral agreements in the future, and my Department is working with stakeholders to develop initiatives that will stimulate UK and intra-Commonwealth trade and investment in the lead up to and beyond that vital Commonwealth summit next year.

Members on the Conservative Back Benches are desperate for the Secretary of State to give us more confidence that we will massively increase trade with the Commonwealth, but I think he is wise not to do so. India, Australia and Canada collectively account for less than 5% of our exports, and research shows that the most enduring statistic is that trade halves whenever the distance between nations doubles. Is it not foolhardy for us to be turning away from our closest trading partners and relying on increasing trade with countries so very far away?

I am sorry to hear such a lack of understanding of how the modern economy works. Particularly for countries that have a large proportion of their trade in services, services trade does not depend on distance. In fact, what we need is increasingly close co-operation with countries that are similar to us in their economic status, not necessarily geographically proximate, although I entirely understand that for goods the geographical distance does have a greater bearing.

One country with which negotiations on trade have been very advanced is Canada, with the EU discussions on the Canadian trade deal. Obviously, the Secretary of State will want to seek to replicate that fairly quickly after our exit from the EU, but that has been subject to a huge amount of disinformation regarding the costs and benefits of the deal. When are the Government actually going to take on this issue and set the record straight?

What we do not know at present is what the state of the EU-Canada agreement will be at the point at which we exit the European Union. It may well be that all countries have ratified it, but as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, as a result of the Singapore judgment every single Parliament and some regional parliaments will have to ratify the deal. If the deal is not ratified at the point at which we leave the European Union and has only provisional application, it will have no basis in UK law, in which case we will have to have the fall-back position of using that as the basis for a future UK-Canada agreement.

I think that the potential for trade with Commonwealth countries is very exciting—they are growing and strong economies—but every time I open a newspaper or listen to the radio or TV, the story is presented very negatively, as though it will be almost impossible for us to do these trade deals. Does the Secretary of State feel that that is wrong, and that it undermines the work he is doing?

It does appear that some elements of our media would rather see Britain fail than see Brexit succeed. I cannot recall a single time recently when I have seen good economic news that the BBC has not described as being “despite Brexit”.

Our agri-food producers see the Commonwealth as an exciting, wonderful and expansive new market for their powdered milk products, red meats, pig and poultry. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he is in discussions with the Commonwealth countries about increasing the opportunities for trade in our agri-food products to give encouragement to our producers at home?

I entirely agree. To underpin the confidence in the agricultural sector, it needs to know that there are increasing markets out there. One of the key roles of the Government is to help our agricultural sector to have the confidence that it requires for investment by showing that we can help it into markets. It is worth pointing out that according to the European Commission’s own website, 90% of global growth in the next 10 years will be outside the European Union. Those are the markets we have to help British business get into.