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International Trade

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 23 November 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: New Trade Agreements

1. What assessment he has made of his Department’s capacity to negotiate new trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU. (902501)

2. What assessment he has made of his Department’s capacity to negotiate new trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU. (902502)

Before I begin, I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Simon Speirs, who tragically lost his life while on board the Great Britain yacht during the Clipper round the world race last weekend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very sad time.

The Department for International Trade is building a world-class trade policy and negotiation capability for the long-term future of our country. Since July 2016, our trade policy group has grown significantly, from 45 to more than 400 today, and it is continuing to grow. We have also established a series of working groups and high-level dialogues with key trade partners to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships. Those partners include the United States, Australia, Mexico and Japan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. The business community in my constituency is eagerly looking forward to the opportunities the new trade agreements will bring. Will he clarify which elements of the Trade Bill refer to the free trade agreements?

The Trade Bill is about maintaining the effects of our current trading arrangements to ensure continuity for businesses, workers and consumers as we leave the European Union. That means the powers in the Trade Bill will be used only to transition our existing trade agreements that the EU has already signed prior to exit. Work is ongoing to establish how we will deal with future free trade agreements, but I am afraid that to claim that the current Bill allows Ministers a free hand to write future FTAs is simply untrue.

Businesses and constituents in Newark believe it is essential that the existing EU FTAs are transferred and rolled over as expeditiously as possible, but we should not confuse that with signing new FTAs. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that there will be an entirely separate consultation with the public and with Parliament on how we handle those separate new FTAs?

Yes, there will be. The trade White Paper, which is of course very separate from the Trade Bill, asked for views on what a future engagement and scrutiny framework should look like on trade. We are considering the responses and we will engage in the coming months. Given the changes we see, with Pascal Lamy describing a move away from the protection of producers to consumer precaution, we will have to take the views of consumers far more into account in future trade agreements than we have in the past.

When I was a little boy, my grandmother used to say, “Shame the devil and tell the truth.” When will this Secretary of State tell the truth? He has been, with his colleagues, going around the world begging for a trade deal and everyone is telling him, “We want to trade with the European Union, a much bigger trading group.”

Order. Just to be absolutely clear, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not suggest that the Secretary of State would ever tell an untruth in this House.

Absolutely not, and I did not mean to imply that he would. I thought the House would like to know what my grandmother used to say to me about the importance of veracity.

No further explanation is required. We are immensely interested in the hon. Gentleman’s grandmother, and his ruminations on that matter will doubtless be found in his memoirs, which will be deposited in the Library and we can consult in the long winter evenings that lie ahead.

We will want to see what the best deals we can get for the UK are, how we can get our trading volumes and value up, and what opportunities we can take as we leave the EU. Of course we are pleased to continue to go along with the British public’s view on the referendum, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt want to do the same, as his constituency voted overwhelmingly to leave—that is no doubt a view he will endorse.

Can the Secretary of State explain the likely impact of a no deal Brexit in respect of the 57 or so countries with which we already have association agreements through the European Union?

We will want to ensure that those are replicated in United Kingdom law on the day we leave the EU because, whether there is an agreement or not, we will have to have a legal basis for trading with those countries.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm the position on trade agreements when we leave the EU: after April 2019, we will be negotiating such trade deals and look forward to actually signing them when we break free from the shackles of the EU?

Again, to make it clear, before we leave the European Union we have to be able to transition the existing EU free trade agreements to give ourselves the legal basis to trade. Of course, up to that point and beyond, we will want to see what new opportunities are available. If, during an implementation period, we decide that we are not going to introduce and put into effect new trade agreements, we will still want to negotiate and sign them.

The Secretary of State is repeating what he told Politico recently: that his Department wants to copy and paste the trade deals because it does not yet have the capacity to negotiate new ones. As there cannot really be a better trading relationship with the European Union than membership of the single market, is that not actually the best idea? If taking back control simply means duplicating what we already have, why not take the easy and obvious path and stay in the single market?

I shall help the hon. Gentleman out of his confusion. As I have said on numerous occasions, it is not possible simply to copy and paste the existing agreements. For example, we must take into account the disaggregation of tariff-rate quotas, so it is not quite that simple.

Do the Secretary of State’s officials trudge into work, full of doom and gloom-laden, thinking it is all going to be too difficult, or do they bounce into his office, full of energy and enthusiasm, seeing Brexit as a wonderful opportunity for Britain to be at the forefront of leading the world into the bright sunlit uplands of freer trade?

Not all that many people bounce into my office, although they regularly bounce out of it. We are an incredibly optimistic Department and we look to the future with great confidence. Let me give some figures: the most recent time we advertised jobs in the Department, there were 1,698 applicants for the 92 jobs available. That suggests to me that there is a great deal of optimism, even in our civil service.

The Secretary of State is indeed an optimist, and it is good to hear him so upbeat about all the trade opportunities that he thinks await us in the post-Brexit world. Perhaps he can explain why, when the Red Book shows trade in the world economy increasing year-on-year by 4% over the next five years, it shows the UK’s export growth decline from 3.4% next year to 1.2% in 2019, and then plummet to just 0.1% in each of the following three years. Is the Secretary of State perhaps an optimist who can find no rational grounds for his optimism?

It is nice to see that “Project Fear” never dies. Rather than going on projections, let me tell the hon. Gentleman what our economy has actually done. He is right that global trade has been growing at around 3%, but UK exports have been up 13.1% in the past year—in goods they are up by more than 16%. That is the real performance of the UK economy. There is incredible slack in our ability to export further and we should be encouraging British exporters to do so.

Exports: South-west

3. What assessment he has made of the prospects for increasing exports from the south-west in the next five years. (902503)

I am glad my hon. Friend asks about our export promotion capability. In 2016, exports of goods from the region, which includes my own constituency, grew by 10.6% compared with 2015, with double-digit growth for markets such as Singapore and South Korea. DIT stands ready to support these businesses, including through the global growth pilot, which offers deeper export support, or through a targeted export programme alongside Torbay Development Agency.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, not least because he is a fellow south-west MP. Gooch & Housego’s Torquay factory recently won national recognition for how its staff and management have worked together to grow their business. What support does my right hon. Friend intend to give to that and other companies in Torbay’s vital photonics sector so that they can grow further by increasing their exports?

Photonics is about the science of light generation and manipulation, Mr Speaker—of course, you and all other Members already knew that. DIT’s local international trade adviser engages with businesses in the photonics sector and with the Torbay Development Agency, and will soon address the Torbay manufacturing forum. DIT specialists will meet the Torbay Development Agency in January to review the marketing proposition for the sector, and a DIT sector specialist will visit Japan to promote UK photonics capability.

The south-west traditionally grows very fine livestock and has a buoyant export market. Will the Secretary of State give me and the farmers of Taunton Deane some assurance that if export certification demands increase as we leave the EU, the Government will give the right support to the agricultural industry, and will they look into the development of electronic systems to help the certification process?

Yes. The Government are committed to ensuring as smooth as possible an exit from the EU, including for all our business sectors, which obviously covers agriculture. Beyond that, the Department is particularly focused on finding new markets for our agricultural sector. There is substantial growth in demand for agricultural products in countries such as China and India. Given that the UK’s are the finest in the world, we should be at the forefront of those export markets.

Economic Partnership Agreements

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of revising the basis of economic partnership agreements better to incorporate the aims of the UN sustainable development goals. (902504)

We are guided by a desire to seek continuity first of all in our trading relationships with developing countries as we leave the European Union, and that includes economic partnership agreements. Our EPA partner countries have already welcomed that commitment. The UK is of course fully committed to promoting and delivering the sustainable development goals and is the first and only G7 country to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas development assistance.

Given that countries such as Nigeria and Uganda have refused to sign the economic partnership agreements because they do not believe that they are beneficial and in their long-term interest, how does the Secretary of State intend to address those issues, and is he considering GSP—the generalised scheme of preferences—or GSP plus?

We have already announced that we will be transitioning the full preference scheme of the European Union, including all the categories; that includes GSP and GSP plus. I am surprised if the hon. Gentleman is opposed to our transitioning the EPAs because, as you well know, Mr Speaker, UK imports worth around £290 million from the developing world were imported last year using the EPAs, and they would otherwise have had to pay a higher tariff to enter the UK.

Although the EPAs in Africa are working in the south, they are working less well in the east and west. Is the Minister working with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to look at inter-African trade, rather than trade with what is a declining market sector—Europe—compared with the rest of the world?

We have had very successful talks. The Secretary of State was in South Africa just a couple of months ago and in Ethiopia recently. We are engaging very closely with Africa and with DFID Ministers, including the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). In a joint statement, we have agreed to seek to transition the Southern African Development Community’s EPA and, last week, we signed an agreement to seek to transition the Caribbean Forum’s EPA as well.

11. Economic partnership agreements have faced intense criticism both from the very countries that they are intended to help and from experts and academics across Europe. Will the Minister consider introducing a sunset clause into the rolled-over EPAs so that new and better agreements can eventually be negotiated? (902511)

These are agreements that are being transitioned. The purpose here is to take an agreement that is already in place and to make sure that it continues to be in place after we leave the European Union. Of course we are in constant dialogue with our developing world partners, and we are open to improving those preferential arrangements in the future if that is deemed to be in the interests of the developing countries.

Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) and the noble Lord Hague, in 2013, the UK Government were the first to publish a national action plan on business and human rights. Will the Minister give a commitment that human rights impact assessments will be undertaken before any new trade deal is signed and that any new trade deal will also include provision for enforcement of human rights?

Of course the UK remains absolutely committed to universal human rights. We have a strong track record of supporting human rights across the world. Safeguarding, promoting and defending human rights is an integral part of government and human rights and prosperity of course are mutually supportive. As part of transitioning EU arrangements, we will be maintaining a similar approach to human rights commitments in UK trade policy.

Ministerial Discussions

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. (902505)

The Department for International Trade has overall responsibility for both inward direct investment into the UK from abroad and outward direct investment from the UK to markets overseas. Officials in my Department and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have numerous discussions on how we can support our businesses. DIT is currently undertaking an export strategy to better understand the needs of businesses seeking to export, as well as identifying those opportunities via the website.

Exporting manufacturing businesses in north Wales such as Magellan Aerospace and Airbus are world-beating organisations, but they desperately need infrastructure, investment and support from the Government to face the challenges ahead. Why are this Government so reluctant to invest in and support north Wales?

I believe that a north Wales growth deal was announced in the Budget. It is also important to remember that the industrial strategy will be announced next week. That will talk about exactly how we can improve the infrastructure to support the great businesses in north Wales that the hon. Gentleman represents very well.

I have noticed a phenomenon of what I will call inconsistent bobbing in the Chamber. A Member bobs once and thinks that that is sufficient signal of a desire to participate. Repeated bobbing has always been required, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) can well testify. I encourage the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) to increased athleticism.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and apologies.

With whisky exports worth £4 billion a year, has the Minister discussed with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy how we can capitalise on the export success story of Scottish whisky?

Scottish whisky is one of our greatest export success stories, and my hon. Friend is right to say that it is worth £4 billion a year. It is this Department that leads, in every sense, on promoting exports of food and drink across the world. With the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we look, in terms of agricultural exports, at where we have market access and at standards. We have to agree that separately.

Ethiopia: Human Rights

6. Whether he received a briefing on human rights in Ethiopia from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before his recent visit to that country. (902506)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for policy on human rights across the whole of Government. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations, including when we meet them both in the UK and on overseas visits.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am going to put to the test the statement he made a few seconds ago—that the UK always promotes human rights in trade talks. Did he raise the case of Andy Tsege, and the prison visit that the UK Government have promised, with his Ethiopian counterparts? What progress is being made on releasing him?

In my official meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, we discussed the need for long-term political and economic stability, as well as the political space. We did, indeed, raise the consular case mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman in private and with our ambassador. I hope that we will see the results of that interaction soon.

I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Ethiopia. Does the Secretary of State agree that the work of Her Majesty’s ambassador in Addis Ababa is really tremendous—she has arranged for visits and has personally visited Andy Tsege—but that the situation needs to come to an end? At the same time, will he acknowledge the work that the Ethiopian Government are doing with the Department for International Development to try to get more than 1 million refugees throughout the country into work in a jobs compact?

It is always the aim of our Government to get other Governments to replicate our values in a clear and practical way. I second my hon. Friend’s vote of thanks to our ambassador for the work that she and her staff are doing. He makes a valid point that we need to take into consideration some of the extreme pressures that some countries are under. Taking 1 million refugees is not an easy task for the most developed country, never mind a country such as Ethiopia that is moving forward in development.

Trade Remedies Authority

7. What the remit of the trade remedies authority will be; and how it will undertake to balance consumer and producer interests within that remit. (902507)

We are taking the necessary steps to operate our own trade remedies system. That will investigate and take action against unfair trading practices that injure UK industry. The new, independent trade remedies authority will operate the system and make recommendations to address injury found by its investigations. In doing so, it will consider the interests of all parties, such as user industries, producers and consumers, as well as regional and long-term impacts.

The Minister will be aware that his Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament have frustrated efforts to prevent the dumping of steel by the Chinese on the European market by pushing for the lesser duty rule, which has had a devastating impact on British steel production. Will the trade remedies authority apply a proper public interest test to protect the interest of workers and industry in this country?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the European Parliament. Perhaps he might have a word with his own colleagues, who have sought in the recent vote in the European Parliament to frustrate the process of us even talking about trade with the European Union to start with. The purpose of trade remedies measures is to address injury caused to domestic industry. The lesser duty rule provides adequate protection to achieve the same so that industry can operate on a fair playing field and without imposing unnecessary costs on downstream industry and consumers.

I should remind the Minister that it was this Government that argued against trade remedies in Europe and that failed to protect our steel and ceramics industries. That is why it is not surprising that manufacturers are concerned that the new trade remedies authority will focus on consumer interests at the expense of businesses and jobs. What assurances can the Minister give that it will not always seek to apply the lesser duty rule? Will he now commit to include social and environmental criteria in the remit of the trade remedies authority, so that the UK does not become the dumping ground for goods that can no longer be dumped in the EU?

We have taken robust action on steel in concert with the European Union, and we are playing an active role within that. The Government of course recognise that overcapacity is a significant global issue, which is why we have been working proactively through the EU and our G20 partners. The hon. Gentleman seeks to downplay the interests of consumers in all of this, but they will be absolutely vital and at the heart of our trade remedies process—exactly where they deserve to be.

UK Export Finance

We are putting export finance at the heart of trade promotion by enhancing the financial support available to exporters and smaller companies in their supply chains. This is a new guarantee to banks designed to increase liquidity in the supply chain, improving exporters’ access to capital and enabling their suppliers to fulfil new orders. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor stated yesterday, UK Export Finance will launch a targeted campaign to promote the support they offer to exporters and overseas buyers, as part of the wider GREAT campaign.

Would the Minister agree that supporting British business, especially outside London, is crucial for a successful Brexit? Will he consider visiting my constituency to discuss boosting exports and inward investment for Scotland?

In the few short months my hon. Friend has been a Member, he has proved a doughty campaigner for the whisky industry and the agricultural industry in his patch, and I would be delighted to come along and visit him. I would point out that the Board of Trade has been established across the whole country to promote the interests of regions. We have regional international trade advisers, and they work through the Scottish Government, fully supported by the Department for International Trade.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnwick and Amble now have innovative high-tech software businesses designing unique products that have serious global market potential. Can the Minister confirm that these businesses will be able to access UK export finance to reach into new countries, boost British exports and bring new high-tech jobs into my constituency? He is, of course, welcome to stop off on his way to Scotland.

I would love to go to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and I cannot wait to go. It is absolutely right that UK Export Finance has introduced a number of measures, including passing delegated powers to the high street banks to offer up to £2 million of export credit. It is important that we recognise that this resource is vital to financing exports. My hon. Friend will know from the recent briefing session we held for Members of Parliament that we are keen to engage with all Members of Parliament to see how UK Export Finance can help their constituents.

Can the Minister give an indication of the expressions of interest thus far received from small and medium-sized enterprises, which are now able to access UK export finance through high street banks? Does he believe that that could be promoted to allow SMEs to safely expand?

I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the exact figures, but he is absolutely right to highlight the fact that we need to do more to promote this opportunity for SMEs to get this high street financing through UK Export Finance. To that end, in the Budget, we have allocated an advertising budget in order to be able to promote UK Export Finance.

Some 99% of UK Export Finance spending on energy goes on the most polluting fuels. Does the Minister consider that his Department is exempt from the Government’s commitments under the Paris climate change treaty?

It is perfectly reasonable that the whole Government adhere to the objectives of all the agreements we have undertaken, so no Department would go against any of that. However, I would also point out that we are undertaking financing for offshore wind farms, so we are actually helping to build more carbon-neutral capacity.

Topical Questions

My Department has three tasks: promoting UK exports of goods and services, investment both inwards and outwards, and trade policy. In furtherance of this, since we last met for departmental questions on 12 October, Ministers have undertaken visits to Europe, the Gulf, Asia and Africa. Today I shall be travelling to New Zealand and then Australia.

I would also like to formally welcome Baroness Rona Fairhead to the Department. She has joined as Minister responsible for trade and export promotion, and she will be making her maiden speech in the other place on Monday.

Will the Secretary of State convene a great Commonwealth trade conference in 2018 for all 52 Commonwealth nations, to harness the rising tide of good will, optimism and support for enhanced intra-Commonwealth trade post-Brexit?

I know my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in this, and he makes a valuable point. As the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next April, the UK is committed to highlighting the value of, and increasing, intra-Commonwealth trade. Businesses will have an opportunity to meet in a three-day forum that will see a diverse range of sectors represented. This will help us promote our vision for global Britain and to celebrate and grow the vital intra-Commonwealth trade that he mentions.

America’s Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross told the CBI this month that the essential precondition of a trade deal with the USA was to move our regulation standards and environmental protections away from the EU and closer to those of the Americans. Last week, Michel Barnier said that the essential precondition of a good trade deal with the EU was to keep our regulation standards and environmental protections close to the European model. The Government say their top priority is securing barrier-free trade with the EU, so does the Secretary of State accept that he can have American cake or European gateau, but he cannot have both?

Sack the writer.

When it comes to standards, we have made it very clear that we will not see a reduction in the quality or safety of products—either goods or services—made available to UK consumers. We will determine in the United Kingdom what we think those should be, and then we will negotiate with any countries that are willing to negotiate on those terms. We will determine what we choose for Britain’s future. Unlike the Opposition, we will not be dictated to by Mr Barnier.

Outward direct investment is a new priority of the Government since the summer of 2016. We have launched a number of pilots looking at how best we might approach that, and there is funding available in the prosperity fund for it.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his role as the trade envoy to Pakistan? In September I visited a very successful example of outward direct investment, the huge GSK plant in Karachi, which produces more than 200 million packages of medicine for the Pakistan market and is a vital part of GSK’s overseas operation.

T2. A freedom of information request revealed that the Minister acted as a lobbyist for oil and gas companies in Brazil on taxation and environmental licensing issues. Does he think that is consistent with the Government’s commitment to lead the world in environmental protection, and that it conforms with the ministerial code of conduct? (902519)

This is an excellent opportunity to correct the misinformation that was put in The Guardian on Monday, on which the Department put out a release afterwards to be absolutely clear that the basis of the meeting with the Brazilian Energy Minister, which I might add was public at the time—I even put it on Twitter, but it took The Guardian six months to pick up on it—was to secure a level playing field for British companies in that market. We make no apology for saying that Brazil’s tough environmental regulations should apply equally to all companies across the board.

T4. Yesterday I met a delegation of businessmen from the seafood sector based in north-east Lincolnshire. One of our meetings was to discuss the possible designation of Immingham and Grimsby as free ports, and the businessmen seemed quite enthusiastic about that. Will my right hon. Friend expand on how we might pursue that post-Brexit? (902522)

As we leave the EU, we will be able to shape trade policy in our national interest and take advantage of things that are not available to us as a member of the EU. Free ports are one possible tool in that context, and we will want to look closely at the implications. Another thing that might help my hon. Friend, who has a large fish processing capability in his constituency employing some 5,000 people, is discussing with the Department what overseas direct investment might do for expanding that business’s potential.

Will the Secretary of State confirm how the devolved Administrations will be consulted during the process of these future free trade agreements?

I had discussions recently with all the different parts of the devolved Administrations. They will clearly be very important partners in putting together our future free trade agreements, and they should be treated with due respect in that. However, I would say that they are not the only voices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We will want to consult businesses, consumers, unions and the general public, and we will need to have a much wider consultation in future than we have had in the past.

Small Business Saturday is an increasingly important business day in the run-up to Christmas. How are the Secretary of State and his Department helping small businesses in my constituency to export more?

Small Business Saturday is in its fifth year. It is a celebration of our small businesses, and I imagine that all Members of the House will be taking part and celebrating businesses in their own constituencies. I shall be with the UK export hub, which some Members have had experience of, in Portishead in my constituency. I encourage as many as possible of the members of the public who may be paying attention to these proceedings to attend.

Clause 2 of the Trade Bill gives powers to Ministers, potentially for the whole of the next decade, to sort out the issue of the 60 or so trade agreements that we currently benefit from with third countries by virtue of our membership with the EU. Far from being resolved in the next 16 months, is it not the case that that issue—dividing up tariff quotas and so on, and defining a new UK-EU trading relationship—rather than the fiction of the Secretary of State’s fantasy trade deals elsewhere, will dominate the work of the Department over the next few years?

We already touched on this a little earlier in question time. Can we be absolutely clear that my predecessor, Lord Price, and I have met all the key trading partners that are subject to those deals? We have in-principle agreement from most of them, and we have had no problem from any of them about transitioning those key trade agreements, so we do not foresee that being a difficulty. It is a technical process. Of course, there are one or two things that need to be sorted out in talks with those partners, but we are in the right position and we look forward to transitioning those agreements as a key part of our trading future.