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Leaving the EU: Women’s Rights

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 17 May 2018

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that UK trade with developing countries promotes women’s rights after the UK leaves the EU. (905354)

The UK is committed to promoting equality and women’s rights in trade in the UK and around the world.  We have taken decisive steps to recognise the role of trade in promoting gender equality by signing the WTO’s joint declaration on women’s economic empowerment.  We also launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last month the SheTrades Commonwealth programme, which will boost participation of women-owned businesses in trade.

I very much welcome that answer because a well-designed trade policy can positively transform women’s social and economic rights in developing countries. If that is not the case, that can destroy livelihoods, undercut wages and damage vital public services. Will the Minister commit to publishing an assessment of the impact on women of every trade deal that he signs with developing countries?

I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I commend the work of some key non-governmental organisations in this space, particularly ActionAid UK. The matter of impact assessments is one for future trade policy and future trade agreements. However, we are not waiting on that to make a difference on ensuring that women can participate fully in trade. I point him to a recent study by McKinsey that showed that, if women participated in the economy on an equal basis to men, there would be an increase of 26% in world GDP—the equivalent of an economy the size of the US and China put together.

My right hon. Friend is quite right: the UK has been a key driver of that agenda. He is also right that the EU27 may well take a different approach. However, the UK approach remains strongly and resolutely in favour of promoting gender equality in trade and making sure that trade works particularly for women entrepreneurs, who make up a disproportionate part of the online entrepreneurial community.

This will be my last outing as the Scottish National party trade spokesman; I will be moving to pastures new in Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State and his team. While we do not always agree—in fact, rarely—our discussions and exchanges are always respectful and lively.

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster is a prime example of how growth in export industries can have devastating results, particularly for women and girls. Jobs were created that were unsafe and had exploitative conditions for the largely female factory workers. Can the Minister assure the House and indeed everyone across the UK that any trade deals he does will not result in the exploitation of anyone, in particular women and girls?

May I first commend the hon. Lady for the constructive role she has taken? She and I have worked together particularly to try to benefit certain businesses in Livingston, her constituency, and in terms of her wider brief.

Yes, of course, we are absolutely committed that future trade agreements will pay heed to the importance of gender rights and a whole series of other rights in those agreements. What we can do, however, in the meantime is make sure that the trade agenda fully recognises gender equality, particularly, as I have mentioned, in relation to the Commonwealth and the WTO. We were one of the 120 WTO members at Buenos Aires in December that adopted the joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment.

The Minister often remarks that trade has pulled millions of women out of poverty, but in the Trade Bill Committee the Government voted against ensuring that future trade deals fully comply with the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Has he changed his mind on this and, if so, will he ensure that future trade deals contain effective mechanisms that protect women in the global supply chain from exploitation, poverty wages and the suppression of trade union rights?

I gently remind the hon. Lady that she of course voted against the Trade Bill in its entirety on Second Reading, which I think is always worth remembering. Secondly, I would say that we will take no lessons from Labour in this space because the UK has been a leader, over the last eight years, in making sure that this agenda is taken up at the WTO, at the European Union and at CHOGM. When it comes to future trade agreements and future trade policies around those trade agreements, that will be a matter for future proposals, as she well knows.