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Free Trade Agreements

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018

The Government are committed to an inclusive and transparent trade policy. On 20 July, we launched a 14-week online consultation, allowing the public to provide views on future potential UK trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand and, of course, the potential accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

We have huge potential to increase exports, particularly in the fantastic ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent, so I thank the Minister for that response. Will he update the House on the progress that is being made with the US-UK trade agreement, which is so important for that industry?

It is important to point out to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to the House that our duty of sincere co-operation means that we are only exploring information at this stage since we may not, cannot and should not explore actual free trade deals. However, the UK-US trade and investment working group has now met on four occasions and will meet again in November in Washington. We want our future trade agreements to work for all sectors and regions of the UK, including the UK’s highly valued ceramics industry in Staffordshire, for which my hon. Friend is a doughty champion. The Secretary of State will be chairing the consultation in Birmingham on 1 October. My hon. Friend recently wrote to me requesting a meeting for that particular sector, and we will be exploring dates shortly.

A potential free trade deal with the United States of America is reckoned to be worth about 0.2% of GDP, but the loss of GDP with a mere FTA deal with the European Union is 6%, which is a loss thirty times greater than the gain from America. Even if the Minister got an equivalent free trade agreement with the rest of the world, he would need a world population of 15 billion —twice the current population—to make up the gap. There are only 7.5 billion people on earth. Where are the Government going to make up the gap in GDP loss that this Brexit is costing the United Kingdom?

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union and that is exactly what we are organising. We are in the middle of negotiating with the EU on a wide-ranging and comprehensive package of proposals that will allow trade to continue with the EU hopefully much as it does now.

The Minister’s last answer was very interesting. Do the Government agree that free trade agreements are good? If, unfortunately, the Chequers proposal is rejected by the European Union, would not an alternative be a free trade agreement with the European Union based on the Canada model?

I merely repeat what I said before. The Government are negotiating to put in place a deep future trade agreement with the European Union, and we believe we will succeed in that endeavour.

At the moment we have a free trade agreement with Colombia through the European Union, but the new President of Colombia, Iván Duque, has said that he wants no more free trade agreements, probably including with the United Kingdom if we are to leave the EU, and that he wants to renegotiate the deal with the EU. If we were to be able to roll over a new agreement with Colombia, would we make sure it had very strong human rights protections?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are negotiating with our partners who are currently signatories to agreements with the European Union to create continuity for businesses and to make sure those agreements are put in place. The elements to which those countries have already signed up will be included in those agreements, and I hope he will take some comfort from that.

We trade effectively without them. They often come with producer-interest strings attached. They might be nice to have, but we do not need them, do we?

Last time I stood at this Dispatch Box, I said that I was not entirely sure I understood a particular question.

We will negotiate free trade agreements that are to the benefit of the United Kingdom—we have offensive and defensive interests—and, when we conclude those agreements, I have no doubt they will be good for the United Kingdom.

I apologise on behalf of my colleague, who is not here and for whom I am standing in.

This 14-week consultation period is probably the only period in which the public will have a chance to have their say on the free trade agreement. Does the Minister agree it is vital for those people who are concerned about changes in food regulation, and for those people who are concerned about the diminution of the high standards we have here, that they take the opportunity to input into this consultation and make their voices heard, as they did so successfully in previous campaigns on, for example, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. It is right that members of the public should feed in all their concerns. One of the reasons why we are running this consultation is for exactly that purpose. I back her encouraging people to take part in the consultation. Indeed, when I was in Scotland recently to meet the Scottish Government, I also met Trade Justice Scotland to discuss exactly these sorts of issues.

The Government’s current consultation process has a worrying lack of transparency. No mandates have been published and no explanation has been given of which sectors are being considered or of what chapters may be included. Will the Minister commit to working with businesses and civil society to develop a consultation process that is more transparent, that looks at the full range of issues and that allows proper engagement on the big questions regarding our future trade? The current one is just simply not good enough.

In that case all I can say to the hon. Lady is that she simply does not understand the consultation process. There are 14 weeks in which the public themselves may come back to us with all their input. We are very clear that we will be exploring widely and deeply with all sectors of society, and indeed all sectors of business and all those with an interest. We have set up the strategic trade advisory group to do exactly the sorts of things she is asking for, and I am confident that this is the most open consultation on free trade agreements this country has ever undertaken.