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Free Trade Agreements

Volume 651: debated on Thursday 20 December 2018

This year the Department for International Trade ran four public consultations on potential UK free trade agreement negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, and on potential accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—otherwise known, snappily, as the CPTPP. The insights gained from our consultations will inform our overall approach and our stakeholder engagement plans during these potential free trade agreement negotiations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership represents one of the most exciting opportunities for the UK post Brexit. Can he confirm that he has consulted with the necessary stakeholders and partners to ensure that we can begin talks on our country’s accession the moment we leave the European Union?

Ministers have been engaging with all 11 CPTPP members. I have recently spoken to a number of Ministers, including from Singapore, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and the positive response to our engagement has been demonstrated by the supportive comments from some of the leaders of those countries—including Prime Minister Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Morrison of Australia—all of whom are very keen, as Prime Minister Abe said, to welcome Britain with open arms as soon as possible.

But isn’t the problem for the Secretary of State that these potential new free trade agreements will not be concludable until we know what the UK’s trade relationship with the EU is? Does he not now have to admit that it is not possible, realistically, to sign or conclude free trade agreements with all those other countries, because it will be several years—maybe two, three or more—before we conclude our trade arrangement with the EU?

Of course, the best thing that any of us could do is ensure that we have an agreement as soon as possible with the European Union, which Members of this House will be able to contribute to. Of course, if the House decides that we are not to come to an agreement with the European Union, there will be adverse consequences.

It has been very difficult for the International Trade Committee to scrutinise progress in the roll-over of current trade agreements because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Will my right hon. Friend look urgently into establishing a confidential Commons Committee that has access to restricted negotiating documents, to ensure proper scrutiny of any talks over new free trade agreements?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which she has also raised in the Committee. The Government are looking at ways in which we can improve scrutiny without undermining the confidential nature of the discussions that we have. I will want to discuss the issues with the Opposition as well to see whether we can have a robust system that is also secure. That would be to the benefit of the whole House.

A merry Christmas from Feltham and Heston to you, Mr Speaker and to everybody else.

This week, I attended an interesting seminar by Global Policy Insights on trade with the Commonwealth pre and post Brexit. The Commonwealth accounted for 8.9% of UK exports a couple of years ago—roughly the same as UK exports to Germany. Could the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions his Department is having with Commonwealth nations on the potential of free trade agreements and on what success he is having?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course, we have a number of agreements already with a number of Commonwealth countries and groups of Commonwealth countries, and we are close to signing one, which we will announce to the House shortly. However, we are also concerned about the level of intra-Commonwealth trade and how we can use that very large population, often with common legal rules, to enhance it. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, we set out our plans for a trade audit tool to help improve it, and we have had very positive engagement on that. There is tremendous opportunity inside the Commonwealth to allow countries to trade their way out of poverty, and we intend to ensure that that is made possible.

It is vital to forbear from agreeing a price before negotiations begin and to maintain the ability to walk away, isn’t it?

Last year, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research told us that leaving the single market would result in a loss of trade of between 22% and 30%, depending on the nature of the Brexit. It also told us that concluding deals with the BRIC countries and the main English-speaking economies would result in an increase in trade of 2% and less than 3% respectively. So although I wish the Secretary of State well in his future negotiations, is it not time to concede that there is no number of new free trade agreements or trade deals he can strike that can possibly compensate for the loss of trade with the European Union?

First, it depends on our level of access to the European market. That is why the Government have put forward proposals to maximise our access to a European trade area. However, it also depends on growth in other markets and, as the International Monetary Fund has said, in the next five years 90% of global growth will be outside continental Europe. That is where the opportunities will be, and that is where Britain needs to be, too.