Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy, and export promotion. Following this session, I will be signing the trade continuity agreement between the UK and the Pacific Islands in the event of no deal. This is part of our commitment to reducing poverty through trade, and it will ensure continued supply of key consumer products.

There is a lot of scaremongering on this issue that is concerning a number of my constituents, so will the Secretary of State set out what steps the Government are taking to ensure that contracts for the delivery of NHS services will be excluded from future trade deals?

As I have already said, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the United Kingdom’s right to regulate public services. It could not be simpler. Any attempts to distort that basic message are political propaganda and they are untrue.

One of our most distinguished former diplomats, the noble Lord Kerr, spoke last week, during the passage of the Trade Bill in another place, of the value of having a mandate as a negotiator. He said:

“Having negotiated against Americans, I know that it greatly strengthens their hand to be able to say, ‘Here is the proof that I cannot give you what you want, because Congress would turn it down’.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2019; Vol. 796, c. 671.]

Recently the US trade representative published the negotiating mandate for a US-UK trade deal—no concern about commercial confidentiality here, just openly and transparently setting out all the objectives they have for penetrating UK markets, with American healthcare and agribusiness to the fore. In the same week, the Secretary of State published his Command Paper. It is against mandates. Indeed, the Government tried unsuccessfully to defeat Lord Kerr and others who supported Lord Balmacara’s amendment. What does the Secretary of State know about negotiations that Lord Kerr does not, and will the Government try to reverse their lordships’ decision when the Bill returns to the Commons?

The Trade Bill was and is about trade continuity, including trade agreements and including the Trade Remedies Authority. It has been used, I am afraid, in the other place to hold debates on future trade agreements that will come in due course here. There is of course a difference between setting out negotiating objectives, which the United States did, and a mandate, which is how the negotiators actually go about it. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has not grasped that point yet.

T2. Does my hon. Friend agree that the enormous investment in Britain by the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund shows that, with or without a deal, this country is one of the best places in the world to do business? If he does agree, will he draw this to the attention of some of his colleagues in the Cabinet? (909814)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right; the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund has said that it will continue its investment here. The latest figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development show that the UK strengthened its position last year as the No. 1 foreign direct investment destination in Europe. The hundreds of thousands of jobs and higher wages that result would be threatened by the Labour party if it got the chance to jack up corporation tax rates and put in place other business-unfriendly policies. That would reverse the investment that has brought so much good to this country since Labour left in 2010.

T3. UK food businesses such as Devro plc in my constituency benefit from free trade with the EU and its free trade agreements with third countries. Can the Secretary of State confirm how long it will take his Department to negotiate new agreements with these third countries, and will they be on the same terms as those we currently enjoy through our EU membership? (909815)

The Government’s policy is that we do not have to have these rollover agreements because we want to get an agreement through the House so that we can continue with the Prime Minister’s plan. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help the businesses that he mentions, he can vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement at the next opportunity.

T8. An area of international trade that is often overlooked is tourism, and of course, inbound tourism is export earnings. What discussions is the Department having with other Departments to boost our tourism industry, for example on visas? (909820)

My hon. Friend is right. Tourism is a great example—I use the word “great” advisedly. The GREAT brand is used across the whole of UK Government. It is that rarest of things—a joined-up government policy that actually works. It has added huge value to our tourism sector. In 2017 we saw record numbers of visitors to the UK, and a contribution to the UK economy of £24 billion.

T4. Given the inevitable downturn that will come from any kind of Brexit that we end up with, what consideration has the Minister given to the introduction of free ports to boost economic activity in areas of low economic performance just now? (909816)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he has shown in this issue. The experience of other countries in using the ability of free ports to increase economic activity is valuable and something that the Government are considering in an optimistic and positive way.

UK Export Finance does some excellent work, but some of its funding capacity goes unused. What can be done to change that to raise British exports?

We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the five biggest banks so that they can encourage businesses to utilise UK Export Finance. One of the main areas where it is under-utilised is small businesses, but the positive side is that last year more than 70% of the agreements signed by UKEF were with small businesses. That is a trend that we would like to see continue.

T5. More than 20,000 people, including many of my constituents, have signed the Fairtrade Fortnight petition calling on the Government to lead action on exploitative rates of pay in the hugely valuable international cocoa trade. Will the Government take up that challenge? (909817)

I take the opportunity to praise the work of the Fairtrade organisation, which is so well led and co-ordinated by my very good friend Lord Price. It is essential that we look at these issues because free trade is not a free-for-all. There need to be rules around it and there needs to be fair trade. The Government will look sympathetically at what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Following the visit of the Taiwanese representative and the Philippines ambassador, does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement that the Qatari ambassador, together with a trade delegation, will visit Southend on 25 March as we move towards city status, to explore the opportunities of trade and business investment as we leave the EU?

I welcome the announcement by Qatar’s ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mr Yousef Al Khater, and his accompanying delegation of a visit to Southend. I am pleased to say that the UK is one of Qatar’s major investment destinations globally, with more than £35 billion already invested in the UK.

T6. If the United States lifts its suspension of title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, which gives US citizens the right to sue foreign companies for using Cuban nationalised properties, British businesses that trade with Cuba will suffer damaging consequences. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our international partners to co-ordinate a response to the proposed changes in US extraterritorial policies that will have an impact on businesses trading with Cuba? (909818)

This is an issue that the Government take seriously because we want to ensure that British companies have the right to trade where we think it is appropriate and where the British Government’s foreign policy indicates that. I have had and will continue to have discussions with my American counterparts on that issue.

Given the announcement on tariffs, what progress is being made regarding the steel industry in relation to the trade defence instruments in place at European level being transferred across to UK level at the point of departure?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman missed the statement we had in the House on this, but I made it very clear that those arrangements would be rolled over. It will not be the Government’s intention in any way, shape or form to leave our businesses less protected than they are today, which is why those trade remedies will continue.