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Topical Questions

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 5 March 2020

Following our departure from the EU, the UK has established itself as an independent trading nation. On Tuesday, I was the first UK Trade Secretary in almost 50 years to make a speech at the World Trade Organisation representing the UK as an independent trading nation. We will use our position at the WTO to champion free trade, champion reform and make the case for liberalisation in digital and services. Mr Speaker, I can tell you that Britain is back.

The British Egg Industry Council recently commissioned a report on the impact that changes to import tariffs would have on UK egg producers. The report particularly highlighted concerns about cutting import tariffs on egg products when they come from countries with much lower welfare standards. How does my right hon. Friend plan to protect the good eggs, such as St Ewe Free Range Eggs in my constituency, which produces the finest free range eggs money can buy, against the bad eggs from countries with lower welfare standards?

The consultation on the UK global tariff, which will set the most favoured nation tariff rate for eggs, among other products, closes tonight, so I suggest that my hon. Friend gets the eggs-cellent company in his constituency to put in a submission to the consultation and make its views known.

The Secretary of State will be familiar with the Brexit voucher scheme that has been launched by the Irish Government to support small and medium-sized enterprises trading across borders and affected by Brexit. The Dutch have introduced a similar scheme paying grants of over €2,000 and loans of up to €1.5 million. What assessment has she made of those measures and whether they are compliant with state aid rules, and if they are, why has she not introduced any similar measures to support our own SMEs, which face unknown tariffs, increased checks and inspections, and substantial delays to their trade?

We are working very closely with the Cabinet Office to make sure that businesses have all the information they need to prepare for transition at the end of this year. This is also an opportunity, of course, to get more businesses trading with the rest of the world, and we will be saying more about this soon in our new export strategy.

T2. My constituency of South Cambridgeshire is not just the life sciences capital of the UK or of Europe, but it claims to be the life sciences capital of the world. It has the global headquarters of AstraZeneca, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which is leading the world in genome sequencing, and Abcam, a start-up company now worth £3 billion, which is leading the UK in antibody products. Many of these firms are exporters. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the commercial opportunities for them of a potential UK-US free trade agreement? (901140)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. When I was previously in this job, I visited the sector in Cambridgeshire. We know that the life sciences industry contributes £74 billion a year to the economy, creating 250,000 jobs and developing life-saving medicines for UK patients. Annually, the east of England exports £711 million of medical and pharmaceutical products to the US. Estimates show that a UK-US FTA could boost the whole region’s economy by £345 million in the long run.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress being made to ensure that the legal services trade between the UK and the European Union can be maintained after the end of this year?

That is properly a question for a different Question Time, because it is Taskforce Europe that is responsible for our future trading relations with the European Union. What I can say to the hon. Member is that the mutual recognition of professional qualifications is one of the key aspects we are looking at in free trade agreements with counterparties across the world.

I am glad that that is being looked at because, right now, if an agreement is not reached between the UK and the European Union, UK legal practitioners—lawyers—will no longer be protected by legal or professional privilege inside the European Union. May we have a specific focus on that to ensure that jeopardy is removed, but also, more importantly, to ensure that the associated disincentive to trade in legal services is removed?

Again, this is really a matter for Taskforce Europe, but I will pass on the hon. Member’s question to it to give him a more detailed response. What I can say is that the DIT team promote trade in legal services, particularly the mutual recognition of qualifications, in all our talks. I have done that personally in this role, and the Secretary of State is committed to doing so. We make sure that this is promoted, particularly regulator to regulator, including for legal services, accountancy, architecture and all our professional services.

T4. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the free trade agreement will benefit the whole of the UK, including my constituency of Ynys Môn in north Wales, which will be disproportionately affected by the collapse of Flybe overnight? And does she agree that the port of Holyhead is a prime candidate to be one of the new free ports? (901142)

My hon. Friend has been lobbying extremely hard for Holyhead to be considered as a free port, and we are very grateful for all her input to the free port consultation. She is right, of course, that a US free trade deal will benefit every single part of the United Kingdom, including Wales. There are particular opportunities for the export of Welsh lamb into the United States, where it is currently not allowed. I also agree that we need to ensure—I know the Transport Secretary is working hard on this—that we continue to keep routes open and that new companies can operate those flight routes, which are so vital for our connectivity.

T3. Last summer, the Government were found to have unlawfully committed arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. In September it emerged that this ban had been repeatedly violated. In response, last month the Secretary of State said processes had been updated. If she genuinely wants to give confidence that this Government will not put the interests of arms dealers ahead of human rights yet again, will she commit to an immediate embargo on all arms exports to Saudi Arabia? (901141)

I was very clear in the statement I made to the House that there had been problems with our process. I subsequently issued a written ministerial statement, followed by an internal review conducted by another Government Department.

We have now fixed that problem. The information is now being provided in real time, and that fulfils the requirements of the court order.

T5. [R] Israeli exports to the UK grew by 286% over the last decade, and bilateral trade levels are also at a record high, so it was no surprise that one of the first post-Brexit trade agreements we signed was with Israel. What steps will the Secretary of State be taking to further strengthen and enhance our trade relationship with Israel and go beyond the terms of the continuity agreement that is already in place? (901143)

We strongly value our trading relationship with the state of Israel and are working closely with the Israeli Government to implement the UK-Israel trade and partnership agreement, but my hon. Friend is absolutely correct to identify the opportunities for us to do so much more. In my constituency, the town of Bournemouth is twinned with Netanya in Israel, and I have seen first-hand the opportunities in the innovation and tech sectors. We are working with Israeli counterparts to host a UK-Israel trade and investment conference in London, whose primary focus will be scoping out and identifying new opportunities for collaboration between Israel and the United Kingdom.

T7. Bearing in mind the latest comments coming from the US, what steps will the Minister take to provide legal safeguards and reassure the British public that our food and animal welfare standards will not be at risk in a US-UK trade deal? (901146)

The hon. Lady can see that laid out in black and white in our objectives: we simply will not do a deal that undermines our food safety standards, and we will also retain our very high animal welfare standards. That is very clear and, ultimately, if the US is not prepared to agree to that, we will walk away.

T6. The Secretary of State knows that I am very excited about the prospects for Scotland to grow its exports. Scottish Development International does a good job, but it does not have, as it would concede, the global reach of her Department. So to ensure that Scottish businesses get the maximum support going forward to grow exports, will the Minister commit today to increase the Department’s presence on the ground in Scotland? (901144)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who sets an example—not least to the party over there, the SNP—in championing the interests of Scottish workers and Scottish business, regardless of politics. [Laughter.] The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) laughs, but all too often she sits there and says—as she did just now, chuntering from a sedentary position—“We don’t want it”: she does not want more resource from the UK Government to support Scottish business. If ever we had an example of how the separatist SNP put that single agenda ahead of the interests of the Scottish people, that was it. Thank the Lord that we have Members like my right hon. Friend to stand up for us.

T8.   Is the Secretary of State confident that the Government stance in the EU trade negotiations meets the needs of successful horticultural businesses such as Seiont Nurseries in my constituency, whose time-sensitive exports just will not thrive with delays at the ports, regulatory divergence and punitive tariffs? (901147)

We are leaving the EU so that we can make our own regulatory decisions, including about how we manage our agriculture and horticulture. Of course we want to get the best possible free trade deal with the EU, but that does not mean continuously harmonising with its regulations.

The top source market of foreign direct investment projects coming into the UK continues to be the United States, by a considerable margin. Does that not underline the importance of Heathrow and of the transatlantic aviation route as an enabler of those deals? Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still committed to growth in that important market?

My right hon. Friend is correct to highlight the importance of Heathrow and transatlantic links with the US and beyond—not only for exports, but for foreign direct investment. I am sure that he and the rest of the House will be kept informed as Government policy develops.

T9. In the middle of last year, I visited the port of Rotterdam, a major trading port for us—for goods from not just within the EU but outside it as well. At the time, that port was taking on more than 300 new customs officers and more than 100 new vets for the trade in animals and animal products. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the UK ports are making similar arrangements? If so, can she give the House an estimate of the cost? (901148)

We are making extensive preparations at our ports to cater for all possible scenarios of outcome from the current talks with the European Union; we are very much following the philosophy of preparing for the worst but working for the best. We are making sure that, across Government, all the resources will be in place to deal with a whole range of eventualities as they may arise at the border.

Last weekend, worrying comments were reported in the Mail on Sunday questioning the need for UK farming and agriculture for our economy. This is at a time when farmers’ fields are saturated and they are lambing in really difficult conditions—they did not need that over their cornflakes on Sunday. Will my right hon. Friend give Stroud farmers and farmers across the UK confidence that the Government will stand up for them in all trade negotiations, and will she reconfirm their importance to our economy?

My hon. Friend is right: British farming is vital, for its food production, for its custodianship of the environment and for the enjoyment it provides in all our lives through its fantastic products. She will notice from the US negotiating objectives and scoping statement that agriculture will benefit, because there will be more opportunities to export our fantastic lamb and beef and we can cut tariffs on dairy products. There are lots of opportunities, and I want British farmers to take them up.

Unlike that Government aide, in the north-east we know that we do need farmers—not least because they protect our glorious Northumberland and County Durham countryside. Can the Secretary of State give a commitment to protecting the small-scale farmers and their high-welfare and farming standards in any trade deal?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, we are developing new farming support policies to supersede the common agricultural policy. Those will be much more suited to British farmers, making sure that we are supporting farmers to protect the environment and produce great products. In our trade agreements I have been very clear that there will be no diminution in our standards.

Some of our closest friends and most productive trading relationships have always been in the Commonwealth, and it is time that this was reinvigorated. What are Ministers doing to explore Commonwealth free trade?

I hosted a meeting in London last year with the Commonwealth Trade Ministers. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm to work more closely together. One of our first priority trade deals will be with Australia and New Zealand. We are also creating a Commonwealth caucus at the World Trade Organisation. Commonwealth countries represent 33% of delegates to the WTO. We can be a real force in making the case for free trade and for small countries not to be overwhelmed by big trading blocs.

What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that food standards are upheld in future trade agreements, specifically to protect infant and child health?

We are very clear that in future trade agreements, we will maintain our food standards. We were clear about that in the US objectives and we will be clear about it in subsequent objectives.