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Topical Questions

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

On 4 March, we struck a historic deal with the US Administration, heralding the end of the 16-year Airbus-Boeing dispute. The deal removes the 25% tariffs on some UK exports, such as Scotch whisky, cashmere and machinery. It paves the way for an even deeper trading relationship with one of our closest friends and allies. I continue to work with the US trade representative on the deal and on our broader trading relationship.

As co-chair of the all-party group for Fairtrade, may I please ask the Secretary of State what steps her Department is taking to make sure that our trade policies help and support Fairtrade farmers and growers across the world?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on the all-party group. The UK is a long-standing supporter and champion of Fairtrade. We are opening up markets with developing countries such as Kenya and Ghana. We will shortly be launching our new general scheme of preferences, which will give more access to developing countries, helping them to grow through trade.

The New Zealand Government announced last month their policy towards countries such as the UK seeking to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They said: “New members…will need to comply with the existing…agreement. The text of the Agreement will not change. Current rules and obligations…will not change.” Is the Secretary of State concerned that that sounds very much like we will be rule-takers in the CPTPP, rather than rule-makers? (914265)

The UK is a country that follows the rules. We have very high standards in areas like the environment, animal welfare, food standards and intellectual property. It is in our interests to be in an agreement with high standards, so that we can ask the same of other countries and get access to their markets. That is the point of signing trade agreements.

As we follow the covid-19 road map and move from response to recovery, it is vital that we offer our small and medium-sized businesses the tools and support that they need to find new markets, grow their exports and spur on our economic growth. Will the Minister set out what steps the Department is taking to make sure that our SMEs are supported on the world stage? (914272)

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the importance of supporting SMEs precisely to get into that international business space. That is why we are developing a new export strategy. We have the developing Export Academy, with a range of toolkits and information to support small businesses. We have the internationalisation fund: £38 million of grants to help businesses to overcome any barriers to international trade. Last but not least, we have UK Export Finance, our award-winning credit agency, which has increasing numbers of staff not only across this United Kingdom, but across the world to make sure that SMEs, wherever they go, can be financed and supported to realise those opportunities, which are many.

Sixty per cent. of Wales’s exports have been to the EU and steel is of great importance. Given that the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts showed that the Brexit deal would lead to a 4% reduction in our GDP, and given that they are removing the safeguards on steel in June, does the Secretary of State accept that the overall amount and value of exports from Wales in the next five years will be less than it was in the previous five years due to the Government’s policies? (914266)

First, we are not removing the safeguards in June. When we were part of the EU, decisions about safeguards were made on an independent basis. Nobody on the Opposition side of the House complained about that then, but they seem to object to independent decisions being made when we are a sovereign nation, which I find utterly bizarre. And I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s pessimistic prognosis of the future of Welsh exports. We have massive opportunities for more beef exports, more lamb exports, more car exports and more aerospace exports, and that is what we are going to do through our new trade and investment hub in Cardiff. It is going to be driving those opportunities and I urge him to get behind it.

In Ipswich, we are fortunate to have an incredibly engaged local Indian community, many of whom run businesses sourcing goods coming from India. Also down the road, let us not forget, is Felixstowe, which takes in most of the goods that come in from India and then go around the rest of the country. Do the Government have any plans to closely engage with local communities, such as the Indian community in Ipswich, and possibly introduce cultural exchanges to bridge any cultural barriers there may be and therefore increase and boost trade between our country and our close friends, India? (914274)

I would be delighted to engage with the local Indian community in Ipswich and across the country, because I think we have huge opportunities to expand our trade with India. It is currently £24 billion, but it could be so much more. We are currently working on an enhanced trade partnership with the Indian Government and I look forward to engaging with my hon. Friend and the people of Ipswich to make it happen.

May I ask the Secretary of State if she understands the frustration of the Cheshire Cheese Company, whose co-founder, I understand, spoke to officials in her Department before Easter about the problems that they are facing exporting to the EU? Extraordinarily, instead of being given advice on how to fix the problem, they were advised to look for other emerging markets. Given the Secretary of State’s infamous passion for cheese, will she tell us whether her departmental officials could not have done better? (914267)

Since the announcement that Immingham and the Humber ports have been designated as a freeport and that their application scored high in every category, businesses from around my constituency have been contacting me to welcome the announcement. They see it as part of the Government’s global Britain policies. What plans does the Department have to ensure that they can benefit from the freeport and explore new markets? (914277)

Like my hon. Friend, I am celebrating the freeport, which will make a positive difference and from which businesses will be able to export all around the world. Our export academy, the new export strategy and other elements are all there to help them to make the most of it, as well as, of course, probably the most ambitious trade policy ever conducted by a major economy in history, which we are successfully prosecuting. If I may, Mr Speaker, I would also like to thank my hon. Friend for briefing me ahead of my visit to Serbia last week, prosecuting the case for British businesses, in his role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans.

It is now almost six weeks since the Government signed a trade agreement between the UK and Cameroon, which many of us want to read, to see how it will address the shocking human rights abuses taking place in that country. Will the Secretary of State explain why the agreement has not yet been laid before Parliament, and will she guarantee a debate when it is? (914269)

The text, and a parliamentary report and explanatory memorandum, will of course come before Parliament in due course. We wish to utilise the agreement to strengthen the trade ties between our two countries. I look forward to the Labour party supporting our agenda to create more jobs in every part of this country and in Cameroon.

I have been delighted to work with the excellent team at the Department of International Trade in setting up the parliamentary export programme in Wakefield, which several Wakefield businesses have joined. The programme has allowed them to learn the benefits of exporting under the free trade agreements that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her excellent, dynamic team have signed thus far. With more free trade agreements to be ratified, including with blocs such as the CPTPP, can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what benefits these new agreements will bring to businesses in Wakefield and across West Yorkshire? (914280)

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting the trade agenda so effectively in Wakefield. He is quite right that free trade agreements have a crucial role to play in enabling the UK to seize international opportunities to support that economic vision. Joining CPTPP now will benefit businesses in a number of ways, including through ambitious rules supporting digital trade and reduced tariffs on UK exports, enabling us to build back better and building more opportunities for businesses, supporting jobs in constituencies such as Wakefield.

In its annual report on human rights around the world, Amnesty International says that the UK Government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards upholding and preserving human rights legislation raises “serious concerns”. Indeed, the report specifically cited the resumption of the sale of new licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia. Does the Minister agree with Amnesty International’s conclusion that this shameful move has contributed to the UK’s“headlong rush into abandoning...human rights”? (914275)

Not at all. We have always been clear that more trade need not come at the expense of our values, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear earlier today. We have one of the most robust systems of arms export controls in the world and have always been clear that we will only permit exports on a case-by-case basis where the consolidated criteria are upheld.

Will my right hon. Friend set out what progress her Department is making on meeting the 2.3% public sector apprenticeship target and when it will meet it, and also say what she is doing to encourage all the businesses that she speaks to about international trade to employ apprentices? (914288)

I commend my right hon. Friend for his work to promote apprenticeships, first in the Government and then as Chair of the Education Committee. It is too early to have final figures for 2021, but we are confident of achieving the legislative target set, building on our previous performance. According to Cabinet Office statistics, DIT achieved 3.5% of its total workforce in England as apprenticeship starts in 2019-20, up from 1.1% the year before, easily clearing the target of 2.3%.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.