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Free Trade Agreements: Cameroon and Ghana

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)

Thank you very much for granting this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. While the UK-Australia trade deal has been getting a great deal of attention recently, I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the UK’s agreements with Cameroon and Ghana. I wish to raise the opportunities that the Minister and his Department have missed and the distressing lack of ambition that has been shown in these deals.

Throughout the passage of the Trade Act 2021, I and many other Members across the House raised our concerns about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals. That is just as true of these roll-over deals as it is of the brand new free trade agreements. In fact, calling these deals “roll-over deals” is somewhat misleading. While they have received very little public or parliamentary attention, they are of huge importance for Ghanaian and Cameroonian partners. The original EU deals on which these deals are based included mechanisms for ongoing parliamentary dialogue between the EU Parliament and their Ghanaian and Cameroonian counterparts.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter forward; the number of people who are here is an indication of the interest in this issue. Does she agree that historically the UK has used these arrangements to encourage liberalisation of public services and regulations, and that at times this can limit the policy space available to Governments in developing countries and prevents them from regulating their economies in the public and democratic interest? Does she further agree that, when it comes to a free trade agreement, we must be careful to build up and not make life too difficult for these nations?

The hon. Member is precisely right; that is a very real danger of these deals.

Parliamentary scrutiny has not been replicated in the new deal, which means there is no ongoing scrutiny of this deal for UK MPs, and nor have MPs been involved in setting the mandate for negotiations. As a result of the Trade Act, my honourable colleagues and I have no guaranteed vote or debate on the final deal, instead relying on the CRaG— Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—process, which was not designed for modern trade deals and is therefore not fit for purpose.

The hon. Lady, like me, has heard the Government say many times that the most important thing about Brexit is being able to take our own decisions on issues such as trade, rather than the EU doing so, and that the British Parliament should have a final say in all these decisions. Does she understand why the Government now insist that we must roll over exactly the same deal that the EU had with Cameroon without any questions asked, and with no changes, and that Parliament has no right to a final vote on that deal? Does that sound like taking back control to her?

I thank the hon. Lady. No, it does not, and at every stage the Government have refused any kind of scrutiny, either of their EU deals or, as she says, the roll-over deals that have followed.

I thank the hon. Lady for holding this really important debate, evidenced by the number of people who are here tonight. She will be aware that the shadow Trade Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), asked the Government to hold a debate and crucially a vote on the UK’s new deal with Cameroon, but is she aware that the Secretary of State rejected that request on the basis that there had been a 14-minute debate on the previous EU deal in the other place back in November 2010 and therefore no further debate would be required? Does she think that sounds like a Government who care about parliamentary scrutiny, let alone human rights?

The hon. Member admirably makes my point for me: at every stage this Government have refused scrutiny. We cannot and do not have any oversight at all of what the British Government are doing in our name and how they are supporting our African partners.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) said, the hon. Lady will have heard the Foreign Secretary say that, when it comes to trade deals,

“I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.”

The Biya regime is responsible for mass executions, burning villages, the killing of women, children and the elderly, torture, disappearances and sexual abuse. That is not just a one-off; it has happened on a sustained basis over four years against the English-speaking population. Can the hon. Lady possibly understand why the Government do not consider that that behaviour crosses the line and puts Cameroon well beyond the pale?

The hon. Gentleman is precisely right. The lack of scrutiny means that the events that he describes do not come to light and that we do not get an opportunity to express our view as a British Parliament on whether that is acceptable.

It is not only MPs to whom the Government are not listening. Ghana and Cameroon are part of the Economic Community of West African States, which is composed largely of least developed countries that have been automatically offered tariff-free access to the UK market under the Everything but Arms scheme. The Conservative Government had previously made it clear that regional trade was one of their major priorities for African economic development through the support of the UK’s aid budget, namely £4 million between 2010 and 2016, yet Ghana’s requests for an approach that would not cut across its ECOWAS commitments were consistently rebuffed. The liberalisation schedule will see Ghana beginning to open its markets to UK goods immediately, on a timetable that is at odds with its neighbours in the ECOWAS customs union. That totally undermines regional trade in west Africa.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I congratulate the hon. Lady on holding this really important debate that the Government have prevented. On her last point, does she agree that by rolling over individual trade agreements, the UK is losing the opportunity to put in place a generalised trade agreement with the combined African trade area, which could be pro-development and could support African countries through trade in a much more positive way?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. The point that I would like to make is that there are so many missed opportunities in this roll-over deal; the one that she mentions is absolutely an example.

With nothing stopping UK goods entering Ghana duty-free and leaking into neighbouring countries, those countries will need to introduce new border checks, which will significantly set back progress towards improved continental trading links. Does the Department have plans to do an ex post assessment of the impact of the deals on regional integration? If their effect is found to be damaging, will the Minister commit to reviewing them?

Not only have the Government not listened to Ghana, but at the beginning of this year, when roll-over deals had failed to be agreed on time, they imposed tariffs on imports from Ghana and Cameroon. In January, Brexit tariffs were imposed on a shipment of Fairtrade goods from Africa that arrived into Portsmouth, including £17,500 on shipments of bananas from Ghana. The UK has worked hard through the Fairtrade Foundation to ensure that the food coming into this country is of the same standard that we would expect our own producers to sell elsewhere.

The Government refused to waive or reimburse the tariffs, placing huge extra costs on importers, namely Fairtrade fruit and agriculture co-operatives. That totally undermines the efforts of the Ghanaian banana industry to protect the livelihoods of the many thousands of workers and their communities who rely on tariff-free access. It is outrageous that we are penalising developing countries that are improving labour rights, environmental standards and food standards. We should be supporting them.

I might make some progress, if that is okay.

Looking forward, it is essential that Ghana and Cameroon be supported through the implementation of these trade deals and any future trade facilitation. The UK is reneging on its obligations set out in the roll-over agreement to provide aid for trade. Ghana, Cameroon and many other countries in the Everything but Arms scheme have to change their export procedures to meet HMRC import procedures. We are imposing that cost on them. Why should they bear it? Can the Minister confirm whether Ghana or Cameroon will receive any aid to support the implementation of these deals?

In a letter to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Foreign Secretary implied that Cameroon will receive no bilateral aid this year. Are the Minister and his Department not concerned that that will have a negative impact on the implementation of the deal? The UK is currently not even meeting the financial burden that we have imposed, let alone further trade facilitation costs. Will the Minister commit to protecting TradeMark East Africa and future trade facilitation funding?

I am also deeply concerned about the lack of thorough impact assessments for these deals. Unlike for new trade agreements, the Department has not published scoping assessments, or any detail about the effect of these new deals on the economy, the environment, human rights or international development. The Government have not yet published their framework for how they are approaching impact assessments after Brexit, given that they are no longer bound by the EU scheme. This was due to be published in January 2021, but no such framework has appeared. I am therefore anxious about whether deals such as the Ghana and Cameroon ones are aligned with the UK’s broader human rights, women’s rights and environmental commitments.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this very important debate. Was she not especially surprised by the timing of the UK’s new deal with Cameroon, coming just weeks after the United States Senate unanimously backed a resolution supporting the US Government’s decision to suspend trade preferences with Cameroon, and urging other countries around the world to take similar action in solidarity? Does she think that the Secretary of State was not paying attention, or that she just did not care?

I would not presume to offer a view, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right: a massive opportunity here has been missed to address some of the human rights and other impacts on which we could have had an influence through this trade deal.

That brings me to my question to the Minister: how is the UK assessing the impact of trade deals beyond the very rudimentary scoping assessments that happen prior to negotiations. Women comprise the majority of the cheap labour pool in both Ghana and Cameroon. They are therefore particularly vulnerable to the disruptive impact of trade liberalisation. Cheap food imports following the removal of tariff barriers have been found to reduce the domestic prices of agricultural produce and to lower women’s agricultural earnings. For example, in Ghana and South Africa, the dumping of EU poultry products following the EU economic partnership agreements have left many of the local farmers unable to compete with the tonnes of frozen chicken dropped on African markets annually. Will the Minister explain how he will know whether the deals are rolling back progress on women’s economic rights if there are no ex-post assessments?

The Department has similarly shown a spectacular lack of ambition when it comes to the environmental provisions in the deals. The UK has actually taken a step backwards, choosing to replicate the approach taken in the EU-Ghana deal, rather than using the EU-West Africa EPA model, which includes provisions for parliamentary dialogue around environmental issues. I cannot understand why the UK has not used this model, which at least takes a step in the right direction, but has instead opted for the most basic option in both of these deals. The Department’s decision not to kick-start negotiations on a sustainable development chapter with Cameroon is a sorely missed opportunity to drive environmental objectives through trade. Ghana and Cameroon are currently suffering from deforestation and land use change resulting in environmental harm, yet these deals do nothing to move discussions forward on preventing illegal deforestation.

In the past, the UK has negotiated a voluntary partnership agreement with Indonesia about the timber industry to tackle deforestation. When countries such as Ghana and Cameroon said that they could not guarantee that timber was produced legally and was not contributing to deforestation, instead of working with these countries to improve regulations, the Department has chosen to provide no support at all.

I would also be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that the deal with Cameroon is aligned with the UK’s human rights commitments.

Does the hon. Lady agree that President Biya’s brutal and highly factional repression of the English-speaking minorities of the country, including those in the Buea region, are tantamount to human rights abuses, and the UK Government should urgently reconsider the economic partnership agreement signed with Cameroon in March?

I thank the hon. Member for his very valuable intervention. One of the key points that we need to impress on the Minister during this debate is the human rights angle.

The International Trade Committee has asked the Government to consider withdrawing trade preferences from Cameroon in the light of the human rights abuses in the country. Academic research shows that military assets provided by the international community are being transferred to the anglophone regions and used to persecute unarmed civilians, and the major national dialogue had no legitimacy in the eyes of anglophone civil society. I urge the Minister to press the Cameroon regime to call a ceasefire and participate in inclusive talks, mediated by a third party, such as Switzerland’s Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Finally, I want to talk about the use of rendez-vous clauses in both these agreements. I have two concerns. First, on top of the abysmally limited scrutiny that these deals are getting now, adding further areas of negotiation after they have been signed raises questions about how those additions can be effectively scrutinised. How would my honourable colleagues and I be able to hold the Government to account on what may be significant and potentially damaging new provisions?

My other concern is the substance of those future negotiations. Historically, the UK has used these negotiations to encourage liberalisation of public services and regulations. Committing to trade rules on services, investments or patents, for instance, could undermine a country’s ability to develop strong, gender-responsive public services, to ensure that investment creates decent jobs and benefits for local economies, or to achieve access to medicines for all. Developing countries have long resisted attempts to push those issues in the World Trade Organisation, and they should not be imposed by the UK in bilateral deals.

I thank the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. On that point, as she says, these trade deals require complex services to be admitted to the developing country while not providing it with support in order that it can export its products and services to the high-quality standards that we have in this country. Does she agree that that unequal use of legal and other powers is detrimental to the development agenda?

I absolutely agree. The main failing of these trade agreements has been the real failure to support development in both these countries. It is not in our long-term interest in any sense not to support the local economies in every way we possibly can.

Trade deals have real potential to foster improved regional trade, protect human rights and support environmental protections, but parliamentary scrutiny and dialogue are crucial to achieving those goals. These deals do nothing to raise standards.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it makes a mockery of parliamentary scrutiny for the Government to say that we cannot have a vote on the UK’s deal with Cameroon today because we had a debate on the EU’s deal 11 years ago, especially since the main objection that many of us have to the UK’s deal is the campaign of violence from the Biya regime against the English-speaking population of Cameroon, which began just four years ago? Perhaps, as well as buying us a new royal yacht, the International Trade Secretary might look to buy us a time machine.

“Mockery” is the exact word. That is absolutely right. The Government are treating this House with utter disdain.

These deals not only represent a missed opportunity but present a real danger of contributing to environmental damage, eroding women’s economic rights and undermining developing countries’ ability to create a policy agenda that benefits their citizens. Will the Minister take advantage of the UK’s opportunity to shape the future of the global trading system by striking considered trade deals that rise to the opportunities and challenges that we all face?

My thanks to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this debate, and I thank other right hon. and hon. Members for taking part.

We all know that trade is a key driver of economic growth that can trigger positive changes in a country’s economy. It helps to raise incomes, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. Of course, it has been the trade liberalisation over recent decades, sadly not embraced by so many on the left of politics, that has lifted more people out of poverty more quickly than ever before in human history—something that should be celebrated. Between 1990 and 2015, as trade liberalisation enhanced market access, the percentage of people across the globe living in extreme poverty plummeted from 36% to less than 10%.

We want no country to be left behind without the full benefits of free and fair trade, and we are determined to help people around the world get ahead on the strength of their enterprise and ingenuity. It is therefore excellent news that the agreements that we have secured with both Ghana and Cameroon provide tariff-free access to the UK market. That will provide a huge boost, encouraging export-led growth as well as supporting and creating jobs in Ghana and Cameroon.

Of course, increased trade with developing countries also creates opportunities for UK firms and consumers. These deals open up fast-growing markets to our exporters and provide British consumers with access to Cameroonian and Ghanaian goods, including firm favourites such as bananas and cocoa, at competitive prices. Both countries have also agreed to a gradual liberalisation of tariffs on UK goods. That will create further opportunities for our exporters, particularly of machinery and electronics, and will ensure that Ghana and Cameroon can continue to enjoy the best of British at competitive rates. These agreements will ensure that our trade with Ghana and Cameroon continues to blossom, and will support jobs and economic opportunity and living standards in Africa here and at home.

I have listened carefully to the Minister’s response so far. At the start of his speech he spoke about supporting the economy and increasing employment, and all the other great things that we hope to achieve through our trade deals, but could he be more specific about how this trade deal will help that? I listed in my speech a number of different ways in which I believe that these trade deals are undermining progress towards those goals. I shall be grateful if he will give us a little bit more detail.

I am happy to do so. Dealing with the issue around human rights, I hear the concerns that hon. Members have voiced, particularly about human rights abuses in Cameroon. [Interruption.] It is a serious topic, and it would be best served if we did not have so much chuntering from the Front Bench by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), as I am sure everyone would agree.

Our long-standing relationship with Cameroon allows us to have open, candid discussions on key issues. Violence does appear to have decreased in recent months compared with the peak of the conflict, but we continue to call for inclusive dialogue and an end to fighting in the north-west and south-west regions, through direct conversations with the Government of Cameroon and through international bodies, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park suggested we should. We have urged the Cameroonian Government to work with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and have called for impartial investigations to ensure that perpetrators are held to account.

In March, the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), travelled to Cameroon and met President Biya, Prime Minster Ngute and Foreign Minister Mbella Mbella and made our position clear. We continue to monitor closely the human rights situation with Cameroon—

I will not give way.

This Government’s position is that beneficial growth and support for democratic principles are not mutually exclusive; in fact, the former is an important part of the latter. As we all know, more prosperous countries tend to be more secure and peaceful. For that reason, our focus remains on ensuring trade continuity, full ratification of the agreement and supporting trade-led growth in Cameroon.

I will turn now, if I may, to trade with Ghana. Our agreement with Ghana was signed on 2 March, restoring trading terms that had applied until the end of 2020. Our Department had long sought to conclude an agreement with Ghana. We proposed a deal on the same terms as Ghana had with the EU; I do not recall the hon. Member for Richmond Park being so passionately opposed to it when it was an EU deal, but perhaps that just comes with her party badge. Despite our consistent attempts, Ghana chose not to engage in talks on that basis for over a year. Between the end of the transition period and the agreement’s coming into effect in March, Ghana was instead eligible for preferential tariff rates under our generalised scheme of preferences. The UK made every endeavour to avoid that gap, but doing so was not entirely within our gift.

Nevertheless, I am proud to say that once meaningful engagement was established, both sides worked at an exceptional pace. We were able to minimise disruption to businesses by concluding negotiations in record time, and we look forward to working with Ghana fully to realise the potential of this agreement to provide vital jobs and livelihoods, as well as strengthening our long-standing ties.

Of course, one of the problems, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that if you base a lot of your argument on briefings provided by pressure groups, you can sometimes be misled. A bridging mechanism—

The debate was obtained by the hon. Member for Richmond Park, and I do not think we need chuntering from the Opposition Front Bench, let alone so loud or rude.

I have no intention of giving way. I would like the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury to be quiet.

Order. We heard the contributions from the Opposition side in absolute silence. I now want to listen to the Minister’s response with the same courtesy.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

A bridging mechanism ensured continuity of Cameroon’s duty-free, quota-free access, so there was no disruption similar to that with Ghana; I am afraid that the hon. Member for Richmond Park was misled.

Some hon. Members have voiced concerns over the relationship between the Ghana agreement and that country’s ambitions for regional integration. Since 2016 the EU’s agreement with Ghana has been in place despite Ghana’s existing ECOWAS membership. That is also true of Côte d’Ivoire, another ECOWAS member with a trade agreement with the EU. Although this debate does not concern Côte d’Ivoire, it is worth noting that we have also rolled over that bilateral agreement. We are working closely with its Government to develop our relationship further. The UK’s agreements with both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire include provisions from the EU agreements on working towards a future trade agreement with the west Africa region. We look forward to discussing this prospect with our west African partners.

On scrutiny, it is important to note that Parliament has already had the opportunity to scrutinise existing EU agreements. As with all continuity agreements, we follow the statutory process of laying agreements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, but in line with this Government’s commitment to transparency, we went well beyond the statutory requirements of CRAG and provided comprehensive information to Parliament to support its scrutiny of our trade policy approach.

On the rendezvous clauses, our agreements with Ghana and Cameroon retain provisions from the original EU agreements, which provide for further negotiations relating to specific aspects of the treaties: for example, a provision to negotiate further commitments on sustainable development with Cameroon. This is in line with the principle of providing continuity of effect that has guided our approach to all continuity agreements. The parties are not obliged to make changes. Any updates would be negotiated, and changes to treaties would be subject to further parliamentary scrutiny. [Interruption.]

I now turn—preferably without further chuntering from the Opposition Front Bench—to the concerns that hon. Members have raised regarding the environmental provisions in these agreements. In line with our international obligations, the Government will continue to ensure a high level of protection for the environment in all new trade agreements. We have long supported the promotion of our green values globally, and this will continue now that we have left the EU and become an independent trading nation once again.

The UK’s trade agreements with Ghana and Cameroon secure liberalised tariffs for businesses and pave the way for further economic growth as the world seeks to build back better from covid-19. These deals give British consumers access to more products at competitive prices and will see more of the best of British enjoyed by the people of Ghana and Cameroon—something that it seems the hon. Member for Richmond Park is not in favour of.

I can assure the House that we remain alert to human rights and environmental concerns at all times, but we believe—unlike, it would seem, Opposition Members—that encouraging greater trade gives us an opportunity to offer a hand up to those most in need by creating the opportunities and employment they need to rise out of poverty. If we took on the suggestions of Opposition Members, we would do the opposite: we would close the door to those countries and the opportunity for their people to prosper and grow. These agreements are further evidence of global Britain’s determination to champion free trade—something that so clearly does not have many advocates on the Opposition Benches. We will champion free trade around the world that fosters growth, creates jobs, and raises living standards for all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.