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Topical Questions

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

The Department’s five-star year 2022 has begun at pace with the launch of our India free trade agreement negotiations, the signing of the sovereign investment partnership with Oman, discussions with Brazil towards an economic trade partnership, the launch of our new and improved trade show programme, and the virtual African investment summit taking place today. As I mentioned earlier, yesterday I met with US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to start negotiations with the US on the section 232 tariffs. These have cost the steel industry over £60 million per year; I am firmly pressing for their express removal and am confident we can now make fast progress towards this to ensure that trade works in the interests of all UK businesses and workers.

Further to my earlier question with regard to US steel tariffs and section 232, what are the chances of our getting those tariffs lifted, given that the Prime Minister is playing fast and loose with security policy on Northern Ireland, particularly through doing his best to trash the Northern Ireland protocol?

We will be pushing for a deal that is right for the UK steel industry and I am confident that the long-standing alliance between the UK and the US, built on a rich history of shared values and free and fair trade, will ensure that the negotiating outcomes are what we need for UK industry. The UK and the US work together across the piece in so many difficult areas at the moment and I hope that those in all parts of the House will continue to give support as we take on some of those challenging security issues.

T2. With over £2.6 billion-worth of exports, I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the Black Country is, and will remain, the beating industrial heart of the west midlands. As she goes out with ministerial colleagues to bat for the Black Country on the industrial stage, what is she doing to ensure that supply chain issues in particular are at the forefront of our trade negotiations, and that businesses such as KJV Furniture in Oldbury are able to import and export smoothly; and will she ensure that once again other areas of the world can see the fantastic wares that are made in the Black Country? (905126)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. A key challenge facing the UK and other major exporters is shipping container costs, and there is ongoing engagement across Government, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Department for Transport, to ensure that we understand the background causes of price rises and their impacts, such as by contacting the shipping lines and engaging with international partners where necessary to address the key issue of supply lines that my hon. Friend raised.

Given the Government’s underwhelming performance on trade to date, even the small gains from joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership would be welcome, but one issue that the previous Secretary of State always ducked was China’s interest. Given President Xi’s reaffirmation on Monday of China’s desire to join the CPTPP, can the Secretary of State clarify whether Britain would have the right to veto China’s accession?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. These issues are very complex, but what I will say is that we are first in the queue to join CPTTP, and after that all things are up for review.

T5. The last couple of years have been extremely difficult for the shell fishermen in Cornwall, include those on the River Fal, which has one of the most historic and sustainable fisheries in the world. That said, fishing communities across the UK will benefit from the £75 million boost to the sector; can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure me that the Department will work with the Cornish fishermen benefiting from this investment and help them further capitalise on it by ensuring that they are able to play their part in the Government’s “Race to a Trillion” strategy? (905129)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly for her constituency, and I can give the assurance that the Government will continue to work closely with Seafish and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain to encourage their members to look at new markets and drive awareness of UK seafood in international markets. We have a network of trade advisers in the UK and overseas who can support the sector to trade successfully, and I am happy to put any of her businesses in contact with them.

In December, the Government snuck through a change to the UK’s arms export rules, and charities such as Oxfam have warned that these changes will lessen transparency over arms exports and could see UK arms being used against civilians such as those in Yemen. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that UK arms exports are not used to commit breaches of international humanitarian law?

The Government have not “snuck through” such changes. We are very open and transparent about the policies that sit behind our very good arms export controls, which are also scrutinised by this House. The Department is due to meet a number of stakeholders; I can check whether Oxfam is part of that. We meet regularly to discuss these issues. We have one of the best arms export regimes in the world; it is flexible and changes as situations change. The hon. Lady will know that we recently made some new changes because of what is happening in parts of the world. She should be confident in what we are doing on that.

T6. The Government will be aware of the global shortage of semiconductor chips. The impact of that is being felt far more by SMEs than the largest companies, which can make large purchases years in advance. What steps are the Government taking to support those SMEs to import semiconductors so that they can keep operating? If I write to the Department, will they look at a specific constituency case of mine? (905130)

My hon. Friend raises what is a vital point in a global economy. The Government are carrying out a review of the UK’s international and domestic approach to semiconductor supply chains. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading that review, supported by the Department for International Trade. We also support growth in the UK semiconductor sector by driving investment—for example, by promoting the world-leading compound semiconductor cluster in south Wales, as part of our high potential opportunities programme. If my hon. Friend would care to write to the Department, we will of course take up the constituency issue.

T3. The European Union secured a comprehensive exemption from the section 232 steel tariffs way back on 30 October 2021. Here we are, almost three months later, and talks with the UK Government are only just starting. To ensure that the talks proceed smoothly and rapidly, we need to understand the cause of the delay. Does the Secretary of State agree that the probable cause is the Government’s shambolic handling of the Northern Ireland protocol? If she does not think that is the cause, perhaps she will enlighten the House about what she thinks the cause of the delay has been. (905127)

As I have outlined today, I am pleased that yesterday we were able to formally launch our negotiations with the US to find a solution to the section 232 tariffs, which have been unreasonably imposed on the UK for a number of years. The EU quantum of steel was of importance to the US, which wanted to start those negotiations because the impacts on both sides were great. We are very pleased that the UK is now able to progress on what will be a very important impact, and release some of the pressures on our excellent steel industry.

T9. As some of my colleagues have already pointed out, it would be wrong to say that there is not some nervousness in rural Scotland about what the deal with Australia will mean. Some of that is caused by the anti-trade scaremongering on the SNP Benches, but will the Minister expand on the opportunities for Scotland as a result of our deal with Australia? (905133)

The UK-Australia free trade agreement could boost Scotland’s economy by about £120 million. The deal will help boost Scottish exports by removing tariffs of up to 5% on Scotch whisky and through additional commitments to release goods from customs quickly. Scotland’s services firms will also benefit from access to billions of pounds’ worth of Australian Government contracts. Staff will be able to travel for work with easier access to temporary entry visas.

T4. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether she is still undertaking discussions with UK trade partners on inserting clauses on investor-state dispute settlement systems into future trade deals? There is evidence that they are opaque and could open the UK to law suits from multinational corporations. Will she confirm whether she is still pursuing them? (905128)

Every free trade agreement is negotiated in relation to the other country and we will continue to work with those as we build these, to look at how we best bring together free trade agreements that will be beneficial to UK businesses and consumers.

Last Friday, along with a number of local businesses, I took part in a meeting of the parliamentary export programme for my constituency businesses. What additional initiatives do Ministers have to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, to look at and engage in the export market?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support of the parliamentary export scheme. It is about to be refreshed and relaunched so that we can provide additional support to any of our parliamentary colleagues who wish to engage with companies in their constituency about exports. I ask him to hold fire while we relaunch it, and he will be one of the first I contact.

T7. May I bring the Secretary of State’s attention to the analysis published recently by the Scotch whisky industry, showing that even a phased reduction of the 150% tariffs on its products sold into industry could bring back a £1 billion increase in exports and something in the region of 1,300 UK jobs? As she continues with the dialogue with India about a trade deal, will she give us some commitment that the reduction and elimination of that tariff would be one of her biggest priorities in an early harvest agreement? [R] (905131)

As I said, the negotiations with our Indian counterparts have just begun. We will not discuss the details of the negotiations while they are going on, but I have been very clear with the Indians and through our consultation process that we will want to see movement on issues such as high tariffs on some of our iconic UK products.

My apologies for not being here earlier, Mr Speaker. Clearly, the start of the talks with our friends in India is extremely welcome news, particularly for Scotch whisky exporters, who could gain tremendously. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the projected timetable, and will she publish some objectives in relation to what we are attempting to achieve with our friends in India?

Following our discussions last week, Minister Goyal and I were very clear that we want our negotiating teams to crack on and get a clear picture of the areas that we want to bring together in our free trade agreement with India. We have set our negotiators an initial target to see whether we can bring this to a conclusion at the end of this year or in early 2023.

British wine traders have expressed concern that the Chancellor’s reforms to alcohol duty might lead to higher prices and less choice in wine. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her Cabinet colleagues about the impact of these reforms on industry’s ability to trade effectively?

The Chancellor brought in duty reforms that are focused on health: the higher the amount of alcohol, the higher the tariff. Interestingly, as I have been travelling the world, I have mentioned the policy to other countries, and they see it as a really intelligent way to ensure that they balance the opportunities from the healthy management of alcohol drinking and the opportunities that fantastic producers—such as all of ours in the UK—have to reach a wider audience while ensuring that people always drink carefully and wisely.

Our co-operation with Saudi Arabia on defence and security helps to maintain hundreds of jobs at BAE Warton on the Fylde coast. What steps are the Government taking to further develop that relationship and the opportunities for trade with Saudi Arabia?

We have just finished a consultation with British businesses, citizens and civil society on their aspirations for a free trade agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is an important part. My hon. Friend knows that that will provide the opportunity to reduce tariffs and streamline market access barriers. He will also be aware, from the excellent report by BAE Systems, that there are well over 500—maybe even 600—jobs in Blackpool because of the presence of BAE Systems in that part of our country, which shows the importance of our strategic exports.

This Government, as we know, have blundered many times, and now a lobster or a leg of chicken cannot be sold to any country in the world without five, eight or 10 bits of paperwork. I am trying to prevent another blunder.

The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys supports the accession to CPTPP, but cautions that

“we believe that if the UK were to sign up the CPTPP IP chapter as currently drafted, this could have unintended consequences”

for our reputation as an international patent leader, for innovative small and medium-sized enterprises, for UK GDP and for the UK patent profession. It asks that

“the UK…should take a very firm position and insist on carve outs for the UK from these provisions of CPTPP.”

Will the Department take up that ask and insist that it happens?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. It is in my diary to meet him in the next few weeks; I suggest that he brings that paper with him and we can have a more fruitful discussion.

Can the Minister outline how much cotton and how many products to construct solar panels have been imported into the UK from Xinjiang in the past year?

I can certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with the information that our Department and others may hold on the matter. May I reassure him again that it is welcome that he has raised it today and that we are taking it very seriously?

Earlier, I mentioned a company in my patch called Gestamp. The motor trade is a worldwide business; Gestamp supplies to Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Volvo and all their factories throughout the world. What is being done to help its research and development efforts to make sure that it remains a world leader?

I think that a letter is winging its way towards my hon. Friend about various issues that he has raised with us, which will outline what we are doing to ensure that we are competitive and creating the right environment to get inward investment. He will know that we have a huge focus and push on science and technology, spearheaded in part by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), as Science Minister. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) has raised with my Department are being listened to and are well made.

Yesterday, the permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade told the Public Accounts Committee that 85% of post-Brexit trade deals have simply replicated the deals that we already had with the European Union. Does it really represent such a resounding success at knocking down trade barriers if 85% of the barriers that the Government are knocking down are barriers that they put up in the first place?

A lot of work needed to be done in all areas of Government, including trade, to roll over legislation to our statute book and move trade agreements to a new statutory footing. The opportunity has come for what we can do next. It is not just about the big economic benefits that we usually discuss in our meetings and sessions, but about what we can do to help developing nations. Many of the economic partnership agreements that have taken a long time to make, for example with countries in Africa, will not only provide economic benefits to the UK but lift millions of people out of poverty.

Talks on steel and aluminium tariffs have started, but Washington has still to confirm the apparent virtual plan. The British economy, instead of becoming global post Brexit, is not. My constituents at the Dalzell works in Motherwell want to see progress on the punitive tariffs so that they can sell to the Americans. The relationship between President Biden and the current Prime Minister is not particularly rosy, but can the Secretary of State confirm that whoever is Prime Minister in the upcoming time, she will ask them to intervene and get this sorted?

I am thrilled that we were able to launch the negotiations formally yesterday. I will make sure that I keep in touch with all across the UK steel industry as we move forward. The US Secretary of Commerce and I have been clear, through our teams, that we want to resolve the matter at pace, and that is what we will be doing.