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Topical Questions

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

The UK signed a trade and economic development memorandum with the state of Indiana on 27 May. The first such arrangement between the UK and an individual US state, it forms part of our twin-track approach to trading with the United States, seeking out ways to unlock barriers for business at state level in addition to our engagement at federal level. We are to sign further memorandums of understanding in the coming weeks.

May we have a cross-Government effort on post-Brexit reform to ensure that our regulation does more to facilitate competition and new market entrants? That is crucial not only to grow our domestic economy but to secure trade agreements and boost international trade.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She is one of the authors of the appropriately named TIGRR report—the report of the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform—which pointed to some great ideas and focused on how we can ensure that our regulation is enabling, not a barrier to deepening trade ties and opening up opportunities for our citizens. In addition to our work on our domestic regime, we are, as I said earlier, working with other nations and getting our regulators to talk together, so that we can improve our international trade opportunities.

Mr Speaker, I echo your words about Jo Cox, whose ongoing legacy is testament to her remarkable dedication and compassion. Members across the House will be thinking of her family today.

Steel is a foundational industry for our economy, yet Members across the House will be aware of the difficulties that steelworkers have been through in recent years, from the US tariffs to the current cost of living crisis. The clock is ticking for the UK steel sector, with just 14 days left for the Secretary of State to make a decision on whether current trade safeguards remain in place. Will the Minister of State help to remove the uncertainty by urging the Secretary of State to make that decision today?

The Secretary of State needs no urging, but it is important that she is able to make the right decision on this. The steel safeguards reconsideration is ongoing. I know the deadline is looming. My right hon. Friend is carefully considering all the information that has been presented to her. Obviously, we expect a decision very shortly. We understand its importance to the steel sector, both producers and end users.

To say that a decision is expected shortly simply is not good enough. To ensure that this vital industry can survive, Ministers must stop dragging their feet and act urgently to safeguard the steel sector. Jobs and livelihoods in our communities are at risk. Labour backs UK steel. Does the Minister of State not accept that the reality is that, with time passing, Ministers are too busy propping up the Prime Minister to act decisively for the people?

With regard to the right hon. Member’s last comment, it is always a good indication that we do not have to look at the ONS statistics to know that the trade numbers are going the right way when the Opposition spokesman wants to ask questions that are not related to trade. This Secretary of State has done a huge amount to support the steel and aluminium industries of the UK, not least in managing to renegotiate the decision on section 232 tariffs. She will continue to do that and she will make an announcement on the safeguarding issue very shortly.

T2. As the UK decarbonises our economy to deliver net zero, it is vital that a carbon border adjustment mechanism is implemented to prevent carbon leakage to other parts of the world, to ensure that our own domestic producers are not undercut and to create jobs. Will my right hon. Friend provide an update on the Government’s work to deliver the mechanism, particularly with regard to international co-operation with the EU and the US? (900512)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. We recognise that the risk of carbon leakage is a very real one, and on 16 May we announced our intention to consult on a range of possible mitigation options, including product standards and a carbon border adjustment mechanism. We are working with our international partners and we are clear that any policies we consider will have to fit in with other UK priorities, which include the cost of living, economic growth, and our commitment to the World Trade Organisation, free and fair trade and the needs of developing nations.

According to Action Aid, the UK’s position on trade and women’s rights has yet to be set out through a clear, comprehensive UK trade strategy. Further to this, Action Aid has also accused the UK Government of taking a quick delivery approach to securing free trade agreements. In the SNP, however, we have committed to adopting a feminist foreign policy in an independent Scotland, and this work is being undertaken. In their current and future trade deal negotiations, will the UK Government commit to conducting gender-specific impact assessments of its free trade deals, not just economic impact assessments? Will the Department commission an independent statutory body to conduct these gender-just impact assessments?

I am delighted to be able to confirm that Britain is committed to creating a global trade policy that ensures that women have the same opportunities from trade as men, and that women worldwide can benefit from trade as a route to prosperity. That reflects a core element of this Government’s modernising trade agenda. We recognise that women face varied and disproportionate barriers to trade in some areas, and that they are underrepresented among entrepreneurs and businesses that export, and we will continue to do more to ensure that everyone benefits from global trade.

T5. My constituents in beautiful Hastings and Rye are concerned about the environment and climate change, but they are also aware that our local businesses need to expand their trade exports across the globe to benefit from post-Brexit freedoms. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to tackle climate change through trade policy? (900516)

Last month the Secretary of State set out priorities for green trade, both in the global green transition and in maximising opportunities for the UK by driving global action on trade and the environment multilaterally through our engagement in the G7 and the World Trade Organisation while strengthening bilateral co-operation through our free trade agreement agenda. By 2030, low-carbon industries could generate up to £170 billion-worth of UK exports. For example, UK Export Finance’s climate change strategy commits it to achieving net zero across its portfolio and operations by 2050. In 2021, UKEF provided £3.6 billion-worth of support for sustainable projects, an increase of 50% on the previous year.

T3. This morning we have heard some frankly staggering attempts to present a dreadful UK-EU trade context as some kind of triumph, but that simply will not wash with my constituents who are struggling with increased red tape when exporting to EU member states. Rather than building stronger trade links with our closest neighbours, Ministers are now ripping up the agreement they negotiated and risking a trade war with the EU. What is the Secretary of State doing to improve trading links with Europe and to end disruption for businesses? (900514)

I remind the hon. Lady of the trader support service and the export support service, which are there to provide bespoke support to businesses. I encourage her to put them in touch with her constituents.

I am afraid the figures do not bear out what the hon. Lady is saying. The increase in goods exports to the EU, to which the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) alluded, has in part been driven by an 8.1% increase in exports from the UK to the EU in April compared with March. We are bouncing back from the pandemic and the difficulties as we changed our border and left the EU. The country is improving on that front. Where issues remain, whether for the hon. Lady’s local businesses or for the Northern Ireland protocol, we are determined to resolve them.

T6. Many of my constituents work in the nearby Port Talbot steelworks, located just outside my Bridgend constituency. Will my right hon. Friend give an assessment of the impact on the UK steel sector of removing US tariffs on UK steel? (900517)

I thank my hon. Friend for all his work to champion the steel industry. The 500,000-tonne annual quota secured for steel exporters is almost double the annual volume of UK steel exports to the US between 2018 and 2019, and it provides a significant opportunity for the UK industry to increase its supply to US customers.

T4. According to the latest figures from the Food and Drink Federation, despite the Minister’s earlier remarks, UK food and drink exports to the EU in the first quarter of 2022 were still £600 million lower than in the first quarter of 2019. Given the continual shortfall in post-Brexit trade with our largest trading partner, does she think embarking on a wholly unnecessary trade war is wise? If not, what will she do to avert it? (900515)

The statistics I quoted are from the Office for National Statistics. Across all goods there is a marked improvement, but we want to do more in the food and drink sector. That is why we are putting in place bespoke food, drink and agriculture attachés around the world to ensure our farmers and producers have more opportunities in global trade.

A trade deal with Israel would slash red tape and increase investment opportunities for both the UK and Israel. What progress have the Government made in securing a bilateral free trade deal with our close ally?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend raises this issue because, of course, our trade and partnership agreement was originally signed as one of the first continuity agreements back in 2019, but the Prime Minister announced last year that we would begin talks with Israel on an enhanced and improved UK-Israel free trade agreement. We have had a consultation, and I look forward to taking that work forward to boost our trade and investment relationship and to make sure the further ambitions of both nations are secured.

T7. Since Brexit, many UK companies have stopped exporting to the EU altogether, whatever the Minister is trying to sell us. The situation has become even worse for many of my small businesses in Bath since the closure of the SME Brexit support fund. Will the Government consider introducing a new version of that fund? (900518)

I would direct the hon. Lady’s businesses to contact the export support service, which provides practical assistance in overcoming particular issues. On top of that, we also have the internationalisation fund, the shared prosperity fund and the trade access programme. Picking on one pot that is no longer available misses the point. A whole range of financial support pots are available to businesses. If she would like directions to those pots, I am more than happy to write to her.

Obviously, we have agreed an enormous number of trade agreements, including several from scratch. We have a new export strategy and more support for British business; we have a new export finance mission; we are an Association of Southeast Asian Nations dialogue partner; we have a voice back at the World Trade Organisation; we have created the Trade Remedies Authority, to help support our own economic interests; we have set our own global tariff regime; we have streamlined nearly 6,000 tariff lines, lowering costs for business, and scrapped thousands of unnecessary tariff variations; we are creating a single trade window; we will have the most effective border in the world by 2025; and Mr Speaker will be very pleased to hear that we are bringing forward measures to ensure that cat fur products are not allowed to be traded. All this is in addition to blue passports and the prospect of the crown stamp on a pint of English beer.

T8. A recent London School of Economics report has found that between the end of 2019 and September 2021 UK-EU trade barriers led to a 6% increase in food prices in the UK. Will Ministers start being truthful and admit that the soaring prices are being caused not by the war in Ukraine but the Government’s post-Brexit trade agreement, which is causing so much hardship for my constituents in Glasgow? (900520)

The hon. Lady will know that work in government is looking at our global tariff and our tariff regime, with specific reference to ensuring that we are helping on the cost of living issues, which are really affecting our constituents. Leaving the EU has enabled us not only to make those decisions, but to treat developing nations with better preferences on tariffs, helping their economies as well as our own.

We heard a lot in the reply to an earlier question about exports of cheese. What initiatives are the Government planning to extend the export market for seafood? My constituency and neighbouring Grimsby are major centres for excellent seafood.

The Food and Drink Federation reported last month that food and drink exports are showing strong recovery as they get back up to pre-covid levels. Some of the specific actions we are taking include the creation of a new food and drink export council; this is between the Department and the sector, so that we continue the collaboration. We have also announced a new £1 million export fund to support our world-class seafood exporters, and held food and drink spring export showcases in the UK and overseas. I also urge my hon. Friend to contact me and I will arrange a briefing with our trade commissioner for China, where seafood exports are absolutely booming.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda is an excellent opportunity to promote trade with the Commonwealth. As chair of the all-party group on Africa, I am well aware of the important role that diaspora communities can play in growing trade, where familial and friendship links are so important. Newcastle, like many cities and towns in this country, has a number of Commonwealth diaspora communities. What specific help can people in Newcastle expect from this Department to trade with the countries they, their parents or their grandparents may have come from?

I thank the hon. Lady for that important question. She will know that both import and export figures with regard to Commonwealth nations are increasing quite substantially. There are many schemes that both our Department and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have in place. Obviously the local enterprise partnership networks are also assisting with this.

When a group of us from the British-American Parliamentary Group visited California last month, we were much impressed by the work of our trade teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, those teams would be able to be even more effective if they had more flexibility to employ local staff, in line with prevailing labour market rates, as filling vacancies is a problem. What will the Government do to enable them to do that?

We are doing several pieces of work on that, but one thing we are looking at in respect of our memorandums of understanding and our economic dialogues with individual states is the mutual recognition of qualifications. We are focusing on technical trades in particular, with legal, accountancy and audit, engineering and architecture being the trailblazers. This will not only help UK firms to win more business but help with the labour-market issues that are affecting businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

How are Ministers planning to promote the Trade Remedies Authority to businesses in Scotland, to increase the awareness and take-up of its services where necessary?

They should follow the hon. Lady’s example: I know that she attended the session with the Trade Remedies Authority. It is incredibly important that we get the message out to businesses that the TRA is an independent body with which they can take up issues. I thank the hon. Lady for attending and for enabling me to say that at the Dispatch Box today.

There are significant opportunities for British exporters to the Gulf states that are members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, not least because we already export a lot and because the barriers for our exporters are greater than those for GCC exports to the UK. Will my hon. Friend update me on what progress is being made on achieving such a deal?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised the great opportunity there is with the Gulf Co-operation Council. The bloc is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and is a major trading partner of Britain, with something like £23 billion-worth of trade. We closed our public consultation some time ago and are raring to go on negotiations on an FTA with the GCC very soon.

Will the Minister outline what steps have been taken to solidify our technological partnership with Israel, in the light of the tremendous advances that come from that nation, and the potential that home tech companies have to expand if we can build relationships more effectively?

Israel is one of the middle east’s most dynamic and innovative economies and there is a great opportunity in tech in particular. It is not only a bilateral opportunity but a multilateral or plurilateral opportunity: I was recently in Brazil, which is interested in a three-way partnership between Brazil, the United Kingdom and Israel.