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UK’s Relationship with Mexico

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK’s relationship with Mexico.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Gray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving time for this debate, and I look forward to hearing from my colleagues, all of whom have a deep interest in Mexico and its people.

I am pleased to have secured the debate, not just because we are nearing the 213th anniversary of Mexican independence and 200 years since the establishment of UK diplomatic relations with Mexico, but because I believe that this is the first time since 1938 that Parliament has found time to specifically debate UK-Mexico relations. Given Mexico’s immense economic, geopolitical and cultural importance the world over, I trust that hon. Members present will agree that this discussion is long overdue.

I am also pleased to say that this debate takes place in a far warmer diplomatic climate than its predecessor 85 years ago. I am sure that no one needs reminding that in 1938 our two countries had just severed diplomatic ties. The Mexican Government of the time, fresh off a progressive social revolution, had moved to expropriate foreign oil companies, which prompted our Government to suspend bilateral relations until 1942.

Today, of course, the situation is reassuringly different. For several decades, the United Kingdom and Mexico have enjoyed a close and fruitful relationship, the continued success of which will be predicated on the principles of co-operation and mutual respect. A shining example of that is the British Mexican Society, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. We can also enjoy the fruits of the relationship through the all-party parliamentary group on Mexico, which, next month, I will have had the privilege of having chaired for five years.

I thank the current ambassador to the UK, Josefa González-Blanco, who is a friend, as well as all her team at the embassy of Mexico. They have used their position to strengthen diplomatic ties at every opportunity and in particular to showcase Mexican culture on these shores. Few APPG chairs will receive the sheer number of invitations that I do to events hosted by the embassy, which showcase the culture, music and vibrancy that Mexico has to offer. Let me also praise our ambassador in Mexico City, Jon Benjamin. He is a good friend and one of the finest representatives we could have in Mexico City.

Today I intend to speak about a few areas. Let me start with our current economic relationship with Mexico. In 2021, Mexican foreign direct investment into our economy totalled £16.3 billion, and trade between our two countries amounts to £4.9 billion a year. However, there are many more opportunities to expand the relationship. Britain’s imminent accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership should represent an opportunity to give a significant boost to the size and scale of our trade with Mexico. On the whole, that should be a welcome development, but I urge my fellow hon. Members to hold on to a degree of caution. As is the case with any trade agreement, the CPTPP risks falling prey to the organising logic of our current system of global trade, which, without scrutiny, can prioritise narrow interests over the wider needs of communities, working people and the environment. I hope that as a CPTPP member, Britain will work with Mexico in supporting the agreement’s existing provisions, and furthering them, on issues of labour rights and environmental protection, which I know are also priorities for the Mexican Government.

In November last year, I asked the then Minister—the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) —what progress had been made on securing a bilateral free trade agreement with Mexico. He assured me that talks were progressing positively. The Foreign Secretary echoed that sentiment in his speech delivered in Chile in May, pointing out the recent completion of a third round of talks. I would welcome an update from the Minister on those discussions and would appreciate him telling us whether the Government still plan to appoint a trade envoy to Mexico. I hope that negotiations will be successful and that a deal will be agreed soon. I fear that sometimes the Mexican Government feel like they are not the UK Government’s priority; we must ensure that that is not the case.

In the Foreign Secretary’s speech in Chile, he also sought to conjure the ghost of George Canning. If I may direct hon. Members’ attention to another slice of our history with Mexico, Canning was Foreign Secretary during the Spanish-American wars of independence in the early 19th century. In that position, he resolved to swiftly recognise the newly won sovereignty of the fledgling American republics. Indeed, it was because of Canning that Britain became the first European power to establish formal bilateral relations with independent Mexico.

Conservative politicians are fond of that historical anecdote and reach for it almost every time they speak publicly about the UK’s relationship with Latin America. It is easy to see why. At first blush, it appears to be a solely positive story. Considering that the UK’s historical attitude towards the region has too often been defined by indifference or commercial exploitation, it is reassuring to be reminded that our history there started on such a bright mark. However, the version that gets relayed in speeches such as the Foreign Secretary’s is doused with a more-than-healthy dose of myth. Canning’s support for Mexico and other Spanish-American countries did not stem solely from an unnerving commitment to the shared values of liberty and democracy; it was part of a calculated strategy to advance Britain’s imperial interests and consolidate its primacy in Europe. Canning said as much himself, declaring in 1826 that he had spoken

“the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.”—[The Parliamentary Debates, 12 December 1826; Vol. 16, c. 397.]

The Foreign Secretary also cited that famous sentence in his speech. In short, Canning saw the UK’s support for Latin America as a means to an end. In the succeeding decades, that support was repeatedly withdrawn whenever it was politically expedient.

The point that I am seeking to get across, which I think is the hidden lesson from Canning’s story, is that for Britain to truly strengthen its political, economic and cultural relationship with Mexico—successive Governments have consistently stated that to be an essential diplomatic objective—we need to approach that relationship as something positive and desirable in itself. I believe that it is here that we find the true crux of successful bilateralism.

We cannot treat our relationships with Latin American countries like pawns on a chessboard. We cannot view them purely as opportunities for the wealthy few to further enrich themselves. Our support for the principles of national sovereignty, self-determination and mutual respect cannot be solely symbolic. We must not appear to be more interested in protecting a few commercial interests than in building a lasting framework for international co-operation. That approach to foreign policy is not only objectionable but unsuited to the 21st century. It is plainly ineffective. As we gear up for an age of genuinely global challenges, we have to lay the foundations for meaningful multilateral action now. There are no viable solutions to problems such as climate change that do not involve closely co-ordinated international action, and Britain is incredibly well placed to play a leading role in those efforts, but to do so, we must first shed the last vestiges of colonial paternalism and single-minded self-interest. The way that we choose to manage our relationship with Mexico and other countries in the region—and countries across the global south—will determine our capacity to play that role.

In my third and final reference to Mexican history, I will borrow from Benito Juárez, the first indigenous President of Mexico, words that capture the sentiment that I have sought to convey today:

“Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”

Let me say, in the spirit of those words, that I have no doubt that the Mexican people understand their country’s challenges far more intimately than I ever will. For them, epidemics of femicide, disappearances and drug-related violence are not abstractions but terrifyingly common features of their lived reality. Some 152 journalists were killed in Mexico between 1992 and 2023. Every day, 10 women and girls are murdered by intimate partners or family members, and 100,000 people are currently disappeared. That is 100,000 families saddled with the heart-wrenching burden of not knowing whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

Of course, there are also the dislocating effects of climate change. As a result of its tropical latitude, Mexico is vulnerable to drought, food insecurity and the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The country’s status as one of the most biodiverse places on earth further raises the stakes. I make those points not in an accusatory way; indeed, we in Britain must reflect on how our legal and social relationship to drugs, and our consumption habits more broadly, contribute to the enormous human cost borne by the American people. I draw attention to those issues rather to remind Members that the UK has to, as a matter of course, assert its commitment to supporting Mexico, and to helping it tackle these substantial challenges—not as a finger-wagging imperial power, but as an equal partner sincerely invested in that country’s success.

I believe wholeheartedly that Mexico has at its disposal all the ingredients needed to develop into an unqualified success story. Its young population, burgeoning industrial capacity and rich cultural tapestry can all ensure that Mexico attains its obvious potential. For those reasons, it would be so encouraging to see a visa arrangement akin to that which the Foreign Office has secured with Uruguay included in any future trade deal with Mexico. That would allow young Mexicans and Britons to live and work in each other’s country for two years. Such an agreement would allow a new generation of young people to join the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Leonora Carrington in being part of the great tradition of Britons finding in Mexico the dynamism and inspiration that allows them to produce some of their best work. I look forward to hearing the contribution of others on this important relationship to the UK.

As I am sure you and others in this Chamber recognise, Mr Gray, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) clearly has a very genuine interest in all matters Mexico, and I compliment him on his speech. I will keep my words brief, but I would add that he and I have met on other occasions, on which he has supported me in my role as trade envoy to Brazil. I have a wider interest in all matters Latin America, as does he. The trade envoy programme is an area where we can put our politics to one side and bring into the fold those with a genuine interest in a country. Whatever the political nature of Brazil’s Administration—whether we are talking about the politics of Bolsonaro or Lula—my interest in Brazil remains unabated. I am just as resolute, excited and enthusiastic about the prospects for our relationships with all South American countries, including Mexico, but especially with Brazil.

I am sure that the Minister would like to reflect on these few words, and also on how he might see Mexico developing as a future powerhouse in the wider Latin American region. I know that he is very well travelled, including going to Brazil; I am not sure about his diary in relation to Mexico, but I am sure that he will expand on that as and when he speaks. I take this opportunity to thank you for your indulgence, Mr Gray, because I had not put in to speak in the correct way, and for accepting these few words. I give my compliments again to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton on his words. We are all grateful for the ambassador’s presence here in recognition of what is being debated.

I am delighted that we are having this debate on Mexico. I did not realise that it is the first one since 1938; I was not here at the time—I have been at all the subsequent ones. We have had many debates on Latin America, and obviously Mexico has been raised on a number of occasions. One should reflect, though, that in 1938 Mexico was going through a massive social revolution under the great Government of President Cárdenas, which brought about so much social justice and land reform for the people of Mexico. There is a memorial to the people of Mexico in Vienna that thanks them for being the only country in the League of Nations to oppose the Anschluss pact between Nazi Germany and Austria. Those anti-Nazis in Austria and Germany have never forgotten the role that Mexico played at that time.

One should also reflect that, for all of Mexico’s human rights problems, which I will come on to in a moment, it has traditionally been a place of welcoming for desperate people. Many republicans who had to leave Spain at the end of the Spanish civil war made their way to Mexico and were welcomed there, and they made a massive contribution to Mexican society. Indeed, many of those who were forced out of Chile 50 years ago this weekend, when the Government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup, initially made their way to Mexico. Some went on to Europe, Cuba and other places. We should recognise Mexico’s enormous contribution in a very principled, non-aligned way on the global stage in providing a place of exile for people, which has turned Mexico City into one of the most vibrant, multicultural cultural environments anywhere in the world, because of the coming together of people from all over the world.

I have been to Mexico many times. As many will know, my wife, who is here today, is from Mexico as well, so I have been well educated on Mexican history. I always appreciate—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) just made this point—that in Mexico there is an understanding and appreciation of history in a popular sense that does not really apply in any other country I have been to anywhere in the world. There is that sense of absolute pride in the Maya and Aztec remains there, but there is also pride in the pre-Aztec and pre-Maya remains at Teotihuacán, near Mexico City and in magnificent places such as Chichén Itzá and all the others that are so famous on the global stage.

Despite all the Hispanicisation—if that is not a tortuous word—of Mexican society after the invasion of the Spanish empire, the languages have survived. Indeed, some of the writings have survived in the great writings of an indigenous woman, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was disliked by the Catholic Church because she could read, write and understand many languages and wrote a great deal of poetry, most of which was burned by the cardinals and others, but some of which survived and is now published in Mexico and other places. We should appreciate and understand that enormous cultural strength and history in Mexico.

If anyone visits Mexico, I urge them to stay two days longer, whatever their plans, and go to the National Museum of History in Mexico City. It is so wonderful and so large—it takes someone at least two days to work their way around it—but it is an education in itself on the history of Mexico and world history. There is an invitation to everybody: on any delegation, stay two days more, just to understand that part of the history.

Mexico also has the problem of its noisy neighbour to the north, the United States, and the history of that relationship, which has often been abusive. It was described wonderfully:

“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”

There were the USA’s wars with Mexico, in which it lost a lot of its territory, but the solidarity that some showed with the people of Mexico is not forgotten. Indeed, in the north of Mexico there is a very proud memory of the San Patricio brigade, of Irish people who started off fighting for the USA against Mexico, decided it was an unfair conflict, switched sides to join Mexico, and defeated the USA—as you do. Again, we should try to understand that history.

Like other Latin American countries, Mexico gained independence from Spain, but it was not a liberation of the indigenous people or the poorest people across the country. The landowning system was maintained, as was so much else. It was the 19th-century Government that brought about the great changes in Mexico. Benito Juárez’s constitution brought about rights, more democracy, and the beginnings of some degree of land reform and change. That was returned to in the 1917 constitution, at the end of the conflict in Mexico. We have to remember the rich vein of history that runs through Mexico, and the determination of people such as Zapata, who was a fantastic leader in many ways, to bring about justice and land reform in Mexico.

That is a fundamental point of history that we should understand. I wish that more British people who went on holiday in Mexico—well done them; it is good for the Mexican economy—would do a bit more than just go to the beach in Cancún, because there is so much more to see; as wonderful as the beach in Cancún is, it is important to see so much else. It is the diversity of Mexico that I fully understand. I want to express my appreciation to the many people in Mexico who have informed me a great deal, and hosted me on my visits to Mexico.

The Government in Mexico is that of President López Obrador, who is coming to the end of his term of office; elections are coming up next year, when he will have been in office for six years. I know López Obrador very well—I consider him a friend—and I had a very interesting conversation with him for several hours on the day before he became President in 2018. We talked a lot about how he would face the issues. Anyone who has aspirations to go into government here knows that there are challenges, difficulties, conflicts and all that, but think for a moment of going into government in Mexico and being faced with a huge problem of massive poverty, injustice, corruption, human rights abuses, unaccountable public services, and enormous numbers of human rights complaints against the police and the armed services. It is not a simple operation. One has to pay tribute to the work of López Obrador’s Government in trying to eliminate poverty in Mexico, through a very large increase in the minimum wage, better rights and working conditions for everyone in Mexico, and work to ensure that companies are better employers, which has involved working with trade unions.

There are also issues of healthcare and other reform issues. In our conversation, I said to López Obrador, “Is there anything you particularly like, admire or would want from Britain, as you move into the presidency?” I thought that was a bit of a leading question. He stared out of the window for a while, and I thought, “Oh God, I’ve asked the wrong question here.” Then he turned round and said, “The national health service. The principle of universal healthcare free at the point of need is something I absolutely admire about Britain, and I would love to emulate that in Mexico.” It has not been completely emulated in Mexico by any means, but there has been a huge increase in hospital building programmes, general practice programmes and access to healthcare. Prior to his Government, the majority of the population had no access to free healthcare other than the weekly one-hour free advice that was given by doctors. Queues would form six and 10 hours before the allotted hour to try to get a few minutes with a doctor, which was all the poorest people could get. It is not completely there yet, but it has improved a great deal, and we should recognise and applaud that.

The population is large and youthful, and education is key. The country has managed to put a lot more money into education, new school building programmes and, above all, new university programmes. Unlike this country, it does not aspire to load anyone who goes to university with a massive debt for the rest of their life. It wants to get them into university for free education to ensure it gets the professionals of tomorrow—the doctors, teachers, engineers and all the others who are needed. We should compliment the Government of Mexico on what they have achieved in those areas, and on what they are trying to achieve.

There are huge environmental issues and concerns. Mexico relies heavily on a hydrocarbon-based economy. That was an issue for the Cárdenas Government, which nationalised the oil industry in the 1930s, and Mexico still relies heavily on petrochemicals. I would like to see a faster transition away from that to a sustainable economy. It is very easy for us to lecture on hydrocarbon-based economies’ transitioning, but we must recognise the difficulties of doing that in rapid time. Colombia is going through exactly the same problems. Such issues are important.

I was pleased to attend President López Obrador’s daily press conference. He has a daily press conference for three hours every morning starting at six o’clock. He gets there at 5.30 to get ready for it, and then he takes questions for three hours. It is quite a sterling performance. I do not think that any other President anywhere in the world would do that. He asked me what I thought about the idea, and I said I thought it was completely crazy. He was determined to do it, anyway, and he insisted that I sit all through one to rid me of my criticism of the idea, and I did.

I was very pleased to be at the press conference when he re-announced that he was very sorry about the way that Julian Assange was being threatened with removal from this country to the United States, and he would always be welcomed and offered safety and sanctuary in Mexico, just as Mexico has offered sanctuary to many other people in the past.

However, Mexico faces massive problems in dealing with corruption and human rights issues. I have examples, but first I want to pay a huge compliment and express my thanks to our ambassador to Mexico, Jon Benjamin, who is deeply engaged in Mexican society in every possible way. He is very well thought of and respected throughout the politics of Mexico, and has been incredibly helpful on human rights cases in which there is British involvement. I will mention some cases.

The Ayotzinapa 43 were 43 students who, in 2014, left their rural agricultural workers training college on a bus to go to a demonstration. They all disappeared— all 43 of them. There was a hue and cry, and international outrage, and the authorities then started a rapid search to try to find out what had happened to them. What did they find? Unmarked graves, all along the area where the Ayotzinapa 43 had been, in Guerrero state, but none of them contained any bodies of the Ayotzinapa 43.

The sadness and the tragedy of migrant people from central America trying to get to the USA, in order to get to some place where they might be able to sustain themselves economically because of the poverty in central America, is that they end up being prey to gangs and all kinds of awful things, and they end up dying in unmarked graves. Those were the kind of people whose bodies were found, that were not the bodies of the Ayotzinapa 43, although I believe that the bodies of one or two of the Ayotzinapa 43 have since been identified.

On my last visit to Mexico, I spoke to Minister Encinas, who is dealing with the investigation into all this. The Mexican authorities have arrested and charged a large number of police officers and army officers on this case, but they have still not got to the bottom of it or the truth of it.

I give this example not because it is the only example of the brutality that corruption brings, but because it is just the tip of a very much bigger iceberg. Many criticisms are made, some of them justified, but the issue is the direction in which Mexican society is travelling. Is it trying to find out the truth about human rights abuses, or is it trying to sweep that under the carpet and get away? The former is absolutely the case; Mexico is trying to find out the truth.

There are a couple of other cases that I will mention, one of them because it has a particular British connection: the case of Claudia Uruchurtu, who was living in this country with her sister and family. She went back to Mexico and lived in Oaxaca. She was involved in a demonstration against corruption by local officials, one of whom was subsequently arrested, charged and imprisoned for corruption. She was last seen getting into a van and was never seen again. Now she is declared dead and disappeared.

Claudia’s family obviously want to know the truth; our ambassador, Jon Benjamin, wants to know the truth; I want to know the truth; and many others do, too. I thank Jon Benjamin for the work that he has done, and I thank Her Excellency the Mexican ambassador to Britain, Josefa González-Blanco, for the huge support and help she has given on the case, and for the work that she does as Mexico’s ambassador to Britain.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the case of Claudia Uruchurtu. We had the privilege of meeting her family when we visited Oaxaca last November. I also want to put on record my thanks to Jon Benjamin and his team, who have pursued this case all the way from the beginning. It has obviously caused incredible heartache for that family. I know that the Minister has had conversations on this issue, and I hope that at the end of the debate, he might be able to update us on whether there has been any progress.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I endorse absolutely everything that he said. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, he will acknowledge the severity and seriousness of this case, and will say that the Foreign Office will remain seized of it and will continue supporting any investigations to bring about justice. That will not bring Claudia’s life back, sadly, but the prosecution of elected public officials for this is an important change in the legal process in Mexico. It sends the important message that when any similar case comes up, people all around the world will continue to pursue it. We should recognise that.

I acknowledge that the Minister is nodding.

There are many, many cases that one could talk about. The one other case that I will mention is that of Miguel Orlando Muñoz Guzmán, an infantry lieutenant in the army who has been missing since 1993. He was last seen in Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, and he could have been threatened with the danger of going missing. He has been searched for all these years. Although the Government of Mexico have taken some action on this case, we want them to carry out a complete, impartial and effective investigation to determine Mr Muñoz’s fate.

Mr Muñoz is not the only one; his case is one of many that has been taken to the UN’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances. That is because Mexico faces the endemic problem of its relationship with the USA to the north and the pressure of large numbers of desperately poor migrant people from the south trying to get into the USA. Successive US Administrations—all of them; Obama, Trump and Biden—have essentially taken a broadly hostile approach to migrants coming into the USA from the south, even though the US economy does incredibly well out of the work, which is often very low-paid, of people who have migrated there.

I have discussed this issue at length with people in the Mexican Government. Ultimately, the only way forward is through better economic development and prospects for people all through central America, in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and so on. All those countries need stronger economic bases, and they have elected Governments who are trying to bring about that. I hope that the British Government will recognise that it is important to have not just good relations with Mexico, but a sensible trade and aid relationship with central American Governments, to help them bring about better forms of administration, less corruption and less inequality in their societies.

There is so much about Mexico that one could speak about for a great length of time, but I will not go on any longer, because I can see from the clock the way that time is moving on. I just want to thank the embassies for their work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, for his work as chair of the all-party Mexico group. We should see that the Government of Mexico are trying to improve the social conditions of their people. That is promising, and it is going very well.

There is an incredibly challenging situation, regarding relations with the USA and the historic levels of corruption and violence in society, brought about by the drug trade and drug war. While that is not for today’s debate, we may need to think more deeply about dealing with the drug issue in the USA and Europe by conducting a war in central America, Colombia and elsewhere. It clearly is not working and has not worked. Tens of thousands of people have lost their life in this drug war, and it has not brought about any solution. That may be for another day, but it is an issue that we need to be serious and think very deeply about. I thank Mexico for its work on the international stage to try to bring about nuclear disarmament, peace and non-alignment around the world.

Thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing the debate today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on making a well-informed and understanding opening speech about the relationship between Mexico and the UK. It was incredibly helpful for him to set the scene in that way and he demonstrated well that he has a huge depth of knowledge in this area. I congratulate him.

I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate. I was also not aware that it had been such a long time since we had had a debate on Mexico, so I am glad that we have been able to have one today. The last thing I want to say in opening is that the small number of hon. Members here does not demonstrate a lack of passion throughout the House for the UK’s relationship with Mexico. Unfortunately, it is a Thursday afternoon, when debates here tend to be a bit less well subscribed. Many of our colleagues would have liked to be here but other commitments have kept them elsewhere.

Thankfully, we have had a number of excellent and illuminating speeches. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). His depth of knowledge is, again, clear. Unfortunately, I have not visited Mexico, but the more he talked about the excitement around its history, the keener I was to go there. I may do so once my children are a little bit bigger because dragging them on to a flight of that length is probably not something that I will do at this point. Once they have left home, it will be one of the very top countries on my bucket list.

I will largely talk about the subject of the debate, which is the UK’s relationship with Mexico, but first I want to touch on an issue in Mexico that we could learn from. In recent times, the Mexican Government have raised their age of military recruitment from 16 to 18. The SNP has been pushing for that for the UK’s armed forces. The UK is an outlier in the matter, with only 13 countries in the world that continue to allow 16-year-olds to be recruited. We know from Child Rights International Network that UK Army recruits under the age of 18 are twice as likely to commit suicide while serving. There are massive inherent risks with 16 being the age at which we continue to recruit people into our armed forces. I would therefore urge the Minister in his conversations with Mexico and the people who have implemented this policy change to ask how it happened, how it was implemented, and what was put in place to ensure the transition went as smoothly as possible. That will enable us to hopefully emulate that change here in the UK and no longer be an international outlier.

Moving specifically to the relationship between the UK and Mexico, I want to speak about the free trade deal and trade with Scotland in particular, as Members would expect. Scotland exports to Mexico more than any area of the UK, except for the east of England. It is not in our top 10 export destinations, but it is a priority for the Scottish Government, and we are hoping to get it into the top 10. Mexico is the ninth most popular country for whisky exports, which is obviously a massive export for Scotland. Of the UK’s exports, 12.5% come from Scotland, which is more than Wales, Northern Ireland and the south-west of England combined. We hope to keep the strong relationship with Mexico.

As the UK Government move toward a trade deal, we need to ensure that it is as advantageous as possible for both the people in Mexico and people here. I know the UK Government will be trying to prioritise wins in trade deals, but they have unfortunately set a disappointing precedent with the New Zealand and Australia trade deal in relation to beef and lamb exports from those countries. A significant risk is posed to Scottish farmers from an increase in beef and lamb exports from Mexico should a trade deal be signed. Unfortunately, given that the UK has already done these deals with Australia and New Zealand with few safeguards regarding beef and lamb, the Mexicans will be very well aware of that and will be negotiating on the basis of precedent.

I urge the UK Government when looking at the trade deal to ensure that they are protecting the rights and livelihoods of our farmers, to ensure that we can continue to grow our own food, and to provide some measure of food security for the people who live in Scotland and the wider UK. It is very difficult for our farmers to have this security if they are being undercut by the UK Government’s poor decisions in trade deals. The UK Government must prioritise this when looking at exports.

On the links between Scotland and Mexico, we have seen an increase in the number of Mexican students coming to Scotland, which is truly excellent. There is a significant number at Glasgow University, for example, which has a burgeoning Hispanic society. That is a positive thing. Unfortunately, some of this has come about because of a reduction in the number of EU students as a result of Brexit. We want the immigration and visa systems to be as flexible as possible, allowing people to live, work and study in our country.

Obviously, the Scottish Government are not in charge of immigration. Constituents come to our offices every day with significant problems with the visa and immigrations systems. Visas are granted in some cases, but it is taking months and months for people to hear anything about it. In some cases, appeals are delayed or they win on appeal anyway and then are living in uncertainty. Because of this oppositional immigration system, we are not able to attract the talent that we would like to from Mexico or other countries, and this is because we in Scotland do not have control of our own immigration system. The UK Government should look again at the lag in visas and the issues that that causes, particularly for people coming to work and study, because it makes Scotland and the UK a less positive destination. People are less likely to want to come and live and work here purely because of the ridiculous hoops, bureaucracy and time lags in our immigration system.

The right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned hydrocarbon-based economies. That is an important link that Scotland, particularly the north-east, has with Mexico and other Latin American countries—oil-producing countries. A significant number of my constituents have spent time in places such as Mexico, Texas, Dubai and Norway. They probably have a slightly different profile from the majority of constituents across this House and these isles who go to visit those countries. We can learn a lot of good practices and positive things from each other in relation to this issue.

Obviously, we have a declining ability to access oil and gas. We are doing what we can to move towards a just transition. Scotland is doing what it can to meet its climate change targets and try to provide economic certainty for the regions. We have put additional moneys into the just transition, which the UK Government have failed to match. Although the UK Government are not doing as much as I would like on that just transition, there is still a significant amount to learn and a lot of positive knowledge to share to ensure that the transition away from hydrocarbon-based economies is as non-negative as possible.

We do not want what happened to the mining communities. We want a planned transition so that the people coming out of jobs in oil and gas—whether in Aberdeen in the north-east of Scotland, the UK or Mexico—have jobs to go to, and so that those skills, particularly the ones applicable to renewables, can be utilised as widely as possible. We could have a positive relationship with Mexico regarding that move.

There is also the opportunity for us to trade in decommissioning, for example, given the incredible amount of experience and expertise in and around Aberdeen. We are one of the first countries in the world to be doing decommissioning en masse. As other countries move into that space, we should be utilising our economic powers and opportunities to be able to share that. Also, with the continental shelf, the UK is the gold standard for safety. Things have been not quite so good recently, but certainly previously we were the gold standard. If we can, it would be great to ensure that other countries decommission as safely as possible in order to protect both our environment and the men, mostly, who are working on it.

Lastly, on democracy, the Mexican president has gone on record to say that the UK Government must honour the principles of “participant democracy” and allow an independence referendum. We welcome that support. Scotland has continually voted for the SNP standing on a manifesto that includes an independence referendum. We have an incredibly positive relationship with Mexico, including an honorary consulate in Glasgow to ensure that we keep those strong links. We recognise and appreciate the support for our democratic right to an independence referendum, and we thank the Mexican president and the country of Mexico for the honorary consulate and for their support for Scotland’s democratic voice to be heard.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray, especially on this wonderful, warm and fabulous Thursday.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for securing this debate. As we know, he brings strong knowledge to this place on international relations, not only because of his role as president of the Forum of Young Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, but because of his leadership of the APPG on Mexico. As we work to reconnect Britain with our friends and partners around the world, it is essential to engage closely through Parliament and inter-parliamentary institutions. It is through these organisations that we help to build consensus on issues important to all our countries—from trade, to human rights, to the rule of law and the importance of the international rules-based order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton is clearly doing an absolutely sterling job on that account, including with this debate. I express my thanks on behalf of the Opposition to him and all those who play such an important role in forging and developing the ties that bind our two countries ever closer together. That includes our diplomats, but equally businesses and civil society leaders.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the contribution by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I have now absolutely clocked his plea for us to add two days to any trip that we might be lucky enough to have to Mexico. I would certainly love to go round a museum like that to show me the depth of the history and the beauty of the culture of this amazing nation. If I am completely honest, UK-Mexico relations are not yet an area of expertise for me—

Not yet. So I hope colleagues will forgive me if I keep my remarks briefer than normal on this occasion. I add my voice to those saying what an absolute privilege it is to be joined by Ambassador Josefa González-Blanco Ortiz-Mena and her embassy team today, who work tirelessly to strengthen the ties between our nations. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on her appointment to the Labour Foreign, Commonwealth and Development team as shadow Minister for Latin America and the Caribbean. Unfortunately she cannot be here today, but I am delighted to be here instead.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton stated, 2023 marks the bicentennial anniversary of the start of formal diplomatic relations between the UK and Mexico, and next week on 16 September Mexicans will celebrate their independence day. The Opposition wants to extend our warmest wishes for that happy event. Strengthening our relationship with Mexico can only bring significant benefits to both our countries. Mexico, as we know, is the second largest economy in Latin America and the 16th largest in the world, and its demand for exports is expected to increase by over a third by 2035. So much more can be done to raise awareness and to seize trade and investment opportunities. Sadly, Mexico accounted for only 0.3% of UK trade in 2021, making them our 44th largest trading partner.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the huge Tren Maya project that the Government of Mexico have been pursuing to build a 15,000 km railway line across the southern part of Mexico will be joined by some British Railways rolling stock in the near future. It is being shipped from Great Yarmouth as we speak to help make up the rolling stock needs of the new railway, so there is an improvement. There is an awful lot of railway technology in Britain that could well be marketed in Mexico.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information. As the Foreign Secretary said earlier this year,

“With some British businesses, they don’t think of Latin America”

so I hope the Minister will expand on what the Government are doing to change that, to build on the example that my right hon. Friend has just given us, and to create new opportunities following our signing of the CPTPP trade agreement in July. As we know, once this agreement is in force next year, it should lower certain barriers to trade and enable our economic ties to deepen. At present, our trade is based on a continuity agreement following Brexit and, unfortunately, this covers only goods, leaving out our strong service industries, including creative, digital, financial and legal. I hope the Minister might be able to explain what progress is being made on the prospects for an expanded bilateral agreement that takes better account of the UK’s strengths and how global trade has changed over the 20 years since the Mexico-EU agreement was struck. Since May last year, three rounds of talks have concluded. In what ways do these talks include climate change, human rights and workers’ rights? I know they are also priorities for Mexico.

In the 2021 integrated review, the Government stated:

“We will deepen our ties with Brazil and Mexico, strengthening partnerships on trade, innovation, climate, security and development”.

How does the Minister think that we can achieve a greater synergy between Mexico’s trade priorities and our own? As we know, Mexico plays a critical role in the region’s geopolitics, so what steps are being taken to make that strategic commitment to Mexico a reality? Why has no prime ministerial trade envoy to Mexico been appointed? Can the Minister account for that? There are so many opportunities for stronger connections and partnerships, and some of my hon. Friends have participated in roles like that and made a real difference. It might be something to consider.

Mexico has significant lithium deposits, and some states reportedly have rare earth resources. As we know, securing a reliable supply chain for these minerals will be even more essential as the UK decarbonises its economy. Under a Labour Government, which we hope to see soon, that will be a still greater priority given our ambition for a rapid shift to green energy and green industries.

Both the UK and Mexico have strong and distinctive drinks industries. I must admit that I am a tequila fan. The UK is the fifth-largest importer of Mexican tequila in the world and, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), Mexico is the seventh-largest export market for Scotch by volume. I also like a Scotch. Surely there is potential to get more economic value from those trading flows for our mutual benefit.

As all Members have noted, there are significant concerns about the rule of law, human rights and insecurity in parts of Mexico. When it comes to our friends and partners, we must have the courage and conviction to speak honestly and frankly on a variety of issues. In response to those concerns, the Government have committed to establish a formal bilateral human rights dialogue with Mexico, which will complement their trade negotiations. I welcome that, but we have sadly not heard when the dialogue will begin, or if it has already begun, and I hope that the Minister will update us on that.

Reconnecting Britain with our partners around the world is a vital objective for the Opposition, and our relationship with Mexico is clearly a high priority within that, so I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that significant progress is being made on strengthening our connections with this important partner.

It is a pleasure to serve once again with you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to him, as everyone else has, for his interest in Mexico and international relations—in particular our partnership with Mexico—and for his sterling work as chair of the APPG, not just for five months or a year or two, but for five years. That shows real commitment, which is much appreciated on both sides of the House.

We are also grateful that Her Excellency the Mexican ambassador is here with us today. She is a formidable, energetic partner and friend. We work hard to try to keep up with her enthusiasm for things to do with the UK and for binding our relationship. We are extraordinarily grateful for the work of her team and for our partnership.

I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made today. I welcome the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) to her place, talking about such matters. I always think of her in relation to other international priorities, but it is great to see her. I also say a big thank you to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for his interest and commitment. He is a good man with a big heart and he will be missed. We all know about reshuffles—you gotta love ’em, but they don’t always go your way. We wish him well and thank him for his work in this area. We also welcome the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) to her role, and look forward to debates with her.

This goes without saying, but I want to say it on the record with full passion and conviction: the UK values our relationship with Mexico enormously. The two countries share deep and historic links. We are looking forward to the future with new and ambitious partnerships based on two most crucial values, democracy and freedom. Today, we have had some great lessons from people with a huge amount of experience in Mexico about our relationship. We look forward to celebrating with Mexico its independence day next week. In fact, I think I am going to the embassy—the ambassador gives me a wink to suggest that that is true. I am looking forward to it. Mexico knows how to have a party, how to celebrate well, and how we can move relationships forward.

Some important points were made about history, not least by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). We are grateful for what he set out about the history and for his reminder to all of us, and anyone who goes to Mexico, that there is more to see beyond the beaches. When I visit Mexico, I never see much of beaches, because I am tied up with meetings, but I can attest that there is a lot more to Mexico than the beaches, which I do not know much about. The relationships between our Parliaments and parliamentarians are important, and I know that the right hon. Member’s relationships with the President, Cabinet and Government have enabled our dialogue and friendship to be fostered. I am grateful to him for that.

The debate has shown that our relationship with Mexico goes well beyond party politics. Across the spectrum, and across the different nations in the UK, it is an important relationship. I will set out why I believe that it is one that we need to put a lot more focus on, as has been said by others.

One thing that has not been mentioned enough is the importance of Cornwall and the Cornish miners who brought their famous pasties—pastes, as they are known in the region—to the mines of Hidalgo in 1825. Now, half a million people travel from the UK to Mexico each year, and 3,000 Mexican students have experienced our fantastic education system through Chevening scholarships. All those things are weaved into our relationship and help to strengthen it. We want to ensure that that relationship gets stronger.

Of course, it goes without saying that those Cornish miners did not only bring pasties; they brought football. Football speaks volumes. Even the hon. Member for West Ham has to agree that Mexicans pack a punch on the football pitch. We are so pleased that Mexico will co-host the World cup in 2026, providing another opportunity for our countries to work together—although we hope that it does not do too well in the competition at our expense.

This debate is also timely because the UK and Mexico are preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our consular relations, which falls next month. We are busy planning a series of activities to celebrate all parts of our relationship, from exploring our shared histories in conversations with historians to cultivating more recent cultural links through art and musical performances. Such activities will showcase the breadth of exchange over 200 years, which has seen our relationship go from strength to strength.

In the past year, our Ministers have been in regular conversation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade visited in February, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the then Foreign Minister in the spring. I received an incredibly warm welcome when I was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico in May. During my visit, I met the Minister responsible for human rights, discussed our bilateral relations and ties with members of the Mexican Congress’s UK-Mexico friendship group—focusing particularly on the free trade agreement—and saw at first hand the impact that our excellent collaboration on climate programmes is having in Guadalajara and elsewhere.

I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton on the success of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation that he led to Mexico at the end of last year. Time flies—where is this year going? I am glad that he and other hon. Members had an interesting and productive visit, not just to Mexico City but in Oaxaca.

Mexicans are looking forward to the presidential elections next year. We will work closely with whomever they elect as their new President, to continue our growing relationship. As has been said, this goes beyond party politics; on both sides, this is an important relationship. I know that some comments were made about our relationship and how it should be fostered. I would just like to say, in terms of my experience and the work that we are striving to do—I am sure that this cuts across parties—that it must be based on shared values, shared priorities and mutual benefit. When there is that sort of relationship, built on trust, things will move forward.

Order. As the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has only just arrived in the Chamber, I am not sure that that would be appropriate. If the Minister would like to continue—

On this occasion, given that this is a former Foreign Secretary, I think, with your permission, Mr Gray—

No, I do not think so at all. The right hon. Gentleman may be a former Foreign Secretary, but he was not here for the debate; he has just arrived in the Chamber. He may not intervene, and the Minister will continue his winding-up speech.

I bow to your judgment, Mr Gray.

Another key thing in the relationship is about building capacity and building strength on both sides of the relationship. We are absolutely committed to doing that to create a sense of genuine partnership. With existing free trade agreements with 46 countries, and others on the way, Mexico is without a doubt a titan of free trade; and with the second largest economy in Latin America, Mexico’s demand for imports is only set to grow. We look forward to using our bilateral relationship to give fresh opportunities to British businesses across multiple sectors.

I did not agree with absolutely everything that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) said, but she said many wise things. She may already know this stat, but last year alone, whisky exports were up by 22%. I have to say that, for a teetotaller, I know a lot about the flow of spirits that sees whisky going from one side and tequila the other way. I know that Members here appreciate that.

As we look to this mature trade relationship, there are of course opportunities, particularly in offshore wind and particularly in north-east Scotland. There are huge opportunities across the region, including in north-east Brazil, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) knows as the trade envoy for Brazil, and in Costa Rica and the US. Wherever I go, we talk about this relationship and these opportunities.

The recently signed comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—known as the CPTPP to its friends—presents us with significant opportunities. British businesses will benefit from enhanced access to the Mexican and other markets. Our exporters will enjoy reduced tariffs when selling to Mexico, including on our high-quality beef, pork and apples, and UK consumers will pay less for Mexican products such as honey and chocolate. I say gently to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, because I know that she cares about this, that animal welfare protections are and will continue to be in place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other Ministers have set that out, as I did when I served several years ago as the Minister with responsibility for food.

British businesses will benefit from enhanced market access without a doubt. Our friends in Mexico know how keen I am for them to ratify the UK’s accession to the CPTPP soon. It was the clear focus of my recent visit. Also during that visit, we talked a lot about the third round of negotiations on the UK-Mexico free trade agreement. That will be an important pillar of our relationship, and the opportunities that it will present to develop exports in both directions are huge. We have had three productive rounds of FTA negotiations so far. Both countries are united in their objective to build a bilateral agreement to complement the CPTPP and provide a solid framework in which our bilateral trade relationship can flourish, including by strengthening commitments to support small and medium-sized enterprises, innovation, trade and gender equality. Together with colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade, I am determined to ensure that the new deal adds value to the UK economy and brings benefits across the country, as well as to our friends in Mexico.

I very much hope that more UK companies will take up the trade opportunities that anybody who goes to Mexico will see. When I was in Guadalajara, I was able to understand more about the benefits that Diageo and AstraZeneca see in that great city. With Mexico’s increasing expertise in advanced manufacturing, the opportunities for friendshoring and closer relationships should be clear to all. We need to ensure that those opportunities are made fully available to UK companies and bring them to Mexico.

There were a few references to a potential trade envoy to Mexico. I know that that issue has been raised on a few occasions. The Government continue to review countries where such an appointment would be of greatest benefit. Obviously, the ultimate decision is for the Prime Minister, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North does an outstanding job in Brazil, and my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) does an amazing job in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru. The comments made today have been fully noted, and I am sure that the work that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton has done will be noted in any conversations or decisions about this particular opportunity.

We recognise that in a debate about Mexico it is important to address and acknowledge the complex issues of human rights. That has been a concern in the country for many years, and it continues to be an area of focus. I recognise the important work of our ambassador, Jon Benjamin, who has been referenced by many people in this debate. He has a principled, patient and passionate stance, which is exemplary, and he is seeking to engage at the appropriate levels in Mexico. There is no question but that it is a dangerous country in which to be an environmental activist or a journalist.

On the question of human rights, I assume from what the Minister said that the continuing trade discussions with Mexico will include a human rights dialogue. Will he also give a commitment that the Government will remain supportive of the family of Claudia Uruchurtu and their needs in her case, not just for her but as an example of our willingness to support people who are trying to bring about human rights and justice? There are concerns that the mayor who was imprisoned after Claudia’s disappearance, Lizbeth Victoria Huerta, may well be released at the end of September, because she was not charged, in my view, with a sufficiently severe case put against her. There are concerns about the safety of the family as a result.

As far as the free trade agreement goes, obviously those conversations—that dialogue—will be moved forward. Human rights in our relationship with Mexico are being dealt with in a different track, and I will come on to that in a minute in terms of a formal human rights dialogue. I will also mention the case that the right hon. Gentleman talked about. All those points are important.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the recognition of disappearances—111,000 since records began in 1964. Each of those disappearances is a tragedy. That is absolutely clear to me, as I met the mothers, siblings and relatives of victims when I was in Guadalajara. Our commitment to the promotion of universal human rights is unwavering. We regularly raise our concerns about abuses and levels of impunity with the Mexican Government, at both ministerial and official level. We continue to work with Mexican federal and state governments in support of work to develop the rule of law. For example, we recently supported the development of a new investigation protocol, which is a framework based on UK best practice that sets out how a crime should be investigated. It is in part due to the work of our embassy that that has now been adopted in 32 states in Mexico. That is a great step forward.

The right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned the tragic case of Claudia Uruchurtu, who tragically disappeared in 2021 as she protested against corruption in Oaxaca. The convictions of those involved in her disappearance are a welcome and important step in achieving justice for her and her family, but I say to the right hon. Member that we continue to monitor the case very closely.

I welcome the interest shown by the Mexican Government in holding a bilateral formal human rights dialogue with the UK, which we hope will take place later this year. I discussed that in depth when I met the human rights Minister in May, and we are in close conversation with Mexico on how best to use a dialogue to discuss our shared human rights priorities, both in multilateral forums and bilaterally.

As I mentioned, the UK and Mexico share core values. The quality of our work together was very much in evidence during Mexico’s most recent period on the UN Security Council in 2021 and 2022, and our shared voting record of 98% speaks volumes.

We also we celebrate Mexico’s work in progressing gender equality globally. Together with the UK, Mexico has been at the forefront in leading that important work. We continue to work closely together in the UN and through excellent projects with the British embassy, such as training for public and private sector organisations on reducing the gender pay gap.

The right hon. Member for Islington North and the hon. Member for West Ham talked about what we are doing more widely in the region, beyond Mexico. All I can say is that I have been enormously privileged over the past 10 months or so to travel to around 22 countries in the Americas. I think that we all agree that the way to build relationships of trust—I know that everyone who has spoken in today’s debate is passionate about that, because I observe them to do that in their lives as well—is face to face, not on a screen. I have visited just about every country in central America, with the exception of Nicaragua; I returned from Belize this morning. We want to move things forward in our relationship there through the UK-central America association agreement, and on climate change through the biodiverse landscape fund. There is a positive agenda, and we have a role to play in central America.

I could bore hon. Members for another hour or so about the opportunities for trade in Latin America more widely, but you would not allow me to do that, Mr Gray. There are huge opportunities. The hon. Member for West Ham says that she wants to expand her knowledge about Latin America. Well, she has already pointed out the most important thing, which is that the opportunities to trade there are immense, and we need to encourage more businesses to look at those opportunities and explore them in a meaningful way.

I will conclude by stressing again just how much our relationship with Mexico offers to both our countries; we have a like-minded partner in trade, in the multilateral space, and in our support for a rules-based international system. The UK was the first European power to recognise an independent Mexico—historians will attest to that—and in the 200 years that have followed, our trade, diplomatic and people-to-people links have grown. As our relationship grows, its benefits multiply.

As we look forward to the bicentenary of the relationship between our two remarkable countries, I am sure that hon. Members will agree how exciting it is to see our association and connection with Mexico prospering, and I am sure that they will be as ambitious as I am in wanting to see it continue to prosper over the two centuries ahead.

I am delighted that we had the opportunity for this debate and to hear that there is real expertise on Mexico and on the relationship between the UK and Mexico. I thank the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) for his support over the last few months and engaging with issues in the region. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has such a fascinating history, as well as a relationship with the current President of Mexico, which, as the Minister graciously said, is such a benefit to the UK and our relationship. I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s attendance today.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for her contribution on the special relationship between Scotland and Mexico, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who was covering today but I think is eager to get to Mexico in the years ahead.

As the Minister said, I was able to visit Mexico last November through the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It was a brilliant visit. We were able to have meetings in the Congress, including in the Senate, and to meet the Mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is now a presidential candidate. We watch her progress with interest. We also went to Oaxaca, which is a beautiful state, and visited Monte Albán, one of the heritage sites that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North talked about. Those ancient civilisations are a great part of Mexican history.

Mexico is an awe-inspiring country. It has its challenges; there is no doubt that there is a human rights crisis in Mexico, but it offers opportunities for Mexico’s allies, such as us, to work with it. The Minister talked about our ability to share our expertise on the rule of law. I would love to see the Government do more of that with Mexico. I know that if we have a strong developing relationship between the UK and Mexico then we can support it in those areas. We also have a lot to learn from Mexico. Our voting records at the UN show that the values of the British people and the Mexican people—and hopefully its Governments, for a long time to come—are shared. That is why the relationship is one that we can cherish and develop, and one that can be strong going forward.

Let me finish by paying tribute once again to both ambassadors: my friend Jon Benjamin in Mexico City, and Josefa González Blanco, who joins us in the Public Gallery today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the UK’s relationship with Mexico.

Sitting suspended.