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Foreign Policy: Support for UK Businesses in Global Trade

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent to which the United Kingdom’s foreign policy supports the needs of United Kingdom businesses to create and engage with trade opportunities globally.

My Lords, promoting the UK’s prosperity is one of Her Majesty’s Government’s key foreign policy objectives. We seek to create new opportunities for business by championing open markets and promoting economic reform, better business environments and key trade partners. Using our network of overseas posts and programme funds, we work to support British businesses to make the most of these opportunities and we are preparing for an independent UK trade policy, deepening dialogues with future FTA partners.

My Lords, does the noble Earl wish to concede that a combination of conflicting intradepartmental priorities and policies, leading sometimes to a lack of visible ministerial support, has a detrimental impact on industry’s ability to enter and further new markets? Given that government should not consider itself to be the sole arbiter of bilateral relations, should not a primary focus be to create an environment whereby the private sector thrives, best achieved in step with policy and industry?

My Lords, the noble Viscount raises a number of points, partly on ministerial involvement in this process. My noble friend Lady Fairhead, the Minister for UK Export Finance, is conducting a review of our export strategy. This puts finance at the very heart of trade promotions. The Government’s industrial strategy will result in improvements to the support that the DIT can give other firms.

My Lords, there are those on the Benches opposite who preach that, in the event of a hard Brexit, the WTO will be our main avenue to trade. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Trump and his team are already degrading the capability of the WTO. Are the Government aware of the actions that are already beginning to reduce the dispute resolution capability of the WTO? What representations are the Government making to the Trump Administration in support of the WTO?

My Lords, as always with our closest ally, the United States, we have continued relations with its Administration. The Prime Minister’s speech in Florence added new momentum to the negotiations by making a firm commitment on the financial settlement and by proposing a time-limited implementation period in the interests of both the UK and the EU. On the points the noble Lord made about the WTO, I will have to write to him on some of the detail, but in leaving the EU we will need to update the terms of our WTO membership because our commitments are currently applied through the collective EU schedules.

Will my noble friend accept that expanding trade opportunities nowadays is very much a question of getting in on the new networks and the new global value chains that now dominate world trade, in contrast to only 20 years ago? Will he agree that some of the networks that have sprung up replacing the 20th century ones, such as the ASEAN, the RECP, the SCO and others, are ones in which it is essential for British representation to be more closely involved? Finally, will he agree that our own network of which we are already a member, the Commonwealth, which occupies one-third of the whole of humankind, is also a very valuable starting point in finding gateways into these new trade areas and the great markets of the future?

My noble friend is quite right about these various groups looking at trading opportunities in the future. In particular he mentioned the Commonwealth. We are committed to working with our friends and allies in the Commonwealth. One must not forget that in March 2017 the International Trade Secretary and the then Minister, my noble friend Lord Price, had lead roles in the first Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ meeting, which brought together more than 35 Commonwealth countries.

My Lords, last week the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, spoke at the CBI conference. He said that the United States could become the United Kingdom’s number one trading partner post Brexit so long as we abandoned EU-style regulations and standards. Will this be the Government’s approach?

I cannot answer the whole question, but the noble Baroness will be perfectly aware that the United States is already our largest trading partner.

My Lords, I speak as an importer and an exporter. Will the noble Earl accept that 50% of this country’s trade is with the European Union through our free trade agreement and that a further 17% with 50 countries around the world is via the European Union? Now, with the Japanese free trade agreement, the European Union would come to almost 70% of our trade. Will he accept that if we crash out on a no-deal basis, it looks likely that we will jeopardise 70% of this country’s trade?

My Lords, I refer back to the Florence speech made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Progress is being made in this area. Both sides have agreed that subsequent rounds have been conducted in a new spirit and are determined to work together to reach an outcome that can stand behind and work for our people. We all hope there will be a proper agreement with the European Union, but if not, WTO terms await us.

My Lords, we know that companies that export are more productive and generally more successful than others. Can my noble friend comment on the pace and direction of exports?

My Lords, exports rose by 5.9% between 2015 and 2016 to £547 billion, reflecting increases in exports of both goods and services. In percentage terms, the largest increases in UK exports between 2015 and 2016 were to New Zealand, Sweden, Turkey, Japan and Egypt. The UK’s five largest trading partners remain the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France and China.

My Lords, the Minister has twice referred to the progress made since the Prime Minister made her much-vaunted speech in Florence. Can he advise the House of two or three particular manifestations of this progress?

My Lords, further progress is being made all the time on these negotiations. If I have any more information to give the noble Lord, I do not have it in my folder.