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St Petersburg International Economic Forum

Volume 790: debated on Monday 30 April 2018

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the attendance of United Kingdom executives at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum from 24 to 26 May.

My Lords, the attendance and participation of UK companies at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, or SPIEF, is entirely a matter for them. We have not sought to influence them one way or another. Her Majesty’s Government continue to offer advice to UK businesses operating in Russia and support legitimate sanctions-compliant trade and investment.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but the Japanese Prime Minister, the French President and senior members of the European Commission will be there pushing their Governments’ cases. Who will be representing the British Government? Does she accept that some British businesses feel rather bereft of support in view of the way the sanctions debate with Russia has escalated rather out of control?

I thank my noble friend. It appears that Prime Minister Abe and President Macron will be attending and there is a whole series of bilateral ministerial levels in Russia. In line with government guidance, there will be no ministerial representation. However, I can confirm that Her Majesty’s ambassador to Russia will be there. He will be present to meet, greet and support our UK businesses. That is part of a calibrated response to signal that we are unhappy about what has happened, while at the same time making sure that we support our businesses. That sort of engagement is critical to making sure that there is engagement between businesses and people.

My Lords, while recognising the sensitivity of the timing, I declare that last week, St Petersburg International Economic Forum organiser, Roscongress, requested that I assess and advise, at no cost, on trade-only related matters to encourage interaction sector to sector in addition to SME co-operation with the UK. Does the Minister agree that restricting all engagement with Russia is probably self-defeating? As the Government push towards a truly global Britain, in which UK private sector corporates must compete in the international marketplace, fully cognisant of bilateral and multilateral sanctions, would it not be circumspect for the Government’s approach to trade policy to be distinct from other tiers of government policy?

I agree that engagement matters and that we need to continue engagement to make sure that ultimately we get a good outcome. It is true that we have suspended all planned high-level bilateral contact with Russia, but we are not restricting all engagement. Indeed, we encourage engagement in areas of common interest such as culture, education, sanctions-compliant business, environmental protection and climate change. The important message is: engage, but beware. It is a calibrated response, but I agree with the noble Lord that engagement matters in these situations because that is how we will get a positive outcome.

My Lords, what advice is the Department for International Trade giving to British business about the peculiar political and legal complications of operating in Russia for either trade or investment? The Bribery Act and various other things clearly come into play. Are special forms of advice being offered to British business in these circumstances?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I can confirm that specialist advice is available. We have special advice from the DIT in London and the British embassy in Moscow. Indeed, a number of other expert organisations, such as the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, can also offer advice, as can a number of individuals in this Room. Advice is available: the DIT offers it and it can be accessed on location in Moscow, too.

My Lords, if Ministers from other Governments will be present—as they clearly will be—what is deterring British Ministers from standing up for our country, negotiating and taking part in meetings and gatherings of this sort? Absence achieves nothing.

In terms of our stance on Russia, and in response to actions in Syria and Ukraine and the Salisbury attack, we are trying to show that this matter is a real threat to a rules-based international order. We are trying to send a clear message that those actions are unacceptable and illegal and to give a calibrated response that shows how unhappy we are with them, while continuing to engage in other areas and support businesses that take part in sanctions-compliant activity. We think that is the right way to do it.

My Lords, I want to offer the Minister some help. Perhaps she should just argue that the cost of going will be too high. After all, a place at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum will cost $8,600. I have looked through the 36 pages of the business programme, seven pages of the sporting programme and 78 pages of the cultural programme; it is quite a feast of pleasure, I must say. If she is interested in culture and so on, I would have thought there was a case for doing that.

More seriously, reading deep into the programme, why are we not sending people to the following sessions, which seem very important: “A Recent History of Blockchain”, which has apparently caused a sensation in Russia and for which expert advice is available, and “Exporting Trust: Building Safe Global Digital Infrastructure”, which is about what Russia can offer? Do these really not attract Dr Fox?

I thank the noble Lord for his advice and help. SPIEF is a major event—143 companies attended last year—so he is right: the programme is very full. I am happy to say that almost all major UK companies will be present, as will our DIT staff and ambassador, as I said. It is one of a number of our interactions because engagement has to continue. We have put this guidance in place at a bilateral ministerial level. Our policy is very clear: engage, but beware. That is the right calibrated, nuanced approach. We are supporting companies in their engagement and we absolutely believe in supporting the digital economy, because that is where the heart of our new technology will reach global markets.