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Secretary of State for International Trade: Visits

Volume 790: debated on Monday 30 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many countries the Secretary of State for International Trade has visited since the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has undertaken 56 visits to 35 different countries since the EU referendum in June 2016.

Is the Minister aware that I have also visited one of those countries—New Zealand? While, of course, it would be willing to agree a trade deal with the United Kingdom if we leave the European Union, its priority is a trade deal with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, most of the people we met in New Zealand said, “Why on earth are you leaving the European Union?” Why do we not take their advice and let Liam Fox off his wild goose chase?

New Zealand is indeed one of the countries that we hope to have an early free trade agreement with. It is one of the nations with which we have trade and investment working groups. We have 14 of those and 21 countries are participating. It is clear that they are engaging with us. We are working with them very actively and they are looking to work with us on areas and sectors. The noble Lord shakes his head but I know that these trade and investment working groups are having an effect and people are starting to focus on specific areas where we will be able to start negotiating. As the noble Lord knows, we are unable to negotiate any future free trade agreements while we remain a member of the EU.

My Lords, last month’s official data from the EU showed that UK exports to non-EU countries fell by 8% over the last year; to the EU they grew by 6%. The Government’s position to turn this around is that there will be trade deals with non-EU countries that we are not currently part of in the EU in operation immediately after the Brexit period. However, her predecessor said in an interview with the Guardian on Friday that,

“it will take three to five years. It won’t happen overnight and in the interim companies might think twice about investing and consumers might decide they want to be more cautious”.

Is the noble Lord, Lord Price, right?

Exports grew overall by more than 10% last year so there has been growth. Regarding how long it will take a free trade agreement to come into effect, we will be able to negotiate future free trade agreements from March next year as part of the implementation period. We will be able to negotiate, sign and ratify without implementing. There are a whole range of free trade agreements that can take anything from a year to multiple years. There are also many other types of cooperation that we are looking at, as noble Lords will be aware, such as joint trade reviews, economic partnerships and mutual recognition agreements. There are a whole series of trade arrangements we can have with other countries and we are looking at those. Our drive will be what is in the best interest overall of the UK and UK business.

My Lords, I understand the Minister’s department is rolling out a programme of trade commissioners. What is their role? Are they going to be masters of their strategy? When will this possibly take effect from, and will they be properly financed?

I thank the noble Viscount for his question. We have announced the creation of nine Her Majesty’s trade commissioners. It is a pretty important role. We are trying to coordinate all the opportunities we have from UK companies exporting to overseas markets. They are very high level trade commissioners. Five of them have already been appointed and generally, they have been recognised as people of extreme competence who will have a real impact. Their role is to make sure that other nations are very aware of the capabilities we have in our country. We are very clear that our export strategy needs to be linked to our industrial strategy, so that the world can benefit from what we can provide in the UK and is made aware of the skills and expertise in this nation.

Will the Minister remind the Secretary of State before he next visits the United States—which he been to more than once—that food poisoning cases per head of population in the United States are 10 times the figure in the UK? In 2016, 450 people in the United States died from salmonella and in the last five-year period for which figures are available in the UK, no one died of salmonella. We will not want to be importing American eggs.

My Lords, I hope I have been clear at the Dispatch Box before that food standards will remain paramount. We are very clear that the safety and health of people in this country is paramount, so we have been clear that food safety standards, as well as environmental standards, will be maintained at the highest level.

My Lords, when the International Trade Secretary visited the Philippines he talked about shared values with President Duterte. Given the President’s record in office, which values were he referring to?

That rather flummoxed me because I do not know the specific ones he was referring to. We share with a number of countries a real desire to help our businesses make people’s lives better. I hope that was part of it.