My Lords, the Maldives is an important trading partner for the UK and we are keen to co-operate on trade opportunities including in such areas as food, drink and sustainable development, including fishing. However, the country is rated by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income country and therefore does not qualify for reduced tariffs under the UK’s generalised system of preferences, which, of course, lowers tariffs for developing countries.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I am aware that the Maldives has transitioned from a developing to a middle-income country and is therefore not eligible for GSP. However, it seems to me an injustice that the Maldives, one of the few countries to practise genuinely sustainable fishing where fish are caught one by one, is the only Commonwealth country with small island development status on which the UK imposes an import tariff. The UK has economic partnership agreements with Caribbean and Pacific states, the Seychelles and Mauritius, which, incidentally, has a higher per capita income than the Maldives. Given that the tuna fishing industry is vital to the Maldives economy, can my noble friend tell us when there is likely to be a change in the status of the Maldives in its access to the UK market?
My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point about the fishing practices used by fishermen in the Maldives, on which we must congratulate them. However, there are classifications that determine whether a country is a developing country. To go outside those classifications would have ramifications elsewhere.
My Lords, surely we need to be more flexible than that these days. I congratulate the Maldives Government on their sustainable practices, which the noble Baroness mentioned. The UK Government are rightly a champion of ocean conservation and biodiversity. Where there are good fishing practices, particularly for tuna, should we not give them strong trade preferences—yes or no?
Again, the noble Lord is quite right to applaud the fishermen in the Maldives but, as I said, these things are governed by rules not always set by the WTO. We hope always to take a lead on this but, at present, our tariff rates on tuna do not differentiate between production methods of the same goods, such as different ways of catching tuna.
Does my noble friend not agree that the way forward is for us to enter a bilateral economic partnership agreement with the Maldives? I believe that the Government of the Republic of Maldives would be open to that possibility. Could we initiate such discussions?
My Lords, my noble friend makes another good point. The UK currently has a busy and ambitious FTA negotiation programme with a full pipeline of negotiations. Sadly, we therefore have limited capacity to consider new FTA or EPA negotiations in the immediate term. However, the Maldives is an important trading partner to the UK and officials are exploring pragmatic options to enhance bilateral trade relationships in areas of mutual interest. I am sure that noble Lords will applaud that.
My Lords, the Government talk a lot about wanting to be a champion for the Commonwealth—and so they should—and about sustainability. We have a nation here with small island development status that, as far as we know, is fishing sustainably on a global basis, so it seems extraordinary that the Government are being so cool on the prospect of having some kind of bilateral agreement with the Maldives. Will they perhaps warm up a little and try to progress this a bit more quickly?
My Lords, no one could feel warmer towards the Maldives than I do. In a sense, it is a matter of congratulation for the Maldives that it is now an upper-middle-income country. We should congratulate it on that, but the downside is that it is no longer classified as a developing country.
My Lords, could the Minister, who has mentioned a list of countries that have a higher priority than the Maldives for a free trade agreement, tell us which African countries are on that list and when they will get an agreement negotiated?
My Lords, on many occasions the House has heard me refer to the FTA negotiations. We are hoping to finalise now with Australia and New Zealand, we are hoping to resume trade negotiations with the US and our negotiations with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and we are hoping to start negotiations with India and the GCC. I think that the House will recognise that that is a full pipeline and, frankly, we cannot do everything at once.
My Lords, I am pleased to hear my noble friend the Minister recognise the sustainable and ecologically friendly fishing practices of the Maldives. Will he recognise, at least as a medium-term objective, the desire for the UK to move to zero tariffs and zero quotas with our friends and allies in the Commonwealth?
My Lords, that is another good point made by my noble friend. The issue of a free trade agreement covering the whole of the Commonwealth is the rich diversity of nations in the Commonwealth. Some are large and some are small; some have a certain economic capacity and others have another economic capacity. A free trade agreement with the Commonwealth would of course have to be negotiated over that whole range of countries. It is a wonderful, idyllic idea but in practice it would be hard to achieve.
My Lords, I think that is a rather unfair point. I do not have the figures at my fingertips but I well remember a debate that we had just a couple of months ago on the agreements that we have reached with certain African countries. We are making progress. Of course we would all like to make more progress, but at a time of limited capacity you have to prioritise.
I understand that since Brexit we have joined the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. With all our knowledge of sustainability and conservation, are we actually contributing to that organisation? Are we urging it to improve constantly?
My Lords, it is a long time since I did geography at school, but I am not entirely sure that what we are doing in the Atlantic necessarily applies to the Maldives. I do not have full details of the agreement that the noble Baroness refers to, so I will research it and write to her.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware—and we should be proud—of the huge maritime protection zones which we have placed around so many of our overseas territories and which cover hundreds of thousands of square miles. Does he agree that we have insufficient maritime assets to protect and look after them, particularly bearing in mind the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report that said that we have too few ships?
Remembering that principle not size should govern the Government’s thinking if possible—and remembering, with deep appreciation, Sir David Amess taking a great interest in this subject and inviting me to join him for a meeting with a UK Minister—surely the ability to offer zero tariffs is one of the really meaningful ways to best assist the emerging markets. Could I encourage the Minister to take that on board?
My Lords, when setting MFN tariffs and the UK global tariff, we of course have to balance various interests: UK interests, meeting strategic trade objectives and the maintenance of the Government’s commitment to developing countries. The GSP’s whole purpose is to give preference to developing countries. I repeat: it is the classification of the Maldives as no longer a developing country, which this House should congratulate it on, that means that it is not treated in the same way as developing countries in this instance.