Let me begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her new post, along with her compact team—a model, I hope, of improved productivity in the UK economy, although time will tell.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last month, the Government are creating a new EU unit which will bring together the brightest and best from Whitehall and the private sector, including lawyers, financial experts and trade experts. The Government are actively seeking to recruit trade specialists, and that includes approaching former civil servants who have retired or moved to the private sector.
No, not at this stage, but what I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, facing the opportunities we now do, recruitment of trade specialists, whatever that costs us, is likely to be an investment very well worth making.
Is the Foreign Secretary heartened by the fact that since we voted to leave the EU a number of key countries and economies, including India, China and Australia, have approached the UK regarding furthering trade, and how well that compares with the stalled trade talks that have taken many years between the EU and such countries as the US and Canada?
Yes, it is a source of some optimism that a number of significant economies around the world have indicated that they would be open to the idea of trade agreements with the UK, and my hon. Friend makes a point that is very obvious but none the less important: that negotiating a trade deal between two countries is always going to be much easier than negotiating a trade deal between one country and 28 countries.
Last week at the Foreign Affairs Committee Oliver Letwin stated that
“we clearly need a new cadre of highly skilful and highly experienced trade negotiators.”
I hope the Secretary of State sees the irony in the fact that the very best of our trade negotiators are based in Brussels, but can he assure the House that from now on we will indeed bring in the best trade negotiators notwithstanding their nationality?
I was puzzling about that myself and am grateful for your clarification, Mr Speaker, and, having had it, I am very happy to answer the hon. Lady’s question. As I said in response to the initial question, we will need to hire significant numbers of trade negotiators and—I said this in the House a couple of weeks ago—I see no reason why we would not hire people who were non-British if they were the best people to do the job. Clearly, one would not want to hire a citizen of another country to negotiate a trade deal with that country, but having entered that caveat, I would hope we put together the best and most capable teams from wherever.
I am sure the Foreign Secretary will agree that the Prime Minister’s trade envoys have played a very important role around the world. As our relationship with the EU changes, will he make representations to ensure that that programme is rolled out across Europe as well?
I absolutely recognise there is a huge and complex task ahead of us in negotiating both our exit from the EU and, perhaps more importantly, the new arrangements Britain will have with the EU 27, but this is a project that will have a limited duration: once the negotiations are completed the task will be done, and I am not sure increasing the size of the Foreign Office will necessarily be the most appropriate way of doing that. Having a specialist unit to deal with this short to medium-term task may well be the most efficient way of delivering the outcome.
The incoming Prime Minister told us yesterday that she intends to make a success of Brexit and part of that is clearly going to be trade talks with countries throughout the world. Has the message already gone out to our embassies and high commissions that even before Brexit happens initial talks about trade should start with other countries?
The message that has gone out is that Britain will need to redouble its efforts in international trade and refocus where the trade is concentrated in the future. I should also make it clear that until we have served an article 50 notice, we remain a full participating member of the European Union. Our ability to negotiate new trade agreements is restricted by the continued application of EU law until we have negotiated our exit from the European Union, so we have to tread a careful path. Of course we can have preliminary discussions, but we must ensure that we remain on the right side of our international obligations at all times.