UK and EU negotiators held discussions last week via video conference and covered the full range of issues. Both sides engaged constructively, but sadly there was no movement on the most difficult areas where differences of principle are most acute—notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field.
Our excellent chief negotiator, David Frost, has made it clear to Michel Barnier that we will be an independent coastal state, that we will control who has access to our waters and on what terms, and that access to our waters will be subject to annual negotiations.
Is not the real problem that Michel Barnier has absolutely no room for manoeuvre because he has to do what has been agreed with the other 27 countries? Is not that lack of agility and flexibility the very reason we have decided to leave the EU and why companies such as Nissan and Unilever, which has announced this today, are centring their operations here in the United Kingdom?
With such slow progress on the talks, the Government somehow believe they can hold the EU bloc to ransom, but all they are doing is taking the country perilously close to no deal. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will do everything in their power to reach an agreement and translate legally what is written in the political declaration? On one specific point, will he push for the ability of the devolved Governments of Wales and Scotland to participate in the Erasmus programme and other schemes, so that students do not to miss out, if he will not stand up and do that for England?
We all want an agreement, and I am grateful for the support and help that the devolved Administrations have given. I talk regularly to them, as does my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. We know how important Erasmus is to many, and we will continue to seek membership of those programmes across the United Kingdom.
The British people were promised an oven-ready deal, but given the speculation in recent weeks, what they have is half-baked. Will the Secretary of State therefore commit to no unpicking of the political declaration or the withdrawal agreement—the work of the past three years?
Not only was an oven-ready deal secured, but we had that oven-ready deal delivered and agreed to by this House earlier this year, which is why we left the European Union on 31 January. Of course, we will always honour the withdrawal agreement and, as far as the political declaration goes, it commits the European Union to use its best endeavours to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement, and we hope that the EU will do that.
As my right hon. Friend knows, article 184 requires both parties, including the European Union, to use their best endeavours to reach that agreement. Will he update the House on the progress that has been made, and cite one significant thing that he thinks would help things further?
Progress has been made and, on a number of issues—on fisheries and on state aid—Michel Barnier has indicated that he is inclined to move. Some EU member states have been a little more reluctant. It would be in everyone’s interest—EU member states, the Commission and, of course, the United Kingdom Government—if Michel Barnier were able to use the flexibility that he has deployed in the past to secure an arrangement that would work in everyone’s interests.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s hard work in this area. He has been quite clear that we will have full control over our economic destiny in future. Does he agree that, now more than ever as we emerge from this pandemic, it is vital that we look to forming new trade relationships and partnerships around the world?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State for International Trade opened new trade negotiations with Japan this week and why she is in trade negotiations with the United States. However, it is not just trade deals that matter; it is also export promotion. The Department for International Trade is doing a superb job in making sure that businesses are equipped to take advantage of the new markets, which I know that he, as a strong voice for business, is committed to supporting.
The Government’s approach to trade negotiations with the EU and with the US will have huge implications for all of us. The Government’s election manifesto guaranteed that food imports would have to be produced at the same standards as in UK farming. The EU also says that a free trade deal depends on the UK maintaining those high standards. Does this remain Government policy in our approach to EU and other trade negotiations, and, if it does, why were such commitments not upheld in the Agriculture Bill?
It is absolutely our commitment to make sure that we uphold those very high standards. The Agriculture Bill will ensure not only that those high standards are upheld, but that public money is spent on public goods and that environmental enhancement is at the heart of how we manage our countryside alongside high-quality food production.
I am afraid that that does not quite answer the question about why the amendment from the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was not accepted. Let me push the right hon. Gentleman a bit further. He said on “Countryfile” in October 2018 that
“there is no point in having high animal and high environmental standards if you then allow them to be undercut from outside.”
When pressed on whether it would be a red line in any trade discussions, the Minister stated, “absolutely”. Yet on Tuesday in this House, in an answer to a question about such standards, the Paymaster General said that
“we should trust the consumer.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 162.]
Are we, or are we not, able to trust the Government to maintain such standards? Can the Minister guarantee absolutely that there will be no dilution of environmental or animal welfare standards, and that the Government will not risk our ability to secure what is supposed to be an oven-ready trade deal with the EU for the sake of getting any deal with the US that would hurt British farming and water down environmental and animal welfare standards?
Not only was our deal oven-ready, but anything that goes into UK ovens will always meet high quality standards. More to the point, the Paymaster General and I, and the whole of Government, are like peas in a pod. We are committed to making sure that high animal welfare and environmental standards continue to characterise British farming, which is the best in the world.
We all know that the right hon. Gentleman is not very keen on economic forecasts, but given the growing warnings from business—the latest today has come from the CBI—he must be aware of the damage that would be inflicted on businesses by red tape, tariffs and loss of access if there is no agreement reached with the European Union in the next four months. We all want a deal, but, with British businesses already reeling from coronavirus, what does he propose to say to those businesses come January if the Government’s gamble does not pay off?