Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 27 May.
“Our trade agreement with Australia is very likely to be the first from-scratch deal that we have struck outside the European Union. It is a major milestone for global Britain and a major prize secured for our newly independent trade policy. It is on course to slash tariffs on iconic UK exports, saving business potentially about £115 million a year.
The deal will be the most advanced that Australia has struck with any nation bar New Zealand, and will, we expect, be particularly forward-leaning in areas such as services, procurement and digital trade. It will be a great deal for the UK, and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP—Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—free trade area in the Asia-Pacific, and opens doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economies of now and the future.
Our food is among the best in the world and incredibly competitive. We should be positive about, not fearful of, the opportunities that exist for our agriculture and our farmers. We give the EU preferential trading terms, which I do not recall those on the Opposition Benches objecting to. We should be unafraid of giving our Australian cousins something similar, taking the chance to deepen trading ties with one of our closest friends and allies.
Australian meat is of high quality and produced to high standards, and it arrives here in low volume. Meanwhile, Australia has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. The UK accounts for just 0.15% of Australian beef exports, and our analysis suggests that any increase in imports is more likely to displace food arriving from the EU. Any deal we strike will contain protections for our farmers, any liberalisation will be staged over time, and any agreement is likely to include safeguards to defend against import surges. Negotiators are now working to agree the outstanding elements with the aim of reaching agreement in principle in June.
This is not the end of the process. Later this year, Parliament will be given ample opportunity to scrutinise the agreement—we welcome scrutiny of the agreement—as well as any legislative changes that may be required before the agreement enters into force. Parliamentarians will also receive an independently scrutinised impact assessment. Mr Speaker, you will know that our scrutiny arrangements are among the most robust, and in line with other parliamentary democracies. Indeed, in some areas we go further still.
This will be a great deal for our United Kingdom. It will deliver big benefits for both countries and will help us build back better from the Covid pandemic. I commend it to the House.”
In the UQ Answer, the Government were adamant that:
“Any deal we strike will contain protections”
and said that
“any liberalisation will be staged over time, and any agreement is likely to include safeguards”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/5/21; col. 549.]
Can the Minister now provide any details? Has any information been provided? We need to know the elements of any agreement now.
Is there any independent governance of trade deals and tariffs? Your Lordships have received any number of letters co-signed by the Minister and his counterpart in Defra; there was one dated 1 November on trade and standards. Does any parliamentarian have access to independent and expert advice when reviewing the impact of each trade deal on agriculture? Is there any impact assessment? Is there any trade and agriculture commission to provide any report? Why is there any disagreement in Cabinet? Why do the Secretary of State for Defra and the previous Secretary of State disagree? Does the Minister have any answers?
The noble Lord has made a number of points, but I will deal with the most significant. On the TAC, both the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act require the trade and agriculture commission to be in operation before the FTA is implemented. It is currently being established and expressions of interest to assemble the commission are out, so it will be able to report on the Australia free trade deal if it comes into effect. That report will be made available to the House. On safeguards, of course we recognise the need to reassure farmers and rural stakeholders that our market access proposals will not threaten sensitive sectors. The deal will include safeguards to defend the industry against import surges and the precise details of these are still being negotiated.
ONS data from two weeks ago showed that the UK lost £1 billion in goods exports in just one month in January to our nearest trading partner, Ireland. This is more than the entire £900 million gain the Government are forecasting over 15 years for their agreement with Australia. The Government’s own scoping document stated:
“A trade agreement with Australia could increase UK GDP in the long run by around 0.01% or 0.02%”.
The EU scoping exercise for its own agreement with Australia in 2018 suggested 0.01% to 0.02%. Can the Minister explain why the Government are failing to secure any increase on their agreement with Australia than the UK would have had before Brexit? Why has there been such a collapse in trade with our nearest neighbour and trading partner, Ireland?
With due respect, I do not think January can be taken as a representative month. I do not think any trends are yet fully established. As noble Lords know, there was some stopping beforehand and there was particular disruption as people got used to the new system. With regard to the Australia free trade agreement, we intend to secure reductions in tariffs on UK exports to Australia, which will save UK businesses millions of pounds. The deal will support over 15,300 business which already export goods to Australia, and I am sure the noble Lord would like to welcome this.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept congratulations on the fantastic work he has done on negotiating this trade deal together with Liz Truss, the Secretary of State, who seems indefatigable in her energy? Could he perhaps remind the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, of the enormous benefits this deal will bring to the Scotch whisky industry—not least in having tariff-free access to Australia, but also in opening the door to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will offer huge opportunities to Scotland’s biggest export industry?
I thank the noble Lord for his kind words, which I will certainly pass on to my colleague the Secretary of State. The noble Lord is completely right: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which this is a gateway to, will be of huge benefit to UK businesses big and small. This is something we should all welcome.
My Lords, following on somewhat from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, how will the Government include Northern Ireland in the Australian agreement if it is unlikely that the EU will accept Australian meat and phytosanitary standards?
As noble Lords know, the Northern Ireland protocol is still subject to discussion and refinement between the parties. Clearly, Northern Ireland stands to gain in many ways from a trade agreement with Australia; for example, machinery and manufactured goods account for around 90% of all goods exported from Northern Ireland to Australia and are used extensively in Australia’s mining, quarrying and recycling sectors. These exports will certainly benefit from reduced tariffs in this deal.
My Lords, as MP for Kilmarnock, the home of Johnnie Walker, I lobbied for the lifting of all tariffs on Scotch whisky, so I welcome an FTA with Australia that removes that 5% tariff—but not at the price of unfettered access on beef and lamb, which NFU Scotland says will devastate family farms and is wholly unacceptable to farmers and crofters. Bearing in mind what Brexit has done to the Scottish seafood industry, despite repeated government assurances, is Ministers’ rejection of what they say are farmers’ invalid fears based on an objective impact assessment, or is it just an alternative opinion?
My Lords, as a fellow whisky drinker, I share the noble Lord’s sentiments. Fears about a flood of cheap imports affecting our agricultural sector are, with due respect, overstated. Australia, of course, is a much smaller market than the EU so we expect low volumes with high standards. For example, we currently import 250,000 tonnes of beef each year, with 91% coming from the EU and 190,000 tonnes from Ireland alone. Less than 1% of Australian beef exports come to the UK market. Even if that figure was to increase, as we expect it will, it will still not dent these much larger figures from the European Union.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered farming links. Is the Minister aware that the president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Glyn Roberts, has written to the Prime Minister stating that if Welsh farmers were to employ the land and management practices commonplace in Australia they would face prosecution or even imprisonment? Michael Gove has previously stated that importing meat in such circumstances represented a red line that would not be crossed. Why have the Government betrayed that pledge?
My Lords, I am not familiar with the letter the noble Lord refers to, but I will make sure to study it after this Question. As I said earlier, we do not believe that this deal will mean a flood of cheap imports. We will use a range of tools to defend British farming. I want to emphasise the opportunities that this deal will give to British farmers in terms of their exports, whether they are large or small and whichever part of the United Kingdom they come from.
My Lords, we do not reduce tariffs on imported food as a favour to Australia, we do so as a favour to ourselves—which may incidentally happen to benefit some Australian exporters. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that reducing the cost of food makes everybody better off, especially people on low incomes for whom the food bill is the highest proportion of the monthly budget? In doing so, this gives us more money to spend on other things and thereby stimulates the whole economy.
My Lords, as ever my noble friend encapsulates precisely the advantages of free trade agreements and I thank him for that.
My Lords, this trade agreement contains an ISDS mechanism, which provides private corporations with the right to bypass the laws and courts of both parties. During the passage of the Trade Bill, the Minister confirmed government support for reforms to the ISDS through the UN Commission on International Trade Law’s proposals for a multilateral investment court. Can he update us on progress?
My Lords, the precise details of the UK-Australia free trade agreement are a matter for ongoing negotiations. In respect of ISDS, the UK Government consider the inclusion of ISDS provisions in FTAs on a case-by-case basis and in light of the unique UK-Australia investment relationship. We are huge investors in each other’s markets and appropriate ISDS will benefit investors on both sides.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many noble Lords are absolutely thrilled at the announcement that this deal is about to be agreed? If we are to grant the European Union unfettered tariff- and quota-free access to the United Kingdom market, what possible objection could there be to allowing the same to Australia—an advanced, civilised country with high standards? There can be no objection at all. Does my noble friend agree that if the National Farmers’ Union continues to resist every change consequent on Brexit in such a curmudgeonly fashion, it will be losing and forfeiting opportunities for its own farmers and members to export throughout the world and, in this case, to Australia?
My Lords, my noble friend is completely right. We should all recognise that British beef and lamb are among the best in the world and the Australia-UK FTA will bring new export opportunities to British farmers. We should be proud that the UK produces high-quality premium produce that is globally sought after. A deal with Australia is a gateway to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and there will be a growing demand for UK meat in these markets.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.