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Digital Economy Agreements

Volume 832: debated on Monday 24 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many digital economy agreements the United Kingdom has made and with which countries; and how many are expected by 31 December.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and declare my technology interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, under the UK’s G7 presidency we brokered the G7’s digital trade principles. Further digital agreements sit at the heart of our agreements with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, EEA/EFTA and CPTPP. Our digital agreements with Singapore and Ukraine are the most innovative trade deals signed. We continue to push our digital objectives at the WTO e-commerce joint initiative and via the digital trade commitments in our suite of upcoming free trade agreements.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that digital economy agreements represent the very future of trade? We must ensure particularly that small and medium-sized enterprises are fully aware of this opportunity. Does he further agree that when we put DEAs together with the recently passed Electronic Trade Documents Act, we can really believe that we are on the brink of a new golden age for international trade?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. Our vision is for the UK to be a global leader in digital trade, with an entire network of international agreements that drive economic growth, create jobs and improve productivity throughout the UK.

My Lords, how do the Government intend to ensure that while conforming to the terms of digital trade agreements such as the UK/Singapore agreement, or the digital terms of the CPTPP, they still retain data adequacy for EU purposes? Is the Government’s market-driven championing of the international flow of data and the terms of these agreements not in conflict with that?

No, my Lords, I am not sure that they are in conflict. Technological advances in free trade agreements will ensure that this country, among others, will be able to trade freely with a very wide range of companies and countries.

My Lords, digital transformation could grow the UK economy by more than £413 billion by 2030, equivalent to around 19% of the entire UK economy. That is more than twice the annual output of the UK’s manufacturing sector. Surely we should be turbocharging DEAs with as many countries as possible. Why are we so slow, and what assessment have the Government made of the size and experience of negotiating teams as part of the recent machinery of government changes?

The noble Lord makes a very good point: anything that improves the speed of these free trade agreements can only be for the benefit of the country. The ones we are looking at at the moment are with India, Switzerland, Israel, Canada, Mexico and the GCC, and digital economy agreements will be in every one. There are digital trade provisions in a further 30 to 40 free trade agreements: I am very happy to give him a list but I do not think it is appropriate to read it out now. The very heart of this is making trade easier, faster, more secure and of course cheaper.

My Lords, I shall have another go. The Minister really did not answer my question on data, so perhaps I should put it another way. Can the UK ensure regulatory interoperability among free trade agreement partners with different data protection regimes given the discrepancy in their regulatory frameworks? What I am trying to find out is the care with which these agreements have been negotiated with regard to data adequacy.

My Lords, I absolutely understand the point and I am assured that the security of data is second to none throughout these free trade arrangements, but I will be very happy to write with the full details.

My Lords, in addition to the work on the international stage that my noble friend mentioned, does he also recognise the opportunity here for English law to become the system of law underpinning these new ways of doing international trade? Our Victorian forebears made English law the international law of commerce, with negotiable bills of lading and bills of exchange. The work done by the Law Commission on the Electronic Trade Documents Act and the speeches given by the Master of the Rolls show how English law can now be the law underpinning cyber-transactions and blockchain. Will my noble friend ensure that equal weight is given by the department to that part of this very important work?

My Lords, I shall certainly do all that I can. I believe that in the agreement we reached with Singapore, which was fundamental in the success that we have just achieved at CPTPP, and the agreement with Ukraine, the basis of the law used has been widely praised. It is expected that it will be used as a form for going forward.