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Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the (1) economic, and (2) environmental, benefits arising from the Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023; and what plans they have to communicate those benefits to relevant stakeholders, including small and medium-sized enterprises.

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

The Electronic Trade Documents Act will provide an economic boost estimated at just over £1 billion over a decade, substantially reducing paper use. We are the first G7 country to put digital and paper trade documents on an equal footing. Given the international prominence of English law, this will kick-start digitalisation globally. We advocate similar change by trading partners. We will support businesses through international trade advisers, trade and investment hubs and initiatives promoting digitalisation, including the Centre for Digital Trade and Innovation.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Electronic Trade Documents Act offers us the potential of combining our common-law tradition with our expertise in new technologies such as blockchain and our excellent financial services ecosystem? Does he agree that we must work to ensure that everybody in the business department communicates through every channel—particularly to SMEs in the UK—the opportunity that exists through this Act and, similarly, that all our missions overseas communicate to companies and politicians around the world to enable them to see the benefits of passing similar legislation? As my noble friend the Minister knows, it takes two to trade.

I thank my noble friend for those comments and questions. This is a quite remarkable Act. In fact, it is the only Act of Parliament that I have read from beginning to end. It is only four pages long and 1,500 words; I recommend it for its brevity and its conciseness. It simply does one thing, which is to take the architecture of 300-plus years of mercantile trading which has been done in paper form and translate that into digital to have the same legal impact. The onus is now on the Department for Business and Trade to communicate this to our SMEs, as my noble friend indicated. To that end, we are using international trade advisers and the International Chamber of Commerce, and we have set up the Centre for Digital Trade and Innovation at Teesside University. A lot of work will now be done to raise awareness of this, which will be for the great benefit of our trade.

My Lords, in reading the Act, my noble friend will have realised that reliable systems for authenticating electric trade documents is one of the central operational issues. Will the Government therefore give their full support to the International Chamber of Commerce, which I am glad he mentioned, as it did so much good work in helping to bring this Act forward? Will they also try to put together assurance for what those reliable systems look like that will help traders to trade confidently?

I thank my noble friend for that. I can report that, as the Minister in this area, I have chaired a forum with the International Chamber of Commerce where we are at the forefront of this initiative. By the UK leading the way here, with G7 and others following through, this will become a standard mechanism of trade and will be followed by the new operating border and the single trade window. We will therefore be moving rapidly to 2025 and a situation where trade can be expedited across international markets to the great benefit of our economy.

My Lords, estimates suggest that this important legislation could save businesses approximately 50% in costs by moving to forms of electronic trade. The impact assessment attached to the Act had a best-estimate adoption rate of 5% in year 1 and 45% by year 10, while the highest adoption rate predictions suggested 10% in year 1 and up to 80% in year 10. The difference in extremes between these adoption rate predictions will have far-reaching consequences. Given the potential for major cost savings and increased efficiency, can the Minister reassure us that the Government will develop a clear strategy, including guidance and awareness-raising, to support stakeholders and businesses who are keen to move towards early adoption and to inform those who are not yet engaged or are unaware of the benefits of so doing?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I can assure her that this is a great focus for the Department for Business and Trade. At the moment in the UK, only 10% of our SMEs are exporting. Overall, we are a great exporting nation; we have recently gone from sixth to fifth in the table, and we are second in services, so we have a strong export tradition, but we could do better among our SME community. My personal ambition is to drive that number up, and digital has a key part to play in that. There are some 280,000 SMEs exporting. We want to double that, and the digital route will be the way to do so. We have already identified 100,000 essentially new business which are born digital and born international, which will be a great boost to the SME trade. That will be a great focus for our department going forward.

My Lords, in a letter to Peers in June, the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, stated

“industry stands ready and eager to support the delivery of this Act for UK businesses of all shapes and sizes, developing guidance and standards to ensure it’s a success”.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s response, how are the Government actually working with industry, as well as others he mentioned, to ensure this? Should not we now have more detail about the implementation of the Act?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. That is the nub of what we are dealing with: we have passed the Act, which is a great first step, but we now need to implement it inside our ecosystem. There are going to be great advantages, some of which have already been identified in terms of cost. There are also advantages in data collection. We believe that we can greatly increase our trade finance to SMEs; currently trade finance for exporting is perhaps not the most accessible. We believe that the digital mechanism for data collecting will greatly increase the ability to access finance and reduce its cost, so we see benefits everywhere around this legislation.

My Lords, while supporting my noble friend Lord Holmes, I want to ask my noble friend the Minister two questions. The first is about the transferability back into a paper form in cases where there has to be default due to a lack of digital experience. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, given that other international bodies have not yet come on board with this very useful initiative by the British Government, is it not a good idea to confirm what nature of law is to apply in each document coming through this system?

I thank my noble friend for that. The purpose and intent of the Act is to give equal weight to paper and digital proof of ownership—bills of lading, letters of credit et cetera—so they can be in either form. On the legal regime, the Bill is modelled on the United Nations law, so it comes from, as it were, a higher authority, but through custom and practice and mercantile law over the last 300 years or so, maritime law is governed largely under English law. There is therefore an easy adoption and an understanding that mercantile trade can continue under English law. As the rest of the G7 countries come forward and adopt similar legislation, I am sure we will find alignment in these matters.

My Lords, the Minister and his colleagues need to be congratulated on making sure that the UK is very much in the lead. He mentioned that the UK would encourage other countries to make sure that their systems are moved on to a digital and electronic platform. Which international organisations will he work with to ensure that this is encouraged and happens? One point puzzled me: why does Part 1 refer only to Scotland?

I will take my copy of the Act here to refer to. In terms of international bodies, this has come through the UN system and the major body we are working with to get to businesses directly is the International Chamber of Commerce. On the small jurisdictional point in relation to Scotland, under the devolution settlement Scots law needs to be separate from English law—although it is largely the same when it comes to mercantile. There is a provision in the Act to make sure there is alignment between Scotland and England.

My Lords, this Act should be a major boost to UK corporates and indeed corporates around the world. As an aside, is the Minister aware that, apparently, up to 67% of British SMEs as yet do not have a website? That is another area which the Government might wish to consider in helping to push the trading figures forward.

I thank the noble Lord. The world has gone digital now and I think even that 67% are aware of that. The DBT is very much at the forefront of raising that awareness.