Liz Truss – 2020 Statement on the Trade Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for International Trade, in the House of Commons on 20 May 2020.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced in decades. All over the world we see its devastating impact. We will do whatever it takes to support United Kingdom businesses to continue trading, with our network of 350 advisers across the country and trade commissioners across the world.

This crisis highlights just how important it is to keep trade flowing and supply chains open, so that we can all have the essential supplies we need. It is free and open trade that has ensured that we have food on our table and access to vital personal protective equipment and medication. At meetings with my fellow G20 Trade Ministers, I have continually called for a united global response, tariff cuts on key supplies and reform of the World Trade Organisation. Although it is unfortunate that some countries have resorted to protectionism, many have sought to liberalise in the face of this crisis. In particular, I have been working with colleagues such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to highlight the importance of keeping trade flowing.

Free trade and resilient supply chains will be crucial to the global economic recovery as the crisis passes. Time after time, history has shown us that free trade makes us more prosperous, while protectionism results only in poverty, especially for the worst off. Britain has a proud history as a global leader and advocate of free trade. The bold and principled decision of Sir Robert Peel to take on the power of the wealthy producers and repeal the corn laws in 1846 ushered in an unprecedented era of free trade that saw ordinary people in Britain benefit from more varied and cheaper food, helping to grow our cities and power forward the world’s first industrial revolution.

I see a real opportunity again for industrial areas across Britain as we become an independent trading nation. By cutting tariffs and reducing export red tape, our great British businesses will be able to sell more goods around the world. British steel, ceramics and textiles are some of the world’s best, but all too often they are subject to high tariffs and barriers. Those industries are already looking forward to the opportunities that future trade deals will bring.

The US imposes tariffs of 25% on steel; removing them would boost our domestic industries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) knows, that will particularly benefit areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber, which account for more than a third of our iron and steel exports to the United States. Indeed, just this week UK Steel said:

“A new UK/US Free Trade Agreement would provide a significant boost to our trade to this high-value market, create a global-competitive advantage for UK steel producers, and open up valuable new market opportunities.”​

Our farmers and food producers stand to gain from a trade deal with the US. The US is the world’s second largest importer of lamb, but current restrictions mean that British producers are kept out. We can also grow, for example, our malting barley exports from Scotland and the east of England.

The tech trade will benefit from a US free trade agreement through cutting-edge provisions on digital and data. Telecoms and tech have more than doubled in the past decade, and an ambitious FTA could see those exports grow further.

While free trade provides opportunities, protectionism would harm farmers, tech entrepreneurs and steel manufacturers. We have already seen this before: in 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Act raised US tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods, resulting in retaliation from other nations and the deepening and prolonging of the depression. As President Reagan said in 1985:

“Protectionism almost always ends up making the protected industry weaker and less able to compete against foreign imports…Instead of protectionism, we should call it destructionism. It destroys jobs, weakens our industries, harms exports, costs billions of dollars to consumers, and damages our overall economy.”

We have a golden opportunity to make sure that our recovery is export led and high value—a recovery that will see our industrial heartlands create more high-quality and high-paying jobs across all sectors. Free trade does not just benefit us here in Britain; it benefits the world. Since the end of the cold war, free trade has lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty. For want of a better word, free trade is good. It is those benefits that underpin our Government’s approach: free and fair trade fit for the modern world.

Let me turn to the contents of the Bill. We can have fair trade only if it is free trade. The Bill will embed market access for British companies by enabling the UK to join the WTO’s Government procurement agreement as an independent member. This will provide businesses with continued access to the extraordinary opportunities of the global procurement market, worth some £1.3 trillion a year. The GPA is an agreement between 20 parties that mutually opens up Government procurement. We have already seen in the UK the way that competition drives up quality while keeping prices low. The GPA keeps suppliers competitive and provides them with opportunities overseas. It is a driver of growth, not a threat to our economy. The idea that we can, or even should, do everything domestically is not desirable or practical in this increasingly interconnected world. Instead, we should be making sure that we have resilient supply chains through a more diverse range of partners. We will be an international champion for free and fair competition in the coming months and years through our discussions at the WTO, the G20 and bilaterally. We will urge other countries not to heed that false, but enticing, call for protectionism.

Let me be clear to the House: the GPA sets out rules for how public procurement covered by the agreement is carried out. As an independent member, we are free to decide what procurement is covered under the agreement. The UK’s GPA coverage does not and will not apply to the procurement of UK health services. Our NHS is not on the table.

We are also committed to continuing our trade with existing partners that have agreements through the EU, such as South Korea and Chile. To date, we have signed ​20 such trade agreements representing 48 countries, and others are still under negotiation. This accounts for £110 billion of UK trade in 2018, which represents 74% of continuity trade. People said that we would not be able to roll over these agreements—well, they were wrong, and we will be signing more in the coming months. This work is part of securing the Government’s aim to have 80% of UK trade covered by free trade agreements in the next three years.

We are also looking to new partners. Negotiations with the US and Japan are kicking off. We are prioritising signing FTAs with Australia and New Zealand and accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, otherwise known as the CPTPP. With the UK global tariff now published, there will be an increased incentive for other countries to come to the table to maintain or improve upon their preferential terms and conditions. Fundamentally, free trade is humanitarian and we will maintain preferential margins for developing countries, helping businesses lift millions out of poverty. As a Government, we have committed to going further than the EU has in terms of trade for development, and we are looking at reducing or removing tariffs where the UK does not produce goods and getting rid of cliff edges in current tariff schedules.

That brings me to the second part of our approach: fair trade. The Bill will help establish the independent trade remedies authority, which will help protect British businesses against injury caused by unfair trading practices such as dumping or subsidy, or unforeseen import surges. I tell the House that while free trade has no stauncher friend than this Government, unfair trading practices that hold back British businesses will have no worse enemy. We will fight against state-owned enterprises that use public money to subsidise their goods and Governments who support the lobbying of these under-priced products into the UK market.

Excellent UK industries such as ceramics and steel—represented ably by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Redcar (Jacob Young) and for Scunthorpe—should not face unfair trade. The TRA will be responsible for investigating claims of unfair trading practices based on the evidence available. It will then make impartial representations to Ministers.

The TRA’s impartiality is vital. Decisions on trade remedies cases can have a material impact on business and financial markets. This Bill will allow us to create an independent body to carry out objective investigations in which businesses can have full confidence. In developing our own trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years, we will use technology to ensure that our trade agreements are fit for the modern world. Therefore, this Bill will give the Government powers to collect and share the trade data that will help our independent trade policy. This will make it easier for our trade policy to reflect the interests of businesses across the UK.

Let me assure the House that this Bill is a continuity Bill. It cannot be used to implement any trade agreement between the UK and the EU itself, nor can it be used to ​implement an agreement with a country that did not have a trade agreement with the EU before exit day, such as the United States of America. The Bill can be used only to transition the 40 free trade agreements that the EU had signed with third countries by exit day, and these powers are subject to a five-year sunset clause to ensure that we can maintain the operability of transitioned agreements beyond the end of the transition period. Any extension of this five-year period will require explicit consent of both this House and the other place.

We face a period of unprecedented economic challenge. It is vital that we do not just maintain the current global trading system, but make it better. That means diversifying our trade and supporting those businesses that export. Exports, be they software or steel, cars or ceramics, barley or beef, will underpin our recovery. This Bill will ensure continued access to existing markets by letting us implement trade agreements with partner countries that previously applied under the EU. It will secure continued access for UK businesses to the £1.3 trillion global public procurement market. It establishes the independent body in the Trade Remedies Authority to give our great British businesses the protection they need from unfair trade practices. Trade will be fair as well as free. By adopting a cutting-edge digital first approach, we will be able to give businesses the best possible support.

As we recover from the economic shock of the coronavirus crisis, providing certainty and predictability in our trading arrangements will be vital to securing the interests of businesses and consumers. We will unleash the potential and level up every region and nation of our United Kingdom. Now is the time for this House to speak out against protectionism. It is time for us to embrace the opportunities that free trade and an export-led recovery will bring. I commend this Bill to the House.