Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham, and Co-Chair of the Free Trade Parliamentary Caucus.
Many things will change in this Parliament; the importance of trade will be probably the largest and most durable shift, now that Britain has left the European Union.
Today I am launching in the House of Commons the Free Trade Parliamentary Caucus, which will seek to both make the case for free trade, and to bring expertise into Parliament to allow them to have a more informed say.
The return of Britain’s independent trade and regulatory policy presents a once in a generation opportunity to increase economic growth, strengthen our relationships with other countries and play a leadership role in promoting liberalising trade around the world.
Of course, we cannot assume that any of this will happen automatically. But one of the biggest changes brought about by Brexit will be the Government’s independent trade policy and the Parliamentary scrutiny of it.
Trade is back at the heart of government, where it should always have belonged. I was one of the founding ministers at the Department for International Trade, under Liam Fox, who was the first Cabinet Minister solely for trade since 1983. He has been ably succeeded by Liz Truss, who gives way to nobody in her enthusiasm and drive for the subject.
Trade policy is one of those cross-cutting issues which affects nearly every department. Many think that trade is all about tariffs and quotas. Those are important. But most trade negotiations are taken up by discussions over behind the border barriers – that means regulation and competition issues. In addition to the DIT, the Treasury and Department for Business are instantly involved.
There will be aspects that will affect the Home Office, too, such as the labour and migration elements of trade agreements. The working of the Irish border, and the precise details of how East-West trade between Britain and Ireland works will require careful thought and close collaboration with Irish authorities by HMRC and potentially the Northern Ireland Office.
Fishing and farming are two of the sectors most affected by leaving the EU, making the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a major player in any trade negotiation.
The Scottish and Welsh Governments, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, will also have roles, as many of these matters are devolved (although trade policy and international treaties are clearly not).
It is well known that free and fair trade is the fastest way for developing countries to escape poverty but is unfortunately not always practiced by the developed world. The Department for International Development will soon find it has another, powerful weapon in its armoury.
Trade is a pillar of foreign affairs. Trade agreements may be legal in nature and economic in content but are often motivated by geo-politics. Japan, for instance, is motivated to sign a bilateral trade deal with the UK and for our early accession to the Comprehensive and Progress Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP) trade block of 11 nations, which is partly driven by the commercial and security threat of China. They hope closer economic ties will bring a stronger relationship and greater security co-operation.
The close relationship between commerce, diplomacy and security means the Ministry of Defence is also part of the trade dialogue. And that’s even before we get to the defence procurement opportunities in trade negotiations.
We all know the NHS is off the table in any trade talks. But there will still be professional licencing to agree, along with any issues around drug patents and pricing. DCMS will have issues around domestic content restrictions, intellectual property rights and digital competition. The Department for Education will want to ensure education – one of our export success stories – continues to thrive.
So Government will have to work closely together, led by the Department for International Trade. The same is true of both Houses of Parliament.
After 47 years without our own trade policy, it is no surprise that we lack domestic expertise. There have been heroic efforts by civil servants at the DIT to master the brief, and a handful of Parliamentarians who stand out for their interest and knowledge of trade and customs policy.
But on the whole, we are reliant on British experts who learned their trade overseas, such as Shanker Singham who spent 20 years practicing trade law in the United States, or dual nationals like Crawford Falconer, New Zealand’s former Ambassador to the WTO and Chief Trade Negotiator, who joined the UK government as Chief Trade Negotiations Adviser in 2017.
There is a small, but important community of trade policy commentators at think tanks too, like Allie Renison at the Institute of Directors, David Henig at the Trade Policy Observatory and Sam Lowe at the Centre for European Reform.
Of course, trade is about much more than just trade agreements. Barriers can be analysed and reduced plurilaterally, multilaterally or bilaterally, with or without formal treaties. One thing is for sure though: MPs and Lords will be poring over the fine detail in the coming years. The Department has set a target of 80 per cent of UK trade being covered by trade agreements within three years. Priority deals include of course the EU itself, as well as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the CPTTP.
As we enter the transition period, we face intense trade negotiations on multiple fronts and our taking back of our independent seat at the WTO. It is unprecedented for a pro-liberalising trade G7 nation to re-join the WTO with the opportunity to impact the evolution of global trade. The challenges for Ministers, civil servants and business are real. But the opportunities for our economy and our relationships around the world are considerable.
It for these reasons that I am launching a Free Trade Parliamentary Caucus with fellow MPs Suella Braverman and Mark Garnier. The Trade Caucus will be an opportunity for Parliamentarians to deepen and broaden their understanding of trade policy, discuss challenges and opportunities and advocate for free trade in the UK and globally.
We will look at the role of trade in foreign affairs, how free trade can help the world’s poorest countries and how to create high paying jobs through boosting UK exports. Whether colleagues represent a rural constituency with a significant number of farmers, a coastal constituency home to commercial fishing fleets or have a personal interest in foreign affairs, international development or the economy – trade policy matters too.
I have been heartened by the level of interest from colleagues, and hope those who cannot make it to our inaugural meeting today will join the group and get involved.
We owe it to our constituents and to the country to make a success of leaving the European Union. I hope the Free Trade Caucus will be one way of doing that.