Government ‘struggling to show tangible gains’ on trade policy, say MPs

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There is “no guarantee” that post-Brexit trade deals will bring real economic benefits unless businesses are given increased support to take advantage of them, MPs have warned.

A cross-party report said the government had failed to provide enough clarity on the ‘trade-offs’ involved in deals the UK signed since leaving the European Union, in particular the impact on UK farmers, while the environmental impact of increased business with countries further than the EU’s neighbors “remains uncertain”.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has also questioned the Government’s aim of ensuring that 80% of UK trade is covered by free trade agreements by the end of the year, d especially as progress on a deal with the United States is “pending”.

There is no guarantee that the agreements will bring real economic benefits unless the ministry provides essential support to help companies use the agreements, especially for small businesses that want to export globally.

MPs said there was a ‘lack of clarity’ from the Department for International Trade (DIT) on how it will measure whether it derives benefits from its free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations ).

“There is no guarantee that the agreements will bring real economic benefits unless the ministry provides vital support to help companies use the agreements, especially for small businesses wishing to export around the world,” says The report.

Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chairman of the committee, said: “The Department must communicate the benefits we can expect from this brave new world we have entered and the trade-offs we face.

“The department is really struggling to point to any tangible gains for UK businesses, consumers or our own farming sector – even as the pandemic and energy price crisis demonstrate the critical importance of strong trade deals.

“DIT is constrained by the deliberations and choices of our largest trading partners – this is a problem of its own, and for it to solve: families struggling to emerge from the pandemic and in a massive crisis cost of living need not be the ones to pay.

“In addition to negotiating new FTAs, the department needs to focus more on making it possible for small and medium-sized businesses to export, often for the first time.”

The committee’s report says that in January 2022, 64% of UK trade was covered by FTAs, including the EU deal which accounts for 47% of UK trade.

The report says achieving the 80% target “will be difficult” as major targets such as joining the Pacific trading bloc CPTPP and a deal with India will only contribute 0.4% and 1.5 % respectively to the target.

A deal with the US, accounting for 16.8% of UK trade, ‘is on hold because the US has decided to suspend negotiations’ under Joe Biden, although the end of US bans on beef and British lamb was successful, MEPs said.

The committee also complained about problems with MPs’ ability to properly scrutinize trade deals.

A DIT spokesperson said: “Doing great business for consumers and businesses is at the heart of our business strategy. We have already concluded over £770 billion in trade deals with 70 countries plus the EU, while continuing to attract inward investment and boost our world-class exports.

“Last year, we launched our landmark export strategy so that more businesses can seize new opportunities in the world’s fastest growing markets and bring prosperity to every corner of the country.

“We take parliamentary oversight of FTAs ​​very seriously and have made enhanced commitments to oversight and transparency at every stage of the negotiations, going well beyond our legal requirements.”

Consumer group Which? highlighted the need for proper transaction information.

Sue Davies, head of consumer policy for the group, said: “Our research found that although UK consumers are clear about what they want from trade negotiations, they want agreements to maintain safety standards for food and produce, protecting their data online and caring for the environment – more than two-thirds of people feel left in the dark about what new trade deals will mean for them.

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