An independent British trade policy must put the interests of developing countries at its heart

Last week I spoke in Parliament during the Second Reading of the Trade Bill, to speak up for sustainable development and call on the government to put fair trade at the heart of an independent British trade policy.

The bill seeks to replicate in UK law the existing trade arrangements with countries outside the EU. As with the EU Withdrawal Bill, I have deep concerns about the power that this bill would hand to Ministers to change and implement legislation without Parliamentary scrutiny, when Labour has been clear that all aspects of Britain’s trade negotiations should be subject to impact assessments and debated openly in Parliament.

This bill also contains implications for international development policy, which it seems the government has not fully considered.

Under current EU rules, the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), including aid recipients like Uganda and Bangladesh, have access to the EU ‘Everything but Arms’ scheme, whereby there are zero tariffs or quotas on any of their exports to the single market (excluding arms).

This scheme is estimated to be worth £12.5 billion to 49 of the world’s poorest countries, and also gives EU consumers access to cheaper goods, mainly foodstuffs. There are a range of other trade preference schemes for developing countries, and in some cases, such as Botswana, countries have ‘graduated’ from the LDC category as their economies have grown through trade.

Trade policy can seem abstract, but on a recent trip to Bangladesh, I visited a Fairtrade co-operative which exports around the world, including to the UK. The workers there enjoyed good working conditions and decent rates of pay, and I left feeling optimistic about how international trade, done fairly and equitably, can reduce poverty.

The Fairtrade foundation has itself expressed concerns about the impact of Brexit on Fairtrade, as the Fairtrade market is worth £1.6 billion to the UK, and relies on a seamless trading relationship between all of the countries of the EU.

The government has been very clear that trade is the best route out of poverty for small countries. If it is serious about this – if this is not just an attack on the concept of foreign aid – then Labour is clear that the government needs to put development and poverty reduction at the heart of an independent British trade policy. From small farmers in Africa exporting Fairtrade bananas, to the Bangladeshi co-operative workers I visited, millions of peoples’ livelihoods are at risk if the UK does not put development at the heart of its new trade policy.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has recommend that the UK should, at the least, apply the principle of ‘do no harm’ to any new trade deals, so that existing trade preference schemes for developing countries are rolled over, and that Britain’s trade and development policies are aligned.

In addition, other international development charities such as Global Justice Now have recommended that Britain takes this opportunity to improve on some aspects of existing EU schemes, which have in some cases been criticised for extracting damaging concessions from countries that can ill afford them. Britain can become a standard-bearer for fair international trade, and not allow the Tories to fashion a free trade policy which uses our leverage to further exploit some of the world’s poorest countries.

The Government has stated that it is the responsibility of all government departments to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 goals set by the United Nations related to economic development, peace, human rights and the environment that all countries, developed and developing, have signed up to achieving.

It would therefore be absurd for the Department for International Trade to be working at cross-purposes with the Department for International Development, which it will be if it does not put the SDGs at the heart of Britain’s new trade policy with developing countries.

I have received a large amount of correspondence on the Trade Bill from my constituents. This demonstrates the strength of feeling that exists on the issue, and the commitment that exists to the principles of fair trade amongst the British public.

Whilst MPs have rightly focused on the potential outcomes of a ‘no deal’ with the EU for Britain and our constituencies, we should also not forget that ‘no deal’ between Britain and developing countries could represent a catastrophe for some of the world’s poorest people

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