As the UK leaves the EU, our aim is to avoid disrupting the strong trade relationship we have with Sri Lanka. In the future we will consider all opportunities to deepen this relationship and expand bilateral trade. I look forward to discussing this with the Sri Lankan Government at the meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers in London this March.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. Sri Lanka is expecting economic growth of 5.5% this year, and has signed free and regional trade agreements with other nations, with another under negotiation with China. Does the Minister agree that Sri Lanka should be an integral part of our global business strategy to approach new international markets? Will he consider the possibility of appointing a trade envoy for Sri Lanka and of sending a ministerial-led trade delegation to the country?
I agree with my noble friend that the economic situation in Sri Lanka is improving. We are delighted to see the growth forecast of 5.5%. It is also heartening that exports from the UK to Sri Lanka increased by 46% in 2015 and exports from Sri Lanka to the UK stood at £1.1 billion. More than 100 UK companies have an affiliation in Sri Lanka. I am delighted that the UK Government are keen to support Sri Lanka moving to the GSP Plus scheme, which will remove tariffs on 66% of goods. At the Commonwealth meeting that we are holding next month we hope to think more about how we can strengthen those ties. There are no plans to have a trade envoy for Sri Lanka but we will continue to work with it to improve our trade relationships.
My Lords, the Minister puts a great deal of stress on the Commonwealth as a framework. We have heard a great deal from the Government about how the Commonwealth, as a network, is going to replace Europe as the driver for British exports. Will he give us some specific examples of cases where membership of the Commonwealth has inclined the Sri Lankan Government or companies in Sri Lanka to favour the British against others in particular contracts?
We believe that there are extensive opportunities to improve trade throughout the Commonwealth, and that is what our meeting next week is going to draw out. The Prime Minister has already announced working groups with Australia, New Zealand and India. We want to work with all 52 countries in the Commonwealth on how we can drive forward the best possible trading relationships. There are many ways that can be done. They can be unilateral arrangements; they can be EPAs or FTAs. We need to consider for each country what is in their best economic interests and those of the Commonwealth.
I agree. Trade indeed brings peace and prosperity and, through that, improves living standards. Improving our trade links with Sri Lanka and other Governments will lift people from poverty and bring a peace benefit.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce. These free trade agreements—not just in Sri Lanka, but elsewhere—are a crucial part of government strategy over Brexit. In your Lordships’ House there is a great deal of interest in how they will develop. Will the Minister consider convening a meeting of interested Peers to brief us on how free trade agreements are going and what has to be taken into consideration?
My Lords, I am convinced that, over the next two years, there will be an awful lot of briefings for Members of this House and the other House about our trade arrangements. I reassure noble Lords that at some point we will be able to talk about our trading relationships and trade policy.
My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will draw to the attention of fellow Commonwealth Trade Ministers the recent research which revealed that it is about 19% cheaper to trade within Commonwealth countries. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, outlined, could we please have an assurance that human rights will also be raised at the meeting? If not, we face the same government department having different compartments dealing with different issues, rather than all the issues around the table at the same time.
Further to my noble friend’s question, is there not an earlier opportunity to have a bit of a debate about this issue? Do we not have on the horizon an agreement with the Canadians, the CETA agreement, which was signed with the EU recently and which is now going around national parliaments? I do not see a date for it coming up on our agenda but no doubt the Minister will be able to advise us when it will happen.
Is my noble friend aware that I visited Sri Lanka in January and had discussions with the high commissioner? I declare an interest as president of the all-party group. It seems to me that we are rather late at the party. As has been mentioned, Sri Lanka already has more than three new agreements with other countries. Can we please get a move on and listen further to my noble friend’s suggestion that we send out a trade envoy, even if only on a short-term basis?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouragement. As part of the EU, we currently have a trade agreement with Sri Lanka under the GSP scheme. As I said earlier, we are very keen now to upgrade that to the GSP Plus scheme. I am sure that at the Commonwealth meeting next week we will talk about how we take forward the trade agenda with all 52 countries, including Sri Lanka.