Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:06 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 7:06 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, I support the Government’s objectives with the Bill. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Meyer on her exceptional maiden speech.

This Bill is the necessary first step towards establishing ourselves as an independent trading nation, but we must now make the necessary changes to face up to the challenges post Brexit and to make the most of the trading opportunities in future. The DIT must be appropriately resourced; it is still a very poor relation compared to some other Whitehall departments. The mechanics have been changed in Whitehall, but often not abroad. I agree with my noble friend Lord Risby on the issue of resources being disproportionate at the moment. It cannot be right that there is a ratio of 10 DfID personnel to only one from the DIT in Africa. DfID has more personnel in Kenya than the DIT has in the whole of Africa, yet it is the DIT that is creating the wealth for our country, and I believe that we stand a better chance of lifting people out of poverty by trading with them and helping them to develop.

To make a success of exports and inward investment post Brexit, we must ensure that DIT trade promotion and the FCO teams in the embassies overseas work collectively and constructively together. They are on the same team, and they should be working together to support UK interests and to help to strengthen our economy. I have been very fortunate, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Oman and formerly as a Minister, in my dealings with that country. At all times, from the excellent ambassadors down, the whole team at the embassy has been joined up. Like my noble friend Lord Risby, the embassy has had some huge export successes on both the military and civilian side. However, in some other countries there are internal conflicts within embassies. On very rare occasions, an ambassador or high commissioner has little interest in furthering Britain’s international trade interests.

Human rights are of course an important aspect of the FCO’s agenda, and that must be continued. But it must be done subtly. An ambassador who has chastised a foreign Government for their supposed human rights failings will often have caused huge offence to that host Government, so he or she cannot expect a warm reception the next day when accompanying a British company pushing for a huge export order in that country. That country would have good reason to feel aggrieved. Nevertheless, the human rights issue must not be neglected.

What is to be done in the very few cases when this does cause problems? Will the area trade commissioners be able to step in to ensure that trade interests do not suffer in that country? Most ambassadors who do their job well will have nothing to fear. I hope that the trade commissioners will not only express their opinion about the effectiveness of DIT staff in the region but will have an input into an ambassador’s or high commissioner’s annual report on the DIT staff in his embassy. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that this is the case.