[Ann Winterton in the Chair] — Economic Partnership Agreements

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:34 pm on 8th June 2006.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Party Chair, Co-operative Party 3:34 pm, 8th June 2006

With the leave of the House, I shall try to answer some of the questions and points raised during the debate. I hope both Opposition spokesmen will forgive me if I start with the contribution of my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz, because he articulated a number of the underlying fears of many of our constituents—particularly in the NGO community—about how EPAs might turn out in practice. I hope to mention one or two things that will address the perhaps understandable scepticism about the direction of travel of EPA negotiations.

One of the reasons why the Government sought this debate—I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing it to take place—is to allow the House to understand and discuss the way in which negotiations have developed since our position paper was published in March last year. Given that the Doha round of negotiations has understandably taken considerable precedence in media, NGO and Government activity, we wanted to use the debate to set out the considerable amount of work that has been going on, often behind the scenes, to ensure that the EPA negotiations genuinely deliver the development outcome that we think they can.

I shall give some additional reassurance on Singapore issues. I have made clear our position up front. We sought to persuade the vast majority of EU member states and the Commission that forcing the discussion of Singapore issues would not be possible, and would not be desirable in any case. I believe that we have been successful in that. Our officials who tracked the negotiations across Government—whether in the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department of Trade and Industry—and the Ministers with responsibilities for the negotiations in those Departments, are monitoring whether there has been any attempt to force discussion of Singapore issues by a back-door mechanism. If there were, we would oppose it. Our position, which I believe has prevailed, is that it is genuinely for the negotiating teams of the six blocs to decide which, if any, of the Singapore issues they want to be discussed. As I say, trade facilitation is being discussed in all groups at their request, and the Caribbean and the Pacific groups want to discuss investment, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith is right to say that there was a genuine concern that some wanted just a light-touch review of how negotiations have gone, as I outlined earlier. We made it clear that we wanted a much fuller review of the negotiations, and the EU Council conclusions from 10 April have made it clear that it wants a much fuller review. Our position led to that genuine success and I welcome the support that we have had throughout all member states.

Regarding how the review might progress, it is for ACP regional blocs, member states and the Commission to feed in their assessments of it. One of the things we discussed with at least one regional negotiating bloc country, which might help in the review process, is the carrying out of independent work in each of the different regional areas—if the negotiating blocs want it—to feed into the review so that no one can say that it is simply a further negotiating position by the regional bloc or the EU. It will be genuinely independent. If the regional negotiating teams want that, we are willing to consider supporting such a process.

I hope that that provides further reassurance about the seriousness of our intent in relation to the importance of the review. It is a cross-Government position, so my right hon. Friends the Minister for Trade and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, as well as Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are also engaged in watching how the negotiations proceed.

I come to the usual battery of questions from Mark Simmonds. His first concerned how—and, indeed, whether—arbitration of disputes would be needed. Let me be clear that, to date, there are no such apparently intractable differences of opinion between the EU and the ACP. If there were, we would think that the best way to resolve them would be through independent negotiation, perhaps facilitated by an independent arbitrator. I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the review that will take place this year, which will again provide an opportunity to see how matters are moving forward. I hope to continue to build consensus around the direction so that there will be no need to resolve such disputes.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the relationship between sustainable impact assessments and economic partnership agreements. He may be aware that the need for sustainable impact assessments is specifically mentioned in the Council conclusions to which I have referred. Some such assessments have been conducted. Those that were done for the ACP are confidential to the ACP grouping, and neither we nor the Commission have seen their results. They are clearly designed to inform the negotiating position of the ACP grouping. Some have been done for member states and the Commission, which we have seen but which, frankly, were not terribly informative. We are trying to work with the Commission to come up with a more effective methodology for further such assessments for precisely the reasons outlined by the hon. Gentleman, so that we can properly understand what certain negotiating positions and agreements might mean.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how we will ensure that the benefits of the extra trade that EPAs might deliver will be spread down to the very poorest. Obviously, in the context of the specific EPA negotiations, it is difficult to put in particular benchmarks. That is where the wider context of development discussions with each developing country becomes important and where work on national development plans and poverty reduction strategies becomes crucial. That wider development dialogue seeks, in effect, to extend the benefits of growth to the very poorest in developing countries. That is where we can make sure that the benefits of trade and economic growth are spread to those who most need them.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about monitoring mechanisms and whether they will be independent. A key outcome that we secured in the Council conclusions was the recognition that further work needs to be done on the design of the monitoring mechanism, with not only the European Commission but ACP Governments and stakeholders, for that very purpose. We expect that to be ready by the time that any EPA comes to be negotiated. Obviously, I will continue to keep hon. Members up to date on the ongoing discussions on EPAs.

The hon. Gentleman asked how negotiations might be speeded up, for want of a better phrase, and how they linked to the Doha development round. He is right to say that the Doha round negotiations are an important backdrop to the EPA negotiations and will have a considerable impact on them, not least in the context of the discussions on special and differential treatment, which are very important in relation to whether particular problems will develop from the food security issues that have been the concern of some in the NGO community and some in-country capitals. The current discussions on that in the Doha round will be particularly important in the EPAs dimension.

The hon. Gentleman's broad point was about how we can speed up the process. That is one reason why it is crucial to have an extensive and full review of EPAs this year and not just a light-touch review. We need to consider what further progress is needed and what member states and the Commission can do to support the negotiations more effectively, so that, if possible, we get them to a stage at which they are ready for implementation by the time the WTO waiver comes to an end.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly worried about the overload on the negotiators in each of the various developing countries. Mr. Browne also raised that issue, and they are right to raise that concern. The pressure on a number of key Ministers and key officials in developing countries is considerable, not least because of their importance to the Doha round, EPAs, internal trade discussions, and bilateral trade agreements that might be being negotiated within each region or with key developed countries. We have sought to ease that capacity dimension through our trade-related capacity building support. We have given £1.6 million to support the Caribbean regional negotiating machinery in that process. We have also given £8.9 million to the southern and eastern Africa regional trade facilitation programmes, and various other financial supports to the other negotiating blocs, precisely to try to help with some of the capacity constraints that hon. Members and people in the NGO world have understandably drawn to our attention.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness also asked whether I still think that the Doha round will be a success, and mentioned a speech made by Commissioner Mandelson. There is no doubt that we are getting close to the wire with the Doha round. It is clear that all the key blocs in the negotiations know that there is potentially a huge prize with a successful outcome to the Doha round, and that they recognise that all blocs will have to give further ground. Clearly, it is necessary to make some progress on the sequencing of revealing more details of the final position of each country or bloc, which needs to happen quickly. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and other key Government members have all been involved in seeking to move those negotiations forward. Commissioner Mandelson has made it clear that he is still hopeful that there will be a successful outcome to the Doha round, and we continue to work for such a conclusion both within our discussions in Europe and, more broadly, on the international stage.

I do not believe that there is a conflict between the EPA negotiations and the Doha round negotiations, which is another concern that the hon. Gentleman raised. Multilateral negotiations are always better for individual developing countries, because developing countries coming together to negotiate their positions inevitably strengthens them against the big, regional negotiating blocs. Bilateral agreements offer potential for countries to be bullied, and can mean that the best possible outcome for those developing countries is not secured. Our position is very much that multilateral negotiations are the best way forward, which is why we continue to put as much political and official effort into trying to secure the Doha round outcome that we want.

All Members present asked about development assistance to support the implementation of EPAs. I suspect that we will continue to provide increasing development assistance to support the implementation of EPAs. It is difficult to say how much will be required until we see what the negotiations bring forth. As I indicated, we have been spending an increasing amount on building trade-related capacity to support negotiations across a variety of settings and on implementing the outcome of those negotiations.

We will provide money bilaterally, and money will also be made available through the European development fund. Hon. Members may know that the latest development fund negotiations—EDF 10—were successful, with a 15 per cent. real-terms increase in the size of the total. How those extra resources will be allocated has yet to be decided, but there is clearly a potential for further resources to be made available to implement the EPAs once they are finally negotiated.

The hon. Member for Taunton asked about the timing of any asymmetric liberalisation—how much time developing countries would need in order to decide the pace at which they wanted to open up their markets. Our policy to date—in a sense, it was alluded to in the Commission for Africa report—is that 20 years is the essential time frame, and that that time might be needed. It is possible that complete opening up by ACP countries cannot be envisaged. Inevitably, the length of time that it takes for markets to be opened up will vary in each ACP group, so that is an important part of the negotiations.

World Trade Organisation rules provide some flexibility. Part of our negotiating position in the current round of WTO talks is to press for further flexibility, but we know that there is likely to be resistance to that from developing countries that are not taking part in the EPA discussions, so we have to be realistic about the level of flexibility that might be available. The EU Council conclusions that we secured on 10 April reinforced the need for more flexibility and asymmetry in the final outcome—an important point to bring home to negotiators.

I hope that I have provided further reassurance to hon. Members about how the negotiations are going, about the way in which Departments across Government are following those negotiations and the seriousness with which we are taking those discussions, and about the fact that we are working to persuade other member states and the Commission of our position. We believe that EPAs have a huge potential for good. They will help to facilitate economic growth, which is crucial for tackling progress on the millennium development goals. However, it is by no means a done deal, which is why the review later this year will be so important. We will keep hon. Members and people outside the House up to date on our progress.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Four o'clock.