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Motion to Take Note: International Trade Opportunities

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7th July 2016 – Contribution by Lord Waverley 

Lords, I remember well sitting on the peripheries of a highly successful trade mission to Kazakhstan led by the noble Lord, Lord Green, and it is a pleasure to follow him today. The noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, should be thanked for moving your Lordships’ House on to arguably the single most important subject beyond that of the referendum.

Much was made during the referendum debate of what would, and needs to, accrue from exporting globally. On the United Kingdom’s standing in the world, the Prime Minster informed us that we are the fifth-largest economy—although, expressed in dollar terms, we have already, I believe, slipped to sixth or seventh. We are members of the Commonwealth, but even many of our friends there have entered into their own regional arrangements. These were all cited as illustrations as to why we need not be concerned for the future. Comments ranged from those of some, who took the view that we do not need to be a member of the single market, to those of others advocating that the European Union needs our market as much as we need it, which then comes back to that all-important question of access—or not—to the single market and on what terms.

While I have listened with great care to all the positive messages today, I believe that we are afforded a few moments for a reality check, all put forward in the spirit of helpfulness. On 1 July—I am following the example of the noble Lord, Lord Patten—there were 180,734 public procurement opportunities in the 27 member states where United Kingdom commercial interests could tender freely and equally due to our membership of the European Union. In the UK, there were 12,271 public procurement opportunities where entities from member states could tender freely and equally. While it can be generally expected that all is well for those tenders that have been approved, what of those upcoming tenders for which UK interests wish to be considered? For how long will it be the case that unfettered access remains? Will it be for the two-year negotiation period, or will we be disadvantaged from the time Article 50 is triggered?

Global opportunities and the environment in which UK commercial interests can thrive become imperative. In years gone by, it was often said that the world is our oyster. Certainly, the UK has many comparative advantages, but that environment is fast-changing. Increased competition comes from countries such as India, China and South Korea, with France wishing to protect its interests in the francophone area, and the multivector policies adopted by many countries, particularly those that are strategically placed. However, what gives me equal cause for concern is that the new world countries, where many of the opportunities previously existed for the United Kingdom, are starting to play the game by their own rules.

As an example, some time back I was requested by the national oil and gas state entity in Kazakhstan, KazMunaiGas, to negotiate with the three largest foreign oil and gas operators to recognise that procurement policy was not expected to pay scant regard to national goods, works and services capabilities. From these aspirations, I was able to create a memorandum that is known as the Aktau Declaration on Joint Actions, which was signed up to by all the operators concerned. This was in line with the desire to ensure,

“opportunities for the companies and citizens of Kazakhstan to benefit directly from oil and gas projects as part of a strategy to develop an indigenous capability in the sector … creating an appropriate environment and attracting joint ventures with technology transfer by companies in the global oil and gas supply”—

in other words, a stringent local-content programme. These activities become more dire with the low oil price and the little-known consequences of a low oil price that is holding back investment in capital projects.

The point of all this is that the rules of the game have changed and are changing. Partnerships and joint ventures with local employment will become increasingly mandatory. I cannot underline enough that what these countries expect is genuine partnership. The illustration I am offering noble Lords is being increasingly adopted by many around the world. I think particularly of Tanzania, where the president, or his Government, has signed up with the appropriate foreign entities.

Yesterday afternoon, I sent an email to 50 or so chambers of commerce around the UK and a trade mission organiser to inform them of today’s debate, requesting that if they had any points of specific concern that required being flagged to kindly let me know. I am most grateful to the large number who responded by return. A range of important issues emerged. The difficulty I now find myself in, with regret, is that those issues were far-ranging and far too numerous to do them justice—even a snapshot, with calls to action—and to be able to place on record today all the many concerns and challenges expressed. To be exact, I received 15 pages of condensed type of useful suggestions. There is no possibility of my doing justice to all that I have received.

However, the examples include the need to accommodate business visas with easier-to-obtain visas. For example, Dubai is now taking over as the meeting place of choice for not only nearby states but also west Africa. Our friends in west Africa prefer to go to Dubai instead of coming to London Heathrow or Gatwick, as they have done historically. The fast-track trade agreement with India was noted by a number of people, and clarity on a timetable for exit from the EU is considered essential. Lastly, to pick up one of many of the points made, stability should be sought from the Government similar to that being expressed in a clear and resolute fashion by the Bank of England. Would the Minister kindly allow me to package these up and send them over to her for her officials to review? By the way, it is a pleasure to see the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box. The noble Lord, Lord Price, is, I understand, in the marketplace today, where the UK needs him to be—in China.

Nevertheless, over the years I have felt that there is not sufficient partnership between the public and the private sectors in the UK. That gap needs to be plugged. After all, while often too much can be expected from government, the support of—and, in many circumstances, assistance by—government is paramount. Conversely, the private sector is at the sharp end and its views need to be taken on board as an equal partner.

With regret, I now conclude my remarks with an unpalatable tale but one that illustrates the importance of the work that needs to be urgently carried out by the Minister’s department. At this point, conforming with protocol, it is appropriate that I declare that I am the founder and chairman of, a free-to-use global business portal created to stimulate global trade and investment, presenting national and international opportunities covering 195 countries and 25 sectors in eight languages—a large undertaking. I have been keeping the Minister’s department, including the head of digital, informed of progress and will of course continue to do so to the extent that they are minded. To go back to the tale, some short months ago I had occasion to speak with our consul-general in Casablanca, who informed me that the OBN—the Overseas Business Network—in Morocco, which is UKTI’s partner on the ground, was frantically arranging itself in Meknes for what was apparently the largest agricultural conference and exhibition in Africa. Making an immediate decision, I jumped into my car, albeit in Faro, and drove to Meknes, arriving in time for the last day—all well and good. I went immediately to the overseas pavilion, calling at the European Union stand, followed by those of Spain, France and others, including various African representatives. But then—guess what?—the UK stand had packed up shop the day before and left. There was no note, no catalogue, no point of contact—nothing.

We can only scratch the surface of what needs to be debated in this opportunity today, but there is so much more that could and needs to be added if the UK is going to excel in this highly competitive global market. I end with just one thought for the Government, which I believe has been expressed elsewhere. While there is an undeniable need for UKTI to settle down and become supercharged—a new word I learned yesterday, by the way—and properly resourced, there is an urgent need for a review in parallel that addresses this self-created, changed world that had its big bang on 23 June. But, all that said, we soldier on.

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