Politically Speaking - Future Trade Policy

In the coming years, Parliament will spend far more time debating trade policy and agreements than it has been used to. That is because such agreements will become the responsibility of the UK Government rather than being negotiated through the European Union. All such agreements will come to Parliament for ratification.

At first sight, that seems a positive development. The UK, through our Government and Parliament will have more control over what is agreed on our behalf. The agreements should take into account the particular nature of our economy.

But agreements are between two parties - and in many cases, the other party will have more economic weight, whether it is the US, China, India, the EU or increasingly other trading blocs whether in Asia, Latin America or Africa.

So negotiations will be tough and compromises will be made. I have no doubt that agreements will signed - some without too much delay. But Parliament will need to have more understanding of the way in which trade works and be willing to accept the compromises involved.

I foresee the biggest arguments in Parliament regarding trade in the coming years as being over general environmental, labour and animal welfare standards, human rights, and military equipment.

If Parliament insists on setting a very high bar in all these areas, we can expect negotiations to be very difficult with many countries or trading blocs, and impossible with several.

On the other hand, if we approach negotiations by making the interests of the people of the UK the top priority, and recognising that our trading partners will do the same, we will be more successful.

The word ‘interests’ is often viewed with suspicion as it implies a purely selfish outlook. On the contrary, the interests of UK customers are in safe, good quality imported goods and services provided in accordance with the best internationally accepted environmental and labour standards, as well as top animal welfare rules. At the same time, our trading partners - as I have seen for myself- are looking for the innovation, reliability and quality for which the U.K. is known, and in many cases seeking U.K. investment. With each side basing its approach on a flexible approach to its own interests, rather than trying to impose conditions on the other, negotiations are likely to be faster and less confrontational.

When it comes to matters of human rights, there is nothing to stop the U.K. challenging - and being challenged - on human rights through the UN and other international bodies. This may have effect on trade if the other country dislikes the UK’s approach - that is a risk which has to be taken. But to try to embed extensive human rights conditions in trade agreements is likely to be difficult with all but a few countries.

Exports and imports of military equipment are the hardest category of all in trade. The U.K. is a major exporter, and importer, and has a strong export licence regime for arms. However this regime has, rightly, come under intense scrutiny over the supply of arms to countries involved in the Yemen conflict. It needs a serious overhaul as part of our new trade policy.

One thing is certain. If the U.K. is to conclude the many agreements which have been promised and are vital for businesses in Staffordshire , our approach has to be flexible as well based on our national interests. Flexibility and pragmatism are words Parliament needs once again to learn the meaning of.