UK ministers have shown weakness when negotiating new trade deals which other countries will seek to exploit in future, Labour has warned.
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan updated MPs about the UK and Australia’s trade agreement, which will cut tariffs on imports of wine and surfboards and make it easier for young Britons to work Down Under.
Ms Trevelyan described it as a “landmark” deal and said it showed the UK is reaching out to “seize” the opportunities of the future.
The International Trade Secretary also faced accusations of making overly-optimistic estimates about the deal’s impact on the UK economy, but gave reassurances that the agreement had “robust” protections to prevent UK farmers being undermined.
Shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds raised concerns over the impact on British farmers, telling the Commons: “We will not hold the Government to impossible standards, but we will hold ministers to what they have promised people they will deliver from the negotiations.
“Those promises make it even more important that ministers show strength at the negotiating table and defend UK interests to the utmost, because other countries in future negotiations will look at what was conceded to the Australian negotiators and take that as a starting point.
“We already have a UK-Japan trade deal that benefits Japanese exporters five times as much as it does UK exporters, and there does seem to be a worrying pattern emerging of not standing up for UK interests.”
Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) said: “When you compare the original assessment of the economic impact of the Australia deal which was released back in the summer with the Government’s impact assessment that was published last month, there has been a 1,000% increase in the estimated boost to UK GDP.
“But the small print makes clear that this is because the Government has changed the economic model that they are using to analyse the trade deal to one which produces a higher estimate of GDP.
“Can the Trade Secretary present any justification for this change or is it simply a case of cooking the books?”
The International Trade Secretary said the older estimate was “a snapshot at the time”, and invited Ms Olney to meet with civil servants to discuss the changes since then.
SNP foreign affairs spokesman Alyn Smith told MPs there was a “complete dearth of proper consultation with the farming and food sector” across the UK ahead of the deal.
He added: “While we are not against free trade, this deal appears to be very one-sided with little to no advantage for Scottish farmers.
“Surely Covid and Brexit, if they have taught us anything, they have taught us that indigenous food production across these islands, indeed across this continent, and short supply chains are vital to a national security and indeed national resilience, however we are defining national.
Ms Trevelyan said “robust” safeguards had been built into the deal for farmers after anxieties were raised “through extensive consultation with many, many partners” in the food and drinks industry.