Finding our place in the world: A Q&A with the Chair of the International Trade Select Committee

With the UK navigating its way through a global pandemic, and the end of the Brexit transition period looming, the UK’s place in the world, and our approach to doing business abroad, has never been under such scrutiny.

Likewise, the need for the business community to engage with legislative and regulatory change has never been greater – decisions taken by government in the months ahead will have implications for years to come.

Leading scrutiny in Westminster of the UK’s emerging trade policy is MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, the Chair of the Commons International Trade Select Committee. Clova Fyfe, Brands2Life’s Head of Public Affairs, caught up with Angus to find out about his priorities in the rest of 2020, and how he would like business to contribute to the development of a new look UK trade policy.

Q: Angus, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today. Starting in the obvious place, how has Covid-19 impacted your priorities for the International Trade Committee in the months ahead?

We have already issued a report into Covid-19 and trade, launched on the July 29th. Covid-19 will inform everything that happens in the months ahead, including the work of my Committee. In parallel to this of course, is the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year which will have significant implications for UK trade.

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) and a leading author on trade diplomacy, recently told the Committee that export led growth is unlikely to happen for some time because of recent events.

Q: Do you think the pandemic will, or should, impact how the UK does business in the longer term, with a focus on different approaches to supply chains, more local sourcing, etc?

There has been a lot of debate about whether supply chains should now be more locally sourced. In reality, when we look at what has happened worldwide, much has been said about China, but only 6 of 150 imports to the UK health system come from China. The bigger question isn’t where things are made but ensuring that there is more than one source, rather than making everything at home.

It would be impossible and economic lunacy, to make everything in this country. It wouldn’t make sense if Liverpool made everything for Liverpool and Manchester made everything for Manchester. If we expand this on a larger basis, you wouldn’t want every country to make everything for itself.

The gains of trade are obvious and have been known for centuries. Therefore, what you would look to do, and certainly this is the impression I got from the EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, is to have parallel supply chains and other routes to take if one gets blocked.

Q: Turning to the other big issue of our time, how should companies ensure that politicians understand their priorities for trade post Brexit?

The business community has a big role to play on Brexit, but too few companies take the responsibility to communicate clearly with government, media and politicians. I think the best thing businesses can do is to be clear to Government and opposition politicians as to what they want. It is much easier for politicians to act when they are told exactly what the business community needs to thrive. If business isn’t getting what it requires from policy, it needs to set out very clearly where the gaps are.

There is often, I feel, a tendency for businesses to pull punches because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of a government; while that has short term attraction, in the medium to long term, it is not a helpful approach.

Q: Moving from the macro issues of COVID-19 and Brexit, to the more specific ones of regulatory development, what are the best ways for businesses to help inform regulation?

Businesses should be involved in the process of helping to shape regulation; everyone knows regulation is key to how business operates. My advice to business is, get involved, draw up regulation, tell us what you need, get the standards in place. Those who help develop standards and regulations will potentially have a competitive advantage.

On trade in particular, the business community could shape trade more and I think this will happen in the years to come. I just don’t feel that businesses have yet caught up with the fact that the UK will now be shaping its own trade policy. This is very different to when the UK was part of the EU and the heft and the might of the EU was driving this process on half of 600 million citizens. This is of course changing as UK business is going to find itself with a far smaller domestic market which means it will need to make demands of government in a way that it hasn’t until now.

The US-UK trade deal is a case in point; the group which is making the most noise are the farmers who have something to lose and are concerned that the UK government isn’t shaping that deal in the right way.

Clearly the tech sector is one that has huge potential for growth, both domestically and in terms of trade. How can we help to make the UK a global technology hub as a result of new trading agreements?

Our latest International Trade Committee report ‘The Covid-19 pandemic and international trade’ states that, “The Government will need to think outside the box and find non-traditional, digital ways of helping to sell British products overseas.”

Technology will be key to this.

Government can help to encourage investment in the tech sector, knowing that it will return on any investment it receives. Government can also offer practical support, for example by ensuring that the Home Office is coordinated to make it easy for people to travel within the EU. This practical support will be critical to ensuring that the UK grows and thrives as a tech sector hub.

Q: What are your predictions for the year ahead on trade?

Predictions are always a difficult game in trade!

I think we will see a tightening of global trade; it is not going to be an easy period, with the patterns that COVID-19 will impose with a ‘side helping’ of Brexit, both of which will impact UK trade. So, trade in future is not going to be as straightforward as it was five years ago – to give one example, the fall in airline traffic means a lot less hold space for smaller and more valuable goods.

Q: Finally, in case there is anyone reading who wants to get involved in the work of your Committee, how do you decide which inquiries to do?

The choice of inquiry is often led by committee members’ interests from speaking to outside groups, so if people have something they really want the committee to focus on, get together, get the message out – you would be surprised how receptive we are to calls for inquiries.

As a committee we are very much gaining an expertise on trade so we are open and willing and always in listening mode to ideas coming forward. I’d urge business to help us with this process!