After enduring almost 18 months of lockdowns and restrictions, 2021 has been the year to launch the recovery of businesses from the pandemic. It has also seen the beginnings of our new trading relationship with the EU – following the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). Other new trade negotiations are being launched with India and the Gulf Co-operation Council. It’s a crucial year for green trade and finance at COP26, and in my new role as Director-General for the British Chambers of Commerce, I have taken up the baton for our UK exporters in goods and services across the globe.

One of my, and the Chambers Network’s, key priorities is to boost the UK’s levels of growth from trade. This is a key plank of our Rebuild plan; only 10% of UK companies export but nearly half of the Chambers’ membership does. We have developed ChamberCustoms, to build upon over a century of historic work by Chambers to help make trade happen day in and day out in every part of the UK. Our International Network has grown to 75 members, providing our network with the opportunity to get more goods and services into great export markets across the world. We want to leverage our unique experience, local and global reach, and daily insight of how trade drives jobs in every community, to increase our volume of exports, especially from SMEs.

I’ve visited fantastic agri-food companies in Essex, spoken with exporters in Wales, Scotland, NI and the English regions and heard first-hand the stories of how Chambers and Government can work more strongly together to remove trade barriers and let firms grow, as they want to do, with our largest trading partner, the EU. The EU-UK TCA should be supplemented with other agreements – on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) rules, on mutual recognition on professional qualifications and conformity assessments. Further flexibility on business travel, VAT and more guidance on rules of origin are also key to making the TCA work better for businesses. We look forward to pushing for these key changes through the new business engagement architecture being set up under the TCA and the forthcoming UK-EU Parliamentary Assembly.

Trade is never without challenges – at home we have supply chain crises not just on labour and skills shortages but of raw materials and global shipping costs. Some of our members have experienced six or seven-fold rises in shipping container costs to get goods from Asia to the UK. Inflationary pressures are mounting for exporting manufacturers. We need to be more ambitious on trade in services and reciprocal labour mobility schemes. We believe that an Office for Trade Enforcement within the Department for International Trade, would be able to drive higher utilisation of trade preferences by SMEs and ensure that the words of trade agreements are turned into practical trade benefits for SMEs across the UK. Preference utilisation rates are one of the key metrics by which trade Ministers and officials globally can assess the take up by companies of the tariff preferences within a free trade agreement they have made. We need to assess in the UK that the maximum value is squeezed out of our FTAs for exporting SMEs.

Only 10% of UK companies exports

We are also looking forward to a packed autumn on trade – COP26 in Glasgow should be a forum for us to step up globally on trade in green goods and services, the UK’s Global Investment Summit should link inward investors with businesses and Chambers in every part of the UK, and new trade negotiations being launched with India and others will provide a focus to consider new trading opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.

We also need a functioning rules-based order for global trade and I hope for a productive twelfth Ministerial Council at the World Trade Organisation later next month. Measures to revive the Appellate Body are critical in providing business with confidence that rules made, will be rules enforced on tariffs and trade. The plurilateral services agreement reached by 65 countries last week, including the UK, needs to be translated into services schedules in Geneva. It represents a big opportunity to cut the costs of exporting services in some of our key markets like the EU, Japan, Canada, Switzerland and South Korea. We also need agreements on e-commerce and digital trade to meet the trading challenges of the future.

With new trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand on the horizon, and CPTPP accession underway, there has never been a better time for UK companies to upscale on exports. Our Chambers and Global Business Networks, will remain at the heart of making trade happen both in the UK and across the globe, whatever the challenge.

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