Negotiations between Britain and India for an ambitious Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are “well advanced”, with the next round of talks set to commence very soon, a U.K. Foreign Office minister told peers in a debate in Parliament here, asserting that a strong deal could boost the country's economy.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, the U.K. Foreign Office Minister for South Asia, also said Britain’s relationship with India is central to its foreign policy and as one of the world’s biggest economies it is a key partner.
Mr. Ahmad was responding to the debate entitled “The Importance of the Relationship Between the United Kingdom and India” in the House of Lords on Thursday, tabled by British Indian peer Baroness Sandy Verma.
He confirmed that negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) are “well advanced”, with the next round of negotiations set to commence very soon.
“It is true that, as we set up and strengthen this relationship, the United Kingdom’s relationship with India is central to U.K. foreign policy,” said Mr. Ahmad.
“As one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies, India is a key partner to the U.K… We are also looking at lowering non-tariff barriers on medical devices to benefit British exporters, and are well advanced in our negotiations for an ambitious and balanced free trade agreement,” he said.
A strong trade deal with India could boost the U.K. economy by billions of pounds over the long term, helping families across the country, he said.
"Cutting red tape and high tariffs could also make it easier and cheaper for U.K. companies to sell in India, driving growth and supporting jobs,” he added.
As part of a review of the progress across all sectors of bilateral cooperation, including defence, health and climate action, the minister also addressed the issue of timelines related to a U.K.-India FTA.
“As an update, we have now completed six rounds of negotiations for a trade deal and will begin the next round very soon… Several noble Lords talked about timelines.
"I assure them that we are working those through specifically, but it was very much by mutual agreement to ensure that the trade deal signed is not rushed but properly thought through, and that all chapters are discussed in an exhaustive manner so that we reach a deal that is of mutual benefit to both countries and their peoples,” the Minister said.
According to official U.K. government data, India-U.K. bilateral trade currently stands at around 29.6 billion pounds a year.
Both sides formally launched FTA negotiations in January last year with former prime minister Boris Johnson announcing a Diwali deadline for its conclusion.
However, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak committed to working "at pace" towards an FTA that does not “sacrifice quality for speed” after that October deadline was missed amid political turmoil in the U.K.
The sixth round of negotiations to finalise the deal concluded last month with detailed draft treaty discussions across 11 policy areas over 28 separate sessions. The U.K. government has said its target for the FTA is to achieve a deal to cut tariffs and open opportunities for U.K. services such as financial and legal, making it easier for British businesses to sell to the Indian economy.
Verma opened the debate by highlighting the recent creation of the India (Trade and Investment) All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), backed by the British Indian think tank 1928 Institute as its secretariat. She revealed that the cross-party group is scheduled to take its first delegation to India in April.
“We believe that the group will provide a strong Parliament-wide link that will not just strengthen political engagement and understanding but will build on what will become the free trade agreement for us to make this century one of the strong foundations, strong collaborations and new partnerships,” she said.
Lord Karan Bilimoria spoke of the need for large prime ministerial delegations to India and called on Prime Minister Sunak to lead one “as soon as possible”.
“Today India has the presidency of the G20. Today India has a vision to become, in the next 25 years, the second-largest economy in the world with a GDP of $32 billion," he said.
“The Indian express has left the station. It is now the fastest train in the world—the fastest-growing major economy in the world. The U.K. must be its closest and most trusted friend and partner in the decades ahead," he added.