Belfast Telegraph

Officials to have 'scoping' discussions about potential UK-US trade deal - Fox

British officials will be speaking to counterparts in Washington within days about a potential UK-US trade deal, Liam Fox told MPs.

The International Trade Secretary said he hoped to hold ministerial-level talks as soon as counterparts in US President Donald Trump's administration have been confirmed.

But Dr Fox acknowledged that despite the drive to boost trade, the UK looked set to miss the target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020.

Giving evidence at the International Trade Select Committee, Dr Fox said Mr Trump had made clear that he wanted to see a free trade deal after the UK has left the European Union.

Officials would be in Washington "in the next week" to have "scoping" discussions and assess the "degree of ambition" for a future trade deal.

Dr Fox added: "Once we have our opposite numbers in place and once they have been confirmed, then we will be able to have ministerial-level dialogue.

"I hope that within the next few weeks I will be able to begin that dialogue with my American counterpart."

He said he would lead a delegation to Washington "as soon as it becomes clear what the scoping of those agreements will be".

The Cabinet minister dismissed concerns about a trade deal with the US opening up the NHS to American private health firms, telling MPs: "This is on a par with alligators in the sewers as urban myths."

Dr Fox insisted protections for the NHS would not be undermined under the terms of any transatlantic deal, saying: "As the person who would be in charge of negotiating that, it would not be happening on my watch."

The target of boosting exports to £1 trillion was a "suitable ambition" but Dr Fox conceded it would not be met by the 2020 timetable.

"I think it's unlikely to be achieved by 2020," he said, adding: "I think it is an achievable target in the years thereafter."

The committee's SNP chairman Angus MacNeil said just six countries were not part of a regional trading arrangement - Mauritania, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, South Sudan and East Timor.

Dr Fox insisted the UK would not be joining that list as Theresa May had made clear she wants a "full and comprehensive free trade agreement" with the EU after Brexit and would also take on the trade deals struck between the EU and other countries.

"It's hardly a picture of splendid isolation," he told MPs.

Dr Fox said the Government's efforts at the World Trade Organisation to replicate the existing schedules on tariffs the UK currently has as an EU member were on course to result in "no turbulence" and "no vacuum" in trading arrangements.

The UK is unable to sign any trade deals until it leaves the EU, but Dr Fox said lawyers would look at how far talks with other countries could go.

"It would be against Britain's national interest for us not to be discussing with future trade partners what those arrangements might be that the UK would want to have in the future," he said.

Dr Fox added: "We won't be signing any negotiation but we'll want to be taking legal advice as we go on about what we think the parameters are to our freedom of movement."

Various forms of discussions were already taking place with countries including Australia, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Turkey and the Gulf States, Dr Fox said.

He defended his department's claim that £16 billion had been invested in the UK since the referendum after research suggested much of the money had been announced before the vote took place.

Asked if it was "fake news", Dr Fox said: "It was an antidote to the idea that people are not going to be investing in the UK."

Dr Fox, a prominent Leave campaigner, added: "The more good news we give to the public the better, and it counters some of the black propaganda that comes from some who want to undermine the referendum."