Australia free trade deal a failure for UK, says George Eustice

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George Eustice
Image caption,
George Eustice helped negotiate the free trade agreement with Australia while environment secretary

Former environment secretary George Eustice has savaged the UK's free trade deal with Australia and criticised Liz Truss's role in negotiating it.

Mr Eustice, who helped secure the agreement, told a Commons debate that it was "not actually a very good deal for the UK".

It was the first post-Brexit deal negotiated from scratch.

But Mr Eustice argued it gave away "too much" after the then trade secretary Ms Truss "shattered" the UK's negotiation.

At the time the government estimated the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement, signed on 17 December 2021, would unlock £10.4bn of additional trade while ending tariffs on all UK exports.

The deal also removed some visa rules. Young people are now able to work and travel in Australia for up to three years. UK architects, scientists, researchers, lawyers and accountants can also access work visas without being subject to Australia's skilled occupation list.

Mr Eustice told the Commons that now he is on the backbenches he "no longer has to put such a positive gloss on what was agreed".

Overall the UK "gave away far too much for far too little in return", he told MPs.

This includes giving Australia or New Zealand full access to the UK market to sell beef and sheep, while Australia still bans the import of British beef, he added.

Mr Eustice worked in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for nearly a decade - first as a minister before being appointed secretary of state by Boris Johnson.

Ms Truss sacked him when she became prime minister in September.

Image source, Richard Sowersby/BBC
Image caption,
The deal will reduce extra costs and taxes on exports and imports between the two countries

The UK started negotiations "with the strongest possible hand" but Mr Eustice said negotiators were put "on the back foot" by Ms Truss demanding that the terms of the deal were agreed before a meeting of the G7 in Cornwall on 11 June 2021.

To meet this deadline civil servants at the Department for International Trade (DIT) allowed Australian negotiators to "shape the terms" of the agreement, Mr Eustice argued.

He said the UK needed to learn from these "failures" and move responsibility for negotiations on agriculture and food to Defra.

In response, International Trade Minister Andrew Bowie said all trade officials were "dedicated to bettering the trading relationship of this country".

Mr Bowie said all of them "without exception, have this country's best interests at heart and are working day and night for this country".

Mr Eustice also used his speech to call for the DIT's top civil servant, Crawford Falconer, to be sacked.

He accused Mr Falconer of accepting concessions to Australian negotiators "often when they were against UK interest".

Now is "a good opportunity to move on and get a different type of negotiator in place - somebody who understand British interests better than he has been able to", Mr Eustice said.

In response, a source close to Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said: "With more than 25 years' experience, Crawford is acknowledged as one of the world's leading experts on global free trade and is doing an exemplary job.

"The deal we've done with Australia - which was collectively agreed to by a cabinet that included George Eustice himself - is set to unlock more than £10bn of trade.

"Australia and NZ have huge markets in Asia and do not use their tariff-free allocations. The former environment secretary is mistaken in his attack - this deal will not damage British farming."

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