08 September 2023

Rishi Sunak plays down chances of free-trade deal with India ahead of G20 summit

08 September 2023

A free trade deal with India is “not a given”, Rishi Sunak has said, as he insisted that securing an agreement was not on the top of his agenda for his G20 visit.

The Prime Minister is expected to meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi for bilateral talks on the fringes of the summit in New Delhi, with the pair likely to discuss the progress made on a potential UK-India free trade agreement (FTA).

Boris Johnson, when he was in Downing Street, targeted October 2022 to sign off on a post-Brexit trade pact, in a move designed to coincide with celebrations of the Hindu festival of Diwali.

His successor Liz Truss made the same commitment during her brief stint as prime minister.

I've always said we shouldn't sacrifice quality for speed

But that original target has been missed by almost a year and Mr Sunak has been reluctant to set out a timeframe for doing a deal.

Speaking to reporters on his flight from London to the Indian capital, the Conservative Party leader said he did not want to “sacrifice quality for speed”.

He said: “Without question, India is going to be one of the most significant countries geopolitically over the next years and decades, and it is vitally important for the UK to deepen our ties particularly economically and more broadly with India.

“That is why we’ve been working towards an ambitious and comprehensive free trade deal.

“But it is not a given.

“These things are a lot of work and a lot of time.

“That is why I’ve never put artificial deadlines on these trade deals.

“I’ve always said we shouldn’t sacrifice quality for speed.”

Mr Sunak said any new trading terms with India and its population of 1.4 billion people needed to produce “something that works genuinely for both sides”.

Asked whether he would discuss the state of the negotiations with the Indian leader during their meeting, the Prime Minister said: “Of course.

“Every time I see prime minister Modi it is something we check in at but that is not the main purpose of this visit and this trip.

“There are lots of other things we’re going to be discussing and work on that is ongoing.”

There has been speculation that one of the hold-ups to a trade pact is India’s push for more visas to be granted for its people to work in Britain, a request Home Secretary Suella Braverman reportedly holds concerns about.

No 10 on Thursday ruled out any change to UK immigration policy to accommodate an FTA with New Delhi.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman indicated an expansion of business visas would potentially be considered.

The Indian government is also said to want to see the UK sign off on a social security agreement, putting a stop to some temporary Indian workers in Britain effectively having to pay national insurance twice, both in the UK and in India.

The Commonwealth nation already has similar agreements with the likes of France and Canada.

Mr Sunak would not comment on whether Britain could offer a concession on social security in exchange for reduced tariffs on Scottish whisky and British-made cars.

“You wouldn’t expect me to comment on the details of our negotiations,” he said.

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