HC Deb 19 June 1959 vol 607 cc818-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

12.45 p.m.

Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)

The subject which I wish to discuss briefly today is one of great importance to the industrial future and export trade of the country. In this period of expanding economy we have come to the point of no return, for we must go forward if we are to continue to expand and develop our markets and seek new ones wherever they are to be found. The necessity for greater trade promotions and participation in exhibitions and fairs abroad is a very obvious part of this effort to show what we can make and to find new customers.

There are various types of trade fairs the nature of which is not always realised by many small manufacturers who make up a very large proportion of the people who are the exporters from this country. We hear a great deal about large concerns and huge companies which can afford to do things in a big way. We do not hear so much about a large number of small firms who cannot do things individually and, somehow or other, must get their goods shown if they are to sell them abroad.

The question of arranging fairs, displays, and exhibitions is, on the whole. a rather untidy one at present. I know that a great deal has been done by the Government, and that the Board of Trade has offered many facilities, with great success in some cases. But, generally speaking, quite a number of firms are apparently not yet aware of the facilities available to them and they have not had the necessary encouragement nor the invitation to get out and get on with the job abroad. Too many of these firms are of the opinion that if they take part in an exhibition that is the end of it. They do not seem to realise that there is far more to it than choosing a fair and deciding to exhibit.

How do they find these things out? Is it done through trade associations, and are those associations as active as they might be? Do they do it through cooperation with other firms in the same industry or do they go it alone? In the "Survey of Export Trade Facilities" the report of the Working Party set up by the Federation of British Industries and published in April last, several paragraphs are devoted to this problem. A number of recommendations and statements are made in paragraphs 72 to 85 which are very relevant and are obviously the result of much study. Well-informed attention is drawn to the various types of fairs and the various categories of responsibility for showing, and showing well. It is not much use choosing to exhibit at a fair which will be attended by the public if one is not out to show to the public that one's firm is seeking buyers. There is not much point in going to a fair where there are trade buyers unless one is particularly anxious that they are the people one wants to attract to look at one's wares.

Then there are national and international fairs where prestige is the theme. What can be done to close the gap which there appears to be between the knowledge of what the Government can offer and the facilities which firms know about within their own industries? How can we get concerted effort to tackle the problem of showing the world what we make and how well we make it? Today it is more than ever important that people in other countries should know about this. They must see what we make. I am thinking not only of the public who in the end will be the customers but also of the buyers, who are the people who decide what the public will buy. In this context we have a great deal more to do. It is all very well to say that we make wonderful goods but it is no longer possible merely to say, "It is British; it is best". We must go out and sell our goods in a highly competitive market. We must show them in an attractive way and display them with enthusiasm. Also, the people in charge of the stands must believe in what they are doing.

We must get a "new look" into overseas sales promotions, exhibits and so on. We need a really determined effort on the part of this country, so that there will no longer be a point of no return but an automatic increase and expansion of our markets. We must create in countries where those markets exist the idea that we want to give them every opportunity to look at our goods, to show how good they are, to give them as wide a variety as possible so that they may make a choice to suit each of their customers.

Despite what the Minister may say, I am certain that many of the smaller firms are unaware of all the facilities available. It was wonderful to hear about what happened when the British Toy Manufacturers Association got together and the Board of Trade supported their effort in New York so thoroughly that they were able to make a really extended display. There was a really worth while show in New York and they were more than happy with the results, which I believe were very good indeed. I understand that the toy industry exports about £8 million worth of goods and that during the time of the display in New York the exhibitors met 6,000 trade buyers. In the first year, the Board of Trade was able to support the industry completely by taking the stand, by paying for the space and by giving the Association an opportunity to show what could be done when a number of small firms got together as an industry and went out to put British goods on the map.

This could be done, and should be done, more often. It should be done by many more industries which are unable, through individual firms, to bear the high expense of displays abroad. I am anxious to find out, therefore, if the smaller firms and industries have reasonable facilities for market research before they decide which fair to choose and whether it will be worth their while to choose that fair for a period of years. It is not really valuable, except in an international fair with prestige value, merely to have a display and then go away. The build-up before the fair, what happens during the period of display, and the follow-on afterwards, are all equally important. Many of our people who exhibit abroad seem to fail in one or other of those three aspects.

I believe that they do not always prepare themselves beforehand with knowledge of the needs and of the background against which they will be working. If the problem is too great they decide that they cannot afford to embark on this work and, instead, sell their goods through an agent. Of course, that is a useful and good way hut it will not increase sales as much as they might be increased.

We hear far too often of the paucity of British trade exhibits at various fairs. We seldom hear about the really good ones, of which there are a number. Indeed, I understand that a number of industries have been able to put their goods across at a number of first-class fairs. Those who have done this already should lead the way for those who have failed to make the grade as yet. I believe that one of the most successful has been the atomic exhibit at Hanover for three years, that participation in this by various firms is going on, and that over seventy firms are taking part in the exhibit through their organisation. I believe also that the textile manufacturers combined and that, as a result, during the fair at Frankfurt they had a successful display which the Board of Trade supported.

The paint I am trying to put across in the short time in which I shall delay the House this afternoon is that there is still too little known about the facilities available to people who wish to display their goods abroad. Once again, smaller firms do not seem to understand the value of all the existing ancillary services. They do not make full use of the information services or of the consulates and commercial attachés set up by this country for their benefit and for their use. I hope that the Minister will be amenable and will not think that I am trying in any sense to be negative when I say that I feel that a greater effort in publicity at home to the manufacturers is needed in this matter. I am sure that they are circularised through their trade associations, but many associations still feel that it is not up to them to do the pushing when it comes to export sales.

I feel strongly that we cannot afford to lose a single point in the export market game. We must keep going. We must gain every point and we must keep ahead all the time. Year after year more and more countries are taking up the industrial challenge, and we are up against it even in traditional markets where we expect things to be easy. So, when it comes to the question whether one will display or whether one will not, it is not a matter which can be shrugged off by the Government as not necessarily their financial responsibility. I understand that a fair is to take place in Johannesburg, where the British will have a pavilion and where the main theme will be textiles. That is excellent and is greatly needed, but are we fully represented in all the other trade centres and British pavilions where firms can rent space and be responsible for their own display and their own area but do not carry the overall financial cost?

In the country today there is a feeling that British trade should do more for itself. There is equally a feeling that it cannot do so unless the Government give a further lead—I believe, in many cases, it should be a further push. Therefore, I hope that something will be done to ensure that every person who can sell goods abroad is notified and encouraged, and that anything he can do in his own small way to get together with the other members of his industry will be made so attractive that he cannot afford to stay out of future promotions and exhibitions.

We have seen what has been done by determined effort in several industrial displays, such as that in Brussels, where there was an international trade fair, but these are not necessarily the only important displays. Equally important is the specialist fair. It is no use having one display. We must keep on displaying so that markets continue to improve. In countries where we are hoping to expand our trade we must display our goods with the utmost enthusiasm. I am not sure that all those who ought to know what is available to them are sufficiently notified. I hope very much that the gap will be bridged and that everyone in this country will be galvanised into action by a truly lively and enthusiastic push by the Board of Trade, which has done so much already.

1.0 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) for raising this subject, which is one which, one way or another, occupies a great deal of my time and is certainly worthy of consideration by the House because of its possible implications as regards our export trade.

It is a field in which it is extremely easy to be an unconstructive critic—nothing is easier than telling other people how to spend their money. I entirely acquit my hon. Friend of being an unconstructive critic. She made some very helpful points. Points made directly to the Board of Trade will be noted, and I hope that her remarks will, somehow or other, reach the wider audience they deserve.

This is a field in which it is difficult to ensure that the right decision has been taken. On the one hand, one has to be sure that no suitable and fruitful opportunities are lost and, on the other, one has to be sure that money is not going to be spent unless it will produce worthwhile results. Having spent the money it is not always easy to judge whether the results have, in the event, been worth while.

There are two sides to this question. First, there is what the manufacturer or distributor should do, and, secondly, there is the problem of what is the right, useful and worthwhile scope of Government assistance.

Trade fairs are a Board of Trade concern, and where it is a question of Government assistance and expenditure I would like to begin by paying a warm tribute to the help and advice which the Board of Trade receives from the very distinguished men from industry who serve on our Exhibitions Advisory Committee of which I have the honour to be ex officio the Chairman. I count myself very fortunate in being able to rely on their advice, and I think it is noteworthy that so many busy businessmen are able and willing to spare the time to do this job for the public good.

Now, what are we really trying to do in these matters? We want to encourage the producers and the distributors of our goods to display them at those places where they will be seen by the likely buyers, whether they are trade buyers or, in some cases, the general public. We are more usually concerned with trade buyers.

There is a limit here to what the Government can or should do. In the main, the initiative and the responsibility must rest with industry. But the Government, I think, have a duty to give a certain lead, and this duty we at the Board of Trade fulfill in various ways. First, we collect information about all the various trade fairs overseas and publish information about it through either the Board of Trade Journal or the Special Register. Secondly, we sometimes put up official stands at those places where we think they will do most good—and this we do after taking the advice of the Advisory Committee to which I have referred. Sometimes we go further and we build British pavilions at overseas fairs where British contributors would otherwise have no suitable place in which to show off their wares.

The first of these pavilions was put for the Rand Trade Fair, in Johannesburg, and was opened this year by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. Incidentally, I should like, in passing, to say that it won a gold medal for architectural merit, for which I am prepared to take a very small meed of credit, for I happened to have approved the design.

The second pavilion was put up at the Casabalanca Fair, in April, and I went out to the opening ceremony. We had put up the pavilion in that case because it had been urged on us to take this action by the very active local British business community, who did their part in return and filled the pavilion with a show of British goods. I look forward to a very good future for that exhibition and for the British pavilion there in the years to come.

That is one form of Government aid, but, again, I must emphasise that it is industry that is the judge of whether a particular trade fair—or, indeed, trade fairs in general—form the most useful opportunity for doing business. By "doing business" I do not necessarily mean the immediate sales. Fairs must very largely be looked upon as an exercise in public relations, the benefit of which will accrue only over the years.

There is no point or purpose in the Government spending money where industry by its reluctance to take space shows that it does not look on that particular fair as being worth while. That, incidentally, is an answer to a great many of the criticisms which have recently been made of failure to show in a particular place or places. Industry must be the judge and I think it is fair to say that it knows its job, which is how to sell its goods overseas.

The House will understand that in this context I am not talking about the international exhibitions such as that at Brussels last year. I am talking about trade fairs, and there are two specific types to which I want to draw attention. First, there is the all-British fair of which a very successful example has just closed at Lisbon. I am told that a good deal of business has already ensued at Lisbon, but that is not the only yard-stick by which to judge results. The results will ultimately come from the greater familiarity and intimacy which has arisen thereby between British industry and its customers abroad.

We owe an immense debt to the enterprise and energy of the F.B.I. in mounting these fairs and we have the highest hopes for their project in New York next year, to which, incidentally, the Board of Trade is making a substantial contribution in the shape of an official exhibit. Then, of course, there are hopes that the Association of British Chambers of Commerce will be able to put on a fair in Moscow the year after.

The other kind of fairs with which I am concerned are the specialised trade fairs which are becoming increasingly common although they are still mainly confined to the more advanced economies of Europe and America. We believe, and all my own past experience leads me to the same conclusion, that these are the fairs at which worthwhile business is most likely to be done. There are fewer inquisitive spectators, but more of the people who do the buying for a particular firm.

I was very grateful to my hon. Friend for what she said—I agree very much with it—about the desirability of firms joining together to take part in these sort of fairs. She is quite right. There is a lot that can be done in this way by smaller firms who have not on their own the resources to show abroad. I also agree very much with the point she made about trade associations giving more definite advice to their members as to what exhibitions to encourage, but one does not want to be too rigid in these matters. However, I think that firms would welcome more guidance on these lines, and the recent F.B.I. Committee on Export Trade Facilities was in agreement. That Committee was under the chairmanship of Sir Cecil Weir, who is a very distinguished member of my Exhibitions Advisory Committee, and it also had as a member Sir Edward Herbert, another member of the Advisory Committee.

In this sphere of the specialist trade fairs we in the Board of Trade have been making some experiments along the lines to which my hon. Friend referred. We have been helping certain trade associations to bring groups of their members into these fairs. I emphasise groups because, of course, we cannot possibly see our way to subsidise individual firms. That would be a very slippery and dangerous path on which to embark. But by this technique and by working with trade associations we think that we have found a good way of helping firms to test out a new market under the easiest possible circumstances and of helping firms who have already been doing a limited amount of business in the market to see what they can do to expand it.

The case which my hon. Friend cited—toys—has been a very successful one. This experiment started in 1955 with scientific instruments. We have also helped leather, plastics, hosiery and knitwear, sports goods and one or two other industries at various fairs, and we have plans for forthcoming events, for men's and boys' wear at Cologne, in August, and plastics at Dusseldorf, in October. We are only too glad to entertain applications from trade associations for more of these ventures, and we will be as sympathetic in our approach as our resources allow.

My hon. Friend also said—how right she was—that fairs must not be regarded as isolated operations. They must be part of a sustained sales campaign which involves a number of other activities besides participation in fairs. Just to show in a trade fair without any supporting action is surely usually a waste of money. Before any firm goes to the expense of showing in a fair it ought to have a very clear idea of what it is trying to do. Is it looking for an agent? Does it want to see how its products compare with those of its competitors? Does it want to get its name known to the public? Is it seeking orders from trade buyers? Most important of all, perhaps, is the fair concerned the right one for its purpose? On all of these, and particularly on the last point, I believe the Board of Trade can give more help than it is sometimes called on to do at present.

Provision for £166,000 has been made in the Board of Trade Estimates for trade fairs and exhibitions in the current financial year. Of course, this is less than some countries spend, although it is rather difficult to make an exact comparison because the methods of organisation and the services provided vary so much from country to country. I certainly do not think that we are guilty of over-lavish spending, and it is in deciding the right priorities that the advice of the Advisory Committee has been so valuable.

It was a great encouragement to see that the Weir Committee—that is, the F.B.I. Committee about which we have been talking, said this: By and large, we consider that the policy of Her Majesty's Government in leaving the main responsibility with private industry in this matter and giving various kinds of practical assistance has much to commend it. It also wanted the sum which we spend to be kept under constant review, and this is being and will be done; but in the main the Report gave its blessing to what we are doing now.

Nevertheless, there will always be some critics who will point to a fair where this country has gone unrepresented, or where its representation has been inadequate, and deplore the fact. It is much harder to be certain, let alone prove, that if we had taken part more trade in the short term and the long term would actually have resulted.

The law of diminishing returns applies with some force in this field, so that the main thing is that we should be satisfied that we are getting good results from what we are spending, and I can give the House a confident assurance to that effect.

1.12 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

I should like to congratulate the hon, Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) on having raised this most important subject of trade exhibitions. As a predecessor in office of the Minister, I join with him in paying tribute to the work which the Board of Trade does in promoting trade exhibitions and in giving industry every possible help.

My grievance is that the Board of Trade is not enabled to do as much as it would like to do. I believe that it was a great tragedy when the British Industries Fair was closed by the Government. I believe in the maxim that trade follows the flag, and merely to promote exhibitions on the basis of whether we shall get orders today or tomorrow is not good enough. I have seen many trade exhibitions in different parts of the world and have always found that such countries as the Soviet Union, and now China, spare no expense in exhibiting their goods and in promoting their wares, with the result that in the markets of the world they will shortly be the most formidable competitors. If we do not do more to help industry than we are doing at the moment we shall regret it. I am confident that if industry were asked, "Are you willing that we should promote an exhibition?", the answer would always be, "Yes."

The British Pavilion at the Brussels Exhibition was visited by people from all over the world, who said that it was one of the best exhibits there, and, indeed, one of the best exhibits ever shown at any trade exhibition. I should like to see this continue, and I urge the Minister to do what he can to persuade the Treasury to give the Board of Trade more money for promoting more trade exhibitions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past One o'clock.