HC Deb 28 January 1987 vol 109 cc329-31
9. Mr. Amess

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what assistance his Department gives to small businesses seeking to sell their goods abroad.

Mr. Alan Clark

A comprehensive range of help for exporters is available through the British Overseas Trade Board. The board's objective is to stimulate more small firms to export successfully and many of its services are designed to meet the particular needs of the small business.

Mr. Amess

Is my hon. Friend aware that many small businesses in my constituency of Basildon wish to take advantage of the strategic importance of the town in selling their goods and services abroad? However, they feel that his Department mainly helps larger firms. Will he please say what he is doing to try to dispel that impression?

Mr. Clark

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. I am sorry to hear what he tells me about small firms in his constituency, because, in fact, some 70 per cent. of the clients of the British Overseas Trade Board are drawn from the category of firms with a turnover in the range of £1 million to £10 million. In fact, the BOTB established a small firms committee in 1985. The co-chairmen are both board members, and the committee commissioned a report to identify the export potential of firms in that range.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Does the Minister accept that one of the real problems for the smallest businesses is the inability of key members of the company to spend long periods abroad? What liaison is there between his Department and the Foreign Office to enable companies to secure adequate and effective agents abroad so that they can sell their products?

Mr. Clark

There is an arrangement whereby, for a minimal fee, small firms can have a full range of advisory and representational services arranged by post in the country where they intend to operate. We have just adjusted the scale of fees in that service to comply more realistically with the different degrees of importance and complications of the markets involved.

Mr. Richard Page

Is my hon. Friend aware that a small and, dare I say, distinguished group of hon. Members are discussing with the BOTB methods of setting up pilot schemes to help small firms on a pro-active basis? Will he ensure that those pilot schemes receive full publicity to make sure that they are given every opportunity to help smaller businesses?

Mr. Clark

Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend and other of my hon. Friends in the group who are pushing that idea, to which we attach much importance. In principle, we are willing to help found, on a pilot basis, a small number of export enterprise centres away from the main regional offices of the BOTB. At present we are looking at a scheme in Chelmsford, with Essex county council, but, of course, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, that is dependent to some ex tent on getting a certain level of private participation as well.

Mr. Madden

Is the Minister aware that in surveys conducted by the Bradford chamber of commerce business leaders have blamed the Government's interest rate and exchange rate policies as the major constraints on their businesses? Does he agree that the best thing that he could do to help businesses would be to modify those policies and introduce policies of investment-led economic expansion rather than the minimal measures that he has been discussing so far?

Mr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman may be a little behind the times. As he knows, or as the Bradford chamber of commerce will tell him if he were to ask, the exchange rate policy—if that word applies—or at least, the results of exchange rate fluctuations, have been an effective devaluation of the pound which has been a great help to British exporters. It varies from 18 to 40 per cent. against the deutschmark, and that is the subject of particular attention in the CBI quarterly report to which reference was made earlier this afternoon.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

As I represent many small businesses in Leicester, I thank my hon. Friend for the help that his Department has given to those businesses. Does he agree that the major problem that has been highlighted in Bradford is high rates, which, in cities such as Leicester, kill jobs? That causes particular problems for small textile firms that are exporting. These firms would welcome putting "Made in Leicester, England" on their labels, but as a result of new regulations they may not be able to signify the country of origin. These companies are proud, as I am, to have goods made in Leicester.

Mr. Clark

I am glad of the opportunity to dispel immediately the mistaken idea that it is no longer legal to put an origin mark on products. Although we are no longer allowed as a Government to require manufacturers to include that mark, it is highly desirable that all manufacturers should put that mark on, because that will allow the consumer to make the appropriate choice and reinforce the consumers' understandable preferences in that area.

Mr. John Smith

As the Minister is presumably aware of the major cuts that have been made in the number of staff and the budget available to support exports, especially for small firms, and, in particular, the suspension of the market entry guarantee scheme, the reduction in the number of overseas trade fairs supported by the Government and the reduction in the number of outward missions supported, can he tell the House what possible sense it makes for a country with Britain's appalling trade deficit in manufactured goods to withdraw support for small firms seeking to exploit export markets?

Mr. Clark

Very understandably, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not quote the figures. He simply uttered the concepts. The budget has been increased and will be increased by £1.5 million next year. The number of firms helped in their attendance at trade fairs over the past year was 7,000. The market entry guarantee scheme is neither appropriate to, nor utilised by, small firms.