HC Deb 23 June 1993 vol 227 cc288-90
5. Mr. Dickens

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on recent trends in (a) exports and (b) imports; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. McLoughlin

In the past 12 months, export volumes of goods have risen by 6–6 per cent., while imports have risen by only 5 per cent. This sustains the marked improvements in our export performance in recent years, and I know that United Kingdom exporters will build on those gains as they reap the benefits of our improved competitiveness.

Mr. Dickens

Does my hon. Friend believe that those encouraging figures are based on the advantage that the United Kingdom has from the floating pound, or is it possible that some British companies are selling abroad at a favourable price because of the shallow domestic market—in other words, dumping? If that is the case, I would be a very happy man. We would be giving many nations a taste of their own medicine, which the textile companies in my constituencies have received for many years.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am not sure whether I would go along with my hon. Friend in respect of United Kingdom companies dumping. United Kingdom companies are winning export markets in very competitive areas, and I am sure that we all welcome that.

Mr. Purchase

Despite the Minister's assurances on exports, is not it true that, although there has been a welcome start of a recovery in manufacturing, imports are set to grow at twice the rate for exports that was given by the Minister? Is not that due entirely to the Conservative party's antipathy to manufacturing and the wipe-out of capacity that has taken place during the past 13 years of their rule?

Mr. McLoughlin

It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I neither follow nor recognise his figures. The hon. Gentleman talks about a reduction in manufacturing. He represents a Wolverhampton constituency, and will remember well that British Steel Bilston closed down under the last Labour Government.

Mr. Batiste

Is not one of the most important factors in our improving export performance the fact that, over the past decade, we have had the lion's share of inward investment into the EC? Is not it time that we acknowledged that the best companies in the world believe that Britain is the best place in Europe in which to manufacture?

Mr. McLoughlin

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. My constituency benefited from a huge inward investment of £770 million from Toyota. That investment could have gone anywhere in Europe, but Toyota chose the United Kingdom because it recognised this country as the best place to invest.

Ms Short

Will the Minister admit that we have a disastrous problem in the British economy, as we are losing £1 billion on our balance of payments every week? After 14 years of Tory rule, the British economy is in deep crisis because our manufacturing—[ Interruption.]Conservative Members should not be so ignorant. These are the facts. The British economy is in deep crisis and the strategy of the Government towards manufacturing has been a disaster. The economy will not prosper unless the Government adopt an industrial strategy that will encourage long-term investment in manufacturing. Will the Minister admit that that is the truth and say whether the Government have any strategy to deal with the crisis?

Mr. McLoughlin

We had a very good debate only the other Friday about the factors contributing to Britain's competitive advantage. Between 1974 and 1979, our competitiveness fell dramatically, and the Government have gone a long way towards improving the position.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) referred to exports. Compared with the first quarter of 1993, exports of medical and pharmaaceutical equipment are up by 28 per cent; of power generation equipment by 42 per cent; of office machinery by 45 per cent; of machine tools by 47 per cent; of radar equipment by 60 per cent; and of computer hardware by 70 per cent. I should have thought that even the hon. Lady would regard that as good news.

Mr. Butcher

Does my hon. Friend agree that, of all the countries in the European Community, Britain more than any other shares with the United States a common attitude and a common policy to free trade? Does he therefore agree that Britain is uniquely placed to lead a discussion with the United States Government on the creation of a North Atlantic free trade area encompassing north America and the EEC, which would have the advantage for us of stimulating the western coasts of western Europe and for the Americans of stimulating the north-eastern seaboard of America, which is currently a depressed area?

Mr. McLoughlin

The Government believe in removing or minimising all obstacles to trade. We will certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestion.