HC Deb 09 March 1994 vol 239 cc274-5
11. Mr. Spring

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what has been the change in United Kingdom exports over the past year; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Needham

In the first 11 months of 1993, export volume was over 3 per cent. higher than in the same period a year earlier.

Exports to non-EC countries, particularly south-east Asia, have risen rapidly—11 per cent. higher in 1993 than in 1992—and UK exporters are well placed to expand volumes when European demand picks up.

Mr. Spring

My hon. Friend will be aware that much of our increased trade is with the booming economies of Asia. But is he aware that a trade mission from the Suffolk chamber of trade and commerce is currently in Malaysia and Singapore? Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating that mission on securing orders which will boost employment in the county of Suffolk?

Mr. Needham

I echo what my hon. Friend says. The chamber of commerce mission there has been very successful. Despite the efforts of Mr. Andrew Neil and others, it has achieved more orders than last year.

Mr. Purchase

The House will welcome the export efforts of our major companies, but, despite their heroic efforts in difficult circumstances, the United Kingdom's balance of payments problem remains acute. That can be put down to the policies of the Government.

Mr. Needham

The balance of payments percentage figures are lower now than at any time since 1982.

Mrs. Browning

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is extreme concern in my constituency among manufacturing industries? The chairman of one such company came to see me last week to say that his company has two £500,000 orders waiting to be signed in Malaysia. Will my hon. Friend use his best offices to ensure that the damage caused by the editor of The Sunday Times is put right as soon as possible?

Mr. Needham

I agree with my hon. Friend. If I may, Madam Speaker, I should like to thank the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who has written to me to express the concern of trade unions about the damaging consequences for jobs in British industry if the current restriction on the involvement of British companies in public work projects imposed by the Government of Malaysia is not lifted … We therefore support the government's efforts to restore good trading relations and we are confident that our trade union colleagues in Malaysia take a similar view. I only wish that the editor of The Sunday Times, and the Murdoch press in general, would show as much responsibility as the general secretary of the TUC has shown.

Mr. Bell

We welcome the exchange that the Minister has had with the TUC. Does he accept that Her Majesty's Opposition have always given their full support to our export drive, and continue to give it full support today— and will continue to do so in the future? Anyone who seeks to maintain the contrary is guilty of base calumny.

As for the Government's current difficulties with Malaysia, it is our earnest wish to give the Government every support in achieving a successful outcome to the talks. It is desirable that the talks with Malaysia reach a fruitful conclusion before the signing of the general agreement on tariffs and trade on 15 April in Marrakesh. Although Malaysia may not be a signatory to that accord, it would be in its interests to reach an harmonious conclusion.

Mr. Needham

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's confirmation that the Opposition will do all that they can to help British exporters. I am not sure that that was always the case in the past.

As for the hon. Gentleman's comments on GATT, Sir Leon Brittan and the Commission will take a close interest in that matter. As the hon. Gentleman says, we must get this row out of the way as quickly as possible, and we are unlikely to do so if it is constantly exacerbated by the ludicrous comments of the editor of The Sunday Times.

Mrs. Gillan

I recognise that a beneficial change for exporters was the improvement in the Export Credits Guarantee Department regime announced in the Budget. Will my hon. Friend undertake to look at the bonding support to small and medium-sized businesses? As those businesses increasingly win overseas orders, they come up against their bonding limits and, in some cases, they are prevented from even tendering for overseas contracts because of the bonding support position.

Mr. Needham

I am perfectly happy to look at that matter on behalf of my hon. Friend. I should point out that, during the past two years, the premium rates have reduced by some 27 per cent. and the amount of cover made available to British industry has increased by some £2 billion. Today, I see that the ECGD has announced that it is supporting a major new order with GEC Alsthom in inner Mongolia.