HC Deb 19 June 1996 vol 279 cc868-9
14. Mr. Canavan

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what is the balance of trade in manufactured goods in the latest quarter. [32121]

Mr. Nelson

There was a deficit of £2.5 billion on trade in manufactured goods in the first quarter of 1996.

Mr. Canavan

Is the Minister aware that the United Kingdom's trade balance in manufactured goods went into deficit in 1983 for the first time since the industrial revolution, and has remained in deficit ever since? Given that this country has a worse trade balance than any other European Union member state, how on earth can the Government claim that they are making Britain into the enterprise centre of Europe? The truth is that the President of the Board of Trade is the captain of a team that is at the bottom of the European league.

Mr. Nelson

That is another extremely depressing analysis, completely unrelated to the facts. Since the Conservative party came to office, the number of manufacturing exports has doubled. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman referred only to manufacturing exports. We have a £5.5 billion surplus on our services account.

It is necessary to look at the whole picture. Like so many of his hon. Friends, the hon. Gentleman is highly selective and extremely deprecating about our trade performance. Much is going well. He would do better to concentrate on success stories such as that of Exabyte in his constituency, which has created 200 jobs—and what about Walter Alexander, also in his constituency, which has sent £20 million-worth of exports to the far east and created another 200 jobs? Those are good jobs, created by the policies of a Conservative Government.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

Talking of competitiveness, is my hon. Friend aware of the revised World Economic Forum global competitiveness league? The United Kingdom has moved up in that league: we are now No. 3 in Europe, at 15th place, while France and Germany have been relegated to 22nd and 23rd. That suggests that we are indeed becoming the enterprise centre of Europe.

Mr. Nelson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the record straight. He is right to point out that our trade and export performance has been moving up the league in both absolute and relative terms. All that reflects the implementation of Conservative policies in practice and in government. Those are the policies that will create lasting jobs in this country.

Mr. Sheerman

Is the Minister speaking, or even perhaps listening, to the Confederation of British Industry and our leading exporters, all of whom are saying—certainly to Opposition Members—that they are very concerned about the Government's policy on Europe? The current activities and divisions in regard to interference with decisions by the European Commission lead them to fear that the Government's commitment in their major trading area is weakening. Do not the CBI and our global performance—based here, but global—need the assurance of a strong commitment to Europe that they are not gaining from a party that is riven by divisions on where it is going in Europe?

Mr. Nelson

Of course I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's conclusion. Conservative Members assert that there is no incompatibility between fighting our corner hard in Europe and being strongly in favour of the ambitions and objectives of the economy that Europe can create by acting in concert. This party in government will always stand up for our interests, but it will always play its part in Europe. The hon. Gentleman, the CBI and everyone else should be left in no doubt about that.

Mr. Forman

Can my hon. Friend confirm that our balance of trade in manufactured goods in some of the fastest-growing markets in the global economy is healthy and improving? Are there not encouraging examples in, for instance, our trade with parts of Asia and the Pacific rim?

Mr. Nelson

There are indeed. I pick out countries such as Indonesia and India—[Interruption.] Even if we do not take into account some of the military equipment to which Opposition Members have referred from a sedentary position, our exports in key sectors such as power generation, construction and water infrastructure have been outstanding. They are in surplus, and there is every prospect of their increasing further.