HC Deb 19 February 1997 vol 290 cc912-4
8. Mr. Matthew Banks

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent measures his Department has taken to promote United Kingdom exports. [15029]

Mr. Lang

Through the Overseas Trade Services organisation, my Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provide the best ever package of information, advice and practical assistance to British companies. I am glad to say that British exports now stand at an all-time record level.

Mr. Banks

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Will he confirm that the Government have put in place other substantial measures to help British exporters win contracts overseas? Does he agree that it is important that British diplomats abroad are concerned not only with good diplomacy, but with continuing to bat hard to help British companies win export orders, which secure British jobs at home?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff are engaged in commercial work in overseas posts in 140 markets to help our exporters. My Department is also active, with many staff covering nearly 200 markets. Last year, we helped 10,000 individuals to go on overseas trade missions and 23,000 firms to take part in trade fairs.

Mr. Barry Jones

Is not sterling hopelessly overvalued? What will the Government do about that? Why do they not move to help British industry?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman seems to be unaware that British exports are at a record level and are generally expected to reach a higher record next year. Exports have doubled since the last Labour Government were in power in 1979; since 1979, they have been increasing at twice the rate at which they grew under Labour.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

While we all accept that the value of the pound influences the competitiveness of our exports, does not manufacturing industry want, when exporting, a stable economy, low inflation, low interest rates and a Government who understand industry? Is not that what my right hon. Friend can do to help our exporters, more than anything else? Is that not confirmed by the fact many overseas industrialists, including those in Europe, believe that Britain is the best place to come and do business?

Mr. Lang

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that his remarks will do more to help British industry than will those of the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who, we are told, is in America talking Britain down.

Mr. Shore

The Secretary of State is getting complacent. It is, I hope, true that our exports are at a record level, but are not our imports at a record level, too? Are we not running a trade deficit this year, as we have for the past six years?

Mr. Lang

The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that many of our exports are re-exported imports and, as such, contain a substantial proportion of imports. Our current account is close to balance and at its strongest for a decade. Provided that we stick with the policies that are delivering that success, we have nothing to fear about our balance of payments.

Mr. Lidington

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appalling unemployment in Germany and France will make life more difficult for British exporters who try to sell into those important markets? Would it not be the worst possible service to British exporters for a Government to seek to impose on Britain the job-destroying measures that have wrought such havoc on continental Europe?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is right. It is significant that Britain exports more per head than Japan, the United States, France or Germany. It is by keeping labour markets flexible and lightening the burden on business that we have been able to secure that result. The most damaging thing that could happen to our exporters would be for them to face the social chapter and the European social model that the Labour party wishes to impose.

Mr. Bell

May I assure the House and those who watch this programme on their televisions that the future Labour Government will do as much as and more for our exports than the present Government. We will improve our export position and have a better position on our balance of payments and trade; we will show who is better able to govern the country.

Will the President of the Board of Trade take the opportunity to congratulate the World Trade Organisation on the multilateral agreement to open the world's telecommunications market? Is that not the way for our future trading arrangements to proceed? Will he give as much support to the opening of negotiations on financial services that begin in March, which will also be of great benefit to our export community?

Mr. Lang

I certainly share the sentiments expressed in the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I congratulate those responsible on securing that extremely satisfactory result, for which the British Government have also worked hard over the past three years. It will be of immense value, with £20 billion—worth of additional business for this country. It is part of our free trade agenda, which, sadly, we do not share with the Labour party. On the question of the Labour party's prospects of producing a satisfactory environment for our exporters, I prefer to listen to the words of the Labour peer, Labour's economics guru, Lord Desai, who said in The Sun today: Labour's biggest obstacle is the economy. It is in great shape. There is steady growth and low inflation. Compared to Germany and France, it looks the best economy in Europe.

Mr. Dover

Will my right hon. Friend accept the grateful thanks of the construction industry, which pays tribute to the efforts of the export promoters—on secondment from the private sector—and to the able leadership shown by his team of Ministers in various trade missions around the world? Those efforts have led to billions of pounds of exports for the British construction industry and the highest volume of exports of bricks.

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In addition to the trade missions and trade fairs I mentioned earlier, last year 21,000 United Kingdom participants in overseas events were assisted. It remains my purpose and that of Ministers in my Department to continue to support the export effort in every way we can.