HC Deb 12 March 1999 vol 327 cc399-400W
Mr. Ben Chapman

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the Government's arrangements for the support and promotion of exports. [77075]

Mr. Robin Cook

I am delighted to do so, also on behalf of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

This Government attach great importance to the promotion of exports. That is why in June last year the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I asked the Secretary of the Cabinet, Sir Richard Wilson, to review the current arrangements for the support and promotion of exports. I am pleased to be able to announce today the outcome of that Review. Copies of Sir Richard's report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and will be widely distributed. It is also available on request to members of the public, and the executive summary can be found on the FCO and DTI websites.

The report records the excellent service given by personnel working on export promotion activity throughout the United Kingdom and in FCO posts around the world, while at the same time identifying a number of areas in the current arrangements which leave scope for improvement.

My right hon. Friend and I welcome the recommendations, the core of which is that all trade promotion and development activities of the DTI and FCO should be unified in a new joint operation led by a single Chief Executive. The Government will expedite the establishment of such a unified operation, equipped with resources, both personnel and finance, broadly along the lines recommended in the Review. It will be known as "British Trade International". This will be a radical change. The new operation, which will have lead responsibility within Government for trade promotion and development, will provide a coherent framework for the Government's work in this area. We are confident that it will deliver an even better service to business.

The operation's first Chief Executive, who will have Permanent Secretary rank, will be Sir David Wright, currently Ambassador in Tokyo. We are confident that, with his experience of export promotion at home and abroad, he is ideally equipped for the task. He will be responsible, in consultation with DTI and FCO and others concerned, for the design of the new operation's precise configuration and the implementation of Sir Richard's other recommendations. Sir David will of course have flexibility over the details of the implementation, and he will have effective control over the operation's resources and personnel. And he will be responsible to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and myself, through a ministerially chaired board, for the performance of the entire operation from local to international level. This will be measured against a national export development strategy and objectives which the board will set.

The new board will be chaired by DTI and FCO Ministers and will subsume the present British Overseas Trade Board. It will be drawn predominantly from the private sector. In addition to senior officials from the FCO, DTI and the Exports Credits Guarantee Department, it will also contain representatives of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations to guarantee their direct involvement in shaping the national strategy.

The current arrangements for the delivery of export promotion services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue within the context of national policy. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations would continue to have discretion to provide supplementary programmes to meet the particular needs of businesses in those parts of the United Kingdom.

Overseas delivery of the services of the new operation will continue through our diplomatic posts overseas. Heads of Mission will be responsible to the Chief Executive for the performance of their posts in support of British business abroad against the strategy and objectives of the new operation.

In England, the new operation will place greater emphasis on effective delivery of export services in the regions. The regional and local network, at present in Government Regional Offices and Business Links, will be integral to the new unified operation, under the effective control of the Chief Executive. In implementing the recommendations, the Chief Executive will need to work closely with the new Small Business Service which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced earlier this week on 10 March 1999, Official Report, columns 367–79, and the Regional Development Agencies in each region.

British Trade International will seek to provide a fast, consistent and high quality response to its customers in the business community. It will be staffed by personnel from both the FCO and DTI, and may also recruit directly, including through secondments. It will be supported by modern IT and other facilities designed to provide integrated information and communication systems.

The Chief Executive and the board will review the balance between the present range of export services and the provision of help to firms to develop their export capability, and also the scope for devolution of responsibility to the regional and international networks.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I are confident that the new unified operation will represent a significant advance over present arrangements, both in terms of strategic direction and of improved customer focus, producing a real improvement in service delivery to business. It will be a major change and will take time to achieve. That will be primarily the task for the new Chief Executive. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that there will be no hiatus: the present services to exporters will remain fully operational and available throughout the transition period.