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Export Promotion

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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If he will set out the initiatives taken by his Department to improve its role in export promotion. [15999]

Together with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, I launched the export forum to examine the effectiveness of Government support for UK exporters. The forum reported in October, and my right hon. Friend and I have accepted the broad thrust of its recommendations.

This morning, I hosted a working breakfast with chief executives and chairmen of some of our top companies whom I have invited to act as ambassadors for British business. Whenever on visits abroad for their companies, they have undertaken to liaise with FCO posts to carry out promotional work for wider business interests. The invitation has been well received by business leaders and should enable the Foreign Office to use their prestige and their expertise to promote British exports and British jobs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his full answer. Does he agree that we need speedy processing of export licences? A medium-sized company, Indentec, in my constituency of Stourbridge needs its licence application resolved, and this has particular relevance in relation to the knock-on effect on small feeder businesses.

I can assure my hon. Friend that as soon as I return to the Foreign Office, I will inquire into what has happened to the application. She was good enough to mention before Question Time that this was a licence application for Iran. The House will understand that we need to pay particular attention to the possibility of dual-use equipment going to Iran.

In relation to the promotion of Scotch whisky experts—[Laughter]—Scotch whisky exports; the Foreign Secretary will realise that that is one of the benefits of drinking Scotch whisky. What progress does he foresee towards the harmonisation of duty within the EU in the near future?

I am happy to say that I think I can speak as a whisky expert, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is one of our high priorities to continue to press to make sure that there is fair duty on all alcohol so that our whisky has a fair opportunity in other markets. That will continue to be one of the major objectives of our European policy.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), is not the only practical consequence of the Foreign Secretary's posturings on these matters that the delays in clearing applications for licences for the export of defence equipment have got so bad that orders have gone elsewhere before approval has been granted?

During his visit to Warsaw and elsewhere in central Europe this week, will the Foreign Secretary take time to compare the offensive marketing and promotion of commercial enterprise by the Germans with that of British business, which is generally tardy, despite one or two flagship companies like British Aerospace and Marks and Spencer which are getting stuck in? Private enterprise in this country does not recognise the vast market potential of central Europe, which is being exploited by others but which we are being slow to pick up on. Will my right hon. Friend take some action?

My hon. Friend tempts me to go slightly further than the brief of the Foreign Office. As regards our contribution to export promotion, since we have been in power we have carried out a major review of our export services; we have attracted 12 new short-term secondments from British business, who are now in key embassies in key markets abroad; and we are looking for more. We have today reached agreement with 37 top business people to promote British business while they are abroad.

I will be spending three days in central Europe this week. I shall be looking for opportunities for British business, and I shall be carrying the clear message that Britain strongly supports central European countries' membership of the EU—a message which I hope will not be entirely lost on Conservative Members. The rest of Europe is queuing up to join a union from which many of them appear to wish to detach themselves.