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Exports (SMEs)

Volume 537: debated on Thursday 8 December 2011

UK Trade & Investment has set out a new export strategy of some £45 million, which will double the number of small companies helped each year. The strategy includes five financial products, bespoke services for middle-sized firms and a collaborative approach to accessing new export markets.

I welcome that assurance from the Minister, but an exporter in my constituency has for years been obtaining certificates of origin from our local chamber of commerce, using a formal declaration from his supplier. Recently he applied for a new certificate, but was told that one could not be issued without a declaration from the manufacturer of the goods. That is causing my constituent a big problem, because his supplier is loth to provide details about his manufacturer for fear that my constituent might obtain his goods direct. What can my hon. Friend do to make it easier for exporters to export—and when changes are made to the rules, can exporters at least be given adequate notice?

I am concerned about the instance that my hon. Friend mentions. The rules on certification of origin have not changed, but they are subject to local management and interpretation. It sounds as if that might be the problem. I am keen to help all exporters, so perhaps my hon. Friend will submit further details to me and I will look personally into the matter.

The Government have cut by 25% the funding for small and medium-sized enterprises to attend vital overseas trade shows to help them win new business. How will that help exports?

As I said at the beginning, the new export strategy enables us to double the number of companies that we reach and support. In addition, five new finance products have been put on to the market. We have commitments of £242 million for those products, so there is a positive layer of action, and we can make real progress in the years to come.

At a previous Question Time, the Business Secretary was right to say that, historically, SMEs have not been as involved in exporting as larger companies. With that in mind, earlier this year he launched the export enterprise finance guarantee scheme, a programme run out of his Department, and we were told that that would help lots of SMEs to access export finance. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many companies have been helped by the scheme since it was announced with a great fanfare 10 months ago?

Sadly, the hon. Gentleman will have to make do with the Minister of State rather than the Secretary of State. We have been able to deliver some £242 million across the five products, and we have also been able to ensure that with the pilot, the export enterprise finance guarantee scheme, in which there have been a number of changes, we have been able to deliver some £2 million. It is important to bear in mind the fact that the export enterprise finance guarantee scheme is a pilot; the other four are actually full products.

The answer to my question is that just four companies have benefited from that export scheme. That is another example of the failure of the Minister’s Department to improve access to finance for small businesses. Of course access to finance in general helps SMEs to grow and expand into different export markets, and we were told that Project Merlin would ease credit conditions for small businesses—but net lending to businesses by banks has contracted in nine of the past 12 months under this Government. Merlin failed, so they are now giving credit easing a try, but the effectiveness of credit easing is dependent on whether the banks choose to participate. What guarantees can the Minister give us that they will participate in the scheme and increase net lending to businesses as a result?

In the first three quarters, the numbers on net lending stand at £66 million. [Interruption.] What I am trying to say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are committed, through Merlin, to ensuring that lending this year is greater than last year. He needs to be careful in this area, because, as he knows, such schemes are subject to demand. [Interruption.] He asked about credit easing, and I will come to that point. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the £20 billion that the Chancellor has put forward is substantially important and will bring about an important increase. What the Opposition need to remember is that we are actually delivering an increase in lending this year over last year. They did not deliver that. We are, and that is the difference.