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Exports: Small and Medium-sized Businesses

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

The Government’s export support for SMEs includes the export support service; the export academy; more than 400 export champions; our network of nearly 200 trade advisers; and support provided around the world through the international market service. Just last week, my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for exports announced that UK Export Finance is introducing more flexible fast-track financing for SMEs, making it easier than ever for UK firms to sell into international markets.

Last week, I welcomed the Duke of Gloucester to my constituency to award local SME GaraDry the King’s award for enterprise for its innovation in international trade. How can such businesses have confidence in the Government’s support for SMEs when Britain’s export growth is among the worst of the G7 economies and is forecast to be falling?

I certainly welcome the royal visit that the hon. Lady had in her constituency; it is always fantastic to see that support, particularly for exporters. However, I think she is a bit off on the data. When we look at export data, we see that we had £877 billion-worth of exports in the 12 months to the end of September 2023. We are heading towards the £1 trillion export target, and that figure is up by almost £200 billion—or 29%—on the figure from five years ago, which was before Brexit.

In 2021, the Government launched a rebranded trade show programme pilot to great fanfare, but between November 2021 and March 2022 only two businesses in the UK were funded under the programme. We now hear that the scheme has been shelved. Will the Minister explain what has happened to that initiative, which has launched a number of household British fashion brands abroad and which served as a vital gateway under the last Labour Government for SMEs to access new markets?

The last Labour Government were, of course, in office rather a long time ago. It is not always incumbent on successive Governments more than a decade later to keep previous Labour Government schemes going. The scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a pilot, which did not yield the successes that we might have hoped. However, I will take no criticism from him and the Labour party for the support we are giving to exporters. We are spending £200 million over this spending review period to support SMEs to grow and succeed internationally, and we have a record to be commended.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, may I welcome the fact that this week the Government held the successful global investment summit and are taking steps to help British businesses to export? I recently returned from Nairobi, where I visited some of the UK’s flagship investments, including in infrastructure and clean energy. Will the Minister provide an update on the Africa investment summit next year? I also ask that the UK continues to bang the drum for British businesses to export to Kenya, the gateway to east Africa.

First, let me commend my hon. Friend for winning “Speech of the Year” at last night’s The Spectator parliamentary awards. She has continued her fine form today. She does an amazing job for the country as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, and her recent visit in September was a big success, particularly on the infrastructure side of things. She has already referred to railways and other infrastructure. She mentioned the UK-Africa investment summit, which will take place in London next year and will further our engagement with Kenya and other African countries, fostering modern partnerships in trade and investment in areas such as resilient infrastructure, clean technologies and renewable energy.

I welcome my right hon. Friend back to his post. I pay tribute to him and to the Secretary of State for the international trade deals that they have struck during their period in office. The UK has strategic relationships with a number of Gulf nations. What progress is being made on a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council? If it is more challenging to strike a deal across all nations, what bilateral trade agreements can we explore in order to exploit the opportunity for those nations to invest significantly in the UK?

I am excited by the prospect of the deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, with which the Secretary of State is very much engaged, and I am looking forward to being re-engaged with it. It is a huge opportunity for us, as the latest figures show that total trade between the UK and the Gulf is worth more than £60 billion. We are looking forward to moving the negotiation forward and getting a very good deal for the UK.

I welcome the Minister back to the Department for Business and Trade, and I look forward to helping him hopefully to do better this time around. According to the International Monetary Fund, over the past decade British food and drink exports, including from SMEs, rose by just 3%, which was the lowest growth of any G7 country. The US, Canada, Italy and Japan all saw their exports grow by between 30% and 95%. Government Ministers will not negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU, which would help, they have cut funding for trade missions, and now the Secretary of State has cut funding to go to trade shows too. Why will Ministers not share our ambitions for Britain to have the fastest export growth rate of any G7 country?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman and I have been around in these jobs for a while. He was possibly the last Trade Minister under the last Labour Government, so I will not be taking any lectures from him on how to improve UK exports. We have been financing dozens of global trade missions and we are spending £200 million over the spending review period on exports in general. On the export figures, he neglected to mention services exports, which totalled £463 billion in the 12 months to September 2023. That is a huge increase of 42% on our performance in 2018, before Brexit.