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Small and Medium-sized Enterprises: Foreign Languages

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 28 June 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assistance they provide to help small and medium sized enterprises which export their products and services to acquire foreign language expertise.

My Lords, UK Trade and Investment provides a subsidised service, available to SMEs, which helps them to overcome language and cultural barriers in overseas markets. The service can provide a bespoke written report with in-depth advice and information on types of language learning and rates, and on recruiting students and foreign nationals to provide in-house language skills. The service also signposts companies to professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the Association for Language Learning when they wish to select a provider for foreign language training.

My Lords, the House would welcome further information about what sounds a very valuable addition. However, given the recent parlous decline in British exports—attributable in part, according to Professor Steven Hagen of the University of Wales, to the failure of British firms to acquire language skills—and given that only three out of 100 British firms have any kind of language management strategy, will the noble Baroness start to set tongues wagging in the small business community in favour of learning languages? Will she ensure that the languages unearthed and mobilised during the forthcoming Olympics, especially those found among our ethnic representation, can be used to help small businesses, so that British exporters, unlike the British Government, can ensure that they are not speechless in the face of a widening Europe and a widening world?

Right—information on the Export Communications Review, along with all other UKTI services, will be available at Olympic business-related events. Details of the help that will be available have already gone out. We certainly wish to use the opportunity to make sure that people from our small and medium-sized businesses meet as many people from foreign businesses as possible. We are very fortunate in this country in having a multicultural society—I think that in London alone more than 300 languages are spoken. Very often it is just a case of making sure that small and medium-sized businesses realise that there are agencies that can provide their employees with the languages that they need. It is not just a matter of a requirement to learn a language; understanding the culture of the country that you are going to is also important. The French that you speak needs to be not just the French that you learnt at school but the language of the culture. UK Trade and Investment goes into small businesses with a subsidised programme to help them understand how to take their products forward by making sure that they are aware of the culture of the country they are visiting.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the success of language NVQs in preparing students for using languages at work, especially in the SME sector? Will she undertake to meet her DfE colleagues to tell them how much UK businesses value these language NVQs and ask that these qualifications continue to count towards a school’s performance points for the EBacc after 2013?

My Lords, I declare an interest as life president of Trinity College London, the worldwide examination body in English for speakers of other languages. Does my noble friend agree about the vital importance of foreign languages for British speakers and that it is equally important for UK Ltd that the reverse applies—that those who are not conversant with English learn to speak it better?

I am very impressed to hear that my noble friend is the head of such an august organisation and am only too delighted to know that he is there. I will support him in everything that he does in taking us forward, making sure that we get the growth that we need and that we can all communicate widely.

My Lords, I shall be 70 on my next birthday and this is my first time at the Dispatch Box—all of which goes to show that in your Lordships’ House anything is possible. SMEs, very surprisingly, have been doing well recently in the area of exports. In particular, 27% of total exports to the European Union now come from this sector. However, I believe that we can do very much better. What plans do the Government have to encourage even more small companies to export?

If anyone would like to look up UKTI on the web to find out what is available to everyone, they will see that it is doing an absolutely marvellous job. When I came to answer this Question, I was delighted to see just how much it was doing, including being able to provide bespoke services. Small and medium-sized businesses often need to gain an all-round understanding of how to behave when they get to another country, and that is why this service is available to them. It is subsidised, and businesses can also have a review themselves. I welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box.

I congratulate the Minister very much on her comprehensive Answer to the Question. The points that she made and the answers she gave were very good indeed. It is important that there should be publicity about what is available, but often there is not enough. It is also important that schools, as well as businesses, provide education in languages, and that further education colleges provide special lessons in business-orientated languages, particularly Chinese and Spanish.

Of course I agree with my noble friend. He will know that last week we announced our proposals for the primary national curriculum. The teaching of a foreign language will be compulsory throughout key stage 2, and that will include Latin and Greek.