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Volume 751: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the latest quarterly survey and economic outlook published by the British Chambers of Commerce.

My Lords, the quarterly survey published by the British Chambers of Commerce continues to indicate economic growth and improving conditions for business. Over the course of 2013, a range of surveys reported activity strengthening in both the manufacturing and service sectors. Today’s GDP figures show growth in 2013 to have been 1.9%, the highest annual figure since 2007.

My Lords, that is indeed very encouraging. The expectancy for 2014 is again very positive. StartUp Britain, the campaign for fledgling businesses, revealed yesterday that 16,281 new businesses in Birmingham registered at Companies House in 2013. May I, as a West Midlander, ask my noble friend to join me in congratulating those entrepreneurs who took the plunge and so benefited not only themselves but the wider economy?

My Lords, I am very pleased to do so. The figures quoted by my noble friend are matched by the fact that in the latest quarterly employment figures the biggest fall in unemployment was in the Midlands. Over the course of the past year, a record 526,000 businesses were created—an increase of some 42,000 over the previous year.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is obviously essential that business confidence should be maintained to ensure continued economic growth? In that context, would he care to comment on the remarks yesterday of his noble friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that rhetoric on the European Union coming from some elements of the Conservative Party is in danger of damaging that business confidence?

My Lords, at the moment, when we are seeing the largest increase in business confidence for a number of decades, any statement by anybody from any party which has the effect of undermining that confidence is very much to be deprecated.

Does the Minister share the concern of the British Chambers of Commerce that our lack of ability in linguistic skills has severely held us back from exporting as rigorously and productively as we might have done and thereby caused the severe balance of payments problem that this country has suffered from under the coalition Government?

My Lords, we have a long-term problem in terms of linguistic skills and a long-term problem in terms of the balance of payments. The Government are seeking to put in train policies that turn that around. I completely agree with the noble Lord that the survey evidence suggests that for small businesses in particular a lack of language skills is one of the biggest single inhibitors in moving into non-English-speaking foreign markets. That is why we must do all we can to encourage children to take up languages at school.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an adviser to the British Chambers of Commerce. In welcoming this obviously improving news about the economy, which is now getting distinctly stronger, particularly in the export sector, can my noble friend tell us what plans the Government have for reinforcing the work of the British Chambers of Commerce rather along the lines of the chambers of trade in Germany, to reinforce our export effort even further?

My Lords, the Government are very appreciative of the work that the British Chambers of Commerce has done. Of course, the Heseltine review, No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth, made the point that a strengthened British Chambers of Commerce was much to be welcomed. However, the tradition in Germany of chambers of commerce, of which membership is virtually compulsory for organisations, is very different from here. While the Government are encouraging the chambers of commerce to strengthen, it would be misleading to think that one could have a simple write-across from the German example in the foreseeable future.

My Lords, we all welcome increases in output, but we notice that people are not conscious of a growth in their living standards. Can the Minister remind us how far output as a percentage is still below the peak?

My Lords, the important thing about output is that it is rapidly approaching the previous peak. With every passing set of statistics, we find that output is growing more quickly than we thought. It is interesting to note that the figure today of 1.9% growth in output for the past year is significantly higher than the figure that the ONS thought even in December, when it suggested 1.4%. The message from today's figures is that growth is accelerating quicker than most forecasters thought, and all forward indicators suggest that that trend will continue.

Does my noble friend agree that the reason we have successful growth is because of the enterprise policies of this Government? Did he note the remarks made over the weekend by the noble Lord, Lord Myners, who was a Treasury Minister at the time that the 50p tax was introduced, that the reintroduction of a 50p tax would be a return to the bad old days of old Labour and the politics of envy? Does he acknowledge that there is no greater joy in heaven than over a sinner who repenteth?

My Lords, I have always taken what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, has said with the utmost seriousness; everybody across the House has done so as well and I will undoubtedly continue to do so. The most significant and impressive part of the growth in the economy and in employment has been that the preponderance of that growth is private sector led and the private sector invests only if it feels that the overall business climate—which is to a large extent set by the Government—is conducive to new employment and growth in investment.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Myners is sadly not in his place, but if he were, he would not have had the slightest difficulty in identifying for the Minister just why we should be somewhat worried about the development of the recovery. After all, the Minister and his colleagues in the House of Commons constantly emphasise that this recovery needs to be balanced. There are already indications that this recovery is partly housing driven, which is of course a reflection of the only area in which the Government have been directly active. Moreover, the recovery favours the south-east in circumstances in which other parts of the country are not doing anywhere near so well.

My Lords, the unemployment figures show that the level of unemployment in London, for example, is significantly higher than that in Scotland or Wales. Economic growth is occurring across the whole of the country. As for where it is happening, I will give two examples: aerospace orders last year included new orders of some £39 billion and car production was at a six-year high. This is not froth; this is real high-tech manufacturing where, increasingly, Britain is leading the world.