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House of Lords Hansard
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Economy: Purchasing Managers’ Index
11 April 2019
Volume 797

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Purchasing Managers’ Index figure of 55.1 for the United Kingdom published on 1 April and the comparative performance in Germany.

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My Lords, declaring my interests in the register as a manufacturer, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

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My Lords, the manufacturing purchasing managers’ index stands at 55.1, and has been above 50—indicating an expansion in activity—for 32 consecutive months, supported recently in part by strength in inventory accumulation. Meanwhile, the comparable reading for Germany has fallen into contractionary territory in 2019 at 44.1.

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I thank my noble friend for his Answer and agree that many small companies are doing very well indeed. The PMI, which is a forward-looking index, backs up the excellent GDP and Treasury figures to suggest that the UK economy is thriving. There are always economists who practise the dismal science and who will predict doom and search for a dark cloud wherever they find a silver lining. Does my noble friend have any other ideas to cheer them up?

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I am sure that those who forecast a figure of zero for GDP in February and then found out it was 0.2% might be a little cheered up this morning. On other reasons to be cheerful, what about the fact that unemployment, debt and taxes are all falling while exports, growth, GDP and real wages are all rising?

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My Lords, does not the confidence manifested in the purchasing managers’ index, as the Minister has said, continuously over the past 32 months—pretty much the whole period since the referendum—despite the iterations of Project Fear and the lucubrations of the remain establishment, show that the majority of UK manufacturers are undismayed by a post-Brexit future? If their confidence is to be sustained and new investment is to be unleashed, is it not vital that indecisions and uncertainties about Brexit are swiftly brought to an end by our actually leaving the EU and not allowed to persist for up to another six months, or possibly even longer?

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I absolutely agree with the first part of the noble Lord’s question. I am sure it is noted on his Front Bench. We have been clear that we believe the best way forward for manufacturing—in fact, for the whole economy—is to leave the European Union with a deal, and that is what the Prime Minister is working towards.

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My Lords, I fear that some of your Lordships, and perhaps the Minister, must have missed out some of the sentences in Markit’s report on the PMI. It said that, increasingly,

“Companies stepped up production to build-up inventories”,

of,

“both purchases and finished products”,

in advance of Brexit—in other words, stockpiling. It later says that business sentiment “remained subdued” looking ahead, amid persistent Brexit concerns. The CBI this morning confirmed its view that the economy is down 1% to 2% from where it would have been without Brexit. Do the Government believe that underestimating the issues facing industry in any way helps industry to handle this Brexit crisis?

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I do not dispute that there are headwinds and that uncertainty is bad for business, which is why we want to resolve matters and move forward. However, one of the points about the purchasing managers’ index is that it asks people what their future intentions are, so if people had been “stockpiling” from the beginning of the year, that would not explain why they are now saying that they believe that they will buy more goods and are more positive about the future outlook. So that is not necessarily the right way to read the numbers.

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My Lords, given the performance of the German, French and Italian economies, which are all doing considerably worse than our economy, what explanation does the Treasury have for this?

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Given that it is hard enough to answer for the UK Government in your Lordships’ House, I will not attempt to answer for other Governments. However, I believe that the resilience we are seeing in the British economy is a tribute to a number of factors: the fact that the UK remains a prime location for foreign direct investment—we have the largest stock in Europe and the third largest in the world; and Forbes identified the UK as the number one location to invest and set up a business in 2018 and in 2019. All those factors—low taxation, a competitive economy and great skills—are the reasons why people are backing Britain.

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My Lords, this Question started on the manufacturing industry, with a reference to the German motor car industry. Is it surprising that Germany is having some problems with its exports, first, in relation to Brexit, and secondly, to standards in the industry, which have caught the Germans out rather badly in recent years? However, four-fifths of the British economy is services, so what is all this jubilation—false jubilation—about manufacturing when in fact our service industries are showing the real pressure at present, and they are not in position to stockpile in quite the way that manufacturing is?

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It is absolutely true that there are challenges in the services sector, which is crucially important to us. That is why a lot of the uncertainty that I referred to earlier, in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, needs to be resolved. We believe that there is sufficient capacity and demand within the economy to build that up. We know that people are sitting on a lot of cash at the moment and that there are a lot of vacancies out there at the moment—850,000 of them—which shows that there is a lot of demand waiting to go once we have resolved this matter.

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Would my noble friend agree that there is nothing more debilitating and corroding than uncertainty? Would he agree that a deal needs to be reached, but both Houses of Parliament have a deal before them—which is being resisted by the extremes who, in their desire for a Brexit that would ignore the 48%, may lose Brexit altogether?

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I agree that the uncertainty needs to end. However, the message from the numbers, which my noble friend Lord Borwick began by mentioning, is that whatever the difficulties we have as politicians in resolving the matters before us, men and women out there who are setting up and running businesses, and workers in those businesses, are doing an incredible job at building exports to almost record levels. We have a great deal of confidence in them to continue what they are doing; we must do what we should do.

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My Lords, the Minister has talked about the resilience of the British economy. Does he accept that that is because we are inside the European Union, its single market and its customs union?

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The people voted to leave in 2016. Since then, we have seen almost 1 million jobs added to the economy. We saw £48 billion of foreign direct investment into the UK last year with investors knowing of our intention to leave. We have a globally competitive economy, which will continue into the future.