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UK Trade Performance

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 May.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the UK’s trade performance.

When I am overseas, as Secretary of State for Business and Trade, other countries speak with nothing but admiration and respect for what we are achieving in Britain. As the chief executive officer of Nissan Global recently remarked:

‘It is surprising to hear people asking why they should choose the UK’—

because, in his words,

‘we have both great people and great talent here’.

Certainly, in the firms that I have visited up and down this country, I am proud to see our employers and exporters firing on all cylinders. Yet, when I return to Westminster, some people seem unaware of the progress that we have made as an independent trading nation. Today, I want to put that right.

The latest trade data, published by the Office for National Statistics and also by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, should give everyone in this House cause for celebration and renewed pride in our country. They confirmed that the strategy the public voted for on 23 June 2016 is delivering. Leaving the European Union was a vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom, and we are seeing results. Since that referendum, the UK economy has grown faster than that of Germany, Italy and Japan, and contrary to gloomy predictions, our manufacturing productivity has grown more than that of Germany, France, Italy and the USA.

According to the latest UN statistics, the UK, outside the EU, became the world’s fourth biggest exporter in 2022, overtaking Japan, the Netherlands and France. The value of UK exports was £862 billion in the 12 months to February 2024. That builds on progress we have made in growing our exports outside the confines of the EU. Exports are now 2% above 2018 when adjusted for inflation. Services exports are at an all-time high. A summary of these figures, along with the most recent business and labour statistics, were published on GOV.UK in April. Together, they definitively disprove the claims of those who prophesied a catastrophic economic collapse when we left the EU to become a sovereign nation.

Today, we are selling not only more services to EU countries than ever before, but record amounts of services to the rest of the world, too. We are the largest net exporter of financial and insurance services in the world. Far from an exodus of businesses out of the UK, European firms have doubled down on their commitments to the UK. In 2020, Unilever chose to headquarter exclusively in London over Rotterdam. Since 2022, Cadbury has brought more chocolate production back to the UK from Germany. In the same year, Shell moved its headquarters out of the Netherlands and into the UK.

We are tearing down the barriers to trade. Since the start of 2022, we have resolved barriers all over the world, estimated to be worth more than £15 billion to UK businesses over a five-year period. In 2023, this was equivalent to removing around £1 million-worth of trade barriers every single hour. British pork farmers are benefiting from newly agreed access to the Mexican market, which is worth £80 million over the same period. Our work on bottle labelling for UK gin and whisky has driven up exports to Chile by tonnes. We have ended the US ban on British beef and lamb.

We are working to deliver a strategy on a situation that faces the whole world, not just our friends and neighbours in Europe. This is crucial if we are to lock Britain into the future of where global growth will be. In 2022, the EU took more than 60% of UK goods exports. In 2023, this was 47%, because UK goods exports to the EU remained broadly flat, while exports to non- EU countries rose by around 70% in real terms.

We are going further to seize the benefits of an independent trade policy. We have deals with 73 countries around the world, with more to come under this Government, plus the most comprehensive trade deal to which the EU has ever agreed. Later this year, we will join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the world’s biggest trading blocs. This will mean that more than 99% of UK goods will be eligible for zero tariffs in some of the Asia Pacific’s most dynamic economies. British business is set to benefit.

As well as service exports, where Britain excels, our top goods sales were in cars, mechanical-powered generators, medicines, pharmaceutical products and aircraft components. We have one of the world’s largest manufacturing sectors. Productivity in our manufacturing industry has grown faster than in every other G7 nation since 2010. Hundreds of businesses in steel, chemicals and other sectors stand to benefit from the newly introduced British industry supercharger, which is bringing energy costs down for key industries. Our £4.5 billion advanced manufacturing plan is opening new markets and removing obstacles to growth while helping to crowd in new funding for plants and factories throughout the UK. Every penny the UK Government spend on manufacturing is matched fivefold by the growth creators of the private sector. This pro-investment approach is working: the UK’s automotive sector attracted £3.7 billion -worth of greenfield foreign investment in 2022 alone.

The Labour party will remember Mr Alastair Campbell, who asserted during the referendum that if we leave the EU, Nissan will leave. Nissan is still here. The two new 100% electric models are set to be built at its Sunderland this year. More Minis are rolling off production lines in Oxfordshire today, thanks to a £600 million investment from BMW. These are firms that look for opportunities the world over and decide that the UK is the place to be. Listening to some of the remarks made in this House and elsewhere, people would think that our country was not worth investing in at all. Let us be clear: the British ingenuity and industry that made this country prosper in the past still exists today, and even if those on the Opposition Benches cannot see it, international investors certainly can.

The statistics published by my department show that the UK’s inward FDI stock has reached more than £2 trillion. Our FDI stock is the highest in Europe—more than Germany, France and Italy combined. The most recent OECD data show that our employment rate is higher than that of the US, France and Italy.

The regulatory freedoms that we gained by leaving the EU have allowed our smarter regulation programme to cut the red tape that has been holding them back. We have already reformed the working time directive reporting requirements, saving businesses up to £1 billion per year. We recently announced that we will raise the thresholds that determine company size, reducing burdens on smaller businesses, and remove low-value and overlapping reporting requirements.

Those changes will make reporting simpler and deliver savings of around £150 million per year to UK companies, with small and medium-sized companies benefiting by around £145 million. It is no surprise that the most recent NatWest SME business activity index shows that output is increasing strongly, driven by renewed manufacturing sector expansion, and companies’ activity expectations remain upbeat. These things do not happen by accident, and I hope that honourable Members on both sides of the House will welcome those figures.

I have no doubt that this Statement will disappoint some people, as it does not align with the story that they want to tell of a nation riven by injustice and economic stagnation, clinging to Europe for any hope for the future. That is not to say that everything is perfect —of course there is still more to do—but we are not alone in our problems. Ministers in other countries are quick to remind me about supply-chain issues affecting everything from getting car components to stocking supermarket shelves. They tell me about how they are coping with problems in the jobs market, as societies from Germany to Japan get older.

Only when I am back in the UK am I told that all these issues are down to Brexit. Far from it. Our plans are working, and Britain is thriving as an independent sovereign home of free enterprise and free trade. That is what the recent figures published by my department, by the ONS, and by the UN tell me. It is what our businesses, exporters, employers and investors all tell me, and I hope that honourable Members present can see it too. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the Secretary of State’s facts and figures Statement to the Commons last week said nothing new. It was as if one of her advisers had opened up ChatGPT and asked it to cherry-pick statistics and make reference to the Brexit trade bonus, as if that were anything other than a slogan without substance. In some ways, I am not sure where to start. It was, after all, not aimed at us in Parliament or the wider international trade community; rather, it was aimed internally, at the Conservative Party, and the jostling for post-election leadership positions.

Let us take a look at the detail—a proper look at the statistics that lie beneath the facts and figures Statement. Figures released earlier this year by the Office for National Statistics showed that the volume of goods, imports and exports, last year had fallen by 7.4% since 2018—the single largest five-year decline since comparable records began in 1997. In the words of the OBR:

“Growth in UK goods trade … has fallen well behind the rest of the G7”.

While the rest of the G7 saw an average increase of 5% from 2019 to 2023, in the UK we saw a 10% decrease.

I want to share her optimism but I fail to see the success story that the Secretary of State in the other place assures us of. Ed Conway, the economist and data editor at Sky News, pointed out that the document the Secretary of State referred to in her speech fails to adjust for inflation, so in real terms goods exports remain well below the pre-Brexit levels. British businesses, manufacturers and farmers need consistency and leadership, but all this Government have been consistent about is failing British producers and exporters.

As my honourable friend Gareth Thomas MP pointed out when this was debated in the other place last week, the Government’s own figures show that FDI—foreign direct investment—is down by a third since 2016-17. Under the previous Labour Government, the UK accounted for an average 8% of the world’s FDI, but since the Conservatives entered government in 2010 they have managed to halve that to only 4% of world foreign direct investment. Business investment is now lower in the UK than in any other G7 country, and the UK ranks among the lowest in the OECD for investment as a share of GDP. Does the Minister recognise this decline since 2010? If so, what plan does he have to bring FDI up to the levels last seen under the previous Labour Government?

I also found it bizarre that the Secretary of State chose to mention accession to the CPTPP. In our debates and discussions on the CPTPP, we in this House seemed to conclude that the impact on the UK was minimally positive at best. If that is the most we can hope for from this Government, we really are in need of a new one.

In her speech, the Secretary of State made no mention of the Government’s MoU—memorandums of understanding—programme with individual US states. Do the Government now consider them to be a success—I am sure that the Minister will want to point to some of the US individual state MoUs and outline their wins—or have they accepted that they are not substantive Brexit wins but rather, in the words of the FT’s senior trade writer, Alan Beattie, “pointless pieces of paper”?

In conclusion, I have a number of questions for the Minister. Business investment is lower in the UK than in any other country in the G7, and the UK is among the worst performers in the OECD38 for investment as a share of GDP. What steps do His Majesty’s Government intend to take to increase business investment in the UK?

UK exports have grown at a slower rate than in every other G7 country except Japan, far behind Canada, Germany and the US. Many UK businesses want to know what steps the Government will take to support them to export their goods and services. Given that this House has repeatedly been promised an amazing trade deal with India, usually by Diwali—that is, last Diwali—will the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the state of the free trade agreement negotiations with India?

As the devastating news of south Wales continues to come, we have heard next to nothing from the Government on the damage that has been allowed to be inflicted on the British steel industry. Does the Minister still think that spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to make thousands of people redundant and leave us as the first developed country with no primary steel-making capacity is, in the words of his Secretary of State, “a great deal”?

I agree with the words of the Nissan CEO, referred to by the Secretary of State in the Statement, that the UK has

“both great people and great talent here”.

It is a shame that both are being greatly let down by this Government.

My Lords, as this month we are likely to see the UK economy moving from recession to stagnation, I can imagine that there were briefings in the department a few weeks ago to show some of the trade figures. There will probably be a collective view from Ministers, saying, “We don’t like those facts and figures; bring us some different ones”, so I am grateful for the alternative facts and figures of the state of British trade to be presented to Parliament.

Unfortunately, as I read the Statement, it had a degree of pathos. It is quite sad that Ministers keep banging on about Brexit, and have not got over some of the grievances they had before and immediately after the referendum. It is rather a pathetic sight to see them making a Statement such as this, with very few people listening.

Many people in some of the key sectors of our economy are looking for action, not rhetoric and Parliamentary Statements. Many of our exporting partners in our key markets are looking for reduced barriers and burdens. I shall come to that in a moment. Primarily our businesses are looking for reduced costs, less bureaucracy and the Government knuckling down to ensure that what has been claimed to be “the world’s best border” actually functions as just a decent one, not one with its processes 20 miles from Dover for likely checks, for whose introduction there has been delay upon delay upon delay.

Any good news about British trade is good news, and I welcome it. I seek the best for our exporting businesses. However, that will not come about through rhetorical Statements such as this. For example, we are told that the UK economy has grown faster than those of Germany, Italy and Japan—without the obvious context that we fell the sharpest and the deepest after Brexit and as a result of Covid. Any recovery at all over that timeframe would be faster. The question is not the speed, but the totality of whether our economy is likely, at the end of this decade, to be bigger than it was before the referendum, or would have been if there had not been a referendum. Every indicator, including the Government admitting this to the OBR, says that on a compound basis, after 4% a year, our economy will be considerably smaller. To say that is not to do down our country; that is just, as the Government might put it, a fact.

The Government have issued a Statement. It would have been useful to have some footnotes with links to the documents. I commend the officials for scouring the UN and UNCTAD, as well as our official government statistics. As the noble Lord said, they have done a grand job of cherry-picking. The UNCTAD trade briefing for the UK shows, for example—this is one indicator—that since 2015 exports are up from £467 billion to £533 billion. That is good, and the Government refer to an increase in exports. What they do not say, however, is that UK imports have gone up much more, from £630 billion to more than £823 billion. The United Kingdom trade deficit in goods has gone up—and not only gone up, but doubled as a percentage of GDP. UNCTAD says that in 2015 it was 1.59% of GDP, whereas in 2022 it was 3.01% of GDP.

The Minister might say that talking about trade deficits is old fashioned, and that our economy is a service-sector economy. However, the trade deficit is very important when we analyse who that deficit is with. It is primarily with China. Yes, that is an indication of the growth in the economy of Asia, but the UK now has the biggest trade deficit with a single country ever in our history. The deficit with China is more than £40 billion. The Minister heard me refer to that.

That puts all the individual references, such as to access to the Mexican market, of £18 million, in perspective. Access to the Mexican market of £18 million is good; I welcome that. But I am more concerned about the fact that the UK has not done a resilience analysis of our key sectors, with an enormous trade deficit of £40 billion—that is £40,000 million—with China. In the context of President Xi visiting Europe, but also Hungary and Serbia, UK trade in the world is now a geopolitical consideration.

The Government have indicated that, as the Statement says:

“We are tearing down the barriers to trade”.

The Minister will probably not be surprised to hear that I disagree with him, and I will not be surprised that he will disagree with me, so we might want to settle with regard to the independent Regulatory Policy Committee, which advises Ministers on this very issue, and its analysis since the period referred to in the Government’s Statement. We can take one example from the 2017-19 Parliament, and I quote directly from the committee. It said:

“For the 2017-2019 Parliament, the relevant government set a … target of a £9 billion reduction in direct costs over the length of the Parliament, however the final position was an increase in costs of £7.8 billion. Similarly, the government has set a holding target of £0 for the current Parliament”—

zero was the holding target for the Parliament we are in—

“but in the first year of the Parliament, there was an increase of £5.7 billion (excluding the very significant impacts of temporary COVID-related measures)”.

This Government have presided over the biggest single increase in business burdens—bigger than any of their predecessors—and the fact that some have been removed, without any reference to the totality of the sum of the 500 referenced in the Statement, is pointless to put in.

My final point concerns what Governments can do to reduce burdens. My noble friends Lord Fox and Lady Randerson have raised repeatedly the increased costs now per British business, of £145 per consignment. This is, I remind the House, “the world’s best border”, and it is a typical cost per business of £100,000 since the new measures have been put in place—but it is also about friction of trade, when it comes to safety and security certificates, customs declarations, evidence of origins of goods, VAT requirements, health certificates and chemical certificates. These are all barriers. I hope the Minister can give an indication now of what the estimated net reduction in British business for trade will be. We have seen that the increase has been £100,000; what is the trajectory down? As I started, British businesses are not looking for boosterism, they are looking for bureaucracy and costs to be reduced and, unfortunately, nothing in this Statement would suggest that they are.

I thank noble Lords for their response to the Secretary of State’s Statement in the other place. I am very happy to take the points raised, but I must say that I feel we are living in a slightly parallel universe. Let me try to persuade noble Lords that we are in a very privileged position here in the UK. We are the sixth-largest economy in the world and the fourth largest in the G7. We have just moved to being the fourth-largest exporter in the world, after the US, China and Germany. We are the second-largest exporter of services in the world and we have just moved to be the seventh-largest manufacturer in the world.

Our economy is 80% services and 20% goods. That is where our people work: 80% of our employment is in services; 80% of our exports are in services; 20% of our workers work in manufactured goods, yet 45% of our exports are in manufactured goods. What does that tell you? Our goods are very good. They go around the world and people want to buy British goods. Our manufacturing sector has never been in better health. Everywhere I go, every country I visit, they want to buy British goods. There is a clear understanding now about services, so 55% of our exports are in services and the direction of travel will be that this country will be two-thirds services and one-third goods. What is great about services? We do not need to transport them; they can move digitally. They are usually in sectors that pay higher wages and that is why the workforce in the UK is now skilling up into services and getting higher wages.

Take the OECD numbers that were mentioned and let us just remind ourselves what the OECD said in its 2016 report about Europe, indicating that when we joined what was then the Common Market, Europe accounted for one-third of global trade. In 2019, when we left, it was 16% of global trade and by 2050 it will be 9% of global trade. Therefore, putting aside geography and culture, the British people made a very savvy business decision to tilt to where the trade is. The trade is in the Indo-Pacific. We have just joined this thing called the CPTPP, the trans-Pacific partnership. Last time I looked at the map, the UK was not anywhere near the Pacific Ocean. We could not have got into that deal when we were in the EU: that is 15% of GDP and 40% of the world’s middle-class consumers. It feels like a good place to be.

The OECD report looking forward to 2050 says that the three mega economies will, obviously, be the US, China and India. It sounds as if the CPTPP will be a very interesting fourth bloc to be part of, and we are part of it. Coming out of Brexit, we must remember that that was actually a trade deal. We did a tariff-free trade deal with the EU 27 and now, 41% of our exports go to the EU 27. If we include the Europe 34, it is 49% of our exports. It is still our biggest market, with which we are trading very strongly across both goods and services. The US is 20% of our pie chart, while 30% is the rest of the world, and that is where the growth is. We are tilting to where the growth is, while still being able to trade very successfully with Europe.

Looking at the numbers themselves, our exports are worth £862 billion today. We now have numbers we can actually look at, from 2018 to the end of 2023, so that takes in the most difficult five years we have had in the economy in the post-war era. A number of disruptions happened in that period. We had Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine, a massive spike in energy prices, a massive spike in inflation, and massive disruption to supply chains, probably the biggest we have seen since the Second World War.

Let us look into the numbers on an inflation-adjusted basis. From 2018 to 2023 our exports were up 26%, but if we take out inflation, they were up 2%. Basically, that means that we are now just ahead of where we were before this massive five-year disruption happened. Our manufactured goods are down 13%, inflation-adjusted, and our services are up 15%. Thank goodness we are a service economy and that we are able to rely on our services. Manufactured goods are down the world over.

The most interesting stat in the whole pack looks at manufactured goods to the EU 27 versus manufactured goods to the rest of the world. Manufactured goods to the EU 27 in this five-year period were down 13%, inflation-adjusted, and manufactured goods to the rest of the world in the same period were down 13%. There is no difference. There is no difference between our trading of manufactured goods to the EU 27 and to the rest of world. However, our services are up 8% to the EU and up 19% to the non-EU—the rest of the world. We have a pie chart of £860 billion, and 24% of that is manufactured goods to the EU 27. That is the only bit that the Financial Times and the BBC will report on. I am here to tell you that the other 76% is going—we have used the word in this Chamber before—gangbusters, so that must mean that the Government are doing something right to drive the economic agenda forward. Therefore, I can clearly refute the idea that we are in a difficult place. We are actually undergoing a massive recovery post Brexit and post Covid.

We have talked about the trade deals. On our EU exit, we immediately had 65 trade deals that we rolled over from the EU. We have now got that up to 73. What is interesting about the new deals? They are the most progressive in the world. Let us take the Australian trade deal. The EU did not really bother with services; it was fixated on manufactured goods. Now, the Australian trade deal has chapters on services, digital, innovation and digital trade. We have just passed the Electronic Trade Documents Act; we can now send goods around the world without paperwork. We have just sent a bunch of valves from Burnley to Singapore without any paperwork. We are bringing in a single trade window in 2025; instead of filling out 28 forms, you fill one out once and it cascades down through the system. We are putting in place a digital border, which will be the most progressive in the world. It will give us the value of £3 billion over the next five years. Yes, there will be some costs along the way, and yes, we need our borders to be protected, particularly from an SPS point of view. Our farmers think it is an unfair playing field right now and that imports versus exports in agri is not a level playing field. We are putting that in place, and in a very light-touch, careful manner.

Wherever I look in my portfolio, I see good news. If we are talking about world trade, we have these 73 trade deals; that covers 60% of world trade. Our target was 80% of world trade; well, the missing 20% is the USA, which is not doing trade deals with anybody right now, so it is not personal. We are trading very well with the US right now; in fact, our exports to the USA are at record amounts, both services and goods, and it may well be that that is good to continue as is.

Eight MoUs were signed with eight states. If you talk to Andy Burnham, recently re-elected as a Labour mayor, about the MoU with North Carolina and what the northern powerhouse is doing direct with North Carolina, he loves it; he is not talking it down, and he is not complaining about there not being an FTA with the USA. Right now, you can see that what they want in Manchester is a direct link to North Carolina based on mutual recognition of qualifications; it is to do with digital and the direct links he can make between his northern powerhouse and North Carolina. What we are hearing back is, “What a clever thing the UK has done”; we are dealing with individual states rather than getting bogged down in Washington.

If we take that as the missing 20%, we effectively have free trade with 80% of the world’s trade. We are in a very strong position when it comes to business investment; we do not need to go through all the numbers. We know that Alastair Campbell was on record saying that, following Brexit, Nissan will leave. What has it done? It has invested all the more—another £4 billion in its plant in the north-east. Some £2 billion of government investment has been matched by £24 billion from the private sector. Is that not the point of government? The Government are a pump-primer. The Government do not do business; the Government should not be doing business. The Government should be an enabler and facilitator for the private sector to do business. So, £2 billion of pump-priming results in £24 billion of investment; that is a pretty good deal.

India is clearly a big market. Right now, it is only 2% of our exports, but it will be a very big market for us to deal with. We have done 95% of that deal. Guess what? In any negotiation, the last 5% is the most difficult. Right now, India has an election on, so that has stalled at the moment—stalled is the wrong word, so please do not quote me on that; it is awaiting them to come out of purdah. But we have closed 13 rounds and 26 chapters on a whole range of issues with India, which does not really do free trade. What we are doing with India is groundbreaking.

When it comes to steel, we have net zero targets. We all agree on net zero targets, do we not? We must move to the new way of creating steel—electric arc furnaces. We must remind ourselves that we do not have iron ore here in the UK, so in Port Talbot 8,000 jobs are at risk. We have done a deal to save 5,000 and put in place a £500 million package for the other 3,000. I come from Clydeside, where we shut down the shipyards, and we did not have that deal; there was no furlough scheme. Here, a deal is being done with government to work on an industry going through transition—meeting our net zero targets, moving to electric arc furnaces, and saying that we cannot save every job, but we will invest in 5,000 of the 8,000 and work out a plan to help with the 3,000 redundancies. That is a pretty good deal.

I think I have covered most of the points. At the end of the day, the UK economy is the fourth largest in the G7. Our numbers are good, and our forecasts for growth are good. In November 2022, the OBR expected a year-long recession and GDP to fall; in fact, the economy grew in 2023 and inflation has more than halved and is falling fast. That is good for business. We should remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, GDP is a meaningless measure, except for economists. You cannot eat your GDP; GDP is an output. I have yet to meet a business that say when they get up in the morning that they are going to increase their GDP today. I have never met a household that says, “How is your GDP doing today, in terms of your budget?”

We should deal with the fact that, in 2023, people’s real incomes were £1,200 higher than the OBR expected in its March forecast. Real household disposable income per capita is higher today than it was in 2019, when we came out of the EU. In terms of our workforce, 33 million people in our population of 66 million work and produce a tax revenue of over £1 trillion. By increasing the national minimum wage and upskilling our workforce, the number of workers in our economy who are on what was called low hourly pay is now 8.9%. In 2010, that was 21%. Benefits in 2010 were the largest source of income for the poorest working-age households, whereas under the Conservatives their wages are now the highest contribution. Is that not what matters?

What matters is how we put food on the table. We are upskilling our economy. We are a service, modern, post-industrial economy. Where our manufacturing is world-class, it has been protected by this Government and invested in by the private sector. In the meantime, our service economy is going gangbusters, our workers are being upskilled and our SMEs are exporting and becoming exemplars in their local communities. Our economy is doing very well and I commend the Secretary of State’s Statement to the House .

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his very robust reply. The main attack from the opposition spokesman last Wednesday was to criticise the Secretary of State because the figures she quoted for exports—£862 billion—were not adjusted to inflation. That is, they were not volume figures but value figures. I put it to my noble friend that that point is a completely false one. It is entirely appropriate to quote value figures rather than volume figures for an economy that is overwhelmingly services, because it is very difficult to measure services and services exports in terms of volume.

Secondly, it is appropriate to measure exports in terms of value because that is what matters to the person who is employed and getting paid. They get paid in pounds, shillings and pence, so measuring them in value terms is perfectly legitimate. Thirdly, everybody laughs as though it were a superficial matter, but this has been disputed. The opposition spokesman was quoting Mr Conway, whose figures have been attacked publicly in the press and by many other commentators. In any case, is his argument very profound, given that the Secretary of State gave figures for exports by volume as well? She gave both—so I do not see how she can be accused of being misleading in any way.

Does my noble friend agree that it is profoundly depressing that, near to an election, hoping to form the next Government and believing that they will, all they can do is talk the economy down? They are determined that everything should be bad news. This is not the proper basis on which a party serious about being in government should be talking about our economy.

I have one question for my noble friend about the motor vehicle industry. I very much applauded the decision to delay the date for battery vehicles being compulsory, but could the Government go further and accord with the request by Stellantis that they should not fine companies that produce good petrol cars before people are ready to buy electric cars? As he will know, there is a lot of sensitivity in the motor industry about this position and quite a lot of motor companies have changed their view, so I would be very grateful if he could comment on that.

I thank my noble friend for that contribution on a subject that he knows well. I will come to his specific question on auto in a moment. I will say that we are in a strong position here, but of course there is more that we can do. One of the focuses of DBT and my portfolio is to try to increase the number of companies that export. At the moment, we have 300,000 companies exporting. My personal ambition is to try to get that up to 500,000, which would be 20% of the 2.5 million registered companies.

The reason why we want these companies to be exporting is that we discover that they share some very interesting characteristics. First, they are well managed; they have ambitious management teams and are quite often owner managed. Secondly, if they are selling goods and services around the world, it is because they are world class and will get high margins for those products and services, so they will be more profitable. And here is the silver bullet—they pay higher wages. If 70% of them are based outside London and the south-east, that is real levelling up. So of course there is more that we can do, but there is a strong recovery going on in our economy right now.

On the specific issue of automotive, obviously we have had a discussion with Stellantis and have talked about Nissan et cetera. Sometimes these discussions are described as U-turns, but I see them as part of a practical journey to net zero. We have to move in a practical way and take the public with us. Right now, we have a direction of travel but we have to be flexible, as we have been with heat pumps and indeed cars, to make sure that we take the public with us. The market itself has not yet landed and has to decide exactly how this will be fulfilled.

I do not see this as in any way reneging on our net-zero commitments. Right now, 75% of our economy is powered by petrochemicals and 25% by renewables. The 2050 target is to flip that on its head and make it 25% hydrocarbons, which would be green and clean hydrocarbons, and 75% renewables. How we get there is to be done over a generation. We have a direction of travel, but we will be flexible about it as we go, as we already demonstrated with heat pumps and cars. I am very clear that we will get there and in a way that continues to make sure that our industries are profitable and that our workers are well paid.

My Lords, putting fresh produce on the table might become a challenge, as a result of the customs controls that took effect from 30 April. The Minister referred to the Electronic Trade Documents Act, but that needs a boost, with HMRC accepting that we are now potentially in a paperless environment. Yet I have heard that, in the Port of Dover, although the Act is in place, staff are still asking for paper to support the process—so work clearly needs to be done.

Trade matters. It is the engine room of the economy. The Statement referred to

“exporters firing on all cylinders”,

and went on to say that

“some people seem unaware of the progress that we have made as an independent trading nation”.

Does the Minister accept that much more could be done? I have in my sights the UK’s membership organisations. Does the Minister recognise the role of trade in fostering co-operation and development? Will he convene a meeting of individual chambers of commerce and trade associations, and listen to what they have to say?

Support is required, sharing challenges and solutions to deepen economic co-operation in the UK’s national interest, including making themselves available to engage with opposite numbers globally and away from a rather patchy record—as identified, for example, by the Turkish manufacturers association wishing to sit with Make UK to discuss mutual co-operation in both countries’ best interests. We are just about to start an FTA, but we have to have the trade associations that represent these organisations engaging—they do not even answer the phone.

I thank the noble Lord for those comments. On the border target operating model and the new checks coming in, as part of Brexit, which the UK voted for, we need to protect our borders in all respects. As we have said before, we need border checks, especially when it comes to SPS. There will be costs to bear, but they will be outweighed by the benefits and the farming community has been very vocal in support of that measure. Let us remind ourselves of the costs if things go wrong: foot and mouth cost us £13 billion. So it is obvious that we need to do this and do it in a light-touch manner.

On stakeholder associations, I absolutely agree. I have regular dialogue with all the names given. We are in a bit of a transition with these organisations after having 50 years of being very focused on Europe. There is now a need for us to raise our sights, and there is a need for those organisations to go more global—no question about it. I am staggered as I go to our embassies and commissions around the world to find the strength in depth that we have in terms of trade teams in-country. We need to get them more joined up with stakeholder organisations. I will be happy to take that initiative forward in my portfolio.

My Lords, the Statement refers to our exporters “firing on all cylinders”, but according to the CBI and the British Exporters Association, less than 10% of UK businesses export. The Statement also refers to Unilever and Shell choosing London as their corporate headquarters, but Unilever is currently debating whether to list its ice cream business in London or Amsterdam, and Shell has made press comments about having a location that clearly seems to be undervalued, prompting concern that the company may move its listing to the US in future. My noble friend has already answered the question about how the Government will help more of our firms to export, but what will the Government do to assist and maintain UK stock market listings, not just in the FTSE 100 but, equally importantly, in the small cap index?

When it comes to stock market listings and the operation of stock markets, that is, by definition, capitalism in the private sector, and the Government should not get involved in that particular exchange. However, the previous lord mayor led a very interesting initiative which identified that our pension funds are not investing enough in UK equities, so there is now an interesting scheme going on whereby we can see whether we can get 5% of UK pension funds invested in UK equities, which I think is a very worthwhile initiative.

When it comes to headquarters, et cetera, a number of studies have been put out recently by PwC, EY and Boston Consulting Group which have done surveys with CEOs who indicate that they still believe that the UK is one of the best places to locate their head office in Europe. Therefore, we do not see any diminution in that. Foreign direct investment into the UK now is greater than into France, Germany and Italy combined. The market, the money, talks. The money is coming in—my noble friend Lord Johnson is doing a sterling job on that. We have a strong, good economy. Foreign investment is coming in. There is dislocation of stock markets, but initiatives are being taken to alleviate that concern.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister agrees with the Green Party about GDP growth being an extremely inaccurate measure of progress in a society. The question I want to ask is specifically about the situation of small and medium-sized enterprises exporting to the EU. Importers are having many difficulties. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred to florists, and horticulturists are reaching out to me regularly. On exporters, British Chambers of Commerce figures for the fourth quarter of 2023 show that 50% of SMEs have had no change in overseas sales while 24% have seen a decrease and that exports from SMEs to the EU are consistently underperforming domestic sales. The head of trade policy at the BCC has said

“firms continue to express huge frustration with the complexity and cost involved”,

referring to exporting to the EU. Are the Government going to do more to help in what is clearly a deeply damaging situation for SMEs?

I just wish the noble Baroness had been at breakfast this morning at No. 10 Downing Street, where my noble friend Lord Petitgas and I hosted 16 SMEs which are exporters to Europe and elsewhere. They reported on how their businesses are trading up and that they now have the opportunity to trade around the world beyond Europe. I have been through the numbers; they do not lie. The numbers say that in terms of our manufacturing there has been no difference between Europe and the rest of the world. There are of course individual circumstances and individual companies where there have been ups and downs. That is business, but, overall, we are very clear that our SMEs have a great appetite to export. We need to get more of them exporting—as I said, 300,000 out of 2.5 million VAT-registered companies do so; I personally feel that we should push that up to half a million. We can do that, especially with the new digital industries coming through. Certainly, I would be very happy to introduce the noble Baroness to a number of the export champions today. Some of them are actually bringing manufacturing back—onshoring manufacturing —to the UK following Brexit. That is a very pleasing development.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his optimistic and dynamic Statement about the economy and these trade figures. Can he confirm again that the UK’s exports are at an all-time high? The UK is the largest net exporter of financial and insurance services in the world. Those are surely staggering figures, and all of us ought to make more of them.

Can I ask the Minister to refer again to the new border checks that will be put on animal and plant products, as raised by the Lib Dem spokesman a moment ago? A number of trade associations estimate that these new checks will cost in the region of £2 billion per year. I think we all agree that there needs to be no let-up in the maintenance of standards and that we need consistency across Europe, particularly post-Brexit —farmers and the rural community will demand nothing less. However, is there not an argument for looking at more of a light-touch regime and relying on spot checks based on intelligence-led—perhaps communications intelligence-led—policing of individual consignments rather than imposing this very large potential blanket burden?

That is exactly the regime being implemented. We might even consider that some of the delays in implementing the regime are precisely for that reason—to make sure that it is light touch and not a blanket position.

We have a very interesting future on the border, largely because of the Northern Ireland situation. We had to solve the problem of how to make a meaningful trade border without recreating a hard border. The only way to do that is digital and through self-certification and pre-checking. Hence, we have ended up with the green lane and red lane and the trusted trader system—which the rest of the world is now going to adopt—where you pre-certify your goods and check them before they go through the border. The CEO of the Channel Tunnel recently said that trade is moving through the tunnel faster than when we were in the EU, because it is all on a QR code on the phone that is pre-checked and pre-certified. You certify where it is going to and what goods need to be checked. The checking being done is therefore on a confirmatory basis—an exceptional basis—and not on a blanket basis. If we include the Electronic Trade Documents Act and the single trade window, the direction of travel in the next five years will be to collapse trade very quickly into, in effect, a digital passport, which will speed things up considerably.

Yes, there will be costs in putting in place a border, but I can see you and raise you on the benefits that will come from a digital border.

My Lords, I welcome the figures that my noble friend the Minister gave us, but our major problem is a trade deficit. This is not something new; it has been the case for the last four decades. In other words, we do not have enough exports to pay for imports. Last year, the deficit was £862 billion. What more can we do to support UK PLC—especially SMEs—to export more? The trade envoy programme supports UK PLC to export more—I am one of the trade envoys, by the way. Is there any plan to enhance this programme and increase the number of trade envoys to support UK PLC to export more?

I thank my noble friend, and I am delighted that he is a trade envoy. It has been a very worthwhile initiative. All the embassies and high commissions I go to are delighted with how that is working. Of course, we can do more. Companies themselves feel that they are getting a lot of support and have a direct line to government through the trade envoys.

The balance of trade is something that economists love to talk about. At the end of the day, do not forget that we import to export. The modern British economy is not so much a primary manufacturer as a designer, assembler and manufacturer of added value to goods. For example, with a number of our pharmaceuticals, 80% of the input is imported. Therefore, that balance of trade belies the fact that we enhance, improve and sell back out what we are taking in.

The direction of travel is to increase our exports and, ultimately, that is what our free trade agreements will do. We talk to our companies about the CPTPP and the fact that you can go to Mexico, Canada, Peru, Chile, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Australia, Japan and New Zealand—then add all the others that want to come in. They now have new markets to go to.

One of the SMEs at breakfast this morning was a manufacturer of women’s sporting apparel. When it was doing its business plan, it was selling only to Europe and could not sell to Australia. Now, since we have done the Australian free trade agreement and taken the tariffs off, margins have improved by 12% to 14%. We passed the Electronic Trade Documents Act, which now means it can get its goods made in the UK into Australia within 48 hours. That business is booming on the back of the Australia free trade agreement. That is the opportunity we have now to boost exports across our economy.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with this country’s current position in terms of its balance of payments? Those of us with longer memories will recall times when Governments fell over the issue of balance of payments, but it appears to be a metric that is not given enough attention now. I think the current figures show a substantial deficit, in the billions. Is the Minister satisfied with that?

I think that takes us into a whole technical area. We will come back to that another time, thank you very much.