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Furniture Manufacturers

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019

I should explain that we are running 30 minutes or so behind schedule because of votes in the main Chamber earlier. We now move to the debate on furniture manufacturers. I call Maggie Throup to move the motion on the next debate, which will end at two minutes past 5.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of furniture manufacturers to the UK economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and it is also really good to see so many people with an interest in the furniture industry. I move the motion as the chair of the all-party parliamentary furniture industry group, which exists to raise awareness of the UK’s thriving furniture industry and to promote its importance to our economy.

I declare an interest as the Member of Parliament who proudly represents the town of Long Eaton, which is globally recognised as the UK centre of quality upholstery manufacturing. The furniture industry continues to flourish in Erewash, with more than 50 companies, such as Steed Upholstery, Artistic Upholstery, David Gundry and Gascoigne Designs, involved in furniture manufacturing and its supply chain in Long Eaton alone. It employs about 2,700 people with a turnover of more than £250 million each year. On a national basis, Government-verified figures show that the wider furniture and furnishings sector, including specialised retail but excluding general retail, supports some 327,000 jobs across 50,000 registered companies.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. Does she agree that in addition to the larger companies there are some smaller companies, such as Rowlands Upholstery in Great Grimsby, that do a fantastic job—not only employing people, but providing high-quality furniture? They are essential to people’s lives, and to our local economies.

I completely agree, because the majority of upholsterers in my constituency are exactly the same type of company—small and medium-sized enterprises that employ people locally, generation after generation.

Consumer expenditure on furniture and furnishings was almost £17.5 billion in 2017 and exceeded all other spend in the household goods sector. That represents a 21% increase from 2014. Year-on-year growth in the sector between 2014 and 2016 rose from 4.8% to 6.9%, with growth between 2016 and 2017 higher still, at 7.9%. The latest data shows that furniture and furnishing sales continued to rise into early 2018, with first and second quarter consumer expenditure 8.5% and 8.3% higher, respectively, than for the equivalent periods in 2017, despite many other retail sectors experiencing an increasingly challenging market.

In addition, trade fairs such as the biannual Long Point exhibition, held in Long Eaton, continue to attract global attention from international buyers looking to stock some of the finest sofas and easy chairs the UK has to offer. That has led to a steady increase in furniture exports since 2012, peaking at £1.19 billion in 2017 and representing a 12.4% increase on 2016 figures.

The good news does not stop there. Provisional estimates for 2018 indicate that exports for last year could be higher still, at £1.27 billion, which would represent a year-on-year increase of 7%. Taken together, these figures clearly demonstrate that the appreciation of and the demand for hand-made British craftsmanship remains high, both nationally and internationally.

It is hard to speak in this place without mentioning Brexit, but I promise the House that I will keep my remarks brief and confined to two main areas—trade and export, and standards and regulations. Like all sectors, the UK furniture industry now just wants clarity and a degree of certainty over Brexit at the earliest opportunity, in order to preserve confidence in the UK as a stable business environment in which to invest, and to assist with business planning.

With specific regard to trade and export, the industry wants to ensure that the Government give serious consideration to the cost of importing materials, both finished and components, during the renegotiation of our relationship with the EU. For example, if the import of fine Italian fabric were to be interrupted, manufacturers in my constituency have voiced concerns that production may be significantly disrupted or even halted while they sourced material from elsewhere. Consequently, that would have a huge knock-on effect on the local workforce and would risk the financial viability of many of these small, often family-run businesses.

Britain is soon to regain its ability to negotiate independent free trade agreements, which I believe presents a fantastic opportunity for all UK businesses to access new markets outside of the UK and Europe—something that the furniture industry already has significant experience in doing. Given that there are 30% more furniture manufacturers that do not currently export but are planning to do so within the next year, I welcome the Government’s new five-year UK export support strategy, which provides manufacturers with further details of the package of support available to help exporters post Brexit. We also have a responsibility, as Members of Parliament with furniture manufacturers in our constituencies and as members of the APPG, to continue to bang the drum for the industry and ensure that they do not lose out to larger sectors during future trade negotiations.

I turn to standards and regulation. The UK already maintains some of the highest standards for furniture safety in the world, but here again clarity is needed on both product safety and the mutual recognition regime that the industry will have to work within post Brexit.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing about this debate. Before she moves beyond Brexit, does she agree with me that some of the pressures that some of our small and medium-sized furniture businesses face come from the lack of support and assistance that they are getting from the Department for International Trade with exports and exchange rate facilitation, or even things like intellectual property rights?

As I outlined earlier, the Government have produced an export strategy, which I would encourage all SMEs to look at and take part in. That is one of my messages today.

I shall move on from Brexit. As shown across my constituency, furniture manufacturers require a highly skilled workforce to retain their international reputation for quality. The skills of an upholsterer are passed down from generation to generation—often in the form of an apprenticeship, then finely tuned over a number of years, which can span well past the usual age of retirement. The industry therefore needs support from Government to help it to bring new generations of craftsmen and women through the system with the right skills to ensure that this type of art survives throughout the 21st century.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this very important debate. She is just about to highlight excellent British craftsmanship. Just as in her constituency, in Slough there is an array of manufacturers, designers and fitters of furniture for bedrooms, kitchens and so forth. We pay tribute to those individuals for their craftsmanship. Does she agree that their high-quality, skilled jobs are an asset to the local and national economy?

I completely agree. I would like to invite the hon. Gentleman to be a member of the all-party parliamentary group.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when we talk of furniture manufacturers, we are referring not just to large factories in city centres? Many small rural towns and villages have small enterprises making furniture.

I completely agree. This is something that I think we underestimate: furniture manufacturing is happening across the country and has a great input into our economy.

Sorry, I am going to move on.

I know that the Minister has taken steps to address the issue of skills, which includes helping to ensure that young people understand the benefit of an apprenticeship as compared with remaining in formal education post 16. However, I ask him to review the viability of the apprenticeship levy, which businesses in my constituency have raised concerns about, and to work with the sector to raise awareness on how apprenticeship funding is relevant to SMEs.

I briefly want to mention the environmental role of the furniture industry and the important part it can play in our economy to reduce waste. It is said that the upholstery industry never dies; it always recovers. As we move from a throwaway society back to one that recycles and, thanks to Kirstie Allsopp, upcycles, that sentiment has perhaps never been truer. Once again, people are looking for something that is either bespoke or a quality piece of furniture that stands out from the crowd and lasts forever, or they want to restore a much-loved piece of furniture. The Government should capitalise on this shifting trend and work with the industry to encourage even more people to reuse and recycle a quality British piece of furniture rather than opt for a disposable flat-pack alternative.

It would be remiss of me to make a speech substantively about Long Eaton and not mention HS2. As the House might know, Long Eaton is the town most affected already by HS2, which in turn puts at risk a number of the historical upholstery firms to which I have previously referred and the homes of many of their employees, who will have to be relocated to make way for the rail line. The working draft environmental statements on phase 2b of the line identify that 1,004 jobs could be displaced or lost along the Ratcliffe-on-Soar to Long Eaton section of the route.

I made it clear in my response to the recent public consultation that it is unacceptable for any jobs to be lost because of HS2, but that need not be the case should the process for relocating displaced businesses be managed professionally. Given the unique nature of the upholstery industry in Long Eaton, displaced manufacturers must be relocated in the NG10 postcode area. The highly skilled workforce, many of whom live alongside the current factories in a true working town, must be able to access any new premises with ease. It is incumbent on both HS2 Ltd and the Government to use their discretionary powers of compulsory purchase ahead of Royal Assent to allow manufacturers to account for that in their forward business planning, and to allow for a smooth transition from their current location to a new one.

My personal ask of the Minister is to look seriously at the idea of establishing a cross-departmental taskforce with the Department for Transport to provide businesses being forced to relocate through no fault of their own with the necessary advice and support—including financial support—because this area is severely lacking. I have a meeting with the Minister already pencilled in for the first week of February, and I look forward to having a productive discussion with him, to make further progress on that idea.

I turn to Parliament itself. We will shortly commence a multi-billion-pound programme of refurbishment to restore one of the world’s most historic and iconic buildings. Although the Chamber was, on the orders of Churchill, purposely designed not to seat all 650 Members of Parliament at once, the refurbishment will undoubtedly include the restoration of thousands of pieces of furniture across the estate, including our famous green Benches. I cannot think of a better way for people in the UK furniture industry, including upholsterers from Erewash, to showcase their traditional skills than by contributing to the restoration of this mother of all Parliaments.

Like the art of upholstery, where much of the detailed work goes unseen—covered neatly by a colourful fabric—the UK furniture industry, particularly manufacturing, is so much more than it has perhaps been traditionally given credit for. Yes, it faces its own challenges, some of which I am sure the Minister will address in his remarks. Despite that, the industry remains resilient in the changing and challenging world of retail, and it continues to fly the flag for British manufacturing both at home and abroad.

I am delighted that the House has had the opportunity to consider the contribution to our economy made by UK furniture manufacturers and the wider sector. I thank the British Furniture Confederation for its continued support for the all-party parliamentary group and its tireless efforts to promote the industry. I commend this motion to the House.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and today is no exception. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for securing this debate, and to all hon. Members who have attended just to hear her—or maybe just to hear me. She mentioned much-loved pieces of furniture. I would not like to pick out any particular Members, but there are some who have been here longer than others and who could be referred to as such. I know she is very interested in representing her constituents who work in Long Eaton, and I pay tribute to her for doing so. Her predecessor, Jessica Lee, did exactly the same job, representing the interests of upholstery and furniture manufacturers—maybe she should be the greatly loved piece of furniture to which the hon. Lady referred.

The British manufacturing industry fell into—shall we say—disrepair in the eyes of commentators for a long time. There was the clothing industry in the Leeds of my childhood and that of my parents and grandparents. The Long Eaton lace industry has gone, as have many other industries in our constituencies.

I think my hon. Friend wants to talk about the lace industry—I know it is still there, although I believe that it was in the next town rather than in Long Eaton, if my memory is correct.

I am delighted that the Minister recognises the importance of the Nottingham lace industry, which was actually mainly in Derbyshire. My constituency has the final remaining Nottingham lace manufacturer in Ilkeston, which is the other town.

I actually corrected myself—it is Ilkeston. I know there are two towns in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but for the purpose of the debate, Long Eaton is a centre of upholstery and furniture, which she will know as chair of the APPG for the furniture industry. We all support business in our constituency. I am pleased that the industry we are talking about is doing so well—so much so that people will come to Long Eaton from all over the world for the big annual exhibition that she mentioned. That is wonderful.

Industries are often forgotten about. In my role as Minister for businesses and industry, I spend a lot of time on the automotive industry, the aerospace industry and other huge employers throughout the country, but it is so pleasing when the House debates examples of how well more localised industries are doing. The economic importance of the furniture manufacturing sector is clear: it numbers 15,000 businesses and nearly 100,000 people. The east midlands region alone accounts for about 14% of that total across the country.

Furniture is fundamental to all our lives. The massed ranks of the House of Commons are sitting on nicely upholstered furniture in this Chamber. How many of them would be here if we had only planks to sit on? I am not sure. Obviously, Mr McCabe, you would always have a nice leather-upholstered chair.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) looks very comfortable in her chair, and I am not sure that she would be attracted to something less comfortable. Maybe she sacrifices herself and uses more uncomfortable chairs in Great Grimsby, in which case I would advise her constituents to buy comfortable things made in Long Eaton.

My hon. Friend mentioned three things. First, the current uncertainty around EU exit; secondly, the regulatory framework in which the sector operates; and thirdly, the need to maintain a skilled workforce. I will try to deal with those separately.

On the EU exit, I know that the uncertainty of not knowing the rules of the future is very difficult for business. I have been in business for most of my life and I know that the one thing you need is certainty to plan —not you, Mr McCabe, but one generally. I am sure you would if you were in business, as you may be in the future if you decide to change career; I am sure it would be a brilliant career, whatever you decided to do. One thinks about the certainty of rules and the importance of frictionless trade in goods for supply chains across industry.

That is particularly important for the furniture industry, which relies, as my hon. Friend said, on sourcing the very best materials, from wherever they may come. That could be the EU, with the Italian fabrics that she mentioned, or hardwoods from other parts of the world. The Government will do everything we can to ensure that the movement of goods remains as frictionless as possible to the benefit of industry across the UK.

Secondly, on regulation, the Government understand the importance of clarity on product safety and mutual recognition issues.

To return to Brexit momentarily, I visited the Silverlining furniture company in Wrexham—a very high-quality business that exports high-spec furniture abroad—and one point it made was that skilled labour from all across Europe works for it at a very high level. We have to focus not only on materials, but on people.

The hon. Gentleman makes a brilliant point, which concerns not only the people who come to work in factories such as the one in his constituency, but the free flow and ability of labour to install and maintain many UK-manufactured products in the European Union. Many of the companies that we regard as manufacturing businesses make a lot of their added value from precisely those sorts of services. Although, like most people, I accept that when we leave the European Union we will not exactly have free movement of labour—that is part of being in the European Union—there has to be a system that enables businesses to fill vacancies quickly, without thousands of pounds-worth of bureaucracy and too many rules. I pay tribute to the people from the European Union who contribute so much to the manufacturing industry in this country. Long may that continue.

I just got going on free movement, but I shall return to regulation, which it is also important to get right. We need to maintain the industry’s reputation for excellence in both quality and safety, and to make sure that we have the support of businesses, because they work to the regulations. By and large, they want regulations that are the same here as in the countries to which they sell.

My hon. Friend rightly speaks about our furniture manufacturers’ reputation for high standards, which is one of the many reasons why Boss Design in my constituency has been picked to furnish the new World Trade Centre in New York. Research by the British Furniture Confederation showed that some products that come into the UK with CE approval are not properly flame resistant and can be burnt to a cinder in as little as 10 minutes, whereas a properly compliant product would self-extinguish within 10 to 15 seconds. Is he as concerned about that as I am?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention; it is a relevant point. I remind hon. Members who may have temporarily forgotten that the Prime Minister visited Boss Design and was very impressed with what she saw. I will make sure that the relevant officials are aware of the point that my hon. Friend makes.

We share the desire of businesses for consumers to have confidence that the products in their homes are produced to rigorous safety requirements. We have to work with both business and our EU partners to ensure that regulations are effective and fit for the future. That has nothing to do with whether or not we are in the European Union. There is a commonality of interest and desire among people all over the world to have the same standards.

I recognise that the industry’s continued success relies on having the right skills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash mentioned, just one sofa requires a range of skills, from carpentry to the intricate skills of the upholsterer. The Government are keen to ensure that the industry has the skills it needs. We have heard the call for an immigration system based purely on skills and qualifications, and such a system is set out in the immigration White Paper. There has to be an easy and simple route for skilled workers, because it is otherwise difficult for manufacturers and other employers as far as time and money are concerned. When we talk about friction, we mean not only the friction of raw materials coming in, but of all things to do with business, and we are very conscious of that. That is particularly important where there is a skill shortage. The Government will engage businesses and employers on setting salary thresholds and the conditions around them.

In the long term, we want to nurture home-grown talent within companies, which is where apprenticeships come in. We need to develop that. The apprenticeship levy was a good idea, but it must not become a payroll tax that means that companies are unable to spend money that was theirs to begin with. That will require a lot of work. The sector has been very willing to work with Government to make the apprenticeship levy a success. Whether through the British furniture manufacturers’ FIESTA—Furniture and Interiors Education, Skills and Training Alliance—programme, T-levels or the national apprenticeship awards, the furniture industry has outperformed in its contribution to apprenticeships relative to its size. We have to ensure that the future generation of furniture makers succeed.

Finally, my hon. Friend raised the concerns of her constituents in Long Eaton about High Speed 2, as she has done numerous times in the House. The Government’s local growth team—a joint unit between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government —is supporting the Department for Transport in working constructively with places along the HS2 route and taking into account the needs of local businesses. I hope that her constituents were able to engage with the consultations on phase 2b of the route which were undertaken between October and December last year. We are analysing the feedback from that consultation and I would be happy to discuss it with her in our meeting on 5 February, which we arranged following her recent questions to me in the House. I will ensure that the relevant officials from all Departments are there.

The country has a rich history of producing world-class furniture, and my hon Friend’s constituency has a tradition of producing world-class MPs. I thank her for reminding us both of the furniture industry’s great contribution to our country and of the strong position it is in to make a positive contribution to a more sustainable future.

Question put and agreed to.