By Ian Murray MP, Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment
Improving trade will be vitally important to growing the UK in the coming decade. Indeed, boosting exports must be a national mission. The current Government has also recognised that and have set an ambitious target to increase exports to £1 trillion by 2020. However, there are concerns that the pace at which exports are expanding isn’t fast enough.
The headline news from the Office for National Statistics is that the monthly trade deficit in February narrowed, down to £2.1bn from the £2.2bn in January. The value of goods exports was the lowest since October 2010, while the goods deficit excluding oil and items such as precious stones and aircraft – widened from £8bn to £8.5bn.
For these statistics to improve, Labour believe that Britain’s small and medium-sized businesses will be crucial to driving our exports and we are looking at ways we can support them to do that.
Ensuring that firms have access to the finance they need to export is a crucial. That is why the Government’s two flagship export schemes – the £5bn Export Refinancing Scheme and the £1.5bn Direct Lending Scheme – need to start lending and I would encourage ministers to look urgently at the performance of these schemes.
The UK needs to get more businesses exporting to boost middle-income jobs and grow our way out of the cost-of-living crisis and so we can ensure Britain can compete in growing global markets. We have fantastic, innovative businesses, and many important advantages on which to build up our exports. We have a strong British brand, our language, our legal system, and even our time-zone work in our favour. We should be drawing on the rich cultural tapestry of Britain, building on the links with our Disapora communities to strengthen trade links with emerging markets, and building city-to-city links as Chuka Umunna the Shadow Business Secretary outlined last week. To grasp the opportunities and exploit our full potential needs a Government that is prepared to act and prepared to support.
If this does not happen we will not only miss being ahead of the game and fail to grasp the opportunities with regard to exports to the BRIC economies, the ship will sail on the new wave of fast growing economies – the Next Eleven, including the recently much publicised MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) countries. Ministers must do much more than offer warm words.
As April’s Western Union International Trade Monitor has shown, only 9% of SMEs have customers in China compared to 15% a year ago, whilst only 6% sell to India (vs. 14% in Q1 2013). Indeed, the percentage of SMEs planning to expand into emerging markets fell from 36% in Q4 2013 to 28%. That’s not good enough. These are exactly the markets that UK businesses should be breaking into, but they can only do this with the support of an active government which utilises its export guarantees, a future Labour Government would be as active as possible.
The next Labour government will make it a central mission to boost exports, innovation and investment as part of Agenda 2030, which is our plan for better-balanced, sustainable growth. This means engaging with our European partners using our membership of the EU to reform it and to help us as we look to boost our exports in new markets overseas and help more small firms export. The UK mustn’t head for the EU exit door, an approach which would do nothing for jobs and the ability of smaller and medium sized businesses to export.
Our Small Business Taskforce has made a number of recommendations to Labour which we are examining. These include creating export hubs in major world cities to give UK firms a foothold; export “rainmakers” who can help small businesses identify and approach potential customers; and a suite of export finance products comparable to those offered by the US Small Business Administration.
As a former small business owner, I know the importance of having a government which supports business and steps up not steps away. We have businesses across the country that have huge ambition. It needs to be matched with a government prepared to act.