Trade and Investment Debate
My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome my noble friend to his new role. It will require a tremendous national effort to tackle Britain’s long-standing trade deficit, but doing so offers us the best possible route out of our nation’s budget deficit. I am pleased that, following his two distinguished predecessors, we have such a capable Minister leading the charge.
It is important to set our trade situation in context. There can be no argument: the past five years have been good for Britain’s economy. We have an employment rate of 73.4%, the highest since comparable records began in 1971; an unemployment rate of 5.5%, which continues to shrink every month; GDP growth of 2.8% in 2014; and average weekly earnings were up 2.2% between January and March 2015. We have also benefited from low inflation and low interest rates. Given the challenges faced in 2010, it is indeed impressive that the majority of headline figures compare favourably to any Government’s record—what a success.
However, there are two blemishes on that record. Public sector net borrowing, although down 11% on the previous year, remains high at £88 billion, or 4.8% of our GDP. Linked to that, our trade deficit is still £33.7 billion and our current account deficit £97.9 billion, some 5.5% of GDP. This has, with some minor exceptions, been a trend for four decades—a trend that successive Governments, despite good intentions, have failed to come to terms with. Put plainly, we do not have enough exports to pay for our imports; in other words, we are consuming more than we are producing.
I will turn in a moment to what actions I would like to see from the Government to help tackle our exporting issues, but it is worth drawing attention to the work of the House of Lords Select Committee on Small and Medium Sized Enterprises that I proposed in 2012. The committee was very ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Cope, and looked at how the Government support SMEs when it comes to exporting. It produced an extensive report, full of sensible ideas. Since its publication, there have been two debates in this House on the committee’s report, on 26 June 2013 and 6 May 2014. For the latter, the Government produced an update on their progress.
It is vital that we maintain, as the committee did, a clear focus on SME exporting, rather than combining all trade figures together. The challenges faced in the SME sector are very different from those in the larger corporations, but the rewards are potentially much greater. Will the Minister ensure that we continue our trend of the past couple of years and arrange for another debate—in government time—to ensure that progress is being continued?
I move on now to some of the obstacles preventing a trade balance surplus. I spoke at some length in the debate on the gracious Speech about our nation’s obsession with Europe to the great detriment of emerging markets and, in particular, Africa. I will do my best to avoid repetition, but the EU accounts for 45% of our exports and 53% of our imports. In other words, there is a difference of eight percentage points between what we import and what we export, which amounts, roughly, to a £30 billion to £40 billion trade deficit with the European
Viewed through the forthcoming EU referendum, these figures prompt two different
responses. Those wanting to stay in Europe see them as a clear justification of our overall relationship, an economic bonus for our membership. Those wishing to leave the EU use them to say that, even if we were not members of the EU, it would still be in Europe’s interest to trade with us as it gets a net benefit. My take on these figures is rather different. I believe they prompt a sort of paralysis among our political and business leaders. We fret over what we have, rather than envisage what we could have. As a nation we lack the courage to conquer new trading frontiers. The eurozone’s economy has barely grown in recent years and
with the ongoing situation in Greece and the resulting uncertainty it is hard to see that changing. We simply must roll up our sleeves and focus our efforts on the markets of the future. The opportunities in Asia, Latin America and, in particular, Africa are numerous and lucrative. The Government’s role, through trade missions, EU free trade agreements and UKTI, must be to open these opportunities up to British firms and to navigate the private sector towards them. In turn, our business community must seize these opportunities with both hands. Can the Minister comment on his plans to expand UKTI’s presence in the emerging markets of Africa?
Our Government must also tackle our long-standing infrastructure deficit. The runway situation in London is painful; we must get on, implement the Davies commission recommendation and place our nation’s economic and trading future above the inevitable objections. Likewise we must press on with HS2 and HS3 and improving our roads. We cannot sell our goods if we cannot get them to the market in the first place.
Finally, we must also make sure that our goods and services are more affordable than those of our competitors. A lot has been made of our seven-year productivity stagnation—as the ONS said, it is unprecedented in post-war Britain. It certainly does not help our exports if workers here are producing the same amount per hour as they were in 2007 while our competitors are producing more. The Economist recently disaggregated the productivity data, finding huge differences between sectors. Our transport manufacturing industry, once again a great British export industry, has seen productivity improve by 56% from 2009. In contrast, our finance
and insurance industries are producing 10% less per hour in the same period.
While it is helpful to understand that our productivity slump is being skewed by certain sectors, it does not hide the fact that overall our economy is not as efficient as it should be. This trend cannot continue, or we will fall further behind our competitors. We need businesses and the Government to work together to identify and address whatever issues are holding us back.
This Government should be aiming to eradicate our trading deficit in the next five years. We have the expertise and the products; the emerging markets have the customers. Let us now see the commitment.