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House of Commons

Friday 14 January 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


9.35 am

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : I beg to move,

That this House recognises the importance of exports to the British economy which was highlighted in debates on the Gracious Speech ; welcomes the further initiatives outlined in the Chancellor's Budget Statement ; welcomes the initiatives taken by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to improve the marketing of British food and reduce the trade gap in food and agricultural products ; supports the work of "Food From Britain" in improving the marketing of United Kingdom produce and, in particular, its new focus on export promotion ; recognises that British manufacturers are amongst the more competitive in Europe ; and urges continuing Government encouragement for export promotion for the benefit of the economy, employment, growers and processors, and those involved in the important work of export promotion.

I move this motion in a week when a sharp drop in the trade deficit has boosted the prospects for a solid economic recovery in this country.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead) : Madam speaker, I spy strangers.

Notice being taken that strangers were present, Madam Speaker--, pursuant to Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of strangers from the House), put forthwith the Question, That strangers do withdraw :-- The House divided : Ayes 0, Noes 65.

Division No. 67] [9.36 am


Tellers for the Ayes


Nil Tellers for the Ayes :

Mr. Michael Trend and

Mr. James Clappison.


Alexander, Richard

Arbuthnot, James

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)

Barnes, Harry

Beggs, Roy

Bell, Stuart

Booth, Hartley

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)

Clapham, Michael

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cummings, John

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Dicks, Terry

Duncan, Alan

Duncan-Smith, Iain

Fishburn, Dudley

Forth, Eric

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Gorman, Mrs Teresa

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Hanley, Jeremy

Hawksley, Warren

Heald, Oliver

Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)

Hughes, Simon (Southwark)

Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)

Jenkin, Bernard

Kirkhope, Timothy

Kirkwood, Archy

Knapman, Roger

Knight, Greg (Derby N)

Kynoch, George (Kincardine)

Lait, Mrs Jacqui

Legg, Barry

Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)

Lewis, Terry

Lord, Michael

Luff, Peter

MacKay, Andrew

Madel, Sir David

Marland, Paul

Marshall, John (Hendon S)

Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)

Montgomery, Sir Fergus

Neubert, Sir Michael

Nicholson, David (Taunton)

Norris, Steve

O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)

Prescott, John

Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn

Column 438

Ryder, Rt Hon Richard

Sackville, Tom

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shersby, Michael

Skinner, Dennis

Soames, Nicholas

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Waller, Gary

Waterson, Nigel

Widdecombe, Ann

Wood, Timothy

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Sydney Chapman and

Mr. Michael Brown.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Alexander : I hope that we may now proceed.

I began by explaining to the House the appropriateness of having the debate this week. The provisional figures show that the gap between exports and imports fell from £1,087 million in September to £578 million in October. Imports have fallen, and the value of October's exports--at £10.51 billion--was 2.5 per cent. up on the previous month. Exports outside the EEC are up by 12 per cent. on a year ago.

I pay tribute to the firms, companies and employees who have achieved such figures. I also wish to pay tribute to the economic policies of Her Majesty's Government, which have helped to achieve them. Towards the end of last summer, colleagues from both Houses and I formed the all-party parliamentary group for exports, of which I have the honour to be joint chairman. The object of the group--as of today's motion--is to underline the importance of exports to the British economy, to draw together various aspects of the subject and to see how Government and Parliament can be more proactive in helping to overcome obstacles that prevent this country from achieving an even more successful export performance.

Because the British exporter competes and survives in increasingly competitive markets overseas, sometimes it seems to the outsider--by definition we, as generally full-time parliamentarians, must be regarded as outsiders--that a coherent voice for the exporter is lacking. One asks, is better training the answer? Is the answer to ensure that the Government back up exporters to the extent that those in competitor economies are backed up? Or is a national exporters' council needed, to provide the necessary focus and direction? I shall consider one or two of those options.

I have the honour to serve on the Select Committee on Agriculture. Just before the last election, we produced a short report, entitled "The Trade Gap in Food and Drink". It emphasised the importance of food in the export scene.

We are delighted to have with us this morning the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames). We shall listen with interest to his contribution to the debate. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating him on his personal happiness.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : I thank my hon. Friend

Mr. Alexander : People in other countries enjoy eating Britain's food, and I am certain that they will be happy to consume more. It is good, it is nutritious and it is safe to the highest standards, thanks to recent Government food legislation. We know that ; British housewives know that ; but our food needs a continuing high standard of marketing, so that people in other countries can be made

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aware of that and react accordingly. The Select Committee report showed the enormous scope for reducing the gap in food and drink trade.

In crude terms, I suppose that one could say that it is a sprat to catch a mackerel, but the message must be got across.

The motion asks the House to welcome and support the work of Food From Britain, which was set up in 1983 with 60 per cent. of its funding from MAFF and the remaining 40 per cent. from British industry under its own initiatives. The Agriculture Select Committee shared that welcome, but pointed out that the less co-ordinated marketing arrangements in agriculture and the agriculture supply industry often seem to blunt companies' competitive edge. The Committee also felt that Food From Britain was significantly underfunded in comparison with its European counterparts, and that it should receive £1 from the taxpayer for every £1 from a non-Government source. At present, the figure is £1 for every £3 so received. We can all spend someone else's money better than they can, and the Government must be careful to spend taxpayers' money as prudently as possible, but pound-for-pound support is also favoured by the National Farmers Union.

As hon. Members know, when a Select Committee report is produced, the Government have to respond in a short period. The Government responded to the recommendation. Their comment was that if one goes as far as pound for pound, it will cost £2 million more of taxpayers' money and will take the proportion of Government funding to about 69 per cent., making it higher than what the corresponding organisation receives even in France.

As much of what I shall say this morning asks that our exporters receive equivalent to what exporters receive in other countries, I hope that there may be some scope for compromise. In other words, let us not give more than other countries are giving to their food organisations, but let us give at least what our main competitors are giving.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : The hon. Gentleman must be aware that, on Wednesday, there was an Adjourment debate in the House, drawing attention to the difficulties experienced by the Scottish salmon farming industry because of unfair subsidisation by Norway of the Norwegian industry. That has a bad impact on salmon farming in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Does he agree that where others give advantage, we should give at least equal support to our industry?

Mr. Alexander : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comment. I hope that he will be called in the debate to expand on those remarks, but that is very much what I am arguing for, especially when considering food and the possibility for greater exports and for cutting down some of the imports.

I shall conclude this section of my comments about food and Food From Britain by underlining the fact that the current MAFF expenditure plans and statistics show that there has been a healthy increase in the export of food, animal feed and drink in recent years. I welcome that, as I am sure does the House. I have last year's report only, so, as this year's report is likely to be produced in a month's time, I hope that my hon. Freind the Minister will be able

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