Exports (Salesmanship)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th July 1952.

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3.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Harrison Mr James Harrison , Nottingham East

I beg to move, That this House, realising that the prosperity of the people of this country rests on a high standard of exports, exhorts Her Majesty's Government to see that firms producing goods required by Commonwealth and foreign countries now, and in the future, have every encouragement and that every facility is given by Departments and private firms to offer these goods in such ways as to produce maximum export sales. I shall try at this late hour to condense the remarks I wanted to make on this most important subject in which all of us must be interested. The sale of our goods abroad is a matter on which we depend for our very lives. Is that fine adventurous spirit which built up this country in years gone by dead and buried, or can it be revived? Each century, nay, each decade, has got to find the answer to its own problem, and the answer which Birmingham has found in the past is not necessarily the answer today, because certain foreign countries have now got light engineering works themselves.

To put it briefly, I believe that if we are to maintain our export trade, we have particularly to export capital goods with a maximum of brain behind them and a minimum amount of material. I think we all realise that the only course open to the Government in the critical situation in which we find ourselves was to cut imports, but we must also hope that this is only a temporary measure and not a permanent one. We must, of course, cut our coat according to our cloth, and, at the same time, see that our cloth is not so little that our coat only becomes a strait jacket gradually squeezing the lifeblood out of our body. Rather should we like it to be a voluminous cape, embracing all our activities. It must be the desire that, as our exports go up, we can get more imports again, and it is to that end that we must direct our activities when selling our goods.

I speak from practical experience in this matter, and I would divide our selling abroad into two levels—what can be done by the Government and the trade Departments to help the sale of our goods as a whole, and what can be done by the individual traders, who are actually responsible for making and selling those goods.

First of all, on the Government level, I think it is important that we should not think that trade is something to be taken for granted. We have always been a great trading nation, building up our products by the adventurous spirits of younger sons who, perhaps, took an agency for our goods abroad and built up businesses on which many workpeople in this country now depend.

How can the Government help in that connection? They can do it in this way. If we realise, as we must, that we are dependent on our export trade, let us be proud of it and of the goods we make. One of the greatest difficulties in the last six or seven years was that it has been too easy to sell, and that no one who had any class or quality of goods found any difficulty in disposing of them. Manufacturers have not had to scratch their heads enough to think how they could make their goods better and cheaper. That is the situation in which we have been living, but now we have to start selling again in far more competitive markets.

What we want to know in this country —and this is a sphere in which the Government can help—is what are the conditions in the different countries of the world. I know that we have our own trade representatives, some of them under the Foreign Office, but my own experience is that, whilst we get all the help we can from these people when we are in foreign countries, their contacts are rather remote and their knowledge gained more from books than from actual personal contact with the people on the spot.

I do not know whether I am rather revolutionary about this, but we usually find that in businesses, when we have salesmen or agencies abroad, they are on a commission basis, and it might be a good thing if trade representatives abroad were not paid entirely on fixed salaries, but had some interest in the volume of exports going into those countries in which they are working. Then I think it would be found that they would get to know far more about the export houses and would be on better terms with the people concerned.

I come now to suggestions at the level of the firms themselves. The other day I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer how much money was spent by how many travellers abroad in the last year. I was told that 87,000 salesmen went abroad taking £9 million of foreign exchange. If one works that out in relation to the whole volume of our export trade it will be found that it is only 0·25 per cent., and that roughly what has been spent on salesmen going overseas is only £2 10s. per £1,000 of the sales they achieved. I suggest that that is a very small percentage and is far too low.

Nothing is more important in life than personal relationships, and it was a late Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, who dashed out one night because things were going wrong in his family business to establish personal relations. It was when times were good and selling was easy that we should have had as many representatives as possible going out into these foreign countries. Our representatives should study racial, religious and climatic conditions abroad. We must get away from our old trading attitude of "Buy it or leave it." There are many things which we could make, which the foreigner will buy, and there is a great fount of good will still in foreign countries towards buying British goods.

But I wonder how many firms know at what price their goods are delivered in the warehouses of the countries to which they are sent. We so often quote a price f.o.b. London, but that is not of the slightest use or interest to a man who intends to buy in Asia. He wants to know what those goods will cost in the godowns there. Many of our firms sell at a price cheaper than the price asked by firms in Belgium or the United States on an f.o.b. basis, but when it comes to the price at the godowns it is very much more expensive.

In common with the goods of many other countries our goods deteriorated in quality after the war. It is up to us to re-build pre-war quality. Support should be given to those firms who are prepared to go ahead and sell good quality goods rather than allow some of our precious raw materials to go to firms whose reputation is not so good. Because of the demands of defence there is sometimes a call on some raw materials. Recently, for example, there was a shortage of copper. A firm may be manufacturing an article which requires the use of copper. It does not help sales when it has to use a substitute, because the customer wants reliability.

Above all, it is important to place a good picture of the goods we are selling before those who are buying, particularly in the rising and expanding markets which will exist for many years to come in Asia and Africa. A greater effort should be made to place advertising in newspapers in the language which the potential customer can understand rather than insert advertisements in trade papers in this country, as we so often do.

Those are a few of the reasons which prompted me, from practical experience, to put this Motion on the Order Paper. I am sorry that the debate on Civil Defence recruitment was not a little shorter, because I should have liked to have taken my argument further; but I know that the Minister is anxious to reply, and I should like to give him a few minutes in which to do so.

Photo of Mr Ernest Partridge Mr Ernest Partridge , Battersea South

I beg to second the Motion.

3.55 p.m.

Photo of Brigadier Sir Harry Mackeson Brigadier Sir Harry Mackeson , Folkestone and Hythe

We on these benches welcome the Motion of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Colonel J. H. Harrison) and I am only sorry that I have only a few minutes in which to reply.

Perhaps I may deal first of all with the practical point that he raised about the question of salesmen travelling abroad. So far as I am aware—and I have checked this matter with the Treasury—there have been practically no complaints that currency restrictions have stopped such people going abroad.

I think my hon. and gallant Friend referred to some 87,000 people having gone abroad. But, of course, he must bear in mind that that number relates only to salesmen, directors and employees going to non-sterling countries as opposed to the sterling area countries. If that is doubled—because, in fact, about half our trade is with the sterling area—he will find that there are about 174,000 people leaving these shores for commercial purposes. However, if there are any particular cases in which difficulty has been experienced we shall certainly be prepared to look into them.

As to the trade attaches and consuls, I was a little surprised at my hon. and gallant Friend's criticism. From the little that I have been able to see of those who have been travelling through London in the last two or three months, I am quite satisfied that they are an excellent body of men carrying out an extremely difficult task. I can hardly agree with the principle of payment by results in this instance, although of course it is an original idea.

I think there is a little loose thinking on this subject. The object of these officials, and the reason for their employ- ment, is to advise Her Majesty's Government, and particularly the Board of Trade, on trading conditions so that if any firm or association want advice they can go to the Board of Trade officials and get it, and when people go abroad these officials are there to provide broad assistance by way of introductions and to advise on the trading problems in the country concerned. We must bear in mind that it is not the task of these officials to sell; that is essentially a matter for industry, and industry alone.

As to the question of salesmen travelling, perhaps again we should bear in mind that a very large proportion of our trade is in the hands of merchants and merchant houses. I would support my hon. and gallant Friend particularly on one issue which I am sure he has at heart, and that is the importance of distributors carrying adequate spares so that they can really give efficient service. This, of course, applies to many trades.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) was unable to make what I know would have been a very interesting contribution to our debate, for I know that he and my hon. and gallant Friend are well seized of the importance of manufacturing and selling, as far as we possibly can, goods of a high conversion value, which means in fact exporting the brain power and skill of our artisans and of the British nation as a whole. In this connection, possibly nothing would be more important for our future exports than the Comet and the other aircraft which we manufacture, and which I sincerely believe will eventually equip the civil air fleets of the world.

I have much pleasure in accepting my hon. and gallant Friend's Motion, and I am only sorry that I have not had more time in which to reply to it.

4.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Ede Mr James Ede , South Shields

Although the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Colonel J. H. Harrison) professed that he was anxious not to—

It being Four o'Clock, the debate stood adjourned.