I am grateful to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, on the first of our six days of debate on the Loyal Address. Some very good speeches have been made, covering a wide range of matters. I am particularly pleased to follow Hugh Bayley: I agreed entirely with a great deal of what he said. However, I think it a great pity that his party did not include a day’s debate on foreign affairs and defence matters in its programme for these six days of debate. I think that we shall have to rectify that. I shall ask those on my party’s Front Bench whether we can have a general debate on foreign affairs. We seem recently to have got into the habit of hearing statements on specific matters, but it has been some time since we had a general debate.
The hon. Member for York Central rightly reminded us that we are approaching two important anniversaries, of the first world war and of D-day. We should bear in mind the state of flux that world affairs were in after the two world wars. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway, probably not since those days has the world situation been so fluid.
The hon. Member for York Central also referred to our problems with the attitude of the Soviet Union—or the Russian Federation, as it is now called—to increasing its hegemony around the world after seizing Ukraine. I shall make only one point about his critique of the Russian Federation. He said that the Russians were more economically independent than they used to be. Let me remind him that, as I have said before in the House, they are more internationally dependent on the world’s economic situation today than they have ever been. The rouble is more internationally tradable, the Russians now have a stock exchange, and they require more international development to develop their huge oil resources. They need big firms such as BP to be able to develop those resources in some very difficult exploration areas. There are levers that we can use in relation to the Russian Federation, and I think that we need to use them.
However, the hon. Gentleman was right to observe that the world is currently in a state of flux. As I said in my intervention during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, the situation in Russia is fluid, and the situation in Syria is very fluid.
I think that the House, and my party, will need to revisit the subject of what assistance we can give the Syrian opposition. Like my right hon. Friend, I was one of the signatories of the letter that was published in
The Daily Telegraph today, calling for the whole matter to be re-examined. We know that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, that probably well over a quarter of a million have been displaced, and that there is a huge volume of misery in the country. People are being starved, maimed and killed. That situation cannot continue indefinitely: we cannot allow the evil Assad regime to go on behaving as it is.
Our troops are pulling out of Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see whether a democratic Government succeed there, and whether the gains that we have made in terms of women’s education and a whole range of infrastructural changes proceed or whether the country returns to its previous state. One of the things that the Queen’s Speech lacked was any reference to conflict countries, their abilities, and how we deal with them in the aftermath of conflict. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South raised the interesting issue of what is happening in the aftermath of the Libyan problem in which we intervened. A huge range of weapons are now going into Maghreb and Sahel, and that has given rise to a large number of problems in Africa and elsewhere.
I did not want to concentrate on foreign affairs today, although it is my wont to speak about them in the House. I really wanted to focus on economic matters. I think that the coalition Government’s economic policy has been successful. We have reduced the deficit by a third, we have created 1.6 million jobs in the private sector, and, even more pleasingly, we have created a record number of apprenticeships. I am especially pleased to note that 570 apprenticeships have been created in the Cotswolds in the last year. That is excellent news for my constituents.
I am particularly keen on the subject of exports and foreign direct investment in this country. After all, there are only so many goods and services that we can sell to ourselves, and if we want to continue on our current path of excellent economic growth, we must increase exports. I was pleased to see that in 2013 the UK’s goods exports amounted to £304 billion, which was a record high. The jump in exports reduced the trade deficit from £9.8 billion in November to £7.7 billion. However, that is only a drop in the ocean. We must continue to work to increase our exports. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has led trade delegations to China and to other countries all over the world. That is very good news, and it demonstrates the Prime Minister’s dedication to increasing our exports.
We need to look closely at the job that is done by UK Trade & Investment. UKTI has been transformed under Lord Green, and I am sure that Lord Livingston will build on those achievements, but there is still much to be done. The Chancellor has set this country the challenging target of increasing the value of exports to £1 trillion by 2020, and ensuring that an extra 100,000 businesses are exporting by that date. We shall have to motor fairly well to achieve that. We shall need to do what the British Exporters Association has done and is doing, and help small and medium-sized companies to export.
UK Export Finance should be able to provide a boost for British exports. It has challenged its former excessively rigid structure, and its new flexibility has enabled it to invest £5 billion in its export refinancing facility. That will provide a huge boost for exports. I am particularly pleased that there is a small business, enterprise and employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech. It will deal with one or two long-standing problems that we need to address. We need to help small businesses and this Bill will do precisely that. It will help small business get into the business of public procurement. For too long public procurement has been difficult—indeed, often impossible —for small businesses because the Government contracts are so complicated and so weighted against small businesses. I hope my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will be able to cure that through this Bill.
Also in that Bill is a very welcome step to deal with zero-hours contracts. The real mischief I hope that the Bill will address is not the zero hours themselves, but the ability for an employer to prevent an employee from taking another job on a day on which the employer says there is no work. If there is no work for somebody on a zero-hours contract, they should be able to go off to another employer and seek work. I hope the Bill will address that.
Returning to exports, it seems that many SMEs do not know about the work of UK Trade & Investment. I was appalled to see in an article in The Daily Telegraph on
We need to promote the British brand across the world. As I have said, the Prime Minister has led delegations to China, India, Africa, South America, the middle east and elsewhere, and that is an excellent start, but the only way we are going to secure truly sustainable growth is by increasing exports and foreign direct investment.
I was fortunate enough to go to China recently with a number of colleagues, where I learned about President Xi Jinping’s new economic plan up to 2020. It is worth setting out the facts because they are truly staggering, and in recent years the Chinese have never failed to implement an economic plan. This new economic plan aims to increase GDP per capita from its current $6,000 to $10,000 over the entire population of 1.25 billion people. In order to achieve that, they will need an annual growth rate of 6.7%, but, even more staggeringly, they will need to bring 10 million new people into the work force each year. That gives the UK huge opportunities, because the Chinese are buying up brands such as House of Fraser and they are moving up the value chain in respect of those brands so that they can both manufacture and market products under those brands. That gives our exporters a real opportunity.
We have another opportunity in China and elsewhere in the world. During my visit to China, I was delighted to be able to continue my help for the Royal Agricultural university in my constituency, which has formalised links with three Chinese universities. During a visit to Zhejiang university in Hangzhou city I was delighted to discover that it has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the London School of Economics. Britain has always been one of the leading innovator nations in the world. If we are to continue to compete in the global race, we have to rely on our best and brightest students. Equally, to keep our universities in that race, we need them to collaborate with the best universities around the world and to participate in cutting-edge research.
Britain invented the telephone, the computer, the internet, railways and in 2004 we invented the new wonder-material graphene at Manchester university. I hope that does not become yet another example of a great British invention which is commercialised by other countries. When intellectual property is developed in this country, we need to work to ensure that the law is strong enough to protect it around the world so that we may benefit from it. To this end, I was particularly pleased to visit the top executives in China Telecom to discuss their new music-streaming down the telephone, for which the growth numbers are exponential. To protect their own intellectual property rights in China, they have a team of lawyers. That is potentially good for British investors. We should be encouraging all developing countries to strengthen their intellectual property rights laws and enforcement, so when we invent things we can develop them and export them to those countries with confidence.