Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day] — Trade, Exports, Innovation and Productivity

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 13th January 2016.

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Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian 3:44 pm, 13th January 2016

The last six years have seen an amazing deterioration in Britain’s external trading position. The purpose of this debate is simply to get on the record how bad it is and to encourage the Government to do something about it.

The Government’s default position is to say, “Well, there’s been a global recession” and, “Our biggest trading partner is in the EU so we were bound to lose some traction in the markets.” The point is that in the six years since the Government came to power, world exports have increased by 30%. The world market for sales has grown extensively. If we have lost market traction in that situation, what will we do if the global economy starts to contract overall?

Normally, when there is a recession in domestic demand, a country’s industry is forced to export. Strangely enough, therefore, the core eurozone countries that suffered the worst from the euro crisis have done well in exporting. They had nowhere else to go, so they had to export. Spain and Italy have doubled their exports since 2010. Ireland, which had a catastrophic fiscal implosion, is selling more in exports than ever before in its history.

The point that we are trying to make to the Government is that their insouciance and their pretence that everything is all right in the international sector belies the fact that in the six-year period when they should have been concentrating on turning around British exports, increasing them and grabbing a bigger market share, they have failed totally. They keep putting it off. They keep thinking, “Well, we’ll have another paper plan and it will get better.”

If we look at the numbers, which have been repeated in a number of speeches, in 2014—the last year for which we have the full figures—the UK current account deficit came to 5.1% of GDP. Richard Fuller asked whether that mattered, but if a country runs a current account deficit, it has to fill it somehow. It has to either borrow foreign currency from other countries or sell its assets into the ownership of other countries. It is no surprise, therefore, that large chunks of British industry and the British property market are owned abroad. The Government’s obsession with trying to cure their own fiscal deficit has only resulted in the deficit being transferred to somebody else.

Everybody knows that when a country’s current account deficit hits something like 5% or more of its GDP, the warning signs flash up in marketplaces all over the world. It is unsustainable. If a country runs that for two, three or four years, a quarter of its GDP will be in hock. We cannot continue to do that. In normal circumstances, the UK has typically run a current account deficit, but at a tiny fraction of its GDP. In 2014, the UK’s current account deficit had the worst performance in peacetime. That is the problem that the Government simply refuse to recognise.

Far from our economy being rebalanced towards manufacturing in order to export more, the numbers on that are just as bad. Let us take the total production data for the UK and strip out the most important components. UK manufacturing output is now less in value than it was in 2000. During the last 16 years, Germany has managed to increase its manufacturing output by that definition by 22%. It would be reasonable to say that we are almost back to a second wave of deindustrialisation. A lot of that has happened since 2010, although it goes back a little further. In fact, UK manufacturing output is barely ahead of where it was in 1990, so we have had a generation of marking time.

Over the last six years there was no national emergency and something could have been done, but the Chancellor did not focus on rebalancing the economy as he said he would. In 2012, he belatedly came up with a target—he is good at making targets—to double exports by the end of the decade. That was a ridiculous promise then, as it is now. If Government Members would just say, “Okay, let’s lay that target aside and concentrate on the practical nuts and bolts of expanding our exports”, we might move forward, but as long as the Chancellor comes up with these fancy proposals and does not deliver, Opposition Members can reasonably say, “You are not serious.”