My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for instigating this debate. She is of course a well known commentator for the Wall Street Journal, an excellent publication, and business editor of the Times. I refer noble Lords to my various interests as declared in the register of interests.
Since new year’s eve 1600, when the East India Company received its Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I, Britain has been a nation of exporters. At our zenith, Britain was responsible for half of all the world’s trade. Since then, of course, we have had globalisation and the entry of a few competitors, so I would not see a return to those dizzy heights as a viable target. However, we can still aspire to see Britain’s goods and services exported the world over. We are, after all, an island nation, necessarily open and outward looking.
It is not just for soft power and prestige that exports matter, though; they are of course vital for economic growth. With government spending rightly curtailed by the nightmarish inheritance that was the state of our public finances in 2010, and uncertain consumers paying down debt or increasing savings, exports have been and remain a key driver of growth in our successful economy. It is worth noting that in 2014 the UK had the fastest rate of growth of any major economy, thanks to the sterling work of the Government and the long-term economic plan.
I am pleased that the Government have recognised the importance of exports, with strong leadership matched by concrete measures to support business. As my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft has said, the Government have set very bold targets of doubling UK exports to £1 trillion a year and getting 100,000 more UK companies exporting in that time. To achieve this, the Government must support businesses looking to access markets abroad by offering guidance, with networking opportunities at trade shows and other events, and of course with direct financial support. I join my noble friends Lord Risby and Lord Lang of Monkton in recognising the work done by the Foreign Office to make overseas trade a specific part of their mandate. As well as our ambassadorial consular services, businesses operating abroad will find unprecedented support awaiting them from our embassies and UKTI offices.
Unlike previous Administrations, this Government are proud of the exploits of our business leaders, which are so important. This Government are willing to put them in front and centre of our soft-power diplomacy. I have therefore been very pleased to see many British leaders accompany the Prime Minister on his trips abroad, which have been mentioned by both my noble friend Lord Cope and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton. In fact I was on that delegation to China, if that is the one that was being referred to—we did not go to Hong Kong—and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is correct that it was not an Airbus but a Boeing. I inquired as to the choice of transport, particularly the carrier, which was not British Airways, and was told that a tender had been put out and the most cost-effective plane had been selected in order to minimise the cost to UK taxpayers.