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My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate this important topic. I thank my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for giving us that opportunity and for the thorough way in which she introduced her Motion. Exports can be said to be the lifeblood of a country—a measure of its economic performance and growth. They are certainly to be encouraged as a route to a more balanced economy. A plan for growth, such as the plan published in 2011, is a good thing but it is how it is implemented that counts. This debate, and the response from the Minister, which we all eagerly await, will go a long way towards showing what has been achieved and may even emphasise what remains to be done. I was startled to learn recently that 31% of world imports come to Europe, while the figure for the United States is 12%, and for China 10%. I have not yet been able to find comparable figures for exports, and I hope that the Minister may be able to enlighten us.
My own experience lies chiefly in Latin America. I have led trade missions there and, as president of Canning House, worked with LATAG—the Latin American Trade Advisory Group, which was funded by the then DTI—to stimulate interest in the region and, particularly, to encourage and support SMEs. At the time, the British Chambers of Commerce also played an important role, leading government-funded missions on a regular basis, and commercial departments in embassies were expanding their activities and influence. In saying all this, I am going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Latin American countries, rich in commodities, were establishing that they could have stable democracies and provide many commercial and investment opportunities.
However, the government funding then all sadly dried up, because of the emphasis being redirected towards trade with China. I always argued that the good will towards the United Kingdom which exists in Latin America because of our historic links and the established major companies which operated there gave us an advantage. However, embassies were closed or downsized and the British banks, which had been evident and much respected throughout the region, pulled out one by one. Now the only British bank to be found in the whole region is HSBC in Brazil and Mexico. The consequences of that, especially for SMEs, are obvious. Now, of course, Spanish banks have replaced the British banks, although I hope that this trend may be reversed with time.
The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, and I waged a sometimes lonely battle to wave the flags and lead the protests, to little or no avail. Following the comments of my noble friend Lord Risby, I must also mention that successive Lord Mayors of the City of the London have also been loyal to the region. Therefore, it was a great relief to hear my right honourable friend William Hague, in his early days as Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, deliver the Canning lecture and say that all that was going to change. We have now seen multiple visits by members of the Royal Family, Ministers and even the Prime Minister, accompanied by high-level trade delegations. We have seen the reopening of embassies, new consular offices, and the development of UKTI activities and, indeed, UK Export Finance activities. We have also seen the appointment of a trade envoy—of which my noble friend Lord Risby is an example—to Mexico in the shape of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter. There is a much needed emphasis on energy, health and education—where the British Council comes in—as priority areas and sectors to promote. There has also been agreement on trade treaties on both a bilateral and, via the European Union, multilateral basis.
All this comes at a good time. Most Latin American countries are considered to be middle-income countries, with burgeoning middle classes with increasing expectations. It could be said that Latin America is entering a new economic cycle, and I am glad that the United Kingdom is now better placed to take advantage of that. Scotch whisky has always been a winner—I think that it is the biggest single export to Venezuela, for example. As another example, we have seen this in both motor car exports, to which my noble friend Lord Lang referred, and the automotive parts industry, which, in turn, helps to grow the motor car assembly plants which flourish in the region. That is a good balance of interests. The digital economy, which has been referred to, can also play an important role in the future.
Nevertheless, things still need to be done. Languages have been mentioned. The importance of even a basic knowledge of the language and, therefore, the customs of the country where a company wishes to operate is of immense value. I hope that the Department for Education and those who consider the national curriculum will take note of that.
The implementation of trade treaties, as well as their ratification and monitoring, is important. It was drawn to my attention recently that the trade agreement between the European Union and central America, which I think was entered into a year ago, has not yet been ratified by the United Kingdom. Indeed, only 12 of the 28 European Union countries have so far ratified it. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give us some good news on that score.
The third thing that needs to be emphasised, about which my noble friend Lord Cope spoke eloquently, is of course the need to help and support SMEs. There are important opportunities in central America, where there are small countries but many opportunities. I declare an interest as the honorary president of the Central American Business Council, which last year organised a very important conference, UK-Central America—New Business Opportunities, which led to a number of new companies entering central American markets. With the opening up of Cuba and the re-establishment of relations between the United States and Cuba, I hope that we will not lose our place, given that we have nurtured our relationship with that country and that our Foreign Office Minister visited very recently.
I end with a plea for consistency and follow-through of policies, which are clearly now moving in the right direction. Whatever Government emerge after the election, I hope that they will keep up the good work.