Hugo Swire speech at SME Summit

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire outlines government support to SMEs looking to export overseas.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Hugo Swire

Speaking at an event sponsored by The Times and Santander, he said:

When we came to government four years ago, we were determined to break open the elegant doors of the Foreign Office to business, and to put our diplomats at your service. This sort of event is exactly what we had in mind, here in the finest of FCO fine rooms, the Durbar Court – first used in 1867 for a grand reception for the Sultan of Turkey.

This is all part of a wider government commitment, our long-term economic plan – a phrase you may have heard before - to reduce the deficit and create jobs.

Two and a half years ago, the Chancellor set out our aspiration for international trade - to double UK exports to £1 trillion, to increase the number of British companies exporting to 100,000, and to increase foreign direct investment into the UK to £1.5 trillion.

All by the year 2020.

SMEs are vital to achieving this.

The CBI estimates that, if mid-size businesses could reach their full potential, they would be worth twenty to fifty billion pounds to the UK economy.

And it is a challenge in which my department, the FCO, also has a critical role to play.

While UK Trade & Investment is the main provider of front-line services to British companies, FCO commercial and economic diplomacy is about building the long-term economic conditions in which they can thrive overseas.

This includes opening up markets and ensuring free trade; identifying new opportunities for British business in growth markets; promoting transparency and a rules-based economic system; and tackling corruption to create a level playing field for UK companies.

Let me give you a recent example: I have just returned from Mexico, where we have supported the government in opening up both the oil and gas and the telecoms sectors – which is in their interests, of course, but which also creates huge opportunities for British companies.

I know this Summit is focussed on digital commerce; and clearly, many of you will now be doing much of your business online. But as you all know, there is still a huge role for us on the ground, with local languages, knowledge and expertise, to create the right environment for you to succeed in.

So, in Europe, we are working with like-minded partners to advance the cause of EU reform, for an EU that is more business friendly, more flexible and competitive, with less red-tape.

With a focus on reform where it can really make a difference: in completing the single markets in goods, services, energy and digital.

The UK is also the strongest advocate for EU free trade agreements around the world.

The FTA between the EU and South Korea has delivered a 30% growth in UK exports to South Korea since 2011.

And the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the United States will be the biggest bilateral free trade agreement ever achieved, adding £10 billion to Britain’s Gross Domestic Product – worth up to £400 a year for every household.

I acknowledge that more needs to be done to explain the benefits of this to the British public, and to puncture some of the urban myths that have grown up around it – we would welcome your support in this.

Elsewhere, our Embassies and High Commissions around the world are working tirelessly to improve market access; to open up opportunities for British business; and to promote the UK as a destination for investment. Only yesterday I recorded a video message for our staff around the world, to remind them that they must remain relentlessly focussed on this work, in support of Britain’s economic growth.

We and UKTI also of course provide direct advice and help for businesses and I’d like to give a very quick plug for some of the practical support we can offer.

Through our Overseas Business Risk website, SMEs can get free information and advice, to help them overcome any ‘fear of the unknown’ which might deter their pursuit of opportunities in high growth, but higher risk emerging markets.

We are also working with UKTI and British Chambers of Commerce on pilot initiatives in 40 high growth markets – from South Africa to Malaysia - to strengthen business to business support, particularly targeted at helping SMEs new to the market.

And in January, Minister for Trade and Investment Lord Livingston announced that every mid-sized business in the country would be offered tailored advice and an intensive programme of support to help them start exporting or break into new markets.

So we are not just focusing on traditional sectors. You’ll know better than me the potential of e-commerce: in four years’ time, it could be worth £60 billion annually to the UK – up from £10 billion last year.

And through our network and UKTI’s E-Exporting Programme we want to help British companies take advantage of those digital opportunities that give them access to international markets.

I am sure you will hear more about this from Dominic Jermey during the panel discussion.

To help businesses in all of this, we have deployed more staff to the fastest growing regions, creating over 100 new positions at our Posts in only two countries: China, where I’ll be opening our new Consulate in Wuhan in January, and India, where next year, we will open another Deputy High Commission in Prime Minister Modi’s home state of Gujarat, making us the largest diplomatic network in India.

I can’t emphasise enough how significant the opportunities are: only last month, I hosted the Governor of Jiangsu Province, home to 80m people and an economy the size of Turkey’s – and not even the biggest province in China.

We have also allocated £20m to support our work opening up opportunities in those overseas markets where it can really make a difference – for example in infrastructure in Colombia, or services in India.

And Ministers are making record numbers of visits to emerging markets overseas – where we do whatever we can to support business. I have personally hugged Hamley’s teddy bears in Kuala Lumpur, lobbied for an engineering firm making railway widgets in Mongolia, ridden in GREAT-branded tuk-tuks in Cambodia, and promoted Lush cosmetics in Mexico. Personal dignity doesn’t always have to be a barrier.

So how well are we doing in meeting the Chancellor’s challenge?

Last year, British companies told us that UKTI and the FCO together helped them secure nearly £22 billion of business.

We are attracting record levels of foreign direct investment - an increase of 8% to £975 billion last year, maintaining the UK’s position as the premier destination in Europe.

And our GREAT campaign, promoting the UK and all its wares, delivered returns of over £500 million last year.

It’s a promising start. But there is more to do, which is why events like this are so important.

I’d like just to go back to the origins of the Durbar Court. Much has changed. At that reception for the Sultan of Turkey in 1867, the Council Chamber, behind you, was used as the dining room, and it was said that every item on the tables was made of gold. Well, times have changed and we are rightly being more restained in our spending to ensure value for money.

But some things remain the same. Britain built itself through the nineteenth century above all as a trading nation. Whenever I’ve been on visits overseas in this role, I see that same intrepid and imaginative spirit in British companies all over the world. When the Prime Minister took with him the largest ever trade delegation to leave these shores to China, one of the companies was Manchester based SME Sweet Mandarin, which now successfully sells Chinese sauces, to the Chinese.

The Prime Minister himself likes to cite the example of Welsh firm Sea Kayaking UK selling canoes to Greenland’s eskimoes – proving you can sell coals to Newcastle.

My wish is simply that government and business work together ever more closely to nurture this entrepreneurial spirit. So I look forward to hearing from you what more we can do to help.

Published 14 November 2014