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UK Ceramics Industry Needs More Than Platitudes From The Prime Minister

07/11/2016 12:02

A few weeks ago I was pleased to be able to ask the Prime Minister to honour her predecessor's commitment that the needs of the UK's ceramic manufacturers will be catered for as part of the Brexit negotiation process.

This was a chance for Theresa May to recognise the importance of this essential and high-value sector, and set out the measures her government will take to ensure that recent successes are not short-lived. Sadly, her woefully inadequate response only demonstrated how poor her understanding is of the business needs of UK manufacturers.

Being a Stoke-on-Trent MP it is perhaps no surprise that I have an avid interest in the future of the ceramics industry. The city is, after all, otherwise known as the Potteries and at one time over 100,000 people in the area worked in the industry. While it is true that the workforce is much smaller nowadays, the industry is not dead - despite popular misconceptions - and in recent years our potters have gone through a modest renaissance not unlike that of our Premier League Football Club.

The ceramics industry suffers other misconceptions. It sometimes has the image of a humble craft industry with people hand-throwing pots, when in reality many manufacturers use high-tech and innovative production processes. Ceramics is a foundation industry, producing clay building products for construction and high temperature refractories for other vital industries such as steel, glass, petrochemicals and more.

The preconception of ceramics as plates, cups and teapots prevails, but there are in fact as diverse a range of applications as you can imagine - from artificial hips to body armour. In my constituency, Mantec produce a lightweight refractory that looks and feels more like a bag of Wotsits than what you might traditional consider a ceramic product. This is Britain at its innovative best, producing high value products that must be part of our economy after Brexit.

This is not to underplay the importance of more recognisable parts of the ceramic industry, however. British potteries include some of the UK's most recognisable brands, and the 'Made in England' back stamp is synonymous with quality around the world.

Since 2013, employment in the tableware and giftware sector has increased by 20%, and since 2011 employment in the floor and wall-tiles sub-sector by nearly 40%. Half of the industry's exports have been sold in Europe, and in tableware there has been a boom of export sales to South Korea off the back of an EU-negotiated free trade deal.

This upturn in performance has also coincided with the European Union enacting special duties to deal with the protectionist dumping of Chinese tiles and tableware in the European market place below the cost of production. When I asked my question to the Prime Minister about trade defence after Brexit, she conveniently failed to respond to this particular point, and this is no surprise.

Despite the prevarication over Hinckley Point, Ms May's Government has done nothing to revisit George Osborne's love affair with China, and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has even suggested a fast free-trade agreement with the People's Republic. This is deeply concerning, as such a deal would likely render trade defence measures meaningless and invite further dumping of Chinese ceramics, along with steel and other products where they have over-capacity. Trade defence is not about protectionism, it is about a level playing field for UK manufacturers facing protectionist dumping. After the UK leaves the EU, British manufacturers cannot be left vulnerable.

MPs of all sides have pushed the Prime Minister for regular updates on the Brexit negotiation process, and so far we have been told simply that the Government will not provide a 'running commentary' that would weaken their negotiating position. I fear that this is both a nonsense, and the exact opposite of what business wants to hear. The Government are deliberately trying to suggest that receiving such regular updates is a method for MPs to ignore the clear will of the British people expressed in the EU referendum, whereas in reality they are obfuscating and preventing elected representatives from fulfilling their role in holding them to account. When businesses in my constituency ask me how Brexit is likely to impact on their futures, I need to be able to tell them more than "wait and see".

Which is why I wanted to use my question to give Theresa May the opportunity to put some of these concerns to rest. Ceramics cannot be treated simply as part of the economy as a whole, because it has its own challenges and concerns, not least those around access to Europe as a market and on trade defence. EU membership undoubtedly provides a good business environment for UK ceramic manufacturers; it is therefore not too much for them to ask how, after leaving the EU, their export markets and level playing field on international trade will be maintained.

The ceramic industry is a microcosm of the economy as a whole, each of which face their own unique combination of post-Brexit challenges. It should go without saying that uncertainty and vagaries from the Government reduce business confidence that the eventual outcome from negotiations will be anything but negative. I was pleased that Theresa May welcomed the renaissance in the pottery sector, but future success in all areas of industry will require more than blasé platitudes and unconvincing reassurances that everything will work out fine in the end.

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