Plan A has worked. The economy is growing, business confidence has returned, and jobs are being created. To sustain these successes, we now need to look at measures that support the 3Es: entrepreneurs, employers and exporters - particularly those who are new to those roles. Record numbers of people are now self-employed and the rate at which new businesses are setting up is impressive. Around one in seven Brits are now their own boss. First-time entrepreneurs abound, and the opportunity for them to become first-time employers is being improved with such initiatives as the new annual £2,000 Employers National Insurance Allowance. But how can we encourage more of them to become first-time exporters? Indeed, what initiatives are there to get many of our long-established businesses into export markets? (Only about one in five businesses currently export anything). This being Exports Week, now is an excellent time to take stock.
Getting someone to do something for the first time is not always easy. There are barriers, real and perceived, to taking the risk of running your own business, employing your own staff and committing your product or service to unknown markets overseas. This year saw the UK exporting an average of £1billion of exports monthly to China. But the orders don't always come quickly; it can take many months of promoting a product abroad before the first order is taken - even in these days of internet sales. It is incumbent on both Government and business organisations (such as chambers of commerce and trade bodies) to demystify the process and open up the contacts book. But the Government can - and is - going one step further to de-risk the process wherever possible, without supplying a blank cheque.
A year ago, the Government awarded an additional £13million to its exports service, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), to help 10,000 British companies become first-time exporters (or re-engage in exporting). UKTI is acquiring new customers for its services, delivering better assistance and engaging with non-government business agencies to join up support. High Value Opportunities in overseas markets have been identified - major infrastructure, engineering, technology and energy projects - and UKTI is finding businesses who can exploit those global opportunities for UK PLC. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have both been active in leading trade missions, not least to China, taking businesses of all sizes with them. The point of these delegations is to add value and win market share, focused as they are on businesses, not on politicians. Trade shows can't just be a shop-window; they must initiate contacts that enable export businesses to seal the deal.
Fully exploiting the power of the internet as a sales and promotional platform is another opportunity for increasing our exports. Webinars that engage entrepreneurs from the convenience of their own office have opened up UKTI services to wider audiences and the UKTI website has been radically improved. The UKTI site itself once had a home page that was overloaded with information. Now it has a more welcoming feel for first-time users, with clear starting points for businesses which have never exported, or used the services of UKTI in exporting, before. And for those who want human contact, a helpline has been set up, with the opportunity, if appropriate, to set up a face-to-face meeting with an exports adviser or tailor-made advice under the new Business is GREAT strain of the Government's successful GREAT Britain global opportunities branding initiative. Export Finance has also been improved, particularly for smaller companies which were previously excluded from credit insurance policies. In last year's Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced that a Direct Lending Scheme would provide loans up to £50million to overseas buyers to purchase goods from UK exporters, where private finance is unavailable.
A lot, then, is being done. But, just like a falling tree, we might ask: if a business burden is lifted and only a few businesses hear about it, how can we make it register? Lord Green and Lord Young have both raised concerns that action is not always translated into words. Communications do matter and businesses need to know more about the assistance available. This means improvements in both Government-to-business and business-to-business communications. Initiatives such as Small Business Saturday on 7 December will be a great opportunity for MPs like me to spread the word in the constituencies we represent, but we need more such opportunities. British business also needs to step up a gear if we are to become a bigger exporter - we are currently lagging behind smaller EU Members like Belgium and the Netherlands. It can't just be EU red tape holding us back.
Despite our glorious trading past, we are far from reaching our current export potential. The Government aims to double exports from their 2010 level by 2020, a challenging target. By focusing on the needs of first-time entrepreneurs, first-time employers and first-time exporters it can spread opportunity across the country and revitalise the old British buccaneer spirit - 'can do' policies for a 'can do' generation. The Government wants to share the proceeds of growth. By giving a helping hand to get people into enterprise, into employing and into exporting it will share the work to achieving that growth too.