Ministers “desperate” to minimise Brexit damage are using using huge sums of taxpayers’ cash to “pester” businesses to export goods, critics have said.
Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary who once accused British firms of being “lazy”, has spent £16.3m of public money on the ‘Exporting is GREAT’ campaign since 2016, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The vast majority paid for targeted adverts - £11m - while the rest funded social media research, agency costs, events and “strategy”, our Freedom of Information probe showed.
The ‘Exporting is GREAT’ campaign does not offer firms any financial assistance to actually export, our FOI showed, and has been solely a PR exercise.
Spending on the project sometimes climbed as high as £2m-a-month, but no recent assessment has been carried out of whether the campaign is value for money.
The Government said the PR drive had increased awareness of exporting opportunities from 15% to 31%, however, and found some 110,000 UK businesses prepared to sell goods and services abroad.
Best for Britain champion and Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “Liam Fox is pestering businesses to export in a desperate attempt to prop up his failing department.
“The man who described UK business people as lazy, certainly hasn’t been a slouch when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money on his pet, ‘Exporting is GREAT’, project.
“What hasn’t been quantified however, is whether the £16m spent so far has made any difference. But that should come as no surprise as this Government does not believe in assessing the impact of Brexit either.”
Labour MP Peter Kyle, a supporter of the pro-single market group Open Britain, said: “Liam Fox has done more than most to undermine British exporters, criticising them as ‘lazy’ and saying they ‘don’t want to export’. British exporters do want to export, but they don’t want to be buried under new red tape by crashing out of the single market and the customs union.
“Liam Fox is himself becoming a productivity problem - he costs us a fortune and has achieved precisely nothing. If he wants to make himself useful he should rethink his ideological red lines and start fighting to keep the UK in both the Single Market and the Customs Union on a permanent basis.”
Fox infuriated chief execs in 2016 when a recording of a private conservation emerged in which he heavily criticised British firms.
He was heard to say: “This country is not the free-trading nation it once was. We have become too lazy, and too fat on our successes in previous generations.”
He added: “Companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity - but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon - we’ve got to be saying to them if you want to share in the prosperity of our country you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country.”
Richard Reed, Innocent Drinks co-founder, said at the time that Fox “had never done a day’s business in his life”.
The UK is due to leave the EU, and the single market, in March 2019 amid fears that the move could damage the economy.
The Government said there were other funding streams available for businesses aiming to export, with UK Export Finance providing support worth £3bn last year.
In the year to November 2017, ONS shows exports of goods have increased by 14.7% and exports of services increased by 10.8% - but many attribute this to the fall in the value of Sterling post-Brexit.
A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “The ‘Exporting is GREAT’ campaign has doubled the awareness of the export opportunities available for UK business. In the last year 110,000 British businesses have taken steps toward exporting as a direct result of the call to action, with exports increasing by 14%.
“But there is still more to be done. That’s why, working with businesses and across Whitehall, we are delivering a new Export Strategy to help companies export UK goods and services around the world.”