Exporting is key to unleashing the UK's true economic potential, as it drives exponential growth and creates jobs for local workers. The Prime Minster recognised this when he set an ambitious target to double British exports to £1trillion by 2020. However, last week's trade figures highlighted a worrying trend as exports continued to fall, while imports rose. In fact according to the Office of Budget Responsibility, the UK's export market share has dropped by almost 25 percent since 1998.
If the government has set an ambitious trade target yet exports continue to fall - how can we reverse this trend? We need to radically change our approach to encouraging and supporting UK businesses on their journey to export. Only a concerted national campaign and sustained investment will get more UK firms to look beyond our shores for growth opportunities.
It's understandable that less than half of the businesses we survey have ambitions to grow internationally. I regularly speak to businesses that have full order books here in the UK and don't see why they would need to take their goods and services overseas. They argue that £1 made in UK is worth the same as £1 made abroad.
While this is true, there are approx. 64 million consumers in the UK, compared to 6.5 billion outside the UK, many of whom have an appetite for British products. Part of our strategy must be to improve the awareness of the growth opportunities overseas, helping to break down the fear of exporting and providing easy access to practical support on the ground - all to help companies get started in export markets. As a business owner, I understand that this is exactly the kind of practical support that can really help firms find new untapped markets for their products by making real, face to face connections.
The UK's radical new approach must help businesses to easily access international markets without additional admin burden. Our colleagues at the British Chambers of Commerce in Thailand and Hong Kong are reporting passport processing times of seven to 11 weeks for foreign business people looking to visit the UK; this is simply unacceptable. In our Business Manifesto: A Business Plan for Britain, we have called on the Home Office to set shorter maximum passport processing times of between three and four weeks for business people abroad and to create a fast-track' passport issuance scheme for British exporters. These are two practical measures that will have an immediate impact for our exporters by ensuring they can travel to and from international markets.
But it's not all doom and gloom. UKTI's Export Week is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the hard work being carried out by British exporters around the world. From frozen fish exporters in Aberdeen, to scientific research exporters in Plymouth - there is an amazing range of businesses taking their products and services to consumers around the world. They are the trailblazers that can share their knowledge and expertise with potential exporters. I encourage all businesses to get involved in Export Week activities in their local region this week.
As for addressing our widening trade deficit - the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We need to see a step change in support of our brave businesses in achieving their export ambitions. The world is alive with business opportunities so let's get behind our British exporters and help them to shine on the global stage.