Small firms need government help to expand into overseas markets, Minister is told

Baroness Fairhead

Exporting is easy, but Government needs to do more to help small firms expand into new overseas markets, members of the East Midlands regional business community have told the Rt Hon Baroness Fairhead, Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion.

Baroness Fairhead had been invited by the region’s Chamber to meet members of the local business community to discuss what they felt the Government was getting right and where improvements were needed.

The Baroness opened the discussion by pointing out that exports were growing, up between 11% and 12% last year, but that only about 9% of UK firms sell overseas and the majority of even the largest companies (60%) don’t export, something she said needed to improve.

In a frank and open discussion, she heard that for most small businesses exporting was easy – ‘you just set up a website and sell’.

Where complications arise is in getting Government support to reach new markets, avoiding all the bureaucracy around credit and getting UK banks to allow direct trading with Iran, a market no longer subject to UK sanctions and offering huge opportunities but which banks won’t support because of links with America.

The businesses attending the event, held at the Chamber’s Nottingham office, were clear that networking doesn’t help if too many of the organisations taking part turn up only to sell products and services, such as insurance, to delegates.

Businesses generally thought highly of the Department for International Trade and the international services offered by the Chamber but said the website operated by the DIT, on which they can advertise goods and services, was not sufficiently promoted and the information from the DIT’s opportunities alerts service was often delivered too late to Have any value.

Malcolm Hall, of Mansfield-based Hall-Fast, said he would like to see the Government set up an accreditation scheme that would remove the need for firms to have to prove three years of trading and growth to win sales in some overseas markets.

Concluding the discussion, which lasted almost two hours, Baroness Fairhead said: “What is clear is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to increasing exports and if we go round saying that exporting is hard it’s not a motivational message.

“You are right that there are companies that will seek to exploit for money the doubts firms have about exporting. We can’t do anything about the market taking its course but we can look at what we can do as part of the DIT service and how we promote that to business.

“And I agree that an accreditation scheme would be a good idea and something we should look into.”

She added: “I agree that we need to demystify exporting to remove some of the fear and I love the idea that it is the DIT’s job to make sure businesses can grow.”

David Pearson, the Chamber’s Director of Partnerships, who hosted the discussion, said: “It was a full and frank discussion arising from our ongoing efforts to make sure business influences Government policy. At the outset, Baroness Fairhead said she didn’t want businesses to hold back from telling her what they felt, and it would be fair to say they didn’t.

“I think the idea of the accreditation scheme, through which Government would effectively vouchsafe companies looking for new export markets, was one that the Baroness liked and it will interesting to see if that goes any further.

“All in all, I think it was a very positive meeting and the Baroness was given a lot of food for thought.”