Leading members of the furniture industry met with the Minister of State for International Trade and other MPs and Peers on 11th October to discuss investment in developing export markets.
They were attending the Export & Growth Event at the House of Commons, organised by the British Furniture Confederation (BFC) and sponsored by Stephen McPartland MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Furniture Industry Group (APPFIG).
The industry, through the BFC, is keen to ensure that the Government understands the contribution the furniture sector makes to the UK's economy as well as its trade balance sheet. The event was held to demonstrate its ability to grow exports, but also to express its concerns about the level of Government help available.
A recent survey completed by almost 150 UK furniture manufacturers indicates that over 50% are planning to increase export activities over the next one to two years – yet 80% had been unable to access EU or UK Government funding for investment in export and growth. When asked about what intervention from the Government industry would like to see post Brexit to ensure the best outcome, the following themes were regularly mentioned:
* Greater liaison with industry to fully understand the market conditions and requirements the industry needs to protect, develop and promote.
* Retain commonality of standards and ease of moving goods from Europe into the UK and vice versa.
* Access to the single market and, as required, access to the European labour markets for certain skills (e.g. upholsterers).
* Industry also highlighted some of the key actions the Government could implement to encourage it to export more:
* Provide more visible support to UK business in terms of simple and easily obtainable grants for exhibiting and travelling to trade shows, access to UK trade missions and promoting UK export as a success globally.
* Provide better, clearer advice, preferably through a central knowledgeable resource about a specific export country's minimum mandatory legal requirements.
* Allow tax breaks for export investment and investigation.
* Ensure competitive trade agreements are in place.
Stephen McPartland MP, chairman of the APPFIG, praised the furniture industry for being "robust, with lots of gumption". He outlined how it is a £10b sector, employing more than 106,000 people and exporting around £1b. He stated: "It's very diverse and it makes some of the best products in the world, products that many overseas markets admire and want to get hold of."
The Rt Hon Greg Hands MP, Minister of State for Trade and Investment, highlighted the new Government's commitment to increasing the UK's exports to £1t by 2020 and the number of companies exporting to over 100,000, with the creation of a new department (the Department for International Trade) and a seat on the Cabinet for its Secretary of State, Dr Liam Fox MP.
He referred to the Exporting is Great online portal, which includes a compendium of current needs from overseas and access to sector and market focussed campaigns (190 of them globally).
Grants of £8m to 4000 companies to attend overseas trade shows have been made over the past year through the Trade Access Programme (TAP). However, he also acknowledged there was more work to do - with exports at just 21% of GDP, the UK ranks the lowest of all 28 EU countries. Only 11% of UK companies export - and only 5% of SMEs.
Jonathan Hindle, BFC chairman, speaking on behalf of the industry, acknowledged that, as was the case with UK international trade overall, there was a significant trade deficit in the furniture industry. However, there was a considerable appetite to start closing that gap - exports had increased by 10% in 2014 over 2013. He stated: "The UK furniture and furnishing industry is an important sector of significant strategic importance to the UK economy and can make a substantial contribution to closing the UK's export gap - but the Government needs to do everything it can to instil confidence in furniture companies that export and to encourage those which have never exported.
"Brexit has galvanised our industry to take a fresh look at new export markets, most notably the USA, Africa and India. Our industry is calling out for more information both on the support provided by the Government for exports, for market-specific information on local traditions, differing regulations and project opportunities. Our exporters and potential exporters want to see more stability in Government decisionmaking. They need to know whether support is available - and they'd like to see a substantial increase in the value of grants for participation in trade shows, which are currently very poor when compared with the support other successful exporting countries get from their governments."
The BFC Industry Survey will be published in full on 10th November.