Could SMEs be key to narrowing the trade deficit?

With the latest trade data for August showing a further widening of the trade deficit, business groups are calling for more Government help for small firms that want to export.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) described the latest trade statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as "disappointing".

Suren Thiru, BCC head of economics, said: "The latest trade data is further evidence that the decline in sterling's value over the past year is doing little to boost the UK's overall trade position. Businesses continue to report that the post-EU referendum weakness in sterling is hurting as much as it's helping, with firms continuing to face higher input costs due to the weakening currency."

The BCC is calling on the Government to do more to help potential exporters in the UK. Thiru said: "It is vital that more is done to help firms take advantage of new trading opportunities, including greater practical assistance for exporters."

Mike Cherry, national chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: "The success of the UK economy rests on helping more small businesses to export and it is worrying to see that the trade deficit has widened. As we prepare to leave the European Union it's important both current exporters and those thinking about trading overseas continue to do so."

Small firms could be the key, he said. "Our research shows 21% of UK small firms already export, and with the right support this could double. Small firms that export are more likely to survive, grow and innovate - contributing to the UK's productivity and position as a global trading power."

The Government needs to offer more support, he added. "Small businesses, particularly those in vulnerable positions, need additional help and support as they prepare for changes in our trading relationship with the EU."

The Institute of Directors (IoD) said there is "no reason to panic" about the new trade figures. Allie Renison, the IoD's head of EU and trade policy, said: "The figures today show that the volatility of erratic commodities can swing wildly from month to month, and so the increasing gap in our trade balance should not itself be cause for concern. What matters is the fact that import levels are still far and away outstripping the pace of exports, underlining the muted effect that sterling's depreciation has had on the UK's outbound trade."

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