Disappointment as no Norfolk or Suffolk firms join the prime minister on his trade mission

Prime Minister David Cameron at Heathrow Airport, prior to heading to Beijing with the largest British trade delegation...

Prime Minister David Cameron at Heathrow Airport, prior to heading to Beijing with the largest British trade delegation ever to visit the far eastern country for a three day trade visit. - Credit: PA

Business leaders have spoken of their disappointment that no Norfolk or Suffolk companies have travelled with the prime minister on his three-day visit to China.

Senior figures voiced surprise that they had not even been consulted about who might benefit from the opportunity, with Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex all overlooked during the much-heralded trip.

Downing Street rejected accusations of cronyism over the selection of business delegates after it emerged the 120-strong party of business representatives travelling with David Cameron to Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu included his stepfather-in-law, a neighbour from his Oxfordshire constituency and a former No 10 aide.

A shortlist was drawn up by each regional director of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) – and included Norfolk and Suffolk businesses – but the final list drawn up by UKTI head office did not include any local businesses.

Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, had been meant to join the trip, but cancelled at the last minute when the itinerary of the trip changed.

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It was hoped an agreement cementing links between the John Innes Centre and Chinese scientists to bring some of the brightest minds together to tackle the greatest challenges ahead in global agriculture, could be signed.

But no Norfolk or Suffolk business was offered the chance to go in his place.

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Norfolk Chamber of Commerce boss Caroline Williams said it was disappointing that some of our key companies who could have benefited were not involved and the business group and the Chamber had not been asked to get involved in drawing up the shortlist.

'China is growing in importance for our exporters. We are already doing work to make sure our businesses know what opportunities are there through links with the British Chambers.'

But she added: 'Although it is disappointing that we are not involved in this trip it doesn't mean our businesses are not involved in China. We need to make sure we follow this up and take on the feedback.'

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon also said he was disappointed. 'It is not for want of trying on my part. I was talking to Number 10 about this two weeks ago and trying to get someone from the pig industry on the visit.

'The list was already closed.'

But he added that he was concerned that there were manufacturers in Norfolk who had not even thought about exporting to China.

'For the right company, with the right products, China is an enormous opportunity. People do need to think about it.'

Businesses would have to pay the costs of the trip.

Terry Medcalf, financial controller at helicopter supplier Apple International, said the company had sold a refurbished helicopter to China in October and wanted to expand in the Chinese market. There are many more products that could be sold to this particular area if everyone had an equal opportunity to have some representation.'

While there were not any SMEs from the region on the trip, Chris Starkie, managing director of the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, pointed out that Associated British Foods and Virgin Group – who have joined the prime minister – had business interests in the region.

But he said: 'It is always a bit of a mystery to us how companies are selected for these trips.

'We would like to see greater representation from Norfolk and Suffolk and we will continue to work with UKTI to ensure they are made aware of the businesses who could benefit from trips like this in the future.'

Richard Bridgman, chairman of engineering firm Warren Services, in Thetford, said: 'Personally I feel there is enough work for us in the UK and the rest of the world, rather than trying to compete in China.

'We are fighting for survival at the moment, we haven't got the resources. We are looking to export to other countries.'

A UKTI spokesman said: 'UKTI has regional offices across the UK which worked together to ensure a regional spread of businesses were represented.

'Regional spread was considered alongside other factors such as company size, sector and relevance to the Chinese market.'

Comment – page 30

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