Queens Awards: Suffering exporters shun `tired' prize

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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of companies applying for the Queen's Award for Export Achievement has plunged to its lowest level in the awards' 33-year history, prompting a renewed outcry about the strength of sterling.

In 1997, 1,300 British companies applied to win a Queen's Award for exports. Last year the number fell to 864 and this year to just 520.

The Prime Minister set up a fundamental review of the awards before Christmas, after it emerged that entries for the other two categories - technology and the environment - also hit their lowest levels ever. The review committee is chaired by the Prince of Wales. Its mandate is to implement reforms in time for next year's awards.

Some interpreted this year's figures as graphic evidence of the damage from the strong pound and last year's collapse in Asian markets. Others blamed the "tiredness" of the awards' concept, and form-filling.

The Confederation of British Industry said: "It is hardly surprising that the numbers are down, as exporters have had a tough time. It shows the combined effects of the difficulties in South-east Asia and Eastern Europe as well as the strength of sterling throughout last year."

The CBI spokesman added: "You also have to take into account the weakness of Western European economies at the end of last year, which are still our major export markets."

A spokesman for the Engineering Employers' Federation said: "It's not surprising at all, given how export-dependent we are. It is also a reflection of what we've said over the last couple of years; that the strength of the pound is damaging us, particularly in European markets. This will continue this year and next."

Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, pointed out that the number of applicants for technology and environment awards had also fallen. The number applying for technology awards fell from 278 in 1997 to 163 this year. Applicants for the environment award fell from 146 to 82 over the same period.

Referring to the DTI review of the scheme, Ms Lea said: "The DTI has been aware for some time that the awards are looking tired. After all, the technology award has been around since the mid-Sixties."

She said that the system of applying for the awards might be "a bit bureaucratic". She said the IoD had suggested to the review committee that the name should be changed to "Queen's Awards for Enterprise".

Sources close to the review committee say the name of the scheme is being reconsidered, although the Queen's name will be retained. Among changes being considered are a broadening of the export award to include international trade in general. The technology awards may be expanded to include innovation in general. The environment award may also cover environmental management as well as products.