Orders of the Day — Export Targets

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th April 1948.

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Photo of Major Samuel Haughton Major Samuel Haughton , Antrim 12:00 am, 19th April 1948

I hope in a minute or so to follow the Secretary for Overseas Trade perhaps a great deal more directly than he expected, as regards our overseas trade with the South American states; but to begin with I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade and the Lord President of the Council, all Cabinet Ministers, have within the last week drawn attention to the fact that the export of textiles is the spearhead of our drive to close the gap of overseas payments, and it is little wonder that I, with most of my interests in textiles, and as one who has served my time in the textile trade, stand here with considerable pride and say that I endorse every word they have said. I hope most sincerely that that drive by the textile trade for an increase in exports will succeed.

I had intended to quote what the President of the Board of Trade said last week, but it has already been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen Central and Kincardine (Mr. Spence). However, I will quote, for a particular reason, what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in a remarkable message which he sent to the linen trade the other day. It was sent to the National Crisis Production Committee, which comprises representatives of the unions and the managements of all the textile concerns in Northern Ireland. He said: Linen is by far the greatest element in the item which is described in the Economic Survey as 'other textiles.' Its true importance, which, I am persuaded, is well appreciated in Northern Ireland, is as a direct earner of dollars and other 'hard' currencies both now and for as many years ahead as can be foreseen. He went on to say that the linen industry has given a good lead, and then he said —this is the most interesting and remarkable part of his message— the merchants have put themselves about to plan the production of goods appropriate for the most valuable currency markets and to make their products well known in all markets. I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for having said that, because there are merchant houses over there which have spent a great deal of time, money and effort in developing the presentation of this British merchandise.

Then we come to Saturday, when the Lord President of the Council had a great meeting, so we are told. He is reported as having said to the "People of Cotton," as he described them, that pretty nearly everything depended upon their efforts. I noticed that in his speech the President of the Board of Trade—I hope he meant this—referred to textile production, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke about the production of goods appropriate for the most valuable currency markets. I am sure that when the Lord President was addressing that great meeting up North on Saturday he realised that he was addressing many workers, many spinners, many weavers and managements producing rayon in vast quantities as well as cotton.

It is well to realise that in Scotland and Northern Ireland there is a vast production at the present time of rayon in its different forms, as well as of the fabrics which are associated geographically with parts of these islands. We used to think of Dunfermline as a place which produced linen only, we used to think of Bradford as the place which produced woollens, and we used to think of Ireland as the place which produced linen only. Nowadays, however, these great textile districts produce a great variety of goods. It is about this great change and its importance in the export trade of which I want to speak because the Chancellor, time and again in this House when we have talked about the prices at which goods should be sold overseas, has made the point that it is by modernisation of machinery and by a better conception of management that we will produce more and reduce our prices.

In this particular realm, if the Chancellor will come to any of those areas of which I have spoken, he will find wonderful new mills, wonderful new factories and the most marvellous machines. It is interesting that this new plant is producing an ever-increasing volume of goods at an ever lower cost, and that has to be taken into consideration because it is a plea made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it is certainly a matter which the President of the Board of Trade must realise. So we have established two points: that the Government set great reliance on textiles in connection with the export drive, and also the comprehensive nature of the composition of the textile trade. In my opinion the third aspect is that we are up to the neck in a buyers' market. If the Government take in hand the controls, they have to come right down into the cold opposing currents of a buyers' market with those of us who are spinners, weavers, merchants, dyers and printers. It is all too easy in a sellers' market for the Government to exhort and talk about targets. To me they are like the members of a supporters' club waving, shouting and cheering, but what I want them to do in this House this evening is to come down on to the pitch and see how very small is the goal mouth into which we have to aim our shots.

The House will bear with me if I illustrate one or two of the difficulties which confront the textile manufacturer in present circumstances. First, I take the case of a rayon specialist whose yarns are spun and whose cloths are woven in Northern Ireland, but which are subsequently dyed, printed and processed in England and Scotland. I am glad to see the hon. Member for North Lanark (Miss Herbison) present, because I have some samples of these things with me and would like to show them to her later and get her opinion on these very beautiful prints. They are manufactured from something which is known as long staple rayon, which has a vast future of great potentiality to this country, and something in which we are specialising to a greater extent in Northern Ireland probably than in Lancashire.

America is specialising in a different type of man-made fibres, continuous filament, but for the moment this fabric, with linen characteristics, is being woven in great quantities in Northern Ireland. Over there we are using 25 per cent. of the total amount of the raw material output from which these goods are made. It is known as "fibro" and we spin from it rather coarser and heavier yarns than are usually spun in Lancashire. The firm of which I speak participates in the periods in which the control is split—the four month periods—to the tune of a million and a half yards, which is no inconsiderable amount. This firm has to plan for many months ahead. Seven months elapse before the cloth emerges from the loom and at least three months are required for processing. So in this case the manufacturer has two long periods of eight months for which he must estimate.

In 1947 that firm shipped to Australia £300,000 worth of this fabric. In my view it was entirely justified in assuming that continuation of trade, but the bookings in Australia this year have been completely negligible. The reason is that the Australian Government have taken the subsidies off British merchandise and imports of rayon goods from America to Australia are exceedingly high. There was a very wet summer out there, in what is our winter, and although Australia is quite definitely our No. 1 market for that type of merchandise, with South Africa second, orders are absolutely nil. Other countries into which these imports are shipped are New Zealand, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and small lots to the Scandinavian countries and the Middle East. Every country has been canvassed and every form of promotion has been tried, but at the moment while owing to the nature of the business it takes probably 10 months to produce, it is going to be very hard to sell.

I fear that unless we face realities and unless something is done the whole flow of production from the spinning mill and the weaving shed to the processer, the dyer, the printer, to the warehouse will be halted and a very serious situation will arise, causing dislocation and unemployment. I have already placed the facts of the case before the Board of Trade, and I wish to acknowledge the great courtesy and help shown by the Paymaster-General in submitting these facts and figures to the Board of Trade. Of course I am full of hope that I shall receive some satisfactory answer from the Board of Trade. But this is something which has to be faced and the Secretary for Overseas Trade spoke glibly as if it were a matter of production in order to get going in the South American market.

Let us take the case of rayon. Here is a fabric 36 inches wide and these beautiful prints are shipped at 54½d. a yard. The landing price in Rio today is 228d. Here I wish to quote from a letter from a Buenos Aires agent. The agent is dealing with the so-called Andes Agreement. I do not want to bore the House with a long citation. The letter says: Two months ago the so-called Andes Agreement was signed by His Majesty's negotiators and the Argentine Government and from the bulk of the sterling available for Gt. Britain from the sale of railways"— He is speaking for himself as an agent of textiles— a sum of £10 million was earmarked for the importation into the Argentine within 12 months of the date of the Agreement for beverages, textiles and vehicles. He goes on to say—it is pretty scathing, and I hesitate to read it out— All this looked lovely when on board the Andes with champagne flowing, but apparently from this moment Miranda put in his machinery of obstruction…I am sure the Board of Trade will not only work energetically but I sincerely hope your interests in general will be successful at last. It is now to full months since, for British textiles, this market has been hermetically sealed. In face of reports like that from textile agents in the South American markets, how can we stand up and talk about targets? We have to get down to brass tacks. Not long ago some buyers came to see my friends in the textile trades. I can speak quite openly about this. They came with a certain amount of money to spend in European markets. They have always been particularly favourable to our own markets but, as a result of their trip, they bought merchandise in France. I am told that they were able to buy cotton ginghams in France—lady Members will know what cotton ginghams are—at a shilling a yard below those sold in Lancashire, made from Egyptian cotton. I could give illustration after illustration, but I will end with a warning to the Government and with a couple of suggestions.

America is greedy for and would gladly part with dollars for fibro, which is the raw material for rayon production in this country. The temptation for the Government to gather in a few million easily collected dollars by return of post must be very great. That temptation must be resisted, as otherwise the raw material for our spinning frames and the yarns for our looms will have vanished. Nor must the mills be cut down in their allocation of fibro, just because they cannot immediately shift the stocks for the reasons I have given—because the markets abroad are closed. If these allocations are cut down the whole line of production in this country as regards textiles—and this is universal over all the geographical areas in which textiles are made—will be dislocated.

Finally, in this matter the controls are altogether too rigid. Here is an order issued by the Board of Trade on 6th April detailing minimum allocations to utility production, non-utility production, export production, so much per cent. of this and so much per cent. of the other. That is not the way a business firm would deal with matters. They would deal with the situation as they found it. Today, the controls are altogether too rigid and they must be made flexible. If they are made flexible the difficulties of the moment will be overcome. We must keep production going and we must keep our trade.

I ask whether the Chancellor and the President of the Board of Trade have got enough heart and enough sympathy to reorganise these controls for the moment so that these blocks of stock which cannot be shipped for the reasons which we all understand, can be shifted momentarily into the home market, where the housewife is longing to get these most desirable fabrics, for this, that or the other purpose instead of their being a clog in the whole machinery, tying up finance, running the risk of stopping production and breaking the heart of anyone who has anything to do with them. I make that appeal today and stress my point that the raw material upon which production depends shall not be shipped merely for the collection of a few easy dollars.