(by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will give the terms of the trade agreement which the Government are proposing to conclude with Czechoslovakia concerning the importation into this country of a large quantity of printed cotton. How do the prices of such goods to be imported compare with the prices of similar goods manufactured in Lancashire?
Under the Trade and Financial Agreement concluded with Czechoslovakia in 1949 by the previous Administration, Her Majesty's Government undertook to negotiate annually with the Czechoslovak Government the level of quotas for trade between the two countries over the next 12 months. Negotiations to this end have been proceeding in Prague but no agreement has yet been concluded.
But is it not a fact that an agreement is to be signed in a few days with the Czechoslovak authorities for the purchase of printed cottons or grey cloth at a price quite 30 per cent. below the cost of production in Lancashire? Does the President of the Board of Trade realise that, if such be the facts, a serious situation arises for the cotton workers in Lancashire, who are already languishing in unemployment in large numbers, and whose position will be still further worsened by the importation of such materials?
I have given general instructions to those concerned with negotiating trade agreements of this kind to pay particular attention to the interests of Lancashire and the cotton and textile industries. I have every reason to suppose that those instructions are being watched in this case as in any other, but I do not think it would be right for me to comment on what might be the terms of an agreement which has not yet been concluded.
What about price? That is the important thing which puts Lancashire at a great disadvantage in relation to such an agreement as that which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to sign. Why will he not disclose the prices at which these goods are to be imported?
It is concerned on both sides with the quantities which are imported. Any question of price is a bit hypothetical until we have an agreement as to what the goods are going to be.
I do not wish to embarrass the President of the Board of Trade. The negotiations are taking place with another country and we want to get the best bargain for our country, so I do not press the President to give us an answer on that, although I am quite sure he will bear in mind the strong views expressed in this House about helping Lancashire. One way in which he can help Lancashire is not to import too much of that material. The question I want to put is this: will he confirm that the five years' trade agreement was highly beneficial to this country? Surely he should have given some credit for that in his earlier comment?
In view of the fact that the President intends to sign an agreement on Saturday, surely this country is entitled to know the prices we are to pay for goods which will be a further nail in the coffin of Lancashire? I must press the right hon. Gentleman to tell the country what prices he is to pay. Is it not a fact that the prices he is to pay are 30 per cent. less than the cost of production in Lancashire? I must press him on that point because it is a very serious matter to Lancashire and to the economy of this country.
I am most anxious to answer the hon. Gentleman on any question he puts but, of course, this agreement is not concerned with price but with the amount of trade which moves both ways. It is a two-sided agreement which deals with exports from the country and from Czechoslovakia and it deals with total amounts and quantities.
Will the right hon. Gentleman be kind enough to answer the simple question put to him: is he going to sign an agreement in the next few days for trade between Czechoslovakia and this country affecting cotton goods, which obviously has a bearing, on the price level of those goods at some stage?