Orders of the Day — Import Duties Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 1957.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Holt Mr Arthur Holt , Bolton West 12:00 am, 2nd December 1957

I am sorry if you feel that I am out of order, Mr. Speaker, but I should like to point out that a statement of Government tariff policy is also made in the White Paper, Command 305, and that that statement is supported by one of the Schedules to the Bill. I therefore felt that I was in order in discussing the policy for which this Bill provides the machinery. I was merely pointing out that had the Government said, in connection with this Bill, that they intended to reduce tariffs, another part of policy which I have criticised them for not having introduced—relating to agreements to do with price fixing—would not, in fact, have mattered. However, I have made the point and do not need to elaborate it.

The whole case for tariffs is going by default because hon. Members opposite will not study, or cannot see the illogicality of many of their own arguments. Perhaps I may just draw attention to one or two more recent ones. For instance, in the recent financial crisis, and in the previous one, when the Opposition have asked "Why do you not reduce imports?"—in the recent crisis I understood their suggestion was to do it by quotas—the Government have quite properly answered that if we reduce imports while there is the same amount of money in the country all we do is to put up prices or, alternatively, to draw back British goods which might otherwise have gone for export.

That is a sound argument, and I accept it entirely. But, of course, the contrary is also true. It must be true. If we have the same amount of money in the country and we lower tariffs, what happens? Either we drive from the home market into export goods that would not otherwise have gone for export—thereby increasing exports—or, alternatively, and probably there is a little of each in it, we reduce prices in the home market. Therefore, when they refuse the Opposition's demand to reduce imports when there is a financial crisis the Government admit that argument in principle.

It must be obvious that if we want to lower costs in this country we cannot wait for the leisurely setting up of the Free Trade Area and wait until others agree to drop their tariffs, also. We must start to drop them now. It would make a significant contribution to the attack that the Government are pretending to make on the cost of living. Not only that, but this country must never forget that we depend on our imports, and on our export trade, as no other country does. They represent about a quarter of our whole national income, and what we pay for those goods is important to us.

It may not matter very much to countries like America, starting off with a large home market which is completely free trade. Their imports and exports are merely marginal to their national income, and if they choose to pay a little extra in order to safeguard some of their own industries the effect on their standard of living is comparatively small. That is not the case with us, and the sooner we examine again all the old arguments for free trade and realise that they are relevant today, the better it will be.

We shall not get out of our present difficulties until we face up to them, and get out of this protectionist mind that has riddled this country for thirty years or more, resulting in constant crisis year after year, since the war, whatever Government is in power. That really ought to make this Government sit up and examine afresh their whole attitude to the question of free trade. Time is short. I hope that they will not delay too long.