Cotton and Textile Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th March 1962.

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Photo of Mr Daniel Jones Mr Daniel Jones , Burnley 12:00 am, 16th March 1962

The answer to my hon. Friend—and I am trying not to make this a partisan contribution—is that the the date was 16th September, 1959. The point that I want to stress is that this was said by a very responsible Government official only two years ago and it was entirely without qualification.

What has happened since that time? One had only to listen to the contribution made by the hon. Member for Rossendale. He made the claim, which the Minister did not contest, that the import of cotton textiles into this country has risen by 40 per cent. Indeed, I tell the House—and I do so with some regret—that since this reorganisation, with all the costly apparatus attached to it and all the definite and unqualified promises made by the President of the Board of Trade, the increase of imported cotton cloth into this country has exceeded 200 million yards. I say, with some significance, that this is from non-Commonwealth countries.

I said that I was not an expert on this industry, but that I had tried, imperfect creature that I am, to do my homework. I have a quotation to make from the Daily Express. This is what was said by its commercial reporter, Mr. Philip Ditton, when writing about the cotton textile industry: This means that 60 per cent. of Britain's cotton cloth last year came from overseas—and no other country bought so much. In the U.S. imported cloth and yarn accounted for only five or six per cent. of home needs. In Europe the figure is probably two or three per cent. The article is headed: The Once-proud Tag That So Often Lies. I can tell the House about that. The significance is that we have a situation today in which manufacturers as well as cotton importers are buying cotton cloth, making some conversion in their establishments, and then sending it out ostensibly as stuff which has been manufactured in Lancashire. It is said, possibly with a great deal of justification, that this is done to amortise costs. That is the thin end of a most dangerous wedge which can destroy the industry if it is driven in hard enough.

I do not want to give the impression that it is there that the trouble lies. That article, by a responsible journalist, shows that 60 per cent. of our cotton cloth came from overseas, not 40 per cent. as was cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale. I offer another illustration, a quotation from the Guardian. This is an opinion expressed by the French cotton industry in relation to our own and to the degree of husbandry which the Government show towards it.

As time is short, I shall quote only briefly. The article said: The British Government is accused of deliberately sacrificing its cotton industry by opening up its markets to India, Hongkong and Pakistan, and the association states that the textile industries of the Six must be concerned about the entry into the EEC of a country which has accepted the destruction of one of its most traditional industries. It is not only imports from Commonwealth countries, but, as can be clearly seen by the figures I have quoted, importation from other countries that has made a disastrous impact on the industry.

The commercial editor of this newspaper says: The French syndicate therefore urges that the British Government should introduce a system of quotas for imports on a scale which would permit the greatly reduced Lancashire industry to operate with confidence and efficiency. It considers it ludicrous that the Government should offer re-equipment grants to Lancashire while encouraging the imports which undermine the mills' position. I believe that to be a fair observation. I said that I would quote people who know the industry wall. I now quote what a Free Trade thinks about this. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt), in a contribution to our last debate on this subject, said: The trouble concerning Lancashire is that, whatever Ministers think about it, the Lancashire textile industry does not know what policy the Government have for it. It has been a mixture of toughness with unfairness—no other industry has been treated in the same way—and political expediency just before the 1959 election, when votes were required."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January, 1962; Vol. 652, c. 167.] That is a quotation from a Liberal Free Trader. I must agree that it has a great deal of substance in it.

I would like to take the argument a stage further, to the point which we may be rapidly approaching—the question of ourselves and the Common Market. I shall not discuss the pros and cons of the Common Market, except to say that I have serious misgivings about the wisdom of our joining but that it would seem that the Government intend to go in. Therefore, how wrong am I when I say that, during this particular time, there should be almost massive re-equipment to meet that challenge?

At this time, it is important to remember that there is a crisis of confidence in the industry which betokens ill if and when we join the Common Market. It cannot possibly face the initial challenge from European countries with the present scale of importations from Commonwealth countries. In our last debate, the Parliamentary Secretary said: Surely the overriding interest in this country must be to devote itself to those industries in which it can compete with other countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January. 1962; Vol. 652, c. 171.] That is a clear statement. If that is precisely what he means, he should tell the cotton industry.

I do not accept that the competition faced by the industry is fair. I spent twenty years negotiating wage rates and conditions in the engineering industry, and I know what I am talking about. It is not only a matter of wage rates. In this country, there is also legislation, the implementation of which entails a lot of money. The competition from abroad is not something which the Government should hurl at our industry, with hand on heart, saying, "I am asking for something from you that I would not be prepared to face myself".

I have three questions to put to the hon. Gentleman. Does he regard the situation in the cotton textile industry as unsatisfactory? If so, does he agree that excessive imports are the main contributory cause? If the answer to these first two questions is "Yes", what precisely do the Government intend to do about it? I have every right to ask these questions. It is within my memory, and ought to be within the memory of the Government, that between 1945 and 1951 this industry made a massive contribution to our balance of payments. It was almost indispensable to our economic well-being. Having made such a contribution at that very important time, it is fair that the industry should ask the Government to give practical recognition of it by dealing out fair play and not dispensations.

We in Burnley balance our economy on three industrial pegs—coal, cotton and light engineering, not necessarily in that order. If any of these pegs is dislodged, then Burnley is in serious trouble—there is no doubt about that. I serve notice on the Government that I would fail in my duty if I were to sit idly by while these pegs were being dislodged, and I do not intend to fail. The hon. Gentleman has listened with courtesy to me, and I will listen to him with courtsey.