I hope that it is not a presumption to start by saying that this is essentially a timely debate, in view of what has preceded it. Although I do not often seek the indulgence of the House and am not often able to offer my congratulations to the Opposition it would be ungracious to say that I do not appreciate the fact that they have chosen this topic for debate. Most hon. Members have received a good deal of correspondence about this matter and there has been a good deal of national publicity. The anxiety of those of us who have constituencies in which the cotton industry is still a matter of great significance has emerged during the course of the debate.
I must say at the outset that I am gravely disturbed by the Government's decision which was explicit and implicit in the announcement made by my right hon. Friend on 6th June. I must say, too, that I am also quite unsatisfied with the terms of the Government's Amendment. I feel with my hon. Friends that the wise words of the Estimates Committee, which have been taken from the Report and used as the basis for the Opposition's Motion, do not go quite far enough. That is why we have sought to make it more explicit and to carry it somewhat further in the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow).
As many aspects of the industry have been discussed already in speeches from both the Front and back benches, I propose to follow the good example set by my right hon. Friend and deal primarily with the question of low-cost, duty-free imports. I hasten to say that this is not the whole problem. It is a complex problem and tribute has been paid to that complexity by my hon. Friends. There is, indeed, a crisis of confidence. There are many other matters on which I should like to speak, but to be brief I will concentrate on this one point—the problem of duty-free, low cost imports. Before doing so I must make one or two general observations.
First, I declare an interest. It may be known to hon. Members, but I think that it would be wise to say that I am associated with a group of companies which, although not recognised as textile companies, have textile interests.
I want also to say to hon. Members who may not be particularly associated with the cotton textile industry that this is a grave crisis for that industry. I hope that hon. Members will not regard this as just another in the series of complaints by the industry which have been brought to the Floor of the House. The industry quite genuinely feels that it is overwhelmed by cheap imports.
I have enough knowledge of, and certainly enough respect for, those whom I have the honour to represent to know that they are not easily whipped up on a purely political basis. Nor are they easily persuaded to travel overnight by coach to London at some expense and a great deal of discomfort and to march through the streets of London and present themselves in a mass lobby here. There is an element which finds a little exhibitionism to its taste, but I assure the House that this is not just a stunt.
There is genuine concern and anxiety about unemployment. It is easy to bandy figures, and there was some dispute between my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). I can speak only for by own constituents. We have extensive short time and two mills have already closed down. I put it to hon. Members that if they were in this industry and had been through this sort of thing before, and if they had been at pains to warn their children what might occur if they sought to follow in their footsteps and enter the industry, they would find it of little comfort to be told that the unemployment level in their part of the country was below the national average.
Many of my constituents—and, again, I say that I speak only for them—have been on short time for a long time. When they can see around them a very high demand for labour and when earnings generally are higher in the engineering industry, to quote that which has been mentioned, it is almost more unbearable and almost more difficult to endure short time when one is not quite in and not quite out. Earnings are down and one fears the consequences of the present level of imports, let alone the level which is to be permitted when demand is resumed in the industry in which one works.