Orders of the Day — Cotton Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th June 1962.

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Photo of Mr Ernest Thornton Mr Ernest Thornton , Farnworth 12:00 am, 28th June 1962

I do not think that at all destroys the strength of my argument. I am coming to the point that the attitude of this Government to our industry down the years has been one of being strong with it because it was weak economically and politically, and being weak with the strong coal industry because it is powerful, economically and politically. I take second place to none in my concern for the developing countries of the world, particularly the developing Commonwealth countries. This House has a great responsibility towards them and for them.

But we must not forget that we also have responsibilities to our own people—to Lancashire, which is also part of the Commonwealth. Sacrifices are easy if the other fellow is called upon to make them. For the present, and for the next few years, Lancashire has had a bellyfull of sacrifices. If she is to survive she must be given adequate time to digest them. This burden must be carried by the United Kingdom as a whole and not primarily by one geographical area or one industry.

The Government seemed to show some appreciation of this fact by their £30 million Cotton Industry Act of 1959, but their subsequent actions have led responsible employers to allege that it now appears to have been an election stunt. No responsible person in the industry claims that its size should be frozen or permanently maintained at its present level. We live in a changing world. But at least let us make an effort to give the industry an opportunity to obtain a foothold on the steep, slippery slope that Her Majesty's Government have done so much to create for it. For the next few years an opportunity for stability ought to be offered.

The Government's proposals and assurances referred to in the Amendment do not provide such a basis. The problem of importing manufactured goods from the developing countries cannot be solved even if Lancashire is completely sacrificed. It is a problem which Britain as a whole cannot solve; it is one for the whole developed Western world. I welcome the G.A.T.T. arrangements—both short-term and long-term—as being a move in the right direction, but I warn the House that for many European and American countries the base from which expansion is to take place is very low. If progress is to be made on a percentage basis it will take a long time to achieve any worthwhile objectives.

I believe that in the long run, if not in the short-term, the advanced Western countries will respond to the needs of the developing nations. If they do not, the political consequences will be profound. In effect, they will be the unconscious allies of Mr. Khrushchev. Britain—which, in this context, means Lancashire—cannot continue to carry a totally disproportionate burden. This means that there is a too rapid social and industrial change, involving the loss of capital assets and of skilled labour resources at a rate which we cannot afford.

I have never taken a narrow and parochial view of this issue. We live in a changing world, and change is inevitable. What is important, as I have stated on several occasions, is the rate of change. It has been too rapid in the Lancashire textile industry. Over the last eleven years, in terms of employed personnel in the spinning, doubling and weaving sections, the industry has contracted by more than one-half—from about 350,000 employed persons to less than 170,000. This is too rapid a rate. Chaos, uncertainty, apprehension and despair have resulted. The opinion of all the witnesses who appeared before the Estimates Committee is that there has been a "crisis of confidence". This is apparent from paragraph 20 of its Report.

If this rapid contraction of an industry such as cotton is good for our national economy, as sometimes has been argued, why is it that other countries have not copied this procedure? If the President of the Board of Trade went to Geneva or elsewhere and advised them to contract their cotton textile industries because it would be such an advantage to their national economies, I imagine that he would certainly get a horse laugh, because countries which have closely protected their cotton textile industries have had, by and large, a better economic performance and better rate of growth in the last ten or eleven years than the United Kingdom.

I come back to the Geneva agreement I think it a pity that Britain left the initiative on this issue to the United States. May I tell the House the origin of this agreement, because I do not think that it is well known? It had its origin at the conference in Copenhagen, about three years ago, at which I was privileged to be present, of the International Federation of Textile and Garment Workers' Unions, and the Textile Workers' Union of America impressed the need for it on President Kennedy. That is how the Geneva agreement originated. It is another example of the imaginative efforts of the trade union movement in the international field.

I wish to refer to the open individual licence. Is the intention of the Government to act on the information which they have gathered? We in Lancashire are very suspicious that the exercise will be one of gathering additional information and then doing "nowt" about it. We hope that we can have some assurance on this issue. I welcome the Government's decision to ratify the long term agreement on international trade in cotton goods finalised by G.A.T.T. earlier this year. But there are serious doubts in the industry about the Government's intention to apply the restrictions which they will be able to apply. Can we be assured on this point? Are the Government prepared to take advantage of the Geneva agreement in the way, for example, that America has taken advantage of it if our industry is threatened with further disruption?

Reference has been made several times to Hong Kong and India. These countries, in their different ways, are very important parts of our Commonwealth, and, having been to Hong Kong on several occasions, I am conscious of the peculiar difficulties with which they are faced. But Her Majesty's Government and the Hong Kong Government have pursued a. very dangerous line in making this Colony so utterly dependent on one industry—the cotton textile industry. Hong Kong must export 90 per cent. of the products of her cotton textile industry since only 10 per cent. of her products are needed for colonial requirements.

We know from bitter experience that the cotton textile industry is one of the most difficult export industries in the world. The Japanese have found that. They have had to seal 2 million spindles. While the consumption of cotton textiles in the world continues to expand roughly in proportion with population growth, the long-term trend is definitely towards a diminution of world trade in cotton textiles. Hong Kong is now utterly dependent on this very fragile industry.

The economic position of India is very difficult. But let me remind the House that cotton textile exports to the United Kingdom represent only 2 per cent. of India's total export of commodities to all the world. The reduction of the increased ceiling for which the industry is asking would represent only a small part of the 2 per cent., probably not more than a quarter of 1 per cent. of India's exports. I say that merely to put the matter in perspective.