The Government face a really difficult dilemma here. Obviously they do not want to impose totally unpredictable costs on our businessmen. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) spelt out precisely what damage this arbitrary Act will do to all sorts of businessmen, and clearly the Government do not desire that.
I regret having to compare Her Majesty's Government to South American States, but I believe that when South American States have imposed protective measures of this sort, we have appealed to them, often successfully, to allow cargoes that were already on the way to be exempt. By the standards of some of those States, the Government are being very savage in the impact that they are making on our businessmen.
The Government's excuse, which may be a very powerful one, is that they could not afford to do this because the volume of exemption would be too heavy. But the Minister gave us no details. He claimed that there would be a large amount of money involved that would escape. But when we recognise that we are dealing with only a third of our total import bill, and if we discount for a moment the proportion of that third which is on long sea voyage or on long order, there must be only a relatively small amount of the total import bill which would be affected if there were some sort of exemption as proposed in this set of Amendments. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will give the Committee an idea of the volume of the loss to the Government if they were to meet the case being put to them.
They say, secondly, that it would not be practicable to decide when the date of origin, either of the voyage, taking the transit test, or of the order, taking the goods contractually committed, was applied. Surely there must be administrative criteria which could be adopted here. I imagine that the date of the bill of lading could be taken as conclusive evidence, and I am sure there are other means by which the courts or the Customs can decide when an order or a voyage begins.
The Government are shifting uneasily in their use of the key words "Customs duties". When it suits them to argue that these deposits are Custom duties, they so argue. When it suits them to deny that they are Customs duties, they so deny. The hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that, just because a Customs duty may be changed overnight and the importer has to bear the brunt, he should bear the brunt when the deposit is imposed. But, in substance, it is a quite different and new animal, by which an importer had no reason to expect any sort of change.
The Minister must seize in his mind the scale of what is required here. As my hon. Friends have said, this is a 50 per cent. extra cash demand on the importer. It is true that it is repayable and that the ultimate cost is only the loss of interest. But, in terms of cash flow, it is a savage demand to be imposed unpredictably on the importer. We ask the Minister of State to look again at these Amendments which have been discussed so trenchantly by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) and to tell us in particular how much of the total import trade might escape if these Amendments were accepted.