Orders of the Day — Customs (Import Deposits) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th November 1969.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Price Mr Thomas Price , Westhoughton 12:00 am, 17th November 1969

We are dealing this afternoon with a very complex question. In support of the Bill we have had some very powerful arguments presented by the Financial Secretary. I hope that I may be able to say without rancour or malice that, having been in this House for a number of years, one becomes a little sceptical of all professional economic opinion on major questions of this kind. I have been here long enough and listened to all kinds of wise prognostications and judgments about the unknowable to find that in the event we are faced with the fact that many of those prophecies which have been presented as objective, scientific analyses of our economic affairs have been presented purely from a political point of view and coloured according to on which side of the House the hon. Member sits.

I do not want to make too much of that except to say that we are dealing in this Bill with one of the pieces of protective legislation that has been designed by Her Majesty's Government to help to arrest inflation. Whatever our differences on the respective sides of the House on these matters might be, we all at least agree that one of the greatest troubles and tribulations which have afflicted all of us for the last 20 years has been the continuing adverse effect on our affairs of inflation. This has been a world-wide occurrence. Having shed our empire and what has been called our imperial heritage, our vulnerability has been particularly acute and we have had to take exceptionally stern measures to arrest inflation.

It was all very well for the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins), in his very eloquent speech, to say that these measures are ill-conceived. He as a reasonable man with a liberal mind, although he sits on the Conservative benches, will be the first to agree that a fire brigade, having put out a fire, does not immediately return to the fire station whilst the embers are still smouldering; it keeps a watchful eye on things.

It would be unwise for the Government, because their policy is paying off aid because our economic affairs are reaching a state of success which has not been experienced for some years, to take these brakes off. The hon. Gentleman says to the Government, "Take the brakes off Submit your case to the international organisations—for example, G.A.T.T. and E.F.T.A.—with which Britain is associated". That would be most unwise.

I am as sensitive as the hon. Gentleman is to our good name and our standing in the international organisations of which we are members, but it was naughty of the bon. Gentleman to suggest that we are in breach of G.A.T.T. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has specific clauses permitting a country which is having trouble with its balance of payments to take exceptional measures. Such suggestions as that made by the hon. Gentleman are theoretical to a degree which it is difficult to accept.

When we discussed this matter 12 months ago I had the privilege of addressing the House for a few minutes. I then cited, not a theoretical case, but the impact of these measures on our trade. I quoted the case of the textile industry, which used to be one of the major industtries in Lancashire. I have complained bitterly, in the House and elsewhere, about the unfair competition that the textile industry has had to face over many years and which has caused it to lose ground.

Twelve months ago, because of the tariff fiituation, there were large imports of towelling against the general run of the international trade in textiles. These measures have at least been accepted by Lancashire's textile industry as part of the answer to its problem. Some hon. Members opposite have supported these measures. I know that this is theoretical, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett) will disagree with me.

When hon. Members opposite talk about imports and suggest, in resistance to the Bill, that these measures will have a damping-down effect on British manufacturers, they are very wide of the mark. Many of those who are importing many things that the country does not need and cannot afford are not manufacturers at all, but commission takers. The import machinery is not run by manufacturers but by agents and corporations who have never made anything in their life, any more than any Member of Parliament has ever made anything in his life, except many speeches—[An HON. MEMBER: "Speak for yourself."] Perhaps I am speaking figuratively. Hon. Members will allow me the liberty of a little humour, because we are all so miserable in these matters. We tend to look at each other as though we were reading the funeral oration for a dear departed colleague.

Britain is on the move forward. I want it to continue to do so. I do not accept that people who are taking commission for conducting international trade are adding anything to the nation's wealth. I therefore do not accept it as a valid argument that, because of the inconvenience to those who are having to tie up £500 million of their capital by way of deposits, this scheme should be ended. So long as it is necessary to maintain these controls, even at their reduced level of 40 per cent., I, who am sometimes critical of my own Front Bench, am completely with the Government and hope that the Bill will be supported by the House.

The hon. Member for Worthing dealt with the question of imports. He is aware, as is my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, that our imports have been greatly in excess of anything we either needed or could pay for. For many years they were rising at a rate of 25 per cent. per annum. Since the import deposit scheme was introduced, imports have been steady, with a nominal increase of 3½ per cent. and 6½ per cent. in the exempted class. This difference is even greater than the gross figures would suggest, because in this period devaluation at 14 per cent. has occurred. Taking 14 per cent. off the value of the currency means, other things being equal, that prices for imports should increase by 11½ per cent. Therefore, if we were dealing with the same volume of imports as previously, there would have been a far greater increase than 3½ per cent. To that extent, these measures have justified themselves.

Not wishing to make any polemical points on a very difficult matter, I want to say that I shall welcome it when Britain is sufficiently strong to remove all artificial controls on the free flow of trade. Until such time, as a British Member of Parliament my duty is to see that the interests of those I represent take priority over the interests of international speculators and people who are taking commission on the flow of international trade.

I leave it there, assuring my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary, who has just returned to the Chamber, having missed a very good speech, that tonight he will have my strong support on this Measure. I hope he will continue these controls in force for as long as they are necessary.