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 Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion 12:00 am, 17th November 1969

I agree with the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) that almost every doctrinaire view on economics is wrong. Having written three rather heavy volumes on the free trade tariff reform controversy, I am not at all inclined to be convinced of the infallibility of economic forecasts.

I find it difficult to make up my mind whether the import deposit scheme has done good or not. Some industrialists tell me that it has. Some say that it has not. With the proper humility which I hope that I always show in the House, I am prepared on this occasion to accept the collective wisdom of my right hon. Friends above the Gangway. If they say that the scheme is wrong, so be it. However, I shall support them tonight with a slight misgiving.

I grant at once that, if the Government had spent rather less on Government expenditure and given rather more encouragement to producers—inventors, investors, managers and workers—this would not have been necessary. I agree that if the weight of taxes had been less severe it might not have been necessary. I agree, too, that if the burden of debt had not been so heavy it would not have been necessary, but we have to deal with the situation as it is. When I say "we" I mean we on this side of the House, because this is a situation which the Government have built up, and which we look like inheriting.

The trade figures are better, and we are glad of that, but we are not out of the wood by a long way; and the Government's decision to keep on the import deposit scheme shows that they are conscious of this. There are a lot of unknown factors ahead. There is the deflationary trend in America. There is the gradual erosion of the Kennedy Round, as I see it. There are many other problems which may come up before we reach the end of the year ahead, and so I feel some sympathy—which I do not often feel for him—for the Chancellor of the Exchequer at his not wanting at this stage to dismantle whatever economic defences he still has.

This particular defence, as my hon. Friend and his right hon. colleagues argue, may not be a very effective measure, but it is a measure, and in deciding to oppose it tonight and I shall join my right hon. Friends in doing so—let us at least be quite clear what the implications are for us in the Conservative Party.

It is our avowed aim when we return to power to pursue a policy of economic expansion, to relax the credit squeeze, to cut taxes, and to strengthen our defences. I think that all those steps are right. But let us not be under any illusion that, even if the present Chancellor is as successful as he hopes to be, the measures that I want to see us adopt when we take over will put some pressure on the balance of payments.

We have in the past had a dash for freedom, and had it successfully. We confounded the critics who thought that we would not get away with it. We did it in 1932. Then we had a tremendous pool of unemployment and a great element of unused industrial capacity. It was thus fairly easy to expand without any strain on the balance of payments. We did it in 1952 when there was full employment and industrial capacity was fully utilised, but we still had then the network of wartime economic controls. These have nearly all gone, and there are very few economic defences left to any Government, even a Socialist Government; and the measure that we are debating is one of them.

Let us accept that this one is ineffective. Let us agree that we on this side of the House are right to vote against it. But I trust that we shall be very careful not to close our minds, from any doctrinnaire adherence to old-fashioned views of free trade, to other ways of regulating the flow of imports if we have to do so when we come back.

There are many ways in which it can be done, not least by administrative action in the public sector. I shall not go into them, because to do so would be out of order in this debate. I conclude by saying that I am not so confident about the situation that we are going to inherit as to be sure that we can do without at least some measure of economic defence where the import programme is concerned.