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 Edward Leadbitter Mr Edward Leadbitter , Hartlepools, The 12:00 am, 17th November 1969

I fully agree that any measures which go outside the desirable principles outlined in the E.F.T.A. and the G.A.T.T. are unhappy, but we are not loners in this respect. The principles of free trade and of the G.A.T.T. and the E.F.T.A. have been attacked from time to time by other countries. I was glad to find that my right hon. Friend the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury said on 28th November last year: I want to say a word about the E.F.T.A. and G.A.T.T. situation. I am entirely wedded to the belief that the move to free world trade from restrictions initiated in the G.A.T.T., E.F.T.A. and other efforts we have been making, such as the Kennedy Round, is vital for the prosperity of the world, and to no country is it more vital than our own which is so dependent upon world trade."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November. 1968; Vol. 774,c. 754.] It is not valid to say that when we are trying to put our own house in order it is wrong to have a small marginal instrument such as this Bill, which deals with only one-third of our imports and protects the developing countries. To maximise the charge that we are behaving dishonourably is going beyond what has been practised by many other countries.

My firm belief is that even in the European Community the economic difficulties suffered by the members of the Six are such that time and again the principles of the Rome Treaty have been violated. Let us not point an accusing finger at this country. This country has had to deal with the problem of getting the balance right between exports and imports. I have indicated that this is a marginal Bill and I refer to a matter which I raised in that same debate last year. I said: I noticed in the Financial Times this morning this comment when it referred to the review of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research: There is no doubt the reason for the difference '"— I defined that difference in the estimates of the balance of payments and went on with the quotation from the Financial Times—' lies in the behaviour of imports relative to the level of domestic demand. It is chiefly in respect of import forecasts—price and volume—that successive revisions have taken place. Thus the Institute's call for import controls earlier this year was amply justified.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1968; Vol. 774, c. 8511 The Financial Secretary has informed us today that the rate of increase in imports has fallen from something like 13 per cent. to 6½ per cent. last year. He made the point that the Bill is marginal, but I take a different line—not in order to contradict the Government but merely to suggest that there were other means. If the report Ihave quoted was correct, we might have been more selective and applied physical controls in the right areas and on the right kind of imports.

I say this for a particular reason. The general reason is known to the House, but there is a particular reason. In this country today we are involved, not only with the larger question of getting our world trading problems put right, not only with the question of balance of trade and balance of payments, but simultaneously with the restructuring of industries at home. It would take more than someone with a crystal ball to be able with certainty to ascribe the consequences of this Bill in such a way that the problems we are suffering from the restructuring of industry should not be made more difficult than they are.

Because of the redistribution of industry, and particularly the settlement of small industries on Merseyside, in Wales and in Scotland, we could adversely affect those industries with a Bill which did not clearly define the kinds of imports which are affected. It is far better when dealing with restructuring and redistribution of industry to pinpoint the kinds of imports which we want to control. That would do two things which are desirable. One has been outlined by the Financial Secretary, the marginal effect on increase of imports. The other is to protect industries which need protection in developing areas.

First, during the past 12 months these controls have done no harm that can be detected in the economy. Secondly, they have helped to level out imports, which has made some contribution to righting the balance of payments. Thirdly, there does not appear to be any sufficiently strong evidence to justify withdrawing these controls.

Therefore, there is a case for continuing them in force. A year ago I asked if some aspects could be examined. During the course of the past year there does not seem to have been sufficient research to highlight our need to be more selective in the physical control of cur imports to achieve the important objectives of any imports control system—namely, to achieve the required balance in international trading and to protect home industries which are in the process of being resettled in development areas.

If the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) were to balance his language about Britain's conduct with the hard facts of improvement, he would modify his viewpoint and agree that this is a storm in a teacup. It is not a matter of major importance. It is no more than part of a package deal. The concern of both the hon. Gentleman and myself can be expressed by my asking the Minister to take note of our concern and, if import controls of some kind have made a useful contribution to Britain's trading fortunes, during the next year could some more research be carried out so that we can be more selective in achieving our objectives?