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 Donald Chapman Mr Donald Chapman , Birmingham, Northfield 12:00 am, 17th November 1969

The hon. Gentleman is right, but perhaps he did not hear what I said. Having reflected on the matter, I put down an Amendment in Committee saying that we would do much better to keep it permanently as part of our armoury. It is an entirely proper method to use.

I do a certain amount of work on the Economic Committee of the Council of Europe, where I mix with my Scandinavian and E.F.T.A. colleagues. I take part in meetings three or four times a year with all my parliamentary colleagues from the E.F.T.A. countries and talk to them openly, and also privately behind the scenes. They do not do the wailing that hon. Members opposite do on their behalf. They realise that these things are the facts of life today, given the necessity of countries to take action from time to time, driven by difficult adjustments in national economies. They recognise that our legislation is perfectly legitimate, because nobody will physically cut imports from E.F.T.A. countries in any order of magnitude. We are trying to limit imports from E.F.T.A. countries, as from elsewhere, to a point that can be coped with, having turned the corner with our steady rise in exports. They realise that all countries must tailor these matters as they go along to some extent, because we cannot afford to remain in a debtor position for many years.

What is the alternative? My E.F.T.A. colleagues are sensible about this. Many of them are good Socialists, and see this from first principle. If one is faced with a balance of payments situation which is very difficult to correct, the classical remedy is to have a good old deflation. That will solve one's balance of payments problems and give one a beautiful surplus. The last right hon. Gentleman opposite to be successful, the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), did precisely this in 1961–62. Have a good old wallop at the problem, and one achieves a balance of payments surplus. But my E.F.T.A. colleagues recognise that they may then come off much worse in their trading relationships with this country than if we take a gentle action, as is taken at the margin in legislation of this kind.

That is why last year's Act was sensible, and why the Bill is sensible, and why I hope again in Committee to press my point that the Government should realise that such legislation is a good thing to have tucked away, for use as infrequently as possible, as a good alternative to the blunter weapons of real deflation.

There is another point that makes one think harder about the matter. When France moved into a balance of payments deficit in the middle of this year, what was the French Government's first response? It was not to have deflation on the old recognised pattern but to use the physical weapons of control and things like an export subsidy. I know that France had difficulties with the Brussels Commission as a result. In other words, country after country in the modern world recognises that one can no longer solve significant balance of payments problems of individual countries by old-fashioned methods. I know that labour will not politically stand for massive deflation. It is quite right. There are other, sophisticated weapons to use, such as methods of encouraging exports and the restructuring of industry, as well as measures such as the import deposit scheme which one may need to have as well in case it is difficult to make the changes vitally needed. But I agree they should be used as sparingly as possible.

I am glad to have been one of the three hon. Members last year who said how much they welcomed the then Bill and to have foretold how successful it would be in precisely the way it has been successful. I am glad that I pointed out how ridiculous were the complaints and fears and wailings of hon. Members opposite about it. I know that it is not up to him, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will try to ensure greater latitude this year in Committee, since a number of us would like a debate on whether to make this scheme part of our permanent system of reserve controls.

We should stop worrying about the supposed complaints in Europe. I go into Europe to mix with fellow-Parliamentarians more than anyone now in this Chamber and more than most hon. Members in the whole House of Commons. That is currently part of my job. I can tell the House that the fears which have been expressed about the reactions of our colleagues in Europe are entirely unfounded. Hon. Members opposite would do well to recognise the Bill for what it is—a sensible, small Bill, operating at the margin, with a year of success behind it, and which is quite properly being renewed for a year. Indeed, I hope that it will be renewed for beyond a year ahead.