It cannot be said that the debate this afternoon has shown this Bill to have very many honest long-term friends. [Interruption.] It has had a few foul-weather friends; who said they would stay with it so long as the dirty weather necessitated it but would abandon it as soon as the economic weather improves. If hon. Members below the Gangway opposite want to start jibbing so early in my speech, I should draw attention to the fact that the Government ran out of defenders of the Bill and the last five speeches have been made from this side of the House.
The best thing that can be said about import deposits in the 12 months in which they have applied is a very negative thing, that their impact has been at best marginal. Indeed, to do the Government justice, initially they never claimed that the impact would be anything but marginal. The impact has been so marginal as to be barely perceptible.
The worst that can be said about import deposits is that they have been positively damaging. There is much more to be said in support of the argument that they have been positively damaging, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have unfailingly succeeded in showing, than for the argument that they are merely marginal in their effect.
However, to put the best possible complexion upon the Government's case, I start by considering some of the alleged benefits which have been claimed for this nasty little one-page Bill. The Chancellor was the most emphatic and the most confident prophet about the prospects for import deposits when he announced them last year in these terms:
Imports will be reduced directly because of the difficulty and cost of obtaining credit ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1968; Vol. 773, c. 1795.]
Incidentally, my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Kenneth Baker) was right to point out that the whole emphasis, when this scheme was launched, was on the positive effect of restricting imports. It is a far cry from the note sounded by the Financial Secretary who described it this afternoon as a useful selective measure of credit control. That is a very different animal from something which was to have a direct effect in reducing imports.
The Chancellor was speaking in the context of stocks. There have been one or two references to stocks and stock-building today. The Chancellor, when he told us that
Imports will be reduced directly
was specifically referring to the squeeze which was to be imposed upon stocks as the result of credit difficulties.
In fact, the seasonally adjusted level of manufacturing stocks, taking them at 1963 prices so as to take volume into account, having been static in the second, third and fourth quarters of 1968—that is, in the year before import deposits came into effect—promptly jumped 2 per centage points in the first half of 1969. I believe that this was no fluke. I believe that the scheme of import deposits is positively perverse. It actually stimulates, and has stimulated, imports above the level which would otherwise have occurred.