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 William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Stockton-on-Tees 12:00 am, 17th November 1969

I am not at all sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct when he says the whole House went for the Bill and went for the Financial Secretary. My memory of that time is that there was a good deal of scepticism, to put it no higher, on the other side of the Chamber about that Bill. But I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It may be that he thought it was a good Bill. I hope he said so. I quite appreciate what he said about a sense of crisis at that time. There is no sense of crisis now, but it nevertheless remains the case that we cannot be sure what the next few months will hold. In these circumstances the choice is surely a simple one. We take a risk, we take off import deposits, and we hope there will not be disaster; or, alternatively, we do what the Government have done, and say it is a risk which cannot be run.

I follow those hon. Gentlemen who have said that the Bill will make a difference only at the margins. Certainly I would concede and I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Kenneth Baker) that there are difficulties in quantifying the precise consequences of the scheme, both directly for imports and on credit. I know he will understand when I say that he asks us in that respect to do the impossible. But the question is this. If the Bill does not have a perverse effect, if it operates only on the margin, surely it is still a scheme which has to be retained unless the contrary disadvantages are overwhelming.

It has been interesting, listening to the debate this afternoon and comparing it with what was said a year ago, that very few practical disadvantages have been demonstrated. Despite the argument about exemptions, and how many there ought to be, the fact is that the scheme has worked smoothly, and there are many organisations which have been affected by it, trade associations and the C.B.I., which, whatever they may have thought of the principle, have been prepared to say that the scheme, as administered, has proved to be an effective and efficient scheme. In these circumstances, surely the case is for retaining the scheme and not for doing away with it, even if the difference it may make is slight, although I would not necessarily concede this.

My hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary put forward three very good reasons for continuing the scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "Four."] I know hon. Gentlemen thought that there were four, but if they will read HANSARD tomorrow they will find that there were three, although my hon. Friend developed them with so much conviction that he may have convinced the Opposition that there was more to be said for the scheme than even he imagined. The three important arguments which he advanced still stand up.

First, there is the effect of credit restraint. Although we know that here there is an area for argument, there is no doubt that it is a measure of credit restraint, and, for the moment, as I have said, this is the right stance to be in. Second, my hon. and learned Friend spoke of the effect on the import figures, and, with respect, I do not think the comparisons made by the hon. Member for Barkston Ash were always right. The comparison surely is between the trend in exempt and non-exempt goods before the scheme came in and the trend in exempt and non-exempt goods afterwards. It is a question of ratios, and my hon. and learned Friend summarised it by saying that, on the evidence, the difference between the rates of increase in non-exempt and exempt goods has dropped from three times to twice. Nobody has said that imports have not been rising; of course they have. The question is not only the rate of increase of imports but the relative rate of increase of imports as between the exempt and non-exempt sectors. If hon. Gentlemen will examine my hon. and learned Friend's speech, they will see that that has been spelt out.

To summarise, we do not say that the Bill is a matter of life and death, but we do say that all the evidence points to its being very useful on the margin at a time when we must continue to give top priority to the need for a substantial surplus. Thus, the Bill must be seen against a background of growing success but of a continuing need for vigilance, restraint and care. This is a matter of common sense and not of sophisticated economic analysis.

I said a moment ago that removing import deposits is a risk we cannot take. This is the theme of my remarks and of my right hon. Friend's. I had in mind there both the effects directly on imports and the consequences for liquidity. As 1. have said, there are some risks that are inescapable in economic management, but this is not the time to seek them. The argument is about method and timing. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, we walk on a tightrope. What is correct at one time may not necessarily have been correct earlier. These are matters of judgment, not of principle. Bearing all the factors in mind, and reflecting on what has been said this afternoon, I believe that our judgment is right.

With regard to the past, the predictions made last year have not proved to be correct. With regard to the future, there is no doubt that the overall credit position will be tight in the months ahead, but I do not believe—