Import Duties

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Walthamstow West 12:00 am, 17th December 1973

I do not know whether it is deception but it is certainly hypocrisy to say one thing and do another. There is no doubt that any increases in food prices are to be deplored. All speakers have made the same point. They will raise the cost of living at a time when Government policy is to counter inflation. This is surely absurd, particularly when, as we have been told, our Minister of Agriculture is trying to get food levies reduced in Brussels. Here we are putting duties on food.

We want to be able to buy the cheapest food available in world markets. If the Government would try to reform the common agricultural policy in that way they would have the support of the whole House. But they are not trying to do that. What is the advantage to the British people of the new trading pattern towards which we are moving? Great optimism was expressed on this subject by the Labour Government in their White Paper Cmnd. 4289 when they said, among other things, that the balance of payments deficit as a result of entry into the Common Market should be between £125 million and £275 million. This optimism was repeated in the Government's White Paper Cmnd. 4715 when they said: The Government do not believe that the overall response of British industry to membership can be quantified in terms of its effect upon the balance of trade. They are confident that this effect will be positive and substantial. Well, at least they got it half right. It has been substantial but entirely negative.

The third piece of optimism, much more recent, came from the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble), the then Minister for Trade, who, speaking in a Common Market debate last year, and dealing with an amendment to Clause 5 of the European Communities Bill, said: The right hon. Gentleman"— he was referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)— said that we are bound to have to accept more imports from the European Community than we can send it exports. That is his personal view. It is not one that is shared by me, and it is certainly not shared by industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st June 1972; Vol. 839, c. 525.] When it comes to economic predictions, perhaps the Government should begin to take lessons from someone like Gipsy Rose Lee.

The fact is that the balance of payments deficit with the Common Market is running at an annual rate of about £1,000 million. Perhaps the Government will blame the weather. Certainly our balance of payments is disastrous, and this order offers no hope whatever of improving it. We have now reached the situation referred to in the Labour Government's White Paper Command 4289 of February 1970 entitled "Britain and the European Communities. An Economic Assessment." These really are words of wisdom. The White Paper said: we must recognise that if the total burden on our balance of payments as a result of membership became excessive we might find that we were unable to pursue economic policies which enabled the full benefits of membership to be realised. Are not those words as true today as they were when they were written? Are they not more true? We on the Labour benches recognise that we have obligations in the Treaty of Accession. We have two points to make on this issue.

First, the Common Market itself has changed very little in its attitude on important topics such as reverse preferences, on getting a generous scheme of preferences at least as good as our own—the improved one is not that—and also on getting the agreement with the Asian Commonwealth countries which is satisfactory to those countries. There has been no improvement in any of these directions.

Secondly, everyone would agree that circumstances have changed radically since the 1971 negotiations. The balance of payments is worse than expected. The first year of membership has been economically disastrous. We are facing an economic crisis involving a fundamental change in economic strategy, and even if it is desirable—which we do not accept—is this the time to kick our traditional trading partners in the teeth?

The call is for sacrifices, so why cannot the Government make a temporary sacrifice of their own Common Market trade policies, which have been so unsuccessful ? We do not expect the Government to renegotiate the Treaty of Accession. We do not ask the Prime Minister to abandon his obsessive delusion that the Common Market can help resolve our economic problems, although he must be one of the increasingly small minority in the country who believe that. We are asking the Government to seek immediate approval from the Common Market to postpone the operation of these duties. Who can doubt that, in similar circumstances, France would have done so? One does not want to be too unkind, but it might be said that France would have acted first and asked permission afterwards.

We are trying to help the Government. They can make use not only of Articles 108 and 109 of the Treaty of Rome but also of Article 135 of the Treaty of Accession. Surely these articles were designed for the very economic circumstances we are facing today, a serious balance of payments crisis.

We were assured during the negotiations and the debates on entry that the Common Market would be sympathetic to any difficulties facing this country as a result of entry. Surely now is the time to ask the other members. In order to help the Government convince the Common Market of the seriousness of our economic situation, and as a first step, as my right hon. Friend said, towards regaining sanity in our economic policy, we ask the House to support the motion.