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The level of public expenditure should not be determined by any arbitrary arithmetical figure. It should be fixed by determining the social needs of people which cannot be met individually and the requirements of manufacturing and basic industries for available funds. To try to take a simple arithmetical figure is to put oneself into a straitjacket. The country should not accept that.
I should like, if the Opposition would excuse me, to say a few words about some of the things that are going right for Britain. I deal first with engineering. The volume of new orders by overseas countries for our products rose by as much as 10 per cent.. in the three months to last February. Commercial vehicle production ordered overseas in the past six months has risen by 11 per cent. New orders for machine tools for export in the three months to February nearly doubled—they rose by 94 per cent. Steel production rose by 18 per cent. in the three months to April. The total value of all our sales of goods to overseas countries rose by 8½ per cent. in the three months to April while our imports in the same period rose much less, by 5½ per cent.
Likewise, the volume of our exports rose by 4 per cent. in the same period, whereas the volume of our imports rose by ½ per cent. I hope that the hon. Member for Stretford approves of that. The result of all this was that we had a substantial surplus in our visible trade balance, excluding oil, of £443 million in the three months to April in addition to a comparable figure of £283 million in the three months before that. Note that last year was only the second year in the past 20 years when Britain increased its volume of world trade. That is the overseas side.
Even if we include high-price oil—and I think that we should now begin to include this because we could tend to deceive ourselves if we excluded it for ever—our current account deficit in the three months to April averaged £52 million a month compared with £150 million a month for 1975. Let us also remember—I know that the Opposition will excuse me for saying such things—that North Sea oil is likely to save us about £1 billion this year alone.
At home we intend to continue with our policy to strengthen industry in the regions. We look for full co-operation on such matters as planning agreements to assist the regeneration of British industry. We shall also try to plan ahead to avoid bottlenecks in skilled manpower and in component requirements.
The National Enterprise Board is already using part of the funds made available to it to avoid bottlenecks in the machine tool industry. Those who have lived through past industrial cycles know that this is always where the difficulty comes. What the board is doing is financing advance orders being placed by firms on a deferred payments basis so that the tools will be manufactured now and will be ready to be taken up as the economy turns up.
The Government are financing the production of steel in advance of requirements. How necessary that is! There are still some long-term contracts from two or three years ago requiring the import of steel. That was when we had the last cramping of steel output. Is this not democratic Socialist planning? Or is this the Gestapo? The Government are taking the lead with the NEB in assisting the formation of consortia of British firms so that they may be in a better position to tender for contracts abroad when they are placed on a turnkey basis.
I think that Opposition Members who deal with these matters know that one of the weaknesses of British industry has been its inability, because of its size—there have not been super-companies—to get together in order to fulfill some of the very large orders, some of which run into £200 million and £300 million for a single project. The National Enterprise Board is taking this on board and in assisting this is filling a very important gap.
I shall not say much about the standby credit announced by the Chancellor earlier this week. I gave the right hon. Lady yesterday my view that this is a valuable reinforcement to the international monetary situation. I have never argued that by itself this is a solution to our domestic difficulties; nor has my right hon. Friend. But, taken in conjunction with the strategy I have already outlined and taken in conjunction with the measures that we are now following, this credit is a powerful reinforcement to what we are doing.
As to the future, when tonight is over we shall press ahead with our plans for legislation for Scotland and Wales next year, and with our policies in Northern Ireland. We shall press ahead with the Race Relations Bill, with the support of all parties, and we shall place that on the statute book. That is our path, and it is deserving of the nation's confidence.
The right hon. Lady does not need to spell out her alternative policies. She asked a lot of questions. What I did not hear stated by her when she asked the questions was what was her policy—I did not hear what was her policy—I am choking on my own words—I did not hear from the right hon. Lady what was her policy on defence, what were her proposals for the fishing industry, or what she would do about Rhodesia. She does not need to spell her policies out, but the country will draw its own conclusions from her failure to do so.