Orders of the Day — Multilateral Trade Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1979.

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Photo of Mr Cecil Parkinson Mr Cecil Parkinson , Hertfordshire South 12:00 am, 29th June 1979

With the permission of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to several matters which were raised in the debate.

Concerning the missing background paper, I am now informed that the paper has been available in the Library since Tuesday. I am sorry that hon. Members have had difficulties in obtaining copies of it, but it was there. I misled the House in suggesting that it was in the Vote Office; I should have said the Library.

I deal first with some of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), who was Secretary of State for Trade at the time that these negotiations were coming to a conclusion. It was not, therefore, entirely surprising that this afternoon he welcomed the outcome of the negotiations. It would, in fact, have been extremely difficult for him to do otherwise, because a great deal of the credit or blame attaches to him and his predecessor. We think that in this instance he did a first-class job, unlike many of his colleagues in the previous Government. I compliment him on it. We were quite happy to accept the outcome of his negotiations.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned three matters with which I should like to deal in particular. One of them was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). With regard to the muli-fibre arrangement, anyone who has read the speeches by the Secretary of State and myself about it—we have each made several speeches in the House and outside—will know that we recognise the importance of the textile industry We realise that it is not scared of fair competition and has taken very considerable steps to reinvest and to equip itself with modern machinery. It is an industry in which management and staff work very well together. Over the last few years 400,000 have left the industry, and it is making arrangements to restructure itself and to make itself capable of facing any fair competition. We have every intention as a Government of ensuring that it is not exposed to unfair competition or put in an impossible position.

The arrangement has two and a half years to run, and during that time we shall be able to see how it works, where it needs changing and where it needs modifying. In my brief time in the Department, I have already been approached by textile companies pointing out some of the disadvantages to various sections of the industry from the way in which the agreement is working.

The Government are not prepared to commit themselves to saying here and now that the MFA in its present form will be renegotiated completely as it is, but we recognise that the arrangement has been welcomed in this country and outside. We also realise that there will be arrangements made for the orderly marketing of textiles in the future. We should like to keep our negotiating hand open. We share many of the ambitions for the industry mentioned this afternoon by the right hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Keighley.

I turn now to the matter of selective safeguards and the necessity for them, about which we are all agreed. However, we disagree about the fact that there seems to be a notion that it will not be possible to obtain a worthwhile selective seafeguards clause. At a time when that is about to be negotiated, we do not think that we should enter the negotiations in that frame of mind. We are determined in every way we can to press the case for a selective safeguards clause.

We believe that it is an important and vital reassurance to our industries that they will not become the subject of an attack on a narrow sector from, say, a very large quantity of low-cost goods, perhaps partially dumped, which could cause lasting harm. We believe that it is very important that Governments should have the right to act.

If there were a failure to obtain a safeguard, we would use article 19 effectively to make sure that we could do what we wanted to do. But we would still prefer to press for a meaningful selective safeguards clause. I thought that I had made clear in my opening remarks that we would not welcome something called a safeguard if it had no practical worth. I repeat that for the benefit of the House.

The right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North mentioned Government procurement, and again I accept many of the points he raised. The hon. Member for Keighley also made the point that the British Government had been fulfilling their obligations under the EEC agreement, though a number of our EEC partners did not seem to be so enthusiastic. Nevertheless, there are signs that France and Germany now recognise that they have been remiss in this. We shall continue to press them to make sure that we are not the only country that observes the rules.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), in a typically interesting and incisive speech, made the point that we have not done enough for Australia and New Zealand. I accept that criticism. However, successive Governments—our predecessors, and certainly ourselves—have impressed upon the Community the importance of making arrangements that safeguard the interests of Australia and New Zealand. What has been achieved is a great improvement and advance on what was proposed originally.

I accept that there is a distortion in international trade because of the rigid rules in regard to agriculture. There is a strongly held view that the CAP, in its present form, will have to be renegotiated in due course and will have to change. There are rigidities built into it which could produce similar rigidities in other areas of international trade. I accept a number of my hon. and learned Friend's criticisms.

My hon. and learned Friend said that he was not expecting an announcement from me this afternoon that we intended to withdraw from our obligations under the EEC treaty. He will not, therefore, be disappointed when I tell him that I shall not be making any such announcement. His views on the EEC are well-known. I do not think that they are widely shared, but it is recognised that they are held very sincerely and that he never fails to promote them.

The hon. Member for Keighley made a characteristic speech. He can take that as a compliment or a criticism, depending on his point of view. He made one or two assertions which I cannot accept. First, he asserted that we are always on the receiving end, and that it is the British who play the fair trade game and that we do not do any of the things for which we criticise other people. There is another school of thought which says that if we look at the range of regional aids, subsidies, grants and as on which proliferated under the last Government, we see that we were becoming pacemakers, in our own way, in unfair trade.

I was present at a hearing in the United States before the Federal Trade Commission, when it was argued that no private enterprise steel company could afford to lose £10 million per week and still press on with its investment programme, and that companies that could must be trading unfairly. That is another point of view from the one put forward by the hon. Member for Keighley.