General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:44 pm on 23rd November 1990.

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Photo of Mrs Elizabeth Peacock Mrs Elizabeth Peacock , Batley and Spen 12:44 pm, 23rd November 1990

I was sorry to learn on Tuesday that the House was not to have its planned debate on the textile industry on Wednesday evening. Having sat here today for three and a quarter hours and heard hardly a mention of textiles, I am even more sorry. We have heard a lot about agriculture, but although we realise its importance, other aspects of the GATT round should have a strong voice in this debate.

All aspects of GATT are important, but I have a particular interest in strengthening the GATT rules in respect of textiles and clothing. The textile industry is looking not for protectionism but only for free and fair trading and a strong linkage between the phasing out of the multi-fibre arrangement and the phasing in of strengthened GATT rules.

The industry has annual sales of £15 billion, and exports this year are likely to reach £4·5 billion. It also has a work force of 480,000, which emphasises the industry's importance to the British economy. It has invested heavily, to the extent of £2 billion over the past five years, and is a world leader in design, quality, innovation and exports. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade visited Yorkshire, he had an opportunity to see for himself some of the investment made in high technology.

In another place recently, the American ambassador, Mr. Henry Catto, addressing a dinner, said of GATT that it is a high-stake poker game. I do not play poker, but I understand from its rules that something is always thrown away on a bluff. I hope that, in the GATT round, textiles will not be thrown away to safeguard another agreement, because that would be disastrous for Britain.

I will quote briefly from a letter that many right hon. and hon. Members received from the secretary-general of the Apparel, Knitting and Textiles Alliance: We strongly support fair and free international trade in textiles and clothing. However, we are not prepared to see our industry seriously damaged by distorted trading practices which benefit our overseas competitors, nor traded off to ensure that a Uruguay Round agreement is reached at all costs. Textile and clothing issues in the Round must be assessed on their own merits. That is all that the industry has ever asked of the Government.

The Punta del Este declaration, which opened the round in 1986, explicitly stated that textile and clothing trade should be integrated into GATT on the basis of strengthened GATT rules and disciplines. That is a key phrase. In 1986, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), was instrumental in obtaining international acceptance of that wording, which at that time was regarded by the Government as being of major importance.

In 1988, the then Minister for Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark), said in a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement: I can state that, if the multi-fibre arrangement is to be discarded and if such an action is not accompanied by a satisfactory liberalisation and by a genuine strengthening of GATT rules and by proper discipline, I will not be the Minister who comes to the Dispatch Box and announces it."—[Official Report, 9 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 620.] We realise that he is no longer the person to make such an announcement, but I hope that, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State winds up, he can assure the House that no Minister will come to the Dispatch Box to make such a declaration.

The multi-fibre arrangement plays an essential role in allowing some regulation of the growth in imports, although not always enough to prevent damage to the British industry of the kind seen in my constituency, with the importing of acrylic yarn from Turkey. It prevented a war in a sensitive sector of trade and provided guaranteed access for poorer developing countries. However, we are not protectionist and accept that it should be phased out over an adequate period. I emphasise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Minister that the industry agrees that the MFA should be phased out, but is looking for a strong link to strengthen GATT rules and disciplines at the same time. It would be helpful to receive that assurance today.

We are looking for a phasing-out period for the MFA of at least 10 years, and most Community Governments agree with that time scale. Some textile and clothing industries in the community, the United States and Canada have asked for 15 years. Many developing countries would support 10 years. We support the EC proposal that increases in import growth rates should be limited in the first stage of the phasing-out period and increased gradually. There must be an effective means of enforcing respect for the GATT rules and disciplines at each stage of the phasing-out period—perhaps, I suggest, by suspending further import growth of any supplying country that fails to open its market.

The United Kingdom clothing and textile industries are strongly in favour of fair and free international trade. They are efficient and are using modern equipment and high technology to produce goods of high quality and good design for an increasingly international market. Thousands of metres of high-quality worsted cloth are sitting in warehouses in west Yorkshire which were all made with special personalised selvedges for sheikhs in the Gulf. Money has been invested, and when the Gulf crisis is resolved, we hope to be able to re-establish that trade. It is not possible to send that fabric to any other country, because it is personalised, and those sheikhs paid highly for it.

It is not acceptable that the MFA should be phased out without significant strengthening of the GATT rules and disciplines. I know that Ministers will probably be sick and tired of hearing me say that, but it cannot be said too often or too strongly, because it is very important.

The terms of the MFA phase-out period must be tightly drawn and linked at each stage to progress in implementing strengthened rules and disciplines. The Government's approach in Community discussions must be vigorous and they must continue to fight for the interests of our industry. A case for fairness and balance in international textile and clothing trade must be approached on its merits in the closing stages of the round, which in the next couple of weeks will be very important indeed.

We all agree that a strong manufacturing base is crucial to the nation's future and prosperity. A strong home manufacturing market is central to a strong export market. Some people may say, "You would say that, because you represent a manufacturing area," but it is more than that. I was born and brought up and have lived for most of my life in manufacturing areas, and I therefore feel with some humility, as the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) said, that I have some knowledge of what we are discussing.

I was much encouraged by my discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister on Wednesday. When my right hon. Friend replies to the debate, I hope that he will give the House and the textile and clothing industry, which is listening carefully and will carefully read what has been said, the Government's position on the phasing out of the MFA and the phasing in of the strengthened GATT rules. If he assures us that the Government are fighting for a long phasing-out period—that was my impression from speaking to them both this week—it would encourage the textile industry to invest even more. Someone is on the verge of announcing a £1 million investment in a project not many yards from my boundary, not because he sees that the wool textile industry is at its best now, but because he sees a future for it. Some reassuring comments from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today would help to release that £1 million investment, which we desperately need.

I apologise to my right hon. Friend for the fact that, regrettably, I cannot be here to hear his reply to the debate. Like many hon. Members this morning, I have cancelled constituency engagements at short notice to be here. With the help of British Rail, if its trains are running again, I must go back north to continue my constituency work. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept my apology. I assure him that on Monday I shall read extremely carefully in Hansard what he says, in the hope that we can all reassure the textile and clothing industry that it is of prime importance not only to the Members of Parliament who represent textile areas but to Ministers, who will put emphasis on the negotiations as we approach 3 December.