Import and Export Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 29th November 1990.

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Photo of Hon. Tim Sainsbury Hon. Tim Sainsbury , Hove 6:40 pm, 29th November 1990

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is short and technical; my speech will be short but I hope not too technical.

The Bill repeals section 9(3) of the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939. That subsection provides that the Act will expire when an Order in Council is made declaring that the emergency that was the occasion of the Act's passing is at an end. By repealing the subsection, the effect of clause 1 is to make the 1939 Act permanent. I do not think, in the circumstances, that I need dwell on the purpose of clause 2.

The 1939 Act is the last major piece of the emergency legislation introduced at the beginning of the second world war which remains in use, although, perhaps not surprisingly, it is not the only one remaining on the statute book. While preparing this Bill, we have initiated a review of other emergency legislation with analogous provisions to section 9(3), notably the Compensation (Defence) Act 1939 and the Landlord and Tenant (Requisitioned Land) Act 1939 and the Landlord and Tenant (Requisitioned Land) Act 1942. Whilst the review is not yet complete, we have reached the preliminary conclusion that the powers provided by these Acts are no longer necessary.

The Import Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 gives powers to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make orders prohibiting or regulating the import or export of goods to or from the United Kingdom, and enabling licences to import and export goods to be granted. It also provides for the forfeiture of goods imported or exported contrary to an order.

The power to control imports and exports has been, and remains, essential to implement a wide range of important Government policies. The powers to control exports have for many years been used to restrict trade for strategic reasons—for example, with the Warsaw pact countries and the People's Republic of China. The continuing need for such powers, even in a more peaceful world, is only too obvious. Other examples of the use of the powers are to implement international treaty obligations, such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and to give effect to our other non-proliferation policies aimed at preventing countries from developing a chemical, biological, missile or nuclear capability; to prevent certain exports which could be prejudicial to national security, such as encryption equipment; and to prevent the export of goods likely to be used for terrorist purposes or for internal repression.

The powers of the Act are used to prevent exports of antiques and other items which are considered to be an important part of the national heritage. We also use the powers of the Act to implement the voluntary restraint agreement on steel exports.

The powers to control imports are equally important in relation to safeguarding public security, such as firearms, and to support foreign policy objectives, although they are used mainly to enforce internationally agreed trade protection measures, including restrictions on imports of textile and clothing products within the framework of the multi-fibre arrangement. The Act is also used to regulate the import of bananas, although, contrary to some popular opinions, that is not to help the Government to avoid banana skins but to help protect our traditional suppliers in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

The powers in the Act to control exports are implemented by the Export of Goods (Control) Order 1989, which specifies the goods the export of which requires a licence from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It is for exporters to determine in the first place whether a particular product needs an export licence. In the event that advice is required, my Department stands ready to assist. Licence applications are submitted to the export control organisation within the DTI. To minimise the burden of export controls on exporters, a number of open general and open individual export licences have been introduced covering many industrial dual-use goods. Those remove the need to seek prior authorisation from the DTI before making a shipment.

Imports are controlled under the Import of Goods (Control) Order 1954, also made under the 1939 Act, which prohibits the import of all goods. Since there is no reason to restrict the entry of most goods, an open general import licence has been introduced which permits goods to be imported without the need to apply for an individual licence, with the exception of those goods specified in a detailed schedule. Goods in that schedule can be imported only under the authority of an individual import licence, for which importers apply to my Department's import licensing branch.

The powers have been used regularly by every Government since the war. Nearly 200 orders or amendments to orders have been made since the end of the war, averaging more than four each year. That is a clear indication of the continuing need on the part of successive Governments for powers which enable new items to be brought under control when that is judged necessary in response to a perceived threat or technological change.

Equally, controls which have become unnecessary can be removed. For example, the major relaxation in controls, introduced in the light of developments in eastern Europe, which was announced in July by COCOM partners, has been implemented under the powers of the 1939 Act. I hope that the present negotiations on a "core list" will lead to further relaxations in export controls early next year.

The powers are therefore tried and tested. Experience has shown that they work efficiently and effectively without placing unnecessary burdens on business. The 1939 Act enables us to react quickly and flexibly in response to each situation as it arises. The importance of the power has been highlighted by the present Gulf crisis.

I emphasise that the Bill is essentially a technical measure. It does not affect the exercise of powers under the Act, or the import and export licensing systems which have been established and which are familiar to importers and exporters. However, I am sure that the House will agree that it is no longer satisfactory to control imports and exports under powers derived from an Act which shall continue in force until such date as His Majesty may by Order in Council declare to be the date that the emergency that was the occasion of the passing of this Act came to an end We should now make the Act permament.

The Bill does not in practice change anything. The powers conferred by the Act have been operating satisfactorily for many years, and it is important that they continue to do so in the future. The Bill simply has the effect of putting them on a permanent legislative footing.