Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 23rd November 1992.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Livingston 3:30 pm, 23rd November 1992

All parts of the House will join the President of the Board of Trade in congratulating the negotiators to the GATT treaty, particularly Ray MacSharry, who might well have felt that it was not his job to return to those negotiations. However, he has helped to break out of a difficult stalemate to achieve an honourable agreement.

The whole House will also share the right hon. Gentleman's relief that the world is not to be plunged into a trade war in which everyone would have lost. Does he agree that it is important that other countries do not draw the conclusion from the American experience that all that is necessary to secure concessions is to threaten to start a trade war? Will he therefore confirm that the agreement that has now been reached involves concessions on the United States side, concessions which the United States negotiator initially rejected?

I endorse what the President of the Board of Trade said about the boost that the agreement will provide to the poorest countries, which are most in need of greater access to the wealthier markets of the west and which had most to lose if talks had broken down between the two main trading blocks of the west. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that all 100 member countries that are parties to the GATT talks stand to gain from that agreement.

Some in the House may be surprised that the right hon. Gentleman made a statement without reference to the well-known objections taken by France to the agreement that has been reached. Will he therefore take this opportunity to confirm that it is also true that France will be a net beneficiary of a GATT agreement? Will he also take this opportunity to urge the Government of France to accept the GATT talks and the GATT agreement in the round and not to judge it by the single issue of farm subsidies, because French industry stands to gain more than French farmers will lose?

May I press the President of the Board of Trade on the problems that are still outstanding? Agreements are still to be concluded on financial services, telecommunications and maritime services—the right hon. Gentleman referred to some of those difficulties in his statements. How confident is he that those difficulties will be overcome before the March deadline, when the fast-track mandate runs out for the United States Congress? Has he had any indication that the President-elect would be interested in rolling forward that fast-track mandate for a further year, were that to prove necessary?

The President of the Board of Trade will understand that a statement on trade and tariffs today will be judged by the House against the background of the trade figures on which he has not volunteered a statement today. Those figures show another increase in the visible trade gap, which is now running at an annualised rate of £14,000 million with the other countries that are party to GATT, or £1 million for the time it will take the House to discuss the statement. Is the right hon. Gentleman not concerned that, for the first time in a recession, Britain is seeing imports rise faster than exports? Does he accept that the single most important change in our pattern of trade with the world during the many years of the GATT talks is that, until the early 1980s, Britain never had a deficit in trade in manufactured goods, but, since then, it has never had a surplus in its trade in manufactured goods?

Will the right hon. Gentleman now admit that the stimulus that GATT will provide to world trade, if it is successful, makes it all the more urgent that the Government start to stimulate investment in new plant to provide training and skills and offer the strategy for industry that is now essential to rebuild the manufacturing capacity that they have destroyed and which we need to compete in world trade?