HC Deb 15 May 1918 vol 106 cc388-9

4.0 P.M.

In the first place, I desire to draw attention to the enormous decline which has taken place in the imports into this country since the beginning of the War. In 1917, the volume of imports was only about two-thirds of the imports of 1913, and in this year ft is estimated that the imports will not represent more than, roundly, one-half of the imports of 1913. We, of course, must make some allowance for the imports direct to the Continent to make provision for our vast Armies abroad, but apart from that necessary correction, generally speaking, what I have said indicates the true position. My only object in mentioning this particular fact is to indicate what I think are really the marvellous resources of this country. I venture to say that before the War nobody would have prophesied that this country could carry on as it is doing to-day, suffering so little apparent discomfort, and doing that on an import of, roundly, only one-half of the imports prior to the War. I suggest that that is a very valuable lesson and one that should be borne in mind when this War comes to an end. It would be a great pity if we failed to bear in mind this lesson and allowed ourselves again to drift into a condition of dependence upon foreign sources for so large a part of our actual needs.

I should like to explain what I have already said about the impossibility of using any published figures to illustrate the strength and stability of our trade and commerce. I may refer, perhaps, to the published figures for 1917, which indicate the volume of our imports and of our exports. For 1917 the value of our imports was, roundly, £1,065,000,000, and our exports, roundly, £595,000,000. That, of course, includes re-exports. Those figures, when compared with the pre-war figures, are certainly very misleading in giving any indication of the growth of our trade. There are two reasons for it: one is the very changed character of the goods which are being manufactured, and the other is the change in price-level which has taken place since the War began. For purposes of illustration, if we assume the same price-level for 1917 as prevailed in 1913, the value of the goods which were imported in 1917 has been only about £545,000,000, instead of £1,065,000,000; and the value of our exports would have been about £375,000,000, instead of £595,000,000. If we accept these adjusted values and compare them with the 1913 figures, we find that the decrease in the volume of imports is about 30 per cent. and in the volume of our exports about 40 per cent. Here, again, it is essential to remember that a very large part of the loss of our trade is due to the entire cessation of our trade with our present enemies and also to the practical cessation of our trade with Belgium and with Roumania. There is another reason which I might give why any detailed analysis would serve no useful purpose to-day. It arises out of the use to which our shipping is now being put. It has become necessary to concentrate our shipping upon those routes where it can be used to the greatest possible advantage. This has obviously meant that various branches of our trade can be provided with only very inadequate shipping facilities, and the value of our trade has been reduced correspondingly. By way of illustration, it has been necessary to withdraw from service a great many ships which carried a very large part of our trade to the East. Those ships have been transferred to Atlantic services in order to secure a greater use of them. To that extent, obviously, while the goods have been manufactured and are ready for export, they cannot be carried owing to the lack of adequate shipping facilities, and the Committee will agree with me that what I have said makes it quite clear that it is impossible for us, much as I should desire to give every information with respect to our trade, to carry this line of thought any further to-day.