HC Deb 11 April 1935 vol 300 cc1478-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir A. Lambert Ward.]

11.3 p. m


In pursuance of an intimation which I gave a little time ago, I desire to raise the question of Japanese competition in the importation of hosiery as affecting the British industry, and I would like at once to express my thanks to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for his readiness to make it convenient that this

opportunity should be taken to-night. I would like to make the position perfectly clear, as I see it. It is a very grave one for the City of Leicester, which is the centre of the hosiery industry in this country. In 1931 there came into this country something like 947, 400 dozen pairs of stockings from Japan. In 1932, met by the substantial duty which was imposed at the end of 1931 by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, there was a very substantial decrease in the figure. In 1933 there was an increase to a total of 906,000 dozen pairs, and in 1934 another increase to 939,898 dozen pairs. For the first three months of this year there are higher figures still, and one fears that if nothing is done, in 1935 there will be such an increase in the importation of Japanese stockings that the figure may be well over 1,100,000 dozen pairs, which will be equal to or will exceed the peak year long before the period I have mentioned.

The position is made grave in this way: I do not want to say a single sentence which would minimise the appreciation most of us have of the accomplishments of the Government, beset by great difficulties. Neither do we want to belittle the advantages which many industries have received from the tariff policy of the Government. But the position of the hosiery trade is grave in so far as we are met with an increasing figure of unemployment. In 1934, in the whole hosiery trade of this country, the unemployment figure was just over 11,000. In 1935, coincident with the great increase of Japanese-made hosiery imports, the figure is well over 20,000. In the city of Leicester the position has become acute and unemployment has risen steadily in the hosiery trade at the same time as there has been this great increase of Japanese goods.

It has been stated in this House in the last few days, on behalf of the Government, that the wage paid to the female hosiery worker in Japan averages 9d. a day. The wage paid to the male hosiery worker in Japan is an average of 1s. 9d. a day; it varies from Is. ½d. to Is. 10d. The wage paid to the hosiery worker in this country, as stated on Tuesday by the Minister of Labour, is something like £4 a week for a week of 48 hours. I make this appeal to-night on behalf of the men and women working in the hosiery trade, whose standards of life we want to protect. It is no concern of ours what wages satisfy the Japanese workers. We are concerned that there shall be employment in the home market at proper wages under safeguarded conditions, and it is impossible to watch complacently the position which I have indicated, which is playing such havoc with the British industry.

There is in existence an Import Duties Advisory Committee, which can consider applications made to it by manufacturers. It was admitted to-day, and it has been admitted before, on behalf of the Government that power was given by this House when it passed the Act authorising the establishment of that body for that committee to act on its own initiative. I do not know whether the trade as a trade has made application for an increase in the tariff. I am not so much concerned for the manufacturers in this connection as for the men and women who are being put out of work by the entry of these goods made under conditions which may suit Japan but which to us are intolerable and which I hope we shall never see in the city of Leicester of elsewhere in this country. They have no right of organised access to this body, and therefore this House in its wisdom gave that authority power to act upon its own initiative. I should like to know why it is, that, realising these facts and with all the information at its disposal, this body has not acted or been invited to act on behalf of these people.

I appeal to my hon. Friend to say, on behalf of the Government, that some action will be taken, either by way of a duty which would make the entry of these goods well nigh impossible, or by way of real prohibition itself to prevent the entry altogether of any such goods which we could make ourselves in proper circumstances. I believe we all want to maintain and improve wherever possible our standards of life. We want to see industrial legislation protect and still further protect the working men and women in this industry. Nobody can suggest that the small duty which we now have, which has never been raised, and which is something like 20 per cent, on socks or stockings which are perhaps valued at 2d. or less, can in any way be effective to stop this great influx of Japanese-made hosiery. I therefore appeal, not

merely on behalf of the constituency which I have the honour to represent, but on behalf of the working classes as a whole in this industry, who have not the same remedy of approach, but who are dependent on the good offices of the Import Duties Advisory Committee or the Government, that the Government shall take some action to safeguard their employment and put an end to a condition which is intolerable.

11.9 p.m.


I am very glad that the hon. Member for East Leicester (Mr. Lyons) has raised this question, and I do not propose to argue with him the point he made about Leicester being the centre of the hosiery industry. This is an industry which affects my own constituency to a very considerable degree, and that is why I shall say a word or two on this occasion. I do not propose to supplement the figures which the hon. Member has given. I would rather deal with an entirely different point, namely, that up to the moment the relationships between the employers and the employes in the hosiery industry have been very good. It is very rare for there to be a dispute of any kind in this industry, and it has been quite easy to settle all wage agreements most amicably in the past.

I quite agree with the hon. Member for East Leicester when he says that wages in this industry are relatively high. There has been a possibility always of employers and employed coming to amicable arrangements about wages. There is no doubt, in view of existing conditions, that the wages of operatives in this industry are seriously threatened. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for East Leicester that it is impossible for hosiery manufacturers in this country to meet the competition of the flood of cheap goods now coming in, particularly from Japan. At the same time, I would point out that there is a similar form of competition in regard to artificial silk hosiery from Germany which is at the moment menacing the hosiery industry in this country. We are particularly desirous—those of us who are familiar with this industry—that the standards of the workers in this industry shall not be lowered by the competition which the industry is having to meet at the moment.

I am certain that my hon. Friends opposite, although they, do not belong to the same political party as I do, are equally desirous of protecting the standards of workers in this industry; and they will agree with me that those standards are very seriously menaced at this moment. The point I want to put to the Parliamentary Secretary is this. I have heard him use these arguments over and over again in the House. Every body supporting the protectionist policy of the Government puts forward the same arguments in defence of the protectionist system. The first argument is that a system of tariffs is designed to provide employment in this country. The second argument is that tariffs are designed to protect the British working man's standards of life. In regard to the hosiery trade it is quite certain that at the moment tariffs are quite ineffective to provide employment. It is equally certain that at the moment they are ineffective to protect the standards of life that have been achieved in the hosiery industry.

I would suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that it is time for the Government to examine this question. I further agree with the hon. Member for East Leicester that it is very doubtful if any rearrangement of the tariff can effectively deal with this flood of cheap hosiery which is being imported from Japan. One has some sympathy at the moment even with hosiery manufacturers. They are being compelled to cut piece-rates. Piece-rates are universal in the hosiery industry and now, owing to the present circumstances, some employers are being compelled to cut piece-rates which have prevailed for a long time. I do not defend that in any way. Unfortunately, there are certain black-leg firms in this country, outside the recognised hosiery area, which are definitely under-cutting manufacturers in the recognised hosiery area. That is very much to be deplored. Consequently, employers in other areas are bound, perhaps, in view of the competition that prevails, also to make attacks of the present wage standards. I join with other hon. Members in asking the Government to examine this question. My own personal view—and I want to express it as strongly as I can —is that if I had the power I would prohibit the importation into this country of these cheap, sweated goods which are menacing the standards of life which numbers of our workers have acquired by organisation and negotiation over a long period of time. Now that we have this system which is claimed to provide employment and to protect standards of wages I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will make representations in the proper place to see if something effective cannot be done for this section of the workers

11.15 p.m.


It is good to hear fine, robust Protectionist sentiment from the Opposition Benches. I will not stand before the House and the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary for more than a few minutes. Like my hon. and learned Friend who raised this question, I represent a constituency which is vitally concerned with the largely increased importation of cheap hosiery. That importation is menacing the standard of employment and the stability of the industry in the city, of Nottingham. We are all indebted to my hon. and learned Friend for raising the subject to-night. The importation has increased by leaps and bounds. It is giving evidence of increasing at an accelerating rate and we shall all be interested to know whether anything is to be done about it.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade what the industry itself has done about this matter. If the situation of each industry is to be debated upon the Floor of the House we are destroying the very function of the Import Duties Advisory Committee. I should like my hon. Friend to tell us whether the industry has done anything to cope with the situation. In the columns of the Press in Nottingham, suggestions have been made that the hon. Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Gluckstein), the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. Caporn), and my humble self ought to have done something in this matter. Speaking for myself, we have not been approached on behalf of the industry. No representations of any sort or kind have been made to us and I have yet to learn that the industry has taken any step to make application in the proper quarter. If these facts are accurate the constituencies we represent and those who work in the industries ought to know them, and to know that the industry has not made use of any organisation to put their case before the Advisory Committee.

In the circumstances, one feels that it is almost verging on impertinence for hon. Members representing the constituencies to take upon themselves the burden of putting forward a case on behalf of an industry which the industry does not think fit to bring it forward on its own account. I hope that we may learn what the situation is, whether any steps have been taken, and whether the reasonable representations of the industry have been made to the Import Duties Advisory Committee. We should then be justified in raising the subject anew in this House.

11.19 p.m.


I wish to express appreciation for the help that has been given to the cotton trade by the President of the' Board of Trade and by the Secretary of State for the Colonies and I know that the help that has been given has had a good effect. I should like also to congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. C. Brown) for at last taking up this subject, which is of so much importance.


I did not wish to interrupt the hon. and gallant Member, but I have taken up this subject on many occasions.


I am very pleased to hear that. Only last week, in the Manchester area, in one cellar, I saw 700 bales, or at any rate I saw a great quantity of bales, and I was informed that there were 700. Hon. Members may not know that a bale of cotton consists of 20 pieces of cloth, each measuring 120 yards, so that these 700 bales contained almost 2,000,000 square yards of cotton cloth. That cloth had come from Japan. It was not printed; it was to be printed in this country; and on its selvedge would be marked "Printed in England." I doubt very much whether people in this country would recognise the difference between that Japanese cloth, with those words printed on the selvedge, as English cloth. Therefore I feel that more protection is needed in this matter. If the Parliamentary Secretary requires any more information I shall be very glad to give him full particulars.

11.22 p.m.


One of the difficulties in. dealing with these matters on the Adjournment is to compress into the few minutes left for the Government speaker adequate answers to the important speeches that have been made. I gathered that the hon. and learned Member for East Leicester (Mr. Lyons) did not claim to represent the views of the National Federation of Hosiery Manufacturers' Associations, but rather gave the House to understand that he was speaking more for the operative side, and did not claim to represent the industry. I think that must be the case from the information in my possession. I say at once that the choice before the hosiery industry as a whole is either to make application to the Import Duties Advisory Committee— which they have not yet done—or to continue the alternative line, which they have followed, of direct negotiation with the Japanese exporters. As the hon. and learned Member for Central Nottingham (Mr. O'Connor) has said, the industry must make up its own mind what it is to do, and, until some strong and definite line has been taken, it is difficult to do more than make some conjectural reply.

The hosiery trade is a great and efficient industry. It is not only technically efficient, but is very efficient in the way in which it is dealing with foreign competition. I have an admiration for the way in which the leaders of the industry are realising the importance of this competition, not merely from one country, because there are other aspects of this competition than the Japanese aspect, with which the industry is dealing very capably. The Government are kept, by the accredited association of the industry, in the closest possible touch with all movements—the state of trade and the position regarding imports from abroad— and they are in close touch with the Government. On 6th December I received a very strong representative deputation from all branches of the industry in which every one of the points that have been discussed to-day was fully threshed out, and when the advice and assistance of the Government was given to the industry; and from those proceedings wide publicity has resulted.


Was the advice then given that they should not at that stage go to the Import Duties Advisory Committee?


Certainly not. The advice then given, in the clearest possible terms, was that the industry must make up its mind which of two methods it would pursue—either to trust to the Import Duties Advisory Committee to assist it by tariffs or to negotiate direct with the Japanese exporters. The industry, with those two alternatives before it and knowing the facts better than anyone else-could, has elected to adopt direct negotiation. That is the position; do not let us have any misunderstanding about it. The Government have not merely kept themselves extremely well-informed even down to within two or three days ago of the movements in the trade, but they appreciate the difficulties with which the trade is confronted as a result of the development of the Japanese industry, I have all the details here as to the increase in imports. Do not, however, let us stress too much this increase in imports. I know that during the early part of last year there was a heavy increase in the imports of cotton stockings and underwear from Japan, but in the second half of last year there was some decline. I do not want to suggest that these imports are not a very serious item, but I do not want us to be defeatists in the way in which we deal with the imports of cheap cotton wear from Japan. As well as unemployment, there is the factor, which the hon. and learned Member for East Leicester did not mention, of under-employment, and on all these matters the Government are fully informed.

What are the methods open to the industry? The hon. and learned Member for East Leicester said, "Either give us a tariff, an ad valorem or a specific duty, or else prohibition." I think that the House must realise that it is no part of the policy of His Majesty's Government to have a quota or prohibition for manufactured goods. It must be definitely realised that that is not possible. One cannot argue it in the last few minutes in a speech in reply at this hour of the night, but it is a perfectly definite line of policy that there shall not be quotas for manufactured goods or prohibition. It leaves the industry with the ordinary method of approach to the Advisory Committee, which they have not taken. The course is perfectly clear, either to the responsible association of employés or to the manufacturers, because it is quite wrong to assume that the employés cannot make their application.


The President denied that the employés could do so. An application to the Import Duties Advisory Committee that they should take stock of the position can be made by any recognised association of the industry.


Or by themselves.


Or by themselves, of course. The Import Duties Advisory Committee can volunteer a recommendation to the Government at any time. That has been made transparently manifest in regard to the devaluation of Belgian currency. But talking of the subject we have before us to-night either the Import Duties Advisory Committee must take stock of the matter upon the application of the industry or on their own account, or else through the negotiations which it has thought fit to undertake with the Japanese exporters, the industry should see if there is any possible line of agree ment open in that way. Until those different remedies have been explored, utilised or exhausted it is nothing more than a review of the position that I am able to make to-night. I make no complaint about the matter having been raised. The Government are fully informed on the matter and they are kept informed by the recognised associations.


Did I rightly understand my hon. Friend to say that an association of employés can go to the Import Duties Advisory Committee? In answer to a question I put to the President of the Board of Trade the other day, I understood him to say that employés could not do that.


There is no limit to who can approach the Import Duties Advisory Committee. It is the proper right of a responsible association in the industry to communicate with the Import Duties Advisory Committee if only for the purpose of giving information.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the Rouse, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.