HC Deb 03 December 1936 vol 318 cc1524-8

7.45 p.m.


I rise to call attention to a question of international trade which I raised on 17th November, when I asked the following question of the President of the Board of Trade: Whether, in view of the willingness of the United States Government to enter into negotiations for a bilateral treaty for the mutual reduction of tariffs with this country, he will state the attitude of the British Government? He gave a reply which showed that certain exchanges have taken place … of a purely informal and exploratory nature and no proposal to open negotiations has been made or received."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1936; col. 1490, Vol. 317.] I cannot help thinking that that answer leaves the matter in a rather unsatisfactory state and that some statement from the Government of a more reassuring nature is desired. I am encouraged to ask for a more satisfactory reply because of certain words which occur in the Gracious Speech from the Throne. Those words are: My Ministers will continue to foster industrial activity at home and, in the belief that the attainment of general prosperity here depends on further expansion of our overseas trade, to maintain their efforts to promote the freer exchange of goods throughout the world. Negotiations of this kind must curely come within the four corners of the policy which the Government intend to pursue.

I do not know what the real position may be, but I believe that an impression has been created in interested circles, in the United States and in this country, that the Government are not at all anxious that a Treaty of this kind should be put through. It is alleged, I hope without foundation, that there is certain obstruction to serious negotiation, and that the Protectionist interests and policy of the Government, and the interests which are fostered by them, are taking up an attitude which will make it difficult for concessions to be made. I hope the Minister will be able to dissipate those impressions and to show that there is no foundation for them. Nothing would please me better.

It is only fair to point out what the United States have already done. Secretary of State Mr. Cordell Hull, who is extremely anxious to obtain an agreement of this nature, has power to do so in the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, 1934, under which, without legislation, he can reduce tariffs mutually up to the extent of 50 per cent. He has actually negotiated 14 such agreements already with countries as important as Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Brazil and Sweden, and in the course of those agreements no fewer than 550 items have actually been mutually reduced. It seems to be the Government's policy to reduce tariffs mutually, where they can. It is clear also that it would be very desirable to take advantage of any opportunity to co-operate with the United States, and that to secure their good will would be of immense importance, quite apart from the particular trade interests involved. I invite the Secretary to the Overseas Trade Department to be good enough to say, if he can, that the Government would readily respond to any invitation or definite proposal which may be put forward by the United States, and would be only too delighted to try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory Treaty for the mutual reduction of tariffs between the United States and this country.

7.50 p.m.

Captain EUAN WALLACE (Secretary, Overseas Trade Department)

I am very glad that I was able to get back to the House in order to answer the very important question which the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) has raised. I have looked up the question of 17th November, when this point originated. The hon. Member was rather too ready, if I may say so with respect, to take my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade up, and to assume from the answer which he gave that His Majesty's Government were not willing to enter into negotiations with the Government of the United States. I have not the slightest hesitation in giving the hon. Gentleman, and the House, the general assurance for which he asks. It is not for one moment to be assumed that His Majesty's Government are unwilling to enter into trade negotiations with the United States. On the contrary, they are very ready indeed to do so, if a satisfactory basis of negotiation can be found. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is in line with our general trade policy, which is to work for a reduction of trade barriers, from which reduction this nation and the Empire would probably benefit more than anybody else.

As the President of the Board of Trade explained on 17th November, informal and exploratory exchanges have taken place already, and they are still proceeding. The hon. Gentleman is a sufficiently close student of the League of Nations to realise that probably the best and most successful conferences are those which are adequately prepared. In the opinion of the Government—I think I can say it is an opinion shared by the Government of the United States—formal negotiations at this moment might be not only useless but even harmful, because of expectations which might be aroused. We therefore do not want to start formal, or full dress, negotiations, unless we have a reasonable certainty that they will come to a satisfactory conclusion and that we are going to get something out of them. I hope the House will realise that a very careful study indeed has to be made before we can have the assurance that a formal trade agreement with the United States is necessarily going to result.

In order to show the hon. Gentleman some of the matters which have to be considered, let me point out one or two important classes in our imports from the United States. A very considerable proportion of them are on the free list. We cannot do more than that. This class includes raw cotton, fur skins and sulphur, and accounted for £15,000,000 out of £82,000,000 worth of goods which we took from the United States in 1934. There is another class of goods which is subject to our ordinary revenue duty, and which forms a substantial element in the balancing of our Budget. This class includes tobacco, motor spirit and other refined oils, and turpentine, and accounted for a total of nearly £20,000,000 in 1934. There is also a third group, including raw, dried and canned fruit, copper, certain kinds of timber and cer- tain kinds of leather, which is subject to commitments which we undertook under the Ottawa Agreements. Of the remainder of our imports from America, a substantial proportion competes with products of United Kingdom industry, as, for instance, motor vehicles, which we imported to the value of over £1,600,000 in 1934, and over £2,400,000 in 1935.

I put those figures before the hon. Gentleman and the House in order to show them, if I may, that there is a good deal of preliminary spade work to be done before we could start formal negotiations. I would like to repeat that His Majesty's Government have reason to believe that the Government of the United States, despite the pronouncements of Mr. Cordell Hull, which we cordially endorse, share our view that the moment is not ripe for the opening of formal negotiations; but we are still at work.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes before Eight o'Clock.