HC Deb 12 March 1936 vol 309 cc2483-9
Captain EUAN WALLACE (Secretary, Overseas Trade Department)

I beg to move, That the Irish Free State (Special Duties) (No. 1) Order, 1936, dated the seventeenth day of February, nineteen hundred and thirty-six, made by the Treasury under the Irish Free State (Special Duties) Act, 1932, a copy of which was presented to this House on the said seventeenth day of February, nineteen hundred and thirty-six, be approved.



12.51 a.m.


I do not think that we ought to allow this Order to pass without some explanation from the Government bench. I do not think it is quite fair for the hon. Gentleman to move it in this way, but I do not blame him entirely. [Interruption.] The House is invited to pass this Import Duty Order of which it knows nothing at all. This is a revision of an order passed three years ago by a majority of people, many of whom are not now present, for a purely political expediency and not as a matter of principle or of financial urgency at all. We remember that under the 1932 Act a certain sum of money which was believed to be due to this country by the Irish Free State was collected by a duty on certain classes of goods. That was the beginning of a long economic struggle between the Irish Free State and ourselves. The object was quite successful in regard to finance. We did collect the annuities, but it was not a good principle in inter-Imperial disputes. I think the House has learned the lesson from that, but I rise to call the attention to the grave injury which was done to both parties by the economic war.

We all welcome the cordial recognition of the error that was committed when that dispute occurred, and we all welcome the sign of awakening intelligence and good will that has resulted in the agreement known as the Coal-Cattle Agreement. This is the beginning, we hope, of the resumption of free trade between the Irish Free State and ourselves. This order does not go nearly as far as we should like it to go, but there is a revision of the duties in this Order, and we hope it is the beginning of a much larger measure of understand- ing between Ireland and ourselves. After all, Ireland and ourselves are not two separate countries. We are divided geographically by a strip of sea, but we are two parts of the world which are naturally complementary to each other. Two neighbours are kept apart by these duties which, however necessary they may have been as a means of solving a quarrel that arose, are not necessary at the present time to the Irish Free State and ourselves. I do hope that in dealing with this Order it is not the last word to be said on this matter. I do hope that the two Governments will again reconsider the extreme inter-dependence of the two countries, and will consider the possibility of the abolition of all these special duties which prevent the flow of trade between Ireland and ourselves.

I pay a tribute to those who were able to restore the coal trade between the Free State and ourselves. Fortunately, we have almost regained the loss of the coal trade, but there is a larger measure of trade to be done both in the sale of coal and in manufactured goods. We urge the hon. Gentleman who rose, but did not speak and who was prevailed upon by members of his own party to neglect his duty to the House, that he will be persuaded by those on this side of the House that this is not the last word on the subject, and that we shall not see again in the schedule of duties this ridiculous scale of duties such as on cattle under six months £1 per head, and over six months and under fifteen £2 per head. That is a ridiculous way of doing business between two neighbouring countries. I hope the Government will take this back and bring in a revised Order to abolish all these stupid deterrents and obstacles to trade between the two countries, and that we shall see the hand of co-operation and friendship extended between this country and the Irish Free State and the restoration of free trade between that country and ourselves.

12.56 a.m.


I am sure the House will acquit me of any intentional discourtesy. Having been trained in the hard school of my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Capt. Margesson) I know that if anyone says "Agreed" at this time of night it is not wise to go on talking. I will give the House the object of this Motion in a very few words. It is to confirm an arrangement of which the House was notified by the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs on 17th February in answer to a Private Notice Question by the hon. Member for Rothwell (Mr. Lunn). It is, in fact, to continue the arrangement by which we export coal from the United Kingdom, and they export cattle from the Irish Free State on a pound for pound basis. From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I gather he has no objection to this arrangement. We hope to do a little more this year, and are going in a direction in which, I think, everybody in this House will wish us to proceed. We are reducing some of those duties to which he has drawn attention. There is a ten per cent. ad valorem reduction on live animals, and beyond that there are certain additional reductions with which I will not trouble the House at this moment. We are also giving to the Irish Free State an increase in their quota of bacon and ham. We are obtaining in exchange for that three definite and concrete benefits. First of all, the continuance of our export of coal to the Irish Free State with the practical certainty that the amount of coal which will be exported this year will exceed the amount exported in 1935. Secondly, we are obtaining a substantial reduction—on the average a 50 per cent. reduction—in the special duties which the Irish Free State have put upon some of our goods; and, thirdly, we are obtaining a quota of one-third of the estimated imports of cement into the Irish Free State for 1936, and we are to be allowed an opportunity of competing for the rest of the trade, subject to the remaining duty of 10 per cent. When I tell the House that in 1931, out of total imports of cement into the Irish Free State valued at £445,000, the United Kingdom exported £367,000, whereas in 1935 out of a total of £450,000 we got only £30,000, the House will realize that this is a valuable concession.

In conclusion, I need only say that it is not for me to-night to engage in argument with the hon. Member about the very careful scrutiny in the mouth which he has given to this gift-horse. No doubt his remarks will be appreciated in the proper quarter. I only want to say that, as the Minister of Finance of the Irish Free State stated the other day, these arrangements indicate a mutual desire for friendly relations in matters of trade. I do not think anybody in the House will have any doubt that the desire is sincerely reciprocated here, and I hope, therefore, that the House will let us have this Motion.

1.3 a.m.


I should hesitate to address the House at such a late hour in the ordinary way, but I have not the slightest hesitancy in doing so to-night because this is a matter of prime importance to my constituents, and a matter of great importance to the country. This is the first occasion on which it has been possible properly to say anything about this important arrangement. The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), expressed his pleasure at the reduction of trade barriers between the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State. I would go further and say I would be prepared to abolish every duty on either side. To my mind, that would be a step for the benefit of Ireland and this country—and I use the term "Ireland" geographically. I think the hon. Gentleman was occasionally a little loose in his use of the word "Ireland." If you were to abolish every duty on either side, I should be quite content, and we should be making a very great step forward.

But I would remind the House that the initial duties put on between the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom were not put on by the United Kingdom but by the Irish Free State and they are much more numerous and affect many more things. This question we are discussing is a sort of bargain. Admittedly, this Order is our side of the bargain and I would like to know what the hon. Gentleman in charge of this Order thinks is the estimate of the addition to the trade of the United Kingdom which will result. I ask that advisedly because two days after this arrangement, Mr. Lemass, who is a member of the Irish Free State Cabinet, gave his estimate as being £750,000 improvement for the trade of the Irish Free State and no improvement for the trade of the United Kingdom. That is obviously something which he said, no doubt, to improve his position with his supporters; but still I would like to have some estimate as to what the Government, who no doubt have made their calculations with care, think will be the consequences of this Order and of the corresponding removal of restrictions in the Irish Free State.

We have not had to-night a very exhaustive list of the various forms of exports from the United Kingdom to the Irish Free State which will be facilitated as the counterpart of what we are doing for agricultural produce. I would remind the Secretary of the Overseas Trade Department that in all these matters where we are making a bargain with the Irish Free State he should bear in mind that the Government's policy was one of putting duties on Irish Free State goods in order to get our just debts. That produced very serious reprisals, and naturally these reprisals hit the outposts of the United Kingdom. It gives to the Irish Free State in any state of economic struggle between him and the United Kingdom more satisfaction if he is injuring Northern Ireland than if he thinks he is injuring Great Britain. Undoubtedly, this must effect the small traders who have been accustomed to trading across the border, and they have been attacked by all sorts of petty duties, such as the bottle and parcel tax, and those taxes which are aimed at the retail trade rather than trade in bulk.

The aim of the British Government appears to be primarily for coal. Coal is the great export of raw material of this country, and I should like to see it prospering; but there are other things. I want to know whether in making this agreement Northern Ireland was ever consulted as to what measures would have been of assistance to its people in standing the full blast of reprisal duties from the other side, because so far the facilities given to the Irish Free State have all been agricultural and the advantage to the United Kingdom side have been nearly all to heavy industries, such as coal and cement. I should like a considered reply on that matter.

There is one further point—the question of bona fides in making these bargains. If you are going to make a bargain about taking off duties, and more duties are put on the next day, it is not a very good bargain. After this bargain was concluded between the United Kingdom Government and the Irish Free State Government, the Irish Free State proceeded to put on a new lot of duties on British goods. I do not think they were the same goods; but they were metal and manufactured goods. Is there to be any understanding that when an agreement is made for reducing duties, one of the parties to that bargain may next day put on some other duties on something else, so prejudicing the bargain?

1.10 a.m.


I recollect that my colleagues of the Independent Labour party were perhaps the most efficient critics of the then Secretary for the Colonies when the question of these Irish Free State duties arose. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) then wished the Labour party to show a little more interest in the subject and to put greater pressure upon the Government in that connection. In spite of the fact that there has been to-night insistence upon an answer being given, the importance of this subject does not seem to be realised by the Labour party and the Leader of the Opposition. Only seven of them were here when the hon. Gentleman rose, although they have grown to eight since. The hon. Gentleman lectured the Minister. He should have lectured his own party on going home to their beds. There is 75 per cent. of my own party away it is true, but I would point out that our understanding from the Chief Whip of the Labour party was that the Labour party was to let this go. I accept the correction of the Chief Whip of the Labour party and realise that this is like the rest of their opposition—it is only make-believe, and that they are not going into the Division Lobby. I appreciate that this is a step in the right direction. I think that the Minister should put to his colleagues in the Government the need of taking the advice he was given so long ago on this particular subject by the hon. Member for Bridgeton. If he were to carry out that advice to the full it would be an advantage to the two countries. I am hopeful that this beginning from him may give a better feeling and that the injustice that has been done to the Irish Free State will be remedied to some extent in the future.

Resolved, That the Irish Free State (Special Duties) (No. 1) Order, 1936, dated the seventeenth day of February, nineteen hundred and thirty-six, made by the Treasury under the Irish Free State (Special Duties) Act, 1932, a copy of which was presented to this House on the said seventeenth day of February, nineteen hundred and thirty-six, be approved.