HC Deb 03 May 1937 vol 323 cc913-21
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Dr. Burgin)

I beg to move, in page 8, line 38, to leave out from "Board" to the end of the line, and to insert: having regard to the interests of all classes of persons concerned, whether producers or consumers, and to the commercial relations between the United Kingdom and other countries, that the making of the Order is desirable. This Amendment is moved in pursuance of an undertaking given by the Minister at an earlier stage of the Bill. In connection with legislation, points always arise as to whether it is necessary to insert in a Bill the particulars of the subject-matter which a Department of State has to make into consideration before making an Order. One of the habitual replies given by Ministers to questions is that all relevant considerations will be taken into account. So, when the Board of Trade is given, under this Clause, power to regulate the importation of meat, it is, broadly speaking, unnecessary in clear accurate drafting to indicate the sorts of considerations that are to govern the President of the Board of Trade in making up his mind whether or not to introduce an Order. However, when the Amendment was moved in committee to leave out the Sub-section, a certain amount of misunderstanding was evident, arid there were Members who took the view that some sinister motive induced its acceptance. As the Board of Trade were most anxious that no misapprehension should exist, and, in particular, that the whole House and the general public should understand that the interests of consumers were to be taken into account, no objection was raised to the words being reinserted in a form that was thought more appropriate.

Accordingly, the Minister for Agriculture gave in terms an undertaking that the words on the Paper should be introduced at this stage of the Bill. The words saying that it is desirable in the general interest to make an Order are to be deleted and words are to be inserted to show that, after taking into account the interests of all concerned, whether producers or consumers, and commercial relations between the United Kingdom and other countries, if the President then thinks that an Order for restricting the importation of meat is desirable, an order may be made under the Clause. I think the House will agree, first, that the Minister would naturally desire to implement his undertaking, secondly, that the undertaking corresponds to a desire generally felt in all parts of the House and, thirdly, that these words are appropriate to secure that result.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Barnes

I am very glad to see the Board of Trade reasserting some of its authority in relation to this Clause and, as far it goes, one can welcome the restoration of the word "consumer." I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary has given a quite complete record of what transpired in the Committee proceedings. The whole Clause was practically remodelled, I suggest under the pressure of interests behind the Minister, and I make no apology for suggesting that the purpose of altering it was indeed a sinister purpose. The powers in the Clause are dangerous and out of place in a Bill of this character. The compromise language which the Minister has now agreed upon is still not quite as happy as the original Clause. The words "general interest" there related to the stability of the home market and, in addition, there were specific provisions which imposed the obligation on the Board of Trade to keep in mind the interests of consumers, and there was another rather important little provision that the Board of Trade had to keep in mind, the interests of manufacturers and those persons, interests or businesses which process meat.

In the new Amendment now before the House neither the words "general interest" nor those safeguards for manufacturers and processors of meat are included in the amended terms. I welcome the re-insertion of the term "consumers" in the Clause, but the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister himsel will recognise that we are, in face, opposed to the whole principle of the Clause itself. It is rather regrettable that we should impose the powers which Clause II contains in a Bill seeking to re-organise the home industry, particu- larly at a time when prices of almost all foodstuffs are mounting fairly rapidly. If you take prices of some of the primary foodstuffs which the people of this country consume, in the last 12 months flour has increased by 17 per cent., bread has gone up 12 per cent., tea by 9 per cent., eggs by 16 per cent., and margarine by 9 per cent., and now we have powers of a restrictive character being taken in the Clause by the Board of Trade, who should be a Department anxious to safeguard the wider commercial and consuming interests of the population of this country. In addition to the restrictive nature of the Ottawa Agreements already in operation and the levy proposals of the beef and veal Customs Duties, which will take £3,000,000 out of the price of imported beef and veal commodities in this country, powers are taken to restrict the importation of beef and veal for the purpose of still further forcing up prices. It is desirable to make it clear that, while we welcome this particular Amendment, nevertheless, we shall have to register our opposition to the Clause itself.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. H. G. Williams

I am one of those who have never had any particular love for quantitative regulation, because I realise the logical sequence of it. It is true that by the Amendment we are modifying it a little. Quantitative regulation means that no new person can enter into the industry of importing meat. It is part of the totalitarian scheme which the Minister referred to earlier on. I do not believe in Fascism even when it appears in a Bill promoted by the National Government, because in existing circumstances, and having regard to the fact that we have very unwisely abandoned any effort to put duties upon Empire products on a preferential basis, this is really tariff dodging. All this unnecessary stuff is being put into the Bill because we had not the courage and foresight to adopt the right principle earlier on, and we are forced into this rather undesirable system. I am glad to see that there are some qualifications in the Amendment where it refers to the question of the commercial relationship between the United Kingdom and other countries. In the Committee I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade a question to which he did not give me an answer, because he thought it was diplomatically inconvenient. No doubt he will consider that this speech is diplomatically inconvenient. I hope it is, because by that we may help to bring to an end a very undesirable state of affairs.

In December, 1924, we signed a commercial agreement with Germany which contains a clause not to be found in any other commercial agreement that we have signed in more recent times. It is the abandonment of prohibition. Article 10 of that agreement says that we may not apply quantitative regulations to any goods coming from Germany—subject to certain sanitary exceptions—unless we have a marketing system. In all our other commercial agreements there is the most-favoured-nation clause, which applies not only to tariffs but to quantitative regulations. As a result of the most-favoured-nation clause, Article 10 of our commercial agreement with Germany is automatically extended to the whole world, and the present position is that we cannot apply quantitative regulations to the importation into this country of any commodity from any country in the world unless that commodity is subject in this country to a system of internal regulation. Accordingly, where we have a marketing scheme in operation we can apply quantitative restriction, but where we have not a marketing scheme in operation we cannot apply quantitative regulation.

As I understand this Bill, it is not a marketing scheme within the interpretation of Article 10 of the German commercial agreement, and therefore technically this Clause cannot be used. For a long time I have urged in letters to the Press, in speeches in this House, and in articles, in conjunction with a number of other hon. Members, that we should get rid of Article 10 of the German commercial agreement, and then pass into law some general Act authorising quantitative regulation in those cases where it is necessary—I do not like quantitative regulation but I recognise its necessity in certain cases—and then use the instrumentality of the Import Duties Advisory Committee, so that when there was quantitative regulation there should be some liberty, as there is to-day in connection with import duties; but that is impossible until we get rid of Article 10.

It may be that I am going to make the operation of this Bill more difficult when it becomes an Act. It may be that by what I am saying I am drawing the attention of the Germans to the fact that we are going to dodge their Treaty. I hope I do, because I want to force His Majesty's Government to get out of the impossible position that they are in in respect of Article f o. I do not believe that they can honourably put this Clause into operation until they, do what is necessary. There is no reason why the Germans should think we are doing anything offensive to them if we ask them to modify their commercial agreement in regard to Article 10, because we can explain to them that throughout the operation of our other agreements Article 10 of their agreement ties us to the rest of the world, and that what we are seeking is freedom.

I do not know how embarrassing this may be to the Board of Trade. I do not much mind, because I want to force their hands. Much as I dislike quantitative regulation, I recognise that there are times when it may be necessary or when the threat of it may be an advantage. I want the time to come when the Government will be free in certain circumstances to apply the system. We are pretending to be free in this Bill. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will supply to the House the information which, as far as I could make out, he could not supply in the Committee upstairs, when I made a speech somewhat similar to the one I am now making, although the speech that I made then was a little more temperate. I hope that we shall have a little more information than we have had on this subject of the position in respect of our commercial agreements.

10.29 p.m.

Major Hills

Before the House goes to a Division I think we ought to have an answer. The question is a novel one to me and I expect to many other hon. Members who were not on the committee. I thought there was to be a regulation of imports under the Bill, and though like my hon. Friend I am not fond of quantitative regulations I think under modern conditions you must possess the power to impose them; otherwise your hand may be forced and industry may suffer. I notice also that under the Amendment which we are now discussing there are modifications on the proposal originally in the Bill, and I do not think that any hon. Member, even the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) can now object to it. I want to know whether the Clause will do anything at all. Do we or do we not possess the power to restrict imports by quantitative regulation? I think we should have a clear answer on that point before we take a decision.

10.31 p.m.

Dr. Burgin

I did not intend any discourtesy to the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) or to any other hon. Member. I thought the point was too elementary. There is no restriction upon the power of His Majesty's Government to make quantitative regulations either under the most-favourednation clause, or under the particular Article of the particular agreement to which the hon. Member for South Croydon has referred. This i4 an essential Clause in the Bill. One of the defects of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1931 was that there was no power to restrict imports. If the Bill passes into law the Clause will give the Board of Trade power to make orders.

Mr. H. G. Williams

Does the Parliamentary Secretary really say that Article 10 of the agreement with Germany does not mean what it has always been interpreted to mean?

Dr. Burgin

The hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) has put an interpretation on Article to that I have not heard before. It Is not a correct interpretation.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

The hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes) has indicated the position of hon. Members on these benches. We do not agree with the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary that there was a defect in the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1931. We know that in the 1933 Act power was taken to apply quantitative regulations where a marketing scheme was in existence. These conditions were lifted bodily out of that Act and placed in the Bill as it came before the House on Second Reading. In Committee the safeguards for the consumers and users were removed. The hon. Member has now told us that the Amendment that has been moved meets the case and that we have no further complaint. We still have a complaint, however, that the Government are taking power, in advance of any marketing scheme of any kind coming into existence, to apply further restrictions on imports. My hon. Friend said that since 1933 restrictions have been applied. Further restrictions are to be applied under the Argentine agreement. Imports are now down to a fairly low level compared to imports over a long period of time, and I do not think the House ought to give the Board of Trade or any other Department further powers to restrict imports until we know that real marketing schemes are in existence and that the cattle producers, with the assistance of the Livestock Commission, are doing for themselves what ought to have been done many years ago.

10.36 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte

With regard to the Parliamentary Secretary's reply concerning the treaty with Germany, I would remind him that, in reply to a question which I put a few weeks ago, the President of the Board of Trade told me that the treaty with Germany would prevent the Government from putting on restrictions on eggs coming into this country unless there was a marketing scheme in operation. I have not great knowledge of these treaties, but from replies I had received I had always understood that that was the position. I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for his reply.

10.37 p.m.

Sir F. Acland

With great respect to the Ministers concerned in this matter, I attach only minor importance both to the Bill as it is now—in which there are the words: desirable in the general interest"— and to the Amendment which we are asked to make, in which there are the words: Having regard to the interests of all classes of persons concerned. My reason for taking that attitude is that in the Marketing Act which was passed in the last Parliament we thought we were definitely saying that there should not be restrictions on supplies from abroad unless a marketing scheme was under active consideration. That did not prevent the Board of Trade from convincing itself, three and a-half years ago, that a restriction of imports from the Irish Free State was desirable. No marketing scheme was under active consideration at that time. To say that three and a-half years ago the wording of the Act was in any way carried out so as to justify the heavy restriction that was imposed on Irish stock is a pure invention, and therefore I am less inclined to treat seriously any words that may be included.

10.39 p.m.

Captain Heilgers

I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions. In the first place, does this Amendment make any difference with regard to the declaration made by His Majesty's Government at Ottawa? The declaration then made was that the policy of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom in relation to meat production was first to secure the market for home production. In the White Paper of 1935, the Government said: It is the firm intention of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom to safeguard the position of the United Kingdom livestock industry. In this Amendment one safeguard is dropped out. It is the provision that the President of the Board of Trade had to consult with the Minister of Agriculture. Secondly, there has been introduced the reference to the commercial relations between the United Kingdom and other countries. I would like to know whether these commercial relations and the agreements which have been made by the Board of Trade, will weaken the position taken up by the Government at Ottawa and subsequently?

Dr. Burgin

The answer to the hon. and gallant Member is that no difference whatever is made. The Amendment contains the substance of the Clause which was deleted from the Bill at an earlier stage. It is merely a happier method of phrasing the same thing and I think the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) will find that consumers, including processors, are covered.

Amendment agreed to.

10.41 p.m.

Dr. Burgin

I beg to move, in page 8, line 39, after "for," insert "livestock and."

This Amendment also arises out of an undertaking which was given by the Minister in Committee that the Board of Trade would have regard to the market for livestock. The reason for referring only to the market for meat in the Bill was because the market for meat is the primary factor, but it is recognised that the importation of livestock may also have a considerable influence and the Board of Trade is prepared to have these words inserted.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. T. Williams

On a point of Order. May I ask whether, as Clause 11 has been amended, we shall have an opportunity of voting on the question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill"?

Mr. Speaker

That is never done on Report.