HC Deb 01 September 1939 vol 351 cc171-6

" To provide for controlling the importation, exportation and carriage coastwise of goods and the shipment of goods as ships' stores; to provide for facilitating the enforcement of the law relating to the matters aforesaid and the law relating to trading with the enemy; and to provide for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid," presented, pur- suant to the Order of the House this day, by Mr. Stanley; supported by Captain Crookshank and Mr. Cross; and ordered to be printed. [Bill 237.]

8.38 p.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Oliver Stanley)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill is designed to confer upon the Board of Trade the power to regulate imports and exports. It is necessary also, as hon. Members will appreciate, to extend this control to coastwise shipping, because there are possibilities that shipments intended to be coastwise in character might develop into overseas shipments; and also to ships' stores, because excessive shipments of ships' stores might result in an evasion of the exports control. No one, I think, can question the great necessity in war-time for the most rigid control of both exports and imports, of exports from the point of view of conserving our own resources, and imports from the point of view of seeing that only those goods which are vitally necessary for the national emergency should either occupy our shipping space or be a call upon our foreign exchange. I already have certain powers, under the Orders in Council of last week, to deal with the licensing of exports, but they are rather clumsy in character. Alterations in the list can only be made by other Proclamations, and the effect of this Bill is to enable me to exercise the same powers and to make any variations of the list by order of the Board of Trade. Similar powers under Clause 1 will also be given to license or prohibit imports.

I think I ought to call the attention of the House to Clause 2, which is a provision of some importance. Clearly during the course of the war rigid control will be instituted in many cases of manufacture, and price limits will be fixed for the sale of particular commodities in this country, and, of course, there will be no such limitation of price in the case of sales abroad. The consequence is that there will be extreme inequities between the man who is made to produce goods for this market and the man who is allowed to export similar goods to other markets and gain a substantially higher price. Under Clause 2 it will be possible for the Treasury to impose charges for the granting of such licences, which will equalise the position as between the man who is making those goods for the home market and the man who is exporting.

The remaining Clauses are merely machinery Clauses for the purpose of enforcing this system of prohibition or licensing, and I think it is only to Clause 7 that I need call the attention of the House. It is essential that the exporter or shipper of goods from this country should not only make what he believes to be a true declaration as to the destination of the goods for which he is asking a licence but that he should, before he makes a declaration, make every effort to find out that the destination is the correct one, and that these goods are not in fact going to find their way into enemy hands. Under Clause 7 if it is found that goods which have been licensed for export on a declaration that they are due for some destination to which no exception can be taken do, in fact, find their way into enemy hands, then under this Clause the onus will be put upon the shipper to show that he took all reasonable steps to secure that the ultimate destination of the goods was not a prohibited destination. The transfer of the onus from the Customs to the shipper should bring home to the shipper the necessity to exercise the utmost care in examing the destination of these goods.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

I think the House will agree that the general powers sought in this Bill must be regarded as necessary in the conditions which arise, but there are one or two short points which I should like to make. First of all the power which the President of the Board of Trade proposes to take to impose licence charges will, in fact, amount to a power to levy a tax on exports which may be of very considerable volume. We are anxious that, in cases where specific firms are required by the Government, in the national interest, to enter into the production for the home market of something which is of essential importance, other firms should not be allowed to gain an advantage by exporting similar goods; but this provision as to licensing charges puts a very wide authority of a taxing nature into the hands of the Government and we ought to be quite sure that such power is going to be properly used. It is a fact that under Clause 2 the Order must be passed by an affirmative resolu- tion, but I should have liked to have been rather more certain as to the direction in which this power is to be used and to have heard more than it has been possible to explain to us in these hasty circumstances.

The other point I want to raise, which is a very small one, is as to the very general wording of the provision as to penalties. There is a specific reference to the forfeiture of goods and the imposition of a fine, but the general application of penalties under the Customs Act may mean anything or nothing. At present there is no reference to imprisonment, although an offender may be doing something which is very detrimental to the State—unless the President of the Board of Trade proposes to invoke the imprisonment Sections of the Customs Act. I think he will agree that we ought to be quite sure about that. Lots of people made money in this way during the last War. I am anxious about the generality, as it were, of the wording of this Clause.

The only other point is in regard to the registration of the shipping. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to look into the position of Government agents because you must have not only an adequate Admiralty list controlling the regulations for shipping but men who are likely to be experienced in the class of work to be undertaken during the War. This matter has not been dealt with specifically, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will look into it and see whether he can do anything about it.

8.47 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger

I desire quite briefly to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether in regard to Clause 2 the difference between the cost price of goods manufactured for home consumption and that of goods manufactured for export is roughly going to be the cost of the licences. Another aspect of the matter which I hope the right hon. Gentleman has borne in mind is that a large part of our trade deals with export and that the exercise of these powers will have to be carried out with discretion; otherwise it will not only be that one man may get a slightly better price but he will be building up a very substantial goodwill which might be of very considerable use to him after hostilities have ceased. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is cognisant of this point. If the right hon. Gentleman, without taking complete control of industry, is to get the co-operation and the smooth running of industry, he must see that no suspicion is left in the minds of manufacturers that one section, or indeed one manufacturer even, is not granted something of which at some distant date he may reap the benefit at the expense of manufacturers who, in peace time, may have been manufacturing for export.

8.48 p.m.

Mr. Foot

As was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hills-borough (Mr. Alexander), we are all readily granting now to the Government powers which we should never have dreamed of granting in any ordinary time. The right hon. Gentleman referred in particular to Clause 7 (Provisions as to ultimate destination of goods). By this Clause we provide that if the Commissioners for Customs and Excise have reason to suspect that the declaration is untrue in any material particular, the goods may be detained until the Commissioners are satisfied as to the truth of the declaration, and, if the Commissioners are not so satisfied, the goods shall be forfeited. There, of course, the burden of proof is put on the man whose goods may be forfeited. As I read the Clause, the decision rests entirely with the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, but surely there ought to be some possibility of appeal in a case like that. I suggest that we ought to have some further explanation why this considerable power is left in the sole hands of the Commissioners and why there is no right of appeal of any kind under Sub-sections (1) or (2) of Clause 7.

8.49 p.m.

Mr. Stanley

Perhaps I might briefly reply to the points which have been made. Both the right hon. Gentleman opposite and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) called attention to what I agree are the very wide powers contained in Clause 2. The right hon. Gentleman also went on to point out that they are dependent finally upon the passage of an affirmative Resolution by this House, which will, of course, give the House a measure of control. I do not think it is possible at this stage, with so many conditions unknown and so many possibilities unforeseen, to give a picture of how this Clause will, in fact, be used. But it is quite clear that, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw has pointed out, we must have equity, as far as we can, between the man who has to produce for the home market and the man who has to produce for the export market. Those are the general principles upon which the Clause will be worked. I am afraid it is impossible to be more specific. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hills-borough (Mr. Alexander) raised the question of the position of Government agents. I can only say that I shall be very happy indeed to have a talk with him on this very important point, and that I shall be very grateful to him for any advice he may be able to offer.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot), it is quite true that there is under this Clause no appeal from the forfeiture of the goods. It is essential that when we suspect that a declaration which has been made as to the destination of the goods is untrue the man should be prepared to back up the declaration he has made by the production of satisfactory documents. If he fails to do so there is no appeal for him so far as the forfeiture of the goods is concerned; but, of course, if we take subsequent steps and prosecute him for having made a false declaration, he has the usual protection of the law.

Mr. Foot

Suppose the man was subsequently prosecuted, and the courts decided that the declaration was not false and judgment was given in his favour. Under the operation of the Clause, the goods would still be forfeited.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.