HC Deb 04 December 1947 vol 445 cc645-73

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Hannan.]

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

I desire to raise the question of the import of books. It is fair to tell the House at the commencement that I have, as it were, two interests in reverse in this question, in that I am to some extent an author of books and to some extent a publisher of books, in this country, and, therefore, it might seem superficially that it is to my interest that all other books be kept out of this country. I hope that I shall demonstrate that I by no means think that it would, in point of fact, be to my interest.

There has been set up in this country an import licensing system for books. Last Friday the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) raised on the Adjournment the particular question of the import of certain American juvenile books, and the Financial Secretary then defended the policy on the lines upon which it was obvious it would be defended, that the purpose of this licensing system was, in the first place, to save dollars. In response to the hon. Member's plea that at any rate American juvenile books should be controlled—he was arguing for further control, which is the opposite of my argument—the Financial Secretary stated that it would be impossible to discriminate against American books because of Article 9 of the Financial Agreement. The last thing I would wish to do would be to say any word that could possibly be construed as approving of Article 9, but there it is, and I understand that position.

I understand that to be the general case of defence of the Government's policy. On that ground I would challenge its necessity, firstly, on a financial basis. I am fully conscious of the necessity to save dollars, and whether we like it or not we are entirely conscious of the fact that this Government and this country have undertaken these obligations under Article 9. I would point out to the Parliamentary Secretary, to begin with, that books are, on a purely financial basis, in an entirely different category from any other articles of trade between this country and America, because they are almost one of the few articles on which our balance of trade is, in all the circumstances, a favourable balance of trade.

In the years before the war it was enormously easier for an English author to get his books published in the United States than it was for an American author to get his books published in this country, and although the developments of the war have obviously made certain differences in that, it is my contention that if we tackle the problem with vigour and reasonable optimism, there is no reason why that favourable balance should not be restored. Therefore, from this purely financial point of view, greater freedom of trade between this country and the United States in that particular line would result in a favourable rather than a more unfavourable dollar balance situation.

Nevertheless, it would be intolerable that the greatest glory of this country, its literature, should be considered solely as an article of commerce, and that is one of the reasons why I am extremely concerned about the whole import licensing system, and by no means entirely consoled by the statement of the President of the Board of Trade that, of course, that licensing system will be operated in such a way as always to let in any books of value. I see no reason at all why the present President of the Board of Trade, or any other holder of that office, should be the judge of what is valuable literature and what is not. No doubt, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a very learned and erudite man. I am not complaining at the moment that he has made any gross errors of taste, but there is no kind of reason to think that the judgment of Governments will be a satisfactory judgment on a point such as that.

Though it is perfectly true that up to the moment there have been no drastically scandalous refusals of import licences, yet in this matter, as in so many other matters, no sensible person can be consoled merely by looking at the present position, because in every sort of aspect of policy we know that the whole situation has changed with kaleidoscopic rapidity. The Government put on restrictions and announce that they are to be applied in a friendly and moderate fashion, but as the situation deteriorates they are used more and more drastically, so the mere fact that a licensing system exists is a cause for considerable concern.

Apart from that, although for the moment I have not heard of any case of any importance about which I would make a scandal because a licence has been refused, there is grave cause for complaint about the intolerable delays that are taking place in the granting of these licences, which, I maintain, are already imposing considerable sufferings upon the people of this country. For instance, this system was introduced in the month of October, and I have here a letter from a bookseller in which he says: Up to the moment of writing we have not received a reply to any of these applications. As you will see, some of the licences date back as far as 7th October. Only this morning this bookseller was rung up by an official of the Board of Trade, who told the firm that they might get a reply if they supplied to the Board of Trade all the details of their past trading. It is an extremely difficult thing for a short-staffed business to supply the Board of Trade, at short notice, with the details of their past trading. This particular bookseller says he has already had that precise request made to him three times in four months, and has had to put his staff three times to this business of looking up, in some detail, all their past trading, which puts them in an extraordinary difficulty.

The second class of books in regard to which there is a great grievance, both from the economic and the larger cultural points of view, is that there has been an almost complete, if not complete, stop placed upon all art books that are imported into this country from the Continent of Europe. We need not waste time, in establishing from the cultural point of view, the Philistinism of such a regulation, but even from the purely trading point of view it is equally foolish, because the position of this country in relation to art publication has, for 100 years, very largely been that of being the great middleman between the Continent of Europe and the United States. Our art experts have scoured the Continent and imported books which are necessary for their work, and they have written books in the English language which have had a large sale in the United States. At this critical time, owing to these regulations, we are being driven out of that market, and the Americans are necessarily doing this work for themselves, because it is possible for them to get the art books from the Continent of Europe, and it is not possible for art critics in this country to do so.

Let me take a third instance of the kind of thing that is happening. Of American friends of this country, there are few more distinguished and more faithful than Mr. Herbert Agar, a distinguished writer. He was at the American Embassy before the war and he returned to his own country to edit the "Louisville Courier." He was sent over here and attached to the late Mr. Winant's personal staff before the United States came into the war. Then he went back to do very valuable propaganda work in his own country on behalf of Great Britain, to which he is most devotedly attached.

About a year ago, this extremely distinguished writer completed a work in the United States on the definitive edition of the work, "The Formative Years" by the distinguished American philosopher, Henry Adams. The question arose whether this book could be imported into this country. An intolerable delay took place with correspondence between officials of the Board of Trade who had clearly never heard of Mr. Agar or Henry Adams. As a result, nine months elapsed before leave was granted by the Board of Trade for this extremely important work of American scholarship to be imported into this country. What kind of effect is that likely to have on our standing in the United States if that is the sort of way in which we treat the most important work of one of our best friends in the country of our Ally?

On 9th May, the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) raised on the Adjournment what in some ways may appear to be the counter of the matter that I am raising today. He raised the question of book production in this country. Obviously enough, there is no opposition between asking for better conditions for book production here and for better conditions for the import of books. Books are not things of which there is a limited demand so that if we have two books in this country we cannot import two more from abroad. On the contrary, they are a commodity of which it is desirable that the supply should be as large as possible. The production of one book, far from stopping the production of another book, leads to the production of another book. There is no reason why I should not associate myself with every point which was very properly and well made by the hon. Member for Aston on that occasion.

But if these obstacles are still insuperable and we cannot produce books at home, let us be allowed to import more books. The hon. Member for Aston produced some rather humiliating and ridiculous examples. He described how school children had poems of Keats in their syllabus when it was impossible to obtain copies of the poems of Keats anywhere in this country. That is a humiliating and ridiculous situation, if it be so. If we cannot produce the poems of Keats here let us not also stop ourselves from importing them from other countries.

Also, there is the strange difficulty about binding. Before the war a considerable amount of binding work for books took place in other countries, particularly in Belgium. There again, if we can produce the books here and bind them in Belgium, surely it is to the advantage both of England and of Belgium that English and French books should be produced by this composite process rather than that we should continue the present situation in which the books cannot be produced in Belgium, because there is no paper, and cannot be produced in England because there is no binding.

We entirely understand the general need for helping exports in every way. However, it is clear that, whatever may be said for certain discrimination against other American goods at this time, there is no case for discrimination in this trade where the balance will be in our favour. Still less is there a case for discrimination against trade with other countries. It is fantastic to say that we must have exports and that we will stop having imports, and then to imagine that all the rest of the countries of the world will take our exports though we take nothing in return from them. It is obvious that in the matter of books, as indeed in many other matters, if we allow a greater condition of freedom there will be a greater trade on both sides, and to allow a greater freedom of imports, instead of being damaging to our exports, will be favourable to them. Obviously that is true on a purely economic basis.

In the book trade there is a further consideration that every wise man should have in mind. It is that the most important of our exports throughout the generations has not been coal, or cotton, but ideas. The ideas of this country have penetrated to every country to the advantage of the world in larger and deeper cultural ways, and also to our advantage in a narrower commercial way. Since our exports are, to a large extent, luxury goods and what may be called goods of taste, it is obvious that we are more likely to get people in other countries to buy our food, drink or clothes, if they are told something about our way of life and are made familiar with our literature. The grave danger is that round this country, and round other countries, there may be growing up something almost of the nature of an intellectual iron curtain.

We are stopped from travelling abroad; our newspapers are cut down; and if, on top of that, imports of books are stopped, more and more the nations of the world, at a time when everybody is crying out for the necessity of their unity and understanding, will drift into these separate compartments where they read different things and do not understand what one another are talking about. It has been the most important traditional rôle of this country that it should act as a great uniter of the nations in that cultural fashion. We are the motherland of what is incomparably the most important language of the world and we have, to our glory, one of the greatest literatures of the world. That literature cannot flourish if we retreat into an intellectual isolation. It can continue and flourish only if the scholars and writers here are allowed free access to the thought and work going on in other places.

At the moment all work of scholarship is becoming increasingly hampered by the fact that scholars simply cannot get hold of the most important works in their various fields produced in other countries. Therefore, I appeal most strongly to the Parliamentary Secretary to announce, if he is able to do so, that the whole import licensing system has been scrapped. If he is not able to go as far as that, I ask him to give some assurance that it will work with a great deal less delay. At present, as in so many other Government activities, the whole thing seems to be bogged up, and the delay in getting licences is so intolerable that we might almost as well have a complete ban on the import of books as live under the conditions in which we are living.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. McAllister (Rutherglen)

I do not propose to speak for anything like the length of time which the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) occupied, but I am sure that we are all grateful to him for having raised this important issue, and that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will not in any way be out of sympathy with the motives which lie behind the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It is through this country, and, equally through my native country, especially the City of Edinburgh, that we have a great publishing tradition which, probably more than any other factor, has made the Scottish, English, and Welsh way of life known to peoples in the far corners of the earth and has implanted the principles of democracy in many places where it otherwise would not have flourished.

We spend large sums of public money on propagating ideas, news, and views about Britain in many parts of the world. But without any expenditure by the Exchequer, without any cost to the taxpayer, the book that goes abroad tells the British story in a way better than any official channel can possibly tell it. We ought to regard books as the special ambassadors of British ideas and thought, and give them the utmost encouragement, instead of putting obstructions in their way. The hon. Member for Devizes put the matter clearly when he said that the balance of dollar payments was entirely favourable to this country. I am not sure what the prewar figure was, but I think the credit balance was something like £4 million, which is a considerable revenue for an industry which does not absorb an enormous amount of manpower or material. We are selling ideas rather than raw materials, even when they are translated into the form of the printed page or the bound book.

I also agree with what the hon. Member for Devizes said about art books. Here, the present position is somewhat ludicrous. We are allowed to import into this country original works of art, and every Government, from the Coalition Government to the present Government, has given special consideration to such works. I am in favour of that, but what I cannot understand is why there should be any discrimination against the reproduced work of art, especially when it is in a loose folder. The curious thing is that if a book of reproductions of famous American paintings comes to this country in a bound form that is accepted by the Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue as a book in the ordinary sense of the word. But if the reproductions are not bound into a volume, if they are loosely enclosed within a folder, then, apparently, they are not part of a book, and are subject to the ordinary Customs duty.

They are also subject to a curious tax which I thought had been abolished a long time ago—the ship's tax. Finally, they have to pay Purchase Tax not merely on the imported price, but on the Customs duty and the ship's tax as well. That is a preposterous position. When you have publishers and firms of booksellers, and especially firms which combine those two functions, doing their utmost to encourage the free exchange of reproduced works of art by British and American artists, it is difficult for them to see what benefit accrues to anybody when they are hampered and strangled in this way.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will look into this matter with sympathy and a desire to help in the interchange of the culture of the new world and the old. If he does that I am sure that a different result may accrue in a very short time. Yesterday, the Minister of Education dealt with the shortage of teachers, and pointed out that while enough young men were forthcoming to man the schools there was still an acute shortage of women. Of equal importance with the shortage of staff is the shortage of books for the children. We must see that through the efforts of British publishing houses, or our American friends, adequate books will be provided for our children, books which will stimulate the mind and the faculties and arouse in children an appreciation of beauty, whether in poetry or prose, or in the visual arts. I am sure that the issue which the hon. Member for Devizes has raised will receive sympathetic consideration from the Government.

7.35 p.m.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

I would also like to give my support to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis), who has raised an issue which is extremely important in many respects. I slightly disagree with him, however, as to whether or not there should be any limit at all on import licences for books. I agree that it would be desirable, if we were in a situation where we need not worry about the import of books, that there should be no limit to that. But the import of books has been running away with £3 million or million worth of dollars a year, and that is a serious consideration. Although the balance of trade with America is favourable to us, I think we have the right to make a choice, to be able to say, "We cannot afford the luxury of importing so much fiction, and we must put a limit to it." I do not see why that should prevent America from importing our books.

In the way in which the restriction has been imposed a curious attitude towards the book trade has been displayed. Things seem to be done against books almost entirely without any sort of discrimination. When import licences for books are banned the matter is not gone into thoroughly to find out which should be banned and which should be continued. We now have the curious situation that there is no limit at all on the import of fiction, provided that the importer guarantees to re-export 50 per cent. of that fiction. It is very easy to re-export 50 per cent. of the fiction imported from the United States. It can be sent to the sterling area, but that does not necessarily bring us back any dollars. That is what will happen. People will import fiction from America, re-export 50 per cent. of it to the sterling area, and still sell the rest, in the form of pocket books and the like, at a good profit in Britain.

The situation with regard to technical books is somewhat different, and here is my chief complaint against the Government. A person may only import technical books up to his prewar quota. That is most unfair, because the quota of technical books imported before the war was very small. That is a bad period on which to base the present quota. The amount was small because English publishers then had far more paper, had no production difficulties, and were producing the books themselves. These books, scientific and technical books, are vital at the moment; we cannot afford to do without them. It is a most peculiar and arbitrary rule to say that a person may import as much fiction as he likes provided he re-exports 50 per cent. of it, but that he may only import technical books up to the quantity which he imported before the war. It is only because we have production difficulties here at this moment, combined with a shortage of paper, that we must import technical books at all——

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the President of the Board of Trade told me on 13th November that licences are granted to prewar importers of scientific and technical books to import up to 100 per cent., by value, of their prewar im- ports? I suggest for the consideration of the Parliamentary Secretary that the value of those books in dollars is twice as great now, and that the figure ought to be 200 per cent. instead of 100 per cent.

Mr. Wyatt

I quite see the point which my hon. Friend has in mind. It is, of course, quite true, and it only makes it more ridiculous to fix a quota on the prewar period owing to the rising dollar cost of books.

I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade ought to reconsider the whole matter. He should put a limit on the amount of fiction that can be imported and re-exported. At the same time he should either take the limit off technical books altogether for a period of time in order to see whether it really would cost us a great deal of dollars, or, if he feels that it will cost us too much in dollars and he cannot afford even a trial period—although I should think it very doubtful—let him raise the amount of technical books which can be imported. Otherwise the result will be to stifle people who are engaged in research in universities and so on, because of not being able to get the technical books they need.

The way to obviate necessity to import books at all is to get the English book trade on its feet again. It is doing quite well. It is turning out perhaps more books even than it did before the war, although the books may be smaller in size. But there is still an enormous opportunity for expansion. I hope that among the cuts which may be under consideration in various fields of activity one cut will be avoided and that a notice will be posted up everywhere in the Board of Trade: "Never cut books. Whatever else we have to cut, don't cut books." Let us not cut the circulation of ideas and the stimulation of ideas. Let us keep them freely flowing the whole time. Let it be a motto of the Board of Trade that, among all the calamities and setbacks which we may have to experience they will despite them, contrive to increase the quota of paper and will never cut it. If we increase the paper quota, even if we have to import paper for the job, we can make almost ten times as much by exporting the paper when it has been printed as British books as it costs to import the paper in the first instance. We are also, at the same time, obviating the need to import books from America.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Naylor (Southwark, South-East)

I am in agreement with the opinions that have been expressed by the three hon. Members who have spoken. The point I wish to raise is rather different, although it is part and parcel of the same subject. It concerns a matter which was brought to my notice recently. A Scottish firm of printers had decided to bring out a new monthly magazine for boys and girls. The firm in question is of high repute in Scotland. What I have to say can in no way be considered as any criticism of what they have done, apart from what the Parliamentary Secretary may have to say afterwards. I have no interest in the industry. I want to make that clear before I give the Parliamentary Secretary the particulars which are germane to the case.

The monthly magazine is to be, if it is not already in operation, composed in Scotland, that is to say, compositors will set up the type for a monthly magazine of about 40 pages. Those 40 pages will be electro-typed, and, instead of being printed in Scotland, will be sent to Canada in the form of plates. They will be printed in Canada. The whole edition of 40,000 is to be produced in Canada and then it is to be exported from Canada to this country, to the extent of 75 per cent. of the edition, to be sold to the booksellers of Great Britain.

While all that may be necessary to the firm as a process of printing and publishing, especially in regard to the shortage of paper, I am wondering whether it is in the interests of our national economy that such a roundabout method of producing a monthly magazine for boys and girls should be followed. It will be printed in Canada and it will take up shipping space not once, but every month of the year. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to explain whether or not that is quite in order with all the rules and regulations of the book trade, whether this firm had to obtain a licence before being allowed to import the 30,000 or more copies of the monthly magazine, whether they have been in previous consultation with the Board of Trade, and whether the Board of Trade think it consistent.

Mr. McAllister

Will my hon. Friend allow me——

Mr. Naylor

I am just finishing, and my hon. Friend can follow me.

Mr. McAllister

I wondered whether my hon. Friend would agree that it is at least better that children's magazines should be printed in Canada and exported to this country, even at the expense of shipping space, than that a good deal of trashy and rubbishy American literature should come over in the same way?

Mr. Naylor

Yes, I say that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what hon. Members have said; yet this case seems to raise the question of shipping space. I agree that we must exclude all that my hon. Friend wishes to exclude, but still I should require an explanation from the Board of Trade whether what is proposed to be done, or perhaps is actually being done, is consistent with the national economy and with the policy of the Board of Trade, and whether it is consonant with the licensing system now prevailing in regard to these imports.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I am sorry to take up the time of the House at this hour, but I wish to support what has been said with regard to importing knowledge in the form of scientific books. I have a number of friends and relations who, in one way or another, are engaged in scientific research. I do not know whether the Board of Trade fully realises the extent of the difficulty which is being caused by the limitation of imports of foreign scientific books to a prewar quota. In some fields of science there have been most remarkable advances during the war, made both by this and by other countries.

The necessities and shortages of war time have resulted in books being written and published in other countries about advances which were made in this country. This has been particularly so in the field of applied physics, in such matters as radar and atomic research. The literature on those subjects has very largely been published abroad, particularly in the United States, even in cases where the research work has actually been done in this country. The Board of Trade may say, "Yes, but does not a prewar quota meet the requirements of the case?" The answer is that in some cases it does and in other cases it does not. The question is whether the Board of Trade is prepared to consider an extension of that quota in fields of the character which I have been describing, where, as a matter of fact, the prewar quota does not meet the requirements of learning and technical education in this country.

I want to say a word or two about those requirements. I have recently had a case in which a constituent of mine was prepared to enter into a transaction which I am going to mention later, because I think it has a very considerable bearing on the dollar difficulty. In that particular case the books to be imported were books principally concerned with the results of recent researches in physical fields on such subjects as radar and the like. I have some letters obtained by a bookseller dealing in this type of work from academic persons in Liverpool, who one and all wrote from what seemed to me to be an astonishingly large number of laboratories and departments to say that they were unable to get the books they needed for their research work and books needed for educational purposes. Research is, of course, one field in which these books are required, but they are also required in connection with technical education, whether at universities or technical schools. They are also required in connection with industry itself and in connection with the public service.

It may be said that the Board of Trade is well able to look after that, but I question whether the character of these books is fully appreciated. I once knew an extremely reactionary county councillor, who, when asked why his county council had no public library, replied that there was no demand for it. The answer of the Board of Trade, as regards scientific books, seems to me to suffer from the same defect. A demand of this sort is not usually associated with people conducting a special agitation. Though, no doubt, a public department will make a certain amount of noise, it does not always follow that the people engaged in technical research of this kind in connection with industry are also prepared to make it. After all, the Labour movement has for many years past laid stress on the advantages which science might bring to the ordinary people of this country, and, surely, it is particularly up to a Labour Government not to shut the door on this kind of knowledge, not even to shut the door until someone knocks loudly on it; indeed, I should have thought it was up to them to make certain that a door of that kind was everywhere left open.

I turn for a minute to the dollar difficulty, and I am now going to give the instance which I mentioned a few moments ago. In this particular case, a constituent of mine is being pressed to export a particular kind of paper to the hard currency countries. He is finding considerable difficulty in doing so, because the market for it is somewhat limited, and he cannot sell that paper in the United States since the ordinary market price for it is considerably lower than the price which he would have to charge on any ordinary remunerative commercial basis after American tariff dues have been paid. He was prepared, and I believe still is, to enter into a transaction with some publishers, who on their side, would get leave to send their books here—and they did not ask for that particularly as a favour to themselves, but were anxious for it to be extended to all other publishers. They would send their books into this country, and, in return, would pay more dollars for this paper than would be spent in getting the books. The net result of that transaction would be a dollar gain to this country, and yet it has been refused. It may be that such a paper can be sold elswhere for hard currency, but the Board of Trade, as a matter of fact, has had evidence in this case that that is not so, and, if it is desired to make dollar profits, that is the only way to do it.

I do not put forward the case for any larger and unrestricted importation of scientific books, but I do most earnestly entreat the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider this matter from two points of view: firstly he should consider the importance to learning in this country of letting that type of book become available, without unnecessary restrictions, and, when I say unnecessary restrictions, I cannot believe that, within such a limited field, unrestricted importation could do any harm whatever. The damage done now by restrictions of this kind is not merely to be measured in money and with certainty, but is an indefinable damage which may be, and probably is, extremely large, as is always the kind of damage that is done by limiting the free flow of knowledge, not only within a country, but between one country and another.

I ask him to reconsider the whole question, and also, as a matter of machinery, to reconsider particularly the cases in which the import of any books can in fact be done without a serious dollar loss, and to make the machinery of the Board of Trade itself more elastic in order to facilitate transactions of that kind. Above all, I entreat him not to get up here this evening and give a positive and final "No" to representations which mean a very great deal to the spread of knowledge throughout the world, and which, in my belief, will encourage that international communion between scientists which is one of the surest foundations upon which peace may ultimately be built in this world. This is not a small mater, and it is not a small subject for Debate. Let not the Parliamentary Secretary, at any rate, say "No" tonight on something that merits further consideration, if ever any subject of Debate in this House did.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Wilkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I would like to follow up a point made by the last speaker and say that one of the most serious factors in the present situation is the shortage of medical textbooks in our medical faculties. I have had representations made to me, as I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary has had, from the heads of medical faculties to say that we in this country are in grave danger of falling behind others both in medical teaching and practice, through lack of the importation of that new research which has been embodied in American textbooks during the last six or seven years.

During the war, the production of medical textbooks in this country was seriously hindered, and we are now in a situation in which the medical textbook position in our medical faculties is seriously menacing the training of those doctors whom we now need in such greatly increased numbers to operate our own health and medical services. On this question of medical textbooks alone, the restriction on the importation of scientific books is really quite intolerable, and is menacing our whole future medical education. That is my first point in regard to the importation of these books.

The second point I want to stress is that the British Council abroad finds itself so much handicapped in its work because it is unable to obtain from this country the books which are so essential to support it in its work at the moment. Their work, of which I have some personal experience, is very much more important today in certain parts of Europe than it has ever been before. In countries which during the war, and even before the war, were cut off from the ideas of Western democracy, through the growth of totalitarian regimes, there was a great hunger at the end of the war to know what was being thought, and what had been written during the years which had seen a mental darkness spreading over their own countries. There was positive hunger in Greece and Italy for British books. It has been said that books are our best ambassadors. That certainly could have been true in both Italy and Greece. The British Council made many representations which, in the vast majority of cases, were without effect.

I would like to tell the House about a matter of considerable gravity. When the Germans withdrew from Athens, the bookshops were, naturally, emptied of German books. They went under the counter, and were hidden for about three or four months. There was a hiatus, during which no books could be bought in the Athens shops. But, as British Council and other representations went unheeded, the old German books came more and more into the Athenian shop windows, and when, months after the liberation, there were still no British books available in that part of the world, the German books were being sold openly once again.

In the battle for ideas which is today convulsing the world, the book trade in this country is more than a trade, and the Government must not look upon it merely as a commercial undertaking. On 9th May, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade hinted that one of the chief difficulties was the coal allocation to the printing trade. Now that the coal production figures are showing some considerable increase, I hope that the Board of Trade will realise that the exporting of British books will pay even as great a dividend as the exporting of British coal, and that the President of the Board of Trade will remember that in his policy. The House will not be satisfied tonight with a mere reaffirmation of the position regarding the importation of scientific and medical textbooks. The present state of affairs is menacing the work of our faculties and of postwar education. I hope that, when the Parliamentary Secretary replies, we shall get a reply which will show us that the spirit of Philistinism, which we have seen on occasion hovering over the precincts of the Board of Trade, has at last been driven out by this Debate. Even though there are not many hon. Members present to participate in or listen to it, this is a most important Debate, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will treat this matter with the seriousness which it deserves.

8.4 p.m.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

I always feel on these Adjournment Debates that the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary very often comes down to the House with a set speech on the principle and on the main headings. He listens attentively to what is said, and inserts a word here and there in reply, but, in the main, gives the view of his Department on the matter under discussion. I would recommend to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade tonight that, if he has any preconceived ideas on this matter, he should scrap them.

We have heard very strong pleas from both sides of the House in favour of this excellent Adjournment Motion which has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis). I think the House owes him a very great debt of gratitude for raising the subject. I frankly believe that a lot of the trouble is due to the fact that the Board of Trade have been so overwhelmed with work that they have not been able to give the consideration to this important matter which it deserves. I hope that tonight the Parliamentary Secretary will not, as has already been suggested, give any definite answer, but that he will go back to his Department and thrash out this matter carefully and in detail, weighing all that has been said about it. It is vitally important at the present time, in a world of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, that we should have the widest possible circulation of ideas through the medium of books, particularly the type of book which is produced in this country and in America. There we have the finest medium we can find.

The question of export and import licences was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. There, again, we are up against the typical disease which affects many Government Departments—that of not getting a move on, of delay, and of hampering tactics, so much in evidence these days. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to speed up these licences if he is unable to remove them completely, which, in our opinion, is what he should do. I realise his difficulty in relation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the question of dollar exchange, but I think it has already been pointed out to him by my hon. Friend that the balance in relation to books is in our favour. That is a very strong point.

There is no time to lose. We are very rapidly losing some of the markets of the world, and, if we once lose this market, we shall never regain it. It ought to be one of our finest exports. Coal has been considered in the past as our best export, but this is one which we can turn into a medium through which we can get either hard or soft currency. In other words, it can become one of our greatest exports. Therefore, I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to look at the whole question again, having regard to what has been said tonight by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)

I rise to support the appeal which has been made to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade to consider this matter in its true light. There is no doubt that it is highly essential, particularly at this time, to have as large a supply of scientific and technical books as we possibly can, not only for the reasons which have already been given, but also in order to satisfy that very great extension of interest which is being taken in study by men and women, particularly by those who have returned from the Forces. Today, the places in the universities are absolutely full. Not only is it necessary to have a supply of suitable books for the use of those students who have gone to the universities and to the technical colleges, but it is equally essential that, at this stage, books should be available for the large number of persons who desire to study in extra-mural courses.

There are also a large number of men and women in the Forces who should be supplied with the necessary literature in order to enable them to pursue in a full and satisfactory way those courses which are being opened to them. I also wish to compliment the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) for having raised this matter, because it is a non-party matter. It is entirely outside the field of party politics. It stands high above any party conflicts or specific interests. It stands for the production of an essential need of the people, and for the purpose of getting the instrument to give knowledge and understanding necessary for scientific advancement. In addition, it stands for the provision of literature which is necessary for the mental advancement of the people and for the useful exercise of their leisure time. We in our Party have always advocated that leisure time should be used in a manner most beneficial to men and women. We find that there is a great shortage of the type of literature which should be available in order to comply with that requirement.

An interesting point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn). In a reply which was given to him he was informed that the value of the imports of scientific books which are permitted at present would be the same as was permitted prewar. A question arises here of considerable importance. If my hon. Friend says that the word "value" means the actual monetary consideration to be paid for such books allowed to be brought in, the effect is that he is cutting to a considerable extent the actual quantity of books we are importing. If on the other hand—I should like to have a reply because it is important for future purposes to know exactly what is meant—he means by the word "value" the value in quantity of the books imported, it places the situation on a different basis.

1 would remind him that the recent report of the Barlow Commission said that we must double our scientific personnel in order to comply with present requirements. That would mean that the number of scientific books, even in so far as prewar supply is concerned, must be extended. It is within my experience that professors who have the duty of training future scientists find it impossible to carry on their work without importing the necessary books, and at present they find it impossible to obtain them from abroad. I hope my hon. Friend will give this appeal his fullest consideration. He knows, no doubt, that the Parliamentary Scientific Committee is preparing some further material for him. I hope he will act in anticipation of obtaining that material and ascertain for himself that the need is imminent.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

I would like to add my plea to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should not, in his reply, give a direct negative to the proposals that have been made. I suggest that he would enhance his reputation, and the reputation of this House and Government, and the Board of Trade, if he were prepared to say that, in view of the representations which have come from different sides of the House, he is prepared to reconsider the matter, and see what can be done to meet those proposals.

I would like also to enter a plea on behalf of the free flow of fiction books. I do not dissent for one moment from what has been said about the importance of the free flow of medical, scientific and technical books.

I think it can also be argued in a certain sense, that the development of the mind of the world has been, if anything, more affected by the free flow of books of fiction than of books of science—at any rate as much as by the free flow of opinion on scientific knowledge. I heard an excellent broadcast recently by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis), with which I almost entirely disagreed in every particular. He argued very powerfully that if statesmen wanted to discover a clue to the enigma we feel about Russian policy we should discover it by reading Dostoevski. There may be something in that argument, and I think it could be applied in other directions. It would be wrong, in my opinion, to think that we should discriminate against works of fiction.

The Parliamentary Secretary may have to consider that we are in great difficulty and that we have to save dollars by every means. I entirely agree. I voted in favour of every proposal the Government has made for the saving of dollars. I even voted for the cut in newsprint, although it injures a profession in which I am interested. I would, however, plead that books are in a different category even from newsprint, because a cut in newsprint, distressing as it is to the Government and every one else, does not affect the free flow of opinions between the nations as much as the restriction upon the import and export of books. Therefore, I think it would be a great thing for this country if, at a time of crisis such as this, it could be announced that after deliberation and discussion in this House we had come to the conclusion that books are in a quite separate category; and while we cannot do the same in other directions, we are going to make a complete exception in the case of books. I think it would be a fine thing for the Board of Trade and for this country to be able to say that, and I am sure it would have the best possible reaction in the United States of America.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is not prepared to make such a proposal, I hope that he and his Department will act in the future more as defenders of the book trade, because I think there are many things that could be done in the future even if we cannot have the removal of this licensing system, to ease this situation. I believe it would be of value if at all times when we are discussing aid to Europe and Britain with the United States of America, under the Marshall Plan, or some other plan, there was some department in the Board of Trade which would be looking out for an opportunity of saying, "Can we have in this arrangement a special allocation of money in order to ensure that the free flow of opinion shall be encouraged to the maximum?"

There are many people in the United States of America who would approve of that proposal. A report was recently presented to the President of the United States on human rights and the protecting of the rights of free speech and publication in America. I think the eminent people who drew up that document would be only too glad to support such proposals as I have suggested in any future plan in which we may participate. I hope the Board of Trade will not look upon themselves merely as persons who have to impose restrictions on the book trade. They should do everything in their power to encourage complete freedom and flow of opinion across the frontiers of the nations.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

I wish to make a special plea for one class of book. We constantly hear references to the desirability of expanding our exports and trade with foreign countries, and we are very short in this country of foreign language dictionaries. Wherever one goes, in any part of the country, there are complaints in all the schools that they cannot get foreign language dictionaries. The best dictionaries and language teaching books used to come from Germany, especially from Leipzig, and I wish to make a special plea to the Board of Trade, for their own sake and for the sake of expansion of trade—and with the expansion of trade one must accept the necessity to learn foreign languages—that dictionaries should not only be allowed to come into the country, but should be encouraged to come into the country, because by doing that we shall be assisting our own exports through helping people to learn foreign languages. For the moment, this is being held up because of the great shortage of textbooks and dictionaries.

8.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Belcher)

I hasten, in the first place, to assure the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) that I have not come here with a lot of preconceived notions or with a typewritten speech to read to the House. I always welcome the raising of matters of importance on the Adjournment, and I certainly welcome the discussion of this matter tonight. I also assure the House, and in particular my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who may have been getting me mixed up with his ignorant county councillor, that I am not at all a Philistine in these matters. I appreciate the need for books, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot); I am not certain that it is possible to draw a hard-and-fast line between the value of the technical and scientific book and the value of the book of fiction or of poetry. They all have their place in the scheme of things.

I am only too anxious—and I think I have demonstrated my anxiety in a practical fashion on previous occasions—to do all I can to secure the most adequate supply of books for the people of our country, and from our country to the people of other countries. We began this evening by discussing the importation of books, and later in the Debate a number of hon. Members, some of whom were not here when the Debate began, rather got away from the subject of the importation of books and discussed their exportation. I am anxious to encourage that process, too. I am anxious to build up the production of books in this country, but there are difficulties which are well known to hon. Members on both sides of the House. They are difficulties over which neither I nor anybody else has a great deal of control, such as the shortage of paper; but within the limitations imposed upon us by the shortages of raw materials and of labour—and the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) agreed that there is a shortage of book-binding capacity, which involves the question of labour and of machinery—we are anxious to do all we can to stimulate the free flow of knowledge and understanding between our people and others.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Leicester (Mr. Janner) asked me two specific questions. He wanted to know whether an importer could bring in up to 100 per cent. of what he was bringing in before the war, and whether that referred to value or to volume. It refers to value, of course, and I give him his point that, with the rise of prices, it obviously means a diminution in the amount of literature coming in. He also asked me if I would pay very close regard to the case which is being prepared by the Parliamentary Scientific Committee for submission to the Board of Trade. Of course, I shall have the utmost regard for what is said in the report of that Committee, as I intend when this Debate is concluded to study all the points which have been raised by all hon. Members who have spoken.

Mr. Janner

Would my hon. Friend give a reply to the question of doubling the amount?—because undoubtedly the value of books, in terms of value in the ordinary sense, is half the value of the books which were purchased before the war.

Mr. Belcher

I gave my hon. Friend that point, but I cannot give him the reply that he wants I cannot create a precedent which I would be doing if, in the course of an Adjournment Debate, I agreed to reconsider this matter. The immediate factor is our dollar shortage. It would be very easy to say that we ought really to double it because the price has gone up; but with the best will in the world, and even though I entirely agree with everything that has been said about the importance of the free flow of knowledge and understanding, it is extremely difficult to justify doubling the amount of books which can be imported into this country from America, for instance, to people who are having to suffer reductions in their staple foods because we have not got the dollars to pay for those foods. It might be argued that food for the mind is more important than food for the body. Everybody is entitled to his own views on that subject, but it makes my task no easier when I am considering what can be done in these matters.

Mr. Blackburn

Perhaps I might be allowed to state that it has been accepted by the Committee as a general principle that the reductions in capital expenditure should not, broadly speaking, affect scientific and technical study.

Mr. Belcher

We were discussing just now the question of importing books from abroad and doubling the quantity, because the price had doubled.

Mr. Janner

No, not doubling the quantity.

Mr. Belcher

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon; I meant doubling the value. I have already agreed with my hon. Friend; I have told him so, and I do not think the point needs labouring. But that has nothing to do with the capital expenditure upon education or anything else in our own country.

Perhaps I may deal with one or two of the specific questions which have been asked. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Southwark (Mr. Naylor) mentioned a monthly magazine for boys and girls which was composed in Scotland, sent across to Canada to be printed and then brought back into the country to the extent of 75 per cent., and he suggested that that was not a very sensible thing to do. I do not know anything about this particular case. I shall be very glad to have details and look into it. From my knowledge of the situation, I should rather imagine that the difficulty there is one of obtaining paper, that the paper simply does not exist in this country, that we have no means of getting it, and that as paper exists in Canada the books are printed in that country. As I say, if my hon. Friend will let me have the details I will look into the matter, because at first hearing it sounds as though there is something rather peculiar about the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering seized on the differentiation which exists between scientific and technical works, and works of fiction. It is the case that during this year it has been possible to import into this country more or less freely works of fiction, on condition that 50 per cent. of them are re-exported. Quite rightly it was pointed out that that might mean importing considerable quantities of fiction from the United States of America for scarce dollars, and we might be sending them out of the country to soft currency areas. I will certainly look into that point because it appears to be a very obvious point to be taken up. I repeat that, while I will look at these two schemes, I do not think it would be wise—and there are two points here—for the President of the Board of Trade or me to set ourselves up as judges in this matter. I do not think it would be right, for this is, in many respects, a matter of taste, and even when it is not a matter of taste, I do not think that either my right hon. Friend or I ought to want to set ourselves up as judges. Nor do I think—and this is the other point—that it is possible, as I said just now, in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, that we can draw a hard-and-fast line between works of fiction and technical and scientific works.

Mr. Blackburn

I am very appreciative of what my hon. Friend has said, but it has now been determined by the Government here not to cut down on the technical and scientific side while cutting down on the other. That is the effect of the Government's decision. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that later.

Mr. Belcher

I am not being dogmatic about this matter at all. I am trying to point out that there are these very great difficulties. Let me say on the general issue that I do appreciate that there is a great shortage of books at the present time. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Wilkes) is correct when he talks about the shortage of books for our university faculties. I receive almost daily complaints from Members of Parliament and others, and from learned societies, about their inability, or their constituents' inability, to get hold of books. I feel very sorry about it, and I want to do all I can to assist.

I agree that books are in a different category from other goods. The hon. Member for Devizes opened with that point. He pointed out that in normal conditions the traffic between ourselves and the United States of America gave us a favourable balance. I believe that to be the case. But I must make this point to him: our present dollar situation is really extremely serious indeed; and I think that the view of the Government would have to be that, even if books were making a valuable contribution to our present dollar income, in that we had a surplus of dollars derived from the sale of British books in the United States of America, we ought not to lay it down that the dollars earned by the sale of British books must necessarily be equated with the amount of pounds earned in this country. Dollars earned must go into the general pool from which we buy our foodstuffs, raw materials and other things. I look forward to the time when paper, printing machinery and other things are in good supply, so that we can build up our book production, so that we can, possibly, increase our supply of books to other countries, and so bring more into this country.

Mr. Hollis

It is not quite as simple as that. Is it not true to say that if we are able to keep in touch with American thought, we are able to sell more books in America? It is not as though we had a fixed amount of sales of books.

Mr. Belcher

As a general proposition I should agree with that, in more normal times. It would, however, be extremely difficult to increase our sales of books to America at the present time, for the very good reason that we cannot produce in this country enough books either for ourselves or for export. The hon. Member for Devizes referred to the import licensing system and the delays that have taken place. I confess that I know that he is perfectly right: there has been considerable delay in the Import Licensing Department for some time now, not only in connection with import licences for books but in connection with import licences generally. The truth that I have to tell the House is that the Import Licensing Department, for the amount of work it has to do, is grievously understaffed. I like to make that point because we so often hear that there are far too many civil servants. In the Import Licensing Department there are apparently far too few, and so delays are occasioned by the immensity of the work which they have to do, with the shortage of staff to do the work. The delays are very irritating, I know, to those who suffer from them. I shall certainly look into the general position, and if the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has particular cases of difficulty and will refer them to me, I shall certainly do what I can to assist in getting up some speed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. McAllister) raised a number of matters, and one concerning shipping. I do not think I can deal with that in the course of an Adjournment Debate. If he will give me a note of those matters, I will do my best to give him satisfaction.

Almost every hon. Member who has spoken in this Debate has asked me not to give a flat "No" to what has been said. I certainly do not propose to do so. On the other hand, I do not propose to be dishonest, and pretend to the House that it is going to be possible to give any great alleviation immediately in this matter. I am so conscious of the difficulties of our foreign exchange situation that it would be entirely wrong of me to pretend that within a matter of a few weeks or months everything in the garden will be lovely. I am quite prepared to look into all the points which have been raised this evening. I am only too anxious to do as much as I can to improve the situation, and the various suggestions which have been made will be very carefully gone into, and in so far as it is possible for anything to be done—particularly by way of increasing the supplies of books which are most needed, including scientific and technical works—I shall be prepared to do my very best.

Mr. Wyatt

Will my hon. Friend at least make the position for technical books no worse than it is for fiction? In other words, will he not at least allow the same privilege to the importers of technical books as of fiction—to import as much as they like provided they re-export 50 per cent?

Mr. Belcher

I think I can give the hon. Member this undertaking: When I said I did not want to try to draw a hard-and-fast line between fiction and technical books, I did not mean to say that the position could remain exactly as it is at present. I believe there is a case for some slight weighting of the scales on the side of technical works, and I am prepared to look into the suggestions made to see if anything could be done in the meantime.

Mr. Mitchison

Will the hon. Gentleman be good enough to answer the particular point which I put as regards a dollar exchange transaction? I suggested to him a particular case in which the result would be not a dollar loss but a dollar profit. I am not asking him to give a decision now, but in the light of what has been said tonight is he prepared to look into that case again and into the general question of whether more can be done on those lines?

Mr. Belcher

My hon. and learned Friend got rather lost among the other hon. Members who have spoken. I did have it in mind to say something with regard to the particular case which he has mentioned. Although I understand that has been referred to the Board of Trade, it has not been referred to me, and if it is so referred, I will certainly look into it.