HC Deb 17 November 1947 vol 444 cc824-8
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement on the arrangements which I propose for making public the detailed results of the tariff negotiations at Geneva, the conclusion of which I announced to the House on 29th October. A White Paper dealing with the negotiations will be available when the Vote Office opens tomorrow morning. This will contain a short description of the scope and purpose of the Tariff Agreement concluded at Geneva and an assessment of the general results of the tariff negotiations for this country. It will also contain the texts of the general clauses of the Tariff Agreement and of two supplementary agreements with the United States Government and His Majesty's Government in Canada respectively the need for which arises from the adherence of the three Governments to the General Agreement. In addition, copies of the full tariff schedules annexed to the General Agreement which, owing to the extreme length, I regret it is not possible to publish with the White Paper, will be available in the Library of the House tomorrow morning. With the permission of the House, I will arrange for a fuller statement on this subject to be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will do his best to make time available for a discussion of these argreements when there has been sufficient time for detailed study of their contents.

Sir P. Macdonald

Will the right hon. Gentleman make available to the House the evidence which led up to these agreements, or the minutes of the meetings which took place? Otherwise we do not know why the agreements were reached.

Mr. Wilson

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is talking about the several hundred meetings we had in this country with representatives of different industries first, or the several thousand meetings which took place in Geneva in preparation for the agreements. It would not be possible, obviously, to issue the Minutes of any of those meetings.

Mr. Eden

I appreciate the difficulty in which the Minister is placed at the moment, but I would like to know whether the documents which he is laying tomorrow will be a complete statement of the concessions that we are making and that other members of the British Commonwealth are making and the terms of the concessions which we are presumably getting? Or will they be in some later documents?

Mr. Wilson

There will be a summary of the principal concessions made and gained on both sides, a statistical summary of the amount of trade involved and a list of the principal items. Obviously, it would not be possible to give a complete list of all the tariff changes, but this will be available in the schedules which will be available in the Library of the House.

Mr. Eden

What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by "summary"? Does he mean that the more important of the concessions on both sides will be totalled? One cannot sum up concessions. Either one says what they are or one does not say what they are. Would he be able to tell us tomorrow what the more important ones are on both sides? What is the procedure suggested?

Mr. Wilson

I said that the principal ones will be listed in the White Paper, and there will be a statistical summary adding up the total amount of trade involved in all the concessions.

Mr. Eden

Will there also be an account of the concessions made by other members of the British Commonwealth as well as ourselves?

Mr. Wilson

There will be an account of all the changes made in the tariffs of other Commonwealth countries which involve margins of preference and tariffs at present enjoyed by the United Kingdom.

Mr. Warbey

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the White Paper will include the text of the preliminary agreement on international policy which, according to the Press, has also been signed?

Mr. Wilson

If my hon. Friend means the general clauses of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, they will be included.

Following is the statement:

As I announced in the House on 29th October, the release of the detailed results of the tariff negotiations at Geneva was by agreement held over to enable publication to take place simultaneously in each of the participating countries. It has now been agreed that the date for release of this information should be 18th November, and I am arranging for a White Paper to be available in the Vote Office tomorrow morning. This contains a short description of the scope and purpose of the tariff agreement concluded at Geneva and an assessment of the general results of the tariff negotiations for this country.

Printed as an appendix to the White Paper is the text of the general clauses of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, which was authenticated by the signature of all the participating countries at Geneva on 30th October. This consists mainly of general provisions to ensure that the tariff concessions are not frustrated but it also obliges the contracting parties to observe to the extent of their executive authority the general principles of the draft charter for an international trade organisation. The White Paper does not contain the voluminous schedules of new maximum tariff rates attached to the general agreement, which occupy some 1,200 pages and weigh 8 lb., but I have arranged for copies of these to be available at the same time in the Library of the House. I did not consider that it would have been right to use up scarce printing labour and paper by having these long schedules printed. A limited number of additional duplicated copies are however available, and I am arranging for these to be distributed to those representatives of trade and industry, and the Press, whose needs are obviously most urgent. I have also made arrangements with the United Nations which should ensure that further copies of the schedules are available for wider distribution about the middle of next month.

The concessions made and gained cover such a wide field and affect so many different countries and sections of industry that the House will, I am sure, require a little time to study the detailed results of this large-scale Agreement. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, concessions made in our tariff will in the main be implemented by means of Treasury Orders under the Import Duties Act which will be laid as soon as possible.

The White Paper will also contain the text of two supplementary agreements arising from the negotiations. One is a short agreement between, the United States Government and ourselves providing that as long as both countries remain parties to the more comprehensive general agreement on tariffs and trade, the bilateral Trade Agreement which the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) concluded in 1938 should be suspended. As the larger agreement comprehends all the advantages and provisions of the bilateral agreement, I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate the reason for this arrangement. It did, however, seem desirable both to ourselves and to the United States Government that if for any reason either of us should no longer be parties to the multilateral general agreement, the tariff position existing between us under the 1938 Trade Agreement should be restored.

The second of the two supplementary agreements reproduced in the White Paper to which I would call the attention of the House is an exchange of notes between His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and His Majesty's Government in Canada. This is a consequential agreement to modify our agreement of 1937 with Canada to the extent made necessary by the adherence of both countries to the multilateral general agreement the negotiation of which has, of course, required adjustments in the tariff arrangements between independent Commonwealth countries.

Finally, for the guidance of traders who will be primarily affected by the tariff concessions, I would add that the documents signed at Geneva have at the moment the status of an international agreement which must in effect be ratified and implemented by the participating countries before it becomes fully effective. Certain participating countries have agreed to apply the tariff concessions immediately from the end of the year on a provisional basis, and they will take the necessary executive action, in accordance with their constitutional practice, at the earliest possible time. Until this action is taken, or in the case of those countries which have not agreed to implement the tariff concessions on 1st. January, 1948, until they do agree to implement the agreement and to take the necessary executive action, existing tariff rates remain unchanged.

As and when each of the participating countries takes appropriate executive action to implement the agreement, we shall inform traders in the usual way through the "Board of Trade Journal." I appreciate that traders and others will wish to have the information about these tariff changes before they are actually put into force and I wish that it had been possible for the nature of the changes to be published in an immediately comprehensible and accessible form. I am taking all possible steps to arrange for this information to be disseminated as rapidly as possible through the trade Press and through chambers of commerce in the main cities, and through other trade and industrial organisations; manufacturers and traders who wish to know at once the nature of particular tariff changes which have been agreed in overseas markets and which affect their business, and who find that they cannot obtain this information through one or other of the media which I have mentioned, should apply to the tariff section of my Export Promotion Department, who will supply the information at the earliest possible moment.