HC Deb 29 October 1947 vol 443 cc872-6
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Harold Wilson)

I should like to make a statement about the negotiations which have been continuing at Geneva on the subject of tariffs and preferences. Before the Conference began my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Economic Affairs, then President of the Board of Trade, following the lines of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 6th December, 1945, said that we should not agree to any tariff concessions or reductions or eliminations of margins of preference except in return for tariff concessions which we regard as giving us fully compensating advantages. We have followed that principle in all our dealings with every country with whom we have been in negotiation, and I am glad to state that, subject to the clearing up of one or two details, agreement has been reached between ourselves and 15 other countries. The resulting agreements together with the results of some 90 other negotiations between the countries represented at Geneva will be included in an agreement, the text of which will be authenticated by the signature of a final Act tomorrow at Geneva.

Much as I should like to do so, I regret it is not possible at this present time to give the House details of what are included in the schedules to this Agreement since it has been agreed by all the countries at Geneva that the Governments represented there will not publish the details of their own tariff changes until all details can be published simultaneously. I am sure the House will agree that very great difficulties might arise if one country were to publish unilaterally the results of its negotiations with the other countries. It is intended that all the details will be published simultaneously in about three Weeks time, and they will, of course, be available to hon. Members.

The House will be particularly interested in the results of the negotiations between the United States and various Commonwealth countries including ourselves. In these negotiations we have followed the principles stated to this House last March. In particular, we have agreed to reductions in our own tariff or to reductions or eliminations of the preferences we enjoy in other Commonwealth countries only in return for concessions which we consider equivalent in terms of the trade thereby opened up to Us. We have been particularly concerned to secure reductions in the tariffs of other countries, including the United States, which would provide an immediate opportunity of increasing our dollar exports. We have moreover given special attention to the need for the easier access of Colonial products to the United States market, and where concessions have been made in the margins of preference affecting our trade with the Colonies it has only been in return for equivalent, corresponding, and indeed immediate advantages for the benefit of Colonial trade. We have further proceeded on the principle laid down at the London Session of the Preparatory Committee that the binding of a low tariff is equivalent to a reduction in a high tariff. Since, of course, our own tariff is made up predominantly of low rates, the agreement consequently includes a number of such bindings of low tariffs in exchange for reductions in some of the high rates in overseas tariffs.

Throughout the Conference we have kept in the closest touch with other Commonwealth countries. As the House knows, for nearly a month before the Conference began these matters were discussed between ourselves and representatives of the Commonwealth countries here in London, and at every stage in the negotiations we have proceeded in full consultation with them. In every case where any change is being made in the preferences enjoyed by ourselves in some other Commonwealth market that change has, of course, only been decided on with the agreement of the country concerned. Similarly, changes in our own tariff affecting bound margins of preference enjoyed by other Commonwealth countries are being made only where the Commonwealth country concerned is willing to make it as part of the bilateral tariff negotiations they have been engaged in with a third country. In the later stages of the Conference, when the question of tariffs and preferences was in the forefront of the negotiations, a series of meetings of Commonwealth delegates under my own chairmanship was held, not only to discuss the broad questions of policy involved, but also where necessary to reach agreement on the individual items entering into the negotiations.

I should like to repudiate here and now the suggestions made in certain quarters that we have at any time been putting pressure on other Commonwealth countries either to break up the preference system in general or to agree to any con cessions on preferences to which Commonwealth countries are contractually entitled other than changes which those countries would have regarded as being made worth while by the concessions they received in return. The suggestion has, moreover, been made in certain quarters that we have agreed to an overall reduction by some general formula of all Imperial preferences, including preferential margins which we enjoy either in our Colonial or Dominion markets. This suggestion is quite inaccurate and misleading, as will become clear when the details are published. It is certainly untrue to suggest that the progress of these negotiations has in any way weakened the economic co-operation of the Commonwealth, and indeed, from my experience, I can certainly confirm that the negotiations have strengthened this cooperation and that the Conference has provided a continuing forum for Commonwealth discussions on economic questions going considerably wider than the problems immediately under discussion at the Conference.

Mr. Eden

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman cannot now give us the terms of these agreements. Of course, he will understand that without those terms it is impossible for the House to assess the value or otherwise of the arrangements that have been arrived at. All we have is a series of assertions that a number of rumours are ill-founded. We have no means of judging whether the right hon. Gentleman's contradictions are well founded in reply to the rumours I would ask the Leader of the House whether he would agree that as soon as fuller information can be given—and that must obviously be at the earliest possible moment—the House should be given the fullest opportunity for discussion on this issue, which is of the greatest significance to the future of our Empire?;

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I think that that had better be considered when the White Paper is available. Then it will be easier to judge whether a Debate is desirable or not.

Mr. Eden

I must give notice to the right hon. Gentleman. I did say to the Prime Minister only last week that this was a matter which we hoped the House would be able to examine before a final decision was taken. Now that the final decision is taken, the least to which the House is entitled is a full discussion of that decision.

Mr. Morrison

The right hon. Gentleman says that he cannot yet judge because he has not got the final Agreement. When we have got that Agreement it will be easier to judge. I am not ruling out a Debate. I am just saying that we must wait until the White Paper is available.

Colonel Ropner

Would the President of the Board of Trade agree that the negotiations have been greatly assisted by reason of the fact that it has been possible for this country to offer a reduction in tariffs as a return for a reduction of tariffs levelled against the exports of this country, and does he, therefore, also agree that the past policy of Conservative Governments in imposing these tariffs has been fully justified?

Mr. Wilson

I think that is a question asking for my opinion rather than for any facts. Certainly, in the negotiations we have had I think it has been valuable that we had a low tariff, because the binding of a low tariff has been able to get reductions in high tariffs in return.

Mr. Scollan

When the discussions were taking place on the reductions of these tariffs, did any discussion take place between our representatives and the American representatives on domestic taxes being placed on imported American goods?

Vice-Admiral Taylor

Can the Minister inform the House whether, with reference to the reduction or elimination of our Imperial preference, the United States of America still adhere to the view that reductions of preference will not apply between the United States and Cuba, and also whether the United States will abandon their Treaty with the Philippines.

Mr. Wilson

That question did not come up at any stage in the bilateral negotiations which we have had with the United States. We were only concerned with getting particular reductions in their tariffs that we were anxious to get, and we did not raise with them the question of a general change in any treaties they may have with Cuba, the Philippines or anybody else.

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman has said, I think, that 15 nations in addition to ourselves have adhered to this Agreement. Can he say that the whole of the Dominion countries—and if not, which have not—have adhered without qualification to the agreement which he has just announced.?

Mr. Wilson

So far as I know, that is the position. The matter has been referred to the Cabinets of the Commonwealth countries for consideration this week, but our latest information from Geneva is that each of them is adhering to the general agreement and to the tariff schedule.

Mr. Collins

Can the Minister say whether these agreements are for a specified period of years and, if so, how many years; and what arrangements, if any, are there for renewal or denunciation?

Mr. Wilson

Most of them, at least so far as the United States are concerned, are for a period of three years with, of course, provision for renewal at the end of that time.

Mr. Turton

In regard to the preferences agreed to be cut in the case of the Colonies, what consultation has taken place with representatives of the Colonies before such cuts were agreed upon?

Mr. Wilson

We had on the delegation representatives of practically every colony which was affected, and, of course, when any question came up which involved either a request by some other country for a reduction in the preferences they enjoyed, or we enjoyed, or on the other hand any question of getting some concession for them, in every case the Colonial Government concerned were consulted.