HC Deb 27 April 1948 vol 450 cc352-62

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

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I wish to draw attention to the embargo placed on the importation of Colonial furniture, especially that made in Nigeria and the Gold Coast. I am glad to see that the Secretary for Overseas Trade is in his place, but I regret that no representative of the Colonial Office is present. I am aware that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary are abroad, but the Colonial Office are so closely involved in this matter that I regret they have not asked some other Minister to represent them. The Colonial Office have often paid lip-service to the economic development of the Colonies, as being inherent in the principle of trusteeship on which our administration is based. In the Debate on the Colonial Estimates last year, the Secretary of State said that any failure to develop the economic possibilities of the Colonies became intolerable when they could contribute to the needs of the world. Last year also, a Report on the Colonial Empire said: The encouragement of soundly conceived secondary industries in the Colonies is an essential part of colonial development policy. The Report added that such industries should compete with similar industries elsewhere. That is exactly this case. In the Gold Coast an industrial development corporation has, in fact, already been set up and furniture-making is one of its declared aims. The Colonial Office therefore have a responsibility in this matter which they cannot shuffle off on to the Board of Trade.

What is the attitude of the Board of Trade? Up to date, though they have not imposed any formal embargo on the importation of colonial furniture, what they have said amounts in practice to an embargo. On l0th February, in reply to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Dodds-Parker), the President of the Board of Trade said: Imports of Gold Coast furniture … and no doubt this applies to Nigerian furniture also— … can only be allowed if it can be sold at utility prices."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, I0th February, 1948; Vol. 447, C. 36.] Now West African furniture is far superior to British utility furniture. I have here some photographs which I will pass round to show its excellent quality. It obviously could not be sold at the prices of British utility furniture. The prices must be higher, though not much higher. Therefore I think I am right in saying that in effect there is an embargo on the importation of Colonial furniture.

Why is this condition about price imposed by the Board of Trade? Fifteen months ago the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was President of the Board of Trade, said that this was only fair to British manufacturers, who are restricted to making utility furniture for home consumption and are not allowed to make furniture of this substantial West African type. I have no desire to be unjust to British manufacturers, and I have taken steps to ascertain why they have applied pressure to the Board of Trade to keep out this African furniture.

The reason is partly psychological and sentimental. They think that if they are not allowed to make good furniture, then good furniture from West Africa ought not to be admitted to this country. My reply is that they would be in no way injured. The demand for furniture is enormous—far in excess of what can be supplied from all quarters. The only people who can get what are called priority dockets are newly-married couples and bombed-out people moving into new quarters. Time after time in the last year or two requests in this House for an extension of the priority classes have been refused. It is obvious that all conceivable supplies of furniture for many years will not meet the demand.

Another reason for the British manufacturers' opposition is that they think that any timber available in West Africa should be sent as timber, to keep the British factories busy, and should not be made into furniture in Africa. My reply to that is two-fold. First, my information is that more logs of West African timber are available than can be cut in the sawmills here; and, secondly, if the Board of Trade, at the instance of the British manufacturers, say that West African timber must be imported as such, and not as furniture, what becomes of our professions that our Colonial administration is based on trusteeship for the people of the Colonies? What is the good of setting up a Gold Coast Development Corporation to encourage furniture-making if furniture is not to be made for export? During the war the people of the Gold Coast sent a handsome present of furniture to this country for the use of people who had lost their chattels in air raids. For that help in our hour of need it seems a pretty poor return to tell the people of the Gold Coast now that we will not buy their furniture because it might reduce the production of British furniture. I therefore challenge the Colonial Office to defend an embargo on the importation of manufactured Colonial goods urgently required by people here, imposed because the British manufacturers object.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Can the hon. Member tell me what is the rate of wages the workers in the West African factories, compared with the rates paid here?

Mr. Keeling

I cannot, but I can tell the hon. Member that it has been very much raised. I do not see that it is relevant. Such an attitude as that adopted by the Board of Trade, and acquiesced in apparently by the Colonial Office, produces a feeling of frustration in the Colonies, and it is a factor in the political unrest which has manifested itself in West Africa. Economic development would help to allay that unrest. In the Gold Coast and in Nigeria there are many ex-Service men, trained in the Army as craftsmen, but not enough jobs for them or for the educated or semi-educated men who do not want to work merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water. If imports into Britain were allowed, the needs of the people of this country could be linked with a development of real value to the people of the Colonies.

We have promised to increase technical education in the Colonies. If that increase takes place the number of craftsmen and the possibilities of manufacture will grow. However, I do not want to exaggerate the possibilities. It will be many years before large quantities of furniture are available from West Africa, and that fact in itself is a reason why the fears of British manufacturers are groundless. The problem of seasoning the timber has to be dealt with. It would probably be necessary to establish kiln drying in the Colonies. But this is exactly the sort of thing that a Government-sponsored development corporation could and should encourage. I have already said that I have no desire to injure the British manufacturers or the British workers, and that I believe they would not be injured by the importation of West African furniture. If, however, they fear they would be injured, I have this suggestion to make. I suggest that we should allow the British manufacturers to make a small amount of non-utility furniture for the home market. That would enable them to make furniture for export at a reduced cost, and it would also remove any feeling of unfairness they may have about the importation of non-utility furniture.

My last word is this. Whatever the hon. Gentleman who is to reply may say, I believe one thing is certain—that the present restriction is so unreasonable, so unfair, alike to the British public crying out for furniture and to the Colonies crying out for industrial development, that it cannot long continue in the face of public opinion.

11.17 p.m.

Mr. George Porter (Leeds, Central)

I have taken advantage of the kindness of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) in passing round these photographs, and have looked at them. As one who has some knowledge of the subject, I say that I see very little difference in the construction or appearance of the West African furniture photographed and the utility furniture we are now producing in this country.

Mr. Keeling

If the hon. Gentleman will come to my house I shall show him two chests of drawers made of West African mahogany, one from the Gold Coast and one from Nigeria, which, I think, will convince him, as they have convinced British manufacturers to whom I have shown them, that they are far superior to utility furniture.

Mr. Porter

That is obvious, because they are made of solid wood—African mahogany. I am talking of the appearance of the furniture and the methods of construction, which seem to be entirely the same as those of utility furniture. The hon. Member, in handing around these photographs, handed out another photograph which shows the type of person concerned in making this African furniture. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Dr. Morgan) put a question just now about the wages of the workers in Africa, which affect the costs of production. I see here a picture of an African worker who has no clothes but a loin cloth.

I think those concerned, with the import of that furniture to this country should first concern themselves with the conditions of production in West Africa. I think the West African workers should have the advantage of having this furniture the hon. Member suggests should be sent here. The conditions of the West African workers, their amenities, clothing, food, furniture, housing, everything, are contrary to the type of thing we expect for our own workers in this country. I hope that whoever is to reply to this Debate will say that there will be no facilitation of production in the Colonies in conditions that would not be allowed in this country, but rather that he will encourage the possibility of bringing logs over here and using them in this country. We have drying kilns in this country. We have complete mills of woodworking machinery and every process necessary in the production of furniture, which do not exist in West Africa. If we want to help the people who require furniture, and those who make and sell furniture in this country, it would be better if we suggested means of bringing in more timber.

Mr. Dodds-Parker (Banbury)

If we pushed the argument of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Leeds (Mr. G. Porter) to its logical conclusion, we should refuse to accept the groundnuts and other products the Government propose to produce in West Africa by the type of labour to which he refers. We should refuse to accept any of these products from countries overseas in which people are obliged to work in a climate in which, frankly, a loincloth is the most suitable article to wear.

Mr. G. Porter

There is no possibility of developing the argument to prove I am wrong. Would the hon. Member ask why we have to import groundnuts if it were possible immediately to make margarine there and bring it to this country instead of the nuts?

Mr. Dodds-Parker

That in fact is one of the things which may well happen in these countries. One of the objectives with which this Party is concerned is to raise the standard of living of the people. We want to see them eating margarine rather than peanut butter, if they wish to do so. It seems to us that if the Government continue with this policy of refusing to allow the development of secondary industries in the Colonial Empire, there is going to be a very considerable restriction on those individuals who in wartime were trained as artisans, many of them ex-Service men, to get work producing articles of this type. As my hon. Friend has said, this furniture is of a pleasing and simple design. I hope the Government, by seeking to continue the prohibition of the import of this furniture, will not stop the beginning of a useful secondary industry in West Africa, whose products the people of this country need and are prepared to pay for, and which in time will be used in West Africa and elsewhere within the tropical dependencies. I think it will be detrimental to those artisans who learned a trade in wartime if there is no outlet in peacetime for their skill.

I feel that we must attempt to maintain in our Colonial Empire some freedom of movement of trade, which is already being further restricted throughout the world. Lip service is paid at the moment to all sorts of efforts to free trade. I hope action will be taken to support these efforts, but as far as I can see, it is a denial of Western Union and the economic integration of the West we are aiming at, if we cannot insist on a certain amount of freedom of trade in our own Colonial Empire. What hope is there of 16 countries agreeing to freedom of trade if we cannot sanction such a small matter as this within our own Colonial Empire? One practical suggestion: is it not possible for the right hon. Gentleman to look again at this matter and see whether this furniture could not be classed as utility furniture and allowed entry up to a certain point in that category? There could hardly be a simpler or cheaper design. I ask him if he can give us an indication of the possibility of classifying this as utility furniture and importing it under such a licence?

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Bottomley (Secretary for Overseas Trade)

The sentiments expressed by the hon. Members opposite have, I am sure, the support of hon. Members on all sides of the House. It is our desire to develop trade in the way the Colonial Office has indicated, and I shall hope to show that we have done so. The suggestion has been made that there is an embargo upon the import of furniture. But there has never been an embargo upon the import of furniture. There has, in effect, never been an embargo, and there is no embargo today.

Mr. Keeling

In effect there is.

Mr. Bottomley

Let me go through the history of this matter carefully. At the end of 1945 we had this position. Men and women were coming out of the Forces and were resuming happy married life again. There was also a demand for furniture from bombed out people who wanted to set up homes again and to buy furniture. But at that time, many of the furniture factories which had been engaged in wartime production were not yet making furniture again. The Government decided that they would welcome furniture from all sources, including West Africa. But it is a fact that when it came to deciding policy, there was no offer from that territory. If there had been, we would have taken all that was forthcoming. We would have encouraged the import of furniture from that territory because, unlike other countries from which we were able to get furniture, there was no balance of payment difficulty with West Africa.

Later on, it happened that the utility furniture scheme, and the scheme for providing units, partly succeeded, and we began to find that the difficulty was not so much to get supplies as to get the currency with which to obtain supplies of timber to enable us to provide still more furniture. Because of that, we felt that we had to call a halt. It was not fair to impose restrictions upon the home industry without imposing similar restrictions upon imports from the industry outside this country. It is true that we had, in connection with trade talks which were then proceeding, to accept furniture, even though we had decided that there were difficulties in the way of doing so. But at the same time, we laid down that the furniture we accepted must be of the same design, and on the same price basis, as the utility furniture made in this country. Bilateral arrangements were made for the countries involved to accept less essential goods in return for the furniture. But to the extent that we accepted this furniture, we did make provision for West Africa, and other parts of the Commonwealth and the Colonies particularly, to send us equal supplies of furniture. So there was, in fact, no embargo. We do, in the case of our own industry, have to see that utility furniture, with its specified price and design, is produced if we are going to meet all requirements; and it would not be fair to our manufacturers to allow others to develop their industry in such a way as to give them an advantage over our own people.

In the case of West Africa, moreover, we did consider that it would be to West Africa's disadvantage if she produced non-utility furniture, for then there would be Purchase Tax of 66⅔ per cent. upon it, and that would send up the price considerably. The hon. Member who, a moment ago, referred to wages, is right, but I am sure that on this basis, in spite of labour costs, competition could not take place. With regard to utility furniture generally, I am sure that the fact that labour costs are lower in West Africa would enable them to send in utility furniture at competitive prices without a deal of difficulty. I agree with the hon. Member who raised this question that the furniture is of good quality. I have had an opportunity of seeing some of it, and if that furniture could be made to our utility design it would have the same opportunity of getting on the market, as our own furniture does, and would enjoy the same opportunity as the furniture from other countries enjoys as a result of bilateral deals.

The import licences granted for furniture which is handled by the trade association to which the hon. Gentleman referred, cannot I am afraid, at the moment, be unconditional. We must insist on things being based on the present utility method of production.

Mr. Keeling

Can the Overseas Secretary say how many import licences for Colonial furniture have been given?

Mr. Bottomley

I cannot give an answer offhand.

Mr. Keeling

The answer is, "None."

Mr. Bottomley

I would not say that. Licences would be given for utility furniture, but not for furniture not complying with our rules and regulations. It would be unfair to allow manufacturers outside this country to have a better basis for production than the manufacturers here. It is not that the regulations are made for the sake of making regulations. They are the best way of making sure that the people get the furniture at the right price and in the best possible fashion.

These regulations, I agree, are irksome, and it would be much better to do away with them, but labour costs, and the fact that the admission of non-utility furniture would make competition very much more difficult make them necessary. We want to help West African industry. It is well known that they are released from the obligation to pay the 20 per cent. duty imposed on the ordinary foreign trade. It does seem to me that there are opportunities for this furniture to come from West Africa. It is good furniture. It is a secondary industry there, and I agree that it is desirable to develop it. To the extent to which it can be developed within the framework of the regulations applied in this country to our own manufacturers it is to be encouraged. But if we are asked to go outside the regulations that would be bad not only for our industry here but the industry in West Africa. It would not give the kind of development to which the hon. Gentleman pays service.

It would be improper for it to go out that this House is not in sympathy with this form of colonial development. The House certainly is in sympathy, and by the way in which we have been tackling this problem we are more likely to encourage development in the right way. By helping them to face up to the difficulties that exist we do a much better service than by encouraging them to feel they can build up an industry on non-competitive lines which cannot have the results which hon. Members want. I ask them to do all they can in saying that if West Africa is to produce furniture to the type, design and price required in order to give a reasonable opportunity of competing and developing their industry within the Commonwealth alongside their colleagues in British industry, they should accept the standards laid down. The hon. Gentleman has talked of the trade association which, I am sure, share these views. The common interest of the Government, the trade and the Colonial Office, whose interest is in this part of the Commonwealth, is one which gives the best service to West Africa and I hope hon. Members think that is so and will encourage them in the way I have suggested.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)

I have seldom heard a more obstructive, stone-walling speech than that given by the Secretary for Overseas Trade tonight. There has not been a word about the consumers of this country, although there has been a great deal about the protection of manufacturers; there has not been one word about the opportunities of the Gold Coast to enter the furniture trade in this country and pay that tax. Who are the Board of Trade to decide, if the Gold Coast like to enter competitively and pay the tax on non-utility furniture? Why should not furniture manufacturers in this country import raw timber from West Africa and manufacture it if they wish to do so?

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.