HC Deb 07 May 1948 vol 450 cc1693-704

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

3.59 P.m.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I should like to make clear at the outset that I do not intend to imply in any way censure on the Board of Trade or the Department of Overseas Trade, but rather to make some observations which have occurred to me after visiting Scandinavia comparatively recently, and criticisms which I have heard since from British manufacturers and exporters and from potential Swedish customers of the facilities offered and the methods adopted for furthering trade from this country with the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden. I hope towards the end of my remarks to make one or two suggestions.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Skinnard

I hope towards the conclusion of my remarks to offer some suggestions to help to satisfy those who have made the criticisms. The Minister has recently visited Scandinavia, and, as we heard in the Debate on export targets, he has done very well to bring home both to the Danish and the Swedish Governments the necessity for certain changes in their proposed plans for their list of permitted imports from this country. I think the House was well satisfied with that work of his Department.

I think it was on 9th December that I put a Question to the Minister about the difficulties experienced by prospective customers in Stockholm, particularly those interested then in our electronic products and components. I have a particular interest in this matter because although Harrow, one of whose Divisions I have the honour to represent, is usually associated with more academic pursuits, it is a centre of light industry and is actively interested in the success of any negotiations with the Scandinavian Governments regarding permitted imports. The Secretary for Overseas Trade replied: I am not aware of any such difficulties. The Commercial Secretariat of His Majesty's Embassy at Stockholm is equipped to handle inquiries about the import of United Kingdom goods into Sweden, and to act as a central source of trade information. Exporters are periodically invited by notice in the Board of Trade Journal to send, and to maintain a regular flow of their trade literature, to the Commercial Departments of His Majesty's Missions overseas. The response to the last invitation, issued in April, 1947, was extremely good.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1947; Vol. 445, c. 164.] In the light of my knowledge of the difficulties of potential customers in getting such catalogues, particularly in Stockholm, the Minister's reply showed a certain complacency which was not warranted by the facts as I had ascertained them. I do not need to enlarge on the importance of Stockholm as a commercial centre, not only for the Scandinavian countries but for Finland and the other countries bordering on it, even though conditions at present may be unfortunate. The periodical fairs which are staged in Stockholm, for instance, attract buyers from all over Europe, and not just from Northern Europe. Having visited these fairs, I can say that all industrial countries take care to see that their products are well in evidence and attractively presented. The facilities provided by Britain, therefore, are a fair test of the work and organisation of the Department of which my right hon. Friend is the hard working and genial head.

It was with great satisfaction that I learned of his success in his recent discussions with the Ministers of Commerce in Sweden and Denmark. I put some of my misgivings in front of him before he went, and I value the opportunity of raising this matter on the Adjournment in the hope that he will be able to tell the House, in the light of my criticisms, something of what he saw, and what steps it has been possible to take since his visit to remedy the defects.

Before the war the Scandinavian bloc —I include Finland, and am thinking now of the four countries—formed one of the most vital of Britain's trading partners. I regard the four countries not only as recipients of our imports, but as a vital factor in our industrial development by reason of the materials and products we get from them. I would venture to say that they are now even more important because there is a world shortage of many commodities with which they are able to provide us, and because, under the freer trading conditions, they have the capacity to consume a great volume of exports from Britain. That is an important factor in the argument I am trying to put forward. As B.E.T.R.O. reported, these countries are accustomed to come together and work as an economic bloc. Their Ministers of commerce very often confer before they meet such visitors as my hon. Friend. They frequently discuss together their economic and mercantile problems, because in so many aspects their problems are common. Their requirements from Britain can be briefly summarised as coal, textiles, machinery—with which I am particularly interested in the case of my own constituency—chemicals, and instruments, which again are of vital concern to my constituency. In all these countries, industry takes second place to agriculture, fishing and forestry in their national economy.

The visit of my hon. Friend has borne very valuable fruits in that there are now the revised bilateral agreements, and because of the straight talking in which he indulged there is a prospect of balancing the less essential goods we take from Denmark and Sweden, by a removal of "scare" import restrictions on our own secondary exports. But we are up against very keen competition, particularly from the United States. Their Embassy, their consulate and their private citizens display a standard of salesmanship in Sweden which we have learnt to associate with American business. As an instance of this, I discovered that no fewer than 300 American students are in Swedish universities working on extensive courses which are preceded by a three months' course in the Swedish language. On the other hand, I found no British industrial students there are all, when I was in Stockholm in September last. There were none in Stockholm and only nine in Upsala. That is in marked contrast to the 300 Americans I have mentioned. When they enter the university they have employment in commerce at the back of their mind.

I am sorry to say that in no less than three cases I had the same criticism expressed by Swedish businessmen in regard to our institutions in Stockholm. "The British Embassy is out of town and the British Council is out of date" appears to be a common wisecrack. As my hon. Friend knows, the Embassy is away from the centre of the town and is some ten minutes away from a tram stop. The buses pass it at 'half-hourly intervals. It would not be so bad if the shopwindow of Stockholm is not centred around the train square, the Stureplan. Fortunately, the British Export Trade Researeh Organisation is nearer the centre of the town, but it is on the fourth floor of a dingy building, and carries no stock of technical literature such as Swedish businessmen are constantly demanding, although technical journals may be borrowed. When going there one is struck by the businesslike approach of the officials, the tact they show towards visitors and inquirers and the readiness they show to assist with business inquiries not only from Sweden, but from foreign business people working in Stockholm.

I wish I could say something, in this connection, in praise of the British Council. The Council occupies two sets of premises, one of which is a very valuable site. If, for instance, the Stureplan is thought of as being our Piccadilly Circus, then the first of the sites is a very good one indeed, equivalent to being in our Bond Street, while the second is situated in a place which is comparable to our Euston Road. Do they make use of that site adequately to put forward the just claims of British industry to a fair place in the Scandinavian market? I say they do not, but perhaps my hon. Friend will say that that is not part of their purpose.

We must, however, remember that the United States Embassy information office is a very keen competitor, and that it supplies a great deal of information which the British Council either cannot or will not supply. Compare the literature available in these two offices in Stockholm. There is a list at the American Embassy, containing a useful digest, which is available to any inquirer, but on the front page of the British Council's list—presumably because it is important—the inquiring Swedish businessman is told that he can borrow, if he wishes, a very good copy of Mrs. Beeton's cookery book, containing nearly 3,000 practical recipes. That strikes me as being not particularly helpful to the main job which the Secretary for Overseas Trade has in mind.

I know that my hon. Friend is anxious to get information to Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, but it seems that our Embassies do not know what to do with it. The fact remains that I am still receiving complaints that catalogues are not available; there seems to be some place at which the flow is dammed. One result of the contrast between British and American salesmanship, if I may put it that way, can be read in the "Wireless World" of September, 1947. One of the most important exhibitions of measuring instruments and laboratory equipment, for which, of course, there is a fair field in Scandinavian countries, was held in Stockholm in May and June of last year. This is the comment of the "Wireless World" on that exhibition: American, British, Czech, Danish, French, Finnish, Swedish, Italian, Dutch and Austrian firms were all represented but, generally speaking, it was all rather disquieting to the British visitor. Sweden is a hard currency country, and is anxious to buy British. Great Britain is supposed to be anxious to sell goods abroad, and the light current electrical industry is the almost ideal export article, using relatively little material for a high price. The enormous capital investment in war-time 'know-how' is an asset, but is a wasting asset"— as we have so often heard in this House— and every instrument sold now is some return on this capital. British manufacturers' apparatus did not appear to be making the most of its opportunities in Stockholm. It goes on towards the end to say: A great opportunity was wasted here for commonplaces of British technique are novelties in Sweden and the future of navigational aids, in particular for shipping, is a very great one. Then comes a sad commentary on the British Council: The British Council stand deserves special mention in this note. Throughout the morning of my visit it was deserted, and a collection of out-of-date textbooks lay where they had fallen when dusted the day before. The main feature was a screen carrying photographs of early English navigational aids. There are some British devices later than Harrison's chronometer—indeed, there are so many that no one seems to know which to use. And there are some new books, too. Copies of 'Wireless Engineer,' the 'Journal of Scientific Instruments' and the Proceedings of the Radio-location Convention of the I.E.E would have been fitting supporters. These were conspicuous by their absence.

I suggest that the British Council has its cultural work very largely done for it by the 70 British-Swedish societies scattered throughout that great country. I do not think it is necessary to use one of the best show windows in the whole of Stockholm, where we could adequately compete with American go-getting, to show pictures of English family life and delightful photographs of Snowdon. The British Council has other premises—as I said, the equivalent of our Euston Road. Could they be moved entirely there, and the shop window which I have described, on one of the best sites in Stockholm, devoted to showing the very latest things we have to offer to the Swedish business-world and the Scandinavian visitors who throng that capital?

Could we not hand over the more central premises to B.E.T.R.O., which seems the most suitable organisation to promote sales? It is true that it is understaffed and that it is not a Government organisation, but it is recognised by the Board of Trade. Then, through the establishment of a central catalogue of technical books library in the centre of Stockholm, we would get our fair share of the new orders and make real the very fine advantages which my hon. Friend obtained from the Ministers of Commerce during his recent discussions with them in Scandinavia.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Bottomley (Secretary for Overseas Trade)

I am obliged to the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) for raising this question of trading facilities in Scandinavia. It is important that trade should be developed between that part of Europe and ourselves. He will understand that it is not possible for me to follow him in regard to the observations which he has offered about the British Council. That is not a matter for which I am responsible. I must therefore devote myself to that part of his criticism which deals with the failure to provide adequate facilities for trading opportunities and for the development of trade by publicity and other means.

He referred to the Embassy in Stockholm as being a little outside what might be called the centre of the town. I am not altogether disturbed by that. It is not at all a distance away; indeed there may even be advantages in having the commercial centre which is attached to the Embassy in that district. As a result of my visit I was able to ascertain that the commercial secretariat was a very valuable source of information and that it was very well equipped to handle enquiries from the United Kingdom. The "Board of Trade Journal" is always appealing to industry to send suitable literature. We never fail to get it in great quantities, and I saw it on view when I visited that centre.

Mr. Skinnard

Was that in the Embassy library in the park by the lake?

Mr. Bottomley

Yes, Sir. In connection with the showing of that excellent literature, there were immediately available the services of well-informed members of the staff. I have also had deliberately conveyed to me by many businessmen their thanks for the assistance and the way in which guidance is given by that centre. On the other hand, I can understand that there are at times dissentients from that view, and if the hon. Member will be kind enough to let me have details I will look into them.

Mr. Skinnard

Actually, so perturbed was the managing director of one of the most go-ahead concerns in the light electronic industry in this country that he has actually taken out a pilot's licence, has learned to fly, and has purchased a plane so that he may himself make the contacts which his agents in Stockholm have failed to do with the assistance of the hon. Gentleman's Department.

Mr. Bottomley

Such enterprise is to be commended but, on the other hand, many business men have said how good it is, and have found it unnecessary to indulge in that extra expense. The impression I have is that in Sweden the centre is as efficient as it can be consistent with the economy that has to be practised these days in our showmanship and buildings. I had the opportunity of meeting the Minister for National Economy in Sweden, Mr. Gjöres. He was most anxious that trade between our two countries should be fully developed. As I said in the Debate on the export programme, they were rather troubled about the fact that they were getting a little short of sterling. I was able to reassure him that it was a seasonal swing and that in due course that balance would correct itself. We both expressed the wish for an expansion of trade between our two countries and, although I cannot give fuller information, today officials from my own Department and the Treasury are meeting Swedish representatives in Stockholm to give more effect to that desire.

In the case of Sweden this is important, because we get from them most essential goods such as pulp products, paper, machinery, iron and steel, and even some foodstuffs like butter and bacon. We are able to send them coal, which is most important, and we have given them additional supplies recently. They also take from us ships, vehicles, machinery and textiles and we are trying to get a roughly balanced trade. They have advantages over some other countries in so far as they were not knocked about by the war, but they seized the opportunity to reconstruct their industry in such a way that they have a highly efficient organisation today. I think it will be possible to link their economy with ours and get that expansion of trade which is our common desire.

When I went to Norway, I met the Minister who is what I might call the Stafford Cripps of that country. He is a fine person and it was a grand opportunity to meet him and to hear from him personally how anxious he is that trade should be developed along the traditional pattern. It is well known that before the war they supplied us with pulp and timber, minerals, feedingstuffs and skins, and we were their chief supplier, sending coal and coke, as well as ships, vehicles, machinery and textiles. They have had a difficult time as hon. Members know; they lost 50 per cent, of their shipping, but such is their enterprise in reconstructing their country that that most important industry, with our help, is being put back to where it was before the war and they will soon have replaced roughly 50 per cent, of their shipping losses. Talks are still proceeding, there is a common desire to expand trade, and I am certain we shall do that.

In the case of Denmark, as I said in the last Debate, it was unfortunate that in the interviews with the Ministers concerned I had to make some comments which were not as pleasing as I could have wished. Denmark has had her own difficulties, amongst them a drought last year which affected her harvest. I am glad to say that I have had an opportunity of meeting the Minister of Commerce in the last week or two, and there again I think we shall find that the import restrictions will be gradually eased to some extent.

We do not ask any more from Denmark than that they should give us an opportunity for our traditional goods to go into the market and that we should receive equal treatment with any other nation. They supply us with most valuable foodstuffs, butter, bacon and eggs, and we want to send them what are commonly called less essential goods, such as radios and cycles, as well as essential goods such as engineering products and metals, and we are sending coal which is their vital need. We hope that in the case of Denmark too trade will be increased.

I met the President of the Finnish Republic and also the Minister of Commerce, who both expressed the wish that trade should be developed as fully as possible. The pleasure at seeing a British Minister—I was the first to go since the end of the war—was very cordial and warm. I am sure the Finnish people want trade developed between the two countries. They have very valuable materials which we want and we can send them valuable goods. The recently concluded trade agreement is a very satisfactory one and I was pleased to hear from the Finns that they were encouraged by this expanding trade between the two countries.

All these countries, like ourselves, have balance of trade difficulties which we have to recognise. They have not got dollars and gold nor, in some cases, the sterling to get the goods they require, just as we have not the gold and the dollars to get raw materials and food which are essential to us, and sometimes we have to put on import restrictions as they do to make sure that we do not get less essential supplies in return for valuable supplies we send overseas.

The Scandinavian countries and ourselves must get together, because in the long run that is the only way in which we can all overcome our balance of trade difficulties. The Scandinavian countries are close to us geographically, commercially and, I think, politically. For that reason there are all the elements required to enable us to get together to expand trade in the way which will bring benefits to both parties. I believe I saw their position much more clearly as a result of my visit and I hope I was able to show them that we have our difficulties. Before the war, the situation of these countries was such that they were fortunate enough by means of their trade with us to earn dollars or gold and thereby to get goods, but today they have not got this opportunity. This applies particularly in the case of Denmark which has a rather unfavourable overall balance.

Sweden is more fortunate, although her favourable balance with us was shaken a little for the reasons I have indicated. But as we begin to send more and more goods there and she sends more to us she will find that her alarm about reaching the gold point will be removed. Finland is a country of industrious people who have always balanced their economy by hard work, though this is made more difficult at the moment because of the need to pay reparations—roughly 15 per cent. of the national income has to go in that quarter, but I am hopeful that they will continue to balance their trade and overcome their present hardships.

Recognising our common difficulties, and that there is a need for Scandinavia and ourselves to work together to overcome by long-term co-operation the economic ills which confront us, in due course we shall achieve a standard of development of which we can all be proud.

The Question having been proposed after Four 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-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.