HC Deb 27 September 1949 vol 468 cc144-54

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Hollis (Devizes)

I beg to raise the question of the licensing of the import of books. This is a question upon which it is my duty to declare a double interest, or it may be a lack of counter-interest, because I happen to be both in a certain measure a publisher of books and a writer of books and it might therefore be argued that it is against my interests that foreign books should come into the country. However, I certainly do not think that it is against my interests, nor do I think that either the publishers or writers of books would take the line that it is to the disadvantage of the domestic writer or publisher that there should be a free flow of literature into this country.

Since the end of the war we have had in this country a system of licensing of the import of books. This matter has been raised from both sides of the House on a number of occasions, and on the last occasion when we raised it fortune gave us a very much longer time for Debate than we have this evening. I do not, therefore, think that it is necessary for me to delay the House in order to argue that in itself a check on the international free flow of books is an undesirable thing. Nobody can fail to be aware that we have suffered gravely through that system in these years since the war. Obviously we have suffered very much in our educational life. There have been frequent occasions where pupils have been told to read for their examinations certain books which were unprocurable in this country but which could have been procured from abroad if facilities had been available.

The last time we debated this subject the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) gave eloquent testimony of instances in which scientific work had been hampered through the difficulties of getting from abroad books which were urgently necessary. Certainly the publishers of this country are—I think I can speak with confidence—with unanimity the last people in the world to think that it would be either to their advantage or the advantage of the nation that obstacles should be put in the way of imports of foreign books.

We have this system of licensing, and before I say a word about the principle of a system of licensing, I want to say that there are details in that system about which we are entitled to complain. On 17th September there appeared in "The Times" a letter from Mr. Shackleton, of Brasenose College, Oxford, in which he told the story of how recently on a holiday in France he bought some books at a value of about £4 and asked the bookseller to send them to him at his English address. Shortly afterwards he received a request to know whether he had an import licence for those books and was told that they were to be seized within 28 days by the Customs if the import licence was not forthcoming. In that case Mr. Shackleton, as he pointed out, had bought those books not out of any money exported for that purpose from England but out of his ordinary tourist allowance upon which he was living for his holiday in France. Obviously, that kind of action can in no way be advantageous to this country.

On the last occasion that I raised this question in the House, I quoted the enormous delays putt by officials of the Board of Trade in the way of obtaining an English edition of the work of Mr. Herbert Agar, one of the most distinguished Anglophiles in the United States, on England's effort in the war. Mr. Belcher, who was at that time Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and who replied to the Debate, admitted that there had been those delays.

Further details in the regulations certainly require revision if the regulations at large are to stand. For instance, at present one is only allowed to import into this country books which are written in the actual language of the importing country. Obviously, in many cases that is an entirely petty and onerous restriction. One is only allowed to import without licence a single book, which means that if one happens to buy a work published in two or more volumes, as many scholarship works are published, there are intolerable delays of waiting for licences. It is true that the licences are usually forthcoming for any work of serious scientific importance, but only after an intolerable delay.

As far as I follow the argument for this system, it is this: We are told that certain worthless novels and juvenile works produced in the U.S.A. would, if there were a free system here, be imported into this country and swamp our novel and juvenile markets. Therefore, we are told, those works must be excluded. Since it is beyond the wit of our bureaucrats to devise a system of definitions, we are told that all works from America, therefore, must be excluded, and that there must be licences for the works that are worth while. Then follows the argument that since, by Article 9 of the Loan Agreement, we must not discriminate against the Americans, we must exclude all works from every country—from Eire, for example, from our Dominions and from the Continent of Europe—so that the Americans do not have any grievance. All this arises out of the unfortunate danger that a few not very high quality novels might come in from the U.S.A. if the present system did not exist. Never have I heard any argument so fantastic since Charles Lamb described how his Chinese friend burnt down the house in order to roast his pig. The present policy has been built up largely on such a structure.

The time has come when this whole system of licences should be reconsidered. A few years ago the whole world had hopes of a future when scholarship, at any rate, would be international. Those hopes have met with more obstacles than had ever been imagined. We are rightly very ready in our criticism of the fantastic curbs upon free scholarship and knowledge which exist behind the Iron Curtain. I do not want, for the purpose of my case, to exaggerate in order to suggest that we are in a situation in any way similar to that of those countries. Nevertheless, it is beyond question that although in the last few years there has been more talk than ever before about international co-operation and harmony, in the realms of scholarship those aims have become increasingly more difficult of attainment. I think it time that His Majesty's Government should take some dramatic steps to show that they are anxious to do something to achieve that ambition to which the Foreign Secretary once confessed when he said he would not be happy until he could go to Victoria Station and take a ticket to any place in the world to which he wished to go without any obstacle being put in his way.

There seem to be two policies His Majesty's Government could consider today. The first, which I favour, is to abolish the whole licensing system. None of us can fail to be conscious in these days, particularly after today's Debate, that we must not be careless about the whole dollar question, and to open any market to unlicensed American imports is doubtless a thing which must be carefully considered. But in this respect I do not think it would be a mistaken policy, for two reasons. Even at such a time as this I would not consider this as a matter of mere imports and exports and the balancing of dollars against pounds. I think we should take a bold stand in favour of international scholarship, but, quite apart from that, I doubt whether on the monetary calculation we should be the losers by throwing the market open.

For many years there has been a very great problem of what we could send to the United States of America but, before the war, books were one of the comparatively few commodities in which our balance of trade with the United States of America was favourable. We were able to sell more books in the United States than the Americans were able to sell in this country. It is true that the war created new circumstances in which it was not physically possible to export books to the United States on the old scale, and as a result the Americans became less reliant upon English books than in the past.

I do not deny that there would be a certain struggle to re-establish that favourable balance of trade, but I think it could be re-established and also that general freedom could be established for the reason that before the war this country was a great "middleman country" from the point of view of imported books. In such things as art books, the trade was to a large extent such that the Englishman scoured the Continent and produced art books which were then sold to the United States of America. That was a trade of enormous importance, a trade we are in great danger of losing. If we lost it for a few years, we should lose it permanently, as the Americans would produce such things themselves.

I would abolish the whole licensing system and take a chance on the importation of American books, but if the Government will not do that, I ask them, if they will not grant the full freedom to the whole world, at any rate to abolish the licensing system in respect of all countries except countries in the Western Hemisphere. I appreciate that that would mean the violation of Article 9 of the Loan Agreement and I appreciate that that is a matter which this Government cannot do unilaterally and about which one must speak with restraint. But if the present American temper is what we gather it is, to grant a certain relaxation of Article 9 in certain respects, I suggest that this is one of the respects in which Americans should be invited to grant a relaxation. If we cannot have completely free and unlicensed import of books from the United States of America, at least we should have a free import of books from the countries of Europe, Eire and the Dominions in order that barriers to international scholarship should be broken down as far as possible.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

I wish in a very few words to support in general what the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) has been saying, although I think that he has painted perhaps a not quite accurate picture in one or two respects. For instance, it is unreasonable to say that these licensing restrictions are placed upon the import of books because a few novels, a few trashy items may get in from the United States which would cost us dollars. So far as I can make out from rather superficial researches into the finances of this matter, in 1938 books and printed matter being imported from the United States amounted in value to £850,000 per year. By 1947 the figure was over £1,500,000 per year, which was having to be paid in dollars. It is within the experience of most hon. Members who go into Marks and Spencers or Woolworths or even look at bookstalls from time to time that they were definitely at one time, at all events two years ago, very often thickly over-populated with trashy items from America.

It was unreasonable to expect the Government to continue a system by which under Article 9 of the Loan Agreement they would be obliged to import all those books at a very high cost in dollars. Again, the hon. Member for Devizes seems to think that it is unreasonable that the Government should not be able to discriminate against the indifferent articles in favour of the more respectable ones. I think that if such a system had been set up there would have come perhaps not from the hon. Member himself but from his side of the House the cry that the Government were setting up a type of censorship, as indeed they would have been. To say that one type of American book is better than another is almost to establish a kind of Index, and would be rather an invidious process particularly for the Civil Service to have to try to administer.

So far as I can make out the simple rule appears to be that one may get a licence to import quite substantial quantities of books from any country in the world provided that one promises to reexport 50 per cent. of them. The Secretary for Overseas Trade will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that that is the general principle, which is obviously the Government's method to try to prevent too great an import from the United States.

I feel, as the hon. Member for Devizes does, that there is an effective case for that. Whereas we obviously cannot abolish licensing altogether—which would mean that we should let in these vast quantities from America again, which would cost us a great many dollars, because no doubt a great many film magazines would come under the heading as well—we can reasonably approach the United States with regard to the waiving of Article 9 at least in respect of books. I say that because this must surely be something on which America and ourselves, whatever our other economic differences may be, must agree on the political side—that we are both concerned with the promotion and spreading of ideas that are the basis of freedom, and that it cannot be reasonable that such a restriction should be deliberately placed on the import of books from countries other than the U.S.A.

This is important because this rule is not understood in many other countries. I was recently in Ireland for a short time, and I found that amongst other complaints against the British they have one about books because they do not understand the peculiarly difficult position in which we are under Article 9 of the Loan Agreement. They were suffering from great bitterness, because they felt that there was some deliberate ban on Irish books in this country. In fact, one or two publishers there have gone bankrupt because they started before the Loan Agreement and counted on being able to import a substantial amount of books into this country; as without the British market there is not really a sufficiently large reading public in Eire to support a publisher. Because it is not understood, and because it has affected them so, it is up to the Government to use their best endeavours to ensure that we are not doing wrong in that particular respect.

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Combined English Universities)

Since I do not wish to delay the reply of the Minister I will only intervene for one moment. I think it is appropriate that one representative of the universities should strongly support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis). I agree with the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) that the problem as seen by the Government may not be entirely simple. It may be that for certain action they would require the consent of other countries, but do not let them assume that such consent would not be obtainable. It is fantastic, when great sums are spent on such institutions as U.N.E.S.C.O., that it should be impossible to import a book from France.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Combined English Universities)

I have recently made an analysis on the restrictions on books in the 12 countries represented at the Strasbourg Assembly and it is fantastic to find that almost every country has quotas and restrictions in the same way as we have. What I would put to the hon. Member is, as the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) said, while there is so much more talk about international unity and while there are interminable discussions about this very question at U.N.E.S.C.O. and between the Brussels Treaty Powers, one wonders what is happening and whether he is in touch with his hon. Friend at the moment who is discussing the question in Paris. May not we at any rate in the world of books make all this talk about European unity a little bit of a reality?

10.23 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis), who raised this matter, rightly disclosed his special interest and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that his real interest is in the furtherance of cultural understanding and national goodwill. I think we can say that we share his beliefs and aspirations and it is mainly the difficulties that exist and which we have to overcome that make it impossible to do all he wishes.

As a result of the Anglo-American Loan Agreement, we cannot allow books to come into this country which we prohibit from the United States. The same applies in the case of Canada. I think it would be wrong to give the impression that because of that decision all books are shut out. We do import particular books and those especially mentioned come in, not in quantities we would wish, but in reasonable supplies.

Take learned scientific and technical books. They are allowed in at the rate of 200 per cent. by the value of pre-war imports. Religious books and children's books of an educational type for use in schools may be imported up to 100 per cent. by value, of the pre-war figures. Import licences are issued quarterly and I have been making investigations as to whether we should find, as a result of revaluation, that there would be less books coming in for the next quarter. We are making arrangements so that the same ratio as before will come in. We realise the importance of having this literature for the purposes mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We import fiction books provided that 50 per cent. of them are re-exported. That is necessary because, whereas we find it important to have the other books to which I have referred, I do not think that the argument that fiction books should be imported can be advanced with the same substance. Therefore, imports are only permitted on the understanding that 50 per cent. are re-exported.

In addition, there is the open general licence scheme whereby any student or anyone who wants a certain book can get it—

Mr. K. Lindsay

After a considerable delay.

Mr. Bottomley

I suppose that in some cases it is inevitable that there should be a delay if it is done at a time when many other matters are on hand. However, some hon. Members have told me that the application has gone through in a shorter time than was expected. We must try to ensure that all applications are got through quickly. Books can be secured in that way, although I do not think that the procedure is as well known as perhaps it ought to be.

The import of books from the United States must be limited. I should say that today's Debate has made it all the more imperative that we should refrain from spending dollars unnecessarily. I would say to the hon. Member for Devizes that we really cannot consider taking anything further from the United States. He asked what we should do about other countries. I share his view and I think that many other hon. Members hold his opinion. The matter has been actively considered. I know that that is an old phrase, but it has been actively considered, at a time when there are opportunities such as those which exist now when the atmosphere is better than it might have been, and we hope that in due course it will be possible to give further consideration to this subject. If it is at all possible to meet the view of the hon. Member, that will be done, but it is not for me tonight to say what can be done because I am not informed of the exact position. The Department is looking at the problem and will do its best to meet the view put forward.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that if we took more American books, it might be possible to export more books to the United States. That is not so. The United States is now an open market for our books. If we use greater endeavours I think that we shall be able to sell more. The publishers themselves are to be congratulated because in recent months they have recognised that fact and they have established in New York a book centre.

Mr. Hollis

I said that if we had freedom for the import of art books from the Continent of Europe, we could make them up in this country and they would have a good market in the United States.

Mr. Bottomley

I thought the hon. Gentleman suggested that there was a limitation on present sales. As apparently he is aware, there is no limitation. I would again refer to the enterprise of the publishers whereby, instead of having to send books from this country, they now have them in store in New York ready for sale to the buyer.

The hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) referred to Eire. It is true that in that case publishers have been acting somewhat in ignorance. I believe that many of the publishers and the sales people have not understood the implications and have not applied for import licences as they could have done. In view of that, the Department has fixed a new figure whereby books to a certain amount can come in, and I think that the Eire authorities have been made aware of the position. I am sure that their publishers appreciate the position and we expect that there will be a development in that kind of business which should remove the grievance which has been expressed.

I conclude by saying that it is only the balance of payments difficulties which prevent us from meeting the suggestions of hon. Members on both sides of the House. As far as it is possible for the Government to meet the other requests which have been made, they will be met. I ask hon. Members not to press me at this stage, but to wait and see whether the present reasonable atmosphere will enable us to do what I think is the desire of all of us in all parts of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.