§ Order read for resuming adjourned Debate on Question [20th February], "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
§ Question again proposed.
§ 3.15 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)
A little time ago I was interrupted when I was addressing the House on the Bill and I want to complete the remarks I was making. Before I do so, I want to deal with a point raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward). I have given her notice of what I shall say and I hope she will take an opportunity later to deal with the matter.
During the discussion of business, by way of what the Prime Minister would call an interrogative speech, the hon. Lady said something to suggest that in some way I had been discourteous to the House. She said:I understand that there was an agreement last night that the Export Guarantees Bill should be through by 10 o'clock, but that that agreement was not kept. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ask the Leader of the Opposition whether they have abandoned the principle of agreement, and whether, in future, he will be able to control his own followers in these matters?—"[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 432.]It is only fair to the House to say that that statement was completely and utterly without foundation. Had the hon. Lady been on speaking terms with the Minister of Health—I can only suppose that some disagreement over the National Health Service Bill prevented that—and had she asked him, he undoubtedly would have told her so. I think it was a little in bad taste that the right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question, because he must have known, as she would have known had she asked him, that there was no agreement whatever.
Had the hon. Lady listened to, or read the report of, the debate she would have noticed that the President of the Board of Trade said:…it is, after all, an important subject. It covers the export trade from this country to the whole of the world."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 355.]To suggest that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench would agree in some behind-the-scene way that a discussion covering the export trade of this country 1365 to the whole of the world should be disposed of in an hour-and-a-half or something of that sort is, I suggest, a proposition which would not have been believed by anybody on that side of the House. I regret that the hon. Lady should have said what she did.
I can only say this. Democracy does not consist in secret agreements being made to avoid discussion on questions of interest, and I hope the hon. Lady will remember that. If she cares to intervene I will give way, or possibly she may prefer to make a speech later.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
When the hon. Gentleman asked that question, I was about to say that I should prefer to wait until he has finished his speech.
§ Mr. Bing
Perhaps I am. I was about to say that we should invite the House to give the Measure the same scrutiny as the then Minister of Works asked should be given to the previous Bill. It was an exactly similar Bill to this; it consolidated existing legislation and it contained two Clauses, identical to the two Clauses here. The discussion proceeded on the same lines as on this Bill—"Why is this extra cover required?" It is interesting to note that on that occasion the present Minister of Works said:It really does lie with the Government to give very detailed reasons why they want another £40 million."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July, 1949; Vol. 461, c. 251.]That was in regard to what is Clause 2 of this Bill, and of course the present Government are asking, not for £40 million, but for £50 million. Why it should be democratic, when hon. Members opposite are in opposition, to have to go very carefully into why the Government need the extra £40 million, and when they are the Government it should be right and proper to pass the extra £50 million on the nod, is a problem which I hope the hon. Lady will deal with when she discusses this aspect of the matter.
It may be convenient to the House if I seek in a word or two to recapitulate 1366 what the Secretary for Overseas Trade said about the Bill. It is contained in two Clauses, one of which raises by 50 per cent. or £250 million the guarantees given under a Section of the 1949 Act. That Section is the one which refers to what, for convenience in debate, one may call the commercial side—the purely commercial transactions. The second Clause is the one which raises by 50 per cent. the amount which may be devoted to what one may call, for convenience, the special types of insurance. The discussions, therefore, proceeded on the same lines as those of 1949 and those we had on the 1951 Act, though that was a matter far narrower than this.
On both the previous Measures the main interest of hon. Gentlemen opposite was that the scheme should have adequate publicity and that it should have adequate staff. I do not intend to deal with either of those two points at very great length because I do not think they are the most important issues raised on this matter, but the Secretary for Overseas Trade may remember that one of his first acts in office was to sign the preface to this excellent pamphlet, "Sell More: Risk Less," issued by his Department Who distributed it for his Department? Why, the Central Office of Information. What was the first thing his colleagues did? It was to cut the allocation for that body. So it is important to see, when one is claiming, on the one hand, that there should be more publicity, that one is not, on the other hand, destroying the means whereby that publicity can be obtained.
The second question was of more staff. Hon. Gentlemen vied with each other in anxiety about that. One of my hon. Friends who was then the Secretary for Overseas Trade said proudly that the staff had risen from about 300 to about 500, and was warmly applauded on this side of the House for that. Hon. Gentlemen opposite who are, as I understand it, normally in favour of a reduction of Civil Service staffs said, "Oh, but this is different. This is a commercial concern."
Why should hon. Members opposite think like that? Perhaps it is because they have particular experience in the commercial field that they appreciate the value of having those public servants in this Department, and it is because they have not had experience of the employment exchanges, or of other Depart- 1367 ments, that they think they can easily dispense with other public servants. I think that our experience with regard to the public servants employed by this Department could well be a guide to the sort of economies we attempt to make elsewhere.
Now I turn to the reasons why we have to raise these totals. I think one can put them under four heads. The first is that exports have risen in cost. There may well be the same amount of exports, but if they have risen in cost, of course we shall need a bigger ceiling to cover them. Second, more people may know of the scheme. We may be getting more people making use of it. Third—and this is a point that was not dealt with, or put very clearly, by the President of the Board of Trade—more people may be afraid of risk. There may be a situation in which more people require cover. Then there may be a greater volume of exports. Quite irrespective of price there may be a greater bulk of exports going abroad. Before the House really can come to a decision on these things, it is important that we should have some indication of the reasons for this particular increase.
It is curious to think that only two years ago the present Minister of Works was moving an Amendment to reduce the amount. This is a great reversal, and we ought to know in more detail on what grounds the increase is based. It is important to know in regard to these four factors how they affect the calculations on which the present figure is based: whether exports are rising in cost or volume, or both, and whether it is anticipated that there will be a further rise in volume or only in cost. When the Secretary for Overseas Trade was speaking, he said:It is partly due to a rise in prices and partly to the success of our export drive, or perhaps I should more properly describe it as a combination of both.That gave the impression that there was not only an increase in prices but in volume as well, and that they anticipated that both these factors would continue. Yet a few sentences further on he says:Average export prices during the year were nearly 20 per cent, above the 1950 average."—1368 and later onThe volume of United Kingdom exports in 1951 was some 3 per cent. greater than in 1950, and given the Government's determination to increase the resources devoted to production for export, there is no reason to suppose that there will be a reduction in export volume.Within a paragraph that really is a contradiction. The first suggestion was that we should give this sum because there was going to be an increase not only in prices but in volume as well. If the increase is only in prices, the percentage of risk increases far higher than if the increase is in volume, because the risk is spread over the same number of goods.
The Secretary for Overseas Trade went on to say:In the engineering field all the Government's policies are now directed to increasing the proportion of total output devoted to the export trade, and therefore we must expect that capital goods and machinery will form an even larger proportion of the total export earnings than in 1951, and this will inevitably have a substantial influence on the Export Credits Guarantee Department's medium-term operation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February. 1952; Vol. 496, c. 324–5.]That is a third and quite different explanation. It is not that volume is going to rise but that turnover is going to be slower, because for engineering goods you give a much longer term of credit. I did discuss previously whether the term of cover is long enough. One does not know on these figures whether there is any intention of increasing the length of period of cover; but that is another reason for the increase.
Is the calculation that more money is required not because there will be a greater volume than was suggested earlier and not so much because of a price rise —the price rise spoken of is 20 per cent. and increased cover is in the neighbourhood of 50 per cent.—but for coveringing more medium-term credits instead of short-term credits? If it is, that must be based on the calculation that a great many more engineering exports requiring medium-term credits will be available for export than was previously the case.
Is that really to be so? It is true that the easiest form of export is the export of capital goods whose absorption into the home market can be controlled by comparatively simple physical controls. But if you abandon an effective system of physical controls, it is necessary to have quite a different kind of export credit 1369 policy. With an efficient system of physical controls at home, the maker of a generating plant who cannot sell at home has to export it or not use it. Therefore, he is much more likely to be prepared to meet the risk of financing the whole thing himself.
If one reads the pamphlet to which the Secretary for Overseas Trade wrote a preface, one sees that the Department are really thinking of consumer goods. The whole of the dollar drive arrangements are based on the idea that one can secure in the dollar areas a sale of consumer goods. The passage in "Sell More—Risk Less" states:For many products, branded articles and goods which can well be sold in the highly competitive field, it is necessary to make a scientific market survey to ensure the products will be acceptable to potential customers in quality, price, and design.Here is an attempt to go forward on a consumer goods basis.
In 1949 my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Overseas Trade, said that the Export Credits Guarantee Department had ceased to be a passive body. It used its machinery to steer trade, rightly, into particular quarters and away from others. It withheld credits from certain countries and areas where they thought the risk was high and where they thought it would not be to the national advantage to trade, and they gave facilities in other areas where they thought trade should be developed.
We ought to look and see what markets we should develop. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is going to tell us anything about the areas of insolvency. From what countries have come the principal claims upon the Department? From what individual countries have we had the most insolvencies? I do not know anything about his Department, but I suggest two countries. One is Australia, the other is Egypt. I suggest those countries because they are countries where the economy is upset by the re-armament drive. We cannot discuss that here, but when we are discussing to which countries we should give our export credits, it is right to consider the economic pressures to which they are subject.
The position in Australia is that suddenly, because everyone bought wool, there were all sorts of people with immense quantities of money to spend 1370 and it looked as if there was a wonderful market. But, of course, it collapsed and disappeared. If the Financial Secretary to the Treasury looks in the "Times" of last week, he will see that the hosiery manufacturers of Australia were complaining about the dumping of nylons on Australia. I think the figure was 1,700,000 pairs, which seems to be a fair share even for Australia. There was talk that these were all going to be charged with special duties because of dumping.
It is not much use to have an export credit guarantee basis for putting goods into countries under those circumstances. In this debate, instead of trying to score political points as the President of the Board of Trade tried to do on the last occasion, we should be much better occupied in going into problems of this kind seriously. I think everyone deplores. at a time when it is said on every side that we are in a desperate position and must export more and work harder, the fact that the Patronage Secretary ensures that this debate should be taken at an hour when no hon. Member is sufficiently fresh to deal with it properly. For instance, the hon. Member for Bury and Redclyffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) is not present. I know he is not in good health, but up to now he has been a persistent speaker on this Bill and his advice we certainly ought to have.
It is wrong to take a Measure of this kind at this time, when, so far as the supporters of the hon. Gentleman are concerned, those who have always spoken on this Bill cannot be here for one reason or another. These are technical questions which affect the welfare of this country, and upon the decision which the Government and the House makes may well depend how our export drive will go. It is difficult to consider and discuss them at this time of the morning.
What are the views of the Financial Secretary as to which are the reliable consumer goods markets? I cannot conceive, with the news we are getting from France at the moment, that that country provides one. We are this morning under the shadow of a possible economic collapse in France, in a position when it is foolish not to say openly that the franc is not in a particularly strong position. Are we to run a great consumer goods campaign to Western Europe in those circumstances? These are serious 1371 political questions to which hon. Gentlemen will have to address themselves sooner or later or else get out of office.
Of course, there are other great and possible consumer markets. Let me give the hon. Gentlemen two examples—China and Africa. What is the policy of the Department in regard to those two areas? When the President of the Board of Trade was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) what was the breakdown among Asiatic countries for the export credit guarantees, he could not give an answer. A week has elapsed and perhaps this morning we shall be able to have the answer to that rather important question.
What sort of sales organisations exist at the moment in either of those two countries? In Africa, there is a series of monopolies. The United Africa Corporation and companies of that sort control practically the whole sale of consumer goods to a greater part of Africa. How does the Department work in relation to them? Are they helping people who do not want to sell through the United Africa Corporation or do they feel that it is a corporation on the same lines as the brewers whom we discussed earlier?
As far as China is concerned, it is a part of the world with which we have had very long trade associations. The history of these firms goes right back into the 17th century and it would be a great pity if we abandoned all these markets. We shall abandon them if right hon. Gentlemen opposite apply the sort of policy of steering goods away from them. What is their policy with regard to China?
The problem in this country is not engineering goods. If one is having a re-armament drive, for good or for ill, one has a full occupation of the engineering industry. What we have not got at the moment is full employment in the textile industry. It really is fantastic, when we come to have a debate on export trade, that we have heard not one word from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, as to what the Government are going to do in regard to what is potentially the greatest textile market in the world.
1372 The third point is that perhaps there are more people who know of this service and are using it. That is a thing on which we should like to have a little more information from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury when he replies. The President of the Board of Trade gave some figures which, I thought, were somewhat contradictory, and unfortunately I did not have the records with me to give him the other figures; but I will give them now. Replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham, the President of the Board of Trade said:The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) asked me a number of questions. He asked me whether it was possible to describe or divide the various activities of these export guarantees between the Commonwealth, the United States, and the Iron Curtain countries. What I can say is that so far as the Commonwealth are concerned, excluding Canada, we cover through the activities of that body 8 per cent. of the total trade. In the case of the United States and Canada, which I put together as both being dollar countries, we cover 9 per cent., and in the case of the Iron Curtain countries we cover 10 per cent.He went on—and this is the very curious figure—But I think the most illuminating fact is that since 1945, when we covered 5 per cent. of the total United Kingdom exports, the figure has increased to 13 per cent., which gives a clear indication of the extent to which traders are increasingly using the facilities available to them through this organisation."—[OFFICAL REPORT. 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 356.]These are not the figures given by the then Minister of Works when he was speaking in the debate in 1949. If both sets of figures marry together, there has been a remarkable decline in the percentage of goods covered. Let me give the figures given by the Minister of Works in that debate. He said that from 1945 to 1946 we covered 12.8 per cent. of our exports; in 1946–47 we covered 13.5 per cent. and from 1947 to 1949 we covered 14.3 per cent. Were the figures given by him wrong? If so, it would not be the first time. Or were they right and does it mean that the percentage covered has now declined?
Again, I apologise to the House for discussing these things at this hour when it is difficult for us to keep the figures in our minds, but it is no fault of ours on this side that we are obliged to 1373 do it in this way. We on this side are determined to give the exports of this country the attention they deserve whatever the actions of the Patronage Secretary and we shall discuss the matter fully and frankly. The President of the Board of Trade gave us a general answer. On Wednesday of last week, he said:There are many ways in which one can divide up these figures.…This was after my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham had asked for the information and had said:I did not ask about the Iron Curtain countries. I asked especially about Asia and Europe as a whole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496. c. 356.]Those would be very valuable figures, and I hope we shall receive them.
The Secretary for Overseas Trade said earlier of the extra £250 million:It is possible that the extra £250 million now in question may not be required in the immediate future, but it is dangerous to assume this in view of current high prices and an increasing number of applications at this particularly difficult time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 323.]I do not know whether the President gave us the increasing number of applications but, if the figures that were given by the Minister of Works were correct, what he is saying is that, though the percentage of total cover is falling, nevertheless there are more applicants. Is that the position or is it that there are greater risks? That is the next point. Are people who previously did not do so now asking for cover because they feel the world is becoming so insecure, or is it that as a result of market research and promotion more small men are brought in?
The Department are much to be congratulated upon their efforts at market research. The President of the Board of Trade said that they have a file of no fewer than 120,000 buyers and every month 2,000 more potential buyers are examined by the Department. That is a very valuable service. If one reads the pamphlet, "Sell More, Risk Less" one sees that it is not only in this sort of work that there is a very considerable service rendered to the country by the Department. They do a tremendous amount of work. If I may refer once again to another of these points to illustrate the work of the Department and to serve as a text for the second part of 1374 what I have to say to the House, on page 6 the Department say, speaking of their joint venture policy:The joint venture is based on that idea of partnership which has been used in commerce since Elizabethan merchants shared the hazards of overseas trade projects.Then they go on to describe how, starting out on merely the principle of credit insurance, they went on until the Department now deal with all sorts of unpredictable risks such as changing fashions, stocks left on hand, variations in exchange rates, fluctuations in costs, market surveys, appointments of agents, advice on stocks, and things of that sort.
Surely, this is a particular sort of credit which should be extended particularly in the Clause 2 type of arrangements. Clause 2 deals with special arrangements of various sorts, and, if I may say so to the Secretary for Overseas Trade, perhaps in his haste to get the Measure through he was a little vague. He said that the second group consists of guarantees given with the consent of the Treasury for various transactions.
When he came to mention them, he said they covered a wide number of projects such as certain aspects of the dollar drive, herrings to Poland, and many other projects. He then went on to talk about market research in North America and about £10 million worth of 'buses which were being sent to Cuba, which was, he said, a matter which my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham would well remember. Of course, it is not much use having private exchanges of that sort. What is necessary is to explain in detail the transaction to the House. and not merely remind one hon. Gentleman of some particular matter.
Let me come, for example, to this question of herrings in Eastern Europe. It is an important point, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), who is generally associated with matters of this sort, was not warned by the Patronage Secretary that this was a likely subject of discussion so that we could have had him here. It is one of the disadvantages of having debates at this hour of the morning that a thing which closely affects a Member's constituency is discussed in his absence, and he is excluded from the discussion.
So far as I know—and one of the two Ministers on the Front Bench opposite 1375 will correct me if I am wrong—we export to Russia at the moment about 10,000 barrels of herrings a year.
§ Mr. Bing
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to interrupt, I will pause for a moment and give way to him.
I think I am right in saying that the export of herrings to Russia is round about 10,000 barrels a year at the moment, and that before the war the figure was a million barrels. This seems to me to be the sort of field in which this type of special guarantee could do good, but, of course, it is not only a question of just financing the shipment but of investigating the general market conditions in order to discover why, where a million barrels went before the war, only 10,000 barrels go now.
There are many possible reasons. One may be the interruption for the moment of the trade from Russia in salmon. For years there has been a traditional exchange of herrings for salmon. I feel that we have had the best of the bargain for a long period, but that is a matter of taste, and I am not going to argue it at the moment. These are both nonessential imports in a sense, and if we cut off one we are faced with the problem that we may have the other cut off as well.
It is for that reason that I want to mention, in view of the sort of market research work the Department have done, the question of the Economic Conference which is likely to be held on 2nd or 3rd April in Moscow. This matter was the subject of a question by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll) to the Foreign Secretary, and it has also been the subject of comment by the T.U.C., so I do not think either one of us should try to make a party point about our attitude to it. If we have been right, we have both been right: if we have been wrong, we have both been wrong. This is a matter which could well be looked at again from the point of view of overseas trade.
It may be said that a conference of this sort will achieve nothing, and that everybody will be used for some kind of purpose. That is not the attitude which 1376 the Department takes towards other projects. They pride themselves on whatever project comes forward; they will investigate it on its merits. I suggest that the Department might look at the conference on its merits, and see whether it is not a fit body to which to send an observer. I have got hold of a copy of the agenda; I will not worry the House by reading it all, but this is the sort of thing they will be considering—balance of payments difficulties and ways of solving them: possibility of extending trade to countries with planned economies and to countries with private enterprise. These problems are being studied in relation to the dollar areas.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) said, we have an important problem in relation to the Eastern bloc countries. They are getting dangerous sterling balances built up here, dangerous because we cannot give exports in requital. This market might well be studied. Here is a conference at which not only the Soviet Government are to be represented, but also Japanese business men, Chinese, South Americans, and, I understand, the trade and finance Ministers of a number of Middle Eastern countries.
If all these persons are getting together to discuss trade, it does seem to me to be deplorable that we should not have even an observer there, and I hope the Department will think it over. If they do not think it worth sending an observer they might consider having a similar kind of conference here. The Foreign Secretary has said time and time again that it is by actions such as this, and by using occasions of this kind, that we can overcome unfortunate difficulties. But do let us look at the matter again.
I want now to turn to a point on which we have been lectured at length by the hon. Member for Bury and Radclyffe. That hon. Gentleman has on many occasions explained in detail the question of offshore trade. He believed that he had made it clear, but when the subject came around again he felt he had to explain it again on the theory that none of us had understood him. He has made, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) would say, a "valuable contribution," and I cannot add anything to what he has said on that point—[HON. MEMBERS: 1377 "Hear, hear."]—I am sorry hon. Members should say that because I am trying to make a serious speech on this issue, but if we were having this debate at a reasonable time I should not have to be making a speech for myself and for other hon. Gentlemen who are absent.
I want to say only this about offshore trade. Obviously, as the hon. Member for Bury and Radcliffe has said, this country is traditionally skilled in managing the trade of other countries and it is just as important a subject and is recognised by the Department as being just as important a job, as any other they have to do. But it is not only managing the trade of the most sophisticated countries—it is managing the trade of a great many other countries just coming forward to nationhood.
These are the sort of people we ought to help. They need the helping hand, not the traders who are established and maintain themselves in clubs and support the class and the colour bar, but of the sort of service we render to the United States. If they regarded all countries in the same way as they regard the United States, I think there would be a future for the development of offshore trade among all these countries, particularly those in the Far East who are coming into nationhood.
I hope I have not wearied you, Sir—perhaps I have wearied hon. Members. My only excuse for doing so is that, in my submission, this is the most important single problem before this country today. It is the one problem which if we fail to solve it, our economy will be completely and utterly disrupted. No other country in the world lives to the same extent on its exports, and there is no one matter more important in regard to our exports than this excellent machinery which has been set up and developed by my right hon. Friends. I might mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham who have built up this Department from comparatively small beginnings after the war to its present position. We have got to continue their policy, and it is my submission that if we do not do so, the whole of this delicate machinery on which our imports and exports rest may well be brought to a stop.
1378 I hope we may discuss his matter again at a time when hon. Members are less fatigued, more able to take in an argument, and less to be boring or bored.
§ 4.2 a.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his courtesy in warning me that he was going to address the few remarks he did to me concerning my intervention the other day at Question time. May I also say at once, because I should not like to be unfair in this matter, that immediately after Question time the Patronage Secretary told me that there was no such agreement.
I think the hon. and learned Gentleman is not quite aware of the full weight of the circumstances of what occurred the other night. He left the Chamber followed by a considerable body of his supporters who congratulated him very warmly on his bravery in talking out the Bill on that occasion. I was extremely interested to hear his supporters saying how courageous and brave he had been and commiserating with him on what might be the effect on his own Whips that following morning. I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. and learned Gentleman, because I can well remember that often over a long period in the House I have found myself in conflict with my own Whips when I wanted to make a speech and they would have preferred me to resume my seat.
It was the commiseration of hon. Members opposite, with the hon. and learned Gentleman, suggesting what might face him from his right hon. Friends, which led me to believe that his Front Bench had expected him to sit down at the famous hour of 10 o'clock and allow this very important Bill to have a Second Reading. That was why I made the point in the way I did. Now, having listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I can understand that he required more time in which to make his speech and to get everything he had to say—to which the whole House listened with interest—in HANSARD.
It is curious that I always seem to be in difficulties over the Export Guarantees Bill. I remember that in the 30's, when I was anxious to get export credits extended to ship-building—a matter of great interest to the North of England and to my constituency, in particular—I 1379 waited for three years before an opportunity arose on which I could address the House. The business of the House having been accelerated for some reason or another, the Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade at that time announced that it had been decided to extend export credits to ship-building —and I was not in my place to congratulate my Minister. I warmly congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on being a better Parliamentarian on export credit guarantees than I was, and I am glad to have had this opportunity of hearing his speech.
§ 4.8 a.m.
§ Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I must thank the array of Ministers from the Board of Trade and the Treasury who have come to listen to the debate. It is unfortunate that it could not have taken place at an earlier hour, because this is an important subject.
If I were the Secretary for Overseas Trade or the President of the Board of Trade at the moment I should have written on the wall opposite, "Any consumer goods that we lose from our exports this year we lose for all time." This is not just a crisis of consumer goods in this country. It is a crisis of consumer goods throughout Europe. It is the old problem of the remnants of the 19th century economy as we have known it. That is why during this year and in the years which immediately follow we shall have to apply ourselves to this problem of survival in the consumer goods trades with more sincerity and more energy than we have ever applied to the problem.
I do not intend to speak at great length, but I am going to put to the President of the Board of Trade and to the Secretary for Overseas Trade five points. Three of them have to do with the mechanics of premiums, and the remaining two with policy. It may quite easily be that before this Bill passes the Committee stage Amendments may have to be made to alter the functions of the Department on account of the urgency 1380 of the situation in the textile trades. I therefore agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) that it is most lamentable that we have to discuss this subject in the middle of the night.
My first point has to do with the Clause which has been slipped into contracts in late months whereby the Department can change the rate of premium at any time between the date of contract and dispatch. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury will appreciate that I am engaged in the industry which is the largest single dollar earning industry in this country—the wool trade—and that this handicap is, in my opinion, discouraging business.
What is the result of it in a buyers' market—or, as I heard one of the principal figures in the Lancashire cotton industry say, on Sunday, a "no buyers' market"? Anybody getting business has to quote very keenly, cut prices, or even accept a slight loss to get any business at all. Everybody connected with the textile industries knows what the situation is today.
How can a manufacturer who has taken business at a cut price meet the increased demands that a change in the rate of premium will make? If the market is a buyers' one—if it is a buyers' market or a "no buyers' market"—the circumstances with regard to risk will have deteriorated since the time of the contract. So I would ask the Financial Secretary to give the House some information on that particular point. If the Department can be asked to withdraw that proviso it would give great satisfaction to my own particular industry.
That brings me to my second point. I put it in the form of a question. If a fixed premium can be quoted, will the Department quote a rate on the basis of the risk at the time when the order is taken? Otherwise, if a higher estimate of the premium is made at the beginning the charge on the insurer will be higher than he can stand. If the Financial Secretary does not understand that I will explain more fully: will the rate quoted by the Department be at the rate for the risk at the time that the contract is entered into, and not an estimate of a deterioration of the risk at a later date.
My next point is this: does the Department rigidly adhere to a rule that import 1381 licences must be in the hands of the exporter before the Department will cover the exporter? If that is the case there is going to be a good bit of business lost. We must expect our manufacturers to anticipate the conditions and the time in which they can make delivery. Do not forget that in a buyers' market the man who can give short deliveries is the man who is going to get the order, and if a man has a reasonable chance of getting an order by anticipating it, getting his materials ready and so forth, he is quite entitled to do it. I ask the Financial Secretary if he will find out if such a rule applies, and, if so, to what industries.
My fourth point is one of policy, and relates to the statement of the Secretary for Overseas Trade about the Department's relations with the Treasury. He said:Since April, 1930, until the present time it has made a contribution to the Exchequer of no less than £7,387,568. This in the case of a normal insurance company would be regarded as part of its reserves against future contingencies.Why is this Department deprived of the reserves that a normal commercial company would need to meet the very contingencies that the Department will be called on to meet during the next year or two? It ought to be the other way about. He goes on:The House may be interested to know that since 1930 the gross payments on claims have amounted to £9,400,000. Of that £5,800,000 has actually been recovered, leaving £3,600,000 outstanding. A part of this has been written off as irrecoverable, but it is quite possible that at least a part of that sum of £3,600,000 will be recovered and will go to swell the notional reserve in the Treasury."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496. c. 326.]Why? I am suggesting to my right hon. Friends and hon. Friends that we should consider this so that perhaps an Amendment may be tabled on the Committee stage to deal with the point. The Treasury gets the profits and the taxpayer pays the losses. If there is a loss during a year's insuring the Board of Trade asks the House for more money. It is ridiculous that the Treasury should he allowed to get away with it.
My next point is also on policy. This Department sprang out of the original Overseas Trade Credits and Insurance Act, 1920. The circumstances were somewhat similar then: there was a slump in the textile industries; there was a Tory 1382 Government in and they had arranged with Mr. Montagu Norman of the Bank of England for a little deflation to take place and also the restriction of credit.
I want not to be controversial, but the restriction of credit, coming on the heels of a buyers' strike, has precipitated the textile industries and other consumer goods industries, into the worst situation that has been known this century. So little has been done that the Lancashire and Yorkshire manufacturers, in spite of the fact that the Government has been in power only four months, has already lost confidence, not only in the Government but in their ability to sell.
I say that in no hard spirit. I wish hon. Gentlemen could get out of this difficulty, but their inaction, lack of direction, and lack of a definite policy after the announcement of the restriction of credit in November has done more damage to the textile industries of the North than the Government will, in all probability, ever be able to recover. It is serious.
Time was, only a few months ago, when the salesmen coming down from Manchester would be travelling first-class, the barons and the kings of industry. See them walking round the East End with their papier maché cases underneath their arms trying to sell their stock today. It is due to lack of confidence—in what? Lack of confidence in ability to sell and in the Government which is directing affairs. The Tory Party, before they were elected, promised to reduce all costs. The hoardings were covered with it in my constituency. It did not pass unnoticed by the buyers overseas that we were going to reduce our costs, and that helped to restrict purchases.
§ Mr. Richard Fort (Clitheroe)
Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that foreign buyers, as well as home buyers, had been strongly advised not to buy by one of the most eminent Members of his own party only a few weeks before the General Election? Let us get the record straight.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
If I may follow up that point, the hon. Gentleman opposite knows as well as the rest of the House that the sellers' market in this country was brought to a precipitate end by the rather foolish statements of 1383 one of his right hon. Friends. He knows, in fact, that there was considerable rising unemployment in the textile industry and in the clothing industry before this Government ever came in, and that this Government is suffering from the hangover of the incompetence of its predecessor.
§ Mr Rhodes
In answer to both of those interjections, I admit at once that I do not think the remarks made by the right hon. Member referred to were of the wisest, but they were only in line with a lot of remarks that had been made by hon. Members opposite in previous months. I would not disagree, either, that there was an element of a buyers' strike even before the remarks were made.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I am coming to that in a minute. There is no question, however, that the confidence which the textile trade had has disappeared, and there is a sense of desperation among people who are now engaged in that industry. Nobody can deny that. I am suggesting to the right hon. Gentleman that he now makes a reversal of policy with regard to the Department. Because, in the first instance, the Department was able to make advances in cash. I am asking the right hon. Gentleman and the Financial Secretary, or whoever makes this decision, to think about this seriously before we come to the Committee stage.
I do not think myself that we shall go many months before it is necessary to give financial assistance to likely exporters. I know, in the second class of the guarantees, that is given, perhaps, to firms manufacturing capital goods for local authorities in many part of the world. They may be more risky than the shorter term guarantees which are given in the first part. But I think it will be necessary before the end of the year to be in a position to give exporters cash assistance in the form of advances. That is the sum total of what I have to say on this particular phase of this Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) mentioned the high cost of the wool clip. I will make this observation in that connection. I believe that the mills of 1384 Yorkshire and of Lancashire will not throb again, working full-time, until the raw materials coming out of the sterling area are considerably lower in price than they are today. Somebody has to make up their minds how they are going to handle these affairs because it is no use looking to high price Australian wool for a direct sale to America today because that wool is not going through the Yorkshire mills.
When we are thinking in terms of dollar deficits, for goodness' sake let us all apply ourselves to the study of the problem of how it is going to affect the livelihood of people in our textile mills in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West of England, and Scotland. If we do that, and apply ourselves sincerely to it, I think, between us, we can go a long way towards a solution.
§ 4.34 a.m.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)
The speech of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes), who speaks with very direct personal authority on this subject which hon. Members on both sides of the House respect, fell into three parts. There was a short passage directed to the question of the hour at which this debate is taking place. I need only remind the House of two facts. In the first place, this debate originally began at 7.45 on the evening of 20th February and two-and-one-quarter hours' discussion followed. It has been continued for over an hour now. I am bound to remind the hon. Gentleman that on the 1949 Bill, which was a somewhat longer, and which consolidated some previous Bills, the debate took some two hours. So I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has any reason for complaint on that score.
§ Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)
We arranged on that occasion to start the debate early in the afternoon in anticipation that it might go on for a long time. In this case no provision was made and we were confined to 2½ hours only. Therefore I think we are entitled to the extra time now.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
On that occasion more time was actually allowed than, in fact, proved necessary for the long and more complicated Bill in 1949.
1385 The second part of the speech of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was directed in equal proportions to somewhat polemical comments of a political and controversial nature and to other comments closely integrated with them on the general situation of the textile industry. I agree with him that problems of great complexity and importance arise in general in connection with that industry, but I must say with respect that the connection between those broad and important problems and this Bill is a somewhat tenuous one; and it is really a very unsatisfactory method of dealing with matters of such importance to do so on the Second Reading of a Bill of such comparatively limited scope as this. I have no doubt at all that the hon. Member, with his Parliamentary ingenuity and skill, will find ample opportunity to discuss these grave matters on a more important occasion.
§ Mr. Rhodes
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not attach the importance to the matter that we on this side of the House attach to it. I am sorry he said that, because that is in itself another statement which will not give any confidence to the people who are looking to this Bill for some help.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I hope that the hon. Member genuinely failed to understand me. It is precisely because of the importance of this matter that it really appears to me inappropriate that it should be tacked on as a subsidiary issue in the discussion of a Bill limited to the provision of additional sums under the Export Credits Guarantee scheme. The hon. Member, with his experience, knows very well that there are a variety of problems in connection with this great industry which have nothing whatever to do with the Export Credits Guarantee scheme and it is because of the importance—which, so far from understating I have been emphasising—of those problems it is not really a suitable or effective way to deal with them by tacking them on as an indirect consequence of a Bill the theme of which—
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
On a point of order. Is not the whole tenor of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, Mr. Speaker, a grave reflection upon your conduct of the Chair? The implication that what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton- 1386 under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) has been saying has nothing whatever to do with this Bill and has been tacked on in some way to this Bill, is not that a reflection upon your conduct of the debate?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
May I respectfully say that there was nothing said to suggest that anything said in this debate was out of order. I suggest that many things which are manifestly in order on Second Reading of a Bill are inappropriate and unsuitable, from the practical point of dealing with them, to be dealt with on Second Reading. The right hon. Member knows that as well as I do.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)
Further to that point of order. Might I draw your attention to the fact that the Financial Secretary has suggested that some of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) would have been better made on some other occasion?
During the earlier part of this debate, the other day, a whole series of questions were put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), and the answer of the President of the Board of Trade was to suggest that his remarks were out of order, and that therefore he need not reply to them. Indeed, the whole of the earlier part of this debate was frustrated because of the refusal of the President of the Board of Trade to abide by the decision of the Chair. Is not the Financial Secretary now attempting to follow the example of the President of the Board of Trade in seeking to refuse to answer questions raised from this side by sheltering behind the Chair?
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
May I ask you to consider, Mr. Speaker, that what the Financial Secretary said more than once was that the remarks addressed by my hon. Friend were totally inappropriate and unfortunate in connection with such an important Measure as this. Did not his remarks give the definite implication that this resumed debate tonight was something which ought not to have been allowed, and is not that, Mr. Speaker, a grave reflection on your conduct in the Chair?
§ Mr. Speaker
In answer to the various points raised, some of which are points of order and some points of debate, I 1387 would only say that so far as I recollect —and I have been in the Chair all the time that this debate has gone on, both today and the previous day—nothing has been said which I consider sufficiently out of order to interrupt or reject. What I understood the Financial Secretary to say was not that anything had been allowed which was out of order, but that it might have been inappropriate to attach a certain argument to this Bill, and so on. That is a matter for debate. So far as I know, nothing which has been said is out of order, and it is for hon. Members of the House to argue it out among themselves.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am sorry if I upset the hon. Gentleman opposite. That was not my intention. What I was trying to do was to tell him that we appreciate as well as he does the grave importance of this matter, but equally that this is not a convenient occasion on which to deal with it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am not going to weary the House with what might be described as tedious repetition, but it is in the recollection of the House that I did suggest that these are matters which it is not convenient to debate on a Bill of this sort, which is to extend the financial limits under the Export Credits Guarantee Scheme.
I will now deal, if I may, with the specific points put by the hon. Gentleman which very clearly, as he himself knows, relate to this scheme. He raised really four points because the fifth one was a somewhat polemical matter to which I have already made reference. The first was—
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
No, I do not propose to give way; I am going to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.
The first one was the handicap which he said was imposed upon the whole trade by the proviso to which he referred. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that discussions are at present taking place on that question, and we hope and believe that they are well on the way to a satisfactory solution. As regards the second point—the question of rates and changes in rates of premiums—I can tell him that this question is also being discussed with the policy holders and with the organisations 1388 representing traders and exporters, and that the Department concerned is at present working on the problem of providing fixed premiums on contracts and hopes to introduce a new system in the near future.
The third matter I cannot deal with at such length. That is under consideration, and I cannot say more about its merits now. The fourth and final detailed point he raised was the reference to the fact that the profits of this insurance scheme are, as he rightly said, paid into the Exchequer, and he suggested that this ought not to be so, and that they should be preserved separately as a reserve for the Department. I think I have apprehended his argument correctly.
That is an arguable proposition, but it is completely opposed to the method adopted in the operation of this scheme by varied Governments. I am not going to say that all the arguments are on one side, but I would ask the hon. Gentleman to consider that this is a scheme operated by a Government Department, and there is a good deal that can undoubtedly be said for providing that Parliament shall in such cases have that strict control which flows from the fact that if further moneys are needed the Department must come to Parliament and ask for them.
Whatever may be the merits or demerits of this, it does preserve the control of the House to a far greater degree than would be the case if they were treated as free reserves at the untrammelled control of a Department. I think that this House and the Public Accounts Committee might look with some doubt at a proposal which deprived the House of the effective control it has over the operation of these funds and this scheme. I would not close my mind to the hon. Gentleman's argument, but he will appreciate there are wide and serious considerations on the other side.
§ Mr. Rhodes
The hon. Gentleman has missed my most important point. That is the last one. There were five, and the fifth was the question of the reversal to the original plan under which guarantees were set out. Will he answer the question about cash advances and the matter of discussions with trade associations, development councils and export groups?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
That would mean a return to the 1920 scheme. That has 1389 not been under consideration. As far as I know no suggestions that that would be more desirable have been made until they were made this morning by the hon. Gentleman. The fact that he had made them will result in that aspect of the matter being looked at, but I do not want to go into any other commitment than that.
The case for this Bill is that it is necessary to deal with two matters arising out of the 1949 Act because of a combination of circumstances. One is the increase in prices to which the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) referred. Another is one which has not been mentioned, and it is that in this troubled world a larger proportion of traders seek the protection of the scheme.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I understand that the figure is 13 per cent. which, the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate, shows a rise over the figures of previous years. This, of course, is one of the factors which make it necessary to increase the limit provided in the scheme. The hon. and learned Gentleman's speech was wholly comprehensible so far as all the other issues that arise are concerned. I will give way once more, but I must get on.
§ Mr. Bing
Unless the hon. Gentleman gives way how can he be reminded of the points he did not hear? Otherwise, we shall not get an answer. The Minister of Works, in the previous debate, in 1949, gave various figures going up to 14.3 per cent. for the year 1947–48. Does the hon. Gentleman say that 13 per cent. is an increase over 14.3 per cent. or does he say that the figures given by the Minister of Works were wrong?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The figure of 13 per cent. is not an increase over the figure of 14.3 per cent. but an increase over the general average of the last few years. The tendency is upwards.
Before I give way again I have something else to say. It really is not good enough to say that I should extend the usual courtesies. It ill becomes the hon. and learned Gentleman—who was prepared to deny courtesy to the President 1390 of the Board of Trade—not to give me an opportunity to reply to his points.
The hon. and learned Gentleman, having adopted that attitude, is not in a position to insist on courtesy being given by me which he goes out of his way to deny to my right hon. Friend. If he felt it right to go in detail into the operation of this scheme he must have known when he gave that indication he could not deny himself and the House the opportunity of obtaining from the senior Minister responsible for this scheme the authoritative answers my right hon. Friend could have given.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
The hon. and learned Gentleman, having twice received the courtesy he denied to others, is not entitled to receive any more.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
On a point of order. Can we really be told whether it is in order for the Minister to go on like this on two separate occasions, after only two speeches from this side of the House on a Bill which is, after all, of the greatest international importance? Is there no procedure for full debate and the permitting of the normal interchange of speakers?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
That brings me to my next point and, I am glad to say, in logical order. The hon. and learned Gentleman has said this is a debate on export trade. It is not. With great respect to him that is not the case. This is a debate to give a Second Reading to a Bill designed simply to increase the limits under the exports guarantee scheme. It is not basically a debate on exports, and I do think the hon. and learned Gentleman was under a misapprehension when he made that point.
That is not the only misapprehension. I want to deal with one or two more. It was suggested, for example, by the hon. and learned Gentleman and by one or two of his hon. Friends, that this scheme was a major and discriminatory weapon of economic policy. Indeed, the hon. and learned Gentleman based on that belief a series of arguments about the directions in which he thought trade should be guided by the use of this 1391 weapon. That enables me to explain a little more to the hon. and learned Gentleman how the scheme has operated under a variety of Governments and how it continues to operate.
In the first place, so far as Clause 1 guarantees are concerned, the policy has been to pay great attention to preserving the solvency of the scheme. Consequently, the credit-worthiness of each application has been very carefully scrutinised and it has been the practice to use the width and spread of the scheme to permit the acceptance of risks which go rather beyond what the ordinary facilities cover, but which, none the less, are considered, as far as Clause 1 is concerned, with a view to preserving the solvency of the scheme and which bear very much in mind the credit worthiness of the applicant. Each case is considered on its merits. As right hon. Gentlemen opposite know, the Department are assisted by an extremely distinguished and representative advisory committee, who help to consider these aspects of the matter.
Such a scheme is clearly not a scheme which is suitable or appropriate to the very special economic direction of exports to which one or two hon. Gentlemen referred. It is much more a device, with one qualification which I shall come to in a moment, of general support for British exports than a discriminatory economic weapon. That is as far as Clause 1 is concerned.
Clause 2 deals with the special guarantees where considerations of national interest, and perhaps particularly of political national interest, are borne in mind, and a different procedure, without the advisory committee, is consequently followed. That is the practice which has been followed with different Governments and which has been followed consistently for a good number of years, with the result that right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have gone out of their way to point out what valuable services it has rendered to the country. I ask the House to consider very carefully, in view of the tributes which have been paid to the operation of this scheme, along the lines I have described, whether it is wise to try to base upon it new functions which would in a considerable degree be quite different from 1392 the functions which it has so successfully exercised for many years.
I want also to deal with a point which was raised by one or two hon. Members opposite—that of the general direction in which the scheme seeks to persuade or induce traders to go. As I have said, subject to one qualification there is a broad and general rather than a particular and specific approach. The one exception, of course, relates to North America where, in view of the obvious need to earn dollars, special sales promotion agencies have been created. That is the one qualification to which I referred earlier.
Hon. Members have also referred to the application of the scheme to trade with what I might generally describe as the Communist countries. In general, for the reasons which were mentioned, the same principles are applied to those countries as to others—though, of course, risks in connection with those countries have to be taken into account when each particular application is scrutinised; and, indeed, political risks in those countries have been treated as being so serious that recent guarantees have been, I am told, almost exclusively Section 2 guarantees; but there are a number of Section 1 guarantees as well running in respect of those countries.
There is one further point that is, of course, borne in mind in the giving of these guarantees. Hon. Members will be aware that with respect to certain of those countries, certain limitations on exports of certain materials have been imposed for strategic reasons. It must obviously be the case that guarantees would not be given in respect of any transaction that violated those limitations. It would be ludicrous to use the machinery of one Department of State to work contrary to the proposals put forward by another. Therefore, the existence of any such limitations is, naturally, taken into account when a particular application is put up. I may add in this connection that some 10 per cent. of the existing trade with the European Iron Curtain countries is covered by the Scheme.
Now, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch asked—
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I hate to interrupt, but will the hon. Gentleman tell us—I do not know whether it is possible; perhaps 1393 he will say if it is not—what it would be interesting to some of us to know, namely, what proportion of the losses that have been mentioned have been in the countries mentioned? I was myself a member of the advisory committee over 20 years ago, and then, strangely enough, Russia, according to my recollection, paid most meticulously all the commercial debts that were due.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I have not got the figures, but I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that, so far as Russia is concerned—I am not referring to the others—in general her record in the honouring of obligations has been very good. I have no precise percentage figures, nor the details, with regard to other countries, but no doubt they can be obtained at a later stage.
I was answering the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch when the right hon. Gentleman interrupted me. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked for the percentages of the guarantees in their broad application to different parts of the world, and I have got the figures for him, which I am glad to give. For the year 1951 to 1952 the percentages were these: Asia, 9 per cent.; Europe, 44 per cent.; the Commonwealth, 23 per cent.; North America, 8 per cent.; South America, 16 per cent.
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
Would the hon. Gentleman make it clear exactly what are the figures he has now given? Are those percentages of the total trade between this country and those countries?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
No, they are the percentages of the total guaranteed export trade. I hope that is clear. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has helped to clear that up, if I was not as clear as I should have been.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I am sorry to interrupt, but would the hon. Gentleman make clear what he meant when he said that the percentage of trade covered by the scheme in respect of the Iron Curtain countries was 10 per cent.? Ten per cent. of what?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Ten per cent. of the total trade with those countries—of the total export trade from this country to those countries.
1394 I hope that I have cleared a number of further points which hon. Members desired to ask me after my right hon. Friend sat down. This Bill was given, originally, a warm welcome. It has a part in helping our export trade, and I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said about the vital importance of helping that trade at the present time. I believe that all of us agree that this is a valuable auxiliary to the stimulation and encouragement of that trade, and I hope that for that reason the House will support the Bill.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. P. G. T. Buchan-Hepburn)
rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put."
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Brigadier Mackeson]
§ Committee this day.