HC Deb 17 June 1952 vol 502 cc996-8
The Prime Minister

With the permission of the House, I desire to make a statement.

Mr. R. G. Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, concluded his visit to London today, when he attended a full meeting of the United Kingdom Cabinet. During the past three weeks he has had opportunities to meet a number of Ministers of the United Kingdom Government, and to discuss with them matters which are of common concern to the United Kingdom and Australia.

These talks have covered a wide range of topics—including the whole field of international relations, with special reference to the position in the Far East and South East Asia, defence policy and the progress of our joint military planning.

Important conclusions were reached on the question of defence equipment required by Australia and the sources from which it should be obtained. We discussed the amount of Australia's productive capacity which should be devoted respectively to food and to armament production, so as to reconcile the demands in the interests of both countries.

On all matters the sympathy and understanding between Her Majesty's Governments in the United Kingdom and in Australia have been notably advanced by the exchange of views which has taken place.

Mr. Menzies' visit has afforded an opportunity to review the impact of the Australian import restrictions on United Kingdom trade generally and on the particular industries which are most seriously affected. Mr. Menzies has been anxious to examine possible ways of alleviating our problems subject to the over-riding necessity for the Commonwealth Government to safeguard the Australian reserves.

Full discussions took place between Mr. Menzies and Her Majesty's Ministers concerned, and also between him and the representatives of a wide range of United Kingdom industries affected by the import cuts. The Australian Government have already declared their intention to give special consideration to goods manufactured or in process of manufacture at the 8th March, which were made to special specification for Australia, and which were not saleable elsewhere without severe loss. Other cases of real hardship would also receive special attention.

Mr. Menzies said that the Australian Government is also prepared to take measures to ensure that Australian importers would normally use their quotas in category "B" to honour their outstanding commitments before applying them to new orders. Mr. Menzies' view was that, having regard to Australia's balance of payments position, she would not be able to go beyond these measures at the present time but he hoped that the difficulties of the industries affected by the Australian import cuts would be eased by the arrangements outlined above.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask the Prime Minister, first, whether there was any discussion with Mr. Menzies about the possibility of Australia diverting orders from dollar sources to United Kingdom sources, and, secondly, whether there was any discussion with him about the possibility and desirability of holding a Commonwealth economic conference in the near future?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. On both these subjects there was full discussion.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the Prime Minister say what conclusions were reached on them?

The Prime Minister

I think that we should like to choose the most convenient moment for such an announcement.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would not the Prime Minister, at least, indicate whether it is likely, for example, that a Commonwealth economic conference will be summoned in the near future, in view of the fact that Mr. Menzies himself proposed this in public? Cannot we have an indication of the Government's own attitude?

The Prime Minister

I am not prepared to make a definite statement today, but I am satisfied that it is very desirable that such a conference should be held at the earliest possible moment.

Dr. Broughton: May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? First, does he consider that any progress has been made along lines leading towards a concerted economic policy for the British Commonwealth of Nations; and, second, is there any prospect, in the immediate future, of more trade between the two countries, bearing in mind the present state of our textile industry and our need to import food and wool?

The Prime Minister

I am hopeful that progress has been made in both those directions.

Mr. Bottomley

May I ask the Prime Minister whether the adjustment in tariff rates by the Australian Tariff Board were considered, and, if so, with what result?

The Prime Minister

I think that is a question of some detail, of which I should require notice.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

The Prime Minister stated that important conclusions had been reached about the sources from which Australia would obtain her war equipment. Will he indicate particularly what he meant by that phrase?

The Prime Minister

I meant exactly what I said. I certainly do not think that a detailed statement on such a matter could be reached until after Mr. Menzies has been through the matter in detail in Australia with his own military experts.

Mr. Ellis Smith

While welcoming the statement so far as it goes, may I ask if the Prime Minister is aware that in large industrial areas where there are thousands of unemployed and thousands on short time there is a growing uneasiness about our economic situation? Is he also aware that there is a desire that this matter should be treated as one of the utmost urgency, and will he reconsider his reply in the light of that fact?

The Prime Minister

These are obviously matters which are in all our minds.