§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)
In the nine years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have raised many questions on Adjournment debates, but this is the first occasion on which I have not been asked by the Department concerned for some details which would enable them to give a considered reply. It is not because there has been no time, for it will be recalled that I was to have raised this matter on Friday, 26th March. On that occasion the House was counted out.
It is remarkable that on that occasion, as the bells rang, the Minister of State, Board of Trade, who is to reply today, hurried into the Chamber with a few other hon. Members, probably thinking that a Division was to take place. When he learned that it was a Count, knowing full well that he was due to answer the debate later, he quickly got out again to make sure that he did not help the business of the House to proceed.
That is typical of the Board of Trade in these days. Industrial circles—and I speak with some knowledge—refer to the Board of Trade as the Department for the prevention rather than the promotion of trade. No doubt the Minister thinks that it is a nuisance to have to be here so late in the day just before Easter. As I anticipate that he has not got much to say, I do not need to worry about allocating much time to him for his reply.
On 25th March I had a Question on the Order Paper which, unfortunately, was not reached, and there was a Written answer. I asked the President of the Board of Trade if he would considercontinuing the Government charter of the s.s. "Gothic" so as to use her for a floating shop window for advertising British productions overseas.The right hon. Gentleman replied:No."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 129.]Not even "No, Sir." Not even a request for details which might be considered, but just a plain "No." I put down another Question for the following week in an attempt to get some satisfaction. 1423 On this occasion there was an Oral answer. I asked the President of the Board of Tradeon what grounds he refuses to consider chartering the s.s. "Gothic" for use as a floating shop window for advertising British productions overseas.I had a different answer this time. On this occasion, the right hon. Gentleman said:I am advised that such a scheme raises many practical difficulties which greatly outweigh any possible advantages; it is unlikely that exporters would support the exhibition. In any event, I understand that the s.s. "Gothic" could not easily be made available.In answer to a supplementary question he said:I have given careful consideration to this proposal, which is in line with quite a number of other proposals of the same type which have been raised from time to time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st April, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 2218.]One week the President said that he would not bother to consider it; the next week he said that he had given the matter careful consideration. That is the type of Minister with whom we have to deal.
When the Minister said that this is a type of proposal which has been made from time to time, he was talking through the back of his neck. Twelve months ago the "Gothic" would not have been the attraction that it could be now and for the next 12 months after the Royal tour. I defy the Department to quote a similar incident of this type which has been considered.
I am fairly sure where the Minister's advisers got the wording for his answers. In March, 1946, we had the Report of the Ramsden Committee, which sat to consider the part which exhibitions and fairs should play in the promotion of export trade. The wording of the answers is very similar to what I submit is a very out-of-date Report today. The Report said:Such a scheme could be said to have the merit of following established business practice in going out to meet the customer.That has to do with floating exhibitions. The Report then went on, in the words of the Minister, as follows:… but the many practical difficulties are formidable and would appear to outweigh any possible advantages.1424 To give an indication of how out-of-date the Report is, it also said:In the first place, there would appear to be little prospect of a ship or ships being released or built for a long time to come.That was very appropriate in 1945, but it is an entirely different proposition in 1954. We had a sellers' market for many years after 1945, but the situation today is entirely different. If the Minister's evidence is not taken from this Report, which is out-of-date, I challenge him to say where the evidence was obtained on which his advisers prepared his answers.
Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that the obstacles in the way in getting the s.s. "Gothic" are insuperable? I do not mean immediately after the Royal tour. It could be in the autumn or even next spring; in fact, in time to advertise on the s.s. "Gothic" in the North American ports the British Industries Fair, which badly needs that publicity. If the Minister says that the obstacles are insuperable, then I begin to wonder whether he is the best President of the Board of Trade that we could have.
The President's answer said that such a scheme would not be supported by exporters'. I wonder where the right hon. Gentleman got that information. The Minister would be amazed at the number of Tory Members of Parliament who are business men who have congratulated me on this proposal. I have a lot of letters from industrialists from which I wish to give one or two extracts. The first one says:Dear Mr. Dodds,This last Thursday evening I dined at the Dorchester Hotel with Mr. Lucien Wagner, and I told him about your idea of using the s.s. 'Gothic' as an exhibition ship to tour the ports of the United States of America. Mr. Wagner's reaction was astounding. He said he considered the idea the best he had ever heard for selling to the Americans. He went on to say that if he had been British, and in business in Britain, he would have been glad to finance the project. Since Mr. Lucien Wagner is a top-ranking business man in Belgium, his opinion is of great value, and it is for that reason that I am passing it on to you.The second extract is:Dear Mr. Dodds,All the world is interested in the s.s. 'Gothic' and I feel sure there is no good reason for the sad recital last Thursday by Mr. Peter Thorneycroft in answer to your Questions. If the 'Gothic' was used in the United Slates of America as a floating shop window for United Kingdom goods, golden 1425 dollars would be raked in. The advantages would greatly outweigh any practical difficulties. Far more exporters would want to exhibit their goods than could be accommodated in this direction. With Government favour"—I emphasise "With Government favour"—I and my friends are ready to provide all the finance necessary to cover the whole of the cost of fitting out the ship as a floating exhibition and for taking her to ports in America. Manufacturers would consider it a privilege to pay all charges in advance if given the opportunity to show their goods in the ship. There are hundreds of manufacturers in Britain not interested in exhibiting their products at the British Industries Fair who would be pleased to pay several times the cost of a stand at the British Industries Fair for a small space on the s.s. 'Gothic' as a travelling exhibition visiting the United States of America. When the Board of Trade are unwilling to support a project that would attract almost every United States citizen, then I do not wonder that the Americans are inclined to complain that British methods of salesmanship are out-of-date.Those are two letters from business men, the second from a man who is in a big way of business, with contacts with some of the biggest engineering firms in the country.
I should mention, at this stage, that for 10 years I have planned, built and controlled some of the biggest exhibitions held in this country, and I have made a study of exhibitions. This, therefore, is my line. In 1948 I raised a similar matter with the Labour President of the Board of Trade about a floating exhibition to North America. I then gave the reason that it was obvious to me that the influence of the British Industries Fair was diminishing, and that we would have to have very much more than the B.I.F. to get orders or attract buyers from overseas. I did not mind a bit, but I got my fingers rapped for saying something unkind about the British Industries Fair.
Time has marched on, and I have now found an excellent ally as a result. A sub-committee has been set up to review the present arrangements for the British Industries Fair, and, on page 4 of its report, it says:Other evidence received, however, has also confirmed the impression that the Fair has been losing ground in the eyes of both buyers and exhibitors. This trend has been particularly noticeable at the London section, and drastic steps are needed to enable it to regain its prestige and play its full part in the promotion of British trade.1426 Among the recommendations made and accepted is that public money, to the extent of £100,000 a year for several years, should be spent on publicising the B.I.F. overseas, and particularly in America and Canada, to attract buyers to this country.
Yesterday, I got the latest figures of the bookings for this year's Fair, which opens on 3rd May, and, comparing them with the figures for 1948, I can see that my prophecy in 1948 is, regrettably, coming true. I am not suggesting that the B.I.F. should not be held. Indeed, I believe it is imperative and important. What I am saying is that we need other methods as well if we are to get the orders which the manufacturers of this country will badly need in the next few months.
I would not be so foolish as to say that the "Gothic" would be adequate for making exhibits of engineering goods, particularly heavy engineering, but, of course, that is not necessary in this modern age. In fact, the work of selling heavy engineering can be done by the modern technique of industrial sales films.
What the "Gothic" needs is a suitable room to serve as a film theatre, so that industrial films can be shown to selected audiences in American and Canadian ports. I know these films, and I could give a whole list of them; not sentimental, sloppy, documentary films, but industrial sales films, showing production going on in some of our greatest engineering works. Those film shows would be similar to those given in connection with the big exhibitions I organised before the war. The room could also be used for mannequin parades. Those parades could be shown on the "Gothic" to selected audiences in North America, who would thus be enabled to see Lancashire textiles, Yorkshire woollens, Harris tweeds, and so on.
When it comes to exhibits, there are many that would be suitable for such a ship, such as Staffordshire pottery, Sheffield cutlery and Birmingham jewellery, and even exhibits as large as a bicycle. Those who understand publicity recognise that the "Gothic" could be a great attraction. In the Ramsden Report reference is made to the difficulty of finding berths for the ship, and of taking people to the ship by tender if the ship could not berth alongside some of these piers or docks. I quite appreciate that point, if 1427 the exhibition were intended for the general public; but the real attraction for the B.I.F. is buyers from overseas. That is what we need.
There could be occasions when it would be suitable for the general public to come aboard the ship. Can anybody doubt the attraction that the "Gothic" would have for the general public of North America, especially if, for example, furniture from one of the Royal suites was left on board? It may be that one has to be careful in speaking on these matters, and I desire to be so, but I would call attention to what is stated in the Report of the very respectable Locock Sub-committee of November, 1953.
It mentions that the inaugural dinner, through the courtesy of successive Lord Mayors of London, has, since 1926, been held in the Mansion House, London, on the opening day of the British Industries Fair, and that on occasions the dinner has been honoured by the presence of members of the Royal family, with great benefit to the Fair. I heartily agree with what is said there. At the Lord Mayor's dinner, the appearance of Royalty has been a great send-off for the Fair.
Can it be wrong to suggest that something similar to that should happen on the "Gothic" to make a great social occasion? What a magnificent picture it would make in a North American harbour when the "Gothic" was there if the Royal Yacht "Britannia" came there at the same time. Can anybody doubt the publicity that would be obtained, not only for British goods, but in advertising the British Industries Fair that was to follow? All the North American papers and magazines would carry the story. The £100,000 suggested in the sub-committee's report would be chicken feed—or, to use the modern reference, "chicory feed"—by comparison.
Not only could we advertise British goods at the floating exhibition, and the B.I.F. which we all want to advertise, and which it will cost a lot of money to do, but such things as Britain as a great tourist centre. That could find a fill-up and an advertisement from using the "Gothic" which could not be found in any other way.
Therefore, I ask the Board of Trade once again to look at this project. These 1428 business men have suggested that, given Government favour—and that is what is needed—and assistance, a party of industrialists are willing to raise the necessary finance to see that the job is carried out. I do not agree that they should bear the whole cost, particularly as public money is to be spent for the B.I.F.
On 12th April, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) wound up his Budget debate speech by a reference to the proposal about the "Gothic." He said he thought it was a pity that the President of the Board of Trade, would not even trouble to discuss the proposals. He ended by saying:The President will have to have more imagination about selling British goods abroad, because it will require something of that kind to excite the imagination of people and bring them to took at British goods. If people will not come to the British Industries Fair, then let us take some part of the Fair to the people, and we shall get some results out of it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1954; Vol. 526, c. 905.]As I have said, Tory Members of Parliament who are business men in a big way in this and other countries have sent me messages on the subject, and have told me personally that they think that the idea of using the "Gothic" in this way is an excellent one. It seems unreasonable that when first dealing with the matter the Minister should have made it quite clear that he would not even bother to consider it. It seems obvious to me that this attitude was based on the report of his advisers which, I submit, is now very out of date.
Some of Britain's biggest engineering firms are now working on orders booked two and even more years ago. Most of them are very worried about the next few years. One would think that the President of the Board of Trade would be willing to look at even a cockeyed scheme in the hope that there might be something in it which would provide employment and would contribute to people's welfare and happiness.
In 1927, an exhibition train toured the ports of India. That venture was a great success. This would be an idea for those people who could not, for instance, get to the ports. I have discussed the matter with people who know the ports of North America and they inform me that there are far better facilities now than there were in 1945 and 1946 for such an 1429 exhibition train. If this project were run in a proper way, there would be no one in North America who reads a newspaper or a magazine who would not know about it.
Now a few words about the modern technique of showing people abroad British heavy engineering products. I understand that there is shortly to be a British fair in Baghdad in which the Board of Trade is greatly interested. But there are some grave doubts whether such an exhibition will be worth the expense. It is a debatable point. I would advise the Board of Trade to consider, also, supplementing this fair with a festival of industrial films. I have seen many of these industrial films over a long period and have seen the results. They are remarkable. The Board would be wise to consider for a few minutes the results being obtained from British industrial sales films, with appropriate commentaries, which have been shown in 64 countries.
There was a leader in one of the national newspapers the other day, and it has been mentioned in many newspapers. It was headed, "What's Wrong?" and went on to say:The Royal visit to Australia gives fresh glory to a cherished Commonwealth relationship. Then comes the cold douche.The biggest contract ever awarded in Australia goes to a group of American companies. Tenders were offered by every important construction group in America and by many European firms. But, says a Canberra report, no British firm tendered for the £20 million job of tunnelling and dam building on the Snowy River hydro-electric project.That information has caused quite a lot of concern. On 29th March a Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Robson Brown), asked a Question about it. It was not reached and there was only a Written answer. The hon. Member asked the Presidentwhat assistance he gave to enable British contractors to attempt to secure a substantial part in the construction of the Snowy Mountain Project in Australia, expenditure on which amounts to £40 million worth of civil engineering.The Minister repliedMy Department kept in close touch with the contracting industry about this matter. United Kingdom companies, after careful consideration, decided not to tender for these particular contracts and further assistance from my Department was therefore not required."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 164.]1430 If I had time I could mention some of the criticism of the Board of Trade in respect of this Snowy Mountain project in Australia. It is certainly not to the effect that the Board of Trade is very much alive, nor to the effect that it gives every possible assistance. At this point, I should like to quote from the letter of a business man, who is very much concerned with industrial sales films. He says:Dear Mr. Dodds,Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Authority.What is said in the leader column of a daily newspaper yesterday leads me to draw your attention to what I did in the matter mentioned in the newspaper.It has been said that Britain—invited to tender for £30 million of construction work—did nothing. This is not wholly true. When I first learned about the project—some time in August, 1952—I at once communicated with the Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Authority at Cooma, New South Wales. I asked them to let me send them, as a gift, 16 m.m. sound films about the activities of some United Kingdom firms, and depicting engineering goods in actual use which they manufacture, for use of Authority's experts when planning their purchases in connection with the project in the Snowy Mountains.A favourable reply made me send out four different films. Early in December, 1952, I completed a 35-minute sound film under the title of 'Harnessing the Waters,' which depicts the manufacture in Britain of giant sluice gates, and sluice gates made in Britain in actual use in several different overseas territories, and this I sent to Australia on 10th Demember, 1952.Early in March, 1953, a letter dated 4th March, 1953, reached me from Mr. W. Hudson. Commissioner, Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Authority, which says that since receiving the film 'Harnessing the Waters' it had been displayed in the headquarters office at Cooma and it was being screened on projects in the Mountains. All this has resulted in the managing director of the United Kingdom firm of sluice gate manufacturers visiting Australia and securing a contract worth many millions of pounds recently.That, I submit was done through the medium of an industrial sales film. I have evidence here of orders that have been booked in Mexico, Japan and many other countries in which these films have been offered as a gift, have been displayed and have resulted in inquiries. I am not saying that this is the method by which Britain will avoid unemployment. What I am saying is that it is an important asset in a competitive world in showing in countries all over the world what the British can do. Business men are prepared to give these films free and to 1431 ensure that the spoken commentaries are in the languages that the different countries understand, but up till now there has been a reluctance at the Board of Trade to make use of them.
I appreciate the difficulties. If the name of a certain firm appears on a film, a Government Department may be blamed for helping the firm. Therefore, the films to which the Government should give their support are those which depict British production but make no reference to the firm Which handles those goods. This matter has to be considered again, and I shall be prepared at another time to give details of how this can be done. I have with me a list of all the big firms—some of the biggest heavy engineering firms in the country—which have made industrial sales films. What is necessary is that the Board of Trade should take far greater interest in the subject and should do their utmost to help.
I might mention that contact was made with the Soviet Embassy in London. When some of our business men, who went to Moscow, returned to this country, I was very disturbed to hear from some of them that they had seen goods that had been supplied to Russia from N.A.T.O. countries and which were on the strategic list and which, therefore, we could not supply.
An offer was made to the Soviet Embassy to send them some industrial films for exhibition in Moscow with Russian spoken commentaries. The people responsible for this idea thought that they had better be on the right side of the Foreign Office, so a letter went to the Foreign Office mentioning the proposal and requesting guidance particularly on the question of strategic goods. But it took two months before an answer came, and yet many of these films had been shown in over 50 countries. The Russians had even been to the factories in this country to see those goods. It seems to me that in this competitive world we shall have to make a change from leaning backwards to make certain that we do nothing out of place, because it is obvious that some of our friends are quicker to get on the ball.
I should like to quote from a report in the "News Chronicle" earlier this week. The report was written by Margaret Stewart, the industrial correspon- 1432 dent of that newspaper, who seems to have her finger on the pulse. She was reporting a conference of business men at Oxford, and said:These 20th century merchant adventurers, peddling diesels, turbines, generators and power plant from China to Peru all report the same: Germany calling, Germans swarming. And oh, how those Germans are bartering, bargaining and bulldozing their way into Britain's best markets. They are ruthless, scientific, sales-mad.Those are the people against whom we have to compete.
My final quotation is from the "News Chronicle" of yesterday. It is from Motherwell, and says:Motherwell, Tuesday,I have to report the sober words of a Scottish trade union official on the final day of the Motherwell by-election campaign. 'The politicians,' said he, 'don't like to face it because they don't know what to do about it But I'll tell you what's the most serious issue in this town. It's the way German competition has begun eating into a man's job.' In some of the steel-making plants and the heavy engineering works in Lanarkshire a lot of men are now on short time.I have been approached by several industrialists, who have asked me to become the director-general of a new industrial film association. They are ready to look at almost any proposition that might lead to orders, because their order books are rapidly becoming empty.
I appeal to the President of the Board of Trade not to turn down so discourteously any proposition that might be examined in the hope of getting some new ideas. If the "Gothic" cannot be used we must look for the most up-to-date methods of obtaining the orders we so badly need, especially in the North American markets.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Heathcoat Amory)
The atmosphere is so clearly charged with the holiday spirit that I am not going to be provoked by the criticisms which the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) made at the beginning of his speech. As far as those criticisms apply to the Board of Trade, we have, fortunately, plenty of evidence that his views are not shared by the business community at large. The reason why I did not get in touch with him on the last occasion, when he did not get the opportunity of raising the matter 1433 on the Adjournment, was that on 1st April he gave notice that he would be raising the matter today.
I can assure him that any constructive schemes which are put forward for the promotion of exports are assured of my interest. As he rightly says, we are right in the middle of a competitive era and when business becomes more difficult it is sound practice to devote more and not less effort to advertising. I always admire the energy and enterprise of the hon. Member, and I am extremely sorry if anything I say this afternoon seems to pour cold water on the idea he has put forward. Like any other constructive idea, it is obviously right to examine it very carefully, and I agree that at first sight it seems to have attraction.
Any information or suggestions he has to give me on the subject of industrial sale films will be most acceptable, and I shall be very interested to receive them. I shall not talk about the Snowy River project, except to say that I had met a group of British contractors to discuss this subject last autumn, but in the final resort it must be a matter for the commercial judgement of the contractors themselves whether they will go into a particular scheme.
The hon. Member's suggestion that the "Gothic" should be chartered and equipped as a floating exhibition of British products, and should tour the markets of the world, complete with sales staff, has been considered on several occasions during recent years. I cannot agree that what the Ramsden Report says on this matter is irrelevant. It says:Many practical difficulties apart from the cost are formidable and would appear to outweigh any possible advantages.One difficulty which the Report mentioned was the non-availability of ships. That problem is almost as formidable today. The other difficulties it foresaw at that time were the difficulty of preparing a satisfactory itinerary because of harbour limitations and restrictions, and the cost of suitable berths. It is largely a financial problem. Where berths were not available there were difficulties, the Committee mentioned, of mooring offshore, and it also mentioned the possibility of interruptions due to bad weather. It mentioned, thirdly, the unwillingness of exhibitors, at that time anyhow, to pro- 1434 vide adequate sales staffs for a protracted cruise.
It said that when this had been considered in the past there had been no evidence of adequate support from exhibitors. I shall say more about that in a minute. It also said that should large sections of industry become convinced of the value of this kind of project, the Government should give further consideration to it, if approached on the matter, but that the initiative should come from industry.
Since then our Exhibitions Advisory Committee, which consists of business men who are interested in and know about exhibitions generally, has considered similar proposals several times. Each time it has reluctantly endorsed the Ramsden Report conclusion that these exhibitions are impracticable. It considered one in 1951, when it was suggested that the Festival ship "Campania" should, after the Festival, take a selection of British goods to North and South America. The "Campania" was already fitted out, which was an advantage. It had been fitted out at a cost, I understand, of £500,000, which would be higher today. Despite the fact that she was already fitted out, every leading trade association in this country that was consulted replied that its members would not be interested in such a project.
I do. I accept that. In 1952 a suggestion was made that there should be a sort of floating British Industries Fair and that it should tour the world. It was a most ambitious project. There were to have been seven ships. The cost of the tour of Europe alone, I understand, was estimated at £3 million. After consideration of it by the Exhibitions Advisory Committee, and after soundings had been made, it was abandoned because of complete lack of interest in it on the part of industry.
I quite see, with the hon. Gentleman, the glamour and the attraction of the "Gothic," but we have to bear in mind that the cost of the conversion of the "Gothic" would be enormous, and that, 1435 even if she were fitted out for this purpose, there would be very limited space indeed. The advice I have been able to get so far is that the cost of conversion and the expense of chartering and running the ship makes a floating exhibition a quite exceptionally costly method of advertising. First of all, the "Gothic" would have to be converted, and then she would have to be chartered, and chartering is an expensive business. Moreover, the owners of the "Gothic" are desperately keen to get that ship back again on her normal run, which is a very useful one, to New Zealand. She is fitted out with refrigerator space for meat carrying. She is very badly wanted on her normal run.
It is absolutely essential, in my view, that a scheme like this should be based on the enthusiastic support of the exhibitors. So far, the evidence we have from our soundings is that that sort of support is lacking. If the hon. Gentleman can give us any information that will lead us to change our minds, that will be fine. As I have already said, there is nothing I hate more than pouring cold water on constructive suggestions, and I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that this suggestion of his has been turned down at a whim either of my right hon. Friend or of mine. I am quite willing to put it again to the Exhibitions Advisory Committee, and to ask the Committee whether it takes a different view of it now, in what the hon. Gentleman says are the different circumstances of the day. I shall ask the Committee if it will be good enough to put it on the agenda for its next meeting.
I am far from complacent about the present situation. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that our foreign competitors are making the most vigorous efforts. I believe on this question that at present industry's best plan would be to concentrate its efforts on what we are at present doing in the way of exhibitions and fairs overseas and try to make our efforts more effective than at present.
1436 I am not at all certain that in many overseas fairs our methods are as effective and as worthy of British industry as we should like them to be. There is a danger lest our activities should be spread too thinly. I believe there is a lot of scope for all the money that industry can afford to devote to publicity—and I hope it can devote a good deal—in giving more effective support, for instance, to British industry fairs and specialists trade exhibitions in this country, which are going ahead well and earning quite an international reputation, and to the British trade fairs and the many overseas fairs which take place. We shall have to be more selective and I believe when considering this—I am giving a lot of attention to this matter—we can do much better in the future than in the past.
I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall always be glad to give careful consideration to any constructive suggestion—and this is a constructive suggestion, I agree—that he would be good enough to put forward. One thing I cannot put up with is apathy. But the hon. Gentleman need not worry that I will not look at anything he puts forward. I will, because I feel it will be constructive. We must be enterprising and experimental. We must be prepared to take risks.
I will sum up what I have been trying to say by stating that it is impossible to launch a particular project with any chance of success unless that project has the enthusiastic backing of the exhibitor. What I have had to say to the hon. Gentleman is really based on the fact that all the evidence I have got so far shows that that enthusiastic backing is lacking.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes to Five o'Clock till Tuesday, 27th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday