HC Deb 11 July 1956 vol 556 cc443-52
Mr. John Hay (Henley)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 42, to leave out "or one of its" and insert: the Council of Europe, Western European Union, the Brussels Treaty Organisation or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or any of their". I think that perhaps the following Amendment might be considered at the same time, as it is consequential, namely, in page 5, line 1, to leave out from the beginning to "agencies", and insert: any of the said bodies or their specialised". The purpose of this Clause is to exempt from Customs Duty certain films of a non-commercial character produced by the United Nations or any of its Specialised Agencies. The reasons for its inclusion in the Finance Bill were shortly but succinctly given by my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary during the Second Reading debate when he said that the Clause was necessary to enable the United Kingdom to implement obligations under the U.N.E.S.C.O. Agreement, which was ratified in 1954, regarding import duty on films produced by the United Nations and its specialised agencies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th May, 1956; Vol. 552, c. 1233.] We had a short debate on the Clause during the Committee stage, on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill".

My right hon. Friend then explained that already the existing powers enable the entry free of Customs Duty of films produced for scientific or research purposes or for the advancement of learning or art. He added that free entry in this sense was not given if the film was to be used for a substantially commercial purpose. He went on to explain that duty has not been charged until now on this sort of film, but the thing has been done by means of one of those "extra-statutory concessions" which are all too rarely given by the Treasury.

The ambit of the Clause is limited to the United Nations and its Specialised Agencies. The House will observe that the Amendments which we propose would extend its scope to certain other films produced by other international bodies, the Council of Europe, Western European Union, the Brussels Treaty Organisation and N.A.T.O. I should like to say a word about each of these bodies in connection with the production of films of this kind, because it is with films that we are mainly concerned, although the Clause specifically refers to what I think in the jargon is called "public information media", that is to say, film strips, micro-films or cine recordings.

First, I wish to refer to the Council of Europe. I understand that until now the Council has not produced any film of this character. But the Committee on Cultural and Scientific Questions recently recommended to the Consultative Assembly of the Council that an expanded information programme should be carried out which would include the manufacture and distribution of this sort of film. It was, I think, largely due to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson), who produced an admirable report on the subject, that the Committee agreed and in April last the Consultative Assembly carried the recommendation unanimously.

I do not know what has happened to that recommendation since. Having been unanimously adopted, I hope that it will be implemented. But there is a rumour going round that, as usual, Her Majesty's Government have imposed a veto, and that this particular recommendation will fall by the wayside, as so many previous recommendations of the Consultative Assembly have done. I hope that that is not so. In the hope that perhaps it will not be so, and that the Council will be producing films of this kind, the Amendment is drawn to include films produced by that body. If it transpires that the Council can produce films, any concession which can be made in this Clause, as amended, would be useful.

It is mainly in relation to the second and third of the bodies mentioned in the Amendment that the matter arises. Western European Union is the successor to the old Brussels Treaty Organisation, and the House will recollect the work done in founding Western European Union by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in 1954, the flight that he undertook to a number of the capitals of Europe, and his discussions with statesmen, concluding eventually with the Paris Agreements. Western European Union has been built up on the Brussels Treaty Organisation. One of its essential functions is the exploration of cultural and social matters as they affect the seven countries which are members, and the production of films forms a most important part of that work. So far, the Brussels Treaty Organisation and Western European Union have produced three different categories of non-commercial films, and I should like to say a word about each of them.

First there are a number of joint productions by international teams. One particular example is a film called "The Open Window", a colour film on landscape painting, produced in 1953 by the Brussels Treaty Organisation—by five countries in collaboration. I have some figures relating to the distribution of that film inside Great Britain. Up to March this year, it has had 338 commercial bookings in ordinary cinemas, 191 non-commercial showings, mainly through the Central Office of Information—and it is estimated that some 7,000 people have seen those showings—and finally it has had a world-wide distribution through the British Council. Lord Beaverbrook, please note.

This year Western European Union is producing a film in this category called "December—the Children's Month". It is about Christmas festivities in the seven countries and it is a film for children. That is the sort of film that everybody likes to see, particularly at Christmas time.

The second category relates to films in a series made by a number of the various member countries. In 1956 five countries got together to produce a series of educational films on geography, and in the coming year, 1957, the seven countries are getting together to produce a series of educational films on the history of science. These will be of great value.

The final category consists of exchanges of films of a cultural, informative, documentary, educational or children's character. So far, I am told, the United Kingdom has had through Western European Union some 30 films from five countries. Many hon. Members may remember seeing about a year ago, or perhaps more recently, a film called "Men against the Sea", produced by the Netherlands Government, and telling the story of the tragic events which beset the Dutch when the North Sea floods took place some years ago, and of the work which has been done since to prevent a repetition of that incident. That is the sort of film that has been distributed widely in this country, mainly through the organisation of Western European Union.

I think I have already said enough to show that in this field some very useful work is being done by at least one of these often much-derided international bodies. People often say that we are members of these bodies like W.E.U. and the Council of Europe, but nothing happens. Well, this is something that is being done, and I hope that this Amendment will help to improve the opportunities for that work to be carried out.

The Amendment also deals with N.A.T.O. I have not a great deal of information about the production of films of this sort by N.A.T.O., but I am told that there have been quite a number, including a series of 14 films, each one of which has been produced by one of the N.A.T.O. countries under the general title of "The Atlantic Community". I think that is the sort of thing, very similar indeed to the United Nations series of films, with which the Clause already deals.

It could well be that all these films about which I have been talking already come under the Treasury's extra-statutory concession, but I think the House would agree that, all other things being equal, it would be better if the importation and freedom from Customs Duty of such films were dealt with by legislation, as is to be done in respect of U.N. films, rather than that the matter should be left to be dealt with by such a concession. I think that, if for no other reason, it would be an earnest of our intentions as a nation to co-operate with our friends abroad and to enable our people to know something more of the life of countries overseas than is shown in the sometimes rather highly coloured and distorted versions which the commercial cinemas put before us.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to say, if not that he can at once agree to the Amendment, that the matter will be given very careful consideration.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

I beg to second the Amendment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) has spoken so persuasively, that I do not think there is any need for me to say much in support. I should, however, like to refer to one matter in connection with my hon. Friend's last point. There is a suspicion—whether it is well founded or not is not for me to say, in view of my short experience in the Council of Europe—that the British Government are somewhat half-hearted about the support they give to these international bodies, that they are always turning everything down, and that whenever any suggestion is put forward the Foreign Office can be relied upon to veto it.

That is the general attitude. It may or may not be true—it is not for me to judge—but if we were to make this concession, which is a small one, it would go quite a long way to kill that idea which is so prevalent in Europe at the moment. I believe that a real service could be done to our propaganda abroad, as well as to the good propaganda of other countries in this country, by making a concession of this kind. It would help the free exchange of ideas, which I am sure every hon. Member would wish to see between this country and other European countries. In those circumstances, it is with great pleasure that I second the Amendment.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I am sure that we all have the greatest sympathy with the intentions behind the Amendment, and I am certain that we would all wish that the type of film which the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) has described should not in any way be impeded in coming into this country and should not be the subject of Customs Duty. But I am afraid that the method chosen seems to us on this side of the House to be ill-advised.

If these films are worth bringing into the country, because they are children's films or educational films and so on, surely arrangements should be made to bring them in on their merits rather than according to the body which has produced them. There is something to be said for doing what we have already done, namely, for giving a blanket approval to the United Nations Organisation and its subsidiaries, but I am sure that the hon. Member will see that what he is trying to do leads along a path to which one can see no end.

I have here a list of organisations. The Council of Europe would be unexceptionable, but there may be people who have views about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Why should films sponsored by countries which happen to be in a defensive organisation of that sort have special concessions—and, if the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, why not the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation? Why not the members of the Bagdad Pact?

One could go on mentioning various international treaty organisations of which this country is or might in the future be a member, and if by any chance they added film making to their activities there would be no logical reason why they should not equally be included. One might then go on to say: "If we are to have this kind of organisation covered by legislation, why stop here? Why not the great international voluntary organisations? Why not the Girl Guides or the International Council of Women?"

It is for that reason that my hon. Friends and I feel some hesitation about this proposal. We do not want to make too much fuss about it, but, in expressing our views, it is not from any lack of sympathy with the intentions of the hon. Gentleman that we disagree with him; we really feel that this proposed method of dealing with this type of film is not satisfactory. We therefore suggest that the hon. Members who are interested, and the Government, might think again, and try to discover a more sensible way of allowing these films, which we all want to see in this country, to come in without the imposition of Customs Duty.

Sir James Hutchison (Glasgow, Scotstoun)

I am disappointed that the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) has taken the view she has. I had hoped that I should find a good deal of support among hon. Members opposite who have been to Strasbourg and other towns in which these meetings have been held. After all, the hon. Lady is really arguing that, because we suggest extending this privilege to four bodies mentioned in the Amendment, we must extend it further. But we are asking only for the extension of something which already exists in regard to the United Nations. Therefore, to be logical, the hon. Lady should try to scrub out and destroy the facilities accorded to the United Nations. I had hoped also that I should receive some support from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has played so important a part on a number of occasions at Strasbourg, where he is held in great esteem.

It is one of the problems of today for ordinary members of the electorate to know what all these bodies are whose initials appear here and there in the newspapers. If we are, in fact, to continue to support organisations such as the Council of Europe and Western European Union, it is highly desirable that the public should know what those bodies are trying to do. In our constituencies, we labour to explain these rather complicated organisations and their rather flexible functions and duties. Here is an opportunity for making such bodies as Western European Union known. Those who know anything about Western European Union already probably identify it almost entirely with matters of defence, whereas in fact it has under its umbrella of activity cultural, educational and social problems and responsibilities. It is only with that aspect that we are concerned in this Amendment.

I should be glad if my right hon. Friend would give us some sort of assurance with regard to the ingress of these films, whatever their merits may be. I am not at the moment really arguing the merits of the films; I think they are self-evident from the titles which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) read out and from the titles which can be seen by those who are interested. I am arguing that it is for the benefit of the public that everyone should know that Western European Union and the Council of Europe are concerned in a sort of cultural and social drive among all the countries of Western Europe. That purpose, which I am sure 99 per cent. of the population would in fact support, is behind my hon. Friend's idea, in part at any rate, in asking that this Amendment be accepted by my right hon. Friend.

Sir E. Boyle

We have heard a very agreeable and interesting speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) who moved the Amendment, and we have had a speech from the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) which, I must say, might almost be taken as a model speech from the Treasury Bench during a Finance Bill debate.

I will say this to my hon. Friends. The purpose of the Clause, as the House knows, is to serve the very limited objective of enabling the United Kingdom to fulfil her agreements under Article I, Annex C, subsection (iv), of the U.N.E.S.C.O. Agreement of 20th November, 1950. That Agreement provides for the removal of import duties and other restrictions from a limited range of educational, scientific and cultural materials. The purpose of the Clause is the specific one of giving effect to that Agreement.

If we find ourselves in the position of entering into a similar agreement with a similar kind of organisation, then it may well be that we shall want to introduce another Clause of this type; but I must say that I think there are real disadvantages in adding to this Clause a number of organisations of which the United Kingdom is simply a member, for the reason that the hon. Lady mentioned. It is very difficult to see quite where one could stop in doing that.

Therefore, I suggest to my hon. Friends that the Amendment which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has moved does in a sense mistake the very strictly limited objective of the Clause. There is, of course, no doubt at all that the work of these organisations is of great value. I am myself an old alumnus of the Council of Europe, and I quite agree with all that my hon. Friends have said on that subject. But I hope they will agree to withdraw the Amendment, on the understanding that there is no dispute at all between us about the importance of these organisations or the cultural work they do, or about the value of these films; it is simply that we have quite deliberately limited the Clause to implement a specific Agreement.

Mr. Hay

I have listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. I must admit that I did not exactly expect him to come forward and welcome the Amendment with open arms, because I anticipated that he would take very much the same point as that taken by the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) in her speech. But, with respect to my hon. Friend, I hope that this matter will not be completely lost sight of. It is all very well to say that the purpose behind the Amendment is a good one, that we do not want to stop this sort of film coming into the country, and we all believe in these international bodies. In my opinion, that is not good enough.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is making a second speech, is he not?

Mr. Hay

With respect, I thought I was entitled to reply. If not, I ask the leave of the House to speak a second time.

I do not want to take up the time of the House, in view of what you have indicated to me, Sir Charles. My final word is that I hope this matter will not be overlooked. I hope it will be explored further between now and next year. It would be a pity if any impediment in the form of taxation were directed against this very desirable sort of film.

The hon. Member for Flint, East said in Committee, dealing with this very Clause: We all wish that there should be no penal taxation upon the products of the United Nations or any of its Specialised Agencies."—[OFFICAL REPORT, 5th June, 1956; Vol. 553, c. 1008] We all say, "Hear, hear" to that; but I would add these other bodies which do equally important work and which I believe deserve the same sort of treatment.

Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

I am sorry that the Chancellor did not deal with this point, because this matter of European Union is one in which he is a specialist. He did not hesitate in earlier days, when he thought it might embarrass the then Government, to make all sorts of extraordinary speeches, and I think this idea is really more in line with what he then used to say. We should have preferred that, if this proposal is to be turned down in this way, it should be turned down by the right hon. Gentleman, who used to make so much propaganda on this sort of subject.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) that, in this form, the Amendment would not really be acceptable because it is limited; it really ought to go farther, or not start at all. I hope that it will not be difficult to draw up a proper schedule of organisations of one sort or another which should have the benefit of this proposal, no doubt including these. I hope it will be done in due course, and that then the Chancellor will be able to give us his present views on these matters.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.