HC Deb 05 June 1956 vol 553 cc1006-15

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will have sympathy with the general intentions of Clause 5. We all wish that there should be no penal taxation upon the products of the United Nations or any of its Specialised Agencies. I should like the Financial Secretary, however, to be good enough to explain one or two points later. I presume that the Specialised Agencies are primarily the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and U.N.E.S.C.O.; and the right hon. Gentleman may enlighten us as to whether there are any others which are responsible for making

…films, film-strips, micro-films or sound recordings … We should also like to know just exactly what is meant by the word "produced" because, in relation to films, "production" is a technical term. I should have thought it unlikely that the United Nations would itself produce films. is the Financial Secretary perfectly satisfied that the drafting of this Clause is entirely accurate and completely fulfils the intentions of the Government? Might it not be wiser to make some proviso that these films may have been produced either by the United Nations—which, I repeat, I think is improbable—or to the order of one of the Specialised Agencies?

It seems to me very likely that Specialised Agencies would not themselves embark on film production but would probably engage some specialist firm to make the film for them. It is because we are in general sympathy with the aims and objects of the Clause that we should like to be quite certain that those objects will be achieved by the Clause as at present drafted. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can assure us that this point has been taken fully into account.

The remitting of any duties that might be chargeable under Part I of the Import Duties Act, 1932, seems to be in line with certain provisions already contained in that Act. I find on reference to that Act, which imposes a general ad valorem duty of 10 per cent. on goods imported into this country, that it had a list of exceptions which included scientific films. Therefore, the additional exemption which we are proposing to grant in this Clause would be in line with the policy already adopted in these matters.

Paragraph (b) of the Clause looks rather startling when read for the first time, and I confess that I read it two or three times before it was made clear how it was that

…silk or artificial silk or articles made wholly or in part of silk or artificial silk; came into it. I even suspected a misprint. However, I am assured that the reason why that particular provision is made in the Clause is that the recording, the sound track accompanying a film, is in some cases made of magnetic tape consisting of a thin strip of cellophane coated with ferrous oxide, which is technically within the definition of artificial silk straw.

I make no claim to scientific accuracy in this definition, but I obtained it on what I believe to be excellent authority. I understand that, because of that, we have to discuss the duties chargeable on silk or artificial silk, I hope we shall be strengthened in this view by the no doubt far wider scientific knowledge of the Financial Secretary on this matter, and perhaps he may be able to correct my definition at certain points.

When I studied the Safeguarding of Industries Act, 1921, to see how far it applied, that also seemed to deal with the artificial silk aspect of this Clause, and it seemed to me that one phrase in that Act may perhaps be applicable, because it states

No duty shall be charged under this Section in respect of the compound article if the compound is of such a nature that the article liable to duty has lost its identity. That seems to be most appropriate to a Clause dealing with artificial silk and concerned with microfilms and sound recordings.

Having made all these researches it appears, as far as my limited knowledge takes me, that this Clause is one which should be supported. Before we part with it, however, I should like to ask the Financial Secretary if he is perfectly satisfied, not only with the definition of production, but also that these films, etc must be of an educational, scientific or cultural character.

I want to mention here one of the points in which I happen to be interested; I have a private interest, not a financial one, I assure the right hon. Gentleman, in the making of films produced specially for children. There have been difficulties, I understand, with certain countries, including countries in the Commonwealth, as to the status, for the purpose of Customs Duties and the like, of films which are made for children, but which are, in fact, feature films. There have been disputes whether those films can be called educational—they are obviously not normal scientific films—or whether they can be strictly defined as cultural.

This is a serious point. We have in this country the Children's Film Foundation. It has done pioneer work in films which are intended for children but which are quite definitely feature films, films which, nevertheless, may have a very important effect on the outlook of the children to whom they are shown. In fact, on another occasion, we had some discussion concerning the value of that particular type of film.

I should be glad if the Financial Secretary would make quite certain that if, for example, U.N.E.S.C.O. decided that it was desirable to sponsor the production of a feature film intended for children, it would be covered by the definition in this Clause. I hope that, if that particular point has not been looked at, and quite possibly it may not have been, we may be certain, before passing this Clause, that such films would in fact be exempted from the duty, as are the other film materials which we are discussing tonight.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. H. Brooke

I am obliged to the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) for her kindness in welcoming this Clause in general, and I will endeavour to reply to her questions.

This Clause arises from an Agreement sponsored by U.N.E.S.C.O., which was signed by the Government, as she probably recollects, in November, 1950, and was ratified in March, 1954. I say, frankly, that at first we thought that no further legislation would be required to enable the United Kingdom to fulfil its obligations under the Agreement, but it was because we found that that was not so, and that it would be essential definitely to free these United Nations goods from certain Customs duties, that we are bringing forward this Clause. I hope that, when I have answered her questions, the hon. Lady will agree that it is not only desirable, but non-controversial.

The hon. Lady questioned the words "produced by". I am not a technical man on any of these matters, but I would draw to her attention the fact that what the Customs will do, under this Clause, is to ask the importer for a certificate, issued by the United Nations or one of the Agencies, to the effect that the goods have been so produced. It will be for the United Nations or the Agency to give that certificate. We are acting here, so far as we can, in accordance with the Agreement, and we are seeking to do no less than the Agreement requires of us.

Mrs. White

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand that the point here is that this Clause might be improved by adding certain words, to make it clear that production might have been undertaken directly by the United Nations or by one of its Agencies, or to the order of, sponsored by or on behalf of the United Nations or one of its Agencies. I would suggest that, before we reach the Report stage, some such Amendment might be considered. Having the technical term, "to produce" a film, and no more, the Clause is not very clear as drafted.

Mr. Brooke

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has refreshed her memory of Command Paper 8171, and the terms of the Agreement itself. What we are seeking to do is to ensure that the Clause, as drafted, will fully enable us to carry out the purposes of that Agreement. I will certainly examine the point she has made, but I think I can assure her, in advance, that this provision will enable us to do everything which we, like the other nations which have ratified the Agreement, have undertaken to do.

The hon. Lady spoke of the various duties mentioned under the headings (a), (b) and (c). Those are, in fact, the various types of Customs Duty which might otherwise be chargeable. There is no suggestion that any, or all, of them would be chargeable in a particular case. We are, in effect, freeing those imports from any of those duties.

The hon. Lady asked, finally, which were the Agencies mentioned here. If the Committee will forgive my reading out the list, I will answer her question by saying that the Clause will cover the I.L.O., the Food and Agriculture Organisation, U.N.E.S.C.O., the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the International Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organisation, the Universal Postal Union, the International Telecommunications Union, the World Meteorological Organisation, and the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation.

Mr. H. Wilson

Does this mean that the right hon. Gentleman is excluding from this list the United Nations Children's Fund and the Economic and Social Council?

Mr. Brooke

What I have read are the actual Agencies covered by this Agreement. This is not something of our own which we have thought up. What we are seeking to do is to attain legislative sanction from Parliament for carrying out our obligations under a United Nations Agreement.

The hon. Lady asked whether certain films would be included. Again, I would refer her to the fact that this certificate is the test. if the United Nations or the Agency give the certificate that the goods have been so produced, and if they are of an educational, scientific or cultural character, then they will receive free admission. It will not be for the Commissioners of Customs, still less for the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, to reach a decision. It will be for the United Nations or for the Agency to decide that.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

Can the right hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that the feature "Movie Museum," now being televised by the B.B.C., has not been granted one of these certificates? Many of us regard that feature as absolute rubbish on which good British pounds are expended.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

I wish to ask one question about the Clause before we part with it. It receives the enthusiastic support of this side of the Committee, but I am concerned to know why it has not been introduced before now. This, apparently, is a Clause intended to give legislative effect to our obligations under an international Agreement into which the Government of this country entered, as I understood from the Financial Secretary, as long ago as March, 1950.

Why has this not been done before? What has been done in the meantime? Does it mean that in the last five or six years the people of this country have been denied these films by reason of Government inaction? This is not the first time that this Government have been guilty of most disgraceful delay in giving legislative effect in the House of Commons to international conventions to which they have been signatories.

I see sitting on the Front Bench opposite the hon. and learned Solicitor-General, to whom I have had occasion to complain about this reluctance of Her Majesty's Government to give legislative effect to international conventions such as, for instance, the prisoner-of-war convention. Here is another illustration of just that very kind of thing. This is an instance of the British Government becoming in March, 1950, parties to an Agreement which calls upon them to give to the United Nations the facilities now provided for in Clause 5. It takes six years to do it.

When one thinks of the kind of things on which the time of this House has been occupied in the course of the last four or five years it is astounding that a valuable provision of this kind should have been sat upon by a mountain of ineptitude sitting on the Front Bench. Having singled out the hon. and learned Solicitor-General earlier, I ought to dissociate him from that purple passage because there are other larger mountains and more monumental personifications of ineptitude—

The Deputy-Chairman

They are not in this Clause.

Mr. Jones

With respect, Sir Rhys, although they are not in the Clause I think that if there had not been this quintessence of inaction during the last five years, the Committee would not now be troubled with this discussion on the Clause, but that we should have had it years ago. Subject to those observations, I welcome this Clause and only regret that it was not introduced much earlier.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I accept your Ruling, Sir Rhys, that these mountains of ineptitude are not in the Clause. However, in the Clause we are dealing with the Commissioners of Customs and Excise and I want to point out that here I think for the first time indirectly they are disregarded and put aside. For they are to receive here apparently, without any power to criticise, a certificate issued by the United Nations or one of its Agencies to the effect that the goods which have been produced are of an educational, scientific or cultural character.

Are we to assume that the Commissioners have no power to examine that certificate, or to see whether the goods that are sent are of a scientific, educational or cultural character? In all other respects we pay some tribute to the Commissioners of Customs and Excise. Indeed, we allow them to tell us whether a matter is even partly educational for, if it be so, they remit certain taxation connected with plays, to give an example.

Why, in this case, are these experienced people not to have some oversight as to whether the goods which are to be introduced into this country have some merit or have no merit? I should be grateful to have from the right hon. Gentleman the reason why there is this remarkable change, which might well be thought by the Commissioners themselves to be something of an insult to them.

Mr. H. Wilson

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will answer my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), but I want to put one other point to him before he does so. When I intervened a few moments ago to ask why certain United Nations Agencies were not included in the fairly lengthy list he read out, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was not a matter within the sole control of Her Majesty's Government, but that the organisations represented the list agreed in the international convention to which he referred.

What we should like to know is why that list is not wider. Is it because Her Majesty's Government acted as a drag on the proceedings of the convention? I mentioned two organisations which it would have seemed reasonable to have included in the list. The Economic and Social Council has a very important duty as a United Nations Agency. It has the duty, among other things, of supervising the work of all the Specialised Agencies on the economic side, including the I.L.O., the F.A.O., the W.H.O., and U.N.E.S.C.O., so I am surprised that it was not in the list read out by the right hon. Gentleman. It may be, however. that he would regard the Economic and Social Council as part of the United Nations organisation itself, and not as a Specialised Agency.

I asked about U.N.I.C.E.F. rather specially because, as many hon. Members will be aware, it was under the aegis of that organisation that a most remarkable film was produced. It was produced by, commissioned by, directed by and starred Danny Kaye. It was called "Assignment Children". It showed the work of the Children's Fund all over the world and Danny Kaye, who, in addition to being a great entertainer, is also a man with a passionate social conscience, gave up a great deal of time to further the work of the fund in many of the underdeveloped areas of the world where the work of that fund was most needed.

That film is already in this country, so it may not be involved in this Clause, but it has enormous propaganda value for bringing home to the people of the more advanced nations the needs of the less advanced nations, and what can be done under the agency of such organisations as U.N.I.C.E.F.

I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would agree to look at the point—I will not press him for an answer tonight—to ascertain why U.N.I.C.E.F. is not included in the list of organisations which he read out and whether on Report stage, even if it is not the subject of an international convention, it can be added to the list that he has in mind.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. H. Brooke

I am most anxious to help. I did not read out a list of organisations in the Bill. I read out a list of what I believe are the Specialised Agencies of the United Nations. What Clause 5 does is to repeat in that respect word for word a phrase from the Agreement. If other Specialised Agencies are set up or if other bodies become Specialised Agencies or fall to be treated as part of the United Nations, they will have the benefit of Clause 5. The power there rests with the United Nations. If we pass the Clause, we shall be saying that we shall be content for the United Nations or any of its Specialised Agencies or bodies which become Specialised Agencies to have the benefit of the Clause.

I would say, in reply to the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones), that we are not really as bad as we are painted. It is true that the Agreement was signed in 1950. it was ratified in March, 1954, in the sincere belief that we had full legislative powers to implement it. It has been found in operation that, though our existing powers allowed of free entry for goods of this kind imported for scientific research or the advancement of any branch of learning or art, they did not extend to cover such goods if they were imported to be used for any purpose which was substantially a commercial one. Some of the United Nations goods coming in, particularly films, are often intended for commercial use, and it was to make sure that we were, as it were, playing perfectly fair by Parliament that we brought this provision forward.

We have not been charging duty on these imports up to now. We have been making an extra-statutory concession in their favour, but the Select Committee on Public Accounts does not like extrastatutory concessions. Therefore, I should have thought that we were doing precisely what the Select Committee would have wished in seeking legislative approval for this action.

Mr. H. Wilson

I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would agree to look at the point a little further. He has answered my question about U.N.I.C.E.F. by saying that the list which he read out was not necessarily exhaustive but was, as he understands it, the list of all the existing Specialised Agencies, and that if new Specialised Agencies are created, they will automatically be added to the list. For some reason, U.N.I.C.E.F. was not included in the list. It may be that U.N.I.C.E.F. is not technically regarded as a Specialised Agency, but is looked upon as just a humanitarian fund run under the aegis of the United Nations.

I should be grateful if, between now and Report, the right hon. Gentleman would look at the matter to ascertain whether the film produced under the aegis of U.N.I.C.E.F. can take advantage of the Clause, and, if not, whether he can widen the Clause, even if he is going beyond the convention, so that such a valuable purpose might be served.

Another closely related point is that the Clause is limited in its operation to films which are of an educational, scientific or cultural character. I am not sure whether the film "Assignment Children" would be regarded as necessarily educational or cultural or scientific. It might be regarded as more humanitarian or even propagandist for one of the great works done by the United Nations.

Whether that can be regarded as educational may be debatable. Consequently, it would be useful if, between now and Report, the right hon. Gentleman would look at the matter again and ascertain whether a film of that kind is included both in relation to the Agency covered and in relation to the rather narrow definition which limits films to educational. scientific and cultural ones.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.