HC Deb 18 December 1957 vol 580 cc503-11

As soon as may be after the end of each financial year, beginning with the year 1959–60, the Board of Trade shall lay before each House of Parliament a report on the exercise during that year of the powers conferred by this Act with respect to the imposition of import duties and the allowance of exemptions and reliefs from import duties (including the power to vary or revoke orders imposing import duties or providing for any exemption or relief from import duties).—[Mr. Vaughan-Morgan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Clause implements the statement made by my right hon. Friend when speaking on the proposal to delete Clause 3. It requires the Board of Trade to publish an annual report on the exercise of the functions conferred by the Bill on Government Departments, which in this context are the Board of Trade, the Treasury and the Customs and Excise. What we have in mind is that the annual report should contain a reasoned commentary on the action which the Government have or have not taken on tariff and drawback applications and any necessary statistical or other information on the exercise of the duty-free licensing powers.

On tariff and drawback applications, we shall in practice, as my right hon. Friend explained, confine the report to those applications which have been publicly advertised, for the purpose of giving interested parties an opportunity to comment. We advertise these cases when we are satisfied that there is a real case to be considered; but as my right hon. Friend explained, and as anyone who has been at the Board of Trade for a short time learns, there are a number of trivial inquiries which are not advertised because the applicants do not satisfy us that there is a prima facie case for investigation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I beg to move, at the end of the proposed new Clause to add: and shall include in such report particulars of representations which have been made by traders and others to the Board of Trade for proposed changes in the imposition or rates of import duties and not accepted by the Board of Trade When the President of the Board of Trade earlier this afternoon announced his capitulation concerning Clause 3 and—all credit to him for doing so—indicated that as a result of the criticisms made on both sides of the House he was abandoning his idea of having any Import Duties Board at all, he felt it necessary—I am sure, rightly—to say that he could not simply abandon the Import Duties Board without at least doing something, or trying to do something, to satisfy those sections of industry and commerce which in recent weeks have been pressing, not merely for the Import Duties Board originally proposed in the Bill, but a board armed with much greater power and, in particular, power to make recommendations and to publish them.

The new Clause, therefore, is the price the President of the Board of Trade is paying for the abandonment of the Import Duties Board. We do not think it goes far enough. When the President, in speaking on Clause 3, referred to his new Clause, he said that he had observed our Amendment and that it would have his consideration. I do not consider it satisfactory to leave the matter there, and I hope we shall hear that the Government will accept the Amendment.

I should like to explain the reasons why we think the Amendment is necessary. I have no doubt that the new Clause was very hastily drafted. It must have been drafted in the last few days as a result of the Government's decision to abandon the Import Duties Board. The President of the Board of Trade need not, therefore, feel that there is any reflection on him if he accepts the improvements which we are venturing to suggest.

There are two objectives in the Amendment. One is to satisfy industry and the other is to satisfy the public. Both of these motives should commend themselves to the President of the Board of Trade and to his right hon. Friend. It is recognised in the new Clause that there should be an annual report of how the Act is working year by year. We are anxious that that report should be as fall and as informative as possible. The President of the Board of Trade has recognised that to ensure the harmonious working of the import duties scheme it is necessary to have the full confidence of industry.

It is necessary that the Board of Trade should not only take into consideration representations that are made for variations in tariffs, but should also satisfy industrialists that full consideration is being given to their representations. That task will obviously be greater without an Import Duties Board than it would have been had there been a board, how-even attenuated its powers. If, therefore, the annual report is to have the desired effect, we believe that it should give the fullest possible information of how the Act has been working during the year in question.

7.30 p.m.

I do not think it will be sufficient merely to state what powers have or have not been exercised. Those applicants who make representations and have their applications refused will be entitled to know the reason for the refusal, and the public are entitled to know. This is a matter of great public importance. I am not for a moment suggesting that decisions to refuse applications for tariffs will be wrong. They may well be justified. It may be the case that a number of applications for increased tariffs will be made by interested parties and will not be in the public interest.

I notice, for example, that the fruit importers take the view that there are far too many variations in the duties imposed on imported fruit. In that case the Board of Trade must weigh the interests of the consumer and the importer. I am sure that it is most desirable that the maximum amount of information should be given so that confidence in industry is assured, and in order that there should be the fullest information available to educate the public about how this is to work.

The addition of these words would remove from the Board of Trade any excuse for concealing the kind of information which we should like to see made available. As drafted, the new Clause merely imposes a statutory duty on the Board of Trade to make a report on the exercise of its powers. That is a vague and loose phrase which may be interpreted at the whim of any Government almost as they wish. If the President of the Board of Trade is desirous of securing the confidence of industry this may be regarded as a test of his sincerity. There is no reason why he should fail to include in such report particulars of representations made which have been refused. It is, however, conceded that there may be security grounds for not including them. Communications of a confidential nature may be made by a trader who does not want the information he has given to be made public. Such matters should he respected, but subject to safeguards of that kind, I hope that the Minister will agree that this is a reasonable Amendment which it is possible for him to accept.

Mr. Cronin

I wish to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) about this excellent Amendment. There is general disquiet in industry over what is at present happening about representations concerning import duties. Like my hon. Friend, I have had representations from several industrial organisations which criticise the Board of Trade in forthright terms. As was pointed out earlier by an hon. Member opposite, it sometimes takes as long as two years to receive an answer to representations.

If the Amendment is not accepted, we shall have no check on the length of time elapsing between the application being received and the final decision. That appears to be highly unsatisfactory. Obviously, it is important that the nature of the representation and the full facts of the case should be available for public examination. As at present proposed this annual report will be somewhat obscure and consist simply of a list of decisions.

Before the war these matters were dealt with by the Import Duties Advisory Committee, a small body which received universal respect. It dealt with matters expeditiously and its reports were generally published. Everyone in industry then knew exactly where he stood. I appeal to the Minister of State to accept the Amendment. I am sure that the present Ministers will do their best to administer justice, but it is important that justice should be seen to be done, and that there should not be a veil of security thrown over the situation.

Matters concerning tariff reform are usually subjected to strong and powerful lobbying and behind-the-scenes machinations. It is common knowledge that no part of industrial legislation has so much pressure put on it. It would be more satisfactory if the Board of Trade made clear what was its reason for accepting or rejecting any representation and I hope, therefore, that the Minister of State will accept the Amendment.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

We have looked at the Amendment sympathetically but I regret that we cannot accept it. Between now and the Report stage we will see whether it is possible to improve on the wording. May I say that there was a marked change in the tone of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher)? A short while ago he spoke about the courage of my right hon. Friend and then almost in the same breath he referred to his capitulation.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I was congratulating the President of the Board of Trade on his very courageous withdrawal and capitulation.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

I leave the words to speak for themselves.

We have already explained some of the difficulties in this matter. The first effect of the Amendment as it is drafted would be to require the Board of Trade to include particulars of all representations. It depends on what is meant by the word "representation". A vast number of inquiries from traders and others are received by the Board of Trade. It is true to say that the majority of them are dropped by the applicants before the Board of Trade reaches the stage of advertising them. I do not think it would interest either Parliament or the public to know of those inquiries. Many are informal and made in the course of conversation or over the telephone. It would set the Board of Trade the impossible task of deciding what was and what was not a representation.

It has always been intended that particulars of those tariff applications which have been advertised and rejected should be included. My right hon. Friend earlier gave an assurance of the way in which he will promulgate decisions. The Amendment does not require the Board of Trade to give reasons for rejecting applications, and it is agreed that such a course is impracticable. The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) may not be aware that before the war the I.D.A.C. never gave reasons for rejecting applications. It is impracticable. I hope that the hon. Member will agree to withdraw his proposed Amendment.

Mr. Cronin

The Committee did publish reports which, on the whole, satisfied the industries concerned.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

We also shall publish reports. The point is that the Committee did not give reasons for rejection. In the light of what has been said, we shall see whether we can improve the proposed new Clause to meet the need that has been expressed. I hope that the hon. Member will see his way to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Jay

The Minister of State was sympathetic, but disappointing. My hon. Friend, therefore, desires to press his Amendment in order to egg the Government on to meet the substantial point we are making on the issue of enabling industry to have a chance to make representations in good time before Orders are made.

The main grievance is that those who wish to make a representation against an Order and not in favour of it feel that they ought to have statutory assurance that they will have the opportunity to do so. The President of the Board of Trade said that if we put an obligation on the Government to publish every application it would lead to frivolous or insubstantial applications. Could we not get round that difficulty by laying it down in the Bill that within a certain period before an Order was laid, say two or three months, the Board of Trade must advertise the fact, not that an Order was to be laid but that an application of a certain kind had been received?

That would rule out frivolous applications because the Board of Trade would, in that case, have no intention of laying the Order. It would not be making any advertisement which, if the right hon. Gentleman is right, is not made now, but it would give statutory assurance that before the final stage was reached in the House of Commons everybody would have had the opportunity to put forward his point of view. I realise that the case would not be covered in which the whole conception of the idea was in the Board of Trade and there was no application from outside, and that case might be difficult to cover. I am simply putting for-

ward these suggestions to meet the difficulties mentioned by the President of the Board of Trade. Perhaps he would consider them.

Question put, That those words be there added:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 120, Noes 146.

Division No. 25.] AYES [7.45 p.m.
Ainsley, J. W. Hastings, S. Prentice, R. E.
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Hayman, F. H. Price J. T. (Westhoughton)
Awbery, S. S. Herbison, Miss M. Proctor, W. T.
Balfour, A. Holt, A. F. Redhead, E. C.
Bence, C. R. (Dunbartonshire, E.) Howell, Denis (All Saints) Robens, Rt. Hon. A.
Benson, G. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Ross, William
Beswick, Frank Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Royle, C.
Blackburn, F. Hunter, A. E. Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E.
Blenkinsop, A. Hynd, H. (Accrington) Short, E. W.
Blyton, W. R. Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill) Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill)
Boardman, H. Irving, Sydney (Dartford) Skeffington, A. M.
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G. Jay, Rt. Hon. D. P. T. Slater, J. (Sedgefield)
Bowden, H. W. (Leicester, S.W.) Johnston, Douglas (Paisley) Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)
Bowen, E. R. (Cardigan) Jones, Rt. Hon. A. Creech (Wakefield) Sorensen, R. W.
Braddock, Mrs. Elizabeth Jones, David (The Hartlepools) Sparks, J. A.
Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper) Kenyon, C. Steele, T.
Brown, Thomas (Ince) Lawson, G. M. Swingler, S. T.
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Lee, Frederick (Newton) Sylvester, G. O.
Champion, A. J. Lindgren, G. S. Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Chetwynd, G. R. Logan, D. G. Taylor, John (West Lothian)
Clunie, J. Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Thornton, E.
Collick, P. H. (Birkenhead) MacColl, J. E. Usborne, H. C.
Collins, V. J. (Shoreditch & Finsbury) McGhee, H. G. Wade, D. W.
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) McKay, John (Waffsend) Wells, Percy (Faversham)
Cronin, J. D. MacMillan, M. K. (Western Isles) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Davies, Rt. Hn. Clement (Montgomery) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) West, D. G.
Davies, Harold (Leek) Mann, Mrs. Jean Wheeldon, W. E.
Deer, G. Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A. White, Henry (Derbyshire, N. E.)
Dodds, N. N. Mason, Roy Wilkins, W. A.
Evans, Albert (Islington, S.W.) Mellish, R. J. Willey, Frederick
Fletcher, Eric Mitchison, G. R. Williams, Ronald (Wigan)
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Monslow, W. Williams, Rt. Hon. T. (Don Valley)
Gibson, C. W. Moody, A. S. Willis, Eustace (Edinburgh, E.)
Gooch, E. G. Mort, D. L. Wilson, Rt. Hon. Harold (Huyton)
Greenwood, Anthony Moss, R. Winterbottom, Richard
Grenfell, Rt. Hon. D. R. Oram, A. E. Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Grey, C. F. Palmer, A. M. F. Woof, R. E.
Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.) Yates, V. (Ladywood)
Grimond, J. Parker, J.
Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley) Pentland N. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hamilton, W. W. Popplewell, E. Mr. Holmes and Mr. Pearson
Agnew, Sir Peter Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E. Gower, H. R.
Aitken, W. T. Currie, G. B. H. Graham, Sir Fergus
Arbuthnot, John Davidson, Viscountess Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R. (Nantwich)
Ashton, H. Deedes, W. F. Green, A.
Atkins, H. E. Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. McA. Gresham Cooke, R.
Baldwin, A. E. du Cann, E. D. L. Grimston, Hon. John (St. Albans)
Balniel, Lord Duncan, Sir James Gurden, Harold
Barber, Anthony Eccles, Rt. Hon. Sir David Harrison, A. B. C. (Maldon)
Barlow, Sir John Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E. (Kelvingrove) Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere (Macclesf'd)
Barter, John Elliott, R. W. (N'castle upon Tyne, N.) Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.)
Bell, Philip (Bolton, E.) Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Heath, Rt. Hon. E. R. G.
Bennett, F. M. (Torquay) Errington, Sir Eric Henderson-Stewart, Sir James
Bidgood, J. C. Farey-Jones, F. W. Hesketh, R. F.
Bingham, R. M. Finlay, Graeme Hill, Mrs. E. (Wythenshawe)
Bishop, F. P. Foster, John Hirst, Geoffrey
Boyd Carpenter, Rt. Hon. J. A. Fraser, Sir Ian (M'cmbe & Lonsdale) Holland-Martin, C. J.
Boyle, Sir Edward Freeth, Denzil Hope, Lord John
Bryan, P. Gammans, Lady Hughes-Hallett, Vice-Admiral J.
Butler, Rt. Hn. R. A. (Saffron Walden) George, J. C. (Pollok) Hughes-Young, M. H. C.
Conant, Maj. Sir Roger Gibson-Watt, D. Hurd, A. R.
Cooke, Robert Glyn, Col. Richard H. Hutchison, Michael Clark (E'b'gh, S.)
Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K. Godber, J. B. Hutchison, Sir Ian Clark (E'b'gh, W.)
Craddock, Beresford (Spelthorne) Goodhart, Philip Hutchison, Sir James (Scotstoun)
Hyde, Montgomery Marples, Rt. Hon. A. E. Sharples, R. C.
Hylton-Foster, Rt. Hon. Sir Harry Mathew, R. Shepherd, William
Iremonger, T. L. Maude, Angus Spearman, Sir Alexander
Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) Mawby, R. L. Steward, Sir William (Woolwich, W.)
Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Maydon, Lt.-Comdr, S. L. C. Storey, S.
Joynson-Hicks, Hon. Sir Lancelot Milligan, Rt. Hon. W. R. Studholme, Sir Henry
Kaberry, D. Nabarro, G. D. N. Summers, Sir Spencer
Keegan, D. Neave, Airey Taylor, William (Bradford, N.)
Kershaw, J. A. Nicholson, Godfrey (Farnham) Temple, John M.
Kirk, P. M. Nicolson, N. (B'n'm'th, E. & Chr'ch) Thomas, P. J. M. (Conway)
Lambert, Hon. G. Nugent, G. R. H. Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)
Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H. O'Neill, Hn. Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.) Thornton-Kemsley, C. N.
Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield) Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian (Weston-S-Mare) Tiley, A. (Bradford, W.)
Lennox-Boyd, Rt. Hon. A. T. Osborne, C. Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.
Lindsay, Hon. James (Devon, N.) Page, R. G. Tweedsmuir, Lady
Linstead, Sir H. N. Pannell, N. A. (Kirkdale) Vane, W. M. F.
Low, Rt. Hon. Sir Toby Partridge, E. Vaughan-Morgan, J. K.
Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Peel, W. J. Wall, Major Patrick
McAdden, S. J. Pickthorn, K. W. M. Ward, Rt. Hon. G. R. (Worcester)
Macdonald, Sir Peter Pott, H. P. Ward, Dame Irene (Tynemouth)
McKibbin, Alan Powell, J. Enoch Williams, R. Dudley (Exeter)
Mackie, J. H. (Galloway) Price, David (Eastleigh) Wood, Hon. R.
McLaughlin, Mrs. P. Redmayne, M. Woollam, John Victor
McLean, Neil (Inverness) Rees-Davies, W. R.
Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries) Roberts, Sir Peter (Heeley) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Maddan, Martin Robertson, Sir David Colonel J. H. Harrison and
Markham, Major Sir Frank Roper, Sir Harold Mr. Brooman-White.

Clause added to the Bill.

First Schedule agreed to.