HC Deb 25 February 1958 vol 583 cc332-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

9.59 p.m.

Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast. West)

Export problems of the textile trade are very numerous. I intend to concentrate tonight on those which particularly affect the linen trade in Northern Ireland. This is a craft industry which is facing increasing competition from man-made fibres, but nevertheless, it is a very valuable industry.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

Mrs. McLaughlin

The value of United Kingdom exports of types of linen made principally in Northern Ireland, including yarn and thread, is very high in proportion to the size of the industry, but, unfortunately, during the last three years, it has been steadily declining. In 1954, the export value was almost £18 million, but by 1957 it had fallen to £15,700,000. The drop in Northern Ireland was approximately £1 million from 1956 to 1957. In our record year, 1951, total exports were approximately £22 million.

There are many reasons for this, one being the increasing importation of cotton and other textiles from Hong Kong, China, Japan, India, and similar areas. It has now reached the astounding figure of 400 million square yards imported to this country in the last year. Some of this is re-exported in competition overseas with the cheaper qualities, and also with better qualities of linen which, in the past, have been such valuable exports from Northern Ireland, and still are. These imports of cheap materials also hit our home markets.

The linen industry is a small one and faces competition from Iron Curtain countries such as Poland and Hungary. I think that there might be a fair case for using the anti-dumping law and I propose that this should be considered as soon as possible to see whether suitable action can be taken to bring unsatisfactory incidents before the Monopolies Commission for proper investigation.

I believe that there should be world agreement in regard to goods that are protected by monopoly tariffs. Otherwise, it will be impossible for countries which have reached a high standard of working conditions and wages to maintain those standards. That is particularly true of all our textile trade, whose exports are steadily diminishing.

I will quote one example to show how damage has been done to the industry by the export from Czechoslovakia to this country of a tablecloth. It is subject to a 15 per cent. import duty and is still selling, despite this duty, at one-third less than the cost of a tablecloth of pure linen of similar size. The Czechoslovakian tablecloth is described as "linen cloth with cotton decoration," but it is really two-thirds cotton and one-third linen. This is a point which the Minister should investigate as soon as possible.

Textile manufacturers in Britain and Northern Ireland are afraid that the Government have decided that textiles are an expendable industry in this country and they are pessimistic about the way in which our trade negotiators fail to include consumer goods, particularly textiles, among commodities from countries making such agreements with us. Many of those countries are anxious to buy our capital goods, such as aeroplanes, machinery and motor cars, and, in return, we agree to buy goods from those countries if they buy our exports. Unfortunately, it seems that we have to take goods which are not of prime importance and which are, in some cases, in direct competition with our own industries. A two-way fair trade is essential. But we in this country take a wide variety of consumer goods from other countries. It is fair to expect, in return that our trade negotiators will insist that a proportion of textiles and other consumer goods shall be bought from us by those countries.

We need to toughen up our efforts before it is too late, and before many of our trades have dwindled almost to vanishing point. The linen trade has lost large markets in Brazil and the Argentine, and this has been mainly due to the growth of local industries there. It is fair to say that those local industries are not producing quality textiles that come up to the standard of Irish linen, and their protected textiles would not be in direct competition with our high-grade linen which was such a valuable export to those countries in years past.

Brazil's quota restrictions are very severe, and I would ask the Government whether it is not possible to reopen negotiations with the Brazilian Government on this matter. The Argentine takes no linen at present. Both there and in some of the other South American countries we must be firm about the need for trying to increase the markets for our textile exports in general. Our trade consuls and commercial representatives overseas are not always as fully in touch as they might be with the industrialists and those in commerce in the countries to which they are assigned by the Government.

I know that last year's overall trade was extremely good and that the Government are to be congratulated on many aspects of it, but if the Minister will examine the figures he will see that textiles, and, in particular, linen, suffered badly. It is possible that some of these problems arise from small firms endeavouring to keep pace with much bigger ones in the great expense of sending their own salesmen overseas in the hope of finding markets.

I believe that many small firms will have to get together to share their sales efforts. That would be to their mutual advantage, and would mean that their co-ordinated efforts would produce bigger and better sales campaigns. But the Government are responsible for seeing that the close connection between diplomatic and trade negotiators does not prevent the trade representatives from doing their work by being too much in the shadow of the diplomatic circle.

There are many tired and disillusioned men in the textile industry at present, and particularly is this true of the Northern Ireland linen industry. If they are to have the incentive to step up their sales policy and to reorganise their industry it is essential that the Government do everything they can to help their home trade as well as support the export trade, because, without a home trade, it is very difficult to have a healthy and expanding export trade.

I would remind the Minister that the credit squeeze hits small industries very badly. There is an impression abroad that Northern Ireland is not subject to the credit squeeze in the same way as are other parts of the United Kingdom. This impression is entirely false. It has been extremely difficult for the smaller industries, and particularly for the smaller linen firms, to maintain their export trade, because it has been practically impossible for them to make sales on the home market where they may try out their goods, and where, indeed, they depend for the basic trade which makes it possible for them to send salesmen in search of new markets abroad.

We recognise that the credit squeeze was applied for essential reasons, and we also very definitely recognise that prosperity for Britain is essential if there is to be prosperity in any industry in Northern Ireland, but surely the time has come to allow some relaxation so as to make it easier for the small industries to obtain credit, at any rate in this country. Otherwise, that trade will shrink so drastically that when, eventually, this tight money policy can be relaxed all round it will be impossible for these firms to recover.

It is unfortunate that it is always the smaller traders that have to suffer in this way. They feel that any policy such as that now being employed affects them much more rapidly than do the bigger concerns. Between 1951 and 1957, there has been a drop of over 11,000 persons employed in the linen industry, and a drop, in 1956–57 alone, of over 1,100. This is not solely due to automation and modernisation, although that has been going on steadily since the war, it is true, but to the shrinking world trade and increasing competition that I have already mentioned.

At present, in the linen industry alone, there are 3,400 unemployed workers in Northern Ireland, and the number of unemployed in the textile trade in Ulster is nearly 6,000. These people have no possibility of turning to alternative employment, and they look to the linen and textile manufacturers and merchants for their livelihood. They cannot remove themselves to another part of Northern Ireland, for there is no work available elsewhere that they can obtain. They are in a particularly difficult situation. Indeed, many of them feel that, somehow or another, the Government have lost interest in the textile industry, and, in particular, in this small craft industry, which is such a very large dollar earner, and which would be an even bigger dollar earner if given the opportunity.

I know that the Government have very much at heart the interests of all those who are endeavouring to increase our export trade, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give me a strong assurance that he and his Department have the interests of the textile industry in general very much at heart. I hope that they will do all they can to endeavour to clear up these difficulties and to help those firms in the linen and other textile industries which are now finding that it is extraordinarily difficult to keep up with the increase in competition from other materials in the face of the tight money policy at home and the impossibility of spending very much to boost their sales abroad.

This is a matter which, for a long time, has caused a good deal of concern among the linen manufacturers of Northern Ireland. Many of them have said that it may not be possible for them to continue for very much longer if the present state of affairs is not drastically altered. I believe that much of the remedy is in their own hands, but they need an assurance and some guidance from the Government, and, I would say, even a guarantee that their efforts will not be unrewarded and that the support they receive will be really worth while.

10.12 p.m.

Sir John Barlow (Middleton and Prestwich)

I do not propose to occupy more than about three minutes in this very important but short debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) has pointed out most eloquently the position of the linen industry in Northern Ireland, and I should like to extend the scope of the debate for a moment to something which is very similar—the cotton textile industry in Lancashire. My hon. Friend has pointed out that the difficulties caused by the competition from Hong Kong, from low-paid labour, from Communist capital in Hong Kong, which is making the most of the present situation.

and the very low costs and the cheap technicians brought in from Shanghai.

The cotton industry is very similar, in many ways, to the linen industry, but, of course, it is very much larger. Forty years ago, the production of Lancashire cotton textiles was about 8,000 million yards. Today, the total production is about one-fifth of that figure, being 1,700 million yards. The imports are also very near to the export figures, which is an extraordinary position when one considers the traditional exports of Lancashire in the old days. It meant, in some months of last year, that the actual imports of grey cloth into Lancashire were greater than the exports.

The number of textile workers in Lancashire has diminished by about 50,000 in the last five years. In the last three years alone, 300 textile mills in Lancashire have closed. That is, perhaps, an over-abbreviation of a most difficult case. Lancashire has great textile traditions, hut Lancashire is feeling very sore at the treatment which the Government have meted out to it in the last three or four years. There is no doubt that Lancashire demands, and has a right to, far better treatment than it has received in the recent past.

10.14 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

This is an interesting and important subject which my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Mrs. McLaughlin) has raised, and I congratulate her on the way she deployed her arguments. I am also very grateful to her for having given me notice of the points she intended to make. I have a great deal to say in reply to her on matters that affect Northern Ireland, particularly concerning the linen industry, about which she is concerned. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) will excuse me if I do not refer to the remarks he tried to cram into two or three minutes, because I shall need all my time to deal with Northern Ireland.

I have two reasons for concentrating on the linen industry of Northern Ireland. First, my hon. Friend herself showed her great knowledge of the linen and textile industry. She shows her interest in the industry in the most practical form by always wearing linen. She is a model Member, both as Member and as model. My second reason is that I very recently paid a visit to Northern Ireland myself, and I should like to say a word about that. My visit was far too brief, being for only forty-eight hours, punctuated by having to return to vote in the House of Commons. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I had a most interesting and crowded visit—or, I should say, couple of visits—and I was very impressed by what I saw.

I should like, through my hon. Friend, to express my thanks to the Northern Ireland Government and everyone there who co-operated to make my visit so interesting and enjoyable. Through the Ministry of Commerce of Northern Ireland, the Board of Trade is always at the service of Northern Irish industry, and the linen industry in particular, if there are any problems in which we can help.

My hon. Friend referred to the difficulties which the linen industry is facing in maintaining its exports, and she mentioned particularly Brazil and the Argentine. I admit that our export losses in those markets have been heavy for linen. Fortunately, they represent only a small part of our export trade, and in other markets exports have been very much better maintained.

What we are facing in this export market is a very familiar problem. Any country which is trying to industrialise itself—to pull itself up by its boot-straps—tends to concentrate its effort on the manufacture of consumer goods, because, of course, it is easier to create consumer goods industries rather than capital goods industries. Moreover, such countries usually protect the infant industries by a tariff.

If a country runs into balance of payments difficulties, it tends, first of all, to restrict the import of luxury goods, quality goods, by means of quotas or multiple exchange rates, or any other protectionist devices. We must face the fact that, beyond protestation, there is very little we can do about it. If other countries choose to discriminate against consumer goods, or if they choose to protect an inefficient industry and deprive their citizens of the benefits of the better quality goods we can supply, frankly, we cannot do much more than protest and remind them, if the occasion is suitable, that we have powers of retaliation when countries discriminate against our goods.

I gather that my hon. Friend feels that the Board of Trade does not attach as much importance to the export of consumer goods as it does to exports of machinery and capital goods in general. Quite frankly, this is just not so. A dollar or peso, or whatever it may be, is worth just as much to us if it is earned by consumer goods as by a power station or by an electronic computer, and we fight just as hard to get our textiles or any other consumer goods fair treatment in the export markets.

In Brazil, we have, at least, made very special representations to the authorities about the effects of their import restrictions and tariffs on linen imports from the United Kingdom. We had thought that the Northern Irish industry was appreciative of the action we are taking. I know that the linen industry has a tough battle to fight, but we are still fighting on its side. Negotiations are still going on which will cover textiles.

I was very sorry to hear it alleged that the industry thought that our commercial officers overseas did not have the right sort of contacts and were not able to give the sort of help which should be given to linen exports. I cannot accept this criticism as justified or fair, at any rate without rather more evidence than has been educed. Of course, I should always consider any evidence that the hon. Lady or the industry can bring forward, because no service is perfect, but I assure my hon. Friend that against her criticism I can produce as witnesses many active and efficient exporting industries to pay tribute to the work of our commercial diplomatic officers overseas. I assure her also that all the posts are continually briefed from home about the various industries with the exports of which they may have to deal. Let us not forget what an enormous variety it is that they have to encompass. They are certainly well aware that in many markets, textile exports, particularly the higher quality goods such as linen, make a most valuable contribution.

There are one or two minor points with which I should like to deal before turning to the more constructive part of what I have to say. My hon. Friend quoted the case of a tablecloth which was imported from the other side of the Iron Curtain and sold under what seemed to be a misleading description. If the facts are as reported, it seems to me that there may be a case for examination under the Merchandise Marks Act as one of misleading trade description. I hope that the linen industry will take note of the fact that it can lay claim to the protection of that Act.

Then my hon. Friend referred to a world agreement for dealing with exports from behind the Iron Curtain. I am not clear whether the reference is to what might be regarded as "dumping" in the United Kingdom or to what might be claimed as unfair competition in third markets. She mentioned the possibility of action in the former case, but that matter raises wider and deeper issues which the House will not expect me to deal with here and now.

Turning to what the industry can do for itself, I am certain that nothing that the Government can do by protection or trade negotiation or by assistance to exports can help an industry which is not willing and able to help itself. This means two things: first, efficient production to keep prices down or even to reduce them and, secondly, good quality and design.

My hon. Friend referred to the fall in employment figures in the Northern Ireland linen industry, but I notice that in the same period, during the last seven years, the production of loom-state cloth has fallen by a smaller amount and that it has been constant or slightly rising during the past four or five years. I presume from that that in fact those figures indicate a considerable increase in efficiency. I know that linen is said to be a craft industry, and I know that particularly in the finest and highest grades of most types of production there is a much higher degree of craft and skill.

I am convinced—and our experience in other industries shows it to be the case —that there are very few jobs to which human hands can be put which cannot be made easier, faster and more efficient by study and research. While in Northern Ireland, I learned something of the work which the very efficient Linen Industry Research Association is doing. I persist in hoping that there will be a continual and steady flow of technological improvement in the linen industry. I am convinced that if there is not, it will be unable to maintain its position against industries which are modernising themselves efficiently.

I realise that the Northern Irish industry has its difficulties—I shall return to this point again—in a great number of small spheres. It is always a tragic thing to see the small independent man suffering under the pressure of his larger and more impersonal competitors. I fear that that is the way the world is going. I am impressed by the thought that the remedies which may provide the answer to the linen trade's difficulties—modernisation, re-equipment, design and selling—are all the more difficult for the small man than for the larger firm. Nevertheless, the tradition particularly in an industry like this, of the small independent firm is a valuable one. I think that the linen industry should see what it can do to help to preserve those who are prepared to fit themselves to survival in a modern, competitive world.

I have already referred to the Research Association and I very much hope that the smaller firms, as well as the larger firms, will make use of its co-operative services. May I suggest that they and the industry as a whole should give very serious thought to the possibilities of cooperative selling abroad. I know that this is not an easy problem, particularly when the various products being sold are the result of individual ideas in construction and design and are themselves competitive with each other for the eye and pocket of the public. I do not, however, believe that the problem is beyond solution. Certainly, if a solution can be found, it will then be possible for the smaller firms to penetrate into and to cover markets where individually they could not afford singly to maintain the necessary selling connections.

It is not simply a matter of increasing their exports, but of providing the opportunity of spreading themselves over several markets and, therefore, giving themselves some sort of assurance against the sudden changes in commercial policy which we in the Board of Trade always do our best to combat, but cannot always prevent.

I should like to say something about design. Here, the linen industry is in the familiar dilemma of an old-established industry with behind it a long tradition of distinguished design for people of discrimination. Many of its customers look for the designs in the old style or something descended from it which will have the cachet of traditional Irish linens. Many other customers will have been attracted by the new and brilliant designs very often coming from countries across the Atlantic or derived from the Latin temperament and sense of style.

If they do not find them in Irish linen, they may decide that it is not only old-established, but old-fashioned. Moreover, if copying or emulating modern designs may create the dangers of ghastly bad taste—we all see examples of this sometimes in fashion magazines—a slavish attempt to emulate the designers of a hundred years ago may all too easily result in ghastly good taste—and I have seen examples of that in some shop windows in London.

What it all comes to is that neither tradition nor a desperate search for innovation will do the job. What the industry needs is a corps of active-minded, adequately-trained and gifted designers who are able to draw upon the inspiration of the past or, equally, to produce work in the most modern idiom. This means a serious and prolonged effort by the industry itself to create a lively school of design and it cannot be done on the cheap. But things are moving in the industry, which now has a member on the Council of Industrial Design, and I hope that the result will be additional opportunities for the industry to see what is happening in good textile designs all over the world.

One last point. The standard of living of the world is rising. The obverse side of the industrialisation to which I referred earlier, which creates real difficulties to our consumer goods industries, is the creating all over the world of increasing markets for better consumer goods. I have every sympathy for the linen industry in the difficulties which it is undergoing and I know well the problems of unemployment, particularly those which present themselves in Northern Ireland. If, however, the vigour and vitality of those whom I met and the firms whose works I saw in Northern Ireland is typical. I am certain that the industry will successfully meet the challenge of this changing age.

Sir J. Barlow

Can my hon. Friend spare a word for Lancashire? This Adjournment debate was supposed to be on the exports of the textile trade. I have raised the question of Lancashire textiles, but my hon. Friend has not uttered a word about them in his answer. I know that the time at his disposal is short, but I am very disappointed that he has not said something about it.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I had to cut out a great deal of what I wished to address tonight to both of my hon. Friends on the matters they have raised. I am sorry if my hon. Friend did not consider me courteous, but he might have raised the matter on the Adjournment himself.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.