HC Deb 15 May 1958 vol 588 cc766-9

11.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

I beg to move, That the Additional Import Duties (No. 3) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 671), dated 22nd April, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th April, be approved. This Order implements the tariff Agreement entered into last November with the European Coal and Steel Community. The Agreement was laid before the House on 3rd December. It was ratified by the United Kingdom in March, and the rest of the ratification formalities are likely to be completed shortly. Since the Community countries have now put the Agreement into effect by bringing their new duties into force, we have decided to do the same. In order to avoid difficulties of enforcement and undue complication of the tariff headings, it has been necessary to cover in the Order a slightly wider area than the letter of our commitment.

The main effect of the Order is to reduce the United Kingdom import duties on the main iron and steel products to 10 per cent. ad valorem and to introduce new alternative specific duties at the rates per ton in the First Schedule to the Order. These alternatives come into play on goods imported at less than current United Kingdom prices, and these have an incidence of more than 10 per cent.

I should mention one point of detail. Some of the iron and steel duties are at present temporarily suspended, and under existing legislation it is not possible to increase any duty which is not chargeable. It has been necessary, therefore, to insert a provision—it is to be found in Article 1 (2)—to the effect that the Order will alter the suspended items only to the extent that it does not increase them. The current suspension Orders terminate on 18th September next, and if any of the suspensions are not renewed it will then be necessary to make a further order, which will require a further affirmative Resolution, bringing the duties concerned into effect so far as they are increases.

However, I need not alarm the House with the prospect of many further Orders, because with the coming into effect of the new Import Duties Act, 1958, on 1st January, 1959, this procedural complication will disappear. On certain very cheap goods—one might almost say ridiculously cheap goods—the incidence of the new specific duties might theoretically be more than the old rates of duty, and it is therefore necessary, under the Import Duties Act, 1932, to ask the House to approve the Order by affirmative Resolution, which I now do.

11.31 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I do not wish to detain the House or my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones), who has the Adjournment, but I want to say a word about the Order. Hon. Members on this side of the House again are in general agreement with it. We recognise that it is part of our obligations under the Agreement with the European Steel and Coal Community, and we have consulted our trade union colleagues, who were also consulted before this arrangement was agreed, and I understand that, generally speaking, they have no objection to it.

We are glad to say that in spite of a certain recession in the steel industry, shown by the figures published this morning, our production costs and prices are sufficiently competitive for us to be able to stand up to the reductions in duty. As the hon. Member has said, a number of duties are in any case in suspense at present. They were introduced originally to prevent dumping and, as he rightly pointed out, if there should be any recurrence of dumping there is the long-stop provision in the Agreement. Should the situation ever become more serious I believe that Article III of the Agreement signed with the Luxembourg countries would also, if necessary, provide a procedure whereby we could ad- just matters. I hope that it will not be needed and that the steel industry of this country can face any reasonable competition that it might have to meet. We therefore raise no objection to this Order, and I hope that none of the possible changes that I have mentioned will ever be needed.

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Holt (Bolton, West)

I want to say a few words welcoming this Order, not so much for what it does at the moment as for its significance in new developments in tariff policy. We sometimes do things a little oddly in this House. In a very brief debate tonight we are passing this Statutory Instrument, which is the first legislative result of some very far-reaching proposals made with regard to our tariffs in connection with imports from the Continent. I would have wished that the Parliamentary Secretary felt he had rather more time to explain the present background of the steel tariffs, as they are rather difficult to follow.

As I understand it, this Order has now reduced the tariffs, in theory, from about 33⅓ per cent., 25 per cent. and 20 per cent., which are the long-standing tariff rates on steel, to roughly 10 per cent. But, as is indicated in the Third Schedule to this Statutory Instrument, there have been three previous Statutory Instruments which have already completely exempted from duty a large range of the products affected here.

Although this Order is produced to give effect to an agreement made between the United Kingdom and the members of the European Coal and Steel Community, these tariff reductions affect imports from any country, and that is a most encouraging development. I hope that in the subsequent reductions made in connection with the wider proposals for a Common Market in Europe the same thing will apply.

It would have been helpful to the House if the Parliamentary Secretary could have indicated what further proposals there may be with regard to this. In connection with the Agreement which this implements, I notice that the tariff levels of other countries will be lower than ours, and I should like to know why the United Kingdom can reduce its tariffs only to approximately 10 per cent. while on our imports into Federal Germany and the Benelux countries the figure is more like 3 per cent. or 4 per cent.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Additional Import Duties (No. 3) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 671), dated 22nd April, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th April, be approved.