§ 2.44 a.m.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)
I wish to press for a reconsideration of the Board of Trade's proposals to reduce the safeguards for the United Kingdom jute manufacturing industry. All the people whose opinion I respect, on both sides of the industry, agree that what the Minister of State suddenly sprang on the industry a week or two ago would mean a substantial loss of jobs. It is, of course, extremely difficult to be accurate in one's prophecies in these matters, and I enter upon them with all diffidence, but those whose opinions I judge to be good suggest that the loss of employment if these proposals are persisted in is likely to be around 5,000, and they fear it could possibly be worse than that, because the nature of the proposals might cause inside the industry a loss of confidence which would have the effect of a reduction of morale which would lead to a further reduction in jobs.
Here we have an industry which since the war, I think everyone agrees, has shown enterprise and courage. It is being put in a position which I think is really quite unjustified. I say unjustified because the Government have on a number of different occasions given pledges in this House about the need to safeguard the jute manufacturing industry. Perhaps the clearest and most concise of the pledges was given to me in the House on 24th March, 1955. It may be just as well to put it on the record now. The then President of the Board of Trade, who is still a senior member of the Cabinet, told me this:Unless an alternative method of safeguarding the United Kingdom jute industry can be worked out and introduced, the removal of control over the import of jute goods would have a serious effect on the prosperity, efficiency, output and employment of the industry. In view of the heavy concentration of the industry in Dundee and its distance from the main centres of population, there would be a danger of continuing large-scale unemployment It is in view of this position that 1681 Ministers decided that the industry must be safeguarded…"—[Official Report, 24th March, 1955; Vol. 538, c. 2245.]I do not think that the special case for safeguarding the jute manufacturing industry can be put more clearly or more succinctly than it was put by the then President of the Board of Trade.
I think it is only fair to say on behalf of the industry itself that it responded to the very generous protection which was afforded by successive Governments since the war. It has spent £13 million on modernising itself, and on the trade union side a completely new wages structure has emerged, and on the whole the industry, which was not altogether a happy one before the war, has now a remarkable record of both modern ideas and of good labour relations.
Lord Eccles, when he was President of the Board of Trade, made the first breaches in the system of Government jute control, but for some time the Government have very wisely been letting the industry alone. Then suddenly, on Friday, 5th July, the industry was told by the Minister of State to come to London for a meeting with him on Tuesday, 9th July. The Minister then laid before them in confidence a plan which I understand was much more drastic than anything any of them had envisaged, and the Minister of State said he would come up to Dundee himself on 18th July to hear their reply.
I should like to make it clear that no one—certainly not I—is making any complaint against the Minister personally for the way he has handled this matter. Lord Eccles, if I may say so, much irritated the industry by the manner he put forward much more modest proposals than the Minister of State put to the industry. It is the best tribute to the Minister that he has been able to continue the personal respect of those with whom he has been engaged in very hard negotiations despite the fact that he makes Lord Eccles seem the champion of the interests of Dundee.
But why have the Government suddenly decided to make these drastic proposals at this stage, at the tail end both of a Parliamentary Session and, probably, the lifetime of a Parliament itself? One of the reasons that I understand has been given is that the recent verdict of the Restrictive Practices Court involved 1682 a condemnation of the system of Government jute control. It ought to be said to the Minister as plainly as possible that this is not true. What the Court did was to end the private price agreements in the industry. It took the view that the agreements were not essential to the Government's protection of the industry.
But the Court made its view of Government price control crystal clear. It said that if Government safeguards were not continued there would be what its distinguished chairman termed serious and persistent unemployment in Dundee and district. The Court also said that it assumed that the Board of Trade would and should continue to safeguard employment in the industry.
I confess I am astonished that the Board of Trade should be putting forward the Court's decision as one of the grounds for making the changes. The Members of Parliament for the constituencies concerned in the matter laid before the President of the Board of Trade immediately after the Court's decision their views on the implications of the decision, because we feared this situation arising. We certainly have had the impression from the replies the President has given in the House that he cannot have studied the very good brief with which we provided him.
The second reason given for reducing protection for the jute industry is that this is our duty to the underdeveloped countries of Asia in order to allow them to raise their living standards by increasing their own exports. This seems to be a much more important and much weightier argument than the one about the Restrictive Practices Court's decision.
In the case of the jute industry, it seems to me that the Board of Trade in advancing this argument gives only half the case. It says that we must help India by allowing more of her jute goods to come into this country. But if we help India in that way, in present conditions we are as a necessary consequence harming Pakistan, which earns a very large part of its foreign exchange by selling raw jute for consumption in the jute works of Dundee and the Angus area.
The Government's argument comes down to the fact that we must help the under-developed Commonwealth country 1683 of India by harming the even more under-developed Commonwealth country of Pakistan. That does not seem in present circumstances a particularly sensible way to go about improving Commonwealth relations or assisting developing Commonwealth countries. It would be much better, in the view of the Opposition, for the Government to use their power to plan these matters so that one might seek to adjust the certainly conflicting interests between the various countries concerned.
I have recently been on a visit to India and Pakistan with my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and the late John Strachey, whom I miss particularly and personally on this occasion. We spent a fortnight talking to the Ministers and planners of the two countries about these very problems and how Britain could best assist them to raise living standards. I did not get the impression from the Indians that they were pressing urgently for the lowering of the existing safeguards. Of course India would welcome easier markets in this country, but the fact is that we form a very small part of the Indian export markets in jute at present. Their main markets are in the newer countries of Asia and Africa which consume basic jute goods—sacks and so on—on a much bigger scale than the more developed countries. We got the impression in Pakistan that they would be appalled if we were to reduce Dundee's consumption of raw jute.
In any case there is the argument that our ability to help the under-developed countries—and we hear this much more from hon. Members opposite than from this side of the House—depends an our economic strength and viability, and I cannot see that, in the long run, it will help us to help under-developed countries if we do serious damage to a major Scottish industry without first being able to take steps to provide a new and more modern industry in its place.
I am astonished that the Board of Trade, of all Departments, which is supposed to be the Department providing and distributing industry, should be so ready to destroy jobs on such a substantial scale at a time when it has been singularly unsuccessful in attracting new jobs to the Dundee development 1684 district. I asked the President of the Board of Trade, after he made his announcement about jute, what the prospects were for new industry in the remainder of the area. He said that he had no idea. He could offer no hard information about anything new coming along. We get the impression that anything that looks promising is something we get by our own efforts and not what the Board of Trade is able to assist us in getting.
The Minister of State would have been in a stronger position on his visit to Dundee on Friday of last week in seeking adjustments of the present structure of the industry if he had been coming to perform the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of some great new electronics or automobile works. That is what planning and the distribution of industry mean, if they mean anything.
It is ridiculous to damage a traditional industry before we have been able adequately to get new industry in its place. Perhaps the Under Secretary of State for Scotland will confirm that it is easier to lose traditional jobs in Scotland than it is to attract new ones. The Government's approach to this is very irresponsible.
What are the arrangements for co-ordinating the work of the various Departments? I put a question today to the Minister of Labour. I asked him what estimate he had made of the likely effects on employment in the Dundee area if the Minister of State's proposals were to go through. He said that no such estimate had been made because there were too many uncertainties. In a major change like this, surely one of the first things to do is to get some sort of estimate as the effect on employment. Among Ministers themselves at the personal level there has been, in dealing with this problem, a story of incompetence and chaos which is unusual even by the present standards of the Government.
While the Minister of State was in Dundee telling the jute industry in confidence of the Government's proposals, the Prime Minister, in London, was telling the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan), in a blaze of headlines, something quite different from what the Minister of State was saying. As for the Secretary of State for Scotland, he does not say anything at all to anybody.
1685 The Government are in a miserable muddle over this. Here are 5,000 Scottish jobs at stake when we already have a grave unemployment problem. There is confusion, chaos and contradiction from Ministers ranging from the Prime Minister to the Minister of State.
According to the Dundee Courier and Advertiser, the Minister of State said to the Press in Dundee:I am not in a position to say what is to happen.I am not the Government, just a part of it.I am afraid that the Minister's disarming modesty was to be justified a good deal more than he had a right to believe, because at that moment the Prime Minister was holding his interview with the hon. Member for South Angus. In the Press the next morning, we were told that the Prime Minister had intervened personally in the threat to jute jobs in Dundee and district from the Board of Trade's proposals to reduce the protection given to the home jute industry. The hon. Member for South Angus was quoted as saying that he assumed that the standstill about which the Prime Minister had apparently talked to him meant that there would be no change in the situation for a year.
When there was a natural conflict between what the Minister of State was saying and what the Prime Minister was being reported as having said, it must be said for the hon. Member for South Angus that he stuck to his guns and said:I understood the Prime Minister to say that there would be a 12-month standstill on any Government changes to affect the jute industry in Dundee.I am sorry that the hon. Member is not in his place—he knew that this debate was to take place. I think that he knows perfectly well by this time, as does every other hon. Member with a constituency affected by these proposals, that the proposals made by the Minister of State in Dundee do not involve any standstill in the sense in which the hon. Member for South Angus used the expression. It is true that the Minister put forward some welcome modifications of his original proposals and some welcome delays in the original timetable he suggested, but what he put forward—and I shall not give details which are still confidential—was a whole series of 1686 changes in the present structure of protection for the jute industry all of which was to come into effect almost immediately, as soon as agreement from the rest of the Government could be obtained.
I am raising this debate tonight because we are entitled to know whether the Prime Minister was right in what he said about Government policy for the jute industry, or whether the Minister of State was right in what he told the industry in Dundee on Thursday.
As the Minister will appreciate, there is grave uncertainty in Dundee and that uncertainty has been greatly increased by this confusion between what the Prime Minister was saying in London and what the Minister of State was saying in Dundee. The least we are entitled to get is an unequivocal declaration from the Minister of which of these two proposals now represents Government policy.
In the light of the history of this problem, the least that Dundee deserves is, in the words of the hon. Member for South Angus,a 12-month standstill on any Government changes to affect the jute industry in Dundee.The existing Government jute control was originally a temporary war-time measure which was continued by successive Labour and Conservative Government in peacetime as a matter of deliberate Government policy. This was done because immediately after the war, the Labour Government set up a jute working party, which published a very fine report, to which the Restrictive Practices Court paid particular tribute. In the light of this, it is only reasonable that the Government should not depart from their pledges and break with the kind of safeguards which have existed in the past. At the least, before that break there should be another thorough investigation of the problems of the jute manufacturing industry, perhaps in this case in the context of the unemployment problems of this part of Scotland where the jute industry is still the dominant employer.
The Minister may not know of this in detail, but in the Highlands of Scotland we recently had controversy about whether the Highland hydro-electric board should be allowed to carry on its independent operations, which allowed the people of the Highlands to earn for 1687 themselves what amounted to a certain amount of subsidy. When this became a matter of controversy, the Secretary of State set up a committee to inquire into the matter.
What we should have from the Government is a Mackenzie Committee for the Dundee jute industry. This is justified by the history of the matter. I have, perhaps, a more practical reason for feeling that the kind of breathing space that this would afford would be of great value for Dundee. If we get the year's standstill about which the hon. Member for South Angus has made so much publicity, there would by that time be a new Government in power with a different outlook on these economic problems.
From his past experience at the Board of Trade, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has an intimate knowledge of the problems of the jute industry and on many occasions in Dundee he has explained that our philosophy is to use the economic power of the Government to prevent uncontrolled, unregulated market forces from ruining the jute industry, on which the welfare of such a substantial proportion of the working people of the Dundee area depends.
It is only by that kind of economic planning that, in the long run, we can safeguard the prosperity of an area like Dundee. Tonight, we deserve clarification of the Government's policy for the jute industry and I hope we will get an undertaking that we will have this kind of investigation before any changes are carried out.
§ 3.7 a.m.
§ Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) spoilt an excellent speech by going into nights of fancy towards the end of it about things which seem to me to be most unlikely. For the rest, I agree with much of the case made by the hon. Member about the difficulties facing particularly Dundee, but also towns in Angus, Perthshire and Fife.
It was only in June this year that I called on a factory in my constituency which was corresponding with the Board of Trade with a view to the expansion of the capacity of the factory. It therefore came as a surprise to me a month 1688 later that there appeared to be a plan for substantial contraction in the industry. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to tell us something about the background of why this has been envisaged.
It would appear that one idea for the contraction came from the need to bring down the price of jute because of loss of business to the trade following the substitution of other materials. Our traditional jute trade is, I think, turning much more to methods of bulk handling. When paper is used as an alternative, a 1-cwt. sack costing 9d. as against nearly 2s. for a jute sack, any alteration in the protection against raw jute coming into this country would not be likely to have an impact on the amount of jute goods that we use.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East mentioned, rightly, the pressures from India and Pakistan. As he said, however, the proportion of the Indian output which comes to this country is only about 5 per cent. and the chances for those countries to expand their outlet for manufactured jute goods will be much more in Africa and Asia than in Europe, where bulk handling is progressively taking over many of the traditional ways in which jute has been used in the past. Pakistan is also interested in sending us raw jute.
When it comes to the restrictive trade practices angle it would be as well to read this paragraph of the Restrictive Practices Court judgment:The evidence which was laid before us, and the statistical comparison of operating cost between the United Kingdom and similar costs in India and Pakistan, left us in no doubt that the conditions envisaged by the Working Party in 1948 in their admirable comprehensive and valuable report, as justifying protection of the home industry, continue to apply and, so far as can reasonably be foreseen, will continue to do so.Therefore, it is difficult to see why when in June the possibility of expanding capacity was still being considered there was suddenly the thought of contraction.
I admit that a year ago when we were considering going into the Common Market there was a likelihood of considerable changes resulting in the jute trade in Dundee. In Dundee alone about 17,000 people are employed in the industry, or about 35 per cent. of the 1689 working population, and this spreads to ancillary trades and to towns in Angus and Fife. If we are committed, as we all are, to an expansion of 4 per cent. in the economy, how can we suddenly turn round and take out an enormous amount of one particular industry in one district and feel that we are living up to what we promised to do?
This raises the question of what action we should take. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan), who regrets being unable to be here tonight, received assurances from the Prime Minister that there would be a standstill for a year, but we cannot leave all these people who are employed in the industry in uncertainty even for a year. Something must be done to work out the future of the industry. There must be a working party or an inquiry so that we can give the people who are employed ample assurance not that there will be a standstill for a year but that a certain percentage of the trade will be replaced by other jobs and that the other percentage will remain because it performs a useful function in the country's economy and provides an outlet for the Commonwealth raw material.
§ 3.12 a.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, East(Sir J. Gilmour) to the Minister of State, Board of Trade. It followed very closely the temperate, reasoned and constructive speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson). I do not think that if the hon. Member for Kilmarnock had been faced with the mystery and confusion that has followed this sudden crippling decision he would have been quite so equable. I know him reasonably well.
My sympathy goes out to the hon. Member for Fife, East, because he is the vice-chairman of the Unionist Party in Scotland and, like the Secretary of State for Scotland, he did not know. Nobody told him. I dare say that the hon. Member is to help in the selection or support of a candidate in a bye-election in Scotland. That bye-election, regrettably, is in Dundee. I wish that he did not have that task in front of him.
Like my hon. Friend, I wish that tonight we had the stalwart support of 1690 John Strachey who battled on this same problem a few years ago. I had the advantage of meeting Lord Provost McManus and an official of the city of Dundee the other day. If I had not realised it before, I realised then how Dundee feels not only about the decision and how it was taken and conveyed to the city but also about the consequences of that decision.
Scottish Members know that the scars of the pre-war depression in Dundee linger on. There was nothing worse than having a city like Dundee entirely dominated by an industry which was more depressed than any other industry. We have moved away from that state of affairs, thanks not to the new Act, which was to bring about a great expansion of industry in Scotland, but to the old Distribution of Industry Act and to the work of the Labour Government who considerably extended the range of industries in Scotland.
I remember the late Walter Elliot saying time and again that it would be a serious mistake to turn our attention to the new industries and to forget the old ones which are the backbone of the Scottish economy, and this is what is happening in Dundee.
This has been an appalling day for Scotland. Earlier today my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), who was standing where I am standing now, received a reply about the shipbuilding industry. My hon. Friend represents, among other parts of that area, Clydebank, which thought that at the last election it had been promised the order for the replacement of the Queen Mary, and it also thought that with the revival of interest in the Q4 it would receive Government help. These hopes have now been doused. My hon. Friend drew attention once again to the effects of the decline in the shipbuilding industry, and indeed the neglect of it, and to the decline in other traditional industries, leading to the voluntary liquidation of Denny's.
Can we end the day by receiving some good news from the Minister of State? The total employed in the jute industry is about 18,000, 5,000 of whom are threatened with unemployment. Indeed, it is more than a threat—it is a certainty. The only uncertainty lies in the fact 1691 that they do not know how long it will be before they lose their jobs.
I do not know why the Government have taken this decision. Is this a bit of bureaucratic cleaning up? The Government do not like this lingering jute control and it may well be that as part of the preparatory work for going into the Common Market they had their plans ready for the gradual removal of this protection.
The suggestion has been made that the substitutes do not affect the part that will be hit, and that in any case this has been going on for some time. Anyone who knows the situation in India and Pakistan knows that it is not possible in this instance to aid India without harming Pakistan, and that it is not possible to aid India without harming Dundee. We have to balance one against the other and there is no doubt that, in view of Scotland's economy, this proposal will result in greater damage to Dundee than benefit to India.
We have had this argument before. The Minister of State suggested that this was being done in the interests of the expansion of trade. This was reported in the Dundee Courier. As Scots, we have to ask why Scotland should be sacrificed, in that the hoped-for increase in trade will not come to Scotland. The hon. Member will rind in his Ministry files and files from hon. Members representing Scottish divisions on the question of the shale industry. He will find more files on the paper industry, and in the case of all of them, in respect of the protection that they lost, the same reply was given—"Trade will increase, and Scotland will get the benefit in other ways." It just has not happened that way. In fact, at this moment unemployment in Scotland is so serious that even an increase of 2,000, or the loss of another industry or factory anywhere, makes a difference.
This is not the decision of private industry, taken as a result of the difficulties that private industry has got into; this is a deliberate decision of a Government who have pledged full employment in Scotland and elsewhere without expanding the opportunities in Scotland. We are going to have the removal, to a considerable extent, of the protection now afforded to the jute industry, to- 1692 gether with a loss of 700 jobs right away, even under the Government's plan, and a further considerable building up over three years.
What is the objection to a standstill of a year? There has been no great justification why this should be done right away. The argument in relation to the Restrictive Practices Court does not stand up. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East and the hon. Member for Fife, East; it does not make sense viewed from the point of view of time, if it makes sense in any other way.
It has been suggested that a pledge has already been given that there shall be a standstill. Obviously the Minister of State did not know about it when it was made, because he was carrying out his Departmental duties in Dundee at the time, meeting the people concerned, talking and arguing and trying to convince them that he was right while they tried to convince him that they were right. It is said that he said to them, "After all, I am not the Government. I am only part of it. I am not in a position to say what is to happen."
At the same time that he was saying that the Head of the Government was talking informally in the next room to the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan), who came out from that discussion virtually believing that the Prime Minister had promised him a year's standstill. He got headlines in his local newspaper of the kind that Members of Parliament always dream of—"Jute Gets a Year of Grace." When I read that I thought that I might be reading the wrong kind of newspaper about the wrong kind of matter of moment. Is the industry to get a year of grace?
I wish that the hon. Member for South Angus had been here to tell us about this, because it is no longer confidential. This information has been given to the Press. If this is a misunderstanding of what the Prime Minister said it is not the first misunderstanding that there has been between the Prime Minister and somebody who thought that he had been promised something. I am concerned about the effect of this on Dundee. It is not a question of political fortunes but a question of the lives and happiness of a great section of the population of that city 1693 and that area. Many of the smaller parts are much more dependent as a result of the changes which have taken place in jute than is Dundee itself. What is their position to be? Are they to be commuter towns and villages and to be told, as towns and villages in my constituency are, that their hope for employment can be met by the large industrial city—although in my constituency it is a town, not a city?
The Government have placed Dundee in a special position. Although Dundee has had very considerable help and its fortunes in industry have been very much better than they were, it has been recognised as pretty dangerous from the point of view of economic stability and it has been retained as a scheduled area under the Local Employment Act. This was all the more reason why the Government should have hesitated in doing anything to worsen that position without having ensured that there would be alternative employment. It is all the more reason why the MacManus Plan should be accepted—call it the Duncan Plan if you like. I wish someone would "wake Duncan with our knocking" here to night. Then he could come and tell us what happened. Whatever happened, the standstill plan has merit in it in relation to the position in which the Government have put Dundee by scheduling it, although the Minister will tell us that it has been stop-listed.
The purpose of the Local Employment Act was to anticipate unemployment and take action in advance. Can the Minister of State tell us whether or not the Board of Trade has sure and certain knowledge that the men and women who will be rendered unemployed as soon as the Order is put into operation will have alternative jobs in the area? He knows quite well that they will not. All the circumstances are such that while there is still time the Government should stay their hand and accept the proposals that have been put forward and have the support of the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost was speaking on this occasion as the head of the city, speaking for the employers and the employees in the jute industry and, I am perfectly sure, for the people of the whole area. Accept the one year standstill, accept the need for a working party or independent inquiry to go fully into these problems of the 1694 industry and whether or not it is able to make changes in relation to its special position in regard to protection.
That done, I am sure that everyone would be, not entirely relieved because the fear world be there, but much more content that the Government were acting in the interests of the jute industry and the people of Dundee and had the Scottish economy at heart. The Government are very lucky indeed. I wonder if there was anything accidental in the timing of this debate at half-past three in the morning with only a few days left before the House rises for the long Recess You, Mr. Speaker, know what the Scots are like when they are roused and have a fight on their hands. We have a fight on our hands and the vice-chairman of the Scottish Unionist Party, I am sure after that speech, would support us. We could bring pressure to bear and create a Parliamentary opportunity to bring it to bear on the Government. It would be far better if the Government were to admit that they had made a mistake and, without pressure, acceded to the wishes of the people of Dundee as expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East.
§ 3.30 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Alan Green)
I must first thank the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) for the moderate way in which he put the case and the kindly personal references to myself, for which I am very grateful. Of course I realise, as I did before I went to Dundee—I realised it even more afterwards—the natural fears which any industry must have at proposals for change. I have sought to accommodate those fears as best I may.
In replying to hon. Members I hope that I am right in saying that the main question which has been put to me is, why change the system of protection for the industry at all? It is suggested that the system of protection is working well, that nothing has happened to suggest that it should be changed and that any change would create more unemployment. This is the heart of the questions put to me. They are very proper questions to put to me.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East started his speech with a certain set of 1695 proposals which were out of date and he finished his argument with the new and modified proposals which I put in Dundee when I went there. We are not now talking about the original proposals with which he started his speech. The new proposals, which are still in some details under discussion, represent a very substantial measure of protection indeed. I am sorry that I cannot at this moment state the details of those proposals because some of them are still under discussion. It might well be that if I could state them, a great deal of what was said tonight would not have had to be said. But I cannot state them, for a reason which the House will fully understand and accept; as long as proposals are under discussion, I am certain that it is right to keep them confidential.
Within the context of the Common Market negotiations we had discussions with a whole range of industries, and in particular the jute industry. During those discussions the jute industry displayed a remarkable degree of keeping of confidence from which, in retrospect, I should like to thank it. It is as well that that was the case, because if they had not kept the confidence properly reposed in them, a great many fears would have been raised which in the event were unnecessary because we did not join the Common Market. Because confidence in another sense is such an important matter for any industry, the breaking of a confidence would have broken the confidence in the industry and we should have had much worse unemployment problems in Dundee if confidence had not been kept in those discussions than we face now. I am certain that it is in the interests of the industry that confidence should be maintained until the discussions with the industry are finished. They are not yet completely finished. This is my view. Because I hold to it very sincerely, I am afraid I cannot publish tonight the details of the proposals I have made. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they contain a very high degree of protection.
I understand the two reasons why Dundee advances a special case for protection. The first reason is the concentration of this industry within this area. If anything drastic happened to 1696 the industry, it would be a drastic and concentrated blow to a number of people concentrated in a particular area and therefore all the more vulnerable because they are concentrated. It is because I understand it that I promise I am offering a very substantial continuing degree of protection.
The second reason that appears to make the Dundee jute industry especially in need of protection is that it is one of those rare cases where the raw material is purchased from countries which are in a position to produce also the finished goods. There may therefore be circumstances in which in order to further their own production of the finished goods India and Pakistan contrive penalties for Dundee on the price of the imported raw material. These are the two reasons, as I understand it, why special degrees of protection are required, requested, demanded, in Dundee. I have tried to meet these two reasons in the modified proposals I have put forward. I cannot defend myself further tonight than by pointing out that I have, I hope, isolated the two major reasons why special protection is needed for the industry in this area. I have seen the two reasons why and I have tried to meet them. I hope I have succeeded in meeting them.
I have very much appreciated the way in which the industry has put its case and the responses it has made. I believe that the industry understands that the decision of the Restrictive Practices Court is an important element, both in its thinking and in the Government's thinking. Unless something can be done about it—this, I think, means changing the method of protection hitherto afforded to the industry—I believe that the industry's present method of protection will operate increasingly on out-of-date costings. This must flow from the decision of the Restrictive Practices Court. Unless something is done to change the method of protection, the existing means of protection will become less and less worth while to the industry. This is a major reason why the method of protection should be changed. I say nothing at the moment about the level of protection, because quite properly and understandably much has been made of the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, while I was saying something in Dundee, was saying some- 1697 thing different in London. My right hon. Friend was not saying anything different to what I was saying in Dundee. I accept that some ears hear differently the same things that are said. However, the Prime Minister and I were not saying different things and I am perfectly clear about that. People may make different things of what is said, but that is not the same as agreeing that different things were said.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson
Can we get it clear that no proposal has been made for a 12-month standstill on any changes affecting the jute industry?
§ Mr. Green
A jolly good shot, but I cannot disclose the details. I am sorry. I accept that it is extremely hard for the hon. Member to take this statement from me, but I cannot be moved in any way tonight into disclosing even a part of the proposals. If the industry were to disclose them, that would be one thing. It is not doing so and I appreciate that. I pay tribute to the industry for not disclosing them. It would be dangerous to the interests of the industry if the details were disclosed before we had finished discussing them. I cannot go further than to say that the proposals contain a substantial element of protection.
I invite one further thought. It is one thing to claim that a new Government would have a new, vigorous, radical look at the whole matter and would make changes because changes are needed. It is a strange thing that the proposed new radical Government, bringing in their brand new broom to make great new changes, would in fact insist on maintaining thestatus quo. This is a strange contradiction in thought.
I proposed to the industry in Dundee a substantial continuing measure of protection. I am still discussing the details of that proposal with the industry. I respect the representatives of the industry—employers and trade unionists alike—for respecting the confidence of these discussions. I am sure that we shall need a little more time yet in which to discuss the proposals. As soon as they are finalised they will be published.
§ Mr. Green
I would be surprised if they were not. I can only repeat that I am not the Government but only a mem- 1698 ber of it. I cannot, of course, speak for my colleagues; and hon. Members opposite know what I mean by that. I will say what I have to say both inside and outside the Government, as it were, but I cannot arrogate to myself the right to say everything. As soon as these discussions are finalised and the final details worked out, I would certainly expect that they would be announced—and I hope sooner rather than later—because it is in the interests of the jute industry in Dundee that we get a change in the method of protection as well as in the level of it as soon as possible.
The longer this sort of change isdelayed—when change is forced on us and the industry—the sharper will it come and the worse will be its effect on the people of Dundee. It is to get this transition period over with as little trouble as possible, for the benefit of the future of the jute industry of Dundee, that I want the change to start soon and not for it to be delayed.
§ 3.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
The Minister has made a thoroughly disquieting speech, which will have the effect of alarming even further the people of Dundee and of Scotland. What will alarm them most, I think, is to learn that what the Prime Minister apparently said to the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) is not the same as what the Minister of State said in Dundee, which means that there is to be up standstill at all, and that either the Prime Minister mislead the hon. Member for South Angus—who is not here—or else the hon. Member himself misled the public. I do not know which it is—
§ Mr. Green
I can see what the right hon. Gentleman is after—I do not know that he is after the interests of Dundee, if I may say so—but, with the greatest respect, he in still talking, and I admit that I cannot enlighten him with the details of the proposals, in ignorance of the details. I admit that, and I am sorry that he is, but I hope that he will not use his ignorance to stir up some more fears.
§ Mr. Jay
I am speaking with knowledge of what the Minister has said just now. It is now apparently established that there is to be no standstill. It is 1699 also established that the Minister has made certain proposals to the industry and to the people of Dundee and has given absolutely no assurance that those proposals will not result in the discharge of a large number of people from the industry. I therefore think that we are speaking with quite enough knowledge to be seriously disquieted.
If the Minister will give an assurance, and he must give much more assurance than he has given so far, that he has merely made proposals for improving technically the system of protection, and that those proposals will not result in any lower figure of employment in the jute industry, I think that our fears will be allayed, but he has most notably not given any such assurance. The Minister said that we were only faced with the prospect of altering the protection offered to a certain industry, but that is not the situation at all. This is the city which, probably more notably than anywhere else in the United Kingdom at present is, as we all know, dependent on one particular industry, and the Board of Trade is the Department which is supposed to be responsible for curing local unemployment and bringing new industry and employment to such areas.
We now find that the Board of Trade, gratuitously, for no reason that has been given, is taking action, and the Minister does not deny it, which is likely to lead to heavy unemployment, perhaps amounting to thousands, certainly to hundreds, in this particularly vulnerable area. Unless we can have a further explanation of this, or some further assurance, this is an act of incredible folly by the Government, and makes nonsense of all their protestations about what they are attempting to do for Scotland through the Local Employment Act. If this is to mean5,000 people losing their jobs in Dundee—and if it is not, let the Minister so assure us—it will more than undo all what is hoped will be done by the Wiggins Teape scheme on which the House has spent so much time and finance. That would be an act of in credible folly.
We really want to know from the Minister—and we will be glad to hear him give the answer—the reasons for taking this initiative at all. The Minister said something rather enigmatic and oracular about the Common Market, but 1700 what have the Common market negotiations to do with this? Just because our entry on certain terms into the Common Market, according to what the Government had planned, might have resulted in severe damage to the jute industry, it does not follow that we must damage the jute industry severely when we are not entering the Common Market. If that is not what the hon. Gentleman meant, I can see no point in his reference to the Common Market at all.
What did the hon. Gentleman mean by his equally oracular reference to the decision of the Restrictive Practices Court? Far from there being any reason arising from that decision why the Minister should take an initiative of this kind, exactly the reverse is true. I have the decision of the court here. I shall not read it because it has been mentioned already, but the upshot of it was that the court considered the price agreements of the industry unnecessary because it assumed that the Government would continue the system of protection, and it argued very firmly that the system of protection could continue without the existing price agreements. If, after that, the Government say that, now that the price agreements have gone, the protection must go too, that makes absolute nonsense not merely of the Board of Trade's policy but of the decision of the Restrictive Practices Court. Does the Minister argue that this extraordinary initiative, for which no good reason has been shown, has in some way followed from the decision of the court? He has entirely failed to make that clear.
The only other possible shred of a reason advanced is the argument about the interests of India and Pakistan. Here, I should have much more sympathy with the argument if it really could be shown that some substantial help was being given to either or both of those countries. But, as has been said already, the interest of India in the British market is an extremely small part of total Indian exports, and, so far as substitutes are concerned, it is mainly a matter of paper bags being substituted for jute bags, and the issue in this respect is not one which could possibly be affected by small changes in prices such as might result from the proposals now involved.
No case on any ground seems to have been made out for the change. Can the 1701 Minister give us an assurance that these proposals, which he admits to exist—I realise that there may be reasons why he is unable to expound them, and we have to debate them on that basis—will have no major effect on employment in Dundee? If not, and he really does admit that employment in this exceedingly important industry is seriously in jeopardy as a result of what the Government now propose, will he give us a single good reason for thinking that the change should be made at this time?