HC Deb 16 December 1964 vol 704 cc393-400

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £60,723,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1965, for the services included in the following Supplementary Estimates, viz.:

Class I, Vote 7, Inland Revenue 1,486,000
Class II, Vote 1, Foreign Service 1,000
Class II, Vote 1A, Diplomatic Service 1,871,000
Class II, Vote 4, Commonwealth Relations Office 25,821,000
Class II, Vote 5, Commonwealth Grants and Loans 12,162,000
Class II, Vote 7, Colonial Grants and Loans 710,000
Class IV, Vote 1, Board of Trade 1,000
Class V, Vote 4, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland (Agricultural Grants and Subsidies) 2,777,000
Class V, Vote 8, Food (Strategic Reserves) 65,000
Class VI, Vote 14, National Health Service, etc. (Hospital Services, etc.), England and Wales 8,000,000
Class VI, Vote 15, National Health Service (Executive Councils' Services), England and Wales 7,500,000
Class VIII, Vote 7, National Gallery 268,000
Class IX, Vote 9, Houses of Parliament Buildings 60,000
Class X, Vote 4, Royal Mint 1,000
Total £60,723,000

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maxwell (Buckingham)

Before we part with the winter Supplementary Estimates, I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that the Estimates Committee has had very little time, if any, to consider them. We are talking about £60 million. I regret very much that, by arrangement between the two Front Benches, an opportunity is not being given to debate these Supplementary Estimates.

Contrary to general belief, backbench Members of Parliament have no real opportunity to control Government expenditure. I am very concerned about the Foreign Office request in these Estimates, Class II, Vote 1A, Diplomatic Service, for £9.7 million, which arises out of the recommendations in the Plowden Report. I am extremely disturbed that the Foreign Office is not implementing speedily or energetically enough the recommendations of the Report relating to the need for our diplomatists at home and abroad to do a great deal more to promote British exports.

There is a fiction abroad that Members of Parliament control the money spent by Government Departments. [Interruption.] I knew that some of this was wishful thinking, but I did not realise, until I came into the House—[Interruption.]—how much of a rubber-stamping organisation the House of Commons had become.

The Chairman

Order. I hope that the Committee will give the Chair an opportunity to hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maxwell

The House of Commons, in its function of controlling Government expenditure, has become something which is shockingly exemplified by the procedure for these Supplementary Estimates. Hon. Members will have noted in paragraph 2 of the Estimates Committee's memorandum—

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

On a point of order, Dr. King. Is it in order for the hon. Member to read his speech?

The Chairman

The custom of the House, as is well known, is that an hon. Member may not read a speech but he may make use of copious notes.

Mr. Maxwell

I remember that on the last occasion he spoke my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) also read his speech.

I do not know what can be done about all this. I know that a lot of new Members are as surprised and shocked as I am that Supplementary Estimates for an additional £60 million—I believe that they were for £20 million last year—can go through on the nod. The winter Supplementary Estimate for the Foreign Office is an entirely new Vote. The gross provision required for the Vote to cover the last quarter of the current financial year is£9.7 million, of which £7.8 million is derived from payments from the Foreign Service Vote and the Commonwealth Relations Vote in respect of transferred services, and the remaining £1.9 million is primarily accounted for by increases in pay, allowances and administrative expenses. [Interruption.] This supplementary sum for the Foreign Office is required because of the setting up of the new unified diplomatic service which comes into effect on 1st January, 1965.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

On a point of order, Dr. King. There is such a noise coming from the other side that I cannot hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

The Chairman

In raising this point of order, the hon. Gentleman should have pointed out that the noise was coming from both sides of the Committee.

Mr. Fell

With respect, Dr. King, it is true, as you pointed out originally, that there was a bit of noise coming from this side, but since then there has been a lot of noise coming from the Government side, and I wondered whether you could use your influence to equalise, so to speak.

The Chairman

Order. I have already asked both sides of the Committee to listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maxwell

Thank you, Dr. King.

It appears that the Foreign Office, while paying lip-service to the recommendation in the Plowden Report that economic and commercial work should be a first priority on its staff and resources, is doing very little, in effect, to implement the recommendations shown in paragraphs 233 to 255 relating to economic and commercial work.

Yesterday, in a Written Answer, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs told me that he had notified all heads of missions abroad of the need for them to give commercial work first priority. As we all know, exhortation will not help—

Sir Rolf Dudley Williams (Exeter)

On a point of order, Dr. King. Would it be in order for me to put a question through you to the Patronage Secretary, as the right hon. Gentleman is looking at the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) in such a way that I wonder whether he will see him as well as the hon. Lady the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mrs. Anne Kerr)?

The Chairman

Order. That may be very funny, but it is not a point of order.

Mr. Maxwell

It is plain that the Foreign Office staff need reminding of their duties. [Interruption.] What is required at the Foreign Office is a complete change of attitude to trade, and a real transfer of first-class manpower and resources—

The Chairman

Order. We have a very important debate ahead of us. I hope that the Committee will realise that disorder and noise only prolong the time taken by the present speaker and make it more difficult for us to get on.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

On a point of order, Dr. King. Could you inform the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) that there is a great deal of noise from both sides of the Committee and ask him to conduct himself accordingly?

Mr. Maxwell

The Foreign Office ought to transfer some real resources of first-class manpower and money to commercial work and away from its political work. If hon. Members on both sides are impatient to gel on with the foreign affairs debate, as I am sure they are—I understand their impatience—may I remind them that foreign affairs are either about war or about trade, and that unless the Foreign Office makes a contribution to help us to achieve an increase of 10 per cent. in our exports we shall be wasting a great deal of our time in talking about foreign policies which we cannot implement.

Last week, I put a Question on this issue to the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and received a very dusty answer, which was strongly supported from the benches opposite. I did not so much mind the dust. What worries me considerably is the extraordinary complacency and smugness which the reply disclosed, and it occurred to me that only by interfering with the regularity of procedure today could one hope to call attention to this most unsatisfactory situation.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) rose

Mr. Maxwell

I have no desire, if I can possibly avoid it—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman has not given way, so the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) must resume his seat

Mr. Maxwell

I have no desire, it I can possibly avoid it, to hold up Government business, or to prevent the start of the foreign affairs debate which the Opposition want to initiate. However, as is well known in exporting circles at home and abroad, the Foreign Office and British diplomatists are not doing enough to promote British exports.

Why do I use this procedure to bring the matter to the notice of hon. and right hon. Members? The reason is that there will not be another opportunity to do so until early in the spring, and I am anxious that the Foreign Office should realise the need to introduce in its Department a spirit of great urgency in these matters. We have had to borrow £1,500 million recently to avoid devaluing sterling; our share of world exports has been falling alarmingly over recent years; our foreign and defence policies can only be as strong as our economy and as the strength of sterling on which they hinge, and we can only survive as a world Power if we succeed rapidly in increasing our exports.

As the Committee knows, the Foreign Office was built up when we were a military Power equal to any combination in the world and we had no difficulty whatsoever in earning our living as a country, and it is not surprising that its staff and thinking should prove so sluggish to a changeover to making trade more important than political report writing.

Over recent years, however, as we laid down or retreated from our imperial responsibilities it has become ever more difficult for us to earn our living. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Hon. Members opposite may not like this, but it happens to be true. The long habit of buying British is dead in a great many countries. The long-protected Empire markets, guarded by preferences, are no longer controlled by us. Our once great Invisible earnings have now diminished to the vanishing point. An increase in exports—

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

On a point of order, Dr. King. Is this not a breach of the procedure of the House of Commons? The hon. Member is making a foreign affairs speech, but making it on these Estimates to avoid the chance of not being called in the foreign affairs debate.

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman must allow the Chair to decide what is in order. Nothing that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) has so far said is out of order.

Mr. Maxwell

Before I came into the House of Commons I was told that hon. Members, regardless of party, would do something to protect the opportunity of a private Member to have a say if he feels strongly about something. I am very surprised to see that this is not the case.

An increase in exports can only be attained by giving exporters physical help and firm material incentives. The Department of Economic Affairs, the Board of Trade and the Treasury have woken up to the desperate need in this regard and are preparing firm and imaginative measures to bring about an urgently needed 10 per cent. increase in our exports.

I should like to see the Foreign Office, and its staff at home and abroad, play its part in achieving this target by taking positive steps to use its considerable resources to help our export drive, to introduce the spirit of Dunkirk into its deliberations and efforts.

The kind of steps that it might take immediately are as follows. First, it should recruit from industry, on two or three years' secondment, 35 first-rate senior men with considerable exporting experience and appoint them as trade commissioners to the embassies of the 35 countries which at present take about 80 per cent. of our total exports. These men should have detailed knowledge of that country to which they are appointed, including its language.

Secondly, it should appoint in each of these 35 countries a locally recruited, first-rate market research officer, who will be able to provide British firms with the kind of market information which is so indispensable to successful market penetration.

Thirdly, it should stop the present bias in our embassies abroad of allocating the maximum and best space, furniture and equipment to the political side and giving to the commercial section what is left over. This bad administrative practice not only gives to our foreign customers a poor impression of British efficiency, but helps to give our commercial staff abroad a feeling of inferiority.

Fourthly, it would cost very little and would be a great boost to our efforts if in these major export markets commercial staff could be given the right to use hired cars or their own cars to visit prospective customers. When using their own vehicles for this purpose they should be entitled to recover the expenses.

The world does not owe us a living. It is up to our industrialists and businessmen, with the help of the Government, to grasp the many opportunities for earning our living by exporting the many goods and services where we are still competitive.

I hope very much that the Government will give, during the debate that is to follow, a firm assurance that they will do all that is in their power to see that the Foregin Office implements ruthlessly and speedily as a matter of first priority those parts of the Plowden Report that relate to the role that the Foreign Office can and must play in achieving an important increase in our exports, in which case the moneys requested in this winter's Supplementary Estimate by the Foreign Office will be well and usefully spent.

I am extremely sorry to have taken up so much time of the Committee, but had the Estimates Committee had the time and opportunity to examine the Supplementary Estimates we should not have had to bring these matters to the Floor of the House of Commons.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

I do not want to keep the Committee for more than about one minute, but I should like to say that some of us on this side of the Committee, at any rate, admire the courage and temerity with which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) has made his speech, following the example which was set in the late Parliament by some back bench Members on the Conservative side, in drawing attention to the need for the House of Commons to endeavour to scrutinise more thoroughly and in more detail the vast public expenditure covered by various Estimates. The hon. Member was quite right when he said that upwards of £60 million is no mean matter.

I do not wish to say more than that, because the Committee wishes to embark on the important—indeed, vital—debate which is to follow, but I should like the Committee to notice that the hon. Member, who has spoken courageously as a private Member, has been received attentively by this side of the Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We have heard what he had to say. He was interrupted several times from the other side of the Committee by hon. Members who, it should be noted, addressed the hon. Member not as their hon. Friend, but as an hon. Gentleman. The Committee noticed, and no doubt the country will notice, what a band of brothers they are.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported.

Report to be received Tomorrow;

Committee to sit again Tomorrow.

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