HC Deb 03 February 1966 vol 723 cc1433-44

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

10.28 p.m.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

My reason for raising this matter on the Adjournment is that I am profoundly dissatisfied with the Answer given by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley), to a Question of mine on 13th December last year about the treatment given in New York by our embassy to a mission of 11 Leicester businessmen who had gone to the United States to increase their export trade.

The House may wonder why I, representing a Suffolk constituency, have a particular interest in this matter. I have had various business connections concerned with exports for over 20 years. I am the Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party's Trade and Industry Committee, and I try to watch the interests of British exporters.

I was supported on 13th December by the hon. Members for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) and Leicester, North-East (Mr. Bradley). We all felt that the Minister of State had not been forthcoming in his reply. I used the word "whitewashing". Now that I have had a chance to investigate further, I feel that this was a rather mild word.

I was told by a telephone message at 1.15 p.m. on 13th December that this Question. No. 35, would be answered by leave at the end of Question Time. The Minister of State may not have informed you, Mr. Speaker, but I was called by you, and when I called the number of the Question the Minister answered it. I consider that this was very discourteous because I might have been out of the Chamber. Since then I have had no apology from the Foreign Office.

It is a tradition of this House—and rightly so—that we do not criticise our very valued civil servants and that we always make our criticism to the Minister in charge of the Department. I see tonight on the Government Front Bench the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson), who I understand is to reply to this debate. To my mind, this does not let the Foreign Office out of its collective responsibility and I hope that when the hon. Gentleman has heard what I have to say he will be rather more forthcoming.

The Leicester Chamber of Commerce was subjected to much abuse, particularly by the noble Lord the Minister of State, Board of Trade when he visited Leicester fairly soon after the return of the mission. He was new in his Government post and, perhaps rightly, he was trying to defend his civil servants, but I do not think that gives a Minister the right to abuse other public citizens of this country who, I think, have every right to be defended by hon. Members.

I have now had an opportunity of seeing copies of all the correspondence which took place between the Chamber of Commerce and the Government Departments, and I am satisfied that the Chamber of Commerce acted the whole time in a most praiseworthy manner. Even when it discovered the lack of preparation in New York by the British Embassy at Washington it did not leak this matter to the Press. These businessmen made their official complaint on their return through the right channel, to the Committee for Exports to the United States, whose Chairman is Lord Watkinson. It became general knowledge because this Committee, which, after all, is a publicly-sponsored body, attached so much importance to this Leicester mission that it prevailed upon the B.B.C., at its own expense, to send a team of photographers to record the various highlights of the trip. It was through the B.B.C. that that matter became public, according to my information. It was commented on in the Press and thus led to my Question.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has tried to say that his Department was not properly informed and that this led to the British Consul in New York taking little or no action when the mission arrived there. I have taken the opportunity to meet both the then President of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Riddington, and Mr. Milliard, the Secretary. I was impressed by the high quality of these gentlemen. I would point out that this was not a new venture for the Leicester Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Milliard is well experienced in organising missions to foreign countries, and particularly for smaller firms. In the last four years he has organised representatives of no fewer than 53 smaller firms to go on trade missions overseas, with great benefit to the export trade of these firms and the nation as a whole. Therefore, he was a very experienced secretary who knew most of the ropes in organising missions abroad.

As to the fact whether the Foreign Office was given sufficient notice about this visit, first Mr. Davis, the Secretary of the Committee of Exports to the United States, following a visit to Leicester in consultation with the Chamber of Commerce, wrote to the Commercial Minister of our Embassy at Washington on 6th May, 1965, over four months before the mission left. He also wrote to the British and American Chambers of Commerce in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the cities visited. Following this, Mr. Davis went to the United States and wrote back on 2nd June to Mr. Milliard that he had met representatives in Los Angeles and there was great enthusiasm there for the visit.

On 30th June Mr. Milliard wrote to Mr. Spooner, the Director of the British Trade Centre, British-American Chamber of Commerce, giving all the details of the party and stating that they would be arriving on Monday. 12th September. On 5th July, Mr. Milliard wrote to Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie at the Board of Trade giving full details of the mission. That gentleman sent a useful letter in reply saying that he would do anything he could to help and asking whether advance details had been sent to the Consul General and the Embassy. Mr. Milliard replied on 8th July that the Consul Generals in San Francisco, Chicago and New York had been notified as well as the Commercial Minister at Washington.

On 15th July, the Secretary of the Committee for Exports to the United States wrote to Mr. Milliard saying that he had had a letter from an officer of the Commercial Department of the Embassy at Washington saying how delighted they were to hear of the visit in September and how keen they were to help. He asked for details of each company which was sending a representative and of their past record of experience.

On 21st July, the Commercial Minister in our Embassy at Washington wrote a long letter to Mr. Milliard saying that he was anxious to be of as much assistance to the mission as possible and that he thought it would be important to get buyers from chain stores to meet the mission. It was on 27th-28th July, by airmail, that Mr. Milliard sent off all the details and the brochures of the individual firms that were asked for. I have with me a copy showing the great detail in which all this was done.

To my mind—and I hope that I have taken the House with me—the Leicester Chamber of Commerce must be absolutely exonerated that they did not give either to the Board of Trade or to the Foreign Office, including our British Consuls, full details about the visit, the types of goods made by the companies and the representatives who were going.

Now, what did not happen? No one from the Consulate in New York met the members of the mission at the airport and difficulties were encountered at the Customs over samples. In spite of exact details having been obtained from the American Embassy, much delay was caused because one of the Customs officers —this was not, of course, the fault of our Foreign Office—did not know the United States regulations. A junior officer from our Consul General's office could probably have helped the mission to get through far more easily.

The members of the mission understood that arrangements had been made for them to meet representatives of New York firms in their hotel and they were informed that about 500 letters had been sent out with this in mind. The first day following their arrival on the Sunday, was fruitless because hardly anyone came to see the hosiery members. It was found later that the list did not include any name of recognisable standing. It was not until a representative of Rosenthal & Rosenthal, a firm of factors, arrived that it was discovered that the list of those who were asked to meet the mission comprised agents, shippers and importers and only one representative of a chain store, the Jewel Tea Co. Therefore, a great deal of time was wasted on the Monday. It was not until the evening of that day that the mission saw any member of the consulate staff, and this was at a small reception given by the mission itself. This is extremely different from the tone of the Commercial Minister's letter some six or seven weeks earlier.

I find it difficult, therefore, to accept what the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore, said in the House on 13th December, when he stated that any shortcomings were due mainly to the failure of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce to provide adequate information and that The Consulate General…was brought in at a very late stage"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1965; Vol. 722, col. 909.] After the mission had made strong representations, more attention was given to its needs and further instructions were sent to the other cities which it was visiting, with good results. In the final report of its visit, which it published in booklet form, the mission drew attention to the need for more marketing officers who understand the needs of exporters. I realise that I may be treading on the province of the Plowden inquiry, but this is a subject which I have raised in the House before as to whether a man in the Foreign Office who is brought up and trained in political and diplomatic circles, and who may be very good in that direction, is best qualified to be a commercial representative. I have met them myself. Some are excellent, but some fall down. I have been informed that some of these officials have now been moved, and perhaps the Minister of State would like to confirm that.

I have tried to keep my remarks short, because I see two hon. Members here who represent the great city of Leicester, and I believe that if they are lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they wish to intervene.

In view of these facts, I hope that the Minister will now be more forthcoming and withdraw the criticism made of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce and say that no blame attaches to it, otherwise Leicester businessmen and others may be discouraged from further activities designed to improve our exports.

The House knows that mistakes can be made, and it is always extremely kind when a Minister apologises. We hope that this type of incident will not happen again and, as a result, that good may flow out of evil.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Tom Bradley (Leicester, North-East)

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for giving up a moment or two of his time, permitting me to be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

All the facts surrounding this unfortunate fiasco are well known and, while there may be fault on both sides, there is no doubt in my mind that the balance of the argument is clearly in favour of the Leicester and County Chamber of Commerce. It is certainly exonerated on the question of supplying sufficient information.

The Leicester and County Chamber of Commerce is very export-minded, and it has sent abroad no less than nine different trade missions in the past five years. Their experiences abroad, particularly in New York, lend support to the view that the commercial organisation of our consulates leave much to be desired.

While my hon. Friend will no doubt be replying to the debate on the specific details of the Leicester visit, I would ask him to examine the wider question here. The commercial sections of our consulates should not be staffed by career diplomats merely gaining knowledge on their way through. They should be manned by men of wide business experience. There ought to be a proper career structure for commercial staff and until that aspect of the work of our consulates is given a higher rating, our exporters will not get the assistance that they need and deserve.

I urge my hon. Friend to hold a thorough inquiry into both the composition and the structure of our commercial representation abroad, for until that is done I am sure that we shall continue to hear of the kind of frustration and irritation that we had in this instance.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. John Peel (Leicester, South-East)

I, too, am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for giving up a moment or two of his Adjournment debate to enable me to intervene, since not only do I represent part of the great commercial city of Leicester, but quite a number of the people concerned are my constituents.

I can confirm what my hon. and gallant Friend said about the Secretary of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce. He is an outstanding citizen of the city and a very competent person. I, too, have been able to study most of the vital correspondence on the subject, and I have talked to a number of people intimately concerned with our exports to the United States.

I have come very clearly to the conclusion that, whatever blame there is, very little of it should be placed upon the shoulders of the Leicester and County Chamber of Commerce. It may be that in view of the fact that there are a lot of citizens of Leicester with direct experience of exports, it might have consulted them more beforehand. But certainly in every other respect, the Leicester Chamber of Commerce fulfilled all that could be expected of it.

It seems to me that there was a lack of co-ordination in New York; that the committee on exports to the United States would have done better to have put them in direct touch with the Consulate rather than with the British-American Chamber of Commerce. That was not the fault of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce. The British-American Chamber of Commerce and our Consulate were both advised of this nearly 4½months before the visit took place. Every bit of information for which the Leicester Chamber of Commerce was asked was supplied promptly, and therefore it cannot be held to blame in any way for people going away on holiday from the Consulate in Washington or in New York, or removing the business from Washington to New York. None of that can be attributed to the Leicester Chamber of Commerce.

That brings me to three things which I think we have a right to ask the Government. As exports are of such vital interest and importance to this country, we should be assured that we have the best machinery, that there is proper coordination, that the right people are put in the right places, and that they have the right training and the right terms of service to attract the right people.

I do not believe that we want salesmen in our consulates, because the job of selling abroad should be done by the exporters. We want people who know what is required and who will oil the wheels and enable our exporters to take full advantage of the opportunities before them. I am not convinced that the machinery is working well, and that this is the best we can expect. It may be that we should spend some more money on it, and we would then get a better return. If that is the case, I hope that it will be spent on a machine and on men who know what our exporters need and can help them to sell their goods. I hope that these things will be looked at very carefully by the Government, and that we shall not get this sort of thing happening again.

10.47 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

I ought, I think, to apologise to the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for a misunderstanding which arose about answering his original Question at the end of the year. I have been trying to make inquiries about it. The Foreign Office sought to answer the Question at the end of Question Time, as we undertook to do, but something went wrong with the arrangement. I ought perhaps to add that that was the morning when the Foreign Secretary was suddenly taken very ill. He would have answered the Question if he had been well, and his junior Ministers had to take over the Question at short notice that morning.

The hon. and gallant Member has raised a very important matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for drawing attention to the shortcomings in the arrangements for the visit of the mission from the Leicester Chamber of Commerce to the United States.

Since the last exchanges in the House I have thoroughly investigated these matters. The Foreign Office has been very reluctant, and I believe properly reluctant, to explain exactly what went wrong in New York, and why it went wrong. We were reluctant to do so because we did not want to appear to criticise a local chamber of commerce which is doing what the Government want chambers of commerce to do, and is seeking to respond to the Government's exhortations to increase exports.

I confess that I approach my task tonight reluctantly, but there have been some strong attacks on our Consulate General in New York. The hon. and gallant Member said it with personal moderation, but he confessed that he thought "whitewash" had turned out to he too mild a word for our answers in the House on an earlier occasion. I feel that I have no alternative but to defend public officers who are unable to defend themselves against quite unjust criticism.

The basic fact is that the Consulate General in New York has been blamed for something which was simply not its responsibility. The Leicester mission, as the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Bradley) has said, accepted that the British-American Chamber of Commerce should be responsible for all the arrangements. This may have been a mistake, but it was not the Government's decision that this should have been done in this way. This agreement between the two groups of businessmen was accepted by all concerned.

I hesitate to intervene in a matter that lies essentially between two chambers of commerce, but in fairness to the British-American Chamber of Commerce it should be said that the mission's arrangements in New York were unsatisfactory because the Leicester Chamber did not explain its requirements fully enough, or far enough in advance. It is right that a good deal of information, in terms of volume, was conveyed, but this is not enough; it is the quality of the information that matters.

I will give some examples. One leading member of the mission asked in advance that he should be helped to appoint sales agents. When he got to New York he said that what he wanted to do was some- thing quite different—to meet buyers. Another proved to be interested in the technical subject of cross-licensing arrangements. He had given no advance information of this, only a general description of his firm's production. Another expressed interest in marketing a product which his firm did not make.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the success of this kind of operation lies in detailed staff work in advance. It is too late to start saying what one wants when one gets there. So I sympathise about the difficulties faced by the British-American Chamber of Commerce, which does such excellent work for British exports on the other side of the Atlantic.

But I do not accept that the Consulate General in New York should have come in for the blame for arrangements which it did not make. Its help was sought only when it was clear that things had gone wrong. Then it did a great deal. It was too late at that stage to remedy all the difficulties that had arisen in New York, although it tried its best. But steps were taken to ensure that the arrangements made between the two chambers of commerce for Chicago and Los Angeles were tightened up, and these visits were very successful.

I should add that there seems to have been some misunderstanding on the part of the mission in New York as to what it could realistically expect of this kind of operation. The members of a mixed mission like this must be ready not only to make their preparations in good time, but also to go out and get business when they arrive. Certainly, in a city of the complexity and frantic bustle of New York, overworked buyers will not come in of their own volition to meet the members of a small mixed mission.

I have gone through the papers and I have seen nothing to suggest that anybody led the mission to expect otherwise. The correspondence I saw showed that both the British-American Chamber of Commerce and the Embassy in Washington warned the mission that it would have to go out after the buyers. The Embassy in Washington expressed regret that it was unable to be more helpful in rescuing the situation in New York once the mission had arrived. There was the problem that the hon. Member has mentioned, of changing from Washington to New York, and as it was, the preparatory period was the period when people were on leave.

The point is that the responsibility clearly lay between the two chambers of commerce. We did not have a direct responsibility, but when things went wrong we stepped in and tried to do the very best we could. I cannot see why the statement made by our Embassy in Washington, that we would have liked to do more, should have been interpreted as an admission that we were to blame, when the responsibility for these unsatisfactory arrangements clearly lay with others.

When the New York commercial staff, who have been so strongly criticised, have export missions for which they accept direct responsibility, they invariably earn high praise for the helpfulness and the effective assistance that they provide. There are many recent missions that I could quote to the House where businessmen have given high praise for the services they have received from our Consulate General in New York.

The hon. and gallant Member for Eye mentioned the complaint of the Leicester mission that they were not met at the airport. This also was a case of the precise arrangements having been made with the British-American Chamber of Commerce to look after this, and our Consulate General deliberately stayed away in order not to derogate from the authority of the chamber of commerce. Otherwise, they would have been there.

One of the missions which has paid tribute to the work of our consulate found the staff of our Consulate General on duty at 4.30 in the morning not many months ago when their plane, which had been delayed, finally arrived in New York. The leader of that mission, which comprised representatives of the leatherwear trade, was good enough to tell the Press: How many businessmen would expect their companies' representatives to meet them at 4.30 a.m.? That is the way in which our commercial officers generally do their duty, but they cannot be expected to fulfil responsibili- ties which they have not been asked to carry.

I do not have time to deal with the more general issues which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East, but I should like to say of our commercial diplomats that the whole question of whether businessmen should be used for this sort of task was investigated carefully by the Plowden Committee, and they came down against it. There are difficulties in this respect. First, if people with active business experience do this kind of work, some businessmen may be in some difficulty if they find an ex-competitor sitting in the consulate chair. The best people are needed for this, and the kind of people who are prepared to leave business in mid-passage are not necessarily the right men to act as commercial diplomats.

I would emphasise that the instruction from our overseas Departments now is that the promotion of British exports is given top priority in our overseas posts. This is continually pressed on the members of those posts. When they come back here, the men spend their time touring the country, meeting businessmen, familiarising themselves with British industry. The kind of picture which was presented by one of the Leicester critics of the Foreign Office performance in this, of the commercial diplomat as being a cocktail party addict in striped trousers, is the grossest and most unfair of caricatures.

The hon. and gallant Member for Eye was right to say that apologies in the House are always taken with great magnaminity, and I would apologise to the Leicester Chamber of Commerce through the hon. Members who have properly raised this subject tonight if I honestly thought that our Consulate General had failed in its duty—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.