HC Deb 19 July 1967 vol 750 cc2330-4

Amendments made: No. 172, in page 20, line 24, after 'company' to insert 'subject to the requirements of paragraph 13A of Schedule 8 to the principal Act'.

No. 173, in line 28 to leave out 'Schedule 8 to the principal Act' and to insert 'that paragraph'.

No. 139, in line 29, to leave out '£20,000' and to insert '£50,000'.

No. 175, in line 38, to leave out 'unless' and to insert: 'except in a case in which'.

No. 176, in line 40, after 'goods', to insert: 'or a case in which the company submits in respect of that year group accounts prepared as consolidated accounts in respect of itself and all its subsidiaries and the turnover (so far as stated therein in pursuance of the said paragraph 13A) does not exceed £50,000',—[Mr. Jay.)

Mr. Speaker

The next Amendment which has been selected is Amendment No. 177, with which we shall discuss Amendment No. 48, in page 21, line 9, at the end to insert: (3) The information required to be given by this section need not be given if the Board of Trade agree that the information shall not be disclosed.

Mr. Darling

I beg to move Amendment No. 177, in page 21, line 11, at the end to insert: (4) The foregoing provisions of this section shall not require the disclosure of information in the director's report of a company if the directors thereof satisfy the Board of Trade that it is in the national interest that the information should not be disclosed. This Amendment is to carry out an undertaking given during the Committee stage to provide that, where it can be shown that disclosure of a company's export figures would be injurious to that company's interests, we shall provide a certificate exempting it from making such disclosure. We had a discussion about this matter in Committee and the Amendment is quite clear and straightforward.

1.30 a.m.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) and his hon. Friends put down their Amendment, I suppose, in order to remind us of our undertaking, and I hope that it will be our Amendment which is accepted. I do not think that it requires a great deal of elaboration.

Mr. Neave

I should like briefly to refer to the undertaking that the Board of Trade would have some discretion to grant exemptions from disclosure of export figures. In Committee it was made clear that the onus of proof would lie on the directors to show that such disclosure would be contrary to the national interest, and one or two examples were given. One was concerned with attracting foreign capital to this country, with American subsidiaries finding that if they came to this country, they would have to disclose far more than they would in other countries. In such a case, would disclosure be contrary to the national interest?

Would it be contrary to the national interest if British companies had to disclose a great deal more than they would if they were in a similar position in Common Market countries when that disclosure might affect their competitiveness? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will briefly outline what criteria will be used.

A considerable onus is being placed on companies to prove that something is contrary to the national interest and I hope that some rules will be laid down to make the position clear. It is said that it cannot be left to directors to decide what they should disclose because that would mean too much pressure on the Board of Trade, but it should be remembered that an enormous amount of pressure will be put on individual companies throughout the country, and the onus is therefore on the Board of Trade to provide a set of rules by which these claims for exemption may be made.

Mr. Michael Shaw

There is a difference between the two Amendments, although the right hon. Gentleman did not refer to it. However, I should like to thank him for having reconsidered the matter and for having come much nearer to our approach, although chambers of commerce have expressed to me the view that they are not entirely satisfied with the Government Amendment.

How far will the national interest be interpreted as being the interest of the company? In other words, if a company's exports are likely to be affected by disclosure, would that in general be regarded as being against the national interest? If the two are regarded as being synonymous in effect in normal circumstances, there is no difference between us, but I should like the right hon. Gentleman to comment on the different wording of the two Amendments and to say whether in normal times the difference can be regarded as minimal.

Mr. Darling

In effect, the two hon. Gentlemen have posed the same question. The two Amendments would have the same result, because the Opposition Amendment says that the information required to be given need not be given provided that the Board of Trade agrees that it should not be disclosed. The Board of Trade must work on a criterion, and it would obviously be the national interest. In effect, in our Amendment we have picked up the Opposition Amendment and said that the Board of Trade's criterion would be the national interest.

When provisions for disclosure of export figures appeared in the Bill in Committee, the Board of Trade received representations from firms that thought they would be affected, and from bodies like the C.B.I. They showed us cases where they thought that not only the company concerned but the national interest might be injured by the disclosure of export information. In many of the cases there was substantial grounds for giving the firms exemption, but it would be impossible to lay down a set of rules to cover all the cases that came before us. Discretion must be left in the Board of Trade.

In general, the companies that thought that their interests would be injured are one-product companies or companies supplying one customer overseas, or mainly one customer in a certain area of the world. Astute accountants could often use the information that must now be disclosed and compare it for one-product companies with the export and import figures in the Trade and Navigation Accounts to come to a shrewd idea of what the company is doing. But we agree that there are companies engaged in certain kinds of trades involving fierce international competition for whom the disclosure of some information might make their competitive position very difficult, and in the circumstances we should give exemptions so that they need not disclose their export turnover.

I assure the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) that: it would be very difficult to lay down 20es to cover all the companies that might be involved in the requests for exemption and the granting of exemption to them. I also assure hon. Members that if the discretion is left to the Board of Trade I think that we can handle the matter much better than by trying to lay down strict rules.

Mr. Corfield

I appreciate that the wording of Amendment No. 48 would have exactly the same effect. But I have never been able to follow why there are the most careful provisions in Clauses 3, 4 and 5, under which harm to the company is the criterion, if the directors can persuade the Board of Trade that disclosure will harm it, but here the criterion is the national interest. Anything that upsets our export trade will normally be against the national interest. Why is the Board of Trade so obstinate that it will not come to the wording in Clauses 3, 4 and 5, as we suggested in Committee?

Mr. Darling

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman really wants me to answer that question at this stage.

Amendment agreed to.