HC Deb 23 July 1975 vol 896 cc558-71
The Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Eric Varley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about help to the textile, clothing and footwear industries.

First, we have decided to provide up to£20 million under Section 8 of the Industry Act 1972 to raise productivity in the clothing industry, through help for modernisation and re-equipment. It will be available to all sectors. This is a medium- to long-term measure which will help the whole textile industry, which depends on the clothing industry for a significant proportion of its domestic sales. Details will be announced shortly, after further discussions with the Clothing EDC.

Secondly, we are ready to explore with other sectors the scope and need for schemes under the Industry Act which are suited to their particular circumstances, provided the financial resources can be found. Discussions have already begun with the footwear and jersey fabric industries.

Thirdly, public purchasing: Government Departments are being asked to ensure that they get their requirements of textiles, clothing and footwear from British manufacturers and that these use British materials. I hope that other purchasers in the public sector will, as far as possible within present constraints, be guided by the same principle. It would be against our interests as an exporting nation to violate the international rules about discrimination. Nor can the Exchequer be expected to accept grossly unfavourable terms for domestic products.

Fourthly, we stand ready to invoke the safeguards provided in the GATT Multi-Fibre Arrangement where imports of textiles or clothing cause or threaten disruption. Consistently with the MFA, the European Commission is negotiating bilateral arrangements, covering the Community as a whole, with the principal supplier countries, to prolong and in some cases extend the existing restraints on the more sensitive products. The Community has just completed negotiations on these lines with Hong Kong.

Extended restraints on Taiwan will be published shortly. If other negotiations cannot be brought to a speedy conclusion, we would be entitled to propose that the Community use the provisions in the MFA which allow importing countries to take their own safeguards.

In the case of footwear, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia have undertaken that their exports to the United Kingdom of men's leather footwear will be at a level between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. below that of comparable exports in 1974. We are keeping the position on footwear under careful review.

To consider action in good time, we must know about potentially disruptive imports. The Government's fifth measure is accordingly to apply to all clothing and textile imports from non-EEC sources the surveillance licensing which is already in force for some man-made fibres, yarns and fabrics. These are not import controls; licences will be issued on demand. This extended surveillance will take effect from 1st September. The administrative arrangements will be announced as soon as possible.

Sixth, anti-dumping powers: an industry which thinks it has the makings of a case for use of these powers should not hesistate to come immediately to the Department of Trade, which they will find very ready to give advice and help and to take vigorous action where dumped imports cause or threaten material injury. Cases have to be properly investigated; but, where there is a good case and an imminent threat of injury, we have powers to take provisional action for up to six months.

Finally, the ceilings on duty-free imports from Portugal will be properly applied. Hon Members will know that customs duties have been reimposed from 15th July on woven outer garments.

The immediate difficulties of these industries spring primarily from the world-wide decline in demand for their products. Our aim is to assist a constructive response to change and to avoid change at a pace which causes undue social hardship. The range of measures I have announced shows the Government's determination to see textile, clothing and footwear industries which are profitable and competitive so as to provide secure and well-paid jobs.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

Does the Secretary of State for Industry appreciate that the House will suspect that not a great deal is new in the statement he has made this afternoon? What calculations has he made of the impact of today's announcement on the level of demand and employment in the industries concerned?

Will the right hon. Gentleman further clarify the position of the£20 million to which he referred in his statement? Is this figure included in the£100 million which has been announced on two earlier occasions by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister, or is it additional expenditure about which we are hearing for the first time? Will he explain to the House the impact of spending£20 million on increasing productivity at a time of falling demand, which I believe could have the effect only of increasing the unemployment in the industry?

I welcome the Hong Kong and Taiwan agreements under the Multi-Fibre Arrangement, but can the Minister explain the latest position about Korea?

Will he recommend to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the House would welcome an early debate upon the problems of this difficult industry?

Mr. Varley

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sitting with me on the Front Bench and will have heard what the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has had to say about a debate.

On the question about the impact on employment, this scheme I am sure will be welcomed by the EDC. That body has been arguing for a scheme of this sort for some time and believes that it will assist the textile industry a great deal. I am confident that in the medium and long term it will help the industry.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the£20 million. The money for the scheme will come from the allocation of£100 million announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but should it become necessary to increase that amount to assist this scheme, it will be increased by up to£5 million.

I am not in a position to say anything about Korea at present, but I shall undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman on this matter in due course.

Mr. James Lamond

Will my right Friend accept that the seven points that he has outlined today do very little to assist the textile industry and that many of them are mere restatements of what has been said before or a suggestion that surveillance will be extended—which does not help the immediate problem? Nor does the£20 million, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, assist. Will he bear in mind that the textile industry is already capital-intensive and efficient, and that another£20 million has, as far as I am aware, not been asked for by employers? Will he bear in mind the point about an early debate? I fully accept that all these matters need an early and thorough airing in the House in order that we can explain to the Government the steps that are necessary to save the textile industry in Britain.

Mr. Varley

On the question of a debate, I cannot add anything to what I have already said in answer to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). I am sorry that my hon. Friend cannot welcome this scheme. I know that he has been following the Clothing EDC, which welcomes the fact that£20 million has been provided to modernise the clothing industry, which will directly help the textile industry. However, in these difficult days when we hear calls from some quarters of the House for a reduction in public expenditure, I should have thought that the£20 million would be welcomed.

I know that my hon. Friend has, from time to time, suggested that there should be import controls. However, he will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered this question on 23rd May when he made the statement that the Government were not prepared to use import controls.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Is the Minister aware that there may well be a mild welcome among those who are still surviving in the textile industry for some of the measures he has announced?

His statement on anti-dumping was a meaningless repetition. Will the Minister at least seek the help of his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to obtain the help of our embassies overseas to provide evidence of local producers who charge high prices at home and low prices on their exports to this country? I realise that this is a notoriously difficult operation. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, in relation to surveillance, that his reference to 1st September means that all imports which have not cleared United Kingdom Customs by midnight on 31st August will require licences in order to be imported? Is that the meaning of his reference to 1st September?

Mr. Varley

I am advised that the same will apply as applied on the previous occasion. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the half-hearted welcome that he has given to the£20 million. I believe that when hon. Members have examined the statement in more detail—particularly what will be said by those directly involved—they will realise that it will be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned assistance from overseas posts. That is a valuable suggestion. I understand that some help is already given, but I shall follow up his remarks.

On the question of anti-dumping, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade is ready to give whatever assistance he can where the case can be made out. If hon. Members believe that further assistance is required, I urge them to take up the offer that has been made.

Mr. Dan Jones

Is the Minister prepared to accept that there are many in the textile industry who believe, together with the Prime Minister, that there are immense difficulties over import controls? Will the Minister consult the Department of Trade about the document supplied by a group, of which I am a member, involved in the textile industry's difficulties? That document is calculated to alleviate those difficulties and was produced a month ago. Will he prevail on his colleagues to give us an early reply to it?

Mr. Varley

I shall certainly consider the point raised by my hon. Friend and find out whether he can have a quick and speedy response to the document to which he referred. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out some of the difficulties of import controls. The total production of textiles at present is divided as follows: a third goes to home clothing demand, a third is exported and a third goes into carpets and other products. If we were to follow the course that some Conservative Members propose, namely, to impose import restrictions, it is possible that there would be retaliation against the third of the textiles that we are at present exporting.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that he has introduced a new vocabulary into the debate? He says that Her Majesty's Government "stand ready" to do this and "stand ready" to do that. He says that they "stand ready" to activate the Brussels machinery and "stand ready" to do one or two other things. Does that mean that he will now be doing them? If not, and if he is going to do them, may we have a debate to find out when he will be doing them?

Mr. Varley

The answer to the question on a debate is that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has heard what hon. Members have said. Of course we shall do what is consistent with our obligations under GATT and the Multi-Fibre Arrangement and under our obligations within the EEC. That is what my right hon. Friend said on 23rd May. That is what I say today.

Mr. Dunlop

While I am not advocating any increase in the import of manmade materials, may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that there will be a more equitable distribution of licences for China grey cloth? There is a firm in my constituency whose life is dependent on this particular fabric. The paucity of the licences given by another Department is such that 400 jobs are in jeopardy. It would mean the very life of the village concerned if these jobs became redundant. Will the Secretary of State help in this matter?

Mr. Varley

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the matter which he raises does not fall to me and my Department. However, if he gets in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, I am sure he will look into the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Madden

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the textile industry is fed up with Government promises and Government expressions of sympathy? If he does not know what is causing the crisis in the textile industry, the industry does. It is the influx of cheap foreign imports. Will he acknowledge that fact and act upon it? Will he further undertake a serious examination of the problems of the industry, which are at present causing high unemployment, short-time working, redundancies and closures?

Will he not "stand ready" to take action on Government purchasing policies? This is an area in which he can act. I ask him to direct the Government to buy not only from British suppliers but from British manufacturers of textiles. May we have a realisation of the urgency that this crisis deserves on the part of the Government, and not further limp statements of this sort which will add to the growing cynicism and bitterness which exists in the British textile industry?

Mr. Varley

My hon. Friend knows that the solution that he advocates today has already been rejected by the Government. That was done on 23rd May. I should have hoped that my hon. Friend would at least welcome the scheme, instead of the carping criticisms he has made. We stand ready to help on this matter, and we shall help if we can. We are not unmindful of the problems of the industry. We are doing all that we can to help. From time to time it would help the Government if my hon. Friends started to support us, too.

Mr. Churchill

Is the Minister aware that his statement today will do very little to relieve the critical employment situation in the Lancashire textile industry at present? Is he seriously suggesting, in point six of his statement, that his Department has so far received no evidence whatever of dumping of textiles in Britain? Furthermore, will he give an undertaking that when his Department does receive such evidence, he will act on it promptly to introduce anti-dumping regulations?

Mr. Varley

Of course we stand ready to act where there is clear evidence of dumping. If the hon. Gentleman or any firm in his constituency has evidence, the matter must be taken up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, and it will he examined seriously.

Mr. Jim Marshall

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that it is not carping criticism that we are bringing to bear in the House today? Perhaps I may draw his attention to two points which he made. First, as to extending the surveillance scheme, I should like to remind him and the House that Southern Ireland introduced this on 12th June. I am sure that the textile industry in Britain will be pleased to know that we react some four or five weeks after the Irish Government.

As regards the seventh point in his statement, on anti-dumping, the textile industry has been making representations to Government Departments for at least two or three years and on no occasion has it received any satisfaction. As my right hon. Friend and I are both East Midlands Members of Parliament, may I remind him that there are 70,000 people in the East Midlands dependent upon the hosiery and knitting industry? His statement will do nothing to relieve the despair and despondency which followed the Prime Minister's statement on 23rd May. The Government must realise that unless something is done to stimulate home demand for British produced textiles there will not be a British textile industry to take advantage of the boom which he and other Cabinet Ministers continue to tell us will come in 1976.

Mr. Varley

I very much hope that when my hon. Friend has had a chance to study the statement, he will realise that the£20 million of assistance to the clothing industry will directly—although it will take time assist British textiles. But I should like my hon. Friend to consider one point: is he confident that if we were to impose import controls in the way he wants, there would not be retaliation against the one-third of our textiles that are presently exported?

Mr. Arthus Lewis

Try it and see.

Mr. Farr

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what he has said cannot be regarded as anything more than an interim statement? Will he, in particular, undertake to monitor the situation in the East Midlands and in the Leicester area, where there are problems in both the footwear and the hosiery industries and a rate of unemployment which is increasing and is three times above the national average? If he finds—as is almost certain—that what he has said today is hopelessly inadequate, will he act again and act properly forthwith?

Mr. Varley

I find the criticism and genuine concern of some of my hon. Friends easy to understand. I find it difficult from a Conservative Member, especially when he is not very explicit when he criticises this statement. A sum of£20 million has been provided under this scheme. I understand that last night the hon. Gentleman voted against furthe public expenditure, but he is now saying that we should increase public expenditure even further. I also understand that the Conservative Party is not in favour of import controls, so I find it difficult to understand the criticism of the hon. Gentleman in particular. However, the point he makes about the concern in the East Midlands is genuine, as it is throughout Great Britain. We shall monitor and we are monitoring. We are watching the situation extremely closely.

Mr. Torney

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is near despair in Bradford, in my constituency, and that in the whole West Yorkshire textile area people are afraid of unemployment and short-time working, which is already taking place? Will he, therefore, make the strongest possible representations to the Prime Minister to persuade him to change his mind regarding import controls, because both the workers and the employers in the industry want such controls? As textile area Members of Parliament, we are not prepared to accept a bland statement that that will do no good. We are convinced otherwise. Why does not the Minister give them a chance and try to persuade the Prime Minister to change his mind?

Mr. Varley

I think that my hon. Friend has quite considerable powers of persuasion, and no doubt during the next few weeks he will be using them. Of course we are ready, and we understand his concern, and we listen. We are concerned about unemployment in his constituency—just as I am concerned about unemployment in my constituency. But my hon. Friend will know that the Wool Textile Industry Scheme has been widely welcomed. This Clothing Industry Scheme is very comparable to that scheme. I am confident that it will help the textile industry in the way outlined in the statement.

Mr. Reid

Why has the Minister not given greater consideration to the repeated representations from the industry in Scotland for assistance with pre-shipment finance, particularly in view of the long delay which often occurs between the export of these quality Scottish goods and payment by the foreign purchaser, and would not this be a positive move towards the stability of the industry in Scotland and the export trade of the United Kingdom in general?

Mr. Varley

This is a serious point. I cannot give a firm assurance that we can introduce the kind of scheme that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined but it is something under consideration. Of course, one of the severe constraints is the level of public expenditure and how far public expenditure can be used on schemes of this kind.

Mr. McGuire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I very much regret having to tell him that his statement today, which is the same kind of palliative as we have had in the past, will do nothing for the industry, which is already under crisis, and particularly will do nothing to save the jobs of the 350 people who work in the last cotton spinning mill in the Wigan area? May I remind him, when he speaks of retaliation, that he, like me, is a responsible member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and when miners in this House wanted cheap coal imports to be stopped, we stopped them? Can he tell me whether the United States of America, which was the principal supplier, retaliated in any way? I have to tell my right hon. Friend that if this cotton spinning mill closes, and it is already under threat, the verdict will be passed by people in the cotton industry, particularly in Lancashire, on this Labour Government and there will not be a Labour Government after the next General Election.

Mr. Varley

I know that my hon. Friend wants to be fair about this. I am not sure, in relation to the analogy he made to us, that the textile situation is in any way comparable to the coal situation, with which we are both very familiar. But there is an international recession in textiles, and this is part of the problem. That should be, and I am sure is, freely acknowledged by all my hon. Friends.

Mr. Michael Morris

Is the Minister aware that hon. Members representing the shoe towns are equally fed up at seeing their work force go on short time and become unemployed whilst workers in the COMECON countries are on full time? Is not he aware that ever since 1973 a copper-bottomed case has been brought forward indicating that there has been dumping from the COMECON countries? When are we to get action on that front?

Mr. Varley

The hon. Gentleman could not have listened to the statement, particularly on this point. When he gets the chance to read the statement he will see that we have taken action on this very point about footwear imports from Eastern European countries.

Mr. Noble

Would my right hon. Friend accept that we on this side have been demanding quota restrictions, and doing so in the light of expert evidence from the rest of both the textile and the footwear industries, which over a period of 25 years have seen the bottom knocked out of their market by a flood of cheap imports? Will he further accept that the Government will be pouring money into those industries whilst the plug is still left out of the sink, so that the money will be pouring away unless something is done about imports? Will he answer my hon. Friend's question and say whether surveillance to be associated with textiles is to be extended across the board for footwear, and will he consider changing the anti-dumping regulations so that when a case is first presented to the Department the goods are held at the quayside until the importers have shown that the goods are not being dumped, rather than, as at present, the goods being allowed in freely and a case having then to be made?

Mr. Varley

The point that my hon. Friend makes on surveillance is being considered and will be further considered. On the other points raised by my hon. Friend, I hope that he will not damn this scheme until he has seen the comments of those who are employed directly in the textile and clothing industries, because I am confident that when they have seen the scheme and have had time to examine it they will realise that it is of some benefit to their industry.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) wishes to make an application.

Mr. Torney

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek leave to move the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing the very specific and important matter with which we have just been dealing. I consider it should have urgent consideration because certainly we who represent textile constituencies are very dissatisfied with the way the Government have been dealing with this very important matter of the textile industry. We are concerned for unemployment in our industry. Many of our constituents are continually worrying us to take action, and we in turn must press the Government for action. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, time is certainly running out and I would ask for this matter to be dealt with under Standing Order No. 9.

Mr. Speaker

I understand the strong feelings of hon. Members on this very serious situation. I would think it would be the general feeling of the House that it should be debated at some time but I have really to decide on a procedural point and whether I should interfere with business for today, to which great importance is attached, or with business tomorrow, to which great importance is also attached. Therefore, I cannot allow the application today. I am sorry.

Mr. Peyton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Without in any way quarrelling with that ruling, could I, through you, Sir, in view of what you have said about the force of the matter and the obvious desire shown widely through the House that it should be debated at an early date, ask the Leader of the House—and I know that his resources in time are not overflowing—whether perhaps he could find an earlier opportunity for a debate, even if it displaced some of the other business?

Mr. Speaker

We have a Business Statement tomorrow and I feel that it would be preferable for this matter to be considered then. In view of what has been said today, perhaps this matter can be dealt with tomorrow in questions on business.

Mr. Cryer

Whilst I realise that this would be trepassing on important time, the textile industry in the West Riding and the North is in very severe difficulties. Mills are closing day by day, and I would support the right hon. Gentleman opposite in asking the Leader of the House whether he can give sonic indication now whether, as a matter of emergency, he can juggle an admittedly crowded programme so that time can be given to debate this topic which is so vital to the North and the Midlands.

Mr. Speaker

No doubt the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House will consider that suggestion.

Mr. Hoyle

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a matter of extreme urgency for many parts of the country, particularly my own. Since it is to urgent, could we not debate it today, never mind about waiting until tomorrow?

Mr. David Steel

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Whilst I appreciate your ruling, and although we are to have a Business Statement tomorrow, it would help throughout the country if we had a statement today about a forthcoming debate on this matter. This is a serious matter. Mills arc closing up and down the country and jobs are affected. I would not have thought it good enough to leave it at a Government statement with no indication of whether or not we shall have a Business Statement on this.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

There will be a Business Statement tomorrow. I have listened to what has been said today, and that will be borne in mind and considered before tomorrow. I cannot go further than that.