HC Deb 08 November 1982 vol 31 cc299-301
9. Mr. Alton

asked the Minister for Trade what is the Government's policy on import quotas and tariffs.

20. Mr. John Smith

asked the Minister for Trade if he will make a statement on the Government's policy regarding the control of imports.

22. Mr. Campbell-Savours

asked the Minister for Trade to what extent Her Majesty's Government are committed to free trade.

Mr. Peter Rees

The Government believe that this country, as a major exporter, benefits from a fair and open trading system.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful for that reply. Will the Minister admit that a lowering of the exchange rate would so improve the competitiveness of British industry that it would be unnecessary to impose such artificial measures as import quotas?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the question that is to be put to me by the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer). The short answer is "No." Although I know that certain sectors of manufacturing industry have been pressing for a lowering of the exchange rate, it would not benefit all sectors, it would not benefit the consumer and it would not benefit the service industries.

Mr. Smith

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the time has come for the Government to make a survey of Britain's import penetration problems, which are becoming so severe in some areas that they are threatening the existence of whole sections of British industry? Should not the Government make a comprehensive review and introduce a policy of selective import controls more consistent with a world in which free trade is no longer the reality?

Mr. Rees

For some years the right hon. Gentleman was an ornament of the Department to which I belong. He knows that his solution is not consistent with our obligations either under the Treaty of Rome or under the GATT. Nor do I share his gloom when I recall that it is likely that this year, 1981 and 1980 will show the three highest current account surpluses that we have enjoyed since reliable statistics have been compiled.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

If free trade is not working—companies throughout the country are closing—why do not the Government proceed on the basis of bilateral agreements with our overseas competitors in such a way as to protect trade at home, with them having the right to protect their trade, yet at the same time setting out with a common solution, that being the furtherance of trade in the long term and the restoration of our respective economies?

Mr. Rees

I do not accept the premise to the hon. Gentleman's question. I do not believe that the free trading system is failing. There are areas where it is being eroded. That causes us great concern, and we are doing our best to redress that problem. We do not believe in selective import controls. We believe in the multilateral system, which, on the whole, has served this country and most of the world very well since the end of the war.

Mr. Peyton

I accept what my hon. and learned Friend said. A policy of import controls would probably be self-defeating and extremely dangerous. But will he on the fact reflect that if the trebling of the Commission's inspectorate results in inspections being carried out by inspectors who are blind or do not look in the right direction, it will not serve any useful purpose?

Mr. Rees

If these inspectors were blind or ignorant of the essential facts, I agree with my right hon. Friend that this would be a pointless and rather expensive exercise. If he cares to draw my attention to any instances where they have shown these lamentable intellectual or physical disabilities, I shall draw them to the attention of the Commission.

Mr. Jay

Do the Minister's remarks about the merits of an open trading system apply to agricultural goods?

Mr. Rees

That has always been regarded as a special situation in every country. I am happy to pass the responsibility for that answer to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Sir William Clark

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that import control would be disastrous for the economy. However, does he agree that we should take action on tariffs, particularly with Spain? There is a 4 per cent. tariff on motor cars coming to this country from Spain, but if we want to send our motor cars to Spain there is a 37 per cent. tariff.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is right about the gross tariff imbalance between the two countries. It has caused us a great deal of concern. My hon. Friend also anticipates the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitkin), which we may reach.

Mr. Barry Jones

Will the Minister ponder on the gloomy fact that since the Government took office 209,000 textile jobs have disappeared in Britain? Surely selective import controls are required to protect that great industry. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind that in Flint, which is a textile town, male unemployment borders on 40 per cent?

Mr. Rees

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members are concerned about the present and future textile industry. As he and the House will know, the Community is in the process of negotiating a series of tough bilateral measures under the terms of the multi-fibre arrangement, which I hope will meet the hon. Gentleman's concern.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Although import controls are often advocated to give time for our industries to become more competitive, can my hon. and learned Friend give an example of when that has happened? Do not import controls tend to put up our costs and entrench our inefficiencies?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the consumer, which I am sure the House will note with respect. All I can say with regard to the first part of his question is that we live in hope.