HC Deb 01 February 1984 vol 53 cc261-4
14. Mr. Park

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether, in answering questions on trade, he will make it clear whether he is using overseas trade statistics or balance of payments figures.

Mr. Channon

Yes, Sir. It is our practice to use balance of payments figures where possible. When figures on the overseas trade statistics basis are used, they are labelled accordingly.

Mr. Park

I am rather surprised at that reply. Does the Minister recall that the last time his Department appeared at Question Time a similar question was tabled? Was not the reply given on that occasion based on an internal departmental estimate covering three months, which was not checkable and was therefore likely to mislead? I am sure that the Minister does not wish to mislead the House, but I hope that in future he will abide by the rules that he has laid down.

Mr. Channon

The basis on which figures have been given has been precisely the same under successive Governments. It has not changed in any way. Wherever possible, figures relating to exports, imports and the balance of trade are given on a balance of payments basis. When that is not available, they are given on an overseas trade statistics basis.

I hope that in future there will be improvements to that system and that we can give reliable monthly figures on a balance of payments basis. That will be more satisfactory for all concerned. I hope that that will be possible from March onwards.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Will the Minister confirm that total payments always necessarily and inevitably balance?

Mr. Channon

I think that must be self-evident.

Mr. Gould

Will the Minister confirm that, whatever statistical basis is used, the figures show the unmistakable trend of a decline in the balance of trade in manufactures, which has fallen by no less than £10 billion since the end of 1978? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that reflects not only the definitive judgment of the market on the Government's economic policies, but a substantial loss of price and non-price competitiveness as shown by the survey published by the European management forum last month? Will Ministers now stop claiming that competitiveness has improved?

Mr. Channon

I have already dealt with manufacturing and services. It is a curious point for the hon. Gentleman to make at this time. During the last quarter, manufacturing exports, in value terms, were probably higher than they have ever been in this country. They were 7.5 per cent. up on the preceding quarter. Rather than endlessly complaining about everything under the sun, the Opposition would do better to recognise that things are improving. We do not hear hon. Members from the midlands say that exports of cars in the last quarter had increased by 39 per cent. over the quarter before.

Mr. Ashdown

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may recall that at the beginning of Question Time the Minister refused to answer a question that I put to him, on the ground that it was in some way similar to a later question on the Order Paper. However, the substance of my question was totally different from that of No. 21. Is it in order for the Minister to use such a device to avoid answering an important question, particularly when he knows perfectly well that the question to which he referred will not be reached?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I noted what happened. I must say again—I hope that the House will consider that this is fair — that in dealing with Question Time I look carefully through the later questions of those who have taken part in the ballot, and I do my best, although I cannot always achieve this, to ensure that hon. Members whose questions appear later on the Order Paper have an opportunity to ask their supplementary questions. I am not, of course, responsible for the replies.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday, I raised with you a point of order on the difference between the status of a question—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Does this arise out of Question Time?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

No, Sir.

Mr. Speaker

Then I think that we will take the two statements first.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Does the hon. Member's point of order arise out of Question Time?

Mr. Bennett

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you would consider the rights of Back Benchers. I feel somewhat disappointed today because my question, No. 20, was not reached. It seems odd to me that in the past, when Trade and Industry questions were separate, it was fairly common in both cases for between 20 and 30 questions to be answered. Now that the Government have chosen to put the two Departments together, it seems unfortunate that only about 15 questions are answered. Back Benchers should have more opportunity to ask questions on Trade and Industry that are of concern to their constituents.

Mr. Speaker

I am very sympathetic to what the hon. Member has said, and I think that we should have done rather better today. However, I am bound to say—this is no criticism of the Front Bench—that I called the Opposition Front Bench 10 times at Question Time today. If that happens, further questions are effectively cut off. In a full hour, we should get through more than the 15 questions that were answered today. I shall endeavour to do better Back-Bench in future.