HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc660-70 10.15 am
Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I should be remiss if I did not offer the congratulations of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on his recent promotion. I understand that he is about to make his maiden speech in his new post. I hope that, in answering my points, he will bear it in mind that he has the good wishes of all hon. Members for a successful and long term in his important position. My hon. Friend is in a responsible position, because 500,000 jobs in the apparel industry are under threat because of the threatened abandonment by the Government of the multi-fibre arrangement.

In the past, my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I have had several dealings, has always proved receptive to common sense. I hope that he can reassure me. As recently as 12 January this year, we had a full Friday's debate on the multi-fibre arrangement. It will be no surprise to him, therefore, that a number of hon. Members were disappointed with what we thought was the very ineffective view taken by the Government. Time has passed rapidly. On Tuesday this week, the final round of negotiations began in Geneva, and we are still not satisfied that the Government's voice, which is part of the voice of the 12 EEC nations, has been heard. We are still not convinced that the Government are aware of the critical importance, if there is to be an apparel manufacturing industry in Britain, of not throwing out the window what we have in the MFA.

Hon. Members are not prepared to accept a whitewash. Experts among Opposition and Conservative Members are not prepared to accept something that is not as stringent as the MFA. Half a million United Kingdom jobs are involved, including 2,800 in my constituency, which is a trivial number compared with the numbers in other constituencies. The future of the 500,000 jobs in the United Kingdom, and a total of 5 million jobs in Europe, will be decided by the EC's posture in this round of negotiations, which is to terminate in December.

I remind the House that, at the moment, the inustry is protected by MFA 3. From what I have heard in the House and in answers to questions, the Government unfortunately appear to be committed to the dismantling of the MFA, despite warnings from all sides. It is said—I hope that the Minister will by now be able to tell me that I am wrong—that the Government are leading that school of thought in the EC negotiating team that not only calls for the scrapping of the MFA but would allow that to be done without ensuring suitable safeguards in GATT following the ending of the arrangement.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me that I am wrong? I know of no hon. Member on either side of the House who has not heard from his constituents that the multi-fibre arrangement or something equally strong is absolutely essential to the continuance of full employment and to Britain's massive industry. If the MFA has to go, it must be replaced with GATT regulations that are just as strong. For far too long, the industry has suffered from distorted conditions of international trade. We have been made to appear the bad man of Europe. We have suffered from illegal subsidies, dumping, the closure of potential markets and the theft of intellectual achievements.

As a major exporting industry, with overseas sales worth £4 billion in 1989, we favour freedom of trade, provided that that freedom is mutual and not one sided. Unless the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations results in real success in demolishing such trade distorting practices, there can be no question of the multi-fibre arrangement being phased out or even weakened.

If the negotiations are, indeed, finally successful, the Government and the European Community as a whole are committed to accepting an eventual phase-out of the multi-fibre arrangement. What worries me is that the Government appear to be giving support for an unrealistically short transition period. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear.?] My hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) are also worried. A substantial weakening of the multi-fibre arrangement is to take place almost immediately. That appears to be acceptable to the Government but I can assure the Minister that it is totally unacceptable to hon. Members.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. Does he agree that even if proper safeguards are obtained and incorporated within the GATT rules, it would be wholly unacceptable to all of us if the MFA were phased out in less than seven years? Does he agree that that is the absolute minimum?

Sir John Farr

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has long been a great supporter of textiles and who has done much for his constituents in this respect. Of course, seven years is the minimum. The hon. Gentleman touches on another of my fears. I have it on good authority —I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does, too—that the Government are pressing for a short transitional period from a strong MFA to something unknown, devised under GATT. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support.

Another of my worries is that the United States Congress is ready to pass into law a Bill to control textile and clothing imports, including those from the United Kingdom and the EC. If the Geneva negotiations are unsatisfactory, the Bill will undoubtedly be introduced in the United States, as it was passed by a large majority in the Senate on Tuesday last week.

I wish to deal with another important matter—what is known as linkage. As I said, the industry is concerned that in the Uruguay round too much concern is being shown for wider interests such as agriculture and services and too little regard is paid to jobs in Britain, especially in the apparel industry. We are facing the prospect of a commitment to phase out the MFA without achieving statisfactory improvements in GATT rules and disciplines in line with the Punta del Este declaration, which launched the round in 1986. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed linkage as a crucial element more congently and ably than I can. But I should warn my hon. Friend the Minister that our bottom line is that, in the absence of effective linkage being achieved, there cannot and must not be any commitment to weaken, let alone phase out, the MFA.

With the MFA abolished and without effective safeguards plus an effective anti-dumping code plus an effective clamp on trade-distorting Government subsidies, a further major cut in the current employment level of 480,000 in the United Kingdom textiles, knitting and clothing industries would be inevitable. My hon. Friend the Minister—a new, fresh face in a new and important job —may think that I am exaggerating. I should tell him that since 1979 the employment in the industry has declined to from 780,000 to 480,000, and that has been with the protection of the multi-fibre arrangement and with modernisation which has been carried out by many employers and a co-operative work force throughout the country. In the knitting sector, with which we in Leicester are familiar, 46,000 jobs have been lost since 1979, including an estimated 14,000 over the past 18 months. The main centre of the east midlands has been really hard hit, but Scotland and other centres have not escaped the alarming surge of imports between 1986 and 1989—some 60 per cent.—to the value of £1,400 million.

The loss of jobs has to be stemmed. The industry demands a stronger MFA or equivalent safeguards, and many hon. Members are becoming most disturbed. Let me give an up-to-date illustration which, quite by chance, I found in a highly regarded local paper, the Leicester Mercury. Similar illustrations could be found in Yorkshire and Scotland and wherever the apparel industry is predominant in Britain. Thanks to the MFA, two knitwear firms were saved by the breakthrough of imposing restrictions on Indonesian sweater imports. The article says: After several months of sustained campaigning by the East Midlands-based Knitting Industries' Federation, the UK government has slapped a quota on imports of sweaters from this developing South East Asian country … The quota of 3,208,000 pieces will cover the 10 months from March 1 to December 31, this year. It compares with Indonesian sweater imports of 3.4 million pieces in 1989 and one million pieces in the three months to March 1990, at an average price of £2.46 per garment. These imported sweaters are 100 per cent. acrylic and are aimed at the lower end of the clothing market. The quota has been introduced under category five—the jumpers and sweaters section of the Multi Fibre Arrangement. That is the sort of protection that we must have if the British apparel industry is to survive.

10.30 am
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) on gaining yet another debate on the MFA in this Session. As he said, we had one in January and we welcome today's debate.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade on his promotion and welcome him to his new post. I say in all seriousness that I hope that he will be a friend to the textile industry. We need good Ministers and good friends, particularly in this important year. The Uruguay round of GATT will come to an end in September this year and, as we have heard, important negotiations are taking place in Geneva this week which, because of their complexity, will probably last until the end of the year.

As chairman of the all-party textile group, I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that the industry is committed to competition. It has continued to invest, even during the difficult times of high interest rates. It now runs the most up-to-date modern technology of computer dyeing together with traditional wool scouring—the two ends of the factory process—and it has continued, as an act of faith in the future and as an act of faith and commitment to the industry.

Strong representations are needed in Geneva during the international trade negotiations because they are crucial to the future of the British textile, knitting and apparel industries. We are a major exporting industry of quality goods. We have lost the cheaper end of the market, as everybody recognises. We now have high quality, high added value goods, and that is the market in which we wish to continue.

Our overseas sales in 1989 amounted to £4 billion—an awful lot of exports. They help our trade deficit and we would not want to lose any more. The industry is not looking for protectionism; it is looking for fair trade opportunities. We would all be happy if we had a level playing field, but we do not, as my hon. Friend will no doubt quickly learn. The industry would favour the liberalisation of trade provided that it was mutual, and not one-sided, as it seems to be at the moment. We are making all the running and other countries are not treating us fairly.

Unless the GATT negotiations result in real and demonstrable success in demolishing the trade-distorting practices, there can be no question of the MFA being phased out or even weakened. That is due to take place in 1991, but we must be sure that some other mechanism is in place before then. Those Governments calling for the removal of the MFA must decide whether they are willing to bring their trading policies into line with normal conditions of competition. So far, there is no sign that they are.

Whatever happens at the end of the negotiations, I stress that we need a long transitional period for the phasing out of the MFA—at least seven years, as the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said. Many of us will be looking for up to 10 years as a realistic time for any new GATT rules to be absorbed by other countries. Our industry is happy to come into line with whatever is decided, but it must be assured that other countries will be the same. A shorter phasing-out period is not acceptable to the industry. Again, I stress that it is looking not for protectionism but for fair trade.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough said, this week, by a majority of 36, the United States Congress passed a Bill to control textile and clothing imports, including those from the United Kingdom and the EC. Yorkshire's high quality worsted cloth has a good market in the United States and if that cloth cannot go there, our industry will be affected. The United States has said that if the Geneva negotiations are unsatisfactory it will proceed with that Bill. We have been told that it could be vetoed by President Bush, but that is a risk which we are not willing to take at this stage.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister has had only 72 hours in his new job. I hope that we are not blinding him with too much science today about the textile, knitting and apparel industries. I am sure that he will learn quickly. But will he assure the House and the industry, which I know is listening intently to what we and, in particular, the Minister have to say, that the Government and the EC will take the strongest possible stance in the interests of our industry and of fairness and discipline in our international trade?

Can we have the assurance that my hon. Friend the Minister will fight as hard as possible for fair and free trading opportunities—the level playing field about which everybody talks but which, as yet, we do not seem able to find? The British seem to play cricket very much by the rules, but our competitors have not even learnt the rudimentary rules of rugby. Please can we have an assurance that he will fight hard to ensure that our industry has that level playing field so that it can compete on fair grounds to expand exports and so maintain a healthy industry at home? I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that without a healthy manufacturing base, a trading nation such as ours cannot sustain an export trade. We must have trade at home and abroad to have a good manufacturing base.

I shall listen carefully to my hon. Friend's reply. I assure him that before long we shall be knocking on his door to ask him to meet representatives of the industry and, as his predecessor did, to visit some of our factories in Yorkshire to see what is being done.

10.37 am
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade on his promotion. I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) for giving me the opportunity to participate in the debate. I do so aware of the fact that, between June 1988 and the end of 1989, 760 workers were made redundant in the Hinckley district of the National union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers and there have been other redundancies in Leicester and elsewhere.

I want to address some specific problems. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to the transition period for the MFA and suggested seven years. That is inadequate. Most developing countries are asking for the phasing out to be spread over six to nine years and the United States is suggesting 10 years. Against that background, six to eight years, about which my hon. Friend's predecessors were talking, is far too short. A minimum period of 10 years is essential, with, as was stated earlier, clearly defined stages, the first of which would involve the minimum of concessions. My hon. Friend must also take into consideration the problems posed by eastern Europe, with the possibility of a flood of hosiery, knitwear and textiles coming from an entirely different source.

Specific problems relate to the industry and the MFA. The first is the basket extractor. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough referred to Indonesian jerseys and an article on the subject in the Leicester Mercury. The Minister may be aware that it takes six months to get the basket extractor to work after the trigger level has been reached. There must be an improvement in the mechanism for setting new quotas when new products are developed. At present, for example, somebody can establish a T-shirt company in Bangladesh and flood the market, but it will take six to nine months to establish a quota. That state of affairs is not good enough.

Why is China not being treated as a dominant supplier? It is the largest manufacturer of clothing in the world and potentially the largest exporter. It should be treated as the largest, along with Hong Kong, South Korea and Macao. What will happen when Hong Kong is subsumed into China? It is important that the new Minister deals with those important problems.

As part of our policy, the United Kingdom must maintain a production chain and, to do that, we must keep control of all parts of the chain—yarn, plain fabric, dyed fabric and garments. There is no point in having quotas only on parts, so we must look at the transitional arrangements for all component parts of the chain.

The Minister should also address the whole area of the clause on social development in the GATT. The clause says that the benefits of trade in textiles should in part go to those who produce the garments, yet pitifully poor wages are paid in many parts of the world. For example, in Indonesia there is an hourly rate of 25 United States cents, in Thailand it is 75 cents, whereas in Britain the rate is £8. Indeed, my hon. Friend could make his name as a Minister if he dealt with that issue, because his predecessors did not do so.

We must not overlook the whole issue of confidence. I was at Leicester polytechnic recently where I discussed the new CIMTEX—computer integrated manufacturing of textiles—project for which the Government have made £4.5 million available over three years for the development of automated garment assembly. It is a wonderful project. At Hinckley college in my constituency we are training operatives of the future, but 15 and 16–year-olds will not become sewing machinists, mechanics, overlockers and knitting mechanics unless they have confidence in the industry.

I call on the Minister to throw us a lifeline. He must address the problems of the industry with great urgency and seek a seven-year—or, as we would hope, a 10–year —minimum transitional period.

10.42 am
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Last week I was present at the completion of a new factory in my constituency. Courtaulds has invested £4 million in the new factory at Silsden, so demonstrating its confidence in the future of the textile industry, in the skills that exist among our operatives and in our ability to produce the best designs and the best quality garments which can sell anywhere in the world so long as they are able to compete fairly with those of other countries.

I place great emphasis not so much on the length of time during which the MFA is to be phased out but the linkage to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) referred. So long as other countries allow access of our goods to their markets and they withdraw the subsidies in which all too many of them indulge to prop up their industries, we—I am sure that I speak for the whole of the British industry—are prepared to see free trade and the withdrawal of protection proceed apace.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) that the social clause is essential because any freedom of trade must be based on equality, and clearly there is not equality in health and safety standards, trade union rights and levels of payment, which are equally important?

Mr. Waller

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are in a poor position to impose on other countries the standards that we in Britain consider to be important.

I attach great importance to the withdrawal of subsidies and to a strengthening of the GATT rules. The dismantling of the MFA must go hand in hand with a strengthening of the GATT rules in accordance with the principles of the Punta del Este declaration. Provided those developments take place, I am confident that we can have a strong textile industry.

It is essential that Britain should not waver in its contribution to the negotiations, for many countries will hold out to the last if they see Britain and Europe unwilling to uphold the principles of competition, for which the British Government stand. Fair competition should be our standard, but it must apply to all countries. Unless they are willing to conform, we cannot be the odd man out.

10.45 am
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

I wish at the outset to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) for their kind remarks and welcome to me as I take up my new responsibilities. I hope that I shall live up to their expectations.

I am glad to have this opportunity, in my first speech as Minister for Trade, to reply on the important subject of the multi-fibre arrangement, an issue which we have debated many times in the House over the years. I appreciate that it is a matter of great concern to my hon. Friends, in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, who has been vigilant on behalf of his constituents' interests in the matter for many years.

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, whom I knew well and worked happily with for two years at the Ministry of Defence, when we were, or could have been said to be, collectively the largest customers of British industry. My noble Friend attached great importance to his discussions with hon. Members of this House about matters such as the MFA and the visits that he was able to make to textile and clothing companies in different regions of the United Kingdom.

I say immediately in response to what my hon. Friends have said that I have every intention of continuing that close interest. I have already heard of the industry's splendid export record, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen referred. In the first quarter of this year, it showed a 14 per cent. increase in volume terms over the first quarter of 1989, a very satisfactory performance, and one hopes that it will go on to do even better.

I hope that my hon. Friends will appreciate that after less than 72 hours in the job, I have not been able to familiarise myself with all the intricacies of the MFA or with all the aspects of the textile and clothing industry.

At this stage of the negotiations, there is little I can add to the statements that have been made on the subject to the House. I appreciate that nearly two thirds of the work force of about 73,000 in the United Kingdom knitting and hosiery industry is employed in the east midlands, where I understand one in nine jobs in manufacturing industry depend on that sector.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. Although he has not been able to familiarise himself with the MFA, he brings to his new position all the experience he had in his former post and will therefore realise the importance of worldwide agreements, not simply on textiles. He will be able in his present post to draw the attention of Europe and the rest of the world to Britain's claim that financial services, chemical services and so on should be treated equally throughout the world. There would be no point in our throwing away our textile industry and getting nothing in return. In other words, it is not a single factor in this weave.

Mr. Sainsbury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and what he says is perhaps the primary purpose of the GATT round—to end up with a balance of changes that are fair to all parties. I hope that my experience in my previous job at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other experience, not only in Government but before I became a Member of Parliament, will be helpful in the negotiations. After this relatively short time, I feel that I still have a lot to find out about the textile industry. I hope to have an opportunity to learn more about the industry, and see it at first hand.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

When my hon. Friend visits the industry, will he pay particular attention to two points that have become clear to me in the work in which I have been involved as a consultant in the textile industry —that industry's commitment to modern management techniques and its readiness, as has been mentioned, to undertake large capital investment? I believe that the calls that have been made today for a level playing field are vital to the industry because, without it, some countries would find it better to sell up and get out of the industry than to continue, yet the commitment of those in the industry to that industry, both traditionally and in modern times, is extremely impressive.

Mr. Sainsbury

My hon. Friend identifies a factor which is vital not just to the textile industry but to any industry, whether or not the playing field on which it operates is level—good quality of management.

There have been problems with the textile industry during the past two years. Clearly, a number of factors contribute to that, not least fashion and weather conditions. I understand the worries of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and assure him that we have very much in mind the prospects of different sectors of the textile and clothing industry.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)


Mr. Sainsbury

If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I shall not give way, because I have already done so and this is a short debate. I am in danger of running out of time before I have been able to answer the points already made.

I was glad to hear of the scheme referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth under which the Department of Trade and Industry is providing £2.8 million over three years for a major project based in Leicester, designed to improve automated assembly techniques in the garments sector, and in which 22 firms are collaborating with leading academic institutions. As the project was launched only in January, it is too early for results, but I have no doubt that collaborative research and such development projects have a valuable role to play in improving competitiveness.

I was also glad to hear about new developments such as that referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said, capital investment is vital to the prosperity of the textile industry, as to other industries.

As hon. Members know, the future of the multi-fibre arrangement is being considered in the Uruguay round of multilateral trade negotiations, which is due to end this December. This week, the trade negotiations committee is meeting in Geneva to consider reports from the chairmen of the 15 separate Uruguay round negotiating groups concerned with different, but interconnected, trade issues. The committee's objective is to identify areas of agreement, where possible, as well as the further work that is needed if the Uruguay round is to come to a successful conclusion. The importance the European Community and other major industrial countries attach to a successful result was emphasised again at the Houston summit.

Ministers have explained to the House that the European Community remains committed, in the Uruguay round, to negotiating the phasing out of the multi-fibre arrangement, but over a transitional period and on the basis of strengthened GATT rules and disciplines. The European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of the Community in the Uruguay round, has put forward, in the negotiating group on textiles and clothing, proposals that specifically link the liberalisation of current restrictions to commitments on rules and disciplines, and provide for both to be monitored.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough rightly identified the importance of tackling trade distorting factors. At the same time, the Community is continuing to press hard in the appropriate negotiating groups for a general reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers, and more effective rules governing safeguard action against import surges, anti-dumping measures, the use of subsidies and the protection of intellectual property.

Those are important objectives for the Community and I know that they are of particular interest to the textile and clothing industry. I will continue to keep my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and other hon. Members, in touch with developments as these important negotiations move into their final months, and I shall look forward to visiting textile and clothing companies. My office has already been in touch with the Apparel, Knitting and Textiles Alliance to arrange an early meeting.

I am aware that there is concern in the textile and clothing industry that little has yet been achieved in the negotiations, particularly in relation to market access—which several of my hon. Friends mentioned as being of such importance—and the strengthened rules and disciplines necessary for that, which I have mentioned.

The Uruguay round is an ambitious and complicated negotiation. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen was clearly well aware of the complexities and difficulties of those negotiations, which involve more than 100 parties with very different interests. Many of the issues are interconnected, and textiles is by no means the only problem sector. The difficult negotiations on agriculture are seen as crucial by many participants. There is absolutely no question of our ending up with what was referred to as a one-sided agreement. It is absolutely essential that the agreement should be fair to all parties and should make progress on the general objectives, with which all those who subscribe to GATT agree.

It is encouraging that a basis for continuing negotiations on agriculture has now been agreed, but much detailed work is still necessary, as, indeed, it is in other groups, including the textiles and clothing group. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that participants can be reluctant at present to give up long-established positions. For most developing countries, greater market access for agricultural and textile and clothing exports is of overriding concern. I doubt whether the most sensitive issues can be resolved until we are much closer to the final ministerial meeting in December. In the meantime, it is extremely important that the Community should argue strongly the case for its own proposals and be ready to clarify its position where there are misunderstandings. We must convince developing countries of our commitment to integrate the textile and clothing sector into GATT if they, in their turn, are to negotiate seriously in other spheres of interest to industrialised countries, including access for our textile exports.

In the end, the European Community, like all other parties, will have to look at the results of the Uruguay round across the board, and consider where its overall interests lie. We must look particularly critically at restrictions that raise prices or reduce competition. Imports from countries that can produce at lower cost help to hold down prices for ordinary families in this country. Textiles and clothing are important for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom—retail sales in the sector amount to £l7 billion, and the price paid for those items is particularly important to lower-income families with children.

It is important to remember that the industry itself is also a consumer. Spinners buy in raw fibre and knitting and weaving companies "consume" the yarn. Dyers, finishers and printers prepare the fabric, which clothing manufacturers use. It is in the interests of both domestic and commercial consumers alike to have access to the widest choice of products at the best possible value. In that sense, imports are not bad news. They broaden the choice of product at different stages of production and allow companies to extend or complete their range. Equally important, the spur of competition, which my hon. Friends said that they welcome, helps our industry to maintain high standards, innovate and develop new products, and contributes to the fight against inflation. Open markets provide a key element in the Government's economic strategy.

For all those reasons, the Government believe that it is in our overall economic interests to phase out the multi-fibre arrangement. We cannot in any case shelter our industry from competition: two thirds of our textile imports by value and a significant proportion of our clothing imports are from other member states of the Community. The recognition that protection cannot be maintained for ever will stimulate the innovation and investment that we have identified in this short debate as being so important. Companies need to demonstrate what they can offer in terms of quality, design, productivity and quick response to offset lower wage rates in developing countries.

Much has already been achieved in the industry, and recent export figures show some of the benefit, but that does not mean that adjustment is necessarily easy. We want an outcome to the negotiations on the MFA that takes proper account of the interests of the United Kingdom, as well as the interests of consumers, retailers and importers.

11 am

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, South)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful if you would inform the House whether you have had a request from the Government for them to make a statement on an important matter that should have urgent consideration —namely, the unscheduled, uncontrolled and hitherto undisclosed release into the atmosphere of substantial quantities of irradiated material from the nuclear establishment at Harwell on 15 July last year, and its potential impact on the people in the surrounding community?

That issue specifically relates to 2,000 curies of tritium gas, which were released when several thousand redundant telephone dials were mechanically shredded and their irradiated contents vented to the four winds, in an uncontrolled and unauthorised manner and without warning to the community. This is the latest example of surreptitious atmospheric littering, and it repeats the worst standards that we criticised in the Soviet nuclear industry at the time of Chernobyl—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The points that the hon. Gentleman is making are not for the Chair, but my answer to his direct question about whether Mr. Speaker has received a request from a Minister to make a statement is, "No, he has not."

Mr. Cook

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am truly grateful for your guidance, but could you give me some further guidance, and tell me how —when regulations have been flouted in such a cavalier fashion—an hon. Member, on the last day of a parliamentary Session, can draw attention to this dilatory and negligent behaviour—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I dealt with that point in my earlier remarks: this is not a matter with which the Chair can deal.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Madam. Is there a Standing Order equivalent to the one relating to Question Time, which would allow a Member to say—in view of the unsatisfactory statement about textiles in the last Adjournment debate—"I give notice that I intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment as soon as possible."?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is a tactic that I first used in my first year in the House.