HC Deb 22 January 1991 vol 184 cc261-4

Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That for the purpose of any Act resulting from the Export and Investment Guarantees Bill ('the Act'), it is expedient to authorise—

  1. (1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any sums required by the Secretary of State for making payments or defraying his administrative expenses under the Act and the charging on and payment out of the Consolidated Fund of sums not paid out of money provided by Parliament which are required by the Secretary of State for fulfilling his liabilities under the Act, and
  2. (2) the payment into the Consolidated Fund of sums received by the Secretary of State by virtue of the Act.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

10.13 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am sorry about the point of order by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but I had to get in, or the money resolution would have gone through on the nod, and I know that you, Mr. Speaker, and the House would not like that. It is rather strange that the Government are making such a fuss over this Bill instead of renewing it, because every stage of the original Bill, the Export Guarantees and Overseas Investment Act 1978, which is mentioned in the explanatory and financial memorandum, went through on the nod on 13 June 1978. Where were the Tory Opposition in 1978, if such legislation is now so unnecessary tht it was allowed to go through without protest? The only difference that I can see is this: whereas we had an export surplus then, we now have a £20 billion deficit, and the Government are proposing to jettison an important component of assistance.

I hope that the Government will not be prejudiced in favour of the Bill, and the financial support for it granted under clauses 5 and 6, by the fact that, as recently as March 1989—unaware, apparently, of the true character of the Iraqi regime—they increased ECGD provision for Iraq from £175 million to £340 million. You will be surprised to learn, Mr. Speaker, that that was done shortly after the regime gassed the Kurds.

It is a bit startling that the Government should use money for that purpose. I hope that the privatisation provisions in clause 8 have not been brought about by prejudice as a result of political decisions in favour of the Iraqi regime that were made by the Government of which both Ministers were officers.

Mr. Nellist

Is my hon. Friend aware that the same thing happened on another occasion? In October 1988, the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office—now Secretary of State for Health—reported to the House that people known colloquially as "marsh Arabs", living in villages north of Basra—

Mr. Speaker

Order. What has this to do with the ECGD?

Mr. Nellist

I am explaining that, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Well, try and explain it to me.

Mr. Nellist

I am not making a point of order, Mr. Speaker; this is an intervention, and you would see its relevance if you allowed me to complete it.

Mr. Speaker

I am anxious to find out whether the hon. Gentleman is in order.

Mr. Nellist

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)—without being challenged on the ground that he is out of order—has mentioned an occasion when a certain event in Iraq resulted in a reward: the doubling of trade credits by the Government, under ECGD provision. I was reminding him that a similar event took place in October 1988, when the present Secretary of State for Health reported to the House that thousands of people were being killed in Iraq. Nine days later, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was responsible for the Department that we are discussing tonight, increased trade credits to Iraq by another £440 million.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's remarks might have been very relevant to the main debate, but the House is now debating the money resolution.

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

Before the Minister points out that I missed his opening speech, let me explain that I have been chairing the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and then attending the Select Committee on Members' Interests, and was therefore unable to listen to what he had to say. He may have given a comprehensive explanation of the position; when winding up, however, the Minister failed to do so, so it is fair for me to raise these points. I know that the Minister is anxious to provide an explanation.

What concerns me is the amount of money under clause 6, which limits our commitments in sterling to £35 million; this figure cannot be exceeded. In the case of commitments in foreign currency, special drawing rights must not exceed 15,000 million. I take it that the 15,000 million is in any specific currency that the Secretary of State may choose, because no currency is defined in the Bill. It would seem reasonable to do so. I hope that the Minister can give that explanation.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the changes at ECGD and the proposed privatisation are matters of concern to our exporters who seek Government assistance. As has been made clear during the debate, the premiums charged by ECGD are far from the lowest in the Common Market; they cannot therefore be regarded as state assistance and hence in breach of the treaty of Rome. On balance, the charges for the United Kingdom are generally higher than in other countries, so surely the ECGD cannot possibly be criticised as state assistance and therefore a distortion of competition under the lunatic treaty of Rome.

The Secretary of State is given powers under clause 6 to increase the limits of various subsections, and they are set out clearly in the Bill as being under affirmative order. In clause 15(3), the powers to make orders under clauses 5 or 6—that includes increases of money and so comes within the financial resolution—come in the form of an affirmative resolution. Everyone welcomes that, because it gives us the opportunity to debate the issue.

But there is another important part which is affected by the money resolution, because it relates to the costs to the Minister arising out of this Bill. Under clause 8, the Minister has the power to provide a scheme to transfer or delegate ECGD functions. This is the privatisation part.

I have looked at the legislation, because it uses rather strange language in clause 8: it apparently gives the Secretary of State power to issue certificates. The clause is written in such a way that it sounds as though it is a statutory instrument issued by the Minister, but it is not; it is a scheme to transfer to any person or persons such property, rights and liabilities as are specified in or determined in accordance with the scheme". Do I take it from this that the Minister is being given power to produce a scheme without further reference to the House, because the provisions in clause 8 have the ring of delegated legislation-making powers? If that is the case, surely clause 8 should also be subject to clause 15(3). If I look at clause 15, however, I can find no reference to clause 8 of the Bill. In this question of delegated powers, it is very important that the Minister be accountable to the House and that, in a scheme like this, which gives the Minister power to hive off a perfectly proper, efficient and, in one part, profitable provision for our exporters—we have an enormous balance of payments deficit and need every possible assistance—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The war will make it worse.

Mr. Cryer

—the Minister should come to the House and provide an account of the scheme, so that we can approve or reject it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) points out, our economic position will not be improved by this war, but rather made worse. That means an even more important obligation on the Minister, who is being given power under the motion to pay the costs of the scheme, and to bring the scheme back to the House for approval on an affirmative resolution. I hope that he will say that the point will be considered in Committee, and that he will accept that the House should have proper accountability, so that he does not do just what he wants with the money in the privatisation proposal.

10.25 pm
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

I am sure that the House appreciates that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has had extremely important things to do in connection with the business of the House and the Committees to which he has referred. We share his regret that he could not be present for any of the proceedings on Second Reading of this important Bill. If he could have been present, in spite of his other commitments, I suspect that he would have found that many of the points that he has raised were answered in the debate. When he reads Hansard tomorrow with his usual care, I am sure that he will find that to be the position. If there remain any points that he feels have not been answered, I shall be happy to answer them.

Mr. Cryer

The Minister has been misinformed about my not being present for any part of the debate. That is not true. I was present for the latter part of the debate and, had there been time, I might have spoken earlier. I listened to the whole reply of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will accept that correction.

Mr. Sainsbury

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. lie missed an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), which he might have found helpful.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matters before us have no connection whatever with Iraq. The increases in clause 6 to which he referred follow normal procedure. Incidentally, I may point out to him that the amount involved is not £35 million but £35 billion, which is a fairly substantial sum. The clause follows the normal procedure.

These matters will be examined carefully in Committee. I hope that we may have the pleasure of the hon. Gentleman's presence in Committee to ensure that they are so examined.

Question put and agreed to.

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