HL Deb 30 June 1948 vol 157 cc165-9

6.22 p.m.


had given notice of his intention to ask His Majesty's Government, with reference to a statement in the Daily Telegraph on June 8, 1948, regarding restrictions on the import of grapes, soft fruits, wines, canned fish, boots and shoes from the Union of South Africa, how much has been expended on these commodities in the last six months in other than Empire countries. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the question which stands in my name, I think I should read to your Lordships the cutting from the Daily Telegraph of the 8th of this month which prompted me to put down the question. It reads as follows: The possibility of restrictions on imports of manufactured goods into South Africa, especially from the United States, is being widely discussed here in commercial circles. This follows an announcement in the Afrikaner Party's Rand newspaper"— and here I apologise for my pronunciation— Dagbreek en Sondagnuus, that Mr. Havenga, Finance Minister, has been urgently considering the steps necessary to preserve the Union's financial status. A recent reserve bank statement show its gold stocks have dropped to below the £100 million set as a minimum when the £80 million gold loan to Britain was negotiated last October. Exports of the current gold output, plus exports of commodities, are insufficient to pay for imports of 'luxury' goods. Britain, it says, has reduced its purchases from South Africa, and the New Government will have to make efforts to persuade Britain to relax her restrictions on imports from the Union. The 'restrictions' affect grapes, soft fruits, wines, canned fish, boots and shoes. Although my question is directed towards restrictions upon the import of certain commodities from South Africa, it raises the whole question of reciprocal Commonwealth trading. What I have read is an illustration that, if we do not take sufficient of South Africa's exports, we shall lose our own markets in South Africa. Your Lordships will remember the effect of the increasing Commonwealth trade and the expanding markets after 1922, which enabled us to overcome the difficulties of the slump. On all sides we seem to be witnessing and consenting to a wholesale abandonment of the system of Imperial Preference.

I have given the noble Viscount who is to reply notice of one or two questions, which I should now like to put. In the first place, I should be grateful if he could tell me something about the attitude of His Majesty's Government in connection with the development of Commonwealth trade. We are suffering from an acute dollar shortage which limits our purchases from the United States, but we have no such physical limitations upon our trade with the South African Union. As our trade with the United States decreases, I should have bought that our trade with South Africa and the rest of the Commonwealth would have increased proportionately, and so made up the deficiency. We are part of a great Commonwealth which is capable of great trading activity. It seems to me that in our hour of need we should take advantage of those capacities, and make it the basis of our struggle for prosperity. I understand that under the £80,000,000 gold loan from South Africa, negotiated last year, it was agreed that we should take a minimum of £12,500,000 a year of goods from the Union. I hope the noble Viscount will be able to assure me in his reply that that £12,500,000 is not being treated as the ceiling for imports as well as the minimum for imports from South Africa.

There is one other question I should like to ask, to which I do not know the answer at all, and I should be grateful to the noble Viscount if he could give me a reply, because I believe it would cast a good deal of light upon the report I have read. Is there anything in the Bretton Woods Agreement that restricts the quantity of goods we are able to import from South Africa? If there is such a restriction, I believe that it would explain a good deal about this matter. Also, if there is such a restriction, I believe that it is in our interests to get rid of it as soon as possible. Our economic situation seems to get steadily worse every day and it seems that it is folly not to take advantage of the one way out of our difficulties, the way through expanding Empire trade and markets. I believe that that course would be in the interests of the United States as well as of ourselves, because she depends, at least to a great extent, upon the existence of prosperous Commonwealth markets for the disposal of her goods.

Here I should like to quote from a speech which was made on the wireless on June 4 by Doctor Malan, the South African Prime Minister, as it has a bearing on the matter. He said: As far as our membership of the United Nations is concerned, we wish it to be clearly understood that we, like our predecessor in office, undertook membership on the clear understanding that there would be no interference from the outside in our domestic affairs or any breach of our sovereignty. We shall build on this foundation and utterly refuse to allow our destiny to be limited by any country or power or organisation except ourselves. Any veto of the right to discriminate freely in the arrangements for Commonwealth trade, to my mind cuts across sovereignty and means exactly what Doctor Malan was objecting to. I believe that we have a great deal to object to in the restrictions which are imposed upon our freedom to control our own trade, for they mean the limiting and the control of the destiny not only of South Africa and of this country but also of the whole of the rest of the Commonwealth. I believe it is the duty of His Majesty's Government to support those sentiments which were expressed on the wireless, and also to safeguard our right to control our own trade in our own interests and as we know best.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, when the noble Lord started his speech it was borne in upon me, if he will allow me to say so, that he has not had the advantage of membership of the other place. It is a rule there that one is not allowed to read extracts from the Press upon which to base one's speeches. So far as I am concerned, I welcomed the extract which the noble Lord read, and I am sure that he will not mind my having given utterance to the reflections that immediately arose in my mind. I am glad to say that his misgivings are completely ill-founded. I think the noble Lord could not have read the debate which we had in this House quite recently, in which I gave full details of what we are trying to do in the expansion of Commonwealth trade. If the noble Lord had read that debate he would not have made some of the statements that he did make.

I agree with him, and I think we all agree with him—especially in view of the dollar shortage which weighs upon us so heavily—that it is necessary to do everything we can to buy as much as possible of our necessities from sterling countries. And that is what we are trying to do. We are extending our efforts to buy not only from Commonwealth countries but also from the Colonial countries. I gave many details of these purchases the other day, in the debate to which I have referred. I can assure the noble Lord that he is pushing at a door that is already open. We have been pursuing this course energetically for a long time past—out of dire necessity, if for no other reasons. We should certainly supply ourselves in the near future with as much food as we can afford to pay for, and the more we can obtain from the Commonwealth and the Colonial possessions the better. That is what we are trying to do. At the present time, we have Missions nearly all over the world, in our Commonwealth countries and in the Colonies, trying to develop the possibilities. The noble Lord's admonition, therefore, if I may say so, was unnecessary.

So far as the South African case is concerned, I am glad to be able to give him an assurance that we entirely agree with what Dr. Malan has said, and that we take no exception whatever to it. I should also like to say that there is nothing in the Bretton Woods Agreement which restricts the quantity of goods that we can take from South Africa; I can reassure the noble Lord completely on that subject. We entered into an Agreement with the Union Government on October 9 last year. That Agreement incorporated a scheme by which we were to take certain imports from the Union during 1948. We are adhering to that Agreement to the full; and anything we can do to extend it we shall certainly do. I will, in a moment, give the noble Lord the figures. I notice that his question referred to anticipated restrictions on the import of grapes, soft fruits, wines, and other things. These are the figures of what we undertook to import, and are in fact importing: Fresh fruit, £6,200,000; Canned fruit, £400,000; Dried fruit, pulp, juice, jam and marmalade, £2,200,000; Wine, brandy and grape syrup, £1,460,000; High-strength spirit, £350,000; Canned fish, £870,000; Eggs, £220,000; Potatoes and pulses, £300,000—making a total of £12,000,000.

I think the noble Lord will agree, therefore, that his apprehensions are quite unfounded. We are living up to that Agreement, and anything more that we can do we shall do. So far as the quota of shoes to which the noble Lord referred is concerned, there was a scheme, called a token import scheme, which was agreed to between ourselves and South Africa, the United States of America and Canada, which included boots and shoes. So far as South Africa was concerned, the scheme was for an amount of £60,000 per annum. These token imports are to keep goodwill alive, and they are being adhered to. Therefore, I assure the noble Lord that the misgivings which he has plainly and honestly and fairly conceived, after reading certain newspaper reports, are not well-founded. I have given the actual figures, and I shall be glad to supply him with a copy if he desires it. I hope we shall be able to expand this trade. I should like to emphasise strongly that we are seized more and more every day of the necessity of buying as much as we can from the Commonwealth countries, and we are doing everything we possibly can to foster that type of trade.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Viscount for his full answer, and to apologise for my breach of Order at the beginning of my speech.