HL Deb 23 May 1963 vol 250 cc444-9

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, a statement has been made by my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade in another place and I should like to repeat that statement in his own words:

" I should like to give the House an account of the meeting of Ministers of the Contracting Parties to the G.A.T.T. which has just ended in Geneva. The purpose of this meeting was to consider measures for increasing world trade under three distinct but related heads—

  1. 1. the trade of less-developed countries;
  2. 2. trade in agricultural products; and
  3. 3. the reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade.
" We had the advantage of useful preliminary talks with the Commonwealth.

" Under the first head, the meeting adopted, though with reserves on the part of the E.E.C. and their Associates, a programme of action for expanding the trade of less-developed countries. It approved the establishment of an Action Committee to secure early progress and to consider further measures to promote the trade of these countries. Meanwhile, as an earnest of our intentions, we and the E.E.C. are working on the details of arrangements for suspending our tariffs on tea and tropical hardwoods.

" Under the second head—agriculture—it was agreed to re-convene the Special Groups on cereals and meat to negotiate arrangements for these commodities, and to set up a similar group on dairy products. Rules and methods for dealing with agriculture in the negotiations have still to be worked out.

" Under the third head, we reached agreement on a statement of principles to govern the trade and tariff negotiations which are to begin in May, 1964. These will embrace tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade both in manufactures and in agricultural and primary products. A committee will work out a plan for the negotiations and supervise their conduct. It is to produce its plan by August 1st of this year.

" As regards tariffs, the object will be to make a substantial cut across the board with a minimum of exceptions. As a general rule the cuts will be of equal depth, though in special cases where differences in the level of national tariffs have significant effects on trade, special rules are to be devised. The Government's intention will be to obtain equivalent advantages for our exports in return for reductions in our own tariff. We shall not, however, expect to receive reciprocity from less-developed countries.

" These arrangements, which were not agreed without difficulty, will allow the preparations for the trade negotiations to proceed with the prospect of a substantial reduction in barriers to trade of all kinds. Much detailed work remains to be done, but a good start has been made. Her Majesty's Government will continue to do their utmost to ensure a successful outcome of this great and imaginative undertaking which holds so much promise for the increased prosperity alike of the industrial nations, the agricultural producers and the developing countries."

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for the statement. There may be some promise in this, but it seems to me that there may also be some danger. The British Farmer, in the last published issue, has pointed out in a headline that "Imports are wrong." I do not say that they mean that in every respect; but they say that imports are wrong when home production is restricted. If it had been possible—it may not have been possible in the circumstances of an international conference—we should have liked to have a rather more detailed statement than that made this afternoon. I agree that the statement covered a very wide field and talks about subjects that had to be dealt with in another sense, but I see that some proposals are to be ready by August 1—about which time Parliament will have risen—and apparently negotiations are to be resumed before Parliament meets again. So I am rather dissatisfied in that respect.

From an individual view—it may be one way or the other—the subject is so important that it would almost have been better to have a debate on it before we went any further. I do not see quite enough detail in this statement for the kind of debate I should like. Nevertheless, the position seems to me to be not very satisfactory at the moment. One welcomes the statement with regard to getting into touch with the Commonwealth; but I think it was one of the Conservative Members in your Lordships' House the other day who said that in these cases we ought to get some reciprocity. I hope it will be possible to have a food policy as between the Commonwealth and ourselves; but I am not altogether so happy about the rest of the Statement.


I think the noble Earl has not quite understood this rather lengthy statement. Nothing in the way of decisions will happen before Parliament reassembles. The Committee has been set up and the negotiations are beginning in May, 1964. The Committee to run them is to work out its plan how to do it by August 1. That is what I think the noble Earl did not understand.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. What I am nervous about is how far we are committed on any individual matter upon which some statement apparently has been agreed—though (and I quote) "with difficulty". If there has been some success in the matter I do not wish to detract from it; but I want to get this matter clearly understood by Parliament and by the country as a whole.


That can be done, my Lords.


It is rather a long and complicated statement and I should like to follow up the hint given by the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition that it might be a suitable subject for debate. I should like to give it a much warmer welcome from these Benches than it received from those on my left. We are delighted to see that the Conservative Party, after 60 years, is taking up the flag of Free Trade and the reduction of trade barriers; and we note that they are adding Liberalism and Free Trade to their programme as a plank in their election platform.


I am grateful to the noble Lord. This is not a one-sided free trade we are talking about.


My Lords, I ask the noble Lord two questions. May I take it that nothing has been done in Geneva that in any way prejudices the power of the Minister of Agriculture and the Government to go ahead with the policy announced by the Minister of Agriculture yesterday? The second question I would ask is this. The negotiations will start in 1964 and, we hope, will reach a successful conclusion. In the meantime, I take it that other countries will not go and suddenly raise tariffs which may prejudice the 1964 negotiations. Is there any arrangement or understanding about a general standstill pending the 1964 negotiations?


My Lords, I find it a little difficult to answer the second of my noble friend's questions. But I think that we are fairly safe. The countries concerned, including the E.E.C. countries, have agreed on this policy to reduce tariffs and there seems little likelihood, when they have come to this agreement, of any of them raising tariffs first. I think that that would be rather a lot to expect them to do. As regards the first question, nothing has been settled so far that will prejudice any statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture.


My Lords, I think that noble Lords on all sides of the House are anxious to be assured that the Government will not commit themselves to any policy before this matter has been discussed in this House. It is impossible to appreciate now the full meaning of a complicated statement of this kind. For instance, there is the effect of what has now been said on the possibility of reciprocal trade agreements with other parts of the Commonwealth, which many noble Lords and others think highly desirable. I do not think it possible, from a reading of the statement, to gain any indication whether it helps or hampers that objective. And with the Kennedy round, we really do not know what the Government's policy is. I think that it would be of great help if the Government would say that they would have a debate in Government time at an early date.


Whether a debate takes place is a matter for the usual channels, but Government policy is already settled so far as this is concerned. It is the intention to come to an agreement, if it is possible, for a general reduction of tariffs.


My Lords, in welcoming this statement of the Government's intention, may I particularly welcome that portion which refers to trade with underdeveloped or less developed countries, and say how glad I am that immediately, without any other negotiations, we are proposing to suspend the tariffs on tea and tropical hardwoods? Could the noble Lord give any indication of any other tropical products for which similar arrangements may be made?


My Lords, we are still working on the actual details, with the E.E.C., in regard to tea and tropical hardwoods. We have agreed in principle, but the actual details are not yet settled. I cannot give any other specific details, because discussions are going on, but we are not waiting until 1964.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, said that the question of a debate is a matter for the usual channels. I suggest that is wrong. It is a question for the House and for the Leader of the House, and would it not be better if he put it that he could not give a clear answer at the moment but that perhaps this might be explored through the usual channels? I have the greatest respect for the usual channels, but we do not want to elevate them into the position of deciding whether or not the House may have a debate. That would let them get away with it.


My Lords, whatever else it is, it is not something for me to decide.


My Lords, it is not to be decided by the usual channels. The noble Lord surely knows that. I agree that it is not for him to decide. The polite way to put it is that perhaps the matter may be explored through the usual channels. May I suggest that he makes that modest amendment out of respect to the House as an institution?


My Lords, with the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, I welcome the agreement in principle about the removal of tariffs on tea and tropical hardwoods. I should like to ask the noble Lord this question. Will Her Majesty's Government, in the course of these negotiations, try to persuade, not only the countries in the European Economic Community but also the American Administration to reduce and, if possible, to remove tariffs against a number of other tropical products which do not seriously compete with home produced articles?


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot satisfy my noble cousin. I should not like to go further than I have gone so far.