HL Deb 15 November 1979 vol 402 cc1383-6

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government with regard to the integration of the textile and clothing industries of Greece, Spain and Portugal into the Community market, what specific transitional arrangements (i.e. residual quotas and other safeguard mechanisms) are envisaged in order to avoid serious disruption to these industries in the existing Member States.


My Lords, under their present trading agreements with the EEC, Greece, Spain and Portugal—that is, all the aspiring members—are entitled to unrestricted access to the Community's markets for textile products. However, at present, all three countries are restraining their exports to the Community within agreed limits on a voluntary basis. The Treaty of Accession which has already been signed with Greece includes a reciprocal safeguard clause which would allow the Commission to authorise action against disruptive imports during the transitional period. That transitional period for Greece is five years. We feel that the safeguard clause is in itself not a wholly satisfactory way of dealing with the problem, and we shall be seeking alternatives in the negotiations with Portugal and Spain.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I ask whether he will also bear in mind that for years the Greek Government have aided their textile export industry by tax concessions and other subsidies? Could we have some assurance that, not only now but when they are fully in the EEC, these practices, which are against the regulations of the MFA and indeed GATT, will cease and will not continue producing such unfair competition?


My Lords, we certainly intend, as my right honourable friends said in the other place yesterday in the debate on the textile industry, to investigate all allegations of unfair trading, and to help in any way we can to ensure that competition for this industry is on a fair basis.


My Lords, can the Minister say, with regard to his first Answer to the noble Baroness—in which he referred to the specific countries— whether in view of the critical position of the textile industries, Her Majesty's Government control in any way imports from low-cost countries into those countries, whence of course they in turn can come into this country under the arrangements he described?


My Lords, in the case of the countries of which we are speaking, they are generally regarded as being low-cost countries. I am not aware of them being used as, so to speak, intermediate points, as has been alleged in the case of Mauritius. We are looking into that. I am not aware of anything on those lines. To put the matter in perspective here—and I appreciate that from the textile industry's point of view it is the accumulation of small increases in imports that worries them—the 1978 figures for imports from Greece and Portugal were each 1 per cent. of the total imports into the United Kingdom. In the case of Spain, the figure was 5 per cent.


My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government agree that, for strategic purposes, it is absolutely essential to maintain both a cotton and a woollen textile industry of a reasonable size in this country?


My Lords, we are confident that on a fair competitive basis both of those sections of the industry, which are large and very important, will continue to have a major part to play. It is not for Government to ensure at any cost or by unilateral protection that the exact size or shape of any section of industry should be maintained.


My Lords, is it not also essential that we should maintain this industry, which already has been allowed to dwindle from one of our very largest and most important and which has a high standard of employment and a record of freedom from industrial disputes, of acceptance of sacrifice throughout the century and of co-operation with the Government of the day? The industry is now seriously menaced. If I may incorporate a second point as regards what the noble Viscount said so well—and we appreciated what he said—if he is conducting an investigation into what is happening in the EEC in relation to textiles, will the Government see what checks can be applied? We all generally welcome the accession of Greece, but that means the opening of another frontier singularly close to many of those countries which are already sending a large amount of textiles, and which may open the necessity for a reexamination of the monitoring which is to follow the accession to the Treaty.


I should like to thank the noble Lord for those very interesting points. We agree entirely with much of what he said about the efficiency and adaptability that have been shown by the textile industry in recent years, but this is an age of change and that has to go on. I do not think it is the moment to go into the wider questions he raises. If I may return to the limited question with one final remark, which I hope your Lordships will not regard as flippant, I tried to look into the degree to which the voluntary agreements in relation to the three countries which are the subject of the Question today have been effective. I can really find only two instances of any major difficulty. The latest one, over which we are still negotiating, is in relation to imports of Spanish under-pants, which are well above their agreed voluntary level. Her Majesty's Government are looking at every possible way of lowering the level of imports of Spanish pants.


My Lords, may we ask the noble Viscount whether they were male or female under-pants?


My Lords, I asked that question and my office does not know. I think, in Civil Service terms, "pants" can also be "panties".