HL Deb 18 December 1980 vol 415 cc1199-200

11.12 a.m.

Lord Rhodes

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the serious contraction of the textile industry and the threat to its future viability, they will initiate urgent consultations with the industry in order to establish the minimum level at which it can operate successfully.

The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, the Government fully share the noble Lord's concern about the closures and redundancies which are taking place in the textile industry against the background of a world recession. The Government are in regular and frequent contact with the industry and its representatives and remain ready to consider any proposals which they may have to alleviate their problems. However, I am bound to say that I do not see how attempting to establish a minimum level of activity, which in the end can only be a matter of opinion, would help to resolve the industry's present difficulties.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have in my hand a document showing 90 mill closures over the last few months in the man-made fibre section, none of which is in the clothing and the woollen section? Is he aware that the nature of these closures is causing considerable alarm to others remaining in the trade because of the imbalance which is resulting? This document shows a preponderance of spinning firms which have closed down. Also the firms which are making industrial fabrics are in danger of having no viable organisation after these closures. Will the Minister meet the industry, as they want to meet him, to discuss this very problem?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his supplementary and for giving me in advance some indication of what was in his mind, which is helpful. Let me first say to him that we have met recently—and shall again no doubt meet very soon—with all and with individual sections of this industry, and that applies both to my department and to the Department of Trade. We have been in constant touch over their many difficulties. I should like to nut the situation in perspective, because while I think we are well aware—the industry has made us well aware—of the particular sections which have been most severely pressed, nevertheless in September the industry still had 638,000 people working in it—that is, textiles and clothing together—and the loss of jobs, January to September 1980, was 76,000. Therefore we must keep this in perspective. I do not think that the Government are in a position to fix a minimum level. although we continue to discuss with industry all possible steps to help them, particularly in the areas where they are hardest pressed.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether we should not have almost a philosophical look at the word "competitive"? Does "competitive" mean that we have to ruin people in this country if we are going to be truly competitive with others? Are others not allowed to be "competitive"? Why do we grumble when they can produce goods or materials cheaper than we do? I think we should have a look at this matter, and I was rather pleased with the Minister's Answer.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the textile and clothing industries all over the world have special problems and are the subject of international agreements. Broadly, we try to ensure that those international agreements give our industry a fair trading opportunity, a competitive situation with developed countries and a limit anyway to the rate of increase of imports from the developing world. Everyone else does this under the MFA arrangements, and indeed the United States of America probably enforced the arrangements under the MFA a bit more promptly and vigorously than has the European Community.

Lord Hale

My Lords, is the Minister aware that The Times this morning reports a statement by the Minister of Trade, following a similar statement yesterday, that the United States are in breach of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades on this matter, and that urgent representations have been ordered by the Council of Ministers to the Common Market Commission to endeavour to induce our great ally, whose trade policy is injurious to us in many connections, at least to observe the provisions of GATT in relation to textiles?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I am indeed aware of the successful negotiation which took place on Tuesday of this week in Brussels, in which the Council adopted a declaration which agreed that developments necessitated a new and stronger initiative, and invited the Commission urgently to pursue discussions with the United States' Administration over the whole range of problems and possible solutions and to report back to the Council as early as possible, with a first report in February. The issue is large and complicated and a little different from the noble Lord's Question, and I prefer to leave it at that point.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not protection at this moment that I am asking for in my Question? What I am asking is that there should be a commonsense attitude in his department, and for them to be aware of what is happening month by month, so that at any rate when we emerge from this recession we shall have a viable industry.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think I have already said that we are aware, and kept aware certainly week by week and even day by day of the situation in this industry.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, may I ask—

Several Noble Lords


Lord Denham

My Lords, we have given this Question a good deal of consideration. The House may feel it is time to move on to the next Question.