HL Deb 25 February 1985 vol 460 cc821-8

3.24 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will lift the ban on the import of books from Argentina, in order to further better diplomatic relations, to foster cultural links, and to uphold the Florence Agreement to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should like to say at the outset that I supported the Falklands campaign by British forces and, if I may say so, I greatly admire the gallantry and devotion to duty shown in that campaign, and I still think that the Government took the right action. I am also not opposed to the general trade embargo as a result of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands.

However, the continuing ban on the import of books from the Argentine by specialist university booksellers as part of the general trade embargo is causing great concern in the academic world. Students, many sitting for their finals, are at a considerable disadvantage, as I shall describe later. Small, specialist bookshops in this country (indeed just the kind of small business the Government claim to support) are losing business to the advantage of Argentinian retailers.

The trouble began when the Government banned the importation of books from Argentina in the spring of 1982 as part of a general trade embargo. By the summer of 1983, Customs and Excise were seizing parcels of books. There was an outcry in the academic world as students were being denied material that was important for study and research. The Government had to retreat against this strong reaction and arranged what they thought was an ingenious compromise by which they hoped they could continue to have it both ways.

The impounded books addressed to libraries and private individuals were released. The remaining books addressed to British booksellers (many to supply individual orders) continue to be held. I know of one university booksellers, a firm of the highest repute, which has had to pay its supplier in the Argentine a great deal of money for the books, but has been unable to clear the consignment from customs due to this ban.

My Lords, the Government say, rather ingenuously, "We are not stopping individuals from bringing in any books from the Argentine they may want". But it is not as simple as that. A student may wish to look at a book in the bookshop before he or she decides to buy. And what happens if the student decides to buy a book direct from Buenos Aires? He writes off for it, of course. Is the publisher in Buenos Aires going to send a book half across the world to an unknown individual? Of course he is not. He writes back asking for payment in advance. The airmail on an individual order is expensive. The sea mail is too slow. All this lengthy transaction can take months.

I am informed that at London University, which is probably the main centre for Latin American studies in this country, it has been impossible to get texts in time to integrate them into valid courses. If a department of Spanish decided, in desperation, to produce duplicate copies by photostat for a class, say, of 20 students, then they could be in danger of infringing copyright.

How much better if an order for a book can be routed through a bookseller in this country as part of a bulk order. But booksellers in Britain are having to tell university students that they cannot supply them with the books they require because they are not allowed to stock them. Last summer some students of Latin American studies at King's College, London, were obliged to take their finals without having been able to buy the texts which had been prescribed for a particular paper.

My Lords, Buenos Aires, with Madrid, is one of the centres of Spanish and Portugese language publishing. Most of the leading publishers are there, and a number of leading authors in other Latin American countries prefer to be published in Argentina rather than in their own countries as they get a more efficient distribution. And then Argentina, during the Franco era, published some major Spanish writers and poets, such as Lorca, who could not be published in Spain. She has also produced some important writers of her own.

This matter is particularly important as Latin American studies are a vital part of Spanish studies in this country for vocational reasons. I am informed that Latin American writers are more attractive at the present time to students than those writing in Spain. The majority of students opt for Latin American studies for this reason and the provision of texts is a potential growth area. It is therefore not correct to say, as the Department of Education has claimed in another place, that there is no evidence that the ban is having an adverse effect on the education of British students at universities and polytechnics and on scholars working in this field.

There is also the adverse effect on the book trade—that is, our own booksellers. Other European countries have hitherto been supplied from the United Kingdom. Now the European agents and booksellers on the Continent are beginning to order direct from Buenos Aires, to the detriment of our own export trade. Indeed some European booksellers are beginning to supply British libraries themselves. The loser is our own book trade: those who gain are foreign booksellers, including the Argentines.

However, even more important is the effect on cultural links and on education. In the Florence Agreement of 1950 this country contracted not to permit impediments to the importation of educational, scientific and cultural materials. I realise that Argentina was not a signatory to this agreement, although several other Latin American countries were signatories. However, it is because of the agreement that the Government have had to set up this elaborate pretence that there is no official ban on books from Argentina, when in fact it is extremely difficult for individuals to order what they want, British booksellers are losing trade and cultural links are being severed. I hope, therefore, that the Government will urgently consider excluding books and their importation for resale from the general trade embargo. Otherwise I fear that the Government will stand accused of exercising censorship on Spanish and Portuguese cultural material. I beg to ask the Question.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him to accept that I entirely support the case which he has made on all grounds?

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount. I know his great knowledge in this field.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Kilmarnock has supported the noble Lord in his pursuit of this question several times. Unfortunately today he is engaged. I have always supported this but never studied it very carefully, so what I shall say will hardly be longer than what the noble Viscount opposite has just said. From these benches we support this fully.

Listening to what the noble Lord has just said, it seems to me like one of those well known New Yorker inserts headed "Department of Utter Confusion". It seems to me that nobody could think that this ban is achieving anything except damage; literally nothing except harm to this country. The Argentines can sell what they want directly, there is no limitation and no problem except to the wholesalers who still have their books stacked where they arrived some time ago. Every now and then one finds governments doing things which are too silly for words. This is an exact instance and I believe, because I have seen this happen so often before, that they could only be as silly as this if two departments were in some way involved in this hopeless muddle. This is what I think is the effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, was very polite which I have not been, so I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will not give a less satisfactory reply for that reason. I think we must ask the noble Lord to say something which makes a little sense, because up to date no sense at all has been made on this question.

3.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for describing to us what lies behind his putting down this Question, particularly because it is less than eight weeks since I answered a similar, but Starred, Question from this Box. Equally, I am grateful to him for his opening remarks with regard to the affairs that led up to this embargo.

Let me say at the outset that the Government fully support the general principles of the Florence Agreement, which principles are about the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, when he was describing the Florence Agreement, introduced the word "impediment". So far as I am aware, the Florence Agreement raises no such word, nor clause nor phrase, and so, with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, he is perhaps marginally guilty of suggesting something to your Lordships which is not so.

We regard it as most important that the processes of research and learning should continue and it has never been our intention that the free flow of information should be interrupted as a consequence of restrictions we find it necessary to impose on commercial trade.

From the outset of the embargo, applying as it does in principle to all goods exported from Argentina, we recognised that news material would technically be caught by it and we have continuously operated a special exemption for newspapers, magazines and other informational material that is not for resale. It was important that the nation should be entitled to receive on-the-spot reporting from Argentina at the time of the Falklands conflict. This continues to be the case if common understanding between Britain and Argentina is to be furthered. When a problem arose over the import of books from Argentina we acted in as reasonable a way as we could by making a similar exemption from the embargo for books. This was done regardless of the fact that Argentina is not a party to the Florence Agreement and it maintains restrictions itself on the import of British books. That is a point that should be recalled when we are discussing our actions in isolation from those of Argentina.

In the present circumstances there is no question of libraries, private individuals, or educational, scientific or research institutions being prevented by Government action from importing any books they may seek to obtain from Argentina. I accept that it is more difficult for them to do so. We as a Government would want to see libraries full of works from all countries. We are keen to see studies being made into all subjects, quite regardless of any political differences between this and any other country. I do not believe that the Government's action is preventing this from happening. Indeed, since the noble Lord, Lord Stabolgi, raised the question of a number of booksellers and book importers, I might ask exactly what assistance is being given to students and scholars by the book trade itself under the present situation.

With the exception of pornography and horror comics, the only books affected by import restrictions are those from Argentina which may be imported for resale. There is no difference whatsoever between books imported in that way and any other goods imported commercially. What would be the reaction of importers of Argentine corned beef or maize, or any other goods which the United Kingdom imports from Argentina, in normal times? If we restricted those goods but allowed the book trade to continue as if there were no general embargo on imports from Argentina, I believe it would be very difficult to resist requests by them for similar exemptions. If we were to grant such requests this would ultimately lead to the embargo being undermined.

These restrictions have nothing to do with restrictions on knowledge. In no way are we exercising censorship in any form whatsoever. They are restrictions on trade. We recognise that some difficulties are inevitably created when restrictions of any kind are imposed. Making a relaxation of the embargo to satisfy one difficulty would simply create new ones. We should perhaps not lose sight of the fact that Argentina continues to maintain her own restrictions on our exports, on British subsidiaries in Argentina, on air services and on shipping. Surely the sensible way forward is to seek to achieve a full restoration of commercial and economic relations. This is the reason that we have been seeking to arrange the reciprocal lifting of all remaining sanctions between our two countries, as we have declared to be our objective on many occasions. While we continue to pursue that objective we must ensure that the embargo remains effective.

There are many signs that the commercial communities in both countries would welcome the restoration of normal trade links. In 1981 Argentina was the United Kingdom's third biggest market in Latin America—£161 million worth of trade—while the United Kingdom was Argentina's seventh largest in the world, at a figure of £137 million. A comprehensive restoration of civil trade and economic activity presents a practical and beneficial way of improving bilateral relations. Because we would like to see normal trading relations restored, we were pleased to participate in the recent multilateral meeting of the "Paris club" on the rescheduling of Argentina's debts. We shall enter the bilateral meeting in the same positive spirit.

As the Government point out in their response to the report on the Falkland Islands by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—that is, the White Paper which was published on 20th February—we have taken a number of steps since the end of the conflict to try to achieve more normal relations with Argentina. We have supported five approaches to Argentina by successive presidencies of the European Community to suggest the normalisation of economic and commercial relations. At official talks with the Argentines in Berne last July we proposed the restoration of commercial, financial, cultural and scientific relations. The House will remember the ending of those talks in deadlock. But we still wish to return to the good relations which have traditionally existed between our two countries.

A progressive upgrading of official relations would, we hope, go hand in hand with normalisation in other areas. The resumption of cultural and scientific contacts is an important element in the process of rebuilding confidence. In this last connection, a delegation from the Royal Society is due to visit Argentina next month, and we are pleased to note that. Normalisation of trade links is also a natural early step and it would be of considerable benefit to both sides.

I was disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, should draw into this afternoon's debate the point that it was small firms—and I take it that he was thinking of the book trade particularly—that were being penalised. He asked whether this was not one of the areas which (I think I quote him pretty accurately) the Government said they were to support. Make no mistake, my Lords, the Government do support small industry in a variety of ways, but the disadvantage as a result of the wider issues involved to those small firms and businesses which are engaged in the book trade are not of the Government's making. Neither will I accept that the noble Lord opposite—sigh as he may sitting on the Bench—should attribute that to us, because it just is not true.

He mentioned a number of (if I may so call them) somewhat spurious arguments; for example, the cost of postage and the delay of postage; that normally a student may look in a bookshop before buying, whereas currently he may not. My understanding is that with the total freedom of press material which is to be found in libraries, particularly in centres of learning, there is an adequate opportunity for students and others to see, through the advertisements that are therein contained, exactly what is available by whom, upon what subjects, and published in Argentina. There is then a fairly simple method, might I suggest, by which a student or learned body may obtain that publication. Our embargo, I repeat, is upon trade: the commercial activities that follow and not the individual activities.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I think that if the noble Lord knew anything about the book trade and about ordering books, he would realise that it is much cheaper for them to be brought over in bulk by a bookseller than for individual students to have to write off for them, even if they can get them having done so.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I do not know why the noble Lord should tax me with that. I have been in commerce long enough to know the advantage of bulk purchase. What I have argued is purely and simply that there are difficulties but not impossible hurdles for students and learned institutions to obtain the books to which the noble Lord refers. I think that his intervention merely underlines the paucity of his arguments.

I turn, if I may, momentarily, to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. He said that this embargo led to nothing but damage to ourselves. Let me list a number of the damages that obtain to companies in this country by virtue of the embargo practised by the Argentine regime, notwithstanding the many representations which Her Majesty's Government have made in a number of forums to remove them. There is the general ban on imports from the United Kingdom with exceptions allowed only in cases of national interest—their national interest, I add! There is a total exclusion of British companies from public-sector contracts; the imposition of Government-appointed overseers in subsidiaries of British companies; there is a block on the disposal or transfer of British companies' assets; and there is the denial of automatic right of British companies to repatriate their dividends, royalties, service fees and so on. There is the suspension of British Caledonian air services to Buenos Aires and the denial of overflying rights to San Diego in Chile. There is a ban on British-flag vessels entering Argentine waters and on British officers on foreign flag vessels disembarking. There are grave disadvantages, mostly, I have to confess, to ourselves. That does not mean that in any way we should relax our embargo.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, may I ask a question? It is perfectly clear that because there are exceptions made about information, and so on—the noble Lord has listed them, and we all agree with them—there is no major difficulty in making exceptions. A very wide exception is made, as the noble Lord has stressed, for students with considerable difficulties but not impossibilities in the way of getting these books. There is a very small part of the whole trade, which is the wholesale trade, which it would be just as easy to bring in as any of the other things. It is in no way comparable to bully beef. It is an educational thing, and the whole argument is educational.

Lastly, the noble Lord said that it would be of great benefit to both sides when all these things are withdrawn. Obviously that is so, and therefore it is doing harm to maintain the embargo at this stage when it is perfectly easy and quite insignificant politically to remove it, in my opinion.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, it is not easy; neither is it insignificant. I have been talking about the commercial effects of the embargo. We seek to have an embargo on commercial activities—books being one, and only one. Maize, corned beef and a number of other trades and services are disadvantaged by our embargo. We make an exemption for students and learned institutions, so that there shall be no grave damage occurring in the seeking of knowledge and information. That is why there is an exemption. To breach that would open the floodgates to all the commercial embargoes. What we seek, of course, is to breach the floodgates between our two countries. As I said earlier, we had an export business worth £161 million and they had an export business worth £137 million a year. There is therefore grave damage to the economies of both countries and we have sought, through successive rounds of negotiation, to bridge that gap. There is no way in which the Government can make a general exclusion for the commercial trade in books; I have to make that clear.

In the context of this embargo we have shown continually through our actions that we are conscious of the value of cultural and other exchanges. We recently allowed three films produced in Argentina to be imported for showing at the twenty-eighth London Film Festival, which was an international cultural event. We have made similar arrangements for the cultural showing of one of those films on other occasions. We have also agreed that a painting from Argentina should be allowed to be imported for display at the Renoir exhibition currently being held at the Hayward Gallery. In this latter case it is particularly ironic—is it not?—that Argentina refused to allow the Renoir concerned to be exported.

All that I have said demonstrates the Government's wish, and indeed its action, which upholds the spirit of the Florence Agreement. It gives as much encouragement as possible to the country's fine institutions of learning and research. We regret the implications for the United Kingdom book trade caused by the continuing ban on commercial imports of books for resale. As I said, that is only one of the areas affected. We are doing all we can to pursue the restoration of normal commercial relations with Argentina, for the benefit of importers and exporters alike, and ultimately, I may add, for the benefit of those who live in Argentina as well.

House adjourned at six minutes before four o'clock.