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Tariff Conference, Torquay (Agreements)

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 24 April 1951

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asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the tariff negotiations which have been concluded at Torquay.

As was stated in an announcement released to the Press on Saturday, 21st April, the tariff conference which has been proceeding at Torquay for some months has now come to an end and the Final Act of the Conference has been signed.Hon. Members will be aware that the normal procedure for tariff negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is for individual countries to negotiate with each other, the concessions given in these negotiations, however, being extended to all countries which are contracting parties to the General Agreement. This procedure was followed at Torquay and limited agreements have been reached by the United Kingdom with four of the existing contracting parties, namely, Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden, supplementing the agreements reached with them at previous tariff conferences, and with five of the countries which intend to become contracting parties: Austria, the German Federal Republic, Peru, the Philippines and Turkey. I am not at present able to give the House any details of these agreements since, for the reasons given by the then President of the Board of Trade on 5th April in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), all the Tariff Schedules incorporating the concessions made at Torquay are to remain secret until 9th May. I hope, however, that it will be possible to table, before the middle of next month, a White Paper on these negotiations.

Meanwhile, hon. Members will have noticed that no agreement has been reached at Torquay between the United Kingdom and certain of the other countries there represented. It was, of course, never intended that we should initiate negotiations with all the 31 other countries or groups of countries which participated in the Conference and, in the event, we entered into negotiations for new or additional concessions with only 12 of them, namely, the nine I have already mentioned and the Benelux Union, Italy and the U.S.A. In these three cases, though negotiations took place, it was, unfortunately, found impossible to come to arrangements which would have been satisfactory to us.

The Benelux countries have a relatively low tariff and we were ready accordingly to accept a balance of tariff concessions in their favour. But they were not prepared, without comprehensive reductions in our tariff, to exchange satisfactory assurances as to the application of import restrictions; and, in the absence of such assurances, we felt unable to justify an unbalanced agreement. Italy was unable to offer us acceptable concessions on certain items which we regarded as particularly important and the negotiations were, by agreement, broken off.

The most important country with which we have not, on this occasion, been able to make an agreement is, of course, the United States. We had hoped that it might prove feasible to come to an arrangement with them which would have materially benefited our export trade. When, however, the United States and we ourselves came, after long negotiations, to make our respective assessments of the relative value of the offers we were willing and able to make on the United Kingdom tariff and of the concessions on the United States tariff they were themselves prepared to make, it became apparent that no agreement was possible between us which satisfied the criterion of mutual advantage.

I need not remind hon. Members that in any tariff negotiations of this kind between Commonwealth and foreign countries the question of preferences granted or enjoyed by Commonwealth countries enters substantially into the picture. The United States' position had been that without a considerable reduction in such preferences they could not conclude the wide agreement which they, and indeed we ourselves, would have wished, or make corresponding agreements with certain other Commonwealth countries. Similarly, no agreement proved possible between the United States on the one hand and, on the other, Australia or New Zealand, nor was any agreement made by the United States with South Africa.