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Secretary Of State For Trade

Volume 894: debated on Thursday 26 June 1975

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Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if he will dismiss the Secretary of State for Trade.

On the question of trade and related matters, has the Prime Minister had a chance to study the proposals of the Tribune Group? Has he noted that on the very day when these proposals were issued the pound plummeted to an all-time low? Will he assure the House that the forthcoming package of measures that the Government are likely to introduce will bear no relationship to the recommendations of the Tribune Group?

My right hon. Friend is not a member of the Tribune Group. Nor would I have regarded it as a matter for dismissal had he been so. [An HON. MEMBER: "Perhaps for promotion?"] The promotion that he deserves in all the circumstances is the result of the most successful stewardship of the export trade of this country for many years past under successive Governments. One day I should like to hear the Conservative Front Bench pay tribute to what has been achieved on exports. [Interruption.] I know about exports. They are more relevant to the balance of payments and the pound than any other single issue in this country.

I am well aware of the Tribune Group's proposals. They have been actively dis- cussed in this House. The main propositions concerning import controls and other things have been rejected by the Government. They have also been put in almost the same form to a party meeting upstairs and been rejected there.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that members of the Tribune Group will be gratified that at least some hon. Members opposite can actually read what the group says? To be serious, however, does he agree that one of the most important problems facing us at the moment is how to deal with our serious economic situation? Therefore, is it not clear that there must be selective import controls and a tightening up of control on the outflow of capital, that we must consider taking over our own overseas portfolios—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—that we must make further cuts in defence expenditure—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and that we must not rely on holding back wages as the only answer to Britain's economic problems?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is gratifying that the hon. Gentleman is keeping abreast of important and controversial documents. I thought that this week he distinguished himself by offering to arbitrate, as it were, between the two Front Benches of the Conservative Party. I wish him luck. If the hon. Gentleman needs help from us we shall, of course, be glad to help him, although there is no ministerial responsibility of any kind.

My hon. Friend listed a number of points. In fact they have all been urged in recent economic debates in the House and at Question Time. I have said that selective import controls, apart from those which may be necessary and which we are ready to introduce where there is clear evidence of dumping or unfair practices, would be harmful to the country as a big trading nation when, despite the world depression, it is the only major country maintaining its export volumes. I think that those volumes would be imperilled if we were to adopt what my hon. Friend suggests.

Is the Prime Minister aware that my right hon. and hon Friends are delighted to pay tribute to the excellent export record achieved almost entirely by private enterprise? Is he further aware that the longer he takes to deal with inflation, the higher unemployment will be in the end, and that the unemployment he gets next year will be directly attributable to his indecision?

I am glad to hear the right hon. Lady at last pay tribute to what has been achieved in exports, and mainly, of course, by private enterprise firms. It just happens that, as always, they are much more successful at exporting under a Labour Government. That is why we have had to hand over to Conservative Governments vast export surpluses which they have frittered away We then have to build them up all over again. We are getting used to that. should like the right hon. Lady to do what I have done when I have paid tribute to the firms concerned—and I have done so several times in public. I would like the right hon. Lady to pay tribute to the workers in those industries who have made export achievements possible. Conservative Members are always ready to condemn workers but not to praise them. Even this afternoon they are not prepared to praise them for what they have done as regards the export effort.

The right hon. Lady is aware, as we have made clear, that we are giving urgent attention to the problems to which she has referred. I hope that she will tell us how much she welcomes the move by the TUC yesterday. If we are to proceed by consent—I hope that the Conservative Party will agree with this, because the right hon. Lady is opposed to statutory policies—I hope that the right hon. Lady will agree that it was right to give time for the TUC yesterday to take this important decision, which I hope she welcomes. We wanted to see that take place and we are now in a position to discuss the matter with the TUC. We shall do so urgently. I believe that such a solution would carry widespread support from the right hon. Lady. I know from all she has said that she would welcome an agreement with both sides of industry as regards the solving of our inflation problem rather than the use of statutory methods.

Is the Prime Minister aware that in fairness to the Secretary of State for Trade, whose dismissal is being sought in the Question, the right hon. Gentleman is unlikely to be able to do anything to improve our trading position or to arrest the slide in the value of our currency until such time as the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer bring forward their economic proposals to the House? The Prime Minister told us on Tuesday that that would be before the Summer Recess, but that is still over four weeks away. Will not the Prime Minister bring forward his proposals a great deal sooner than that?

Yes, certainly, that is what we would like to do. We want to get the matter in a workable form, and certainly before the recess. The hon. Gentleman brought forward his proposals to the House two days ago, I think, and they were rejected by the House. His proposals involve statutory policies.

I think that the vast majority of the House, apart from a few Conservatives below the Gangway, recognises that criminal sanctions in these matters have not worked in the past. They did not work under the Industrial Relations Act. No one has answered the question of what happens when people are brought before the courts in respect of wage settlements. I think that the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition was absolutely right about that in what she said on television recently.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this matter must be pushed on with urgency. We now have something very important on which to build, and something which has not happened before, in relation to the TUC's decision. The former Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), spent very many months talking with the TUC but he was not prepared to offer what was necessary to get the kind of offer that the TUC made yesterday. We want to build on that. I am sure that the whole House will be prepared to give long enough to the Government to ensure that what we produce is workable and acceptable to the country.