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Import Regulations

Volume 978: debated on Monday 4 February 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will now reconsider the early introduction of multilateral import regulations as a means of assisting world-wide growth in manufacturing industries.

Does the Minister appreciate that over the period from 1968 to 1978, import penetration, in terms of ratio between imports and home demand, rose from 17 per cent. to 25 per cent? We are now within 3 or 4 per cent. of a disaster in manufacturing industry. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whole sections of the industry will go out of business unless the Minister takes some action?

I accept that import penetration increased substantially over that period, but we have to look at the export side as well. Nearly one-third of our gross national product is represented by exports. We have to maintain a balance between the need to keep open our overseas markets and preserve the jobs which depend on them, and the problems faced by British industry arising from imports. The best way to safeguard the trading system is to abide by the rules of GATT and not to erect new multilateral controls of the sort the hon. Gentleman sugests.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the British carpet yarn processing industry has been almost totally destroyed by American imports within the last 12 months? Only two firms are still working. As the reason for that is almost entirely because American oil is30 per cent. cheaper than ours, should not an immediate import ban be considered as a matter of urgency?

I examined the figures for a number of carpet firms this morning and I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend say that only two are working. With respect, there are rather more firms than that which are concerned with imports of yarn. As my hon. Friend knows, we have been pressing for action on this matter within the Community. I shall be attending the Council meeting at the Commission tomorrow. We await the report of the Commission on this and other matters, and I hope that, by the end of the week, there will be more to tell my hon. Friend and the whole House.

May I say that I share the view of the Secretary of State in that I, too, am not enamoured of import controls? Will the Minister consider trying to assist the man-made fibre industry, for example, by looking at the question of fair trading, which was an important aspect of negotiations in Japan?

I agree that we must maintain a balance between protecting our industry from disruptive imports—I am concerned to do that—and the need to promote our exports. One-third of our manufacturing industry depends on exports. I accept that the Government must take firm and decisive action against unfair trading practices. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we must now act through the Community.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is little point in adhering strictly to GATT if we are constantly in deficit in our overall trading account? Has the Department of Trade made any detailed study of the national origin of exports and imports and the likely effect of retaliation on sectors such as unemployment, production, the public sector borrowing requirement and so on?

I spend my whole time studying these figures. It happens to be my job. The figures are published. As soon as Question Time is over, I shall immediately present a document to my hon. Friend setting out import penetration figures in almost every major product. All those figures are available and I shall be happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what he will ask for as regards protection for the manmade fibre industry when he attends the Council of Ministers tomorrow? Is it a countervailing duty or an import ban? When the meeting has concluded, will the Secretary of State make a statement, thereby giving the House an opportunity to ask him about the real meaning of the Council's decision?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I always wish to be helpful towards him. I shall be negotiating tomorrow and it will be more helpful if the matter is not negotiated now across the Floor. I am prepared to ensure that a full statement is made. Whether I am allowed to make an oral statement depends upon my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall ensure that the House is fully informed by, written or oral statement by the end of the week, and I shall let it know what arose during the discussions at the Council of Ministers meeting.