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Multi-Fibre Arrangement

Volume 978: debated on Monday 4 February 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he intends next to meet the Council of Ministers with regard to the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement.

There are no meetings arranged at the present time to discuss the renewal of the MFA, but I shall be attending tomorrow's meeting of the Council of Ministers to discuss another important question on textiles.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I thank him for the efforts that he is making, particularly, this week, on behalf of the British textile industry. May I respectfully remind him that there would be a revival of confidence in the textile industry if negotiations for the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement in 1981 were completed as quickly as possible?

Preliminary discussions are taking place on this subject. I must ask my hon. Friend to cast his mind back to the time when the present MFA was established and to accept that the conditions that we face today are very different from those that existed when the MFA was first entered into. While I have always accepted that orderly marketing arrangements are bound to continue when the present MFA expires, I am anxious not to arrive at any premature conclusions when world trade in textiles and general economic conditions are changing so rapidly. I am aware of my hon. Friend's view and that of the industry. I shall take those views fully into account.

Is not devastating damage being done to the man-made fibre industry by subsidised American imports, which now account for 25 per cent. of British sales? What urgent action does the right hon. Gentleman intend to take? Will he bear in mind that in my constituency, at the Deeside Mill at Flint, some 500 jobs depend on him taking urgent action?

Great damage is being done to sections of the fibre industry at present. I fully accept that. The matter will be discussed at the Council of Ministers' meeting tomorrow. I have already said during Question Time that I hope that we shall be able to make some statement by the end of the week.

Does the Secretary of State agree that trade questions are largely becoming a farce? When hon. Members seek safeguards for constituencies against imports from EEC countries, the Secretary of State says that we are bound by treaty obligations. If the imports, or dumping, stem from any other country, the right hon. Gentleman says that he must discuss the matter with the Commission, which does nothing. The right hon. Gentleman has no powers. Does he not agree that those were given up when we signed the European Communities Act?

Ninety-five per cent. of all imports from low-cost producers of textiles coming into this country are now under some form of restraint. The hon. Gentleman is not right to claim that there is no protection against low-cost imports. The present problem that we face is imports from developed countries and that is the subject of tomorrow's meeting. Of our six leading trading partners, particularly those to whom we export, five are Community partners and nothing could be gained from taking action against countries that take the overwhelming proportion of our exports.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the deep anger among textile employers and trade unions in Lancashire about the remarks of the Minister of State on regional television on Thursday to the effect that the problems faced by the industry in Lancashire must largely be sorted out by the industry itself? Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the problems of a high exchange rate, imports from the United States and Mediterranean associates are problems over which the industry has virtually no control, and that they require firm and immediate Government action?

Apart from the extensive range of restraints on imported textiles that existed when we came into office, we have imposed 14 new quotas under the basket extractor mechanism, taken safeguard action against Turkey and entered into new agreements with China, Malta, Cyprus and Mauritius. We are also seeking transitional arrangements on textiles for the accession of Spain and Portugal.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State was correct. It is for the textile industry to sort out its problems. We shall do our best to support it in some of the ways that I have described, but changes of fashion and technology are taking place all the time and the British textile industry must respond to them. That is not something which politicians can do. We cannot run the textile industry on behalf of the directors of the companies.

Will the Secretary of State understand that the multi-fibre arrangement, which has been successful, is a necessary development on which the Government can take action? Their prevarication in making a statement of policy for the future is causing widespread uncertainty throughout the industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman say that he wants to have another MFA and then argue about the details? At least that will settle the principle.

In Opposition I supported the right hon. Gentleman's Government when they negotiated the MFA. Nothing that I have ever said would suggest that I do not support the arrangement. However, the bilaterals still have nearly another three years to run and the MFA has two years to run. At the moment, there is nothing to negotiate about.