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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 21: debated on Monday 29 March 1982

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Trade

Works Of Art (Export Licences)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will state, pursuant to his reply to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely, Official Report, 10 March, column 406, what other information it is his Department's policy not to disclose.

Each request to my Department for information is considered on its merits

Will the Minister accept that the only sane criteria for withholding information are national security. commercial confidentiality or disproportionate costs? Will[his Department try a little harder when considering export certificates for works of art, or the day-to-day running of the English Tourist Board?

I did not know that there was any problem about the English Tourist Board or works of art. We grant about 38, 000 export licences a year and approximately 4, 000 of those are for works of art. Of those 4, 000, only 1 or 2 per cent. are controversial. All details about them are published at the end of the year.

Foreign Trade Balance

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether it remains his policy to seek a balance in United Kingdom foreign trade on a multilateral rather than a bilateral basis.

Will my right hon. Friend be prepared to show considerable patience in explaining to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the days of bilateral barter in trade have long since gone and that what matters to Britain, as a manufacturing and trading country, is to have a high level of trade which remains in reasonable balance overall?

I accept what my hon. Friend said. However, there are one or two markets, particularly in Eastern Europe, where barter remains the significant part of trade structure

Will the Secretary of State accept that whereas we all generally support multilateral agreements, it may be necessary with countries such as Japan to introduce every possible measure, including bilateral talks, to try to reduce their trade imbalance with Britian? Unilateral action may be necessary to stop their imports into Britain

The hon. Gentleman will have seen that the European Community, the United Kingdom and the United States have sought to conduct discussions with the Japanese to deal with certain aspects of their trade

Further to the question on the Japanese element in multilateral trade, is it true, as reported yesterday, that France limits imports of Japanese cars to 2, 000 per year? If so, is there any reason why we should not do the same?

The method whereby the French limit Japanese car imports is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It would not be appropriate for the United Kingdom Government to depart from their existing voluntary restraint arrangement, which pays regard to a whole number of interests, including that of the domestic British purchaser.

"The Times"

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he is satisfied with the observance of the undertakings as to editorial independence that were given to him on the acquisition of The Times

I do not consider that any of the conditions I imposed relating to editorial independence have been broken. Responsibility for approving the appointment and dismissal of the editor is a matter for the independent national directors and not for me

Does the Secretary of State agree that what was, in effect, the constructive dismissal of the editor of The Times was a matter of "fire first and ask questions later"? Does this not constitute the second breach of undertakings given to the Secretary of State, the first having been the transfer of the titles, which had to be reversed by Mr. Murdoch? Has the Secretary of State any lessons to learn both from the nature and enforceability of undertakings given to him on the transfer of newspapers?

If the former editor of The Times thought that he was being constructively dismissed he was under no obligation to resign. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh, yes. The man who was a great crusader over thalidomide could have taken the case to the independent national directors. He chose not to. There is no question of the conditions having been infringed. Opposition Members who are trying to mount a crusade simply have not identified the nature of the problem.

Will my right hon. Friend resist the temptation to go on looking like the emperor who had no clothes, and living in a world of complete make-believe about The Times? If he is so satisfied that the independent national directors played a proper role, will he explain why there was no proper mechanism for calling them to exercise their functions to safeguard editorial independence?

The mechanism was there, and the former editor of The Times chose not to use it

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is now well known on Fleet Street that it was as a result of the direct pressure of the Prime Minister that Rupert Murdoch took the action that he did? Does the whole situation not prove that the golden rule on Fleet Street is that he who owns the gold makes the rules?

Will my right hon. Friend resist the temptation to refer to reporters and editors with the ballyhoo that one uses for footballers or film stars? Does he agree that what matters in the media is the message, not the messengers?

I have tried to be austere and detached about the matter. That is why I confined my answer to the specific question of the independent national directors and whether the conditions made for editorial independence at the time of the acquisition of Times Newspapers Limited have been infringed. I have to say that they have not.

Laker Airways (Allocation Of Routes)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement about the allocation of route licences formerly held by Laker Airways

The allocation of route licences is, in the first instance, for the Civil Aviation Authority to determine in accordance with its statutory duties. The authority will hold hearings to consider applications to take over the Laker route licences as soon as practicable. The Laker licences have not yet been formally revoked.

My right hon. Friend has directed the CAA to grant British Caledonian Airways a temporary exemption from licensing arrangements to enable it to operate a service between Gatwick and Los Angeles in place of that operated by Laker.

Is it not clear that in the past the method of allocating routes led to an oversupply of seats at minimum economic cost, with the result that, although passengers gained in the short run through cheap fares, in the long run there have been deficits, bankruptcies, redundancies and passengers losing all their fare money? Is there not a strong case for reviewing the allocation of routes and at least making it clear that no operation in which Mr. Freddie Laker has a part will be allocated any of the routes in future?

The answer to the question about Sir Freddie Laker is "No". On the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we look again at allocating the routes, the answer is also "No". My officials are this very week discussing with the American authorities the overcapacity of seats on the North Atlantic route.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate the Secretary of State on his sensible decision to grant the Los Angeles route to British Caledonian Airways? Will he remind everyone that British Caledonian is just as much an example of private enterprise as Laker Airways?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those two points. I reinforce what he says by pointing out that the private sector, as opposed to the public sector, last year made a profit. I thank him for his kind remarks about my right hon. Friend, who deserves them.

Will the Minister confirm the recent story in the Financial Times that the Government believe that the main cause of uneconomic operations over the North Atlantic is an excess of available seats? Are the Government pressing for a gateway moratorium over the North Atlantic? Has that not been a problem not only for Laker Airways but for all British airlines?

It is true that in a time of world recession there is a problem of overcapacity. My answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question about gateway moratoria is "Yes".

Exports

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he is satisfied with the level of exports.

Our recent export performance is encouraging and I hope that we can build on the recent improvements in our labour cost competitiveness.

Should not British industry be congratulated on what is by any yardstick a fine performance at a time of world trade recession? Additionally, should not my right hon. Friend be happy with the way in which his Department and others have given every possible assistance to British exporters?

I am certain that the whole House would wish to congratulate British industry on securing the orders, which sustain employment. I take note of my hon. Friend's second point.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the level of exports to Russia, bearing in mind that the value of imports from that country has consistently been twice the value of our exports there? Is there not a case for further bargaining with the Russians to encourage them to take more of our goods and to help trade between our two countries to flourish?

I should welcome an expansion of trade with the Soviet Union, consistent with our other international obligations.

European Community (Exports)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he anticipates a continuation of the trend of increasing trade in United Kingdom exports to other European Economic Community countries through 1982.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the present trends, by mid-1984 well over half our total exports will go to other EEC member States? Does that not make it crystal clear that our continuing membership is even more indispensable and vital than we thought hitherto?

I should be pleased to see the statistics that project that. Our trade with the Community is valuable. Of course, trade is a two-way business. There has been a rise in imports as well as exports. Much will depend on growth within the Community and in markets outside.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the great anxiety in the British textile industry, and particularly the carpet industry, about the degree to which the Belgian carpet industry is subsidised, making it difficult for us to export to Europe and to meet competition from Belgian imports? What action is the Secretary of State taking or proposing to take to deal with the unfair subsidisation?

It is inherently a matter for the European Commission, but if the carpet industry or the hon. Gentleman approaches my Department to see how best we can formulate a case to sustain his point, we shall be happy to help.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an extrapolation of the figures for trade with the EEC for the last two months of last year—an £850 million deficit in manufacturing—shows that by the year 1990 we should have a deficit in manufacturing trade of about £30, 000 million? Does that not prove the absurdity of European fanatics putting forward bogus statistics to prove unprovable facts?

Again, I am trying to be austere and detached about this highly emotional topic. Projections into the future should be undertaken only on the basis of carefully assessed scientific material.

Does the Minister think that the trend of food prices to increase is likely to continue?

Inasmuch as such a reply is required of me, I should have thought that it would be "Yes".

Lodge Road Builders (Newspaper Report)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he is sending any reply to the Birmingham Evening Mail in connection with its article on the activities of Lodge Road Builders, which was sent to the Department at its invitation at the end of January; and if he will publish his reply in the Official Report.

I have read the local press cuttings on this matter with concern. I have passed them to the Director General of Fair Trading in order that he can consider whether he would be justified under part III of the Fair Trading Act 1973 to seek assurances from those concerned that they will refrain from such conduct in future.

Is the Minister aware that part of the problem is that it is impossible for people to contact Lodge Road Builders? Is it not a scandal that con men in firms such as Lodge Road Builders can use "Yellow Pages" to obtain business and can charge extortionate amounts of money for work that is done badly or not at all? Can nothing be done to protect the public against such unscrupulous people?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the question. It is a matter of concern and I am looking into it. In this case, the papers have gone to the Office of Fair Trading, and the trading standards department is also looking into the matter to see whether a prosecution would be appropriate. The Supply of Goods and Services Bill, which will come before the House on Friday, and which will codify that area of the law, will also be helpful.

Air Travel (Indemnity Scheme)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he has completed his consideration of an indemnity scheme for loss of advance payments by scheduled air travel passengers.

This work is continuing. There are a number of possible approaches, but all of them present difficult problems and I cannot yet say whether a workable solution will be found.

Is not a workable solution absolutely essential? Does not the Minister regard it as totally unsatisfactory that he wrote to me on 12 March about an elderly lady in my constituency who had saved up to travel by Laker Airways and was told by him that the only advice that he could give was that as an unsecured creditor she should make contact with the receiver?

That may be unsympathetic advice, but it is extremely sound. I advise the hon. Gentleman to ask his constituent to follow it.

In view of the importance of early warning in any system, will the Minister tell us whether he or any other Ministers were informed before Christmas of doubts about the financial viability of Laker Airways?

Is there not a general problem about consumers paying in advance for services? Will the Department publish as early as possible the Cork committee report on insolvency, which might give consumers under those circumstances more priority than ordinary creditors?

I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, but I shall find out and let him know.

British Airways

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on his consideration of the Price Waterhouse report on British Airways.

British Airways commissioned a report from Price Waterhouse to help the airline return to profitability. British Airways has sent me a copy of the report. It contains commercially confidential information, and British Airways do not intend to publish it. My right hon. Friend and I shall, however, be discussing with them the report and their response to its recommendations.

Does the Price Waterhouse report make any recommendations regarding the capital reconstruction of British Airways? How much will be required either to pay off the loan debt or to go into equity shares, if that is the way the Minister decides to go? Is there any truth in the newspaper report that that money amounts to about £600 million?

I advise the hon. Gentleman not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers about the report. I have already said that it is a confidential report commissioned by British Airways and not by us. Therefore, it is not up to us to reveal its contents.

Does the report help my hon. Friend to decide how and when British Airways shares will be made available to the public?

Does the Minister agree that what the Government might or might not do about BA on the taxpayers' behalf is a matter of legitimate concern to the House and the public? Will he confirm that the Government will not write off any loan debt or translate it into equity in a way that involves the taxpayer putting a large amount of money into British Airways before it is sold to private interests?

I was asked about Price Waterhouse, not about British Airways' finances. The Price Waterhouse report was commissioned by British Airways. Therefore, it is not up to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or me to reveal its contents to the public. If Sir John King wishes to do so, that is up to him. With regard to future plans about British Airways and its privatisation, the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will review his policy towards British Airways to exclude the sale of profitable subsidiaries.

Although the Government's aim has been to sell to the private sector a stake in British Airways as a whole, I would not exclude the separate disposal of a subsidiary if the British Airways board, in the exercise of its commercial judgment, decides that the airline's future interests are best served by such a disposal.

Does it make sense to threaten British Airways with the sale of its profitable and enterprising subsidiaries when the British Airways board is making enormous efforts to get the whole operation back into the black?

I commend strongly the efforts of the British Airways board. I should also like to commend the attitude of many members of British Airways' staff during the present ramp strike. They are showing a splendid spirit for the future. With regard to the future and the sale of subsidiaries, there is no question of a threat. The decision on whether to sell a subsidiary is for the British Airways board. There is no pressure from me that it should do so.

Will the Minister take on board that I was pleased to hear him say a few kind words about British Airways because he seems to spend most of his time denigrating, not assisting it? Surely it would not be beneficial to sell profitable subsidiaries. Will the Minister not take up most of his time making apologies for Laker, who was a bad employer of staff?

It is always pleasant to hear kindly words from the hon. Gentleman. The kindly words that I pushed in the direction of British Airways were well deserved. When criticism is necessary I will give it as equally as I will give praise where that is due.

As the Minister mentioned the ramp dispute, does he agree that the attitude of British Airways management in locking out a section of its staff will hardly enhance its future financial prospects? Will he encourage British Airways to take a more positive attitude, at least towards negotiating in the dispute, or is he standing idly by on the sidelines making critical noises in the hope that the dispute will precipitate the break-up of British Airways?

The answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question is "No, certainly not." The details of the dispute are a matter for the British Airways board.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on his proposals to privatise British Airways.

The Government intend to sell a controlling stake in British Airways to the private sector as soon as practicable. I very much welcome the steps which the British Airways board is taking to improve profitability and enhance the propects of an early sale.

What is the earliest date by which my hon. Friend anticipates that British Airways can be back in profit? Is there any chance that the Government will sell a stake in British Airways before then?

I hope that British Airways will be profitable in the next financial year. As I have already said, if the British Airways board decided that it wanted to sell a subsidiary in the meantime, I would not stand in its way.

What sense can it make for the Government to allow British Airways to consider flogging subsidiaries that make a profit of £20 million a year if the Government wish to privatise the airline? Does Price Waterhouse have any bearing on the Government's policy to privatise British Airways? Is it not a scandal that the Government refuse to publish a report that involves potentially hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, in a desperate bid to flog a national asset?

There is no scandal. It is not my report to publish. If Sir John King wishes to do so, that is up to him. The selling of subsidiaries in the meantime is for the commercial judgment of British Airways. If they consider that getting the cash in the short term from such sales will be to its benefit, they will do so. If they decide that it is better to sell British Airways altogether in the long term, they will do so. We shall not stand in its way in either direction.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that reducing their labour force from some 58, 000 to 43, 000 in just over two years is no mean effort on the part of British Airways? Furthermore, they have pruned 16 international uneconomic routes and reduced their borrowing by some £160 million. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that and perhaps take this opportunity to pay tribute to British Airways for the efforts that they are making to get their house in order and enable the corporation to write a prospectus for the sale of its shares in due course?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity, which I take yet again, to pay tribute to all the good things that British Airways are doing. However, they are taking that action because they are almost £1 billion in debt and had a trading loss of £141 million last year. I am happy to give praise where praise is due, but the action that British Airways are taking is necessary because of the faults of the past, which must be rectified as soon as possible.

The Minister implies that he has no objection to the Price Waterhouse report being made available. He suggests that the difficulty arises because it is British Airways' report. Will he respond to the interest that has been shown in the House and the high public importance that attaches to this issue by asking Sir John King to make the report available to Members of Parliament and placing it in the Library?

There was no such implication in my remarks. I merely made a neutral statement that Sir John King commissioned the report. It is therefore up to him to make it available if he wishes to do so. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that if Sir John decided that it was in the interests of British Airways to publish the report, we would not stand in his way.

European Community (Balance Of Trade)

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the latest balance of trade figures between the United Kingdom and other European Community countries.

The United Kingdom had a slight surplus on trade with the Community according to the admittedly incomplete figures so far published for 1981.

I welcome that apparent surplus. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the value of our exports to EEC countries in the past eight years has increased more than sixfold and that West Germany has now become our largest customer? If that is so, should not those who contemplate the United Kingdom withdrawing from the EEC understand the damaging consequences of doing so, especially for Britain's economy?

I confirm the statistics quoted by my hon. Friend. I add my voice to those who would deprecate any erection of tariffs between the United Kingdom and the European Community.

Before deprecating anything, can the right hon. Gentleman give us the extent of the surplus that he mentioned and the level of our present oil exports to the EEC?

I am not clear that I have mentioned any surplus, and the figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) did not refer to any surplus. However, oil is a significant factor in the trade between the United Kingdom and the European Community. Taking one year with another, there is no surplus resulting from the United Kingdom's trade with the European Community. The right hon. Gentleman can make what he will of that.

If oil is left out of account and we deal only with trade in manufactures, is it not a fact that the cover of imports by exports is substantially better in our trade with the EEC than it is in our trade with either Japan or the United States?

Broadly speaking, yes. I agree with my hon. Friend's argument. The House might like to know that in the last four months of 1981 the deficit in trade in manufactures with the European Community amounted to £1, 400 million.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that we have a far larger trade deficit in manufactures with West Germany than we have with Japan and nearly every other country? Surely this shows that we are being given doctored figures by the apologists for the EEC.

The figures offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) are a far fairer interpretation of the relative balance between the United Kingdom and Germany and the United Kingdom and Japan than the figures presented by the hon. Gentleman. We have far greater access to the German market and a far better ratio of exports of our manufactured goods relative to our imports from Germany than we have with Japan.

Textile And Clothing Products

20.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is the total value of imports of textiles and clothing products for the latest available month and for the same period 12 months before.

Imports of textiles and textile clothing were valued at £247 million cif in December 1981 and at £204 million cif in December 1980.

Does the Minister recognise that the level of imports could be greatly depressed by the effect of the Government's policies, and that if there is a recovery in the economy it might not necessarily lead to increases for British textiles or British jobs? Has he initiated any specific steps to monitor any such upsurge?

I am sure that the recovery in the economy—the evidence of which is now very apparent—will be much welcomed by the hon. Gentleman and welcomed not less by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I accept that it could have an impact upon the levels of imports of textiles. It is a matter that is contained within the multi-fibre arrangement and we believe that the cutbacks that we have secured in the five group 1 clothing categories with the four dominant suppliers, the anti-surge mechanism and the likely continuation of members' use of certain quotas will limit the extent to which there will be a rise in imports.

Does the Minister accept that it is surprising that the imports of textiles and clothing have increased by such a significant amount in the middle of a depressed market? Does the right hon. Gentleman have any estimate of the import penetration ratio in these industries? What is the state of the negotiations that are taking place with Mediterranean countries, especially Spain and Portugal, which pose a problem over and above the MFA low-cost countries?

The negotiations are being conducted by the European Commission under a mandate that has already been discussed by the House. I shall seek the information on import ratios that the hon. Gentleman has requested and send it to him.

Does my right hon. Friend think it rather odd that Labour Members seem to spend a substantial amount of their time urging the industrial development of the Third world and underdeveloped countries but start to whine as soon as they begin to export to the United Kingdom?

Yes, I think that they believe in Socialism with a white face. They become highly discriminatory. The hostility of the narrow-minded "Little Englanders" on the Opposition Benches is terrifying when one deals with items such as textiles, without which the developing countries cannot pretend to have the resources to engage in a wider trade.

Consumer Services (Information)

23.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will introduce legislation to improve the accuracy of the information provided for the public by estate agents, holiday sellers and other similar consumer oriented services; and if he will make a statement.

I shall keep the position under review, but I see no case at present for new legislation of this kind.

Will the Minister accept that I have had a mass of letters from holiday makers who have found that the reality has been completely different from the dream described in the holiday brochure?

Does the Minister accept that many trading standards officers have told me that they are extremely unhappy with existing legislation?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is an important point and I join him in condemning brochures that mislead people and misrepresent the services to be provided. However, taken in the context of the many holidays sold, I suspect that there are few such cases. The holiday industry is making progress on a self-regulatory and voluntary basis to improve the protection available under the Trades Description Act 1968. We should welcome that.

British Airways

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade when he expects British Arways to be in profit after interest payments.

21.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he has made any recent revision of his estimate of when he expects British Airways to break even.

30.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the financial position of British Airways.

38.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he has changed his assessment of the losses likely to be sustained by British Airways in the current financial year since the Committee stage of the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Bill.

I cannot give a precise figure, but I understand that British Airways, in the financial year that is just ending, will show a loss a good deal larger than the £141 million pre-tax loss last year. This is quite unsatisfactory, and I expect the board to take whatever measures are necessary to restore profitability in the shortest possible time. I am confident that it is making every effort to do so.

In view of the uncertainty in the Minister's mind, does he not agree that it would be economic madness to attempt to keep to the Government's timetable to privatise British Airways by 1984? Does he agree that if that policy is pursued, British Airways will inevitably be sold at a price well below its long-term value, which will mean further substantial losses to the British taxpayer?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I can tell him and the House that Her Majesty's Government are determined to stick to their timetable to privatise British Airways as fast as is practicable.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the management of British Airways is with the Government on privatisation and that its efforts to make the company profitable should be encouraged and not discouraged?

I certainly agree and I strongly commend the work that Sir John King, Mr. Dibbs and Mr. Roy Watts are doing about that. I gladly pay tribute to the tough but necessary decisions that they have made.

Can the Minister give any justification, from the point of view of the public interest, for the Government wiping out or acquiring the loan debts of British Airways before selling their shares to the private sector? What will be gained by such a manoeuvre?

Notwithstanding the fact that the Government intend to privatise British Airways as soon as possible, will my hon. Friend acknowledge that at the end of the previous financial year British Airways had outstanding debts of about £633 million and that before a prospectus can be written for the sale of those shares the Government may have to do something about writing off their debts? British Airways do not receive money from the Government, but guarantees to borrow money abroad. Did my hon. Friend bear that in mind before making his statement about privatisation?

Later——

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question Time, when the Under-Secretary of State for Trade answered question 24, he announced that he was linking it with questions 21, 30 and 38. Is it procedurally correct retrospectively to link questions with those that have gone? If it is, can one demand one's right if one comes into the Chamber having missed one's question?

It is an act of kindness on the part of the Minister. The hon. Member concerned may have come into the Chamber since his question was called. That is exactly the kindness that both sides of the House show to each other.

Civil Aviation Policy

29.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will set out the policy of Her Majesty's Government towards civil aviation in the form of a White Paper.

Will the Minister reconsider that brief and unsatisfactory reply? Is he aware that if he proceeds to privatise British Airways, despite some substantial losses, surely before that crucial decision—which involves legislation—is taken, he should at least have before him the reports on the future of the airways authorities in Britain and the distribution of airports, which crucially affect British Airways' policies and operation?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the facts that he has mentioned, but I do not agree that it is necessary to publish a further White Paper on those matters before moving ahead to privatise British Airways.

Is my hon. Friend aware that on many flights it is easy to get a smoker's seat but quite difficult to get a non-smoker's seat, which suggests that some airlines, in deciding the proportions of each, have fallen behind the shift in public taste on such matters? Will he ask the Civil Aviation Authority, which grants licences, to consult the airlines to see what can be done about the matter?

The simple reason is that that question is best directed to Sir John King, Mr. Adam Thomson and Mr. Newman of Dan-Air.

Can the Minister confirm that the Government have no plans to privatise the British Airports Authority, either as a whole or by selling off individual airports?

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) is putting ideas into my head. I shall wish to consider what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) said.

In the light of the figures for British Airways that the Minister gave in answer to earlier questions, and bearing in mind the question of equality for civil aviation, would it not be better to consider the sale of British Airways' assets, licences and routes so that we diminish the number of airlines operating out of Britain in a market that is clearly over-saturated?

I am glad, as I said in answer to the previous question, to take almost any idea into account. However, an idea that diminishes competition in the airline industry would not be a good idea.

Earlier the Minister expressed a dislike of answering a hypothetical question. In the light of his previous answer, will he give an undertaking to the House that the Government will not consider writing off the capital debt of British Airways at the taxpayer's expense before offering shares to the public?

The right hon. Gentleman is simply trying to wrap up his previous question—which was obviously hypothetical—in language that is less hypothetical. I have no intention of answering either his previous question or this one.

China

32.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade what are the amounts of exports and imports to China over each of the past four years.

The value of trade with China in the years 1978–80 is given in tables II—imports—and V—exports—of the 1979 annual edition and the December 1980 issue of the Overseas Trade Statistics of the United Kingdom, copiesof which are in the Library. Information for the 1981 calendar year is not yet available, owing to last year's Civil Service dispute.

May I thank the Minister for such a non-reply? Is he satisfied that we are making the attempt s that we should to increase trade with China, taking into account the fact that it will have a population of 1, 000 million within the next few years, which is a tremendous market? Should we not have greater contact with China than at present?

I believed that I was assisting the hon. Gentleman, so that he would know where the figures for which he asked are available. This is a matter mainly for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade. I visited China to discuss not only health matters but general trade matters and there is a deep concern in both countries that we should increase trade in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Textile And Clothing Products (Imports)

33.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade what steps he has taken so far to monitor possible surges in imports of textiles and clothing products in 1982.

Officials of the Department of Industry already closely monitor import statistics and they will be paying particular attention this year to any increased utilisation of quotas.

In view of the figures that the Secretary of State quoted earlier, which showed an increase of over 20 per cent. in imports during the past 12 months, does he confirm the importance of properly controlling surges in imports to take advantage of the British market? Is he satisfied that the measures to control the surge in imports during the next 12 months will be adequate? Can he remind the House whether he will employ further staff in his Department to monitor textile and clothing imports so as to prevent an unwarranted surge?

The hon. Gentleman's figure of 20 per cent. refers to value and not to volume. However, I certainly take his point about staff numbers. I assure him that the Department of Industry is paying especially close attention to the matter.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that if there is a surge in imports, that may well be because that is the only way that consumer demand, or a changing pattern of consumer demand, can be met in the absence of supplies from United Kingdom sources? Will he consult carefully with the retail trade before taking any action on that?

Yes, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that the mechanism has been devised in consultation with those who advised us at the time of the multi-fibre arrangement.

Overseas Development

East Caribbean Islands

43.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement about the level of development assistance to the East Caribbean islands.

British bilateral aid to the Eastern Caribbean islands in 1980 was £12 million. A table showing expenditure by country will be published in the Official Report. The 1981–82 figure is expected to about £13 million. About 40 per cent. goes to the dependencies and the rest to independent Commonwealth countries and regional projects.

The East Caribbean islands also benefit from British contributions to the Caribbean Development Bank, the European development fund, the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation and the United Nations agencies.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that these economies are highly vulnerable and will be dependent on overseas aid from Britain—which has a special responsibility towards them—for many years to come? Does the right hon. Gentleman also recognise the special difficulties facing Dominica, following hurricane David? As a result of the damage done by that hurricane, its economy has still not been restored.

The answer to both parts of that question is "Yes". I met the Prime Minister of Dominica, Miss Charles, to discuss the problems involved. We have given considerable aid—which is at sea on its way—to the island's banana industry, which has suffered considerably as a result of hurricanes.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the assistance that he is giving to the East Caribbean islands? Will he review the whole programme in the light of the fall in prosperity in almost all those islands because of the reduction in the price of their natural products, such as bananas, nutmegs and other tropical produce? That reduction in prosperity will lead, in turn, to even greater instability than in Grenada, Dominica, and to some extent, St. Lucia. From the Select Committee's recent visit to the area, I know that such action would be welcomed throughout the British Commonwealth.

What applications for aid have the Government received from the Government of Grenada since the coup? What aid has been given and what is the British Government's attitude towards applications that they may receive now, or in future, from the Government of Grenada?

In 1980—the last year for which we have figures—Grenada received £53, 000 of technical cooperation, £10, 000 of capital aids and other grants and £195, 000 in loans. We have made it clear to the Government of Grenada that we do not like their human rights record. I shall not go into that point now, as I have done so before. However, when their record improves, we shall consider their problems.

Following is the table:

Gross Bilateral Aid Expenditure 1980

£'000

Technical Co-operation

Capital Aid

Gross Aid Expenditure

Anguilla241749990
Antigua215270485
Barbados289331620
British Virgin Islands2769551,231
Dominica1672,3682,535
Grenada53205258
Montserrat2111,0111,222
St. Kitts-Nevis305472777
St. Lucia230693923
St. Vincent295525820
Turks and Caicos Islands4128491,261
Regional Caribbean7412621,003
3,4358,69012,125

Costa Rica

45.

asked the Lord Privy Seal on what projects the United Kingdom is currently assisting in Costa Rica.

The United Kingdom is currently assisting with the following projects: the Central American School for Animal Husbandry at Atenas; the National Apprentice Institute at San Jose; and the Centre for Research into Food Technology at San Jose. Expenditure for the current financial year is expected to be about £450, 000.

Is the Minister aware that Costa Rica's economy has been savagely hit by the fall in coffee prices and the rise in world oil prices and that it now has a balance of payments crisis on its hands? Will he consider helping Costa Rica to develop energy resources, particularly hydro-electric power, in order to reduce its dependence on imported oil?

Costa Rica's financial problems are largely a matter for it to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund. I shall bear the hon. Gentleman's second point in mind.

Overseas Students

46.

asked the Lord Privy Seal how many overseas students are currently being assisted by funds from his Department.

We have trained over 13, 000 people in the past 12 months on courses of varying length. I hope to sustain a similar programme in 1982, but I cannot at this stage give a total for the whole year. At the moment there are 6, 200 people under training in this country.

Is the Minister aware that since the Tories came to power there has been a decrease of 25 per cent. in the number of new overseas students coming to Britain, and that the most significant decreases have been found in the number of students coming from developing Commonwealth countries, such as India, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe? Is he further aware that there has been an increase in the number of Common Market students coming to Britain, who are exempt from paying full-cost fees? If the Department of Education and Science is too blind to see the injustice of all that, will the Minister ensure that his Department helps more students to come from poorer countries, especially Commonwealth countries?

I should very much like to do that. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Overseas Students Trust has been looking at the problem and hopes to publish its report within a matter of months. It will consider the whole question of students from the Commonwealth and elsewhere and the report will be made available after publication.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that many of the students who attend courses in Britain do not attend universities? Some of them attend private enterprise organisations such as the Air Service Training at Scone, where they learn to be technicians and pilots?

Not all students are at universities. Students also attend technical colleges and a wide spread of educational establishments, which, we hope, will be of help to the developing countries.

Does the Minister agree that the training of students in Britain is of substantial commercial benefit to Britain in the long term? When those who have been trained here return to their countries and attain influential positions, they are likely to purchase our manufactured and scientific goods and our publications. That reflects substantially on our long-term earnings capacity.

Prima facie, that is one of the views taken, and it is probably a good view. That is precisely the type of point that the Overseas Students Trust has been considering, to see how relevant such arguments are.

Zimbabwe

47.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what has been the total official development assistance disbursed to Zimbabwe since that country's independence; and how much has been spent on the land transfer scheme.

Disbursements of official development assistance to Zimbabwe since independence total £50 million. The Zimbabwe Government have submitted claims, which we have met, for £2·6 million in respect of the land resettlement programme.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. How confident is he that the total amount of aid promised at, and since, independence will be disbursed within the time scale envisaged? What progress has he made in persuading other countries to join the United Kingdom in helping to fund the land transfer scheme?

I hope that all the money will be spent within the three years in which it was promised. So far, the Netherlands, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have agreed to help with the land resettlement scheme. Contributions will also be made from the European development fund and the African Development Bank.

Will my right hon. Friend do his best to give every possible assistance to the Jairos Jiri centres in Zimbabwe, which do such excellent work with the disabled? Will he help them to spread their knowledge of how to deal with the disabled to other developing countries in Africa?

I have met Mr. Jairos Jiri and discussed the problem with him. We were of considerable help to him during the International Year of Disabled People. It is primarily a matter for Mr. Jiri and the Government of Zimbabwe to spread to other countries knowledge of what he is doing.

Can the Minister tell the House what proportion of the £2·6 million that he mentioned is spent on land purchase? Even if all of it has been spent on land purchase, does he agree that that is a small proportion of the funds that have been made available? Can he tell the House where he believes the constraining factors are in what is a crucial programme to Zimbabwe?

It is a complicated subject and one that requires a lot of study before the Zimbabwe Government go ahead with any particular area of that project. There is no hold-up on our side. We are entirely ready to honour anything that is submitted to us, but it is a much bigger problem than the average outsider realises.

Aid Statistics

48.

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the current proportions of United Kingdom overseas aid allocated through bilateral agreements, through United Nations agencies and through other multilateral agencies.

In 1980, the latest year for which figures are available, the proportions of United Kingdom aid, on the basis of gross public expenditure, were as follows: bilateral 70 per cent.; European community group 14 per cent.; World Bank group 9 per cent.; United Nations agencies 5 per cent.;other multilaterals 2 per cent.

I appreciate the work done by many international agencies. Can my right hon. Friend say whether it is Government policy that, wherever practicable Government aid should be through bilateral agreements? Does he agree that only by direct negotiations between Britain and the recipient country will it become more likely that the aid will be effectively deployed and go to those people most in need?

Yes, Sir. That is absolutely right. However, we have a problem in that we need to meet existing commitments, many of which were entered into a long time ago. We must honour those.

Statutory Instruments &C

Ordered,

That the draft Grants by Local Authorities (Appropriate Percentage and Exchequer Contributions) Order 1982 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Mather.]