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Footwear Imports

Volume 167: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what is his policy on the future of voluntary restraint agreements on footwear imports from eastern European countries.

In the light of developments in the EC's relations with Poland, the European Commission has suspended the voluntary restraint arrangement with Poland on leather footwear imports for one year from 1 January 1990. The position will be reviewed before the end of the year.

With regard to Czechoslovakia and Romania, we have asked the European Commission to maintain the voluntary restraint on leather footwear from those countries during 1990. The Commission is considering our request. The United Kingdom does not have voluntary restraint arrangements on footwear with the other east European countries.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that any increase in imports of footwear will considerably increase the problems of the British industry? Therefore, will he support the European Commission's renewed initiative to make voluntary restraint arrangements with South Korea and Taiwan? Will he also work towards the reduction or removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to enable British exporters to sell much more footwear abroad?

My hon. Friend will agree that one thing that we can do to help the Poles in their gallant efforts to improve their economy and their present parlous position is to increase the opportunities for them to trade. It would be churlish to deny them the things that they need most, for example, trading opportunities. My hon. Friend may know that the Community has not yet made up its mind what to do about Korea and Taiwan. The member states of the Community are split 50–50 on whether the Commisson should take action. I hope that my hon. Friend will be content with that answer.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the past: 10 years 45,000 jobs have been lost in the British footwear industry—35 per cent. of the entire employment in that industry—and that two jobs are being lost every hour? Last week in my constituency, Glovese, the leading manufacturers of ladies' boots, closed because of the level of imports. Will he give an undertaking to the House that he will not alter any arrangements without full consultation with the manufacturers and the trade unions?

I cannot give such an undertaking. But employment in Britain is running at 26·5 million, the highest ever, and within that remarkable figure it is inevitable that employment will be gained in some industries and lost in others. The flexible work force in the face of fast-changing trading and industrial conditions is one of the virtues that the hon. Gentleman should be preaching to his constituency because he can see with his own eyes the extraordinary effect on employment that such latitude can have.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Government's policy on the provision of training and aid for eastern Europe, in that they are pointing out to all the advantages of privatisation and of joint ventures, and are not engaging in wasteful schemes involving inter-governmental aid.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and agree with him. I add to his list private investment in eastern European countries. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs recently returned from Czechoslovakia, and there have been other missions. More are planned for the future, when we shall take British business men to eastern European countries to show them the opportunities for investment there. That is the best way of helping those countries to re-establish their economies.