HC Deb 27 July 1981 vol 9 cc806-8
8. Mr. Woolmer

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the progress of the multi-fibre arrangement renewal negotiations.

24. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a progress report on his preparations for the multi-fibre arrangement renegotiations.

Mr. Biffen

The Council of Ministers of the Community reached agreement on 13 July on the initial negotiating directives to be given to the Commission for the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement.

Subsequently, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades textile committee met in Geneva from 14 to 20 July. At that meeting the Commission made an opening statement of the Community's position. Proposals were also tabled by the developing countries and we are studying these. It is already clear that a great deal of further work will be required before a basis for agreement on a successor arrangement to the current MFA can be reached. The next meeting of the textiles committee has been arranged for the week beginning 21 September.

Mr. Woolmer

Does the Secretary of State recognise that of the many issues the level of the base position of the quotas is perhaps of overwhelming importance? Does he agree that they should be fixed in relation to the current realities of trade rather than to the position that it was thought would exist in 1973 and 1977? If so, what detailed negotiations are proceeding, and will the right hon. Gentleman consult the industry and the trade union associations on the matter before the autumn?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the significance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to the level of the base figure. The Commission's negotiating position is to use a variety of techniques designed to have an impact on the actual levels of the successor agreement, and the level of base is certainly one factor that it will consider. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the Department is more than happy to continue the closest consultations with employers and unions in the industry.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I pay tribute to the recognition given to the textile and clothing industry by the Government, which was epitomised in my right hon. Friend's speech at the beginning of the MFA debate a few weeks ago. However, does he recognise that, in addition to the point raised by the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) about the base rate—which relates to the base growth situation, which is so important—the actual growth rate and the existence of the recession clause in the new MFA are absolutely vital if this industry, which is very important to the country and employs over 650,000 people, is to survive and prosper under successive Governments?

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for his initial comments. Considerations about growth rates and recession clauses are designed to secure a tougher successor arrangement than that which we have now secured. I do not wish to indicate how the Commission should negotiate in each and every detail, but within that general assumption I am certain that the points raised this afternoon will be held very much in mind.

Mr. Barry Jones

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the man-made fibre sector is taking very heavy punishment? Does he know that on Friday, in my constituency, 380 workers lose their jobs at Courtaulds? Will he undertake to fight even harder to safeguard what is left of our industry?

Mr. Biffen

I can say "Yes" to both parts of the question. I feel for the hon. Gentleman, as I know the constituency situation that he refers to.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the failure to get a recession clause in the present MFA has caused considerable loss of employment and concern in Scotland? Will he ensure that in future MFAs such a clause will clearly be included to support and sustain the people in the industry?

Mr. Biffen

The United Kingdom Government made clear from the outset the importance that they attach to a recession clause, but I would be less than open with the House if I did not say that some of the other Community countries have not been similarly motivated. However, we shall continue to fight for our corner.

Dr. Summerskill

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the survival of the British textile industry depends on the success of the negotiations this year? Is he aware that in West Yorkshire since the beginning of last year 20,000 jobs have been lost in the clothing and textile industry, and that if the remaining jobs are to be preserved the new MFA must be strong and precise?

Mr. Biffen

I assure the hon. Lady that the Government are fully seized of the importance of the MFA and its successor for the durability and prosperity of the textile industry. We are joined in that sentiment by many of our negotiating partners, not least France.

Mr. Body

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an MFA, like any other form of protectionism, can serve no useful purpose unless it puts up prices for consumers, and, if it does that, it must cause them to have less money to spend on other items, thus creating unemployment elsewhere?

Mr. Biffen

Although I would not disagree with the general philosophic proposition, I point out that the textile industry has been subject to a more rapid and sustained rate of change than almost any other aspect of our economy.