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Levira Foods plc

3.31 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order. No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent attention, namely,

"the passing into receivership of Levira Foods plc at Preston Farm industrial estate in Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland."

The matter is specific ; it relates to a brand new factory, announced by the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), then a Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, two years ago this month. The factory was expected to create 700 new jobs with a further 100 being created in the company's suppliers. It is also specific in that it relates to circumstances causing the lay-off of more than 140 workers last Friday and the further lay-off of the remaining 300-plus early today.

The matter is important because the factory was announced as a specific response to the breach of the Government's four-year promise of relocation of the quality assurance facility at Woolwich to that site--a promise which, on several occasions, had excluded Cleveland from consideration as an alternative position for other governmental functions that were being relocated to the provinces. It was, we were told, the result of the Prime Minister's personal trawl of Ministries to find a replacement for the Woolwich disappointment.

It is important to note that, despite all the foregoing, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) is reported in today's edition of the Evening Gazette as stating :

"The business was highly leveraged in the first place," and that

"it has had to be refinanced a couple of times"--

and all in less than two years.

The matter is in need of urgent attention, for the development has already been held directly responsible for the collapse of the construction contractors, Jewitt Builders, due to outstanding bills estimated at £1 million. The House will need to know how much money from the public purse was expended on that abortive scheme. While hon. Members are calculating that, they might also feel the need to assess today's claim from the Teesside development corporation : "It is a remarkable achievement for Levira Foods to have created the most advanced food manufacturing plant in Europe."

It is indeed remarkable that a custom-made unit lies idle so early in its life ; remarkable that 500 people starting on a flagship project with so much hope should be compelled to take to the boats quite so quickly ; remarkable that such a flagship should be allowed to generate so much debt repeatedly ; and remarkable that, after all that, a fellow hon. Member should plead for

"a less contentious financial background"

so that it might

"make a go of it".

To my mind, Madam Speaker, all the foregoing facts show clearly that those matters deserve urgently the closest scrutiny of the House--today.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Order. I have to respond first. I shall deal with points of order in a moment.

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) has said and must give my

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decision without giving any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter that he raised to be appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20 and I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Speaker : Order. Let me take first a point of order from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), because he was mentioned.

Mr. Devlin : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I congratulate you on what I consider to be the right decision ?

A temporary cessation of trading has taken place at the factory, which is in my constituency. Unfortunately, I received no notice from the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) that he was going to raise the matter in the House today. I can say, however, that the Teesside development corporation is taking urgent steps to examine the matter. The present position will not be made clear for a few hours, but, in any event, the Government, who have invested heavily in the factory, have done so quite correctly, as the asset remains available for sale

Madam Speaker : Order. That is barely a point of order for me. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised a point of order because he had been mentioned, but I cannot allow a debate on a Standing Order No. 20 application that I have just been unable to grant.

Mr. Frank Cook : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker

Madam Speaker : There can be no further points of order on that matter.

Mr. Cook : The accusation was made that no notice had been given, Madam Speaker. Notice was given.

Madam Speaker : That has cleared the air very nicely. [Interruption.] Order. I am not seeking to name hon. Members at this point, but, if they have something to discuss, perhaps they will do it outside while we get on with our business.

Points of Order

3.34 pm

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Today, unprecedented--indeed, historic--action has been taken by NATO war planes, which have shot down four Bosnian Serb war planes. That action, although authorised by resolutions 781 and 816 of the Security Council of the United Nations, nevertheless represents a serious escalation of events in Bosnia. It has already apparently resulted in an increased bombardment of Tuzla by Bosnian Serbs. We need to know whether the NATO ultimatum will be extended in any way to Tuzla or anywhere else, and whether these events are to be considered by the United Nations Security Council.

The Foreign Secretary has made a statement in Athens ; the Secretary of State for Defence has made a statement in Leicester. Is it not unacceptable that the House of Commons has had no opportunity to hear a statement, and to question Ministers on these issues--especially when we bear in mind that Ministers are answering questions on these matters in the House of Lords ? Have you, Madam

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Speaker, had any indication of the intention of Her Majesty's Government to make a statement about these important events ?

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, as soon as the news of the shooting down of the aircraft came through, I contacted your office seeking an opportunity to raise the matter this afternoon. Subsequently, I heard the Prime Minister speaking from Washington, the Foreign Secretary speaking from Athens--that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)--and the Secretary of State for Defence speaking on television. I have also been in another place, and heard a statement volunteered by Ministers. We have, however, heard nothing in the House of Commons.

Every single soldier serving in Bosnia, and every civilian, is represented by a Member of Parliament. The House of Commons, however, has been denied the opportunity to hear a statement by the Government, allowing us to cross -examine them about the escalation of events, the risk to our aid convoys-- which have been stopped today because of that risk--the danger to troops and their families, who might also be at risk, and, indeed, the international aspects of the matter. This is not an affront to the House of Commons, but a denial of the rights of those who look to the House of Commons when seeking explanations from Ministers about actions that may affect their lives and welfare and the future peace of Europe and the world. In the light of that, Madam Speaker, would you be prepared to accept tomorrow a Standing Order No. 20 application that I would have tried to move today, had I not failed to do what must be done in the first instance- -that is, obtain a statement by private notice ?

Madam Speaker : As hon. Members fully appreciate, a private notice question has to meet certain criteria, one of which is a change of policy. In this case, there has been no change of policy ; the decision was a logical consequence of existing policy. If a Minister from the Foreign Office or from the Ministry of Defence, however, had wished to make a statement, that of course would now be taking place. [ Interruption. ] Order. I have had no request from a Minister to make a statement. I remind hon. Members that there are Foreign Office questions on Wednesday. I shall consider the Standing Order No. 20 request that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) wants to submit to me tomorrow, as I always do, with all seriousness.

Mr. Benn : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Your statement that a private notice question has to be about a change of policy is an absolute innovation and is not to be found anywhere in "Erskine May", which states that the question must be definite, urgent and a matter of public importance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is an alliance of which we are a member and it is the first time that NATO troops have ever been in action since 1948. That, dare I say so, even falls within the definition of a change of policy. I urge you to consider carefully the statement that you have just made.

Madam Speaker : As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, I do not have to give reasons for my decisions in the House. I have always attempted to be helpful in the House

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by giving my attitudes and some of my reasons. Lack of a change of policy was simply one of the reasons for my decision. I have to consider many others and I have done so today. I realise, as do all hon. Members, the seriousness of the matter. If a Minister wished to come to the Dispatch Box, of course we would have a statement from him.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In your infinite wisdom, have you been able to detect the slightest improvement in the length of questions--or speeches--from Front or Back Benchers at Question Time ? The position seems just as bad as it was.

Madam Speaker : I must say to the hon. Lady that I am agreeably surprised. I appreciate the co-operation of hon. Members, but I want us to do better tomorrow and from then on.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker, that arises from the Minister's reply to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). You will remember that the Minister, who appeared to be making a statement, seemed to contradict what he had told the House on Friday. More important, he appeared to speak in contrast to what the Foreign Secretary told not the House, but the British Broadcasting Corporation, on the link with the arms trade

Madam Speaker : Order. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am not concerned with the content of ministerial replies, although, to some extent, I am concerned with their length. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I asked the Minister to cut his reply short. Will he now make the point of order that is for me ? Content and argument are not subjects for me. Does the hon. Gentleman have a point of order about breaches of procedure ?

Mr. Clarke : I am grateful, Madam Speaker. Tomorrow afternoon, we have an extremely important debate--initiated, to its credit, by the Liberal party. The House is entitled to hear from the Foreign Secretary in that debate. Has he requested the opportunity to make an important statement ?

Madam Speaker : No.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. No doubt you will know that there is horror and shock in the civilised world, certainly in the House of Commons, over the massacre at Hebron in which about 50 people were gunned down while they were worshipping. That was one of the most terrible crimes that has been committed in recent months. Will there be an opportunity for the questions on the middle east to be taken after Foreign Office questions on Wednesday ?

There will, I trust, be an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to contribute and to make clear that not only Britain, through the diplomatic channels, but Parliament itself wants to express in the clearest possible terms its horror over what has happened and its sympathy with the relatives of the bereaved.

Madam Speaker : It would set a bad precedent were I to anticipate questions that may be on the Order Paper in two days' time. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the

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Procedure Committee, so he should be aware that he should wait until Wednesday to see how the questions fall in place.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you are aware that the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), the Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), the Secretary of State for Employment, and the right hon. Member for Bexley and Old Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the Father of the House, are among 11 hon. Members who are in breach of a resolution carried by the House requiring them to provide information relating to Lloyd's in the Register of Members' Interests, which was published this morning ? I wonder whether you are prepared to arrange a meeting with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests to give him your advice on how the House should now proceed in the light of the fact that 11 Members have decided that they should breach our resolution.

Madam Speaker : This is a matter for the House as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Register was published this morning and it is now in the public domain for all Members to inspect.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Law Officers in the Government--in any Government--and in the House of Commons occupy a rather special position. Therefore, I ask whether you have had any request from the Law Officers to report to Parliament on the statements made by the President of the Board of Trade this morning at No. 1 Buckingham gate, to the effect that he was forced to indulge in some type of cover-up, and that undertakings that were apparently given to him in relation to the defence in the Matrix Churchill trial were not carried out by the Law Officers. Any matters relating to Law Officers surely should be a matter of a report to Parliament when it is a matter of principle, rather than waiting for the report of Lord Justice Scott.

Madam Speaker : I have not been informed by the Law Officers Department that anyone is seeking to make a statement, but, of course, the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has it been brought to your attention that, apart from the Members mentioned by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), neither the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) nor the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has completed any entry in the Register of Members' Interests, as they should have done ?

Madam Speaker : Order. I do think that this to and fro about the Register of Members' Interests is quite unnecessary--a total waste of our time here. The Register is in the public domain. It is available to all Members as well as to those outside.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. You said that the requirement that information be placed in the Register is a matter for the Committee. That is so, but the basic authority for the

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Committee to be established and conduct its business is the Chamber and those in the Chamber. As I understand it, there has been a concerted and co-ordinated attempt by members of Lloyd's to refuse to provide information to the House via the Register of Members' Interests. If that were the case, it would be unfair on those Members who have provided information fully and properly, but, if it is the case, I hope that if the Leader of the House hesitates about putting down a motion you will encourage him to do so to ensure that they are brought to book.

Madam Speaker : As the hon. Gentleman knows, as a member of the Committee, it is a matter for the House as a whole--the House in its entirety.

Mr. Benn : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Reverting to the matter that I raised with you earlier, I was guided by my recollection that a request for a Standing Order No. 20 had to be given before 12 o'clock, but I refreshed myself of the Standing Orders and they say :

"if the urgency of the matter is known at that hour. If the urgency is not so known he shall give notice as soon"

as possible. The urgency is created by the statement made in another place, where the Minister has gone into all sorts of aspects of the suspension of the aid programme and so on, and therefore it is, I submit, in order for you to accept a motion that I would now like to move, That the House do adjourn under Standing Order No. 20 in order to consider a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the assent given by Her Majesty's Government to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to take military action in the former Yugoslavia.

Madam Speaker : I will not hear the hon. Gentleman's application now, as he has put it to me, but he would certainly not be out of order if he would like to submit it to me in writing at any time for tomorrow and I would certainly look at it seriously, as I have already indicated that I would.


Parliamentary Elections

Mr. Jeff Rooker, supported by Mr. Neil Kinnock, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Dr. Tony Wright, Ms Glenda Jackson, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Mr. John Garrett, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Keith Hill, Mr. Mike Watson, Mr. Giles Radice and Mr. Hugh Bayley, presented a Bill to repeal the Septennial Act 1715 and to introduce a fixed term for the House of Commons ; to bring the age of nomination for election to the House of Commons into line with the age of voting by amending the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695 ; to improve electoral registration and absent voting procedures, to introduce weekend voting and increase the number of signatures for nomination of candidates by amending the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985 ; to change expense limits for candidates ; to introduce early voting ; to set up an Electoral Commission to administer and monitor all elections in the United Kingdom and to allow that Commission to register political parties and set limits to the expenditure nationally of registered political parties in the period prior to the fixed term elections ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 May 1994, and to be printed. [Bill 161.]

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European Communities (Treaties)

3.49 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : I beg to move,

That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Europe Agreement establishing an Association between the European Communities and their Member States and the Republic of Bulgaria) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved.

Madam Speaker : I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motions :

That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Europe Agreement establishing an Association between the European Communities and their Member States and the Czech Republic) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved. That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (European Agreement establishing an Association between the European Communities and their Member States and the Slovak Republic) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved. That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Europe Agreement establishing an Association between the European Communities and their Member States and Romania) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved.

Mr. Hogg : This is an opportunity for the House to discuss the relationship between the European Union and central and eastern European countries. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spent a great deal of time in recent months discussing the enlargement of the European Union. As the House will also know, my hon. Friend the Minister of State is currently engaged in negotiations to that effect. Indeed, that is why he is not participating in the debate ; he has asked me to apologise to the House on his behalf.

We are debating the Europe, or association, agreements between the European Union and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. As the House may know, the agreements are known as mixed competence agreements. In other words, they require the approval of European Community member states and the assent of the European Parliament. The purpose of the debate is to set United Kingdom ratification in train by approving draft Orders in Council specifying the agreements as European treaties under section 1(3) of the European Communities Act 1972.

The events of 1989 presented us with the opportunity to put an end to the post-war division of Europe, and we are all now seeking to assist central European countries to establish--or, in many cases, to rebuild--the institutions that are essential for a pluralist democracy and a healthy market economy.

In promoting that general objective, the United Kingdom has put in place a programme of bilateral technical assistance under the know-how fund. In addition, we have supported the participation of central and eastern European countries in a whole range of European institutions and, especially, in the European Union itself. That is why we are debating the orders. As the House will know, central European countries wish to belong to the Union, and the United Kingdom looks forward to the time when that can happen.

The agreements that underpin the draft orders were a United Kingdom initiative. Developing relations with central Europe was a key priority of the United Kingdom's

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presidency and was symbolised by the summit with the Visegrad countries in October 1992. We worked hard for last June's European Council decision that the associate countries should join the Union as soon as they were ready to take on the obligations of the membership.

The European agreements lie at the heart of our efforts. They are the essential framework for preparing these countries for membership of the European Union. The four agreements that we are debating are very similar to the European agreements with Poland and Hungary that the House debated in detail in February and November 1992. They aim to establish a comprehensive framework for the development of trade, economic co-operation and political dialogue. I shall highlight five elements of the agreements.

The first and most important element is trade liberalisation. These provisions are already in force under interim agreements. Opening European Community markets to the central European countries is crucial to their economic restructuring and political stability. The agreements will, in turn, provide new commercial and investment opportunities to United Kingdom firms operating in the east. They envisage a liberalisation of trade in industrial products over a 10-year transitional period, with the markets of the Community opening more quickly than those of associate countries. They also allow for reciprocal concessions in agriculture, meaning that over time imports from these countries will benefit from progressively lower tariffs.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify a point that is a little obscure to me ? Over that 10 years, the products listed in the back of all the agreements will move to a zero level of tariff. What about the products that are not included there ? There seems to be some ambiguity about whether any of those products will be included and whether, thereafter, those countries will be able to trade in those products within the Community on the same basis that we do.

Mr. Hogg : There are specific agreements on textiles, steel and coal. Other industrial products are treated collectively, with the Community abolishing its quantitative restrictions at the outset and abolishing its tariffs within three years, according to sensitivity. Central European states will dismantle trade barriers more slowly. Customs duties will be abolished over seven to 10 years and quantitative restrictions will be abolished over 10 years. Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hogg : I will proceed at this stage.

The second element of the agreements is economic co-operation. That heading covers a wide range of sectors--education, agriculture, science and technology, nuclear safety and consumer protection. It complements the trade liberalisation provisions in aiming to develop the economic and political structures of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Technical assistance from the Community's PHARE programme is available to finance this co-operation. The third element concerns approximation of laws and standards. The Union will help the four countries to bring their legislation closer to existing European Community standards. Approximation to existing Community standards is a key step in preparation for Union membership. Some of the associate countries are already ensuring that

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all new legislation is compatible with Community law. The Copenhagen European Council additionally decided that the Union should establish a task force composed of Commission and national experts to co-ordinate and direct that work.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On the subject of education and culture, may I yet again raise the question of the trade, fearfully one way, in ecclesiastical art ? I refer to letter C93/18235.MA from the Department of National Heritage. Northern Bohemia contains some of the most beautiful wooden ecclesiastical art anywhere in the world. Theft for the Frankfurt and London markets is such that part of the European heritage is being destroyed. That is not an easy problem to resolve. I give notice that if I catch your eye, Madam Speaker, I should like to refer to the matter in some depth. I hope that the Minister can consult his colleagues before the winding-up speeches.

Mr. Hogg : I recall that, in February 1992, when the agreements were debated on the Floor of the House, the hon. Gentleman raised precisely that point ; he has a long-standing interest in it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) responded at that time. I shall listen with considerable interest to what the hon. Gentleman says. Like him, I suspect that the problem is extremely difficult to tackle, but I will most certainly listen to what he says.

The fourth element is political dialogue. The agreements establish Association Councils which will meet once a year at ministerial level to review the agreements and to build on them. The agreements also provide for meetings at Head of Government level and for close co-operation on foreign policy at senior official level.

Fifthly, there is the question of financial co-operation. The agreements provide for continuation of temporary financial assistance to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania through the PHARE programme, which has so far resulted in the Community contributing £725 million of technical assistance to the four countries. In special circumstances, the Community may also provide balance of payments support to those countries in the context of the G24. The Community has committed more than £2 billion in balance of payments support to those countries since 1991, and it is currently considering requests to give further support to Romania and Bulgaria.

I should mention the inclusion

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Hogg : No. I am proceeding now.

I should mention the inclusion of the important preambular paragraph in each of the agreements that look forward to the associate countries' accession. We want the associate countries to join the European Union as soon as they are ready to take on the economic and political obligations of membership. That commitment was made, at British urging, by the Copenhagen European Council in June last year.

Mrs. Clwyd : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Hogg : The agreements will help Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia to prepare themselves, and

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Mrs. Clwyd : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way ?

Madam Speaker : Order. I am given to understand that the Minister is not prepared to give way. The hon. Lady must not persist in the circumstances.

Mr. Hogg : Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The object is to enable those countries to prepare themselves, and the agreements are vital to those countries as a symbolic and practical confirmation of their place in Europe.

4 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) : We support the motions, which represent significant developments in trade with former communist countries and newly emerging democracies in eastern Europe. Undoubtedly, such links will become strong and trade will increase and lead, as the Minister has said, to closer formal relationships when internal economic, political and trade conditions are met by aspirant countries of eastern Europe.

The issue of enlargement, of course, is for another time ; the motions relate specifically to trade and economic relationships and the development of them. It is important for us in the west to support economic development, which is surely the underpinning of democratic societies.

The agreements open political dialogue which is intended to familiarise central and eastern European countries with the political framework and foreign policy activities of the Community. More important in the short term, the agreements allow the free flow of, and access to, goods, but they do not particularly contribute to the creation of well-functioning market economies in eastern European countries. That is something for countries to work out for themselves.

The Minister referred specifically to textiles, steel and coal. One matter of concern is dumping. What provision will be made, and what discussions have taken place, on restrictive anti-dumping legislation or controls ? At present, as we all know, the problem cannot be resolved inside the European Community. It certainly cannot police it in any way. The general facilities to enable the European Community to do that are quite small. Unfair trading and state subsidies are still burning issues in the present European Community.

South Wales and other industrial areas have suffered from the dumping of special steels and white goods, for example. A long time ago, when the Davignon plan was introduced to control and restructure the iron and steel industry in the European Community, this country virtually volunteered to have its steel industry annihilated over three or four years from about 21 million liquid tonnes down to about 11 million liquid tonnes. At the same time, the Germans and Italians were increasing their production.

In respect of works such as the Hoover works in south Wales--those works are near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), and many of his constituents work there--we saw the dumping of white goods. Goods were put on the market by Italian washing machine manufacturers at a lower price than Hoover could buy special steels. There was an obvious case of state subsidy going to Italian washing machine manufacturers, but the European Community did not have the resources to police it. It is all right to bring in these agreements, but they do not work in the European

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