Debate on the Address.

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 10th December 1935.

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Photo of Mr Henry White Mr Henry White , Birkenhead East

I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add the words but humbly regret the absence from the Gracious Speech of constructive proposals for absorbing unemployed persons into industry, both by initiating international co-operation for the progressive reduction of the obstacles to trade and by a comprehensive policy of national development. I regret that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd George) is not here to move this Amendment, and in his place I seek to put before the House certain reasons for its adoption. This Amendment is much more limited in scope than that which the House has been considering during the last two days. It is limited to two matters of cardinal importance which we think are of the utmost consequence in the present halting state of world recovery, and also having regard to the needs of our domestic situation. There has been a great deal of discussion during this Debate on the relative merits and demerits of Capitalism and Socialism. That discussion has not led to any very definite conclusions, and I cannot feel that such discussions have any real practical value, because the question is one that cannot possibly be brought to a practical issue within the life of the present Parliament, or indeed at any time which is easily foreseeable at present.

The plain truth of the matter is that the present system or congeries of systems under which we seek to satisfy our wants and organise our industrial affairs will continue, just as long as the plain, ordinary people of this country feel that it will give them a square deal. When they cease to have that belief, then they will turn to something else. What, I think, the country and the unemployed at this time are entitled to seek from Parliament is that it should devote itself to an attack on poverty and unemployment by all the means which are at present available to it, and which can be brought into operation within the next five years. It is not Communism or Socialism, Capitalism or Fascism which is the source, at the moment, of the world's major ills. The chief single cause of poverty and unemployment to-day is none of these things, but the state of anarchy which prevails in international commercial arrangements between the peoples of the world. That is the major cause of our troubles and economic disabilities at the present time.

We are often told that Capitalism has failed. Capitalism has had many failures. If it had not, it would be the only human institution of which I am aware, which has not had experience of failure. Having regard to the extraordinary developments of science and the application of science to the solution of the problems of production, it would be just as easy to argue that at the present time Capitalism is more triumphant and successful than it has been at any other time since it became an organised system. If one says that, one must go further and point out that it is the failure of statesmanship to direct the distribution of the goods which we have learned to produce, and the fact that statesmanship throughout the world has effectively neutralised the benefits which have accrued in the last 25 years—it is that which is the cause of the failure of the capitalist system to benefit from the extraordinary progress made under it.

When the onset of the economic crisis became acute in 1930 every Government was driven to consider the malady within its own boundaries, without regard to the state of things amongst its neighbours, although the malady afflicted them in almost precisely the same way. They were driven to defend their own interests, and they did so by means with which we are all familiar: they tried to entrench themselves behind barriers of tariffs, quotas, exchange controls and the like. Recovery the world over is taking place in a greater or less degree. There has been a substantial degree of recovery in most countries. It is now, according to the best information available, beginning to halt. The state of anarchy which arose owing to the development of these defensive measures by the different countries has led to the machinery of international trade becoming clogged. Although the worst effects of the crisis are now passing away, the machinery is more clogged than it has been at any time. No country in the world wishes this state of things to continue; every one of them deprecates it. In every country of the world the statesmen have, even as they proposed these measures, regretted them, and expressed the hope that the time may come when they would be able to dispense with them.

We believe that the influence of this country and of the British Empire in international commerce is supreme. We believe, therefore, that we have a better chance, and if we have that better chance we have a greater duty to try, to lead the world out of the morass in which it is struggling at the present time. I would fortify myself in the expression of that view by the opinion of the Economic Committee of the League of Nations. That is a body which, sitting at Geneva, is able to take a detached view of the malady from which the world is suffering, a view free from the prejudices which arise from the spirit of economic nationalism, a detached view not blurred by the special interest of any particular country. The considered view of the Economic Committee of the League is that: While the crisis tends to diminish the machinery of international trade becomes more and more jammed. Of these two things the latter is now the more serious and calls the more urgently for treatment. The restarting of the international machinery of trade takes precedence of all other needs. That is our view, and that is the reason why we are moving this Amendment to the Address. Holding these views, we welcomed particularly the new departure which seemed to be made in the policy of the Government by the Foreign Secretary in his speech at Geneva. That speech seemed to indicate a new recognition of the political necessities of the world to-day. It is quite true that it was related not so much to the general trade question in particular, but to the necessity of making it clear to the countries dissatisfied with economic conditions, within the League and without it, that we for our part were prepared to consider any disabilities, any legitimate cause for complaint from which they considered they were suffering, by peaceful means rather than by leaving the questions to go on smouldering until the countries in question might seek to burst the economic fetters by means of war. It is true that that was the immediate cause of the pronouncement of the Foreign Secretary in his wholly admirable speech at Geneva. No less did we welcome the pronouncement of the Foreign Secretary in his broadcast speech to America. I would like to remind the House of the words he used, for they seem to confirm us in our opinion that the Government were making a new departure in international trading policy. The Foreign Secretary's words were: It seems to me that the lowering of the barriers to international trade, slow and difficult as the task must inevitably be, is one of the most fundamental of the tasks of the present time. It is a task that must be persistently and courageously pursued, not only by Ministers of Commerce who desire to promote the economic welfare of the world, but also more by all those who wish to promote international friendship and to serve the great cause of peace. Experience has taught me that there are very few statements, if any, which can be made in this House without their leading to contradiction from some quarter but I venture to hope that that statement made with the authority of the Foreign Secretary, a man who commands the affection and confidence of this House, is one which will not be contradicted in any quarter of the House. In that belief I cherish the further hope that there will be unanimity in the House, at all events with regard to the first part of the Amendment which I have moved. I will trespass on the attention of the House by inviting them to consider some further words spoken by the Foreign Secretary in the course of the same broadcast. He invited his listeners to consider and read a handbook, "Re- marks on the Present Phase of International Economic Relations," issued by the League, and he said: That little book I would commend to all my listeners this evening. It is a sermon on the folly of our times. Its text may be summed up in this one quotation:'The malady from which the world is now suffering is no longer entirely the crisis, but rather the inability of the countries to co-ordinate their several efforts to emerge from the crisis.' That, as we see it, is the position today. We would ask whether these pronouncements by the Foreign Secretary are merely to be regarded as ballons d'essai, or whether they foreshadow, as we believe, a very important and proper departure from recent economic policy, and what steps the Government propose to take to give effect to them. We were surprised indeed to find that there was no reference made in the King's Speech to this question which we regard as of the uttermost consequence. We regret that no indication has been given to the House of any definite steps which are to be taken to promote this desirable policy. Is it intended to re-summon the Economic Conference at a convenient time? We were told that that body when it broke up did not part to meet no more but was only adjourned. Surely a day will come when it may be possible to ask them to meet again. Or are the Government prepared to take the step which we think they ought to take, namely, to offer full access to the markets under our control to all those countries, whether British or foreign, which are prepared to offer equal facilities to us in their countries That is a step which we think ought to be taken. It might have the effect of breaking the vicious circle in which the countries of the world are moving now. At all events we would be glad to know what is the mind of the Government with regard to this matter. More than any other single policy which they can adopt will it bring relief to the unemployed.

If our overseas trade could be brought back to the level of 1929 we should no longer be talking of 2,000,000 unemployed, for the number would be nearer 1,000,000. I cannot point to any other single step or development of policy which would have that result. It would have an immediate effect on the deplorable position in all our ports. With the exception of London, which enjoys a specially favourable position owing to the new orientation of industry in this country and owing to the fact that London deals largely in products like oil which are not subject to tariffs, practically every port in the country has to-day a volume of unemployment 100 per cent. more than that in 1929. The Merseyside district as a whole has well over 100,000 unemployed, as against 60,000 in 1929. There we have the tragic circumstance of the long-term unemployed, those who have been out of work for three years and more, and a large number of black coated unemployed, and all those distresses which are particularly aggravated by the chronic depression at the ports. Not the Merseyside alone, but all the ports of the country, with the exception of London, are suffering in that way.

This new policy which we thought the Government were adopting is one of the steps which would do more than any single thing to restore hope in those districts where chronic depression reigns. I shall expect to be asked in this House who would respond to such an invitation if we gave it. I expect to be reminded of the efforts made by the late Mr. William Graham, so honourably and affectionately remembered by many in this House, who went to Geneva and failed. I might have my attention drawn to the agreements made by the President of the Board of Trade. Certainly I have no wish to belittle any scheme, however small, which will do anything to ameliorate the position, but I cannot refrain from pointing out that the trade agreements hitherto made by this country are really a mere homeopathic remedy in comparison with the enormous evil and the state of anarchy which prevail in international relationships.

What I wish to impress on the Government is that there has been a very remarkable change in sentiment with regard to this matter in recent times. The fact that the evil has become manifest, and the fact that the condition of the crisis in different countries has to some extent become ameliorated, have led to a saner and wiser view being taken of the matter in many countries. I would remind the House that the United States Government have recently made an important change in their Constitution, in their economic practice, in giving powers to President Roosevelt to lower tariffs in response to concessions from other countries. That is a remarkable thing. As hon. Members know full well, the Americans do not lightly change their Constitution; but they have taken this remarkable step. I could, but that I hesitate to bore the House, justify my statement that there has been a remarkable change of opinion in this regard by various quotations, but I think I can abridge my argument and also convey what I wish to lay before the House by quoting the opinion of Sir Arthur Balfour, as he then was—he is now a member of another place—on his return from the International Chambers of Commerce Conference. He described the Congress as the biggest and most representative one of the kind that had ever been held, and he said: The Congress has, for the first time, shown serious concern at the present state of trade barriers. The proceedings of the Congress have revealed a momentous change, from every point of view, in the attitude of producers in Protectionist nations. In that respect it has proved an eye-opener. Delegates from countries who a few years ago only gave lip service to a fair system of international trade are now really anxious for a change in the situation. As regards France and the French delegation, the change is simply astonishing. It has really been a great manifestation in favour of a relaxation of the shackles which are now hampering international commerce. This has been accompanied by a strong desire on all sides for a revival of currency stability, without which there can be no security in international trade, I think that is eloquent testimony to the change that has taken place and the more favourable atmosphere, unfortunately marred at present by the course of the African war, and it gives good reason to hope that there may be in the near future an opportunity of taking this matter up effectively. Mr. Cordell Hull, the United States Secretary of State, made a speech which I should like to see recited as a sort of general confession by all Ministers of Commerce of all the States of the world, if we could only get them together in unison. Mr. Cordell Hull said: We willingly and frankly admit that we erred in the past, and that we have now repented. Just as we set a vicious example in erecting trade barriers in the form of high tariffs, which induced others to follow us, so we now ask other nations to join us in the attempt to undo the damage that our collective action has done. We want to break down all artificial and excessive impediments put in the way of world commerce, not only in our own interests, but for the benefit of all others as well, as only by restoring the whole world can individual countries hope to remain economically healthy for long. That is the case for the first part of the Amendment which we are asking the House to consider, and I am glad to think it has not evoked any dissent from any quarter of the House up to the present. I am looking hopefully in the direction of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, who, I understand, is to reply.

I turn now to deal briefly with the second part of the Amendment, in which we regret, as we do most profoundly, the absence from the Gracious Speech of any comprehensive and detailed proposals for national development, using the phrase in its widest terms, which are really commensurate with our domestic needs. There seems to be a lack of definition and precision about the economic proposals of the Government, and we are entitled to expect something more definite from them. I do not want, and the House would not expect me, to recite or to lay before them the major items of national reconstruction which we have placed before the House and the country and which indeed have been placed before this House by abler people than myself, but that policy is based upon the call to do something for the unemployed of this country and upon the urgent necessity of seeing that our national equipment in all its branches is at least as good as that of any other country in the world. It is also based upon, if I may borrow the words of Mr. Stewart, one of the Commissioners for the distressed areas, the necessity for replacing, bearing in mind the fact that we are an old industrial country, many of our national assets which the application of science to modern methods is making daily more obsolete. Again it is based upon the profound economic truth that if you have resources—and nobody doubts that this country has greater wealth and resources than any other—it is only an economy to refrain from using them if by so refraining you make it certain that they are going to be put to some other and better purpose. That is the general economic basis of the argument for national development, and it is as true to-day as when it was first announced in the parable of the steward who wrapped his one talent in a napkin and buried it until his master came back again.

An hon. Member above the Gangway here, speaking the other day, said it was not possible to understand the outlook and the experience of the unemployed unless one had been unemployed oneself, and I think he spoke a true word when he said that, but I would like to say further that those of us who represent constituencies where there is chronic depression, where, whenever we are in them, we are surrounded day after day by friends and acquaintances who are enduring the pinched, meagre and restricted life of the unemployed, which they endure with a patience that passes my understanding, know that, although we do not have the physical experience of the unemployed and do not have to endure their life, we do share their mental anxiety and outlook, and, therefore, we think it is intolerable that anything which is possible to be done, whether big or small, should be left undone which could bring some ray of hope and some relief to them in their distress.

I wish, without any intention of giving offence, that some of His Majesty's Ministers would consider the form of the pronouncements which they make with regard to unemployment. We should not lose sight for a moment of the mental anxiety and hopelessness of the unemployed. I would quote the statement of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Election, on 30th October, when he said: The Government has plans that will keep the record level of unemployment up to its present mark. It is good news that the Government have plans. It carries us a long way from the days when the Lord President of the Council, then Prime Minister, assured us that it was no part of the Government's duty to take the initiative in providing work in any special area, but to consider sympathetically any proposal which might be made to them. While we welcome the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government have plans, we would like to ask whether we know all those plans now and whether they are all in the Gracious Speech. The right hon. Gentleman said: The Government has plans that will keep the record level of unemployment up to its present mark, or perhaps more, for a period to come. What a grim, harsh message for the 2,000,000 who are still unemployed. I cannot believe that the ambition of the Government is limited to keeping the level of unemployment on its present basis for years to come, and I hope my right hon. Friend, who, we all recognise, is a man of action and energy, will tell us that that is not the limit of the Government's ambition, but that they have in mind something more than they have put in the Gracious Speech, something more ambitious than keeping things simply as they are. That would indeed be a policy of despair, because we know on the best economic authority that is available, and we know from the Government's own advisers that there is not much hope of things advancing from their present basis unless we can restore international trade.

I would like to ask my right hon. Friend for a little further information on one or two points of practical importance. We all recognise with satisfaction that great and rapid progress is being made in doing away with the scandal of the slums. We are not, however, unaware that while that has been going on, there has been a check in building in other directions, with the result that in many parts of the country the evil of overcrowding, so far from having abated, has actually increased. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any idea of the progress that is likely to be made with regard to the development of the attack upon overcrowding? Is it the case that nothing can be done until the survey has been completed by the local authorities in April next and that after that there will have to be a period during which plans will be prepared, and then passed by the Department, so that it may be two years before anything substantial is done? In my own town, for example, where overcrowding is absolutely deplorable, where something like 25 per cent. of the population live under conditions of overcrowding, we should feel it intolerable that progress should have to be delayed for a long period of time such as seems to be possible under the present arrangement.

I should also like to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is determined, and can give us an assurance, that this vital service shall not be held up for lack of adequate financial help to the authorities. I am informed—in fact, I know—that there is in the mind of some authorities uncertainty on this point. It may be a misunderstanding, but it is felt that the financial assistance is to be limited in the main to those schemes which are devoted to housing and rehousing in flats and tenements on sites which may be expensive. The problem of overcrowding will not be solved until there is an adequate supply of houses which are within the reach not only of those who are low paid but of the lowest paid as well. We hope that it is my right hon. Friend's intention, as far as he is concerned, to see that nothing will stand in the way of that programme being carried out. National development does not consist only in major works such as housing and land development. It consists also in the improvement of our transport system in order to prevent the toll of carnage of the roads of which we hear every week, and in a careful study of every conveivable means that will do anything to help to lessen the general volume of unemployment. We welcome the proposal to raise the school age, for we believe that that Measure, coupled, it may be, with further part-time education, will be an important contribution towards helping the unemployment problem. If there is to be a great deal of enforced idleness over a long time, it is a common sense plan that it should be concentrated on those who are of an age to benefit from it, that is, those of an age to be educated; and, I would add, those who are entitled to retire from their labour and enjoy leisure after a life spent in industry.

I rather regret the turn which the discussion took yesterday on the question of pensions. A good deal of fun was made of the fact that hon. Members above the Gangway had stated that they favoured a reduction of the pensionable age and an increase in the amount. I favour that, too; I know that many hon. Gentlemen opposite favour it, and I hope that the Government favour it. I hope that the last word on that matter was not said yesterday. I would like to ask the Government, as it is a matter of great importance, whether they have made any inquiry into the possibility of carrying it out, and whether, in particular, they have made, or will make, a survey of the exist- ing superannuation arrangements made by public authorities and by private employers and wherever superannuation schemes are in existence, in order that they may know the volume and size of the problem which remains. From the indications of a private inquiry which is being made, I have some reason to believe that the problem may not be so unmanageable as it appears, and I invite my right hon. Friend to give sympathetic consideration to the question.

Another matter in the same field, that is, in the smaller matters of national development, is the policy for increasing consumption which was argued in the House on Friday by my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby). He pointed out the futility of trying to solve the problem of poverty in the midst of plenty by doing away with the plenty, and emphasised the necessity of studying all means by which we can possibly increase consumption. He put his finger on one means by which we can do that; it was by abolishing the household means test. I agree with him in what he says on that point. If there is anything on which there is complete agreement in the House, it is that the charge for maintaining the able-bodied unemployed should be a national, and not a local charge. That being the case, I would like to ask what justice there is in maintaining a system that not only quarters a considerable portion of the cost of maintaining the unemployed on certain localities where unemployment is most severe, but further clamps it on those families in the community where unemployment is actually present? We do not know the intentions of the Government in this matter. Views have been expressed on it from dilerent parts of the House, and I cannot think that when they look into the matter they will consider it either justice or sound economy to maintain a system of that kind.

I now leave the second part of our Amendment because my hon. Friend the Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) will, I hope, develop it a little more in detail. We have felt obliged to put the Amendment on the Paper because we were unable to discern in the Government's programme in regard to international commerce and development anything which, either in spirit, determina- tion or scope seems commensurate with the immense needs of the present time for trying to get the international machinery of trade moving. Far less can it be said to be commensurate with the needs of the unemployed of the nation.