Orders of the Day — Ways and Means.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 9th April 1941.

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Photo of Lieut-Commander Joseph Braithwaite Lieut-Commander Joseph Braithwaite , Holderness

I did not have the good fortune to hear the Chancellor make his Budget Statement, but I read the report as soon as I could, and if the speech sounded as well as it read hon. Members must have had two hours of lucid exposition of a very complicated Budget. The Chancellor paid what have become the usual annual tributes to the taxpayers, direct and indirect, for the cheerful and determined manner in which they have shouldered the tremendous burden, but that does not absolve the Committee from its historic duty and responsibility of scrutinising expenditure. The fact is—no matter how it be camouflaged —that all is very far from being well on the financial front. We have listened to a statement by the Prime Minister of considerable gravity on the military situation. We must always remember that the sordid and dull question of finance remains an essential part of the national defence if we are to survive.

The expenditure of£13,500,000 a day which we have now reached is taken as evidence that we are getting into our stride, and we point to it with a good deal of pride as being an earnest of our determination to see the war to a successful conclusion. But far more is this expenditure an evidence, I fear, of a failure to evolve, during all these months, a wages policy. The other day the Minister of Labour made a brief appearance on the music-hall stage during the B.B.G,'s Saturday evening music-hall programme. He deprived me of some three or four minutes of Arthur Prince, which frankly I should have found more enjoyable under the circumstances. I think that the feature "From the Front Bench" is the occasion for Ministers to appear. In making the appearance to which I have referred, the Minister of Labour told the people, quite truly, that although Hitler could smash their homes, he would never break their hearts, and he went on to reiterate a statement which the Prime Minister made on the wireless one Sunday evening that the time was coming when we would drop four bombs on Germany for every one which they dropped on this country. That statement was naturally greeted with the applause which it elicits in various parts of the country where people are under no delusion about our having no quarrel with the German people. But the Minister of Labour might have gone on to say that the same ratio of four to one, spread roughly over the country, represents the ratio of the remuneration of the rank and file in the reserved occupations compared with the rank and file in the Fighting Services, to whom the House has just paid a well-deserved tribute.

The gap between revenue and expenditure is not so remarkable, and will not be regarded as so remarkable in the years that follow, as the yawning gap which we have allowed to open between the rates of remuneration of men conscripted from their normal employment and those remaining in the reserved occupations. There is an extraordinary gap between the remuneration of the man who makes the gun and the man who fires it. The leading signalman responsible for the whole communications of a vast convoy of some 50 ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, the young man who is responsible for the signals of his commodore being passed without mistake, and whose mistakes might have fearful consequences, receives as his remuneration something like one-fourth of what can be obtained by a fire-watcher or a roof-spotter. It is that sort of thing which will astonish posterity.

Frankly, I do not think the Chancellor was at all convincing when he set forth the objections to applying to inflated wages the principle of the Excess Profits Tax. Do not let us be hypocritical about having taken the profit out of war. The profit may have been taken out of the employers war, but certainly the profit is coming in as far as the employés war is concerned. I do not blame the employés for that. Agreements have been made after the proper machinery has functioned. I should have thought, however, that a very reasonable yardstick for a computation would have been the negotiated trade union rates ruling before the declaration of war and the levels which have now been reached as a result of negotiations. Cost-of-living subsidies have been imposed to keep food prices down. The cost-of-living index is not all that it might be as a criterion.

When my right hon. Friend speaks about the important part played by savings, I am a little disquieted. I hope that the example I am about to give is an isolated one, but I have taken the opportunity of finding out in three factories engaged in war production what proportion of those who have received increased wages during the last 18 months belong to savings groups. I find that a little over 10 per cent. belong to them. It may well be that some of these people save without joining in the groups, but it is disquieting at any rate to find that ratio running through three factories, which I selected because I happened to know those who control them. However good may be the intentions of my right hon. Friend concerning price fixing— which is of enormous importance and a policy which hon. Members endorse and support—it will be of little avail until the problem of wage-fixing has been tackled.

But the figure of£13,500,000 a day is dangerous not only from an inflationary point of view; it is dangerous from a psychological point of view. When a figure of that sort is reached, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to resist suggestions for expenditure. Wherever one goes, in the Forces, the factories or the executives, one finds an attitude of, "What do a few extra pounds matter when there is an expenditure of £13,500,000 a day?" In for a penny, in for a pound. It is amazing how a man's mentality changes the moment he ceases to work for himself and begins to work for the Government. A man, whether in uniform or not, who, proceeding on duty, carrying a light suitcase, arrives at Paddington to proceed to Liverpool Street, jumps into the nearest taxi, knowing full well that his expense sheet is in his pocket, and will be filled in when he gets to his destination. But, put that gentleman in his bowler hat and in his civilian clothes, and let him carry that same light suitcase, when he is engaged in his ordinary peace-time occupation, and, of course, he will proceed by the more democratic and very often more rapid method of the humble tube, which hon. Members use after the Sittings of the House. Once that man is put on Government work, he becomes taxi-minded. I suggest that we are living—and the Committee should take notice of this because we are all determined to win this war— in an era of departmental megalomania which is affecting the whole national economy.

I am glad to see the hon. Lady the Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate) entering the Chamber, because she has spoken so frequently on agricultural matters. I hope to enlist her support in what I have to say in my next few sentences. The question of the production and the consumption of food cannot be divorced in chese times from the national economy and a planned budget. I should like to know how many young men have been taken from the plough, and, what is far more serious, from the mechanical tractor, during the last few months in order to polish the boots and buttons of other young men. There is a waste of money and man-power going on as a result of this departmental megalomania. In times of total war this sort of thing is quite an unnecessary luxury for officers, young or old—their womenfolk cannot get such assistance of a domestic character. It is an example of the large mindedness from which we suffer when we get huge Budgets. I hope the Financial Secretary will not regard my speech as entirely destructive, because we are all anxious to come through this job successfully; but it is important to see whether the gap cannot be closed by economy as well as by increased taxation. This£250,000,000 which is being raised as a result of increased taxation could probably be saved if Departments, His Majesty's Forces, and everyone else were run on the same lines as these same gentlemen would conduct their own affairs in times of peace.

If the Chancellor had dealt with the wage problem when it first arose, together with the problem of prices, we should have secured economy in respect of the expenditure we are to-day asked to find. As it is, the taxpayer is offered, what I am bound to regard with some suspicion—I think it is largely fictitious—what is called a nest egg. I read about this In yesterday's Debate, and I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) was beginning to take an interest in that nest egg. The scheme will form the foundations of a capital levy. It will be subject to taxation, and in any case the Treasury will probably say to the taxpayer, "You now have the shell left which we shall set off against your Income Tax liability in the coming year." Anyone who thinks he is going to collect hard cash for this nest egg after the war is over is, I believe, living in a fool's paradise. It reads nicely in the Press, and has been claimed in many quarters as easing the blow, but I think we should be clear that this is likely to be a book-keeping entry rather than a sum to draw when the war is over. The taxpayer will turn a blind eye to these imperfections providing he receives value for his money. The morale of the taxpayer is as important as the morale of the fighting man, particularly when they happen to be the same person. It is important the taxpayer should feel that as a result of the sacrifices he is really going to get his money's worth and the results which he seeks.

The bombing of Brest, Lorient and the invasion ports represents sound strategy, but what a difference there is on the faces of the people in the street when there is a placard reporting the bombing of Berlin. Let it be realised, if you want to give them result and value for their money, that the time has come to blast the enemy and destroy his homes as he has destroyed ours. I well remember that fateful Sunday morning in this House when the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister of the day, stated amid universal acclamation that we had no quarrel with the German people. That is not true now. After 18 months of the bombing of civilians, the machine-gunning of refugees on the roads, the attacks on merchant seamen and passengers in open boats, the sinking of the "City of Benares," and the bombing of our ancient buildings, all gloated over by the German people, the time for that kind of talk has gone. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) evolved a slogan last autumn—"Sock the Wop." We have done that, and the time has come to substitute for it, "Blast the Hun." Let the German people drink the cup of defeat to its dregs with their homes crashing about their ears, and, if that is done, the taxpayer, if he is confronted with even greater demands, will then say that it is cheap at the price. That is all the more reason for this Committee to see that the sacrifices of the taxpayer are not wasted in unnecessary extravagance.