War Situation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 25th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr Irving Albery Mr Irving Albery , Gravesend

The interesting speech to which the House has just listened is one that has touched upon the problem which I want to discuss in this Debate. In detail, I probably disagree with a very great deal of what the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Barstow) said, but there is no doubt that there are a great many people in this country who have the kind of opinion and the kind of views which he has expressed about our difficulties. I believe the hon. Member was making a maiden speech, and if that is so, I should like to congratulate him upon the able manner in which he delivered it on what is always a trying occasion.

Before coming to the main question with which I wish to deal, there are two short points which I should like to make about the general war situation. I shall not touch in any detail upon military matters, because I do not consider myself qualified to deal with them, but I must say that the explanations which the House has received up to the present concerning the misfortunes that have overtaken us are, to my mind, inadequate and unsatisfactory. I suppose it has not yet been possible to disclose the whole truth of the situation, but I think that, in the main, one thing makes itself clear, and it is that, in any case, a lack of the necessary material of various kinds on the spot has been a large contribution to these misfortunes. The only other thing I want to say about military or naval matters is this. I hope that whoever winds up the Debate for the Government will be able to assure the House and the country that in America, in the Dominions, and in this country, the question of naval construction and shipping is being given priority over every other item of armament. It is obvious that whatever else we can make or construct, unless we can provide the shipping to take the material where it is required, our other efforts will indeed be wasted.

To come to the point with which I want more particularly to deal—it is a matter on which many other hon. Members have spoken—I am concerned with the national effort, the war effort, and with reference to that, the question of national morale. Curiously enough, the other day I came across what I believe to be the biggest indictment against the policy of the Government in a Government publication. I received from the Ministry of Agriculture "Notes on Agricultural Policy," a well-worded and a helpful book, put out to guide farmers on the production of what are vital necessities for us to-day, and explaining how difficulties are being met. The paragraph which particularly caught my attention was as follows: The land, like the factory, must be at the full disposal of the Government to be used in the way that is best for the war effort. This may not always be the way that the occupier thinks best, or that he is used to: it may sometimes mean hardship and loss Just as one factory or shop is ruined and another flourishes, just as one man is called up and another is left, just as one brother earns high wages and another makes the supreme sacrifice, so one farmer may be called upon to plough up most of his farm or revolutionise his whole method of farming, with possible loss to himself, whilst his neighbour, engaged in mixed arable farmng, continues relatively undisturbed with increased profits. These are the fortunes of war which it is difficult and often impossible to avoid. That appears in a Government publication, and, in view of the state in which this country finds itself to-day, the fact that a Minister should find it necessary in urging farmers to increase production to disclose a policy such as is indicated in that paragraph, is to my mind an indictment of the policy of the Government. The fact of the matter is that we have all trusted the Prime Minister to lead us in military matters, to which I believe he directs the whole of his attention, but we have failed up to the present to discover any corresponding personality, with vision, courage and determination, to lead us on the Home Front. I think it is, generally, the accepted policy of the country and of this House—it has been frequently declared to be the policy, and, to some extent, has been emphasised in legislation—that there is not to be any profiteering in this war. When I use the word "profiteering," I apply it equally to the capitalist and labour sections. We shall never get the real national effort required until problems of the sort raised by the hon. Member for Pontefract have disappeared as matters of controversy. It is a difficult task I know, but with good will I do not see why it should not be taken in hand and achieved. We shall remain with our different outlooks about how our industries and our commercial practice ought to be conducted in this country in times of peace, but there is no reason why we should be saddled, handicapped and hamstrung in our efforts by differences of opinion of that kind in time of war. I am no Socialist, but there is no Socialist measure, if it could be shown to me to be helpful to us in our war effort, which I would not support to the very best of my ability.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to certain factors which may contribute in some way towards attaining that better state of affairs. First let us deal with profiteering. People cannot get away with much profit to-day, as everyone who knows anything about Excess Profits Tax recognises, although, undoubtedly, there are ways for some persons to accumulate profits in spite of the tax. I believe that it would be a good thing if, when the next Income Tax papers are sent out, a form were included upon which every citizen was ordered to state the whole of his personal assets. They could be stated in some detail, and the form could then be returned with the Income Tax papers. It would not need any great administrative machinery, and no expert valuer would have to be brought in because it could be regarded as a token valuation subject to adjustment later. By introducing such a scheme, we could get a rough idea of the possessions of the community, either at the present stage of the war, or, if more convenient, at the commencement of the war. This information would be available when the time comes to clear up these matters; there is obviously going to be some kind of capital levy, of one kind or another, or on increments during the war, which will be a matter for later decision. At any rate we should have in hand the machinery to deprive those who, in spite of the wishes of the nation, have made profits during the war, indirectly, directly or by round-the-corner methods. I hope that some such scheme may be introduced, because it would take away from the minds of those connected with labour the belief that they are being asked to work in order to enhance the profits of individuals.

I now turn to the labour side. Again, I cannot pretend to speak as one who has expert knowledge. However, I represent an industrial constituency, I meet a great many men and employers, I am a regular attendant here and I have been, I think I may say, an attentive listener to Labour speeches. I have tried to understand these things with an unbiased mind, and I have arrived at the following conclusion. One of the greatest difficulties in the labour position to-day is the treatment of overtime. There is nothing to be said against a man, who is working overtime for the convenience or the benefit of a private individual, demanding that he should be paid double rate, or whatever he can get. But it appears to me to be quite a different matter when that man is asked to work overtime on behalf of the State, at a time when the State is in peril, and when his comrades in the Services are working without extra remuneration, and are, in addition, offering, if necessary, their lives. In saying that, I do not want anybody to think that I want to reduce the present basic wage of those employed in industry. I do not, but I believe a great deal of waste and expense is incurred through the present system of overtime. It appears to have been definitely laid down that any excessive overtime is detrimental to the war effort and to the workers themselves. Therefore, no overtime should be worked except on a Government certificate, and some industries could have certain facilities and latitude so that important Government work should not be held up. The man who works overtime should be limited to his usual rate of pay during the war, as a war sacrifice, and should not be paid additional rates. As regards recovering these privileges after the war, we have passed a Measure to secure that. In any case, I do not think they would be in any danger because everyone recognises that trade union rights and privileges are more likely to be increased than decreased when the war is over.

In saying these things I am not contending that the workers' remuneration should be reduced. I want better distribution. It would be far better, in some directions, to raise the standard wage rather than pay extra for overtime. I throw that out as a suggestion which is worth consideration. I realise that the overtime question is not easy to get over. We are faced with trade union practices and all kinds of prejudices and the point of view which has just been put forward in this Debate. In dealing with these things, it is not difficult to put up an ideal theory and I may be accused of having done so. I recognise readily that what can easily be put forward in theory, is often difficult to achieve in practice. We must, however, aim at an ideal, and if other concessions have to be made to win the full and united co-operation of labour in the war effort, I would say that this was a very inappropriate moment to bring in the tax on wages. It does not seem to have been a particularly sensible thing to do. I am all in favour of a tax on the higher earnings of the workers; I think it is bound to come sooner or later; but I do not think that in the middle of the war, with all our difficulties, this added complication will help production. To the workers, however, it must be explained that the Government are taking steps to prevent any profiteering on the employers' side and that they ask the full co-operation of the workers to prevent the same thing on the labour side. There is no gainsaying the fact that there is profiteering not only on the employers' but on the workers' side. I could not help hoping when I heard that the new Lord Privy Seal had been added to the Government that he would, possibly, provide that lead, drive and inspiration which are needed to bring this country really, unitedly together in the tremendous war effort which must be achieved if we are to be successful.