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Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th March 1947.

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Photo of Miss Megan Lloyd George Miss Megan Lloyd George , Anglesey 12:00 am, 12th March 1947

It is inevitable, I think, that on a Vote of Censure this third day's Debate on the Economic White Paper should have introduced an atmosphere of recrimination. I should like to follow the example of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) and of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Miss Colman) and return to the facts of the White Paper. As hon. Members have pointed out, and no one more forcibly than the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), the White Paper is out of date. It is out of date because it was prepared and was in the hand of the publishers before the fuel crisis developed to its full intensity. Another serious situation has since developed, one which may well upset many of the calculations that have been made in the White Paper, and that is in regard to the largest single item of our imports, food.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford said that the people of this country were undernourished. Great sections of the people of this country have been undernourished for a great many years. I believe it is still in the realms of possibility that we may in the face of the facts have to reduce our present rations. I believe we are very much in the same position in regard to food as we were in regard to coal at the end of last summer, and that unless drastic measures are taken, and taken in time, we may blunder into a food crisis. The situation has obviously deteriorated during the last six weeks. The blizzard has decimated our livestock. It has been estimated that one-third of this country's spring and summer foods have been lost through the great freeze-up.

Now these are hard facts which have to be faced. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade said, on Monday, that agriculture was to be given high priority as an import saver, and the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth has just said that we were not cutting down our imports ruthlessly enough in certain respects. But I think that it may well be that we shall not only not be in a position to cut down imports, but may have radically to increase our imports, particularly our food imports.

There is another consideration to be taken into account. The blizzard conditions on the Continent will have affected the crop prospects in Europe, and the drain on the great wheat producing and stock raising countries of the world will be very great indeed this year. We shall, no doubt, have the facts later from the Minister of Food, but it looks from the newspapers as though, although he may have "talked turkey," he has come back with precious little else in his bag. There is, therefore, the possibility that we have to face a cut in rations, with all that that will mean. Throughout this Debate, and on every page of the White Paper, the vital importance of increasing output per man has been emphasised. Members on all sides have, rightly, pressed for increased rations for miners and agricultural workers. A cut in the present iron ration—for that is what it is—would have a serious effect on the health and morale of the people, and on the production of our workers. We have seen the effect it has had in the Ruhr, and in many other countries in Europe. This is a deficit which, I believe, must be made up in some way or other.

I would like to know very much what plans the Government have to meet this situation. Are we to meet this crisis with the same lack of preparedness as we did the coal crisis? The agricultural industry is very short of labour. Last year, crops were left rotting on the ground, because of the lack of labour. This year, we cannot afford to lose one sack of potatoes or one stook of corn. What will be the position? One hundred and seventy thousand German prisoners of war will be leaving the industry; they are going out at the rate of 15,000 per month, and that rate will be accelerated at the end of this year. The shortage will then become critical. I would, therefore, urge the Government to take two steps immediately to meet this situation before it is too late. First, that they should defer the call-up of agricultural workers; secondly, they should offer them some of the inducements that they are giving, and rightly giving, to the men who go down the pits. They should give them priority for housing in rural areas, in order to attract young men on to the land.

There is another matter which is of vital importance, in face of the labour shortage. It is the question of machinery. Agricultural machinery has been exported from this country to the value of over £4 million in 1946. I am not sure that the figure is not even greater. Are these exports to continue while our own need is so desperate? Only a fortnight ago the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins), put a question to the President of the Board of Trade on this matter. He asked whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman would prohibit the export of agricultural machinery, particularly that type of machinery for which the demand exceeds the supply. The right hon. and learned Gentleman refused to consider such a suggestion. We would like to know, before this Debate ends, what the proposals of the Government are to meet what I believe will develop into a critical situation indeed in the coming months.

I would like to say a few words on manpower. The President of the Board of Trade said that the Government still believed that the target of 140 per cent. increase in our exports at the end of 1947 could he achieved. Where is that increase in manpower to come from? The Government are budgeting for an additional 300,000 workers, 100,000 foreign workers, plus those who will be demobilised, and women. Set against that, will be the loss of 130,000 prisoners of war and the loss due to the raising of the school-leaving age which, I believe, cannot be postponed in the long-term interest of the nation. We have had to wait for this reform for 20 years, since it was first put on the Statute Book in the Fisher Act. It is a reform for which we can no longer wait. How do the Government intend to balance their manpower budget, particularly when they come to the ultimate target of 170 per cent. increase which they have set themselves?

They have said, and said rightly, that they cannot direct labour. No Government in this democratic country could contemplate such a thing. But what they can do is to cut down the number of people on non-productive work. As has been pointed out, we have double the number of civil servants we had before the war. Some Members think that we may be in danger of becoming a nation of civil servants. There could, and should, be a cut there, and I believe that it could be effected without impairing the Service in any way; in fact, I think it might increase its efficiency. A cut should also be made in the Services. The Minister of Defence, among the other things which he said last night, said that he was prepared to go into the charges made about wastage and the uneconomic use of manpower in the Forces. That is all right so far as it goes, but a real cut in the Services can only be effected as a result of a major decision of policy, and a scaling down of our commitments. I am perfectly certain that we shall have to face that issue sooner or later, and we might as well face it sooner, than later.

There is a third source of labour on which the Government can draw, and will be compelled to draw, and about which we have heard extremely little in this Debate. That is the womanpower of the country. It would have been impossible, as all sections of the House will agree, for us to have reached the very high level of production during the war, had it not been for the work of women in the factories I believe it is going to be equally impossible for the Government to reach the target they have set themselves in peacetime unless they extend very considerably the number of women employed in industry. What has happened? In 1945–46 over half a million women left industry. That is a very serious matter. I believe that if we could get back 250,000 women into the manufacturing industries in this country it would be the greatest single contribution we could make to the manpower problem at the moment. In the Debate yesterday, the Minister of Labour pointed to the need for workers in the textile industry. He said that 88,000 were needed eventually, 26,000 immediately, and 60,000 women and girls was the figure he gave for the woollen and worsted trades in the next five years. What inducement are the Government offering women to return to industry? They are not only asking them to work harder, as they are asking all other workers. They are asking women to do something which they are not asking anyone else to do. They are asking them to do two jobs. Do they really think they are likely to get women back into industry in great numbers, if they are not going to pay them the rate for the job? At the beginning of the war, it was computed that in industry a woman was worth four-fifths of a man. As in any other sphere, I believe that depends on the man. But, if that were ever true, which I doubt, it is certainly not true today. We have the authority of the Foreign Secretary in this matter. He was charged with the mobilisation of womanpower in the war, and he said the other day that as a result of the experience of the war output is now about equal, one for one. That is from someone who had a real experience of the actual work of women on a national scale during the war.

I would like to ask the Government two questions an this matter. It has been suggested that it is proposed to bring foreign male workers into certain industries in this country which are classified as women's work, and that these male workers are to receive, for female work, the male rate. That is completely indefensible. It certainly is not likely to influence women to enter industry. It is the Ministry of Labour which lays down conditions under which foreign labour works in this country. Can we have an assurance that that will not be permitted to happen? The second question is this: are the Government going to grant equal pay in the Civil Service, or are they going to say they cannot afford it? Are they going to say that it is going to start another infia- tionary tendency, if equal pay is given as a result throughout industry? This proposal has been on the agenda of the T.U.C., I believe, for the last 50 years, or more. During that time, wage rates of workers in this country have been revolutionised, but this injustice to women workers still remains. There have always been unanswerable arguments, and decisive reasons why this should not be done, given by successive Governments. I say to this Government that unless they give the rate for the job, they will not have the maximum incentive to women to return to industry, and the Government cannot hope to reach their ultimate target of 170 per cent. increase in exports without mobilising the woman-power of this country.

The right hon, Gentleman the Member for Woodford has moved a Vote of Censure this afternoon. In the days of narrower party majorities in this House, the logical corollary of voting against the Government was that you were prepared to replace it by the official Opposition. With the memory of 20 years of Conservative Administrations in this country before the war, that is not a prospect which can fill any of us on these benches with anything but despair. We believe that the Ethiopian has not changed his skin, in spite of the fact that some hon. Members, like the hon. Member for Monmouth, have gone in for a process of bleaching. Certainly we shall not find ourselves in the Lobby with hon. Members above the Gangway tonight. Then there is the Government Motion. Quite frankly, we cannot be quite happy with either. The terms of the Government Motion are quite unexceptionable. In fact, there is nothing in it. But we are not asked to vote on the Government Motion, we are asked to vote on the policy of the Government to meet the national crisis, and we believe that that policy falls tragically short of what is necessary. We shall, therefore, feel ourselves compelled to vote against the Motion. I may say that we do it more in sorrow than in anger. We do it without any of the hatred, envy, and uncharitableness about which the right hon. Gentleman spoke earlier in the Debate. Hope springs not quite eternal about the Government on these benches but it is quite prepared to spring a little longer.

I hope as a result of this Debate, and of the constructive criticisms which have come from all parts of the House, the Government will think again, and plan on a wider, more imaginative, and more courageous basis. I believe that one of the greatest disasters which overtook us in the years before the war was the failure of progressive parties in Europe to face the economic difficulties of that time. I do not want to see that happen here. But, let us face this fact, the Government and hon. Gentlemen opposite and their policy are on trial. They have a great majority in this House, but that will not save them if they fail in facing up to the economic realities of the crisis. They will need the co-operation of the whole nation, of workers, employers, managers, and of the great mass of the people of this country. They hold in their hands the destinies of a great people. I still hope that they will rise to meet and defeat this adversity, which may also become, in their hands, an opportunity to save the nation.