Orders of the Day — State of the Nation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th August 1947.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Frederick Lee Mr Frederick Lee , Manchester Hulme 12:00 am, 7th August 1947

Like the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby), I propose to murder what undoubtedly would have been a brilliant contribution to this Debate in order that other hon. Gentlemen may have an opportunity to speak in it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) when he pointed out that unless this Debate signified the end of the "phoney" peace, the House will rise for its Summer Recess with the country still unaware of the real implications of the problems which he before us. I believe that it is the duty of this House to place before the people not only the magnitude of the task, but also a broad flexible plan, capable of bringing us through this trying ordeal. I have got to submit that up to now we have heard no plan sufficient to deal with the tremendous job which faces us.

The drastic cutting of our imports by the Government, necessary as it is, will accelerate the present tendency to contract the total value of world trade, and against that position I should like the President of the Board of Trade when he replies, to tell us how he believes that by the end of next year we can hope to attain 160 per cent. of our 1938 export level. Yesterday the Prime Minister told us that we must be more careful in the type of thing we buy because of the contraction of world trade. I believe it is even more necessary that we should discriminate very carefully in our selection of the type of thing which we produce. When increasing our volume of exports to the soft currency areas we must decide the type of thing that those countries, in fact, need. The Foreign Secretary has told us on many occasions how important coal would be to him in his negotiations with other Powers if it were available now for export. I would remind the Government that the same thing undoubtedly applies so far as agricultural equipment and capital equipment, et cetera, are concerned for those countries with which we are trying to negotiate for vast wheat supplies to this country. How much more efficient and successful our negotiations would be if, instead of speeding up motorcar production to colossal figures, we could promise at short term delivery, supplies of agricultural implements and things of that kind.

I should like to ask the President of the Board of Trade how long is it going to take to tool and standardise the motor industry? As an engineer, I believe that cannot possibly be done in two years. By that time the opportunity we have of competing with any effectiveness in a world market which is a sellers' market will, in fact, have long since disappeared. I believe it is most vital that we should realise that we are not merely planning to redress an adverse balance caused by the war but, in fact, we are trying to rectify an economic unbalance from the 1914–18 war which came to a crisis in 1929 and was covered up in the second half of the 30's by the armaments drive.

The Prime Minister referred to the sacrifices which are undoubtedly necessary. I have heard it said that sacrifices should seem to be fair as well as being fair. I want to impress on the House that the sacrifices must not only seem to be fair but must, in fact, be so, and based on the policy of sacrifice by every class of society. In this respect, I was most grievously disappointed, because I think it is fair to say that the policy as outlined by the Prime Minister was merely to ask the workers in the heavy industries to give more effort, to work harder, providing the supplies are available, in the interests of the country at this critical period but did nothing in regard to those people who tell us that they are only short of shirt tails and that they have everything except that. They can go along to places like Lewis's and give reports to their directors of profits which are higher than ever before existed in the history of these combines. At the same time the workers are expected to make great sacrifices.

I believe this afternoon the time was opportune for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to have told us that the Government were prepared to accept a profits policy, which would, in fact, have been an inspiration to the whole of the working classes. If my time were not so short I would tell the House precisely what profits tax could, in fact, be put into operation. I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer has got a copy of the scheme, and I hope even now he will realise that it is not sufficient to ask one class of people to do the sacrificing and then appeal, especially knowing what type of response he got to his appeal of last year, to other people not to show clearly so much of the profits this year or the boys in industry would get a little disturbed about it.

I still hope that we may hear a progress report which will show precisely what has been done since March last in manning up those vital industries upon which we are dependent for success in the great ordeal which now lies before us. Before this Debate concludes we should have a picture given to us through the latest information available of the incidence of the build-up of these trades, and whether we are expecting any diminution in the numbers now employed in the luxury industries. On a number of occasions in this House recently I have heard questions and comments on the necessity for importing foreign workers into the country, but I still believe that the major problem of the Government is to redistribute the labour power we have available and not to worry too much about the importantion of foreign labour. When we consider, for instance, the difficulties of language, of housing, and of training these men, we realise immediately that it would be a long time before we could expect to obtain any real return for the expenditure in money and time on that kind of thing. On the other hand, we have a great reservoir of women labour power in the country still effectively debarred from going into industry by the lack of nurseries, créches and so on, and the failure to accept the principle of the rate for the job. I would challenge the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his inflation argument as applied to women who would go into productive industry and replace men. I believe that that would not by any means be inflation, if granted the rate for the job, but would result in a great increase in the wealth and production of the country as a whole.

In the few minutes I have left I want to refer to workers themselves. I have heard arguments in this House with which I could not agree regarding the relations between employers and work people in industry. It does not do a great deal of good for people who do not, after all, know a great deal about the matter to suggest that these relations are conducted on a cat-and-dog basis from beginning to end. There is a very appreciable degree of negotiating machinery and powers of conciliation at our disposal now in industry, and for every unofficial strike or for every reference which goes outside a factory 99 or even more cases are never heard of because they are settled amicably over the table inside the factory.

I believe that the time is now appropriate for the Government not merely to ask the Ministry of Labour to try to have works councils established in industry but to give us those works councils by legislation. We know that the progressive type of employer, the man who is willing to negotiate and to establish the best conditions, already has his works council. The type of person against whom we set our faces is precisely the man who has not got his works council and will not have it unless we obtain power to enforce it in his particular industry. I believe, therefore, that we should establish works councils and link them with the regional organisation which the Ministry of Labour is now setting up in order to bring to a speedy end any dispute which may emanate from the factory level. This question of giving responsibility to the workers is most vital. I know that we can impart that feeling that one is part of the effort only if we can give that responsibility. I know from my own experience that when I had people who were over-critical of my administration the first thing I did was to give them a job with a bit of responsibility and thus rid myself of a very disturbing critic.

May I turn now to one particular industry and speak for the next two or three minutes as an engineer on behalf of engineers? I hear a great deal of talk of engineering unions not accepting Poles, and I read Questions on the Order Paper on this issue, but I feel that it would be very dangerous to pursue that kind of thing in this House. This applies particularly to people who do not know the type of negotiation which is going on and the effort which is being made to bridge the gap. So far as the Amalgamated Engineering Union are concerned, I am extremely proud of the history they can show. Whenever danger has threatened this country from without we have seen the ability of the engineers to take into the industry hundreds of thousands of people who never have a vestige of a chance of going in before, and teaching them every trick of the trade in order that the country might be brought through a great ordeal. From a bad start in 1939 we were able, because we brought these people in and showed them the rudiments of our craft, to attain a position in 1942–43 where we could outmatch in production any other country in the world, friend or foe. It does not do for people in this House to throw any kind of mud at unions and men who can do that kind of thing.

I hope that it will be realised that so far as engineering is concerned we have a great body of wholesome support for any worthwhile effort, whether it be for war or to bring this country through an economic crisis such as we now have before us. I am convinced that if the Government will in fact plan this thing in such a way as to show that sacrifice is not to be one sided, if they will prove to the people that we can enter this great ordeal which faces us in the same spirit that characterised Dunkirk, and if they can show us that beyond the end of the crisis there is something worth fighting for, then as far as engineers are concerned, and the A.E.U. in particular, I can promise them that 820,000 of its members will play a tremendous part. They will play this part not only so far as their own production is concerned, but they can supply other industries with the basic things which only engineers can produce. If the Government will give us that lead before the end of this Debate tonight, then the country can expect the same ability as was displayed in the terrible days of the war.

It is not a question of setting up a demagogue to lead a nation—which is the kind of tripe of which one hears so much from hon. Members on the other side. During the war period we knew quite well what it was that the individual was asked by the Government to fight for. We knew that we fought for our very lives and for the betterment of the nation, and if this Government will in fact try to inculcate that spirit in the workers again, in two years from now we shall be able to throw back in the teeth of the pessimists the things they have said today.