Orders of the Day — Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1947.

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Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth 12:00 am, 8th August 1947

If it is the Bill which is going to give the party opposite power to carry a Socialist plan into effect, it is of something more than symbolic significance. I ask that whoever is to reply will tell us which is the case which the Government seek to put forward. We should know that, and I think that many hon. Gentlemen opposite also would like to know. Many of them seem somewhat troubled about what appears to be the sweeping nature of the provisions, and I think they are entitled to know, as much as we are. I ask the Home Secretary to say whether this is just a trifling Measure to clear up a small legalistic difficulty, or a matter of great significance and sweeping powers, which many hon. Members seem to think it should be. Personally, I think that the Opposition should be prepared to give the Government very considerable powers in time of difficulty, but on two conditions. The first is that they should know what it is that the Government propose, and the second that they should consider that what the Government propose is broadly right.

I do not know, and I do not think the country knows, what it is that the Government propose to do about this crisis. In fact, the Lord President of the Council said that he did not know precisely what he was going to do—what he wanted was the power. But we want to know. I listened to the two days' Debate. I sat all through it, and even tried to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. I heard a lot of talk about the appeals that were to be made, the targets to be set and so on, but I still do not know what it is that the Government really propose to do to tackle this situation. We are told that there is a great storm into which the ship of state is now sailing, but all that this Bill does is to tell us to go away for our holidays, to take our lifebelts with us and, when we come back, the captain may know broadly which course he is going to steer.

I want to turn now to what is going to be done at home, because I understand that this Bill deals with the orders and regulations which can be put into effect to deal with the home situation. At least, I gather that that is what is intended. I do not propose to talk about the wider sweep of which other hon. Members have spoken, nor do I intend to be doctrinaire about the evils or otherwise of delegated legislation and the question of whether Ministers should use these powers. I say that what matters is what kind of economic order the Government are trying to create by the orders that they make. Let us at any rate have that clear from the Government, and then we shall know better what this Bill is all about. There is one kind of economic order which I think the hon. Member for East Coventry supports and which, probably, the Government also support. So far as I can understand it, they want to lay down what they call the social priorities. They want to allocate materials and resources between one industry and another, to say to one industry, "Expand," and to another "Contract." The more honest of them admit that, if you are to allocate raw materials and resources, you have to allocate the men as well. Therefore, powers are taken to allocate labour, and they are being taken under this Bill.

Let us face the fact that this Bill is not just temporary. The President of the Board of Trade, in winding up the Debate last night, made it perfectly plain that this is not a temporary situation. Do not imagine that we can pull out of it over night; this is something which is going on for a considerable time. These powers over labour are not temporary powers to deal with a temporary situation, but are part of the main structure which the Socialist Government must have to put their policy into effect. I say that that policy is going to fail. In the first place, I say that because it cuts right across the whole basis of the trade union movement in this country. Then, in order to direct labour, more powers of direction are required over wages. You cannot direct a man from a job where he is earning £12 a week to a job which pays £6 a week. It means that the Government have to tackle wages at the same time. It cuts right across the whole basis on which the trade union movement has hitherto been built up.

I do not think the Government know what the social priorities are. I do not think that any Government knows, or that any Government Department has the knowledge to lay down these things. One can broadly say that we want more men in the coal mines, but let me give an example of what it means when we come down to the details of laying down priorities. In the fuel crisis, a great glass works was making windows for houses, and this work was thought to be so essential that they were given a 50 per cent. allocation of coal—you never get a 100 per cent. allocation. But the raw materials needed to make the glass were forgotten, and the firms which produced the raw materials were forgotten. The hon. Member for East Coventry was particularly frank about this matter, and admitted that the planning in regard to the motor-car industry had been remarkable by its absence. The policy will fail on those grounds. Finally, it will fail because the only countries which have tried that system of allocation and direction of manpower, and have tried it in peacetime, have found that the ultimate sanction is the machine gun. The Government have got to choose whether they are to have that system, or whether they are to have a system which goes back to the prices mechanism. They have got to have one or the other. There is no halfway house between the machine-gun system and the prices mechanism system.

At the moment they are trying to have both, with the result that they are getting the worst of everything, and that is why we are in this position. On the one hand, they have rationing and price fix- ing, and on the other, differential wages but no incentives, because however much a man earns, he cannot buy the things he wants. They fix their prices for one lot of industries, with the result that men are not flowing into them, because they allow prices to run up in other industries. Eighty per cent. of the country is under private enterprise, but they create conditions under which no private enterprise can flourish. If one had gone out of one's way deliberately to create a chaotic situation in this country, it could not have been done better than it has been done by this Government. I want to make this plain to the right hon. Member for East Coventry.