Orders of the Day — Budget Proposals and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1949.

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Photo of Captain Harry Crookshank Captain Harry Crookshank , Gainsborough 12:00 am, 7th April 1949

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) I should like to express on behalf of all of us on this side of the Committee our admiration at the tone of the speech which the Chancellor of the Exchequer made yesterday, and the fluency with which he made it, because he certainly held the Committee for a long period and nobody, so far as I could see, went to sleep. But he had a tremendous canvas to paint, and now that it seems to have become the practice for the Debate on the economic situation and the financial situation to be run into one, it makes it a little difficult for the speakers on the first day, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman has painted his picture and therefore the later speeches in this Debate will be able to go more fully into the economic position in the light of what he has said whereas, as it is also a Budget Debate, it is common form that hon. Members on all sides of the Committee should express fairly early views on the budgetary side of the matter.

Of course that change is due to the return to the Treasury of the oversight of economic as well as financial affairs. The Lord President was responsible, and he wanted to have a tremendous Debate early in February. It sounded as if it would be interesting but obviously it was not practical politics, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor found that. Either he had to say that he could not anticipate the Budget statement or, alternatively, he had to say on the Budget Debate, "All that has already been discussed, we will not go over it again." I think this plan is all right, but it makes it rather difficult after so long a speech as the right hon. and learned Gentleman made, to pick out all the points on which one would like to comment. So I hope he will not take it that, because I do not go into great detail, we on this side are not interested. It is due merely to my own personally limited capacity.

We agree with the Chancellor when he says that the year 1948 has been one of very great achievement. All of us who hold responsible positions as Members of this House are glad to acknowledge the fact and to give praise where praise is due. It is, however, to be remembered that the achievements are largely due, at least in my opinion, to two things. First of all, of course, there is the Marshall Aid and its effect, both financial and psychological. We must remember the second part as much as the first. It has had a great effect, not only in our own economy but throughout Europe.

The second factor which we must not lose sight of is the amazing resilience of private enterprise in this country. [Laughter.] It is all very well for an hon. Gentleman opposite to laugh, but all the increase in the export trade, with just the one exception, to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, of coal, is out of the production of what is called the private sector of industry. It is quite true that coal has shown some improvement and that in export coal and bunkering last year 11 million tons were sent out of the country, but that is much less than a quarter of what was being sent ten years ago; so that it is only a very little way towards the targets we must reach if we are to get complete restoration of our economic and financial position in the world. There is no doubt that by improving our coal exports we shall make a big advance. Therefore, even these early steps are very much to be welcomed. But the big figures of exports to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred are due to the skill and ingenuity of what we call the private sector.

In the Economic Survey the Chancellor makes a point about which I want to speak. In assessing the success of last year, which he calls "a year of great and steady progress," he points our that industrial production as a whole rose by about 12 per cent. above the 1947 level. I accept that as a statement of fact, although I note in passing that the Committee on Industrial Productivity, whose report was referred to just now in a question by the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo), pointed out the extraordinary difficulty of measuring any increase of production or productivity. The fact that I read that only last week, just before reading this very definite statement about the figure of 12 per cent., made me wonder whether we must be very careful not to put too much reliance upon this figure.

The second point we ought to remember is that while it may very well be that last year there was a 12 per cent. increase of production over 1947—if, indeed, it can be measured; I am granting that for the moment—1947 was the year of the fuel crisis; it was not a normal year at all. Therefore, we cannot begin to expect anything like such a proportionate change for the better in the subsequent year. We lost tremendously as a result of that crisis and it must be remembered that for something like a fortnight, I think, over two million people were out of work, even though there was a Labour Government in power. So that we must beware of taking too much encouragement from that figure of a rise in any given year of 12 per cent.; I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree with that; but that does not, of course, in any way detract from the remarkable achievements of the year.

The White Paper on the economic situation has rather changed in its form from the earlier one. We have abandoned now the very detailed estimates and targets of what we were going to export and make in every kind of commodity. I think that is right. Perhaps in their over-enthusiasm for planning some hon. and right hon. Gentlemen overlooked that we could not really go down to such detail. But with the final objective for this year which the Economic Survey gives us I am in entire agreement. Indeed, I should like to quote a sentence from page 15, because it is very strange, to my mind, that a pregnant phrase shows the clue to the whole of the Budget situation. So far as I can see no one has spotted it or commented upon it, yet I am quite sure it was put there with the full deliberation of those who drafted and approved the Paper. I shall read this sentence, transposing the words for easier running: …it is the Government's intention…to increase to the maximum investment in those industries…" for the export trade and particularly the dollar-saving industries. The sentence, however, contains these words: while maintaining investment in the social services at the 1948 level. There it is declared that, whatever happened, it was not the Government's intention to increase expenditure over the 1948 level in the social services. That is the key, it seems to me, of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals. There was the red flag—"We cannot go beyond 1948's level." What is more, on the very next page, it goes on to say that in what I imagine most hon. Members would say is the most vital of all the social services at present—the need for housing—expenditure this year will show a decline.

So there is the picture. The Chancellor had already decided that there could be no greater investment in the social services; that we were to maintain the level of 1948. I am not, of course, saying that this is for all time; I am talking about this year, as I read the Paper; we are maintaining the level—that is to say, we are not increasing it. That is the reason why all the applicants, the queue of deserving folk who suffer from one difficulty or another, who go to see the Minister of National Insurance—old age pensioners, spinsters and all the others—have all been told, one after the other, that nothing can be done.