Budget Proposals and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th April 1949.

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Photo of Mr William Williams Mr William Williams , Heston and Isleworth 12:00 am, 11th April 1949

May I ask the indulgence of the Committee in this my maiden speech? I especially have need of its indulgence because I find the experience of putting my foot into the waters of its controversy chilling rather than warming. During the past week-end, during which we have been greatly troubled about the Budget and its reaction in the country, I spent some time re-reading newspapers which were published both before and after the Budget and comparing them with the Economic Survey. When it is remembered that the Economic Survey was published a month before the presentation of the Budget to the public, I cannot but feel that the Chancellor was justified in his suggestion that these newspapers, each of which possesses a City editor, capable of appreciating the significance of the statistics that were in that Survey, were extremely irresponsible in leading the country to suppose that it would have been possible to present to the country a relief Budget. To my novice, but I hope not jaundiced, eye it would seem that the newspapers are following the comments made from time to time by right hon. and hon. Members opposite.

In the light of the way in which, increasingly in past years, the Budget has come to be linked with the overall economic plans for the whole nation, I believe that the Chancellor is clearly justified in expecting the Budget to be considered in the light of what the Government have achieved in the past four years, and also in the light of their long-term objectives. By this criterion many of the statements which have been made by the Conservatives and Conservative Press seem, to put it mildly, not in accord with scrupulous fact. The achievements of the Government can stand on their own feet. They have been remarkable, though it is not my intention, nor would it be in place here, to attempt to recall some of the things which all of us know, which most of the world recognises, and to which the greater part of the world's Press pays tribute when talking of the magnificent achievements of our country under a Labour Government.

Nevertheless, I think it may be profitable, in view of the great disappointment which has been experienced by people generally, to suggest that the policy of successive Labour Budgets has been to exempt from taxation large numbers of people. This relief, I am told, amounts to over £580 million per annum, and, in the Budget of last year, more than £100 million relief was given to members of our working population at the lowest levels. That being so, whatever criticism may be offered of this Budget—and I am, in some respects, critical of it—I think it is right to say that the general tendency of the Budgets of Labour Chancellors has been to give the greatest relief to those who have needed it most.

In view of the remarkable achievements of the Government and their faithfulness to their election pledges, especially in respect of the social services, I believe the Chancellor is right to ensure, so far as he is able, that the future shall not be endangered by any recklessness on his part now. Clearly any unreality in our financial situation would destroy more effectively than anything else, the value of the Government's social legislation. Members of the Conservative Party frequently say—indeed the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) mentioned it in his Budget broadcast the other evening—that if the Conservatives were in power they would have embarked on much the same kind of social policy as the present Government. What seems to be true, looking at it—certainly until recently—as a complete layman, is that when credit for these services is being distributed, hon. Members opposite like to get their share, but when from time to time specific bills are presented for the cost of those services, they are most likely to turn their backs and disappear.

It was not to be expected that any Chancellor could, indefinitely, under all the circumstances constantly reduce taxation, and give greater exemptions and relief from the responsibilities of such an austere time as the present, and it is clear from the figures that have been presented in the Chancellor's Budget that no great relief could have been granted. It was, therefore, unkind to say the least of it, of the national Press to lead the nation to suppose that there was any possibility of relief in this year's Budget. I have said these things to show that I have, in my anxiety to understand the significance of this Budget, tried to preserve my sense of proportion in any criticism I might have to offer.

I should like to say now that I am greatly troubled and disappointed by the Budget. Certainly, when all the factors in the Chancellor's statement are taken into consideration they justify him in the attitude he has taken up, but all the factors are not financial. There are many in such a time as this, which would make an effective Budget and give confidence to the country, but which cannot be plotted on a chart or given statistical expression. The thing which has given me personally, and I believe many Members of this House, most concern is the reduction in the food subsidies. I am not concerned with any odd item here there or elsewhere in the Chancellor's statement, nor indeed is there any great criticism to be offered of the changes that have been made purely on the financial level. It is true, as hon. Members have said from time to time, that the alterations have not been very great, yet I could not help feeling that it was a mistake to regard the food subsidies, in particular, as being primarily a financial instrument. It has always seemed to me that a Labour Government and a Labour Chancellor should regard the food subsidies as a weapon for social welfare. A suggestion that in a time of crisis and difficulty the Chancellor should cut the food subsidies seems to me to be a denial of what is a basic, fundamental Socialist claim and, if I might say so, Christian faith also: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need."

The major criticism that can be made and has to be made from this side of the Committee is that the Chancellor, in seeking his £80 million or whatever it is, should forsake what ought to be essential to all Socialists. Whatever money has to be found, we are all agreed that it has to be found either from the citizenry of the country as consumers or as citizens—either passing the expenditure over to the buyer or obtaining it from him as a taxpayer. Whatever the source of the income that the Chancellor must have, whatever the difference in his own Budget, whether he stops an increase on the subsidies at this point or allows them to rise further, the fact is that when the money is collected, it is collected from the people of this country either as consumers or citizens. The tragedy of doing what the Conservatives have always done when they had to face an economic crisis is that the people, who will be most seriously affected and who will have to bear the responsibility and the burden of this new gesture on the part of the Chancellor, are these concerned in the 100 out of the 129 trades in this country, where wages are less than 95s. per week.

In our society there are still gross inequalities. It is still possible for many people to squander wealth obviously and blatantly. Mention has been made of taxation as high as 40 per cent. I would suggest that that is an unreal criticism, because some 22 per cent. is returned in service to the community. In spite of the high rate of taxation, it is still possible, as can be seen any week in the West End, for many people in one way or another, legally or illegally, to evade the worst effects of taxation. That being so, I must confess that I am troubled. In a situation such as we face, if it were necessary to bring home to the country the urgency of our financial difficulty and the problem which we have to face, it should have been brought home at a point where it could have been most effective. What has happened is that the people who are most inarticulate in these matters, feel that somehow an injustice has been done to them, and that a Labour Government has failed to make real its assertion of its belief in a basic minimum below which it would not permit them to go.

It may be asked whether, before I made this statement, I had considered the comment of the Chancellor himself that taxable income as a source of revenue had dried up. Because I have used up more time than I ought, may I say quite simply in reply, that three things occur to me immediately as a source of possible future income which the Chancellor ought to tackle. Firstly, no real attempt has been made to touch as taxable income certain classes of capital. It seems to me that if the situation of the country financially is grave, then clearly one of the things that ought to be taxed is capital by way of a levy. Death Duties, too, are a profitable source of income. I have always been a poor man, but it has struck me as shocking that even after what the Opposition would call the imposition of crippling Death Duties, a man who leaves £8 million can still leave to his son and heirs something like £2 million.

If at a time like this it were felt undesirable so to upset the social equilibrium, one other quite possible source of income might be tapped—the margin of profits that are earned. Many millions of pounds, by which it would be necessary to increase the food subsidies to keep them at their present level, are returned to home producers and could be recovered from this source. I think the figure is £192 million. Here is a profitable place to which the Chancellor could have looked to save at least something of his £80 million. The position is that the effect of this Budget will be most felt in the homes of the poor. When a subsidy is removed or modified, the prices of things shoot up immediately, and the poorer the housewife the more conscious she is of the new burdens that have to be borne.

I believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has still, in spite of the disappointment, the distress and the frustration that will be felt in many poor homes in consequence of this Budget, a fund of good will in this country. He has won from the people of this country a confidence that he can be trusted as a man of unshakable integrity. This is an asset of the greatest possible value. I believe that it is this and not any of the comments of the party opposite which will do much to check the demands for otherwise justifiable increases in wages. I beg that it be borne in mind that there are far too many people in this country who are getting much less than they need for a full life and that there are tremendous numbers of people who are getting a great deal too much.

There are still in this society two nations. In one nation, they regard it as a hardship to be robbed of some traditional luxury or some traditional privilege: to have fewer servants, to have fewer cars, to have less to spend on travel overseas. On the other hand, the great, mass of the people of this country live in a world in which there are no servants, no cars and none of the luxuries the curtailment of which is regarded as hardship by the people who live in that other world. May I, in concluding what I have to say, ask the Chancellor by his budgetary policy to make it plain to the people of this country that it is his intention, as far as possible, within the means that lie at his disposal, to make Britain a nation of equals, rather than an uneasy federation of those two nations? I believe that he will in that way do a great deal to fulfil the hopes with which his Government were returned to office.