I am much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for stopping me if I was going too wide of the Debate. As I said a moment or so ago, I was trying to bring the excuse given for this cut into what I submit is its true perspective, but I will not pursue that, having regard to what you have said.
If the intention of the Government was, as it appears to have been, to save £10 million, one immediately asks oneself this question: "Before putting this extra burden upon the backs of the working class"—who, after all, comprise the greater part of our population—" did it not occur to the Minister of Health to see whether he could save money by taking some of the profits away from the manufacturers of pharmaceutical products and the manufacturers of chemical products?" It might well be that had he been as diligent in his attempts to cut profits as he is in putting a shilling on the bottle, he might have avoided taking that latter course. Again, had he had a word with some of his colleagues in the Cabinet it may be that instead of slashing £10 million off the Health Service more could have been taken from the Armed Forces, so that not only could this cut have been halved but perhaps the cuts in other social services co'uld have been reduced.
Assuming for the moment that there is some validity in the argument that this cut was not purely a financial one but, as the Prime Minister said, was rendered necessary because of unnecessary resort to doctors and chemists, what is the position? As we have heard from the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings), who is very experienced in medical matters, the imposition of the 1s. charge will not deter hypochondriacs, who will want their pleasure out of their misery at any price. I do not think there can be any doubt about that. As has been pointed out, it will lead to more difficulties in the early diagnosis of disease. It means, for example, that if a child has a persistent cough, the mother, knowing that she may have to pay 1s. for a prescription, will not take the child to the doctor, yet that child might be suffering from the early stages of tuberculosis, or some disease which could be cured if the mother took the child to the doctor at an early stage.
Certainly the 1s. charge will mean financial hardship to many people. In my constituency there are many workers, on the railways, in cement factories, in oil refineries and elsewhere, who are living barely above the subsistence level, and to their families 1s. is a substantial sum. Those are the very families who are usually most in need of medical attention because of their low level of living. It therefore seems to me that this 1s. charge does not discriminate between those who really need the service and those who abuse it—if there are many who abuse it. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this charge discriminates in favour of the well-to-do against the poor. In the case of those unfortunate people who suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, stomach troubles, and pernicious anaemia, it may be that in one or two cases special provision may be made, but, by and large, this proposed charge which we are considering today must necessarily cause very great hardship to chronic patients.
I ask the Government seriously to consider their attitude to this proposal. We must all appreciate that it is quite contrary to our Socialist traditions; and we must surely all appreciate that it is really contrary to the direct promises we gave in the 1945 Election, or at all events the implications contained in our programme. I venture to say that it is not merely sufficient to oppose this proposal with words alone. I hope there will be some hon. Gentlemen whose convictions will take them into the Division Lobby against this proposal, because this is not a small matter. This is a great matter affecting large sections of the population. Indeed, it seems a great pity that when we are debating a matter of this importance there should be only nine hon. Members on the Opposition benches and fewer than 30 on this side of the House. That is a tragic commentary upon what appears to be the complete lack of democratic interest shown by many hon. Members in something which is of fundamental importance to our people.
I know that if a Division takes place—as I hope it will—it will result once again in the Government having their own way on these cuts. But that will not be the final decision. This will have to be fought out outside the House, and the general public will have to make its decision felt at a not very distant time. I attach great importance to this, and I know that when I vote against this proposal I shall be supported in my action at the General Election, when I shall fight on this very issue in my constituency as an Independent Labour candidate. I am sure that my action today will then be greeted in a practical way, and will result in my coming back to this House in the next Parliament.