Financial and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th January 1952.

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Photo of Mr Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 30th January 1952

If there were any danger of the main system being jeopardised, then I should protest most vigorously against it, but if certain things can be postponed for the time being without any irreparable harm being done, all well and good. Throughout the whole education system there are probably a great number of extravagances which might be looked at and done away with.

The President of the Board of Trade used words to the effect that we must sacrifice the future to save the present, but that is something which must not in any circumstances be allowed to apply to education. No sacrifices must be imposed upon the children of this country upon whom the whole burden of the future, a heavier burden than the one we are undertaking today, will fall.

I now come to the restrictions themselves. Like the right hon. Member for Leeds, South, I presume that the£22 million to be saved on the import of tobacco will be made up out of existing stocks. We all agree, of course, that the production of coal should be increased and that its import should stop. I think that as long ago as 1945 I was the first to say that if we could export 40 million tons of coal a year we should have no economic troubles and would be on top of the world. Today, even an export of 10 or 15 million tons would get us out of our difficulties.

I have already dealt with restrictions on imports of furniture, clothing, and so on, which are bound to lead to an increase in inflationary pressure. It is quite right to limit civil expenditure, to cut out waste, and to postpone those things which can be postponed without doing irreparable damage.

But now I come to a matter of which I cannot approve, the charging of the 1s. for prescriptions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am very glad to hear the cheers from right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House, but they have not a very good record in this respect. In 1949 an Amendment came from the other place which imposed this charge upon the general public, and, what was more, the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) invited this House to agree with their Lordships' Amendment. I was one of the eight who not only protested against that Amendment, but voted against it. But we were voted down by the right hon. and hon. Members who were then supporting the Government. Therefore, their record is not a very good one.

In his speech yesterday the Chancellor said: We shall maintain the structure of the service, but we shall make charges where they can best be borne."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1952; Vol. 495, c. 54.] That sounds very good, but does the Chancellor really think that such charges can best be borne when there is sickness in the house, when, it may be, the head of the family or some other member of the family has to consult a doctor and prescriptions have to be written out? Does the Chancellor think that is the moment for imposing such charges when there is probably less money available and more anxiety, and at a time, perhaps, when extra money will have to be spent upon other things which would not be required in the normal way?

Is this charge to be made on the first prescription or is it to be made every time the prescription is used, or what? When this was proposed in the 1949 Act, it was discovered at that time that it was impossible of administration. What has happened since to make it feasible? To my mind this is a retrograde step, the first retrograde step taken since 1911 when the first National Health Service for this country was introduced.

What is it going to save? It is estimated that it will save£12 million out of a total of£400 million. Again, some saving is also to be made on surgical boots, hearing aids, and things of that kind. I should have thought that to encourage the use of these things would be to encourage many people to take part in production thus adding to the wealth of the country and without which they could not do so.

I suggest to the Chancellor that if he wants to save£20 million he should rather look at the administration of the National Health Service. If he were to do that, I should be very surprised if he did not find that there was a good deal of waste and unnecessary extravagance, the cutting out of which would probably save more than the£20 million envisaged and tend to make available a more satisfactory service. At any rate, it would not put a charge upon anybody who could ill afford to pay it.

Then there is the restriction on plant, machinery, and vehicles. The Chancellor was right in describing it as severe and unwelcome. I would add that unless it is very carefully handled it might also be unwise. This country is still under-tooled, not only in the factories, but in agriculture, and what we need, as the Chancellor knows only too well, is not less production but more production. We are much more likely to get it if we have more tools than if we have fewer.

As I have said, the main part of the Chancellor's proposals are still to come, and it was absolutely right for him to bring forward the date of the Budget. I am hoping that when 4th March arrives he will be bold and courageous and will really try to deal with the position once and for all. This is not a time for half measures, but a time for full measures. There must be no more patching, but a steady long-term as well as a short-term policy so that we may clear up this matter once and for all.

Ever since the end of the war in 1945 this country has gone through some economic crisis nearly every year. The Government of 1946 did not heed the warnings of the great difficulties facing them at that time. They went ahead, and were saved then by the£1,000 million loan from America and the£250 million loan from Canada which we now have to repay. That money was supposed to last till 1951, but in 1947 there was another crisis and the Prime Minister came to the House to announce cuts similar to those announced by the Chancellor yesterday. What really, saved us then was not what the right hon. Gentleman said, our increased production, but increased production made possible by Marshall Aid.

We went on until 1949 when the greatest crisis of all took place, and again in that vital month of July of that year, the Prime Minister came to the House once more to announce that we were once again in difficulties. There were more cuts, terminating in September, 1949, with the devaluation of the£. Again, in 1951 there was another crisis which began somewhere about June and continued steadily through the latter half of the year.

These crises which crop up year after year remind me of an aged prima donna who was announced as being about to say her final good-bye, but who, before the cheering had died down, was announced as making positively her final appearance elsewhere. Is this to be positively the last crisis which will face this country? The Chancellor has a great opportunity before him. Let him seize it, let him be bold and courageous, and the country will be grateful to him.