Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th November 1952.

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Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Ealing South 12:00 am, 11th November 1952

My hon. Friend says "Family allowances," but, of course, they do not as a rule affect old age pensioners.

The hon. Member for Ince challenged the fact that the rise in the cost of living of food prices had been only 1s. 6d. for each ration book. He can challenge it if he likes, but the figures are there and that is what they show. He said three times that this bore very hardly on the sick, the unemployed and the old age pensioner.

If the hon. Member cares to go back and look at the records of his own Government to compare the rise in the cost of living with the increases in pensions, unemployment and sickness benefits and National Assistance which accompanied them, he might have the grace to realise that the present Government do not have to take a back seat and apologise to any hon. Member opposite for the record they have shown in this field.

Then the hon. Member went on to say that the index of the cost of living fell temporarily in August and September, and that it was due entirely to a few seasonal reductions, and the cost of fruit and vegetables. Well, it may be that it is temporary, because, after all, there were some more food subsidy reductions and, therefore, increases in rationed food which came into effect in October. It would not surprise me if the cost-of-living index rises by a small amount again, but at least let us see what has happened to it this year compared with what happened to it last year.

Which, after all, is the better, that there should be an increase which the Government of the party opposite were powerless to prevent, unaccompanied by any compensating increases, or that there should be a deliberate increase accompanied by increases in social service benefits and decreases in taxation as part of a monetary policy which has had obvious advantages in helping to solve the balance of payments crisis?

I shall not detain the House much longer. In any case, I could not, because I have a very bad cold and my voice will run out before very many more minutes pass, but I did tell the right hon. Gentleman that before I sat down that I would say a few words about his accusations of a cleavage on this side of the House and of overwhelming pressure against my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It has, of course, always been one of the more noticeable differences between the party opposite and ourselves that we, as a general rule, manage to agree about our policy before we get on to the Floor of the House whereas the party opposite usually fights out its differences in the House. If we are to talk about big cuts in Government expenditure, let us be perfectly clear how far we on this side all agree together and how far we disagree with hon. Members opposite.

I believe that my hon. Friends who have been most active in this matter perform a service of immense usefulness in continuing to chase the Treasury and Government Departments to ensure that every conceivable administrative saving is made. I think that Departments ought continually to be chased in that respect. There is always a danger that we come to think that the things which are nice today, and some of the things which, in a period of post-war inflation and of relief from war-time conditions we thought we could afford, should continue. I think they should be questioned afresh and that we should see whether, in fact, we can afford to do them.

There is a considerable variety of opinion and a considerable range for difference of opinion as to how much can be cut out of the estimates without making big policy changes, and, indeed, about what policy changes ought to be made. I have always thought, and my hon. Friends will know that I have said so to them on certain occasions, that they make one mistake of which they ought to take more account.

Even when a considerable chunk is chopped off the estimates for administrative expenditure, it must still be realised that owing to a number of factors—of which the fact that we are a rapidly ageing population is the most important—there is a natural tendency for all the social service Departments' estimates to rise of their own accord all the time, and that we may take a considerable chunk off administrative expenditure and yet still find that we are where we were before without making any net saving. I also believe that it is possible considerably to exaggerate the savings that can be made without making big changes of policy.

I do not go all the way with some of my hon. Friends in this, but of one thing I am perfectly certain. I have the most immense confidence in the ability of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to do exactly what he said he would do at our party conference in Scarborough, which is to make every conceivable saving that he can in public expenditure without making changes in policy which he believed would cause unnecessary suffering and hardship. That is what he said, and every one of us who knows him knows perfectly well that he meant it, and that, however much right hon. Gentlemen opposite may try to sow dissension in these ranks by believing that my right hon. Friend is about to be overrun by a rush of wild men, that is what my right hon. Friend will do—exactly what he said.

Listening to economic debates, and, in particular, to the debate yesterday and today, I have thought that the real cleavage is between those who talk about Government expenditure, the balance of payments and economics in general on the one hand and the ordinary people of the country who are called upon to go about their ordinary work, and to vote in General Elections or, from time to time, at by-elections, on the other hand.

I have sometimes the awful feeling that we are developing organisations, systems of government, industries, departments, firms, trade associations, and so forth, operating on a scale so vast and of such an increasing extent that the number of people who can see what they are all about and where they are going is progressively diminishing. But, worse than that, I think that we are getting to a scale of organisation which is almost beyond the wit of the ordinary administrator either to control or to understand. Now, if this tendency goes on—and I fear it is going on—I see very great dangers ahead for everyone.

The hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Daines) made what I thought was one of the most interesting and valuable speeches from the other side of the House yesterday, and I found myself in almost complete agreement with everything he said. We are getting ourselves into a condition now in which it is too fatally easy in a large industry for the employers' side and the trade union side to get together to pass on increases in charges and increases in costs to the consumer, knowing that they have the power to enforce that, and the voice and the choice of the consumer is becoming progressively less and less.

Somehow, we must find some method by which we can reverse this process. We have given the nationalised industries so-called consultative councils, which everybody who has ever had anything to do with them knows are farcical; they offer the consumer no possible method of making his voice really heard or his preferences felt. Many of our people have almost lost the habit of what I would call selective shopping; they have almost given up hope that they themselves can influence prices, quality, and so forth, by their own efforts.

If we are to find ourselves in a sort of managerial revolution in which the ordinary person feels that there is no hope that he will ever comprehend what is going on, that there is no hope that he can by his own efforts or his own voice influence the general direction of economic development, then it is almost impossible to expect that we can get the workers and the management of the country united together behind a Government in order to solve our economic problems.

Though I am only too well aware that I lay myself open to the objection I have made against right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that they were not being very constructive and helpful in our present difficulties, I do put this forward as something beyond the ordinary detailed controversy in which we usually engage on these occasions, as something far bigger and far more fundamental, to which we on all sides of the House will have to turn our attention, or else we may find that the ordinary people will just give up hope, not only of comprehending but of being able to do what only they can do, which is to save the country.