I rise to make my first speech in this House and I ask for the usual indulgence. My speech will be remarkable for its brevity. I have been told by many hon. Members that brevity should be the chief characteristic of a maiden speech.
I should like to say a few words about the reference in the Gracious Speech to the international balance of payments, which in my opinion is one of the most serious problems which any British Government has to face. The position seems to be, briefly, that in the second half of 1954, according to the "Economist," there was a deterioration in the British position of no less than £186 million. There was a deterioration over the same period in the position of the sterling area of no less than £337 million.
As far as I can see, during the first quarter of 1955 the general gap in our balance of payments was 94 per cent. of what it was in the same period of 1954. Although the Prime Minister has expressed some confidence in the statistics for April, I think he is over-confident, because those statistics, when examined in detail, do not appear to bear much hope for any improvement this year.
This paying our way in the world seems to me to be of vital importance. First, if we do not pay our way it will have serious repercussions on the standard of living of our people. The second reason, which to my mind is of equal importance, is that continued economic dependence might lead to ultimate political dependence, and I think that the economic independence of this country is vital to Britain playing an independent rôle in the world. For that second reason also I should like to see this problem tackled seriously and without complacency.
The House will know how it is possible to do that, but I may be unusual in thinking that the changes which are necessary are radical. We know, for example, that it is necessary to improve food production in the homeland as quickly as possible. We also know it is necessary to step up exports as rapidly as we can in order to increase our income, and that the Government have rather failed since 1951, taking over a high level of exports and improving it very little.
We know the various methods by which we can solve this problem. One way which I consider to be of the utmost importance is the finding of alternative sources of supply when the supplies upon which we depend at present come from dollar countries. I do not think we are tackling that question seriously enough. So it seems to me that in 1955 we are up against a crisis year once again, and that in my view, if hon. Members will forgive me, is one of the main reasons for the General Election taking place on 26th May. It is the opinion of many economists that there will probably be a crisis later this year in our international balance of payments.
It is also noticeable that our gold and dollar reserves, which have never been as high since 1951 as they were at one time under the Labour Government, have been falling, although of course not as quickly as they fell after the outbreak of the Korean war. But they have been falling, and they are not sufficient to see us through a major international balance-of-payments crisis. I urge the Government to take whatever steps are necessary to solve this problem before it is too late, because failure in this one problem will involve far-reaching consequences.
If the House will permit me, I should like to make one or two observations on the Gracious Speech with reference to a few points which arise through my experience in the constituencies, not necessarily my own constituency. I will deal first of all with the reference in the Gracious Speech to the question of monopolies and restrictive practices. One of the things which happened to me during the General Election was that my old car had to be run for three weeks from morning until night and at the end of that time the bearings of one of the wheels had failed. I took the car to an excellent motor mechanic who runs a little business of his own and charges very reasonable prices. If anyone wants his name and address I shall be quite willing to give it.
He asked me whether I was still teaching and I said, "No, I am a Member of Parliament." He commented on that in words which I cannot reproduce in the House, and went on to talk about the impossibility of obtaining supplies of tyres and other necessities because he was not a member of a private dictatorship existing in the motor trade. I want to emphasise that he was most bitter about that.
Hon. Members on all sides of the House believe in liberty. We in the Labour Party believe in liberty, and the party opposite sometimes describes it in terms taken almost directly from the Report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, published in 1816. That is just a little out of date. I should have liked to see more definite reference in the Gracious Speech to the problem of private dictatorships—a problem which caused so much disturbance in the mind of my friend the motor mechanic.
May I deal, next, with the reference to agriculture? I agree that a long-term plan is necessary for agriculture, with guaranteed prices and assured markets, but I notice that there is no mention in the Gracious Speech of one of the things about which the farmer is very much concerned at present—the supply of cheap credit for the improvement of farms. It is noticeable that much of the money going into agriculture is not being used for the improvement of farms, and farmers are very concerned about a supply of cheap credit being made available. There is no reference to that in the Gracious Speech.
In connection with legislation which
will be introduced to safeguard the health and provide for the safety and welfare of those employed in agriculture and forestry
I am surprised that there is no mention of the importance of the tied cottage in agriculture, because if anything affects the health and welfare of many agricultural workers it is the existence of the tied cottage.
I have already had to deal with several cases of whole families being evicted from their homes simply because the man has changed his employment. It is not merely that they are evicted; they are evicted without having anywhere else to go, and families are broken up—to my mind a barbarous practice reminiscent of the worst days of American negro slavery. I am indeed surprised that a modern British Government have not mentioned this problem in the Gracious Speech and have not promised to do something about it.
One final point—and if I do not make it and then finish I shall not be keeping the promise which I made at the start: until three weeks ago I was working "at the coalface" in the teaching profession. I was a schoolmaster. The Gracious Speech is the only reference to education which I know which does not mention the size of classes. All steps for the improvement of education revolve around the absolute and vital necessity of reducing the size of classes. My information is that over 3 million of our children are being educated in overcrowded conditions.
I cannot afford to send my two young children—a boy aged four and a girl aged seven—to a private school at great expense, and I shall use the State schools. I am very concerned about the conditions which exist in the State schools, because I want to see my children have the benefit of being taught by individual tuition in small classes in these schools. Our whole policy for the improvement of our educational system must revolve around the necessity for reducing the size of the class.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the House for this indulgence, and hope that on a future occasion I shall be able to speak in more detail about some of the subjects which I have mentioned in passing.