Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st February 1956.

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Photo of Miss Elaine Burton Miss Elaine Burton , Coventry South 12:00 am, 21st February 1956

The right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) should know that no families of strikers regard strikes as being a sign of prosperity.

I was interested to note that earlier today the Economic Secretary to the Treasury admitted that the question of food and food prices was one of the major interests and problems of ordinary people today at a time of economic crisis. The hon. Gentleman added that he would not be able to devote much time to the subject. We all realise that he had to cover a great many aspects of the economic situation, but I hope that the Government will not slide out of dealing with food prices by saying nothing at all about them. I should have thought that in the present position the Government would have at least selected the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as one of their speakers in the debate.

The Evening Standard for Friday, the day when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his new decisions, published a remark of his to the effect that "We must all join in the battle." This afternoon, at Question Time, Mr. Speaker told us that all Members were equal. I am quite sure that in the House, under Mr. Speaker, we are all equal, but I am afraid that in the country, under the present Government, and in the matter of the cost of living we may all be equal but some are more equal than others. I am afraid that the people who are less equal and are suffering the most today are those who can least afford it.

The front page of Friday's Evening Standard displays the following: Mr. Harold Macmillan, Chancellor of the Exchequr for eight weeks, got tough today. His new emergency plan to curb inflation will raise the price of bread by ld. a loaf, put milk up by ½d. a pint, and places new restrictions on hire-purchase…He told the House of Commons,' We must all join the battle against inflation'. This is rather unequal joining.

Friday's Evening Standard also contained a leading article which was most incredible even for that newspaper. It praised the Chancellor for what he had done in the matter of the bread and milk subsidies. It said: Too long have these been considered sacrosanct despite the fact that they contribute to the spending-spree by free money which should be spent on necessities to buy luxuries. Ever since reading that leading article I have wracked my brains to think of old-age pensioners, workers with large families and small wages or people on small fixed incomes so often mentioned by the hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) who have been having a real spree on what they were saving by reason of the bread and milk subsidies.

I appreciate that the Chancellor will say that he is not responsible for the Evening Standard, but presumably he is responsible for what the Government say unless like the Minister of Education he is speaking for himself and not for the Government. The real trouble which the Tories will find out for themselves is that hon. and right hon. Members opposite have no conception of the psychological damage they have done to themselves in the minds of ordinary people. The Chancellor said yesterday: Today, we are making a present of a few pennies on every loaf of bread, not only to Surtax payers…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 56.] I really should have thought that the Chancellor would have given up trailing the bogy of the bread subsidy not being worth while because it goes to Surtax payers and to poor people alike. I should have thought that there was no hon. Member in the House or any person in the country who does not know that all politics apart the higher we go in the income scale the less money we find is spent on bread. It just so happens that the people who are higher up in the income scale for one reason or another, eat very little bread. [Interruption.] If the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) does not agree with that, he must be an exception.

The Chancellor then said: I know very well that bread and milk are basic foods, but I do not believe that the rise in the price of bread and the very small increase in the price of milk will have any appreciable effect on their consumption. I do not think it will have any effect on the consumption of bread, because people have to eat something, I quite agree, but I am not at all sure that the increased price of milk will not have an effect on the consumption of milk. We shall be able to see that after next July, when it comes into effect.

I think the Chancellor must have read the leader in the Evening Standard, because he went on to say that he did not think it would have any appreciable effect on consumption, except, perhaps, to eliminate a small amount of waste which is apt to occur when anything in universal use is sold below its real cost"—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 20th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 56.] I can only conclude that the Chancellor, in company with the people opposite who agree with him, does not know any families in which it is a real effort to buy enough milk with which to keep the family fit. He considers that it is waste. That is why, today, I make no excuse for trying to deal with one subject only, because I believe quite honestly, and a good many of my hon. Friends believe with me, that this question of food prices is at the very heart and core of this problem of inflation.

We have had some very pressing suggestions from the party opposite to the trade unions that they should curb wage claims, that they should be patriotic and help to stabilise the cost of living. I should have thought that hon. Members opposite would have realised that nothing would have so great an effect on the pressure of wage claims as a real fall in the cost of living, and that that was perfectly obvious. For millions of people, not only the lowly-paid wage earners, the old-age pensioners and those living on fixed incomes, but the people with large families, the cost of food is the cost of living, and I do not think any hon. Member would disagree with that. I do not know whether the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing wishes to disagree with it, but, if so, I will give way to him.