Orders of the Day — Budget Proposals and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th April 1956.

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Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock 12:00 am, 19th April 1956

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon) has made one point at least which struck me with considerable force, for he said that we ought not to claim that there is any economic crisis or that we are having any difficulty with our balance of payments. I do not mind one or two hon. Members holding that opinion. I do not object to certain people in the country holding it if it comforts them at all. However, it is not at all wise that we should allow the idea to get abroad that all is well and that the country is reasonably well off.

There are two very important facts which have to be borne in mind. The first is that our resources are almost as low as they were at the end of the war, which must cause considerable concern to very many citizens. The second is that in the last year, which we are considering now, we lost well over £200 million in our balance of payments. Irrespective of party, those two simple facts are bound to cause a certain amount of concern.

I raise this matter at this juncture because we have tried very hard in the last few months to make people understand that we are not living in the midst of a vale of prosperity, but are facing a battle for the life of our country. To propagate the idea that all is well, or that it is a simple matter to get out of our difficulties, is, to my mind, quite unfair. It is almost treacherous to suggest that all is well. All is not well. The people must realise that our country must make a great effort to overcome its present difficulties.

It is wrong for hon. Members opposite to spread about the country the idea that things are all fine. I suggest to the hon. Member for Norwich, South that while he may well believe, in the context of his own economic prejudices and his own views, that all really is well and that in the long run all will be well, nevertheless he ought not to encourage people to believe that the balance of payments problem is quite simply and easily remedied and we have been doing remarkably well during the last year. I put it to him that that is the kind of thing which will make people slacken their efforts and will encourage industry to become more concerned about its own affairs rather than the nation's wellbeing.

The hon. Member did refer to what he called the constitutional arguments of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Surely we are certainly entitled to question this suggestion which the Chancellor has made about a £100 million reduction. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says that we ought to have throughout the year, as in any business concern, a constant scrutiny of all Departmental expenditure to ensure that no waste at all creeps in. But that is not the point we are trying to make. The hon. Member must realise, unless he is much more prejudiced than I would suspect, that this £100 million will not be found in simple wastage.

If it were the fact that £100 million could be found in simple wastage, then surely we ought to have found it years ago. Such a state of affairs ought to have been exposed a long time ago by other processes of the legislative and administrative machine. We are surely not going suddenly to find £100 million being wasted by the State through not surveying its normal processes of administration and execution of policy.

It is fair to say that an element of this £100 million—we suggest, a large element—represents a deliberate cut in policy. That may or may not be good, but we in this House of Commons, this democratic Chamber, are entitled to ask these fair and pertinent questions of the Chancellor. Where will this money come from, what policies are to be changed, and may we comment on them?

I have heard it said by the President of the Board of Trade that we are going to look to the middle classes. I know that one or two hon. Members comfort themselves in the knowledge that this Budget has been a fair one to doctors and teachers; they feel that the professional classes are given an incentive and that the middle classes are really given a chance to play their full part in the recovery of our country.

Do hon. Members really believe that conscientious and public-spirited citizens like doctors and teachers are really more concerned about their own personal wellbeing than they are about the state of our schools and hospitals? Surely, a doctor is more concerned about the welfare of the medical services. Surely a teacher is more concerned about his schools. A conscientious doctor or teacher is concerned not to see how much he has managed to secure in superannuation concessions. He is concerned to find out what is going to happen in regard to this £100 million, and how it is going to affect hospital and school building and the National Health Service.

These matters are very relevant. I do not know whether they are valid arguments according to the view of hon. Members opposite. It appears that valid arguments are defined simply as those arguments which the Government can answer, and invalid arguments are those which the Government do not wish to answer. I used the word "pertinent" a short time ago. I think my comments may be termed pertinent—not impertinent, but pertinent to the subject under review.

It has been the custom always to speak not of the cutting of the building of houses and schools but the postponement of it. This is a neat device whereby the politician manages to avoid the troublesome reactions of the situation. I suggest that if we are going to economise in the country to the extent of this £100 million, it is going to mean a very thorough postponement of school building and other building which will be really unfair.

This is a form of control we have over schools and hospitals which we do not exercise over many other forms of building. Hon. Members opposite, for their own doctrinaire reasons—to which they are entitled—object to controls. They object to any control of buildings. They dislike the idea of reintroducing building licences. But I put it to them that this distaste for controls means that they are willing to allow a certain part of the economy to go free and uncontrolled while another part of the economy, the building of schools and hospitals, is subject to the most rigorous control and is attacked first when difficulties arise.

If, therefore, we are going to economise, it must not be at the expense of schools and hospitals. There may be other things which are highly desirable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we shall find, on the one hand, the Government stepping in to postpone school and hospital building, while on the other hand, petrol stations and other luxury buildings are erected all over the country, unrestrained and without reference to Government policy, availability of building materials or shortage of labour. It is quite shameful that our priorities should be treated in this way. We do not even know at the present time whether there is to be any slowing down in the school and hospital building programme.

We on this side of the House are very concerned that there should be a discussion of the Guillebaud Report. From what we have gathered from various associations, from the British Medical Association, the Medical Practitioners Union, and various other agencies within the medical profession and its auxiliaries, we understand that there is constant concern that the present Health Service charges should first of all be reduced one by one and then finally eliminated altogether. The B.M.A. is on record as supporting the idea that we could withdraw the prescription charge. There are many doctors who are anxious to see this Report accepted by the Government completely. Indeed, we would go a little further than that; we are willing to see the withdrawal of all the charges.

The present Budget proposes nothing like that at all. It is suggested in the Press—though I do not suggest the Government are responsible for it—that they are considering introducing further new charges rather than remedying the present inequity. One of the newspapers of this country most loyal to the Conservative Party is the Glasgow Herald. Today, without any apologies or quotation marks, the Glasgow Herald heads one of its articles, "The Macmillan Axe". There was a time in political affairs during the last ten years, which is the only period in politics which concerned me personally, when anybody who wielded an axe of any kind was extremely unpopular. We were building up the Welfare State, and, no matter what the party opposite may have said at the time, the fact is that anybody who said an axe ought to be wielded was considered very much of a reactionary by his own group.

Here we have the amusing situation that on 19th April, 1956, in this Scottish newspaper, there is printed, without apologies, the heading, "The Macmillan Axe", and also a sub-heading "Social Services May Be Cut". This newspaper is widely read among the professional and middle classes. I put it to hon. Members that there is many a doctor and many a teacher, and many other citizens, who will be very concerned to find that of this £100 million so much is to be recovered by cutting the social services.

Of course, we may have the declaration that the saving is to be made on defence. Very good; I will welcome that. But I think we are entitled to ask the Chancellor whether or not this £100 million is to be found in any measure at all by reducing the social services.

The Financial Secretary earlier stated that the whole theme of the Budget was savings. I would like to quote the words of Lord Mackintosh, Chairman of the National Savings Committee, speaking on the actual element of the Budget which concerns savings. He said—and I quote from the Manchester Guardian of today's date— With the new Savings Certificate and Defence Bond, the Movement had the best tools for the job that it had ever had, apart from the novel Premium Bond. I have tried to be fair, but I could not quite analyse the sense of that sentence. Does the use of the second comma mean that he agrees that these are the best tools for the job, apart from the novel Premium Bond? Does he mean that the novel Premium Bond is not one of the best tools? I suspect that he does.

We have had in Scotland in the last day or two from one of our foremost churchmen, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Professor James Pitt-Watson, one of the best comments on Premium Bonds. He said that it was regrettable that when people could not be induced to invest in the future of their country, they should be asked to have a flutter on it. I thought that that was a particularly good comment on the situation.

I agree with my hon. and right hon. Friends that, no matter how we argue, this is, nevertheless, a simple gamble. It may be innocuous, but it is fundamentally an exercise of the principle of gambling and should not be discussed at this stage in our proceedings. In fairness to the consciences of hon. Members, this proposal might be put into a Bill on gambling and betting and, as has been suggested from this side of the Committee, a free vote of the whole House of Commons allowed on it.

It was suggested in one newspaper today that we on this side of the Committee are asking for a free vote because our party respects the consciences of its members. There are hon. Members opposite who have consciences and I know one or two of them who are anxious that their consciences should not be prejudiced in this matter. I simply make the point that we should not consider on party lines a matter of this kind which can very much violate the conscience of an hon. Member.

The definition of gambling, with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer entertained us two days ago, certainly amuses me, but I cannot quite accept it. It seems to me, with respect, that the risk of loss of some money for the possible gain of more is a far better definition of gambling than the one which the right hon. Gentleman offered to us. I submit that however small the money loss and however large or small the gain, one is gambling, and for anybody to say otherwise is to ignore the argument or to pronounce humbug.

Hon. Members opposite cannot escape the charge which will be levelled by history that they have willingly tolerated the introduction of gambling with the blessing of the State into the fiscal system of this country. So far, I have heard few hon. Members opposite willing to denounce this proposal as gambling, naked and unashamed—certainly unashamed. The point that I would put to the Chancellor, since he appears to be unmoved by arguments about gambling, is that some moral damage must be caused by the introduction of these Premium Bonds. The damage may be slight in his estimation or in mine, but let us weigh that damage against the profits and economic probabilities of the lottery.

Let us consider the difficulties of running the lottery. There are two classes of people who will be attracted to it, or will at least think about it. There are those who gamble constantly—those who are anxious to get something really big for nothing. Is it thought that they will turn to Premium Bonds, with their very doubtful attractions in terms of gambling? I am talking in gambling parlance which, frankly, I do not understand, but does anyone think that these bonds will attract an avaricious gambler? It is argued that the odds are lower than the odds of the football pools, but the first attraction of football pools is that those who spend their money on them get the results weekly, and I am told that there can be nothing more awkward than having to wait a long time for the results of a gamble.