Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Fred Blackburn Mr Fred Blackburn , Stalybridge and Hyde 12:00 am, 5th November 1957

I wish to deal briefly with three points in the Gracious Speech, one of which was mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer). As I listened this morning to the Gracious Speech I waited with some anxiety for a reference to the position of the war disabled and the old-age pensioners. It was with relief that I heard these words: War pensions will be increased; legislation will be introduced to authorise increases in retirement and other benefits. I am sure that that will have the approval of every hon. Member. We cannot judge exactly what will be the position, because we do not know what are the benefits at the present time. But everyone will agree that old people and pensioners generally have had an extremely difficult time during the past few years, in the face of ever-rising prices. Everyone will agree that it is morally wrong that we should expect the young and the old to bear the greatest burdens of an economic crisis. Consequently, everyone will be delighted that at last something is to be done. I hope that when an increase is made in the pension rates there will be an adjustment in the National Assistance scales, so that what is given with one hand is not taken away with the other.

I was very pleased this afternoon when the Prime Minister said that a Bill was to be introduced almost immediately. I am not quite certain about the time when it will be put into practice, but I sincerely hope that benefits will soon be paid, by, at any rate, Christmas. On a previous occasion the old folk had to wait a very long time before they received the promised benefits. If need be, we can pass legislation fairly quickly through this House, and I am certain that if it is necessary, every hon. Member would co-operate in getting the Bill passed quickly, so that the old people and war disabled pensioners may have their benefits by Christmas.

There may be a little more controversy about the next words in the sentence which I read out, referring to increases in contributions. I wonder whether the Government will deal with a very curious anomaly—or whether they will once again ignore it—whereby the only people who pay the full amount of National Insurance contributions are the poorest workers, that is, those who do not earn enough to pay Income Tax. Not having to pay Income Tax, they cannot get the benefit of Income Tax relief on their contribution. It is a very serious anomaly and something which should be investigated.

The second point with which I wish to deal is the question of local government reform and the rating system generally. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that their purpose was made clear in three White Papers. We all hoped that by this time the Government would have had second thoughts on certain aspects of those three White Papers but, quite obviously, that is not the case. The right hon. Gentleman talked about increasing the financial independence of local authorities. I thought the Government had given up that idea; that at the Conservative Party Conference there was a more honest approach and that they had realised and admitted that it was an economy measure to alter the rating system.

The Gracious Speech states that This measure will also make adjustments in the rating system and in the system of Exchequer grants to local authorities. I do not know exactly what is meant by adjustments in the rating system, except that there is to be industrial rerating to the extent of another 25 per cent. Apart from that, I do not know what the Government intend to do.

Surely it is important that there should be a new way of finding income for the local authorities. There must be some new way, otherwise, whatever amalgamations take place or whatever reconstruction of areas there may be, there is a danger that local government will break down. It is no use saying, "Well, rates have not increased to the same extent as other things have increased during the post-war years." Rating is a very heavy burden on many people and one which is more unfair in its incidence than is taxation. That is why I was hoping that the Government, regarding their proposals for altering the percentage grants to block grants, would by this time have paid some attention to outside opinion.

All people interested in education strongly oppose the Government's proposals. It is nonsense to talk about altering the percentage grant to a block grant as being something giving greater freedom to local authorities, something which will increase their financial independence. Of the block grant, well over 80 per cent. refers entirely to education. Every hon. Member opposite knows quite well that there is not a single control exercised by the Minister of Education which he would willingly give up because of a change from percentage to block grants. If the Minister did that, it would mean that his duties under the 1944 Act were not being carried out. I appeal to the Government to take notice of those who have a genuine interest in education.

If we are to maintain our position in this highly competitive world it is vitally important that we should spend even more of the national income on education, a greater percentage of it than at present. We cannot transfer the duty from the central Government to local authorities. Even if some Conservative speakers are right when they say that more will be spent on education, it is not helping to solve the present economic crisis to transfer expenditure from the central Government to local authorities.

But does anyone really believe that the same amount of money will be spent? Quite apart from the block grants, there are to be great increases in the rate burden. There comes a stage when local authorities cannot push up the rate burden still further. I appeal to the Government to have second thoughts about that alteration before it is too late.

Finally, I want to say one or two words about that part of the Gracious Speech which reads: You will also be invited to approve a measure to permit the creation of life Peerages for men and women, carrying the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords. I am rather suspicious of that. It is often not a bad exercise to turn back to the previous year and read what appeared in the Gracious Speech on that occasion. This morning I did that, and I found that in 1956 these were the words: It is my Government's intention to put forward during the present Session proposals for reforming the composition of the House of Lords. In 1957, there is no vague talk about proposals for reforming the composition of the House of Lords; we now have a definite suggestion for the creation of life peerages for men and women.

I take it that the statement in the Gracious Speech last year was merely a matter of flying a kite, and I hope that the same proves to be the ease this year. I am very suspicious about it. What is said does not make very much sense. We already have a Chamber which over 800 people are entitled to attend, and it does not seem to me that one improves the Chamber very much merely by increasing the number from 800 to 900, or 1,000.

On the Government benches, there is, I think, a general belief in two-chamber Government. Of course, hon. Members opposite have every reason to believe in it. On this side, there is some division of opinion as to whether we should have one-chamber Government or two-chamber Government. My own view is that there are advantages in a second Chamber as a revising Chamber, but only as a revising Chamber. If there were not some such Chamber, we should have to interpose an extra stage in the consideration of Bills in this Chamber, perhaps another Committee stage three months after the Third Reading.

If we are to have a second Chamber, it can become a matter of general agreement between the parties. I believe, only if there is a reduction in the present powers of the other place. On such a basis, discussion might begin. There will not be a great deal of agreement merely to do what is suggested here, because there will be the suspicion that this is only the first instalment of something worse to come, the giving of greater powers. If the Government are not very careful, they may find, when they bring legislation on this matter before the House, that the Lord President of the Council has to toll the knell for the departure of another place.