Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Hubbard Mr Thomas Hubbard , Kirkcaldy District of Burghs 12:00 am, 6th November 1957

It is my good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, just after we have heard a most interesting maiden speech on a very interesting subject. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. M. Clark Hutchison) obviously spoke with a great deal of knowledge and sincerity. I am sure that on behalf of the whole House I can offer him our most sincere congratulations.

I am particularly interested in the subject matter with which the hon. Member dealt. We know that he has had a long experience in colonial work. I am aware that he was in Australia when the war broke out and there joined the forces and rose from private to major. That is evidence of his ability. After that, he went into the Colonial Service in Palestine and elsewhere. He knows his subject, and his knowledge will be of the greatest service to this House in the future.

It is not surprising that the hon. Member should deliver a good maiden speech when we remember that his father served in this House for six years after 1920 as Member for North Midlothian. Not far removed from where the hon. Gentleman is now sitting is another member of his family, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Sir I. Clark Hutchison), who has served this House for a long period. The hon. Member's family has thus made quite a contribution to Parliament. I am sure that he will look forward to future debates, when he can join in the battles which are enjoyed so much by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I wish I could be as sincere in congratulating the Government on their proposals. One of the strange things about our proceedings is that one may congratulate a maiden speaker in the kindliest terms one can think of and immediately afterwards have to address oneself to the Government, when one cannot find terms harsh enough with which to criticise. I do not think any Government deserve criticism more than the present Government. I have read carefully through the Gracious Speech, and I have imagined all the things that might have been in it. One of the most effective parts is that in which the Government make the resolve to take all steps necessary to maintain the value of our money, to preserve the economic basis of full employment by restraining inflation, to strengthen our balance of payments and to fortify our reserves. Up to now, the Government have taken all possible steps to destroy the value of our money. Even at this late stage, if we could accept what they say in the Gracious Speech as likely to be true, we might be able to help them.

I do not wish to go further in my criticism. After hearing the speeches that have been made in this debate, I very much doubt whether the Government are capable of maintaining the value of our money and preventing unemployment. If one were to be guided by speeches made here by the Government and their supporters, as well as by speeches made outside this House by Ministers, Government supporters and other Conservatives who are not members of this House, one might be misled into believing that the Government had had a long run of success and had brought the country into prosperity by creating conditions in which, as the Prime Minister has said, we have "never had it better". In point of fact, everyone, excluding the Prime Minister, knows that there has been a steady deterioration since the Government were elected.

Many things have happened during the last year, not excluding the Suez crisis. The by-elections have shown in clear terms that the Government ought to go to the country, rather than continue in office when they know that the country no longer has confidence in them. It is not a question of the so-called war against the Government by wicked trade union leaders, or of Opposition Front Benchers or back benchers trying to destroy the success of the Government. The Government have had no success.

It is a rather pitiful story. We have gone from bad to worse, year after year. Now we find ourselves in the sorry position in which the Government's own deliberate policy has increased the cost of living and, therefore, has reduced the standard of living. Having done that, they tell us and the country that it would be wrong for trade unionists to ask for increased wages and for the Government to approve them, whether before or after arbitration, because they would be inflationary increases. It is the question of whether the hen or the egg came first. Everybody knows that the Government, by giving large sums of money to one section of the community, have created conditions which have caused us nearly to reach bankruptcy.

No one on this side of the House wants to see inflation. One of the things which annoys me is to have to listen to right hon. and hon. Members opposite making speeches, both inside and outside the House, on the basis that the patriots are on their side of the House. We believe that they are on this side of the House and in the trade unions and the workers whom they represent, some of whom have been derided by hon. Members opposite.

Throughout my short lifetime the low-paid wage earners in this country have always responded when the country was in difficulties, whether in war or in peace. My memory takes me back to conditions to which none of us likes to refer. When the First World War broke out nobody said, "We are the people who have been so badly treated that we have little to gain by fighting." They went to war and fought. The very same people who fought in the First World War had been receiving wages of about 17s. a week in the linoleum industry. These are the old-age pensioners of today. We are told that they ought to have saved for their old age. The ordinary people were the great patriots.

We all know that this country cannot survive without production and manufacture. The Government recognise this. Our problems cannot be solved simply by a few kind words; more must be done. Someone from the Government Front Bench ought to pay a full tribute in respect of the co-operation which the Government have had from the trade unions since they were elected. When we remember the conditions in which the miners have worked in the past and realise that after long years of struggle they have achieved a five-day week, we also recollect that they have continued to work a six-day week. People in other industries who have worked for very small wages in the past are today working long hours of overtime.

In spite of this, all we can hear from the Government and their supporters are references to the average earnings of the people, forgetting that these are the results of the miners working a six-day week instead of a five-day week and of many others working longer and harder. This criticism of the earnings which the workers make is far from a credit to people who make such remarks.

By the production of all industries in this country, engineering no less than any other, by working overtime, by making greater effort and by increasing our production, they are assisting the Government, but the most they can get from the Government and their Tory supporters as well as a large section of the Press is a continued report about the average earnings of the people in this country, without any explanation that these earnings have arisen because the people have worked harder and longer.

That is not the way to treat a single section of the community. I agree that everybody's efforts are needed if we are to make our money worth something. It used to be worth something. It requires everybody's efforts, but the Government select a single section of the community, whether for a tax reduction or, for the landlords, an increase in rent. In many cases there will be no limit on the increased earning capacity of the landlords, and there is no suggestion of disloyalty because they have raised their rents as high as they wished. Apparently there is no crime in that; it seems to be all right. It does not appear to be disloyal for a group of people, at the very moment that the full impact of the financial crisis struck this country, to make fortunes overnight on the Stock Exchange. There seems to be nothing unpatriotic in that, according to the Government.

On the other hand, when people find that their standard of living is affected by these things, apparently it is unpatriotic when they try to maintain it. If the rent rises and if the price of everything else goes up because of increased interest charges, the only way in which people can maintain their standard of living is to ask for an increase in wages. I cannot see that there is anything wrong in an ordinary wage earner wanting to maintain his standard of living if at the same time there is nothing wrong when another section of the community makes the sky the limit.

I have had a long experience in the mines, but my constituency must be about the largest linoleum manufacturing centre in the country. The industry has been of great assistance to the town. Many people are employed in it. I know little about what goes on in the head office of the linoleum industries in Kirkcaldy, but from time to time we hear what has happened in the Linoleum Manufacturers' Association, of which all the linoleum manufacturers, including those in Kirkcaldy, are members. I know that there was an examination of that industry by the Monopolies Commission, and I was delighted to hear that the Commission thought That no action was necessary.

Although they are more or less in steady employment at the moment, the workers in the linoleum industry cannot be described as high wage earners. They are lucky if their wages fall between £7 and £8 a week. Despite this, I notice that it has been decided to increase the cost of linoleum by 5 per cent. I have not heard that there was any suggestion of arbitration about this or that anyone suggested that it was likely to prevent us from placing our economy on a sound footing. Nobody was consulted about this. I am quite certain from statements made by the Chancellor, the Minister of Labour and all others who have spoken from the Conservative benches that if the workers in that industry were to ask for an increase in their income by 5 per cent. they would be told that they were jeopardising the country's economy and that it would be an inflationary increase unless attached to greater production.

It is because of this that I think the Government's policy is unfair. The country cannot overcome the crisis lidless we do it together, and if we are to do it together, then the policy must be as fair for one section as for another. We cannot say to one section of the professions, trade or industry, "You can have a 5 per cent. increase", if to another we say. "You cannot have a 3 per cent. increase". If we do that we cannot go forward together, and I am convinced that if we cannot go forward together, then we shall move backwards together. We shall do that unless, pretty quickly, the Government have more to tell us than the sort of things to which we have been listening for the past fortnight—something more concrete and something which will be found agreeable by the people as a whole and not merely by a section of the community.

We know that everybody cannot be engaged in productive industry, but we must be convinced and be able to convince others that those who add most to the pool are entitled to take most out of the pool. Those who add nothing to the pool are not entitled to take anything out of it. I am afraid that at present those who make little contribution take far too much out of the pool.

I listened with some interest to the debate last week when it was stated that if, after arbitration, the British Transport Commission might seek to give an increase in wages to its employees the Government would have to do what the Minister of Health has already done—decide whether or not such an increase was inflationary, and, if it was decided that it would be inflationary, refuse to give it. Not that the British Transport Commission could ever be accused of being too generous. The Commission looks after a nationalised industry, it is true, but an industry that was bankrupt before it was nationalised, that had been receiving subsidies for donkey's years before then, and that had never stood on its own feet. The Minister now says that it must stand on its own feet.

Among my acquaintances there are some who have given long and loyal service to the railways. I have spoken before of a friend of mine in my constituency who, on the very day that he was 65—though he was enjoying good health and manpower was required—was told to pack up and go home. That was after forty years' service. While it is true that he had not given long service to the British Transport Commission itself, he had given a continuity of service to the railway company, and one would have assumed that the Commission, when it took over the railways, would take over the human liabilities as well as the assets.

This man was informed that, by virtue of his service, he was to be awarded a pension of 6d. a week. It is a year since I spoke of that, and I have not since received evidence that the Commission is now any more generous or more likely to throw about public funds. A letter dated 27th September, sent to the same man reads: I have to inform you that as a result of the amendment to the rules of the B.T.C. (Male Wages Grades) Pension Scheme, which came into operation on the 19th August, 1957, it is now possible to offer you a lump sum in lieu of pension of 6d. per week you are receiving. On the advice of the Actuary, it has been determined that the sum of £11 14s. is the estimated capital value of your pension of 6d. per week. From that, it would not seem that we need be suspicious that the B.T.C. will spend public funds without regard. Here is a man with 6d. a week pension. It is true that they do not ask him to go to the office every week to collect it. They allow him to collect the magnificent sum of 2s. each month, and now he has been offered that meagre sum in complete satisfaction of his claims on the Commission. Nevertheless, the Minister says that we might not be able to trust the B.T.C., that it might even advocate an inflationary increase.

I do not want to say much today about old-age pensions, because I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss them in the near future. Nevertheless, it would not be out of place, perhaps, for an honorary official of the British Council of Old Age Pensioners' Associations to say the old-age pensioners see no reason to thank the Government. They do not believe that the Government have done great things since the 1951 Election. Increases have always come too late and have always been too small.

It is not for me now to go into the questions raised by the Bill now available in the Vote Office, but it is right and proper to say that I believe that we have got into the habit of looking on old-age pensioners as a separate population. We look upon them as people who ought to be content to live a sub-standard life. That is very wrong. Who are the old-age pensioners for whom I speak? They are our fathers and mothers—just ordinary people, but ordinary people who have given great service to the country.

They worked for not very big wages, and they raised big families. Many of them served in the First World War, and many gave their families to serve in the second. When they were working, they often worked twelve hours a day for seven days a week. They were industrious. Now we talk of them almost as though they were people to whom we must give a hand-out. The old-age pension does not allow them to have the standard of life that I would like for my own people.

The hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) interpreted—she did not quote—Robert Burns. Burns wrote: O wad some pow'r the giftie gie usTo see oursels as others see us! I do not think that needs translation.