Debate on the Address

Part of Sessional Orders – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th October 1958.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South 12:00 am, 28th October 1958

It is an ancient custom of the House that the Leader of the Opposition, in rising to open this debate, should first of all congratulate on behalf of the whole House the mover and seconder of the Address. I do so today with very special pleasure. The two speeches to which we have just listened were models of the kind of thing which should be said on these occasions. Both hon. Members are young men, both personable, both have fine war records, and both managed to be entertaining and, on the whole, non-controversial, while at the same time getting across to us some interesting ideas and thoughts of their own.

The hon. Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas) represents at any rate a very beautiful district. We will not argue about whether it is the most beautiful in the country. He represents a part of North Wales. I am delighted that to him fell the honour of moving the Address today. He must occasionally feel rather lonely as a Tory Member in Wales, but I am sure that in his remarks about Wales he had all Welsh Members with him on this occasion. He referred, quite properly, to the unemployment in the neighbourhood of his constituency, and it is indeed a grave problem to which we shall have to return perhaps on more than one occasion during this Session.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. D. Price) has something in common with me; he is described, at any rate, as an economist. I offer him my condolences. Perhaps he suffers even more than I do, because he is a younger man and can be said to have known something about economics more recently. He is also the Member of Parliament for a constituency which it will be agreed is highly marginal. I am delighted that he should have had this one occasion on which to second the Address. He will not have another one in representing Eastleigh.

Today is a rather special occasion, not only because we are starting the debate on the Address, but because for the first time the opening of Parliament was televised. Anxieties were expressed earlier in some quarters that the Opposition might be prejudiced by what occurred. Indeed, some commentators advised that we should not have agreed to the televising of the opening of Parliament. For my part, even if there had been a risk of that kind, I think that it would have been very wrong for the Opposition, merely because they thought their political fortunes might be affected, to come between the people and the opening of Parliament. But I must say that after listening to the Gracious Speech, any anxieties I might have had were removed. Apart from some phrases to begin with and the moving last paragraph, I am afraid that the rest of the Speech seemed to be a rather unimpressive statement of stale platitudes and a dull catalogue of mostly minor legislation which nobody in his senses could possibly associate with Her Majesty the Queen.

However, as I have said, there were some passages which rose above a statement of that kind, and I should like to say for this part of the House, and, I am sure, for the whole House, that we warmly welcome the visits which Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh are to make to Canada and to Ghana. It is indeed an admirable thing that this Commonwealth of ours should be held together, and be able to be held together, by visits of this kind.

I should like to make two other comments on Commonwealth affairs. First of all, I warmly welcome the statement that Nigeria is now definitely to become independent on 1st October, 1960, and I should like to extend my congratulations to all those who are responsible for that decision. Secondly, I should like to take the opportunity of welcoming the Prime Minister of Canada who is so shortly to arrive in this country on a visit. We are very happy that he is coming, and we shall be glad to see him. We hope that he will stay and see something of our labours here as well as other aspects of British life.

I do not propose to say very much on the subject of foreign affairs. We shall hope, Mr. Speaker, with your consent to have at least one day devoted to this subject during the debate on the Address, but in view of the immense importance of events in the Middle East there are a few things which I think should be said on that subject.

Shortly before the Summer Recess, there came the revolution in Iraq and the decision of the United States and British Governments to send troops to the Lebanon and to Jordan. I must say that the phrase in the Gracious Speech about the Middle East, in the light of all that, seems to me curiously mild, subdued and detached. All that is suggested is that Her Majesty's Government: …"will co-operate with the United Nations and the countries of the Middle East in any measures likely to relieve international tension in that troubled area and to take account of the needs and aspirations of its peoples. Personally, I think it is a good thing that Her Majesty's Government are taking this rather more subdued line, but looking back on what has occurred, I cannot help reflecting that it seems extremely doubtful whether the intervention of last July really achieved anything whatever. It is hard to find a single correspondent in either Lebanon or Jordan who thinks that the intervention was of any value whatever. What has happened in Lebanon has been almost exactly what it was reported was expected to happen immediately prior to the American intervention. There is a new President. The very man whose name was suggested has become President, and at last, to our relief, the civil war has come to an end. It has been patched up. As for Jordan, there is still no evidence whatever that there was any real threat of external attack, and while I am very glad that British troops are now being withdrawn, I think he would be a bold man who would claim that the internal security of that country is any greater.

Further, let us remember that all this began with a revolution in Iraq which was alleged to have been fomented from outside. Very few people say that now. It seems generally to be recognised that this was, whether we liked it or not, an internal affair. Indeed, there is very little evidence that the present Government of Iraq are entirely friendly with the present Government of Egypt. I hope, however, that Her Majesty's Government will not try once again to base their Middle Eastern policy on supporting certain Arab States as against other Arab States. I believe that that policy, enshrined in the Bagdad Pact, has brought nothing but harm to our reputation and that in trying to back some Arab States against others all that we do is to turn all of them against us.

Finally, perhaps the most important event in that part of the world in the last few weeks has been the grant of substantial Soviet Russian aid to Egypt in the building of the Aswan Dam. I do not want to exaggerate the dangers of this; indeed, it would be well if we took up a fairly relaxed attitude towards it. But to anyone who supposes that this is a triumph of British diplomacy, I can only say that that seems to me the opposite of the truth.

I should like to say a few words on the even more tragic situation in Cyprus. On many occasions, from these benches and on other occasions, we have deplored, as have all of us, the violence, murder and terrorism which unfortunately have been rife in that island for so long. We have made repeated appeals to Cypriots, to E.O.K.A. and to the Turks to stop violence. All of us must agree that violence of this kind stimulates and is stimulated by hatred and solves nothing. Having said that. I must add certain things.

I deeply regret the failure of Her Majesty's Government to follow up the offer of Archbishop Makarios that he was prepared, rather surprisingly I thought, to throw over Enosis. I believe that that offer could have been taken up and should have been taken up, and that had it been taken up we might have avoided further violence in Cyprus. I also regret the remarks of the Colonial Secretary about Cyprus being Turkey's offshore island. I think it was unwise for him to talk in that way. It cannot but have made relations with Greece even more difficult and have hampered the Foreign Secretary in such efforts as were being made to bridge the gap with the Greeks.

I also regret that the Greek Government have now rejected the proposal for a conference which emerged from the discussions with N.A.T.O. We have always believed that the best way to handle this problem was to get the N.A.T.O. authorities, either the Secretary-General or other members of N.A.T.O., to play their part and help us as mediators. They were making some progress with this, and I still hope that, despite what has been announced, the Greek Government will have second thoughts on this matter. After all, in the last resort they do not want eternal conflict with us and with Turkey. We are members of the same Alliance and—unless there are facts about this matter which are unknown to us—it seems to me that there can be no harm at least, from their point of view, in taking part in such a conference.

I pass to the home front. There are a number of non-controversial Measures. Even the references to controls and the possible proximity of a General Election are unlikely to stir up any great party passion about the protection of deer in Scotland. Nor is there likely to be any great controversy—at least I hope not—about that far more important matter of legislation to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Mental Illness. I am glad that the Gracious Speech refers to the gravity of the increase in crime. Indeed, so important do we regard this subject that we have suggested to you, Mr. Speaker, that Friday might be set aside for a debate upon it in a constructive spirit, so that all hon. Members who wish to do so may make their contributions to the solution of that difficult but extremely important problem.

I notice that there is to be a Bill to improve the basis of compensation for the compulsory acquisition of land. I suppose this means increasing the compensation to landlords. There may be hard cases, but we say that proper compensation for landlords who suffer from planning should be provided by charging landlords who gain from it, that is to say, out of betterment and not from a further charge on rates and taxes.

This principle was laid down and implemented in the Labour Government's Town and Country Planning Act. It is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister, when Minister of Housing and Local Government, repealed this Act. He abolished it and reintroduced the market value on the one side for private sale and lower prices for compulsory acquisition. This is the Measure which has, in fact, involved the Government in their present difficulty.

There is to be a Bill on factory legislation. Generally speaking, I have little doubt that we shall support that, but I must point out a serious omission. There is no suggestion of legislation to implement the Gowers Report. I had to mention this matter last year after the Government had dropped their Shops Bill. Once again office workers, shop workers and railway workers are to be denied the protection which the Gowers Report recommended for them. I am particularly surprised that this should be so, because the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport was himself a member of the Gowers Committee and announced only this summer that the Government were fully in favour of the principle of legislation for railway workers.

I see that there is to be a Measure to encourage home ownership. We shall await with interest what is brought forward. There is not much doubt that the best way of encouraging home ownership is to reduce interest rates so as to enable people to get their homes more cheaply. All that the Government have done so far in that matter has had exactly the opposite effect. The average mortgagee with a house costing say £2,000 has to pay about 12s. 6d. more in his repayments than he would have done when the Labour Government went out of office.

Our policy on this is perfectly plain. We believe that it is necessary and right that there should be low rates of interest for mortgagees. We also believe that local authorities should be empowered to make loans in certain cases amounting to 100 per cent. of the purchase value of the house and that those loans should not be confined to new houses but should be extended to old houses. We shall wait with interest to see whether what the Government have to offer comes up to the high standards which we lay down in this matter.

There is to be a Bill to put into statutory form the rules and orders which were introduced under emergency wartime legislation—unless they are to be dropped altogether. We do not in the least oppose giving statutory form to what were purely temporary provisions. That is certainly right and proper, but it all depends on what exactly is included in the Bill. We hold strongly that no Government should be deprived of the necessary powers of guiding, encouraging and controlling the economy of the country in the interests of the nation. We have heard of only one particular Order which is to be dropped. That is the Industrial Disputes Order. No doubt my hon. Friends will have more to say on this subject. I find it hard to understand why the Government thought it necessary to abolish the Industrial Disputes Tribunal which, since 1951, has settled over 1,000 disputes which otherwise might easily have involved strikes. I do not understand why they have got rid of something, which may not have been enormously important, but which certainly has contributed to industrial peace, without apparently even consulting effectively the Trades Union Congress.

There is a reference to other Measures being laid before us in due course. I have only one question to ask on this. If one wants to know what other Measures are likely to come forward, one looks to the proceedings of the Conservative Conference. A proposal was raised there which causes us some misgiving. It was the demand that the Representation of the People Act should be amended so as to remove all restrictions on the use of motor cars at General Elections. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I notice that some hon. Members approve of that. I would regret very deeply if an important change of that kind were to be made without the consent of the Opposition. We believe that this Measure, which limits the numbers of motor cars which can be used, is a fair one and does help to preserve a balance between the parties. We should view with dismay any intention on the part of the Government to weight the scales in their favour shortly before a General Election.

Finally, I turn to what is likely to be the most controversial Measure which the Government are to introduce this Session. That is the Bill which is described as for: placing the National Insurance Scheme on a sound financial basis and enabling a larger section of My People to build up pension rights related to their earnings. In this matter we know roughly what the Government intend to do, for the White Paper has been published. The more we study that White Paper the less we like it. It is not only that existing old-age pensioners are to receive no improvement in their pension at all. It is not only that there is no safeguard for them against inflation. It is not only that those earning £9 a week or less are outside the scheme altogether. It is not only, indeed, that the contracting-out provisions leave it not to the individual but to the employer to decide whether this shall happen or not. The most extraordinary feature of these proposals is, in my opinion, the low level of benefit which is to he available in relation to contributions.

I hope I may be permitted to give two examples to show what I mean. They are from The Times. One points out that, under a private superannuation scheme, to earn £26 a year pension one has to have paid in £200 to £230 during one's working life, while under the Government scheme, in order to get the pension of £26 per year, or 10s. a week, one has to pay not £200 or £230 but £300 during one's working life. The second example is that, under a private superannuation scheme, 5s. a week gives one a pension of £60 a year when one is earning £12 a week, but, under the Government scheme, 5s. a week will give one not £60 but only £39 a year.

So we have this extraordinary situation. The proposals of the Government are approximately one-third worse than those available under ordinary superannuation schemes. Why is this? It is simply because the scheme is not really a national superannuation scheme at all but a scheme which deliberately sets out to replace an Exchequer liability for the basic pension with a severe tax on those who happen to come into the Government's national superannuation scheme. No wonder the words used in the Gracious Speech put the emphasis on: placing the National Insurance Scheme on a sound financial basis rather than talking about national superannuation. Of course, putting it "on a sound financial basis" depends on exactly what is done. To leave this burden on the taxpayer generally, where it may be adjusted between different taxpayers in accordance with what they are already paying and what the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day thinks they should pay, is in our opinion a much fairer way of dealing with this problem than imposing the burden, not even on all wage earners, but simply on those excluded from private superannuation schemes. Nor is it placed upon them in any proportional sense, but only on those with from £9 to £15 a week on the basis of a proportional tax and thereafter without any increase whatever. I can find no equity or sense whatever in this proposal. I warn the Government that we shall be severely critical when we come to the debates on it.

My last reference to the Gracious Speech is to an omission. There is nothing in the Gracious Speech about the need to expand production. Perhaps that has something to do with the proposals for superannuation, because the Government may well say, how is the Exchequer to meet this ever increasing deficit which, by 1982, will amount to £400 million? Our answer to that is plain. It is a heavy burden, but not an impossible one provided we have a period of economic expansion. All that is said in this Speech—and the same words were used in the Speech on Prorogation—is that Ministers are resolved to ensure … a high and stable level of employment. In present circumstances, something more than that was needed. When all is said and done, there are 200,000 more people out of work than there were a year ago. There are areas, some of which I have visited, where the unemployment percentage is now 8 per cent. There are rumours—indeed, there are official statements—indicating that we must expect worse to come. There are coal stocks mounting up so that industry, which has been faced with shortage for so many years, is now facing a crisis of glut directly as the result of the failure of industry to expand.