First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th October 1959.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South 12:00 am, 27th October 1959

I rise in accordance with the traditions of the House to offer on behalf of all of us our very sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Tiley), who moved the Motion for the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech, and the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Gardner), who seconded.

It is always an ordeal to fulfil this function. It is a formal occasion. The benches are crowded and the two hon. Gentlemen are making the first speeches in a new Parliament. One could understand anyone who felt nervous in those conditions, but I am sure that I carry the whole House with me when I say that the two speeches to which we have listened were fully up to the high standards set by their predecessors who fulfilled this office.

I am particularly glad that it fell to a Yorkshire Member, the hon. Member for Bradford, West, to move the Motion. As a fellow Yorkshire Member I specially congratulate him not only on fulfilling this function but also on his very astute remarks to the Opposition, which put us in a good humour, and particularly his very sensible comments on the importance of our northern industrial cities, which, of course, return a high proportion of Labour Members of Parliament. I thought that he delighted the House with his self-deprecatory humour; and to go as far as to say that he must not mention the Bradford football teams showed great courage. I must say, in passing, that I feel somewhat the same about Leeds United.

I am sure that all of us agreed with what the hon. Member said about the absence of Her Majesty the Queen, which we regret, and her inability to open Parliament, but our pleasure at the reason for this absence.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Billericay deserves from us and should receive double congratulations, because not only had he to face this ordeal but he had to face it as a new Member making his maiden speech. All of us, I know, were impressed with the fluency and the eloquence which he brought to this task. He came here with what some might regard as a minor disadvantage. I understand that before the war he was for many years a journalist and he is now a lawyer, but I am sure that he is going to do very much better as a Member of Parliament. Furthermore, whatever we may think of his previous professions and his present profession, we can all agree on his gallant war service in the Navy when he took part in the Malta convoys.

I was particularly glad that both he and the hon. Member for Bradford, West laid such stress on the duty we have to help to raise the standard of living of those who are so much poorer than ourselves in other parts of the Commonwealth and of the world. Both hon. Members were perfectly right in stressing this as one of the really urgent and important problems facing the world today.

It is not the custom of Leaders of the Opposition, having done the honours, to follow with a lengthy speech. Some kind person in the past must have realised that it needed a little more time than is given to a Leader of the Opposition to do this, and I wish only to make a few observations on the Gracious Speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) will tomorrow open a general debate on behalf of the Opposition. Later on, we shall table Amendments, one of which, at any rate, I hope myself to have the opportunity of moving.

At first sight, I think that the weakness of the Gracious Speech lies not so much in what it contains as in what it does not contain. Its sins are those of omission rather than of commission. Certainly one most strange and notable omission is that there is no reference whatever to the Summit Conference. When I consider the lengthy exchanges that have taken pace in this House during the past few years, and the international conferences in almost all the major capitals of the world, it is indeed strange that there should be no reference whatever to this important event; for we can surely all agree that it is of the greatest importance that the Summit Conference should take place, and take place soon.

We have great hopes that out of this may come at least some progress towards the solving of the problems which divide the world today, and when all is said and done, the Prime Minister himself on 30th September said: Within a few days the actual date of the Summit talks will be fixed. It is true that he followed that up a few days later, on 3rd October, by this rather equivocal comment: Everything seems to be clear, except just to make the arrangements. … Everyone is agreed on it. It is a matter of fixing the date and the place and the people. Some of us might regard those exceptions as rather important. Nevertheless, I think that we are entitled to ask the Prime Minister if he can throw some light on this subject. When he announced so bravely and boldly that the date was to be fixed within a few days, had he made sure that General de Gaulle was in agreement with this? Did he know what Dr. Adenauer's attitude would be? Surely, if he did not know, it seems a very strange thing to have said. If he did know, then I suppose we must take it that General de Gaulle has changed his mind since then. It is all very puzzling, it is all very bewildering, and I think the House is entitled to a clear account of the negotiations on this matter and where we now stand.

I agree strongly with the remarks of the mover of the Motion about the forthcoming visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Ghana. I am one of those who was fortunate enough to go there myself recently and, although Her Majesty is unable as yet to go, I am delighted that the Duke of Edinburgh will be going. He will meet a gay and friendly people. I am sure he will himself make a deep impression and I believe he will also have a very enjoyable time.

I am glad, too, that the Gracious Speech refers to the expected formal request for the grant of independence to the Federation of Nigeria. In reflecting on what has happened in Ghana and what is to happen, we hope, as regards Nigeria, it is impossible not to make a contrast with Central Africa, to which, of course, reference is made in the very next sentence of the Gracious Speech. Here, whether one thinks in terms of the degree and extent of democratic rights, whether one thinks in terms of race relations, whether one thinks in terms of the attitude of the people to the mother country, there is a startling and dismaying contrast. I think we cannot deny that in Central and East Africa the Government, and indeed, the British people as a whole, face in the next few years one of the supreme tests of their wisdom and statesmanship.

Reference is made to the 1960 Conference. It is important that any conference on Central Africa should succeed. If we were to have a second failure here, it might be final, and finally disastrous. I believe that if it is to succeed there are three conditions that must be fulfilled. The first, and most important, is that before the Conference takes place there must be a substantial extension of the franchise in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. There must at least be such an extension as will give Nyasaland a majority of African representatives in the Legislature and in Northern Rhodesia—and these are modest requests—at least parity between Africans and Europeans. If we do not do this, then we shall be faced with a problem, that the Conference at which Governments are to be represented will not be regarded by the ordinary African people in either of these territories as really representing them and their interests.

The second condition, in my opinion, is that we should put on the agenda, amongst other things, the right of secession if the peoples of any of the territories so desire it. I believe that if we do this we run far less risk of secession actually taking place, but if we refuse to do it we shall be abandoning one of our essential doctrines, the doctrine that government should be only by consent.

The third condition of success is that there should be the right approach to the Conference. Here one might just say this about the proposed Advisory Commission. I explained to the House last July that we felt that the Commission as outlined by the Government would not provide the right kind of background or atmosphere in which the Conference was to take place. I will not cover the ground again today. It is simply that we cannot believe that a Commission of this kind, with very nearly half its members appointed by the four Governments in Africa, as they are at present constituted, can possibly win the confidence of the African peoples in those territories.

Nevertheless, it is essential that any such Advisory Commission should do just that, and I therefore plead once more with the Government that they should think again about this matter. We do not deny that if it can be worked out and agreed, some kind of preliminary inquiry is necessary. Surely, however, we should try to ensure that it is an inquiry which gives the Conference the best chance of success. I hope that the new Colonial Secretary, coming fresh to his great office, facing some of the most difficult problems in the world today, will think afresh and will try to ensure that the composition of the Advisory Commission is such as will give the Conference a real chance of achieving its objects.

I turn briefly to the home front and mention in passing two relatively small points, perhaps not so small. There is a sentence about the Government's intention to build new highways and to improve existing roads. They are certainly needed. I was glad to see that the new Minister of Transport, whom we wish well in his important office, has pointed out that it is just as well that there should be some room for traffic at the end of the roads in the towns. Anybody who drives either in London or in other great industrial cities, as I dare say many of us do, realises that unless something pretty drastic is done the time will be coming when the whole of the traffic will come to a standstill. I urge the Minister, therefore—and I am sure we shall give him full support in this—to take drastic action to deal with this problem.

The second point I want to mention is the reference to the licensing of air services. I should like to ask the Prime Minister if he can throw some light upon what it is intended to do. I concede that there may well be a case after at least one tragic disaster for tightening the standards of safety and for ensuring that the risks at present run by the private airlines are enormously diminished. That is one possible idea behind the phrase in the Gracious Speech, but it is very far from a totally different idea which is, in fact, to give the private airlines a great deal more scope for development and to deny it to the national corporations. If that is the purpose of the proposed Bill, then I am afraid the Government must expect the most strong opposition from this side of the House.

The general aims of the Government at home are set out in the sentence in the middle of the Gracious Speech which refers to striving— … to maintain full employment, together with steady prices, a favourable balance of payments and a continuing improvement in standards of living based on increasing production and a rising rate of investment. I think that nobody is likely to challenge all those things as an aim. The question is whether they are really a pious hope or a serious prophecy. I am bound to say, on the basis of our experience of the last few years, that it looks to me as though they will remain a pious hope. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If we look back over these last four years, I must remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that we have had no fewer than three balance of payments crises, in 1955, 1956, and 1957; that the record for production in the four years 1955 to 1959 is just about the worst of any industrial country in the world; that after stagnation for three years we then went into the worst period of unemployment since the war—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—hon. Gentlemen opposite must not mind a little warming. up; we must warm things up a little—and finally that in so far, and I readily concede it, as there has been some greater price stability in the last few months, this is wholly due to the fortunate change in the terms of trade, to the fall in the price of imports in relation to exports; and hon. Members will be making a great mistake if they assume confidently that this will necessarily continue. We do not believe that that prosperity, if it exists, is very firmly based at the moment.

There are some specific problems to which no reference is made. It was an interesting fact that immediately after the General Election we were told of a serious steel shortage in the motor car industry. No doubt the news was conveniently held back. I should like to ask the Prime Minister what the position is. If there already is a shortage of sheet steel, is it going to hold up further expansion in the motor car industry? The right hon. Gentleman may say that there are difficulties at the moment because the United States has a strike on. Certainly, but, even if there were no strike in the United States, I have to remind him that if we are to rely on higher imports for fulfilling the additional needs of the steel-using industries, our balance of payments position is not likely to remain for long as favourable as it is. We shall have exactly the same position as we had in 1955 when the enormous increase in sheet steel imports was a major cause of the balance of payments crisis of that year.

There is another basic industry to which no reference is made in the Gracious Speech, and that is the coal mining industry. After all, we now have a situation in which our coal stocks, in all, are over 50 million tons. It is really astonishing when one compares it with the situation a few years ago, when, because our industry was expanding so rapidly, we were always faced with a shortage of coal. The stagnation of the last few years has been a major factor in causing this difficulty.

What do the Government propose to do about this? How are they to get rid of the stocks? When are the stocks to be sold? What is to happen to the coal mining industry? We are told that another 200 pits are to be closed. What plans have been made for ensuring that if that scheme is carried out there will be no unemployment in those areas? How are we to ensure that we do not go back to the appalling situation of the inter-war years when we had whole villages and towns derelict? That is a major issue, and it is astonishing that no reference is made to it in the Gracious Speech. This is something to which we shall certainly return.

There is, of course, reference to the need for providing greater employment in certain areas, and we are promised a new Bill. We certainly welcome anything that will bring additional work to the areas of high unemployment, but I am bound to ask why the Bill is introduced only now. We had many discussions in the last Parliament, within the last year, when the situation was indeed a good deal worse than it is today, but no suggestion was made then by the Government that this was necessary. I must say, too, that in our opinion, although the need for the Bill may exist, the really important thing here is the will and the spirit by which the existing legislation is administered.

I must ask the Government whether they intend in the present situation to use their powers to control the location of industry, because this is the secret of success in this problem, to steer new firms and enterprises away from the areas of relatively low unemployment into the areas where there is high unemployment. If this is done, and done vigorously, as it was under the Labour Government, then there is some hope for Scotland, but if we have the same policy as we have had in the last few years and the virtual abandonment of the use of the Distribution of Industry Acts, it is a very poor look-out indeed for Scotland, Wales, Lancashire and the other areas concerned.

Prosperity must be well based on expansion. It must not simply rest on the fortuitous advantage of an improvement in the terms of trade, but it must also be fairly shared; and that leads me to say something about the special needs of some sections of our population. I am glad that at last the earnings rule is to be looked into, but if hon. Members imagine that that is enough and that that is all that need be done for the welfare of the old people they are making a very great mistake. It does not, in fact, affect any of those old persons who are already over 70, to whom no earnings rule applies anyhow.

We reiterate what we have said before in this House and throughout the country, that the time is long overdue when, as a matter of common justice to a large group of our fellow citizens who are suffering considerable hardship and living certainly under much worse conditions than the vast majority of us—I mean the old-age pensioners—the basic pension should be raised by at least 10s. a week. We say that that should be done, and done quickly, and should be accompanied by a similar increase in the other insurance benefits.

Reference is made in the Gracious Speech to housing. There is a promise that we are to have more houses. What is the intention of the Government with regard to council houses? It is more council houses that are wanted if we are to clear the slums quickly and if we are to deal with overcrowding. [Interruption.] The hon. Member who moved the Motion represents an industrial seat. Bradford is not so very different from Leeds in this respect, and he will probably agree with me that most of the people who come to us as Members of Parliament and seek our assistance in obtaining houses are not people who can be expected as yet to find the money to buy their own houses, certainly not with rates of interest as they are today. What they want is more council houses. It is, in my opinion, little less than a scandal that, with the state in which those people are living in overcrowded conditions and slums, for five years now the number of council houses built has been steadily falling and that in 1958 there were actually 20,000 fewer council houses built than in 1951.

The third group to which I think we need to give special attention is the young. I welcome the reference in the Gracious Speech to what should be done about the Youth Service and so on, but the crucial issue here in the field of education, and the issue which divides the House, is the simple one as to whether we are to go on with the 11-plus examination. I ask the Government for their views on it. In my opinion it must be done away with. I do not think that either parents or children like it. I think it is a bar to genuine equal opportunity in education—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."]—and we should sweep it away and provide genuine opportunities for education, whatever suits the child best throughout the whole of his or her school life. These are the things which we believe should be done, and we shall certainly press for them.

We lost 23 seats in the General Election. It was, as I said—I do not deny it; why should I?—a setback, but it was not a landslide. We shall, of course, have to consider very carefully exactly what lessons may be learnt from our defeat, but I want to tell the House just this, that meanwhile we intend to fulfil our functions as Her Majesty's Opposition in a manner which I believe will commend itself to the House.

We shall not be fractious, nor shall we be unduly turbulent unless we are provoked into it. We shall, however, be vigorous and lively and ever-watchful of the Government's administration. We shall not oppose for opposition's sake, but we shall oppose whenever we believe that the Government's administration or their policies are wrong, and I do not doubt that there will be many such occasions. We shall, above all, use every opportunity open to us to argue and press and fight for the things in which we believe and which we hold to be necessary for the benefit of our country and the world.