Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th October 1959.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 30th October 1959

I note that sentence, and I agree that if one takes the Gracious Speech as a whole there are a number of Bills proposed, many of them useful and non-controversial, of which the hon. Gentleman has just given an example. What I am saying is that there is no major legislation. All these items would be a respectable backcloth to two or three major Measures which one would have expected that a Government which had just won a victory at the poll and had been returned with a big majority would have a programme for carrying out. We cannot expect hon. Members opposite to carry out the programme in which we believe, but we think that they ought to have ideas of their own.

Many things which would commend general support in the House could have been brought forward. One thinks at once of the recommendations of the Gowers Committee which nominally have the support of both sides of the House. One thinks of the need to expand the National Health Service, and especially the hospital service, which do not got a mention in the Gracious Speech but which were featured in the election manifestoes of both parties. One thinks of the demand that has existed for many years for a new system of insurance and compensation of the victims of criminal assault. There are all sorts of reforms which could have been mentioned in the Gracious Speech but which are not.

Among the items which I wanted to see in the Speech—and this is coming back to the main theme of the debate—was some reference to the urgent question of youth employment. I disagree with the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) who suggested that this was just one facet of the general problem of full employment. Of course, it is tied up with that, but we ought to recognise—and the Government ought to recognise—the real urgency of the crisis which is approaching in the employment prospects for young people.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) reminded the House when he opened the debate today, we have at the moment just over 4 million young people in the country between the ages of 15 and 20. Within the next three to five years that number is going to increase by something like 1 million. Simultaneously, during that period it is the intention of the Government to end National Service. In other words, there is going to be a need for over 1 million extra jobs for boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 20. A sense of urgency is needed in this matter which should have been expressed in some positive way in the Gracious Speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Gourlay), who today made a maiden speech which we all enjoyed, pointed out that already in his area, before the main bulge has entered the labour market and before the end of National Service, there has been a drastic increase in unemployment among young people. He gave figures showing the extra unemployment benefit being paid.

In my own constituency of East Ham, which is an area of higher employment than is average throughout the country, there is already a problem in placing young people and in finding firms which will give them training and apprenticeships. If that is the case now, it is obviously going to be all the more urgent a problem in the next few years. I believe that it is the most important problem in connection with youth. Vital as are the other problems of the Youth Service, the use of leisure and so on, they are subsidiary compared with the major question of whether or not young people when they leave school will have worthwhile jobs and, where necessary, a choice of jobs. Unless we take steps to deal with the matter we shall have a frustrated generation with all the terrible social consequences that will flow from it.

I wish to make two further points in this connection. The first is that it is absolutely essential, if this problem is to be tackled at all, that there should be industrial expansion every year. If we had a trade recession in this country and a slackening of demand the consequences upon the younger generation would be far more serious than those upon any other section of the community. The first thins; employers would do, before they started introducing short time and making people redundant, would be to cease taking on new workers. Therefore, the proportional effect on the young people would be more serious than on any other group of the community.

If we had another balance of payments crisis, as we had in 1957, and if the Government dealt with it as they did then, by instituting the credit squeeze and a high Bank Rate, there would be the most terrible consequences on the employment of youth. We cannot afford the stops and starts in the level of production that we have seen in the last eight years under a Conservative Government.

My other point is that this matter is obviously allied with the question of apprenticeships. All of us who follow this problem must have welcomed the Carr Committee's Report. We gave general support to the Government when they followed up that Committee's recommendation by forming the Industrial Training Council, making it a grant and allowing the Council to appoint training officers to advise firms on these problems. But all that Council is able to do is to advise and to exhort employers to play their part. Time is running out and industry is not meeting this challenge.

The Carr Committee rightly pointed out that we should not regard the bulge in the population as an embarrassing problem but- as an opportunity to industry to have available to it the extra number of skilled and trained people of which it is short in so many fields. This could be an opportunity to introduce the extra number of trained people that our economy so badly needs. But industry generally is not keeping up with the problem and time is running out.

I think that the Gracious Speech should have included a Measure along these lines. It should have imposed a special levy or tax on all firms which employ skilled workers. It should then have paid back a rebate to those firms which were willing to expand their training facilities. In other words, it should deliberately have penalised the firms who did not play their part and should have encouraged those who did.

I think that the Government should also have done something else. They should have started training centres for the training of young people, particularly in those areas where there is a need for something extra, something besides the efforts of local authorities. At any rate, I hope there will be a new sense of urgency in dealing with this problem before it is too late.

I said earlier that I wanted to range more widely in my remarks than the general scope of the debate today. I want to say a word about the problems of old age. When the hon. and gallant Member for Norwood (Sir J. Smyth) was addressing the House he referred to the election argument about pensions and to the statements in the Conservative manifesto by which it was promised that the Government would continue to take care of the pensioners. Yet, in fact, we see in the Gracious Speech no proposal to raise pensions, no proposal to do anything except to amend the earnings rule.

Most of us probably welcome what we think the Government have in mind about the earnings rule, but we recognise that that will affect only men under 70 and women under 65 who are able to go out to work and will not affect the majority of pensioners. I think the Government should come clean on this matter. I should like the hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench to convey to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance the need to make a clear statement on this question.

I think it should be confirmed or contradicted that the Government have no intention whatever of raising the basic level of pensions for at least two years. The reason I say two years is based on these two pieces of evidence: first, there is no proposal in this Gracious Speech, which means that nothing is intended within the next twelve months; and, secondly, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance is at the moment working out details of the Government's new pension scheme, introduced by the National Insurance Act of the last Session. It is full of complicated figures and calculations based on the existing flat-rate pension.

If a change were contemplated, all those figures would have to be altered and the Act of last Session would itself require amendment, but it is due to come into operation in April, 1961. That is about eighteen months ahead and, presumably, the Government intend that until April, 1961, and for some time beyond that, existing rates should apply. It would be far better if, instead of putting these vague and platitudinous phrases in their manifesto, they had told the public honestly that they had no intention of improving the rates.

It is now eighteen months since they were last adjusted, eighteen months in which there has been some rise in the cost of living and in the general standard of living so that the gap between the standard of living of the pensioners and the average standard of living has increased. If we have to look forward two or three years, or indefinitely, to no rise in the basic pension and no improvement in the conditions of most of the pensioners, we shall see that gap grow wider. That is something I should hope people throughout the country, and, indeed, some hon. Members opposite, would regard as a scandal in this day and age. I hope that is something on which they will urge the Government to take some concrete action.

There is still a lot of fairly desperate poverty among old-age pensioners, widows, the chronic sick and other people struggling to make ends meet on small fixed incomes. In some ways I believe this poverty is harder to bear than the sort of poverty of the old Distressed Areas because it is more lonely. Down a street in any of our constituencies where most people are in regular work earning a fairly high salary, a widowed mother or an elderly couple have to struggle to keep up appearances with their neighbours. I hope this real social problem will receive some attention, even from this Government.

The last matter in which I want to say something is perhaps rather more controversial even than the question of pensions. I want to preface it by saying that I believe the duty of the Opposition in this Parliament is not only to attack the Government—and that, I hope, we shall do with gusto and energy—but also to advance whenever we can the positive proposals of the Labour Party. I do not think we did that sufficiently in the last Parliament. We should start doing it now and, quite deliberately, for a few moments I want to say something on the thorny question of public ownership.

When the Prime Minister spoke on Tuesday he made a jaunty reference to this and said that of course there is nothing in the Gracious Speech about renationalising the steel industry or re-nationalising road haulage. Other hon. Members have made passing reference to that, and the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore), now the deputy Father of the House, spoke of the problem of the coal industry in his constituency and suggested that nationalisation was at fault. I believe that we on this side of the House have to reiterate our belief in public ownership and have to do far more in this House and outside to explain why we believe in it. We should remind the public that the economy of this country, which is a high-level economy but a vulnerable one, permanently requires a large degree of public planning and that the public planning should include the ownership by the nation of the basic industries.

We should say, moreover, that as it is one of our objectives as Socialists to move towards a more equal, more fair and more just society, one of the means we shall use towards that is to increase public ownership so that capital gains in the future go to the community as a whole and not solely to those who happen to be shareholders. As this argument develops, I should like to see three features of it high-lighted. First, we should not allow hon. Members opposite or their supporters outside, including the Conservative newspapers, to get away with all their cynical statements by which they put down every problem in the coal industry and the railway industry to a fault of nationalisation.

I was privileged to spend a few weeks in America this summer. There I heard Americans discussing the plight of the privately-owned railways, which are suffering from the fact that more people are using cars just as our railways are suffering from that fact. They discussed the plight of the privately-owned coalmining industry in the United States, which is suffering from the fact that more people are burning oil instead of coal, just as our coalmining industry here has the same problem.

We should remind the nation that there are certain industries in this country suffering from changing patterns of demand. Those include not only coal and transport, which are publicly-owned, but the cotton industry, which is privately-owned, the shipbuilding industry, which is privately-owned, and agriculture, which is privately-owned and cannot subsist without a substantial subsidy from public funds. We should not allow this stale propaganda technique of blaming everything on to nationalisation so far as coal and transport are concerned to go unanswered. We should say to the Government that in so far as Government policy has anything to do with this, a Conservative Government have been in office for eight years and they should have done far more to help those industries than they have done.

The second thing we should do if we are to be told over and over again by the organs of propaganda hostile to us that certain publicly-owned industries are in difficulty, is to make a lot more of the fact that some of the outstanding successes in British industry today are in the public sector. We ought to remind people that there is no industry in Britain with a more spectacular record of expansion than the electricity industry and that hardly any industry in Britain has raised its prices less in the last ten years than the electricity industry. We ought to remind the nation that the atomic energy industry has led the world in the commercial use of atomic power and that that is a nationalised industry.

Over and over again we heard the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of Transport, when he was Postmaster-General, telling us about new techniques and developments in the Post Office. Let us remind ourselves again of that spectacular progress in a nationalised industry. If we look overseas, we see that in the motor car industry the two most spectacular successes in Europe are those of Renault in France and Völkswagen in Germany, neither of which has private shareholders.

Perhaps surmounting all that is the fact that a rocket has gone to the moon and photographed the other side of the moon, and that was a nationalised rocket, not a private enterprise endeavour. Both at home and abroad, we are entitled to say, public ownership has produced some startling successes.

I have never been and I do not believe that most members of the Labour Party have ever been, certainly not now, doctrinaire on this matter. We believe that for a very long time our country will have to have a mixed economy, with a public sector and a private sector. When we talk of the public sector, we mean not only nationalisation, but other forms of public ownership as well. If we are to have an argument about the proper boundary between the public and private enterprise sector, the onus of proof is not always upon us. We should challenge hon. Members opposite and the Conservative Party generally on this argument and ask them what is the case for private ownership of, say, the steel industry.

Very large sums of money were poured out by the steel companies in an advertising campaign against public ownership, money which ultimately came from the public as consumers of steel and to some extent from the public as taxpayers. In all the fuss they made about the successes of the steel industry, they never told the nation what contribution was made by the private shareholders. The success of this industry was due to the workers, technicians and managers.

I would like someone, perhaps an hon. Member in this debate, to tell us what contribution the private shareholder made to the progress of the steel industry. The private shareholders do not now control the industry. It is controlled by the managers, by functional boards consisting of people who came up through the industry, and there is a measure of public control, even under a Conservative Government.

The private shareholder has certainly not provided the new capital of recent years. The industry has been able to get along without him in that connection. The private shareholder no longer takes a risk with his capital, because he is investing in an industry which is likely to expand under any kind of Government and from which he can expect a capital gain over the years. The private shareholder in steel is redundant. There is no noticeable difference between the conduct of Richard, Thomas and Baldwin, which is a firm without private shareholders, and the rest of the steel industry. Although he is redundant, he is allowed to continue in this position and to draw profits which are provided by the work of others and he can enjoy a capital gain from money which should go to the community. If we had a Government which put the public interest first, public ownership of steel would have been one of the measures in the Gracious Speech.

I repeat my hope that from these benches during this Parliament we will argue about this sort of issue and that we will take every opportunity we can to explain to the nation, in Parliament and outside, the constructive ideas of our party. There is every indication in the Gracious Speech that we shall have plenty of time to do so, because the Government themselves will not be providing the House with a very big agenda with any major issues to discuss.