The fact remains that at present we are having to raise money to the tune of £50 million a year, through the Exchequer or by selling out of the Fund, to balance income with expenditure, taking into account the £170 million that my right hon. Friend has contributed from the central Exchequer Fund.
We must consider this question against the background of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said about last year, namely, that he has not been able to fund any Government stock during the year and had had to issue an extra £300 million in Treasury bills. If we were to tack further sums on the back of the Government deficit, whether by sales out of the National Insurance Fund, or by the Government trying to borrow in the open market, or by selling other Department's securities, we should end up with further Treasury bills, and inflation starting once again.
We must think how we are to finance any increase that we make. It is very easy to point to the hardships which exist and to the desirability of giving money to people. We are all generously-minded in this House, and we all like voting increased expenditure for worthy causes, but the bill has to be paid. It annoys some of my hon. Friends that the bills have to be paid in budgetary terms. It would involve quite a big bill if we were to do anything worth while in respect of increased pensions, and I do not believe that it should be met by increasing the budgetary deficit.
Secondly, there is the question of prosperity. We are now facing a threefold boom—a consumer-goods boom; a stockpiling boom, and an industrial investment boom. The consequence is that already the strain of our balance of payments is beginning to be felt. Before I came into the Chamber I saw the import-export figures for March on the tape. They show that in March of this year—in the half-year which should be most favourable to us—the gap between imports and exports and reexports was no less than £71·6 million. In the first quarter of this year, although exports have risen by about 10 per cent. over the equivalent period a year ago, imports are still running at about 12 per cent. more than last year.
Therefore, any action of the Government which increased the total volume of demand would be bound to run us into a balance of payments crisis once more, and I do not believe that we would get the thanks of the pensioners, or anybody else, if we disturbed the present prosperity, expansion and price stability. If we were to increase the pension we would have to increase taxation, and the rate of contribution, to pay for whatever increase we voted or our action would be completely dishonest and dishonourable.
If we were to increase taxes further at present, we should make it very difficult for our industry to compete, especially in view of the large-scale alterations in European tariffs which will occur this summer. If we increased contributions we might get further demands for increased wages. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will say something about contributions in relation to the lowest-paid wage earners. I do not believe that it is yet possible to treat our prosperity as being firmly enough based to enable us to give something further to pensioners in the next few months.
If there were a great many grave cases of hardship we would want to give something to those who were hit hardest, as we did nine months ago. But the greatest benefit that we have brought to the pensioners is the stability in the cost of living, to which my right hon. Friend referred. We should wait to see how the year progresses, how the balance of payments turns out, and how the revenue looks like turning out. Then, if things go well, we should be in a position to fulfil our election pledge.
I would take up one point mentioned by the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). It would be a gross waste of our national resources to put up the pensions of 5½ million people possibly to help some undefined number who are not willing to apply for a supplementary pension. I hope that before the debate ends my hon. Friend will tell us something about the information which the National Assistance Board possesses in respect of people who do not apply for it.