Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1960.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South 12:00 am, 1st November 1960

In accordance with the usual traditions of this House, I rise to offer on behalf of all of us our warm congratulations to the mover and the seconder of the Motion for the Address.

I realise that the House will be more interested in what the Prime Minister has to say about the speech of the mover, the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Maurice Macmillan). Nevertheless, there are one or two things I should like to say about that speech and about the hon. Member. There has been comment in some newspapers that there was something wrong about the Prime Minister's selecting the hon. Member for this task. I do not myself in the least share that opinion. I think that it was perfectly appropriate that the Prime Minister should select the hon. Member. I say that not only because I think that, as we all expected, he discharged his duties very well.

The hon. Member moved with a most delicate touch on European affairs, insinuating himself carefully between the Home Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade, on the one side, and the Colonial Secretary, on the other. One can say there was almost an hereditary skill about that. He also told us about his constituency, a Yorkshire town, and, as a Yorkshire Member. I was especially glad, of course, that he was selected. He also introduced a rather more serious note into his speech than is usual on these occasions, but in my opinion it was none the worse for that.

I feel that the hon. Member must sometimes not be entirely happy in his position. It cannot be easy to be a Member of Parliament who is the son of the Prime Minister. Indeed, it might not be very pleasant to be the son of the Leader of the Opposition. After all, it is very difficult for an hon. Member in this position to establish himself in his own right. He is always described as the Prime Minister's son, and, of course, much the same would apply to the Prime Minister's brother or nephew or anybody else.

On the other hand the cloak, so to speak, which bides his real personality, is not sufficient to keep him out of the news, and if by any chance he is fined for parking or his car is towed away he can be sure that it will be in the newspapers with a heading, "Prime Minister's Son's Car Taken Away".

But there is one thing to be said in addition. The hon. Member described himself as the back bench member of the family. There may be occasionally a feeling in his mind, which would affect anybody else in the same situation, that precisely bcause of his close relationship to the Prime Minister he will be debarred from preferment.

I feel that we can all say that there is really no great danger of that. The Prime Minister has staunchly refused to allow any unfair discrimination against his relatives. I would comfort the hon. Member by saying that I can hardly suppose that the Prime Minister, having made this perfectly plain as regards his son-in-law, his nephew and another relative, the hon. Member's brother-inlaw—the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs—I cannot believe that the Prime Minister would depart from this general principle as far as the hon. Member for Halifax is concerned.

The seconder of the Motion, the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn), gave us a very interesting speech and displayed not only his obvious knowledge of agriculture and breeding—I understand that he breeds bull terriers—but also an agreeable historical knowledge of Dorset, a county for which all of us have an affection, for certainly the hon. Member's own constituency contains some of the most beautiful country in the South of England. We were all very interested to hear what the hon. Member said and we congratulate him upon his performance.

In turning to the Gracious Speech, I should like to take up a point which the hon. Member for Dorset, North made about the floods. There is nothing about the subject in the Gracious Speech, yet the fact remains that there are hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen who are far more concerned about this matter than about anything else at the moment. I ask the Government whether they are really satisfied that all that can and should be done in the way of flood control and prevention has been done. I do not know how far the legislation promised on land drainage touches on this problem. I know that we had the Heneage Committee's Report on Land Drainage in England and Wales which came out eight or nine years ago, on which no action has been taken and which I believe at last is to be implemented in this particular legislation.

As a layman in these matters it certainly seems to me absurd that year after year we are confronted with these floods—local disasters, there is no other word for them—and yet every few years we have an appalling state of drought in the summer. I ask the Government to give us as soon as they can some report on this matter. The hon. Member for Dorset, North referred to the floods as an act of God. That is a very fair description, but if they are an act of God it is really not fair to put the burden of meeting the cost of these floods upon the locality which suffers from them.

This surely is something for which the central Government should assume responsibility. I hope that we shall not have just the usual appeals to charity. I am all for it, but it is not enough in these circumstances and I think that we should have a statement from the Government as early as possible making plain what they are going to do under both of these headings.

The Gracious Speech contains the usual pious platitudinous references to the economic situation: … a sound economy … to ensure a well-balanced growth of production … and so on. One would hardly suppose in reading that paragraph what were the facts today; so far from having a well-balanced growth of production we have had in these last five years four years of virtual stagnation followed by one year of rapid expansion, and now that rapid expansion is tailing off and we are falling back into stagnation again.

One would hardly suppose from that paragraph that there was any anxiety in the Government's mind, as there surely should be, about the recession developing in the United States. One would hardly suppose from reading that paragraph that the balance of payments this year is certainly the worst that we have had for several years, and that it is indeed doubtful whether we shall have a surplus at all and that if there is a surplus it will be woefully inadequate to finance the long-term overseas investment that is taking place.

Finally, one would hardly suppose from this paragraph that even our gold reserves are only held to their present level by exceptionally high interest rates which in their influence on the economy can serve only to confirm the state of stagnation to which I have already referred. I make these points and retail these facts and leave the development of them to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) and other speakers in the debate which is to take place tomorrow.

I am glad that at long last we are to have a rise in pensions. This is indeed long overdue. I ask the Prime Minister to give us, if he can this afternoon, at least the broad outline of the proposals. If not, can he tell us when we shall know what the proposals are? Are they to be published in a White Paper? When is the Bill to be introduced? And—a matter of very great importance to the pensioners themselves—when will the new rates of benefit come into force?

I do not know the exact extent of this legislation. The phraseology is not entirely clear. Many of us in the House are concerned about other classes of elderly people who are adversely affected under present conditions. I would mention in passing only one—those who served on the railways for many years, the railway superannuitants who certainly have not had nearly as fair a deal in this matter as other public servants.

It is rumoured that by far the greater part if not the whole of the funds to finance the increase in benefits is to come from flat-rate contributions. I hope that that is not so. The flat-rate contribution is really about as bad a tax as one could have. It is nothing more nor less than a poll tax which in its incidence is bound to fall more heavily on the poorer classes of workers. The fact that in the Government's own pensions scheme there is to be a slight reduction of contribution for those earning less than £9 a week will be of little consolation to those persons earning low wages today if through this legislation the contribution is, after all, to be increased again.

There is reference in the Gracious Speech to housing. I must make it plain that we on this side of the House are profoundly dissatisfied with the Government's failure to take adequately into account the consequences of their own Rent Act and the complacency with which they appear to regard the slow progress in clearing the slums and dealing with overcrowding. We shall certainly return to this matter during the debate on the Address.

Similarly, we feel that the remarks in the Gracious Speech about education are quite unsatisfactory. The vague general sentences are not enough. Far greater efforts are needed to increase the supply of teachers, both to avert what may well be a grave crisis in the primary schools in the coming year and to implement the Crowther Report on secondary education. Again, we shall return to this subject later on.

Lastly, on the home front I wish to make a brief reference to the statement in the Gracious Speech about the British Transport Commission. We shall wait to see what are these proposals for reforming the structure and functions of the B.T.C. But there is a very strong feeling on these benches that the Government wish, for doctrinaire reasons, to break up the Transport Commission. We are deeply concerned that this should not be done. We do not like the way in which the Stedeford Advisory Group was set up; a body which meets secretly and which is not producing any report. We are told that we shall hear the ultimate conclusions of the Government, but we shall not have the evidence on which they were based.

I know that I speak not only for hon. Members on this side of the House but for many hon. Members opposite when I say that we wish that the Government would pay a great deal more attention to the Report on British Railways by the Select Committee. Not only, in our opinion, is its analysis of the reasons for the present difficulties facing the railways most cogent and convincing, but it makes no recommendation in its Report for reforming the structure and functions of the British Transport Commission. Indeed, it goes a long way to assert that it thinks that the present set-up is all right. It comes down firmly in favour of a single integrated system and says that the general lines on which the Commission is now working are right, is a pity that the Government should be so absorbed with the decentralisation of the railways on very doubtful premises and so little concerned with the increasing monopolisation of the daily and evening newspapers of this country.

In foreign and overseas affairs there are two subjects on which I should to touch briefly. The first is the paragraph in the Gracious Speech dealing with the United Nations and disarmament. We all of us want to see the negotiations on nuclear weapons tests brought swiftly to a successful conclusion. It is the most hopeful piece of negotiation going on between East and West at present. We also want to see, as soon as possible, a return to negotiations on general disarmament.

I should like to say this on the subject of general disarmament. Experience has shown that it will be extremely difficult to reach quickly a general agreement covering the whole area concerned and every kind of weapon. I am well aware of the need for not getting too confined in one's approach to these matters, but I repeat again, what we have so often said from his side of the House, that there may be a great deal to be said, if the general negotiations hang fire and if, indeed, we cannot start them again for some time, for seeing if we cannot negotiate in Central Europe—the most dangerous area—a zone of controlled disarmament there. It may well be—and there are signs in what has been said by Russian leaders and other leaders on the other side of the Iron Curtain—that they would be prepared to negotiate a satisfactory system of controls in a given area far more readily than they would for the whole of the Soviet Union.

As to the United Nations, we welcome, the Government's undertaking to give resolute support to its work. But it is not enough merely to utter phrases of that kind. It is extremely important to strengthen the United Nations by practical steps. No doubt the Government will agree with me when I say that they should withstand the attacks which have been made on the United Nations over the part it has played in the Congo. It has been criticised by the Soviet Union, in my view, quite unfairly and I profoundly disagree with the suggestion that the administration of the United Nations should, so to speak, be put in commission. I am certain that it would not work at all. But if we are to strengthen the United Nations, there is something else which has to be borne in mind. We have to strengthen, Wherever we can, its reputation for impartiality and its reputation for being fair as between different interests. We have, whenever we have the opportunity, to throw our weight on that side and not to make it simply a battle ground for opposing points of view.

That leads me to make three specific suggestions. I hope that, at long last, the Government will push far more energetically than ever before for the admission of China to the United Nations. It is very likely that by sheer weight of numbers this will be brought about before long, and it would be far more satisfactory for the sake of good relations between East and West if, instead of waiting for a majority to pile up and carry this thing through, the Western Powers were to agree to come down in favour of it beforehand. I know the difficulties with the American election and so on, but I think that this is something that we cannot ignore if we value the reputation of the United Nations and if we want peaceful relations between East and West.

The second point is the question of South-West Africa. I cannot see how one can possibly defend the refusal of the Union of South Africa to accept United Nations supervision over a territory which was, after all, a mandate allotted to it after the First World War. This matter has a long history but it is not over yet. I understand that the next move is likely to be a further reference to the World Court. I would ask the Government to make it plain that they will support the decisions and recommendations of the World Court on this matter, whatever they may be, and that they will not be influenced in their attitude simply because of the relationships which exist between ourselves and South Africa. One cannot say that this is a matter on which the majority of the Commonwealth countries in any way support the Union of South Africa, and, in the interests of seeing that the United Nations and those who belong to it can look at these problems impartially, a change in the Government's attitude there would be valuable.

The third point concerns an international issue of some delicacy. I say "international issue", although I am referring to Algeria. I know very well the difficulties of our relations with France, yet we must understand that the situation in Algeria may give rise to serious international dangers in the near future. The Algerian rebel forces have made contact with and have been recognised by Russia and China. There is every possibility that they will receive arms from these quarters. One has only to see the dangers of such a situation—the interception of Soviet vessels with arms, for instance—to realise the possible consequences. This is a matter of which, with all respect to our friends in France, I do not believe the United Nations can divest itself and I hope that the Government will take that view, too.

Last of all, I should like to say a few words about the Constitutional Review of the Central African Federation and the Monckton Report. Leaving on one side for the moment the terms of reference, I should like to say this about the Report. It is a most impressive document. It confirms in its analysis what we have said year after year in this House, that there is in these territories, particularly in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a great African hostility to the Federation and that this hostility exists because the Federation was forced upon the Africans and because it was not accompanied by either real political advancement or an end of racial discrimination.

I must say that for all of this Her Majesty's Government must at least in part be held accountable. The fact is that when we look back over the last seven years it has been clear for far too long that the policy of Her Majesty's Government was to reflect and support the views of the European minority and that they failed to bring home to the European minority there the changes that were bound to be essential in their outlook.

There is one very clear example of this which comes out in the terms of reference of the Commission itself. I referred the other day at Question Time to Sir Roy Welensky's broadcast on this matter. He dealt with it in great detail. He pointed out in the broadcast how time and time again Her Majesty's Government had supported his point of view. He said: Finally … in July, 1959, I made it abundantly clear to Mr. Macmillan when we were discussing the Commission's terms of reference that I could not accept that the proposed Commission should be enabled to discuss any possible break-up of the Federation or secession in any shape or form. He went on: Indeed, in November, 1959, when the question of the Labour Party's participation in the Commission was under discussion, Mr. Macmillan was invited by Labour Members of Parliament to agree that the Commission should be able to consider secession. He would not give the Labour Party the assurances they asked far and, in consequence, they abstained from participation in the Commission. He continued: In the face of all this the Commission have made their recommendation, which I have already mentioned, that in certain circumstances each of the territories will have a right to demand secession. Sir Roy also said: … arising from certain of the exchanges between Mr. Macmillan and several Labour Members I sought and received from Mr. Macmillan assurances that secession was not for consideration by the Commission. Finally, Sir Roy said: For the reasons I have given I am compelled utterly to reject this recommendation and I must hold the British Government to Mr. Macmillan's undertaking to stand by the terms of reference as we agreed them. I hope that the Prime Minister will tell us what assurances he gave Sir Roy, and whether Sir Roy's complaint against him and against the Government is justified or not, and I hope that he will in particular tell us how he understands Sir Roy's statement that he must hold the British Government to the undertaking to stand by the terms of reference. How does this affect, for instance, the possible discussion of the Monckton Report at the Constitutional Review?

We shall pursue this matter further during the course of the debate, but today I ask at least for the following assurances from the Government. First, I ask for an assurance that, despite what Sir Roy Welensky has said—I have some sympathy with him in the position in which he finds himself, though I totally disagree with his general approach—the Government will make plain that there will be no restrictions on what may be discussed in terms of secession and other possibilities at the Constitutional Review.

Secondly, I ask for an absolute assurance that the Northern Territories in particular should be properly represented by Africans, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population in these still Colonial Territories.

Thirdly, I ask that the Government should recognise, as the Monckton Report makes plain, that federation must be based upon consent and cannot survive without this, that the right of secession in some form must exist, and that there is no hope whatever without a rapid extension of the franchise and a much wider degree of self-government in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland that these territories can accept federation.

Finally, I ask that the Government should do the job which they have neglected for so long, to bring home to the European minorities in these territories that, instead of resisting and refusing to understand the winds of change, they should realise that their only hope in the future lies in recognising that they must accept African advancement to full self-government and come to terms accordingly.