Like most hon. Members of the House, I have read the Gracious Speech, and I must say that I am dismayed that there is no reference in it to the new crisis in the automobile industry. I am of opinion that this crisis should be practically recognised by the Government, and I say that for four major reasons—the vicious impact on thousands of families, on the businesses as concerned in the area, on the areas of prospective development that are awaiting the expansion of the automobile industry, and upon industry and the nation.
Dealing with first with the families, looking at the B.B.C.'s "Panorama" programme on Monday, I saw certain families who had come from Scotland to the Midlands being interviewed. They had—I quite understand their plight—taken on hire-purchase commitments of upwards of £5 per week, and now, there being short-time working, were in a very parlous state. It reminded me of some of my experiences during the 'thirties, which people are now so anxious to forget.
Lest it be thought that I am putting too much emphasis on the human part of the programme—though I do not believe that is possible—I would add that I was very dismally impressed by the remark of the businessman who was interviewed when he said, "We are in a position where we cannot take cars back. We simply have not got the room for them. We are using our agencies to go round to these people and inveigle them into paying perhaps only a bob or so off the account in order to keep them." The businessman concluded his observations by saying that the position was tragic. I have no doubt that those words are true.
I need not say very much about the areas which are expecting expansion, and I shall come in a moment to industry and the impact on the nation.
The turn of events in the automobile industry is no surprise to me, for on 4th April of this year, speaking in the Budget debate, I said:
I do not share the new and optimistic attitude towards the automobile industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th April, 1960; Vol. 621, c. 100]
I said that because during the debate many hon. Members opposite asked us to believe that the industry was buoyant and likely to remain so. Indeed, I suppose they could have been forgiven for so speaking, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself said:
For more than a year now world production and trade have been expanding strongly, and they seem likely to continue doing so. In the great industrial nations of Europe and North America expansion continues."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th April. 1960: Vol. 621. c. 40.]
That had reference, undoubtedly, to the automobile industry and what this country was doing.
It is very interesting to look at the comparative figures for January-September, 1959 and 1960, the precise period when the Chancellor and many hon. Members opposite were asking the House and the country to believe that the industry would continue buoyant. I have the figures here, but it would take a long time to read them all out. I merely say that the difference in our trade with these countries amounts to £12,442,518. In any language, that is a very formidable total.
I believe that one of the greatest factors for the automobile industry would be a massive and imaginative attack on our road problem. No one can deny that. Without any partisan approach, all economists believe that the industry depends upon a buoyant home market. New roads throughout the country would be a factor contributing to its buoyancy. I read in the Queen's Speech about the underground car parks proposed for London. I have previously said that if we were in earnest about our road problems and encouraging people to participate in this vital industry, every major town should be by-passed and should have an underground car park. Why only London?
I have had certain experiences with the Ministry of Transport with regard to the Lancashire area. In reply to me, the
Minister has agreed that the area which was brought to his notice needed immediate attention. His words were:
I recognise the importance of this route to the North-East Lancashire Development Area. But, as I explained at our meeting, I have to decide priorities on the needs of the country as a whole, and there are, I am afraid, other industrial routes which are more seriously overloaded.
The Minister does not say that the route does not need attention; he simply says that he has to have a list of priorities, and apparently those priorities are based upon the need for money.
The Treasury derives a revenue of more than £200 million per year from Purchase Tax, fuel tax, motor tax and oil tax. The expenditure on roads is £60 to £70 million per annum. I am not advocating that all the taxes collected from motorists should be spent on the roads any more than I would advocate that all the tobacco tax should be spent for smokers, but, in view of the transport problems and the needs of this industry, I suggest that a considerably greater sum should be spent in this direction than is the case now. One might put it at at least £150 million per year. I am certain that the buoyancy of the industry would then receive an impetus.
Looking at the industry as dispassionately as one can, I believe we ought also to ask whether the employers themselves have been as imaginative as the nation has a right to expect them to be. Between May, 1959, and May, 1960, there was a 25 per cent. increase in production. During the same period there was a 9 per cent. increase in earnings. Where such a margin had been obtained, was it not reasonable to expect that 5 or 10 per cent. might have been taken off the price of vehicles, thus giving the export market an impetus and maintaining the buoyancy of the home market? I am convinced that it is fair to ask that question.
This is a very great industry. Yet one looks in vain for any evidence in the Gracious Speech that such is the case. The responsibility for that must obviously rest upon Her Majesty's advisers.
I suggest three factors which would bring about a major improvement in this vital industry. The first is a massive and imaginative road-building programme. Why not? I feel that it is fair to say—I do not speak in an unkindly way—that some of the blood which is regularly spilt on our roads could justifiably trickle under the doors of the Ministry of Transport or the Treasury, or both.
It does not seem to me that we should deal with these matters in the urgency which undoubtedly will come about during the summer months. I repeat my question: why not a massive imaginative attack on this vital problem? If that were done, it would be a powerful stimulation to this vital industry.
Secondly, I am certain that the industry must take upon itself the responsibility for sharing with consumers the increased benefits which flow from increased mechanisation. Employers cannot feel any too happy about these ups and downs. For a long period this vital industry has been suffering from a good deal of industrial unrest. How do we know that the ups and downs and the unrest are not correlated factors?
For many years I have been a shop steward in engineering. I know what it is when workers are afraid that industrial insecurity might lie round the corner. The danger is—we must recognise it—that they might well say, "We intend to make hay while the sun shines"—in short, to put on a pedestal the very mercenary cliché, "I'm all right, Jack". How do we know that the periods of up and down are not related to the factors I have mentioned? As a consequence, the industry should take practical cognisance of the fact and slice its dividends and profits to the narrowest margin possible.
Thirdly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should realise that this vital industry has a tremendous influence upon our whole national economy. He should recognise that in a practical way. I will not suggest the measures he should undertake. He knows much more about them than I do, but he could help these people in a very practical way.
If these three measures were taken together, they would be of tremendous assistance to this very vital industry.