National Health Service Contributions Bill and National Health Service Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th March 1961.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South 12:00 am, 6th March 1961

The hon. Member can wait. He will get plenty of letters, if our experience is any guide, because, believe me, going round the country during the last two weekends we have encountered a great deal of feeling about this matter.

How can it possibly be claimed that either the nation or, indeed, the Government would be adversely affected if these Bills were passed, not at the end of March, as is the desire of the Government, but, say, at the end of April or even at the end of May? It cannot possibly be said there is any degree of urgency here whatever.

Of course, the Government will, no doubt, say—or certainly it will be in their mind—that they wish to get the Bill through before the Budget and before the Finance Bill comes before the House; but it is part of our case against—particularly—the Contributions Bill, but also against the other Bill as well, that these should never have been introduced, if they were introduced at all, except at the time of the Budget, for even the Chancellor of the Exchequer admits that the contribution to the Health Service is not an insurance payment: it is, of course—he himself admitted it—a poll tax.

It is a tax Measure, and as a tax Measure it should be considered, if considered at all, when taxation as a whole is being considered, so that the House and the country can compare and contrast what is being done in the way of imposing this tax on the workers and employers of the country in comparison with what is done in other directions.

We have every reason for suspicions, when the Government deliberately introduced that Bill well in advance of the Budget, that they are very anxious to get it out of the way before the Budget comes along, because if we are to judge by precedents, it is typical of their mentality that they would impose by stealth a higher tax on the workers, and then give away openly a large amount of public money to wealthier people.

The second question we have to consider is whether these Bills could be passed without a Guillotine Motion. Here, I am bound to say that I think length is very relevant, for though these Bills are of the greatest importance nobody can say that they are long and complicated Bills. They are, indeed, extremely short. One of them consists of two Clauses and two Schedules, and one Clause, Clause 1, the main Clause, has already been passed in Committee of the whole House; and the other of five Clauses, of which three are more or less formal. From the way the Government are talking, and judged by the precedents for Guillotine Motions, one would assume that these were long Bills of 20. 30 or 40 Clauses.

But not a bit of it. They are tiny little Bills, and how the Government can really claim that they would not have been able to get these Bills through passes my understanding. It certainly seems to be—I suppose one may say—something of a tribute to the Opposition. It is a tribute which we would gladly be without if we could avoid this arbitrary curtailment of debate.

Moreover, the Bills have made substantial progress. There have been no complaints from either the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary or the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in their interventions during our debates, that we were going unduly slowly. They seemed to be perfectly happy. The Leader of the House, at the end of our last debate on Clause 1, said that we had got Clause 1 and that that was satisfactory. He did not say that it had been very slow in coming or that we had been obstructing. He said nothing of the kind. Indeed, it would be very hard for the Government to argue seriously that there have been obstructions by the Opposition on these matters.

It is true that on the National Health Service Contributions Bill we have had a very short debate arbitrarily curtailed on the Ways and Means Resolution, on that famous occasion when the Chief Whip ventured to give us his views with such disastrous consequences for the Government, on that night when the Leader of the House preferred to stand behind Mr. Speaker's Chair rather than come into the House. We had on that evening about two hours of debate. It is true that we had an all-night sitting on Second Reading, but what is wrong with that? This is a Bill of great importance, affecting the lives and living standards of the whole population, and it is right and proper that the House of Commons should debate a Measure of this kind at length.

The fact that we sat up all night is not, of course, the direct responsibility of the Opposition. We were prepared to do so if required. It is simply that the Government chose not to adjourn the debate. We had one other debate in Committee, which, I admit, took the greater part of the night, and the Leader of the House was satisfied to get Clause 1. One cannot speak as if getting Clause 1 meant little progress. It is a great deal of progress. It is the heart of the Bill. It is the main thing. Everybody knows that when we have a short Bill of this kind, and even sometimes when there is a long Bill, it often takes some time before we pass Clause 1.

The expression "filibustering" is sometimes used in connection with an all-night sitting or attempts on the part of the Opposition to delay Government legislation. But filibustering in the American sense of reading out irrelevant passages from literature plays no part in our proceedings. On the contrary, throughout the two nights we had serious and effective speeches from this side of the House. I only wish that we had had them from hon. Members opposite, but that is not our fault. It is simply because they are gagged by the Patronage Secretary, and precious little good it did him or them for that matter. But I recall the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) speaking at five o'clock in the morning after the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I venture to say that that was one of the most effective and able speeches I have heard in the House. So it was on the first night, and so on the second occasion.

The Leader of the House has argued that he has to get the Bill through. Let us not forget that, after all, this is a tax Bill and I would remind the House that it is now nearly thirty years since a tax Bill was guillotined. This is a very serious matter. There was such a Guillotine admittedly in 1932 on the Import Duties Bill, but at least one could say at that time that the country was still involved in a very grave economic crisis. I do not know whether the Leader of the House is claiming that the economic situation is so critical today that the Government must get this Bill through with a timetable.

Let us look at what is involved. The National Health Service Bill has had only three sittings in Committee. It is true that a large number of Amendments have been put down. There is nothing unusual in that. It is common form. The Leader of the House knows perfectly well that, unfortunately, it is only too likely that not all the Amendments will be selected. The Chairman has power to select and he uses that power. The fact that we are still on Clause I is again completely irrelevant since it is certainly one of the only two vital Clauses.

Nor can we overlook the fact that the Bill contains enabling powers for the Government. This is not merely something that is past and done with when it has passed through the House of Commons and the other place and has received the Royal Assent. It gives the Government power to vary charges at any time. This is something that the House should not allow to go through without very serious debate. I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends may feel that there is something derogatory about the all-night sittings which they have endured recently. They endured them because the Government insisted on rushing this business through.

We on this side of the House have no objection. We are prepared to stay. I do not accept the argument that there is anything derogatory to the House of Commons in having all-night sittings. It is absolute nonsense to suggest it. On the contrary, it is a well-established tradition of the House that from time to time we have to sit late. As for our reputation in the country, I believe that this does far more good than harm. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I see that hon. Members question that. I find the country interested in parliamentary proceedings as a result of the fact that we have stayed up late in the last few weeks.

What people dislike about the House of Commons is when we have a dull time, when there is nothing to report and we seem to be doing nothing. But when we argue fiercely, as we do in our party system, with live debate and with real argument, it does nothing but good in the country. I know that hon. Members opposite do not like such a thing. They want to keep everything as quiet as possible. They want to be able to stay away as long as possible. They want to avoid all-night sittings so that they can go off to their other jobs in the morning. It is different on this side of the House.

The next question is whether the Bills are necessary. Emphatically, in our opinion, they are not necessary. In our opinion, there is no case whatever, indeed quite the contrary, for taking either Bill before the Budget. If the Government are really arguing that it is necessary to have these Bills to stop the appalling economic situation into which they have plunged the country, it is difficult to understand how the saving of £1¾ million by means of the Bill which imposes new charges will help them. It is even suggested in some of the newspapers that in their desperate straits the Government may have to drop the Road Safety Bill to get these Bills through. What a sense of priority to drop the Road Safety Bill to get passed a Bill imposing charges on the Health Service!

Another question that must be asked is whether the Government have any mandate for the Bill. There is certainly no mention of it in their General Election manifesto and not even a word about it in the Queen's Speech. In view of what the Leader of the House says, and because it is right that we should draw a distinction and argue for what we have done in the past, I should like to contrast with these Bills the three Bills on which we on this side of the House, when we were in power, introduced a time-table Motion. First, all those Bills were long Bills. We had for all of them a clear electoral mandate; and we had every reason to expect prolonged obstruction by the then Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman queried whether it was really justifiable for us to introduce a Guillotine Motion on the Iron and Steel Bill. I remember that occasion very well, and I remember why that decision was taken. It was taken because the Opposition so obstructed another Bill which was then going through—the Gas Bill, of which I happened to be in charge—that they forced the Standing Committee to have a 50-hour sitting. Indeed, so considerate were they of the reputation of the House of Commons at that time that they finally produced the following situation.

According to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond), who was unfortunate enough to be Chairman of the Committee at that time, there was a moment in the early hours—about 5 a.m., I think—during the second night, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) was addressing the Committee in his usual lucid manner, explaining exactly why we could not accept some frivolous Amendment tabled by the Opposition, when my hon. Friend found himself nodding—going off to sleep—and he woke and observed my right hon. and learned Friend addressing an entirely sleeping Committee. This contrasts very ill with these ideas of looking after the reputation of the House of Commons.

Moreover, those Bills were all badly needed and very necessary. If one has any doubts about that, one has only to consider the disastrous consequences which have fallen upon us since they were repealed or amended by the Tory Government. The rise in land values resulting directly from the repeal of Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act, the uncontrollable sprawl all over the countryside; the shortage of steel and, indeed, the enormous capital gains made by private individuals in steel shares; the wrecking of the Transport Commission—all those things which have happened since then show only too clearly how justified we were in insisting at that time that the Bills should go through.

The real reasons why the Government have introduced this Motion are quite different. We can get some guidance by considering the previous Bills which they have guillotined. It is an interesting fact that they seem always to introduce the guillotine when they are either attacking the Welfare State or transferring money from the State or from the poor to the rich. These guillotined Bills really make a remarkable list. First, there was the earlier National Health Service Bill. Then we had the Licensed Premises (New Towns) Bill—what I prefer to call the "Brewers' Benefit" Bill. Then we had the Rent Act—the "Landlords' Loot" Bill. Then we had the Transport Act—the "Road Hauliers' Racket" Bill. Then we had commercial television, the biggest plum of all—the private television take-over bid.

The truth, of course, is that hon. Members opposite do not like the publicity given by late sittings, because there are always headlines in the newspapers next morning about what they are trying to do in the House, and they want to get this over especially before the Budget for the reasons which I have given. They are unable to stay up all night or unwilling to stay up all night.

Most important of all, I believe that the real motive behind the Motion is an attempt on the part of the Leader of the House and the Patronage Secretary to restore their drooping prestige among their hon. Friends. For everybody knows what a fool the Chief Patronage Secretary has made of himself, and everybody knows the kind of strain that is imposed on their relations with their hon. Friends when they are subjected to the kind of attack that we have been making upon them. Of course, especially with the members of the Suez Group, a show of force of this kind will endear the right hon. Gentleman to his hon. Friends below the Gangway. If they cannot have gunboats abroad, they will have guillotines at home.

I am sorry that the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) is not here this afternoon, because I am sure that he would have agreed entirely with what I have just been saying. His mutterings and his threats across the Floor of the House have been very evident to us recently, and, obviously, he has had his way with the Leader of the House. I must quote to the House the record of the noble Lord in this matter. In 1948, when the Labour Government introduced a time- table Motion, the noble Lord spoke of this as being the ugly thrust of dictatorship into our British Parliamentary system … With his customary courtesy, he went on to say: Consequently, their hand"— He meant the hand of the Labour Government— on public events is capricious in timing and brutal in application. They are gorillas plunging about in the garden of English democracy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th November, 1948; Vol. 458, c. 1493–4.] Of course, when it came to 1954 the noble Lord was in a different mood altogether. He said: Of course, the very word portrays the knife which is supposed to come down upon legislation, and the public outside is wont, from the use of that word, to get the idea of a violent affront to Parliamentary proceedings. But if we think of it in relation to a timetable, it becomes more normal. A timetable, so far from being revolutionary, is a thing of habit. The noble Lord then went on to say—I hope that the Leader of the House will listen to this the noble Lord was defending the imposition of a Guillotine in those circumstances when the Government had a small majority, about 20, I think— There is no purpose in a Guillotine when there is a substantial majority of 100 or more.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1954; Vol. 527, c. 1046–9.] The fact is that none of the reasons advanced by the right hon. Gentleman can possibly be accepted as valid. Honestly, I have never known a Guillotine less justified by any reasonable argument. The truth is that this Motion is inspired by fear, by idleness, by hurt pride and by vanity. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman should have so tarnished his reputation as to support it, and I ask the House to reject the Motion and support the Amendment.