Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th July 1961.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Gunter Mr Raymond Gunter , Southwark 12:00 am, 26th July 1961

Because of yesterday's events and today's debate, I suppose that it would be a strange reflection to say that we are all glad that we still live in the pleasant land m which we were born. I think that we should remember that it is because of the qualities which we cherish so much that we are in something of a mess today. We have a great regard for our traditions. Our roots are deep in history, and our institutions hallowed by time. This is a good thing, because it gives us a sense of security and stability. But those very factors sometimes make it difficult to get our people to realise that deep and fundamental changes are necessary in their thinking.

This nation must be brought quickly to face the fact that in fifty years the world has changed, and that we are living in a new world. Imperial grandeur has gone, and in fifty years we have been faced with world-wide revolutionary forces. In addition, and at the same time, the greatest technical and scientific revolution that the world has known is sweeping around us. It is at the end of that fifty years of great change and revolution that we find ourselves in a position in which, unless the British people realise the existence of the new world, only decline is before us.

Behind and beyond all the arguments adduced today about the Bank Rate and other measures lies the fact that, so far, the country has failed to meet the real Challenge of the new circumstances and the technical revolution. It is in industry that our greatest problems lie at present. This is the field where, so far, we have failed to utilise all the benefits that science and technology have poured upon us in the last few years. It is very necessary that both sides of industry should realise that unless they are prepared to take advantage of the new techniques and adapt their thinking and their machinery to them, only decline is in front of us.

Instead of our having continual squabbles and differences about whether or not the new machinery and new techniques should be introduced, we should be doing what some other countries are doing. Workers, managements and Governments are welcoming the introduction of every new machine and applying all the horse-power they can to the new methods. We have not done that. There are some sectors of British industry where this new process has operated, but there are large sectors, vital to our wellbeing, which are still laggardly in their employment of new methods and techniques. I do not know whether it is much good having an inquest to find out which side of industry is most to blame. What is necessary is that the British people should be jerked into the last forty years of this century and made to realise that old patterns of negotiation and of management are not relevant to present circumstances.

I want to deal with some of the problems of industry. One of the first things that we must get hold of is the fact that we are not supplying enough trained experts in industry—not only technicians but administrators. We must find some means—whether from within industry or, as I would imagine, with Government support—whereby we can provide the technicians and scientists that industry needs in order to give it a more purposeful direction. Many industrialists sit on the Government side of the House. I submit to them that there is still far too much nepotism in industry. Far too many promotions are still made to responsible positions in industry not on merit or ability, or even on training, but simply according to the particular drawer from which the person concerned comes. In present circumstances it is imperative that we should attract and promote the best brains within industry.

I would say to some of my trade union friends that some of their practices are not very helpful. There are occasions when the promotion of good men is retarded because of past practices, and there is a need on all sides of industry for a real determination that the best men in industry shall rise to the top and give direction.

Much has been said today about industrial relations. We have to be very careful when we seek to assess industrial relations and its practice in this country. By and large, the record of this country will hold up to that of any other industrial country in the world; nevertheless, it is not good enough.

I began my speech by stating that we were very mindful of our traditions, and that our roots were very deep. On both sides of industry an atmosphere should be created in which the book is closed and some of the old bitter chapters are, forgotten. We should really recognise and get down to the task of revision of our negotiating machinery to see whether past practices, so relevant in past days, cannot now be brought up to date.

There is another aspect of industry which puzzles many of us. We have embarked, with enlightened employers, both in the public and the private sector, on what has come to be known as industrial democracy. That really means that both sides of industry should be identified with the same purpose, that instead of sitting down at a table and arguing and quarrelling with one another, they should seek to find a common objective and a way of working it out.

There are hon. Members in the House today who are as aware as I am of the problem. We have drawn up agreements on joint consultation. We have spent many hours in detailing the best method by which management and men could consult together; how managements could bring before the workers their projects and policies, and how they could be discussed in a good atmosphere. We have written good books about it, and a lot of machinery has been established to encompass this. But it is my impression that in many parts of industry today it is not working. The machinery is there, books have been written about it, but the real spirit is not there. We could write the Sermon on the Mount into any agreements dealing with joint consultation, but unless the will for joint consultation is there, it would be of no use. In other words, this new field of industrial democracy will fail unless we can have the proper spirit.

I submit that the Government, in large measure, are to blame for the apathy, Inertia and indifference in industry today. Many of us who served in the Armed Forces know full well that in any sphere where discipline is required, it is obtained only when it is seen at the top and percolates down. There is an atmosphere in too many spheres of industry today of "couldn't care less". I submit that it is time that the Government awoke to the fact that leadership is imperative.

Today much of our industry is leaderless, in the sense that people are not sure where they are going. If he knows the path to be followed and if he is led properly, generally speaking the British worker will follow. Today there is a sense of lack of direction. There is a desperate need for industry and our people to have the intentions of the Government clearly portrayed to them. Same form of national planning board is required because in many industries there is a deep sense of insecurity. Two of the great basic industries, coal and transport, do not know what is required of them.

The Chancellor talks of both sides of industry being involved in some sort of planning board. He told us that he is not too much concerned about including Treasury officials, and I hope that he is not. I am not sure that the Treasury is the right Department to bring vision and inspiration to any planning board. I am no an expert in these matters. My membership of this House is not sufficiently long for me to be able to make a considered judgment. But from the impression I formed in industrial life I do not believe that the machinery of Government has kept pace, or kept in line, with the developments of our economy or the techniques of industry. I do not believe that Government Departments are in a position—not because of ignorance, but because they have not the experts—to form judgments about some of the great projects of our nationalised industries.

I should like to deal for a moment with the transport industry with which I am closely concerned, because I think that what I can say about it is relevant to the paint which I am attempting to make. The Minister and his Department have proved over the past six years that they are incompetent, or at least ill-equipped, to deal with the problems of modern transport. There was a period some years ago when it became obvious that it was necessary to modernise and reorganise this great basic industry. A modernisation plan was brought forward in 1955 and submitted to the Minister who agreed with it and recommended it to the country.

It later transpired that, in the words of a Government spokesman, it had been a false prospectus, and that the British Transport Commission had not properly assessed the position. It had not looked into the future correctly. The original plan was ill-conceived. My point is that at that time the Minister blessed this false prospectus, if it was a false prospectus, and later, when he was challenged, his excuse was that he did not have the staff or the experts in his Department to go into all the details of the plan.

If we are to have planning and a central direction of the economy of the country, it is necessary that Government Departments should have staff competent to deal with such matters. To take the story a stage further, we are today faced with a situation in the transport world in which the Minister himself has to sanction any project costing over £250,000 which is submitted to him by the B.T.C. I believe that capital expenditure on the railways next year will be in the region of £174 million. In the light of that large amount of money the Minister must look at every project over £250,000. I submit that he cannot judge. How does he know whether a certain proposition is sound? How does his staff know what the consequences of this or that project will be?

That does not mean that I believe that it is better left entirely in the hands of an organisation such as the British Transport Commission, but that we should have some instrument, some machinery, or some board of competent men—transport men, economists or scientists —who can look into the future and dwell on the possibilities of rail transport and come to decisions. Then lest the B.T.C. get on with the job of creating a properly organised railway service stripped down to meet the necessities of the next forty years. That is one aspect of nationalised industry where I think that there has been a miserable failure to look at the facts of the situation, to face the possibilities of modern transport and to deal with them in a rational and planned way.

I turn for a moment to one of the other great basic industries which is in distress and insecurity—the coal industry. Here I say for the benefit of hon. Members opposite that I do not believe, and I am sure most of my trade union friends outside do not believe, that one could possibly defend an industry which could be proved to be out of date in view of new and modern methods. We should not seek to defend coal just because it has been a traditional basic industry of this country. I have never believed that it was socially desirable to send a man down a pit to dig coal.

On the other hand, we all know that coal is—and will be for a long time—a very great necessity to the economy of the country. What is the position at present? Because of the absence of a body which would work out and think out over a five- or ten-year period the possibilities of new forms of energy—whether by using liquid methane Or anything else—we have a situation in which we know that that industry is fundamental to the economy of the country but it is withering away in disorder and chaos.

Last year 30,000 men left the pits. Most of them were under 31 and were craftsmen of the pits. Why was that? It was because they do not know where the industry is going. Yet at the same time the Minister at the Dispatch Box tells us that there is a great future for the industry; that there is no need for anyone to worry, it will be all right. There have been all the arguments about the importation of American coal. There has been indecision and an unwillingness to make up one's mind. At the same time, millions of pounds are being poured into new investment in the pits of Monmouthshire where we have the best caking coal in South Wales.

If it be that there are new methods of producing fuel for the industry of the country, if it be to the benefit of the country that those new techniques should be adopted and old traditional methods of power should be given up, why not say so? Do not at the same time put millions of pounds into the old industry and destroy the morale of the people. There is a deep and urgent necessity for a real effort to review the economy of this country by a planning board of some sort being established, whether on five-year or ten-year basis, so that our people may know the direction in which they are going.

I turn to the issue which has been raised so forcibly today, not only here but in the General Council of the Trades Union Congress—the Chancellor's statement upon wage restraint. I have indicated before that I do not believe that this is a temporary crisis. This is not only a deep-seated crisis for the economy of the country but a crisis concerning the spirit of the nation. We shall rally the forces of the nation and bring about unity amongst our people only when ordinary men and women feel that justice is being done, and when they have a deep sense that the leadership is prepared to take every section of the nation into the struggle under the same conditions.

But as a trade union leader I say to the Chancellor that what he has done is to create the impression in the past twenty-four hours that he is calling for the sacrifices from only one section of the community. We shall get a unified nation, which is so necessary in this crisis, only when there is a feeling that justice is being done, that the rankling sores are eliminated and that obvious injustices are put right.

I say this to the Government: you will get into trouble. I am not given to warnings or threatenings, but what you are doing by this form of wage restraint or wage freeze and the conditions which the Chancellor outlined is to throw the challenge down to the trade unions. You are throwing down the gauntlet and deliberately provoking them, because a wage freeze must be very carefully handled and must command the unity of a nation. This wage freeze hits the worst-paid. It is in the public sector that it will be felt most deeply.

The worst-treated body in the country tonight are the teachers. They have been put on the altar. I do not know whether the Government are relying upon the deep sense of vocation and public duty among the teachers. If they are relying on that to avoid trouble, it is a cowardly way out, and, whatever else is done, even at this stage, justice should be done to the teaching profession—not only because of their own circumstances but because we can ill afford to have a dissatisfied teaching profession. If ever there were a time—and this crisis proves it—when we needed a teaching profession able to give the nation educated youngsters, scientifically and technically, it is the present time. It is no good saying, "We will concentrate on the technical side and not bother about the primary and junior school teachers". They are the people who lay the foundation for the future. If we do not teach the children to read and write properly we shall never train them to be good technicians. I think that the teachers have need of special mention tonight.

I am glad that the Prime Minister is here, because there is another industry which merits attention. On 10th March, 1960, he said at the Box, almost proudly, that he accepted the objectives of the Guillebaud Report for the railwaymen. He said that comparability of pay for railwaymen throughout the country was accepted by the Government and would be carried through with the necessary national financial resources. Since that time the workers in the industries with which the railways have been compared have made advances. Railwaymen are still the last in the queue. They are still behind.

The Prime Minister's statement on 10th March, 1960, is very relevant today. All that the railwaymen will ask for when we meet Dr. Beeching on 21st August is that that comparability should be maintained. In this field the Government may well get into trouble. I am not given to threats, but I warn the Government that they may well run into trouble because of this ill-conceived, ugly, cruel and unjustly operated wage freeze. There is one thing that the Government are incapable of doing, and that is handling people properly and decently. They do things which are an affront to decent people. They affront the workers of this country, who on the whole are decent people.

Hon. Members who have spoken today have asked the Government what right they have to ask trade union leaders to tell their members over the next six months that the country is in such a state of crisis that wage restraint is necessary and that claims which they have in the pipeline should be withdrawn or held over for a time while at the same time the Government shovel out £80 million into the hands of Surtax payers. The Government make our task almost impossible. However well-intentioned some of us may be, however patriotic we may want to be to dig the country out of the mess the Tories have got it into, the Government are placing responsible and decent trade union leaders in an almost impossible position. On the one hand, they push up the cost of living, while on the other hand they say that the workers are not to have any more.

I ask the Prime Minister to take full note of the statement issued by the General Council. I will give one more example of what has been done about wages. The railwaymen have a wage claim in. Dr. Beeching was given a salary of £24,000 a year, and the Minister of Transport stood at the Dispatch Box and said that that was the rate for the job and Dr. Beeching should have it. I have no complaint against Dr. Beeching. We have been in contact with him in the machinery of negotiation on a few occasions lately. He appears to me to be a powerful, authoritative, able and fresh man, who will probably bring fresh ideas to transport. I say with kindliness that he is a great refreshment to my soul after having looked at the Front Bench opposite week after week. Men earning £10 a week are being told that they can have no more money, although Dr. Beeching can be given the rate for the job, which is £24,000 a year. It is no good saying that the Government did not know about the economic crisis when they appointed Dr. Beeching.

In industrial relations there is a desperate and urgent need for all practices to be diminished or eliminated. There is a need for management and men to get together. There is a need for a new spirit and dynamic to flow through the face of industry. This will be made possible only as there is leadership from the top and only as direction and authority are revealed to those who work in industry. The nation will respond to leadership. The British people have never yet failed to respond to good leadership. I believe that the Prime Minister reads the good Book. The Children of Israel were not at their greatest when they were surrounded by the opulence of Solomon, nor when they weltered in luxury—or, in modern par- lance, when they counted the number of televisions, cans and refrigerators. The Children of Israel were at their greatest when they were called to duty and discipline. The call to the nation today is to duty and discipline. That can be done only as we have purposeful and real leadership.

The nation has a very great part to play in the future. I am not one of those who believe that we can be written off as a second-rate Power. By one great effort today, a united British people can again give a large measure of moral leadership to the world, which is badly needed. But it cannot be done and will not be done so long as the leadership given by the Government is so indecisive, so unfair and so unjust. The best service that the present Government could render to the history books of Britain would be to get out now.