The hon. Member knows only too well how far and fast we have moved in how many directions and how many changes in the structure of the profession have been made and how the priorities of the profession have altered in the fifteen years since the time about which he speaks. I am saying that there are factors in favour of the nurses' claim which militate against that profession in conditions of inflation. The exercise of restraint and the fact that they would never use the ultimate weapon to enforce their own way are all things which penalise them in conditions of inflation.
The attitude of my right hon. Friend in particular and of the Government in general is widely regarded as a selfish and cowardly policy. On the contrary. To my way of thinking, it is quixotic to a degree, because to do that job properly requires him to hold the line at a point at which he is seen to have influence. To allow that line to reach a point at which he no longer has influence might provoke the maximum odium, both inside and outside this Committee.
The first and second phases of what is called the pay pause, though sound, have been insufficiently explained and not correctly understood and I earnestly hope that that error will be avoided in what we now refer to as phase three, the forecast of which in his own field my right hon. Friend gave today. What makes my right hon. Friend's position difficult today is not the harshness of the second phase, but the unfairness of the third, which lies ahead. Clarity on this third stage—the wages policy for the professions in relation to industry—is something on which clarity will become more and more essential; and it cannot be done by public opinion polls or even by discussing the matter here, because, I feel sure, none of us will agree about it.
A Royal Commission, which I always regard as the last refuge for those destitute of ideas, has been suggested. I dare say that such a Commission would give more guidance on this matter than we have seen hitherto. I gravely doubt whether, in a free society, this can be done merely by an appearance of equity, though equity may be achieved. Everything we are now discussing is subject to very strong tensions which exist today in various forms between what we are pleased to call wage and salary earners.
I need not elaborate on that, but it is true. It may be regarded as inevitable in a revolution of rising expectations. But the forces are there, and they are very strong. However much sympathy we may have for this or any other profession, they must be recognised if we are to meet those forces realistically. They do not make the next phase any easier, when I think that Ministers will have less control than they like to think they have now. What they do control—it is very important that they should be made aware of this—is the place which they should occupy in the phase which lies ahead.
I am very far from advocating an abdication of responsibility. An element of responsibility by Ministers is recognised, and they will have to continue to accept it. But the further we as a Government tend to get involved in these arrangements and wage negotiations between the professions in general, the more intractable will the policy of getting the priorities right prove to be and the more unjust the results will appear. This is what puts my right hon. Friend in a difficulty today.
The more involved Ministers become in these matters, the weaker will the two negotiating sides become, because, when the Government are available to take a hand in matters, there is a tendency to put the baby in the Government's lap. I should like to see the two negotiating sides grow stronger and have an increasing, not decreasing, sense of responsibility. That is where the Government come in in a very important way. In an economic crisis, the Government always tend to get drawn into these matters and go beyond the point which some of us think they should go, as in this case.