Orders of the Day — Labour Party (Election Pledges)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th July 1965.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 29th July 1965

That is the second interruption to which I have given way that did not add very much. I am going to deal with every point that has been made about pledges, but I am beginning by analysing the motives for the Motion, what is behind it, and what it seeks to cover up.

Before I come to the detailed charges made by the right hon. Gentleman, I am going to make two general points about the pledges that we gave in and before the election. The first was that our programme was for a full Parliament, not for a single Session, nor even for two Sessions. There were many who doubted our ability to carry through such a programme in a four-or five-year Parliament. Now they complain because we did not do it in nine months.

Secondly, I want to make clear that, in carrying through this programme, we said many times before the election that there must be priorities, priorities in legislation and financial priorilies. My right hon. Friends and I made that clear when we spoke on television and in our speeches everywhere, not only during the election campaign but for a long time before that. I have the quotations here.

We also said that it would be necessary to deal with the economic state that we inherited. That was made clear. In the event—and I shall be coming to this later—we found that the financial problem, the balance of payments deficit, was worse than we had expected, far worse than the country had been led to believe in the repeated utterances of the then Conservative Leader, of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and of the present Leader of the Opposition.

We found that the power and ability of British industry to get up and expand exports and to provide competitive resistance to rapidly increasing imports of manufactured goods was far less than we could have expected, and one cannot galvanise an industrial system, build new factories, encourage investment and make innovations to the point required in a few months, and nobody ever thought that it could be done. It has been a longer and tougher job, and every day that goes past provides further evidence of the effects on Britain of, first, 12 years of drift and then one year of cynical electioneering.

I turn now to our record, and I deal first with legislation. Since November there have gone through this House, or will have, I trust, by next Thursday, 65 Bills, a pretty good record. That is two more than was achieved in the previous Session by a Government with a majority of 100, and 14 more than the average for 1951 to 1964, despite the amount of time that we spent on the Finance Bill a few weeks ago.

But there is another point to consider, and here I am dealing with the Parliamentary bottleneck and carrying out our pledges. An in-coming Government do not normally have, as a continuing Government do, a sheaf of Bills drafted and ready for introduction. However fully policies may have been prepared, it takes time to prepare instructions to Parliamentary Counsel, and still more time, in some cases many months, to get a major Bill drafted. When we came in there was not even a draft Pension Bill on the stocks. It was not there.

The comparison so far as Parliamentary preparation is concerned should be with the last change of Government, which was in 1951, when they had the same problem, and I invite hon. Gentlemen opposite to see how much they got through in that year. I say nothing of the abysmal unpopularity which they faced at the end of nine months, but I ask them to consider their legislative achievements. I have checked on this. There were only two major Bills in that Session. One was a Bill to restore the rights of the brewers in the new towns, and on that I acquit right hon. Gentlemen opposite of the charge of not carrying out their pledges to those who were behind them. The other Bill was the transport denationalisation Measure which was introduced in July and did not even get a Second Reading in that first Session. We did not move any Motion condemning them for not having carried through pledges on that occasion. That is why I suggest that they are a little premature. We will have this debate year after year and they will see our progress in fulfilling our pledges becoming more and more complete.

As we heard from the right hon. Gentleman, this debate is about election pledges, and I am going to take the House through the Measures that we have carried through and the Measures that were in our election programme, and I shall come later to those which are to follow in the second and third Sessions.

The first Bill that was introduced was, I agree, a minor one, but it was very near to the heart of the Chief Whip and myself. It was only a small Bill, but it was symptomatic of what this Parliament has been about. It was a Bill to restore bus fare concessions for old-age pensioners, a concession which had been taken away by right hon. Gentlemen opposite. To some of us, where a major constituency problem was involved, this was an important Measure. I have a file knee-high of letters which I wrote to successive Tory Ministers of Transport and was turned down flat every time. Their lack of humanity on this point meant that old-age pensioners who moved out to new housing estates were unable to afford to travel, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, to visit their relatives down town or on the other side of the city.

This is something that we were pledged to introduce. Year after year Private Members' Bills were introduced from our side of the House, but they were blocked with unfailing regularity every Friday afternoon by hon. Gentlemen opposite. Last year there were exchanges across the Floor with the right hon. Gentleman, the then Prime Minister, when I was pressing him to introduce this legislation, but he refused to act. He said that he did not think that that was the right way to do it. He thought that the best way was to increase the pensions, but he did not. When we first introduced this Bill last year, the most touching thing was the warm support that it got from the Conservative Opposition, yet we know that if they had won the election this Bill would still have been blocked every Friday afternoon.

I come now to a bigger Bill. In my pre-election broadcast when I talked about priorities I mentioned pensions, and I mentioned the Rent Act. These were the two priorities. The Pensions Bill was introduced and had its First Reading 15 days after Parliament met. It provided for the biggest increase in retirement pensions, in widows' pensions, as well as in war pensions, since Labour introduced the Walfare State nearly 20 years ago. That was a pledge that we made and which we honoured, and I say without any fear of contradiction that if the Conservatives had won last October that Pensions Increase Bill would not have been introduced. If they did nothing about it before the election, one can be sure that nothing would have been done about it afterwards, and even if they had any intention of doing it they would have taken the excuse of the economic difficulties which the country was facing not to do it.

What was the Opposition's attitude when we introduced the Pensions Bill? They did not vote against it, but they did vote against the money for it. They let the Bill go through because they wanted to pose as great supporters of the old-age pensioners, but they voted against the money to pay for it because they thought that there were votes in that. They went round the by-elections seeking votes because there was a delay in paying the pensions, but this was due to the fact that there were no plans, no draft Bill, and no administrative arrangements. In one by-election they even contrasted the delay in paying pensions with Members' pay, to which their Leader was 100 per cent. pledged, just as I was. They really plumbed the depths on that one.

Then we abolished the earnings rule for widows. They rejected this year after year. We gave a pledge to do that, and we carried it out. Prescription charges were introduced by right hon. Gentlemen opposite in one economic crisis, in 1952, made worse and more unfair by charging separately for each prescription in the next economic crisis, in 1956, doubled in the next economic crisis in 1961 following their old rule, "When in difficulties put the burden on the backs of those least able to bear them", but it was noticeable that when the economy improved, as it usually did before a General Election, and there were vast tax handouts, there was no remission of this burden. We were pledged to remove prescription charges. We honoured that pledge. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite did not oppose this, although ever since they have called it wasteful. I do not know how many times they have re-spent the saving that they say would have been made if they had opposed the Bill which they did not oppose.

Then there was the Rent Act. We were pledged to restore security of tenure, which, for seven years, they rejected. We did this as an emergency Measure in our first month. When we introduced it they agreed with it. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Where was the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)? Having agreed to it, they kept the House up all night fighting some of the essential parts of it—willing to wound but afraid to strike.

When the Rent Bill was published, terrific attacks were made on it at the Conservative Party mid-term conference, or whatever they have in March on Friday afternoons. They promised to attack it, but in the House, having made their electoral calculations, they let it through. But having let it through they attacked it day after day in Committee, and by day and by night on Report, with all the enthusiasm and unity that they show when the interests of landlords and property owners are at stake.

I want to put a question to the new Leader of the Opposition. The Opposition did not oppose the Rent Bill on its Second and Third Readings—a Bill which was to repeal various Clauses of the Rent Act, to provide fair rents and to fight Rachmanism; a Measure which they have failed to introduce. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, on Monday, if not now, will tell us where his party stands on the Rent Bill. Will they give an assurance that if, by any mischance, they ever get back to power they will not restore their Rent Act? I believe that in the light of their behaviour over the last seven years the country has a right to know. For seven years they kept it and opposed every attack we made on it. Then they acquiesced in its repeal. Will they now repudiate it? I tell the right hon. Gentleman at the start of his new career that he will get no respite until he answers that question.