Orders of the Day — Prices and Incomes Bill (Committee Stage)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1966.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 3rd August 1966

I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) that this is an important matter. Since I wish to say some things which are critical of the Government, I wish to express myself with my usual care. Therefore, I start by saying—I say it very sincerely—that I think anyone who listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend the First Secretary and Secretary of State for Economic Affairs today, whatever one might think of the merits of the issue in this debate, will agree that it was a most powerful and effective speech. I was very glad to hear him make it. The other night he made a bad speech. If all of us who make bad speeches were cleared out of this place it would be empty. So when I say that I disagree with the Government in this matter, I acknowledge that in the speech of my right hon. Friend he certainly made a case which has to be answered by those of us who disagree with him.

He also dealt effectively with part of the argument put by the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition grossly overstated his case when he talked of this debate being the great divide between those who believe in liberty and those who want a totalitarian society. That was the language we heard in this House in the years between 1945 and 1951 and the kind of peroration we expected elsewhere from Lord Woolton. When Tories lisp the word "liberty" they always get into trouble, because we are always very doubtful whether they believe in it. I was not much impressed by that part of the right hon. Member's speech.

My right hon. Friend dealt with that, but there are still many matters which the House of Commons has to decide—very important questions. The question whether it was proper for Part IV to be included in the Bill has been disposed of by the Chairman of the Committee. The question of Parliamentary legality has been dealt with. No one questions that. But it is still right for us to debate the questions whether it was wise, whether it was politically expedient, whether it was in accordance with the treatment of genuine rights of free debate in this House for all hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Blackburn) tended to suggest—I do not say that he did it in these words—that the argument had been settled by the Chairman upstairs. We cannot accept that. The questions whether it is wise, whether it is expedient, or whether it is right in the treatment and protection of full debate, are questions for the House to decide, not for the Chairman or even for Mr. Speaker himself.

I was rather surprised to hear the First Secretary say that it was absurd to suggest that this matter could be dealt with in some other way. Whether it was right or wrong, feasible or not, it was certainly practicable and possible for the Government to have introduced a separate Bill to deal with this question. No one can dispute that. We could have had a separate Bill incorporating the provisions of the Prices and Incomes Standstill White Paper. If that procedure had been followed it might have meant that we would have had to sit here longer during August for the purpose of having the discussion.

What we are complaining about is that we did not have sufficient time. We may have had to sit longer in August. That may have been inconvenient, but we cannot complain on that score. The measures being introduced will be extremely inconvenient for many people in the country.

I did not agree with the whole of the award for the doctors, but certain numbers of doctors are being treated in the most shameful manner. Doctors in some of the hospitals are getting pay which most people would regard as scandalous. They were promised that they would get something and a date was provided. The promise has been broken. It has been broken by this White Paper and Part IV of the Bill. That is a matter of great inconvenience to the doctors. Railway-men had a promise made to them and that promise has been broken also. This White Paper and Part IV are extremely inconvenient for them. There are many other groups whose claims could be cited. Therefore, none of us would have had any right to complain if the Government had said we shall have to sit for another week in order to get a separate Bill through.

Then there is the question of whether it would not have been advantageous for the Government themselves to have introduced a separate Bill. The First Secretary, I am sure, is passionately eager to see a prices and incomes policy working in this country. No one doubts his sincerity. Whether he can achieve it or not is another matter, but no one doubts his wish to see a proper prices and incomes policy working and no one doubts that he means one in which there is a planned growth of wages.

If that is what the First Secretary wants in the Prices and Incomes Bill now before the Committee, how foolish it was to spatchcock into the Bill a measure which has precisely different ideas. I should have thought the First Secretary himself would have said to the Cabinet—maybe he did—" For heaven's sake don't mix up your standstill with my Prices and Incomes Bill. Let us keep the two as separate as possible. One is designed to have a planned growth of wages over a period with productivity agreements incorporated in it, and the other is designed to give the exact opposite. So for heaven's sake don't attach to my Prices and Incomes Bill the odium of a standstill order." Therefore, in the Government's own interest, it would have been much better to have kept the two matters separate and to have introduced a second Bill.

However, I am not concerned only with looking after the Government's interests. I am also concerned with my own interests. I have every right to be. My own interest is as a Member of the House of Commons. The prices and incomes standstill and the new Part IV are certainly unjust, probably unworkable, and are likely to inflict lasting and grievous injury on the process of collective bargaining and the trade union movement.

Holding these views about the White Paper, I have every right to express them in the House; and so have my hon. Friends who hold these views. We are deprived of the right to express those views on the issue of principle by the procedure which the Government adopted. Not only is that unfair to hon. Members on the back benches on this side, as indeed to hon. Members opposite; but, again, it is most unwise in the interests of the Government.

Nothing could do greater injury to the Government in seeking to get their policy accepted on the wages freeze throughout the country than for it to be thought that the Measure is being pushed through by a kind of conspiracy and that the House of Commons has not had the chance to debate it. It is for the Government's benefit that it should be known throughout the country that their Measure has been subjected to minute criticism by those who happen to sympathise with the critics in the country.

Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins) is fighting his battle in Standing Committee in the interests of democracy. He is stating his own views, but he is also, in an ironic sense, acting in the interests of the Government, because he is at least doing his best to use such procedure as is available to show the country that a debate is taking place in the House of Commons upon these serious matters.

The Government should have provided, not merely that one or two members of the Standing Committee who happen to share our view are able to express it, but also that all of us, if we caught the eye of the Chair, are able to state our views in a proper debate on Second Reading. There is nothing in our Parliamentary practice—no obstacle of time—which made this impossible. It was a grievous error of judgment on the part of the Government to say that they would try to push through the Measure in this manner.

There are even more serious aspects than that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) referred—rightly, in my opinion—to the wider economic and democratic aspects. We are not entitled to debate these matters fully on their merits in this discussion. This debate is not a substitute for a Second Reading debate. Nobody is entitled to say that it is. However, it is possible for us to say that we should have been able to debate this matter in a wider economic context. Of course we should. In certain circumstances I might even agree to a wages and prices standstill. I should object to it very strongly; I should dislike it very much; but, if the Government were taking a whole series of other measures of which I approved, I would find it very difficult to pick out this measure and say that I would not support it.

However, the Government are taking very few of the measures to deal with the economic crisis which many of us think should be taken. They are not taking the vital measures we think are required to deal with the enormous defence expenditure. They are not taking the measures we think are required to deal with the international financial situation. They are not taking the measures we think are required to get the instruments of control and planning on the scale we think is necessary. These are the criticisms we wish to make. I cannot elaborate them now. They are exactly the kind of criticisms which can be made only in a Second Reading debate. That is what a Second Reading debate is for—so that we can discuss the particular Measure in the context of the general situation. That is what I and others are being denied by the Government's action.

Therefore, I have to consider what attitude I will take to the Opposition's Motion. I never like voting with the Tories, if it can possibly be avoided. On this occasion my hon. Friends may be relieved to know that it can be avoided. Moreover, the remedy that the Opposition propose does not deal with the disease, because I have been complaining that we have not been able to have a Second Reading debate on this issue. I think that a separate Measure should have been introduced. This is what the Opposition should have proposed. Whether I would have supported it if the Opposition had proposed it they will have to find out by tabling such a Motion. If I were in charge of the Opposition and having to deal with the Government in these circumstances, the Government would not have got off as lightly as they have in the last few weeks. The Government deserve to have got it much harder.

I shall not vote for the Opposition's Motion. I shall not vote for the Government, either. Of course I understand the consequences. I do not abstain from voting on Motions without making the reckoning. If anybody abstains from voting on a Motion, he must abstain on the basis that he is inviting others to take the same course as himself. That is the only honourable basis on which a Member can vote in the House.

If everyone followed the course I am advising my hon. Friends to take, I understand that the Government would be defeated. This would be a severe setback for the Government, but I think that it would be a victory for the House of Commons. It would make for better government in the future. If the Government were defeated, we should have to have further debates on this issue. If the Government have got a very good case, a better case than we have heard so far on the White Paper and the new Part IV, we would hear it in the House of Commons and the country would hear it; so the Government's measures would not be injured if their measures were good.

In this economic crisis some of us go further than fearing that the Government are taking the wrong courses to deal with it. We are critical of the Government, not only because we think their Measures are lopsided. This Measure for dealing with wages, in particular, we believe puts a quite wrong emphasis. There are many other important measures which should be taken to rescue the economy, if we are going to do that.

This is not our only criticism. My fear is about what is to happen in the next crisis. Some of the courses that the Government are following mean that there may be another early crisis of sterling. What will happen then? If that crisis comes before the end of the six months or just after, will the Government then say, "We do not propose to continue these powers"? Of course not. They will try to continue them. How will they do so? They will be able to say, "The House of Commons agreed that we should not have a Second Reading on these powers originally and we are merely following that precedent". I do not propose that the Government should have my approval for the precedent they are apparently setting.

The Government should consider these matters very carefully. Governments never like admitting that they have made mistakes. It is very awkward for them to do so. However, the Government have introduced a Measure which extends throughout the whole economic life of the country. It offends in some degrees against principles that some of us on this side of the House hold very dear indeed, and which I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench hold very dear.

I refer to the principles of collective bargaining, which are being utterly ruptured, and to the abandonment of promises made to great sections of the community. A prominent example is the railwaymen, who had to fight long for not very big rises and who, after a long fight lasting many months and even years, got an increase following a meeting in Downing Street. It was signed, sealed and delivered. Now it is to be snatched from them. These are very serious matters. Such matters cannot be dealt with by saying that we shall not have the fullest possible debates in the House.

Therefore, I should like the Government not, perhaps to withdraw their opposition to the Motion, but to introduce a Motion of their own which would remedy the matter. I am not hopeful that they will do so, but I urge them to do it. If they do not, I urge as many of my hon. Friends who agree with me to abstain from voting in the Lobbies tonight. That would be the most effective way of making clear to the Government that we are earnest in what we are saying in these matters.

But if the Government will not take that remedy, a small crumb that they can give us is to say that the fullest possible debate will be permitted next week on the Report stage. I do not agree with the arrangement proposed by the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently suggested that he did not worry very much about debating Parts I, II and III but wanted only to concentrate on Part IV. He has no right to decide these matters. Many of us want to discuss Parts I, II and III, because that is the permanent legislation. Therefore, we think that there should be an extensive Report stage on those parts and on Part IV as well.