Orders of the Day — PRICES AND INCOMES (No. 2) BILL

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th June 1967.

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Photo of Mr Trevor Park Mr Trevor Park , Derbyshire South East 12:00 am, 13th June 1967

If the right hon. Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) detected a lack of enthusiasm in the House for some of his remarks, I assure him that he was not mistaken, particularly since he was engaged in the fascinating, but rather indiscreet, practice of letting the cat out of the bag. The way in which he did so, with respect to future Conservative policy, dismayed some of his hon. Friends as much as it confirmed some of mine in their suspicions about what the Conservative Party would do if ever it was returned to power.

I say frankly that if the only alternative to what the Government are now proposing was the policy which hon. Gentlemen opposite have put forward, then I would support the Government the whole way, for the Opposition remedy, as described by the right hon. Member for Mitcham, would be ten times worse than the disease. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have learned nothing, and have forgotten nothing, about their 13 years in office. If they were returned to power and attempted to put into practice some of the proposals about which they have spoken today, the outlook for industrial peace would be dark indeed.

I do not believe that the Opposition's alternative is the only alternative to the present incomes policy. There is another and better one, as described in part by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner). It is almost 12 months since I withheld my support from the Government on Second Reading of the first Bill of this kind. I expressed the view at that time that it was ill-conceived, that it would result in a state of affairs which would embitter relationships between trade unionists, employers and the Government and that once the Government had started along the path of legal restraint and punitive sanctions they would be forced to go further along that road until, in the end, the only way to achieve their objective would be to challenge the whole basis of collective bargaining and to seek to substitute for it a system of authoritarian incomes control. A month later, when Part IV was added, it seemed than the warnings which some of my hon. Friends and I had given were already coming true. By that addition, the Government took a further big step forward in the direction of compulsory wage control.

I am delighted to find that, just in time, the Government are now pulling back from the brink and that the notions which were canvassed in high circles a few months ago are being decisively repudiated by the Government. They have been forced to recognise by experience what they refused to concede to argument, and if the wage freeze has had some success in preventing incomes from rising, it has not been the result of Part IV, even less the consequences of its punitive provisions, but, as the Government recognise, the consequences of two factors, both of which are rapidly ceasing to be relevant. First there has been the phase of deflation, stagnant growth and rising unemployment which the Chancellor has assured us is now coming to an end, and, secondly, the voluntary self-sacrifice and restraint on the part of the vast majority of trade unions and trade union members during the period of the economic crisis.

After nearly a year's bitter experience, self-sacrifice and restraint are now wearing a bit thin. Trade union leaders cannot be expected to hold their part of the bargain indefinitely when the Government, through their failure to maintain price stability and to keep full employment, are falling down on their side of the undertaking about what the results of restraint would be.

The Government are right to recognise that, in these circumstances, any future hope for incomes policy must depend on voluntary means and cannot be brought about by legislative measures, and this is true if only because any attempt to proceed further along the path of coercion would involve certain confrontation not with a few recalcitrants, but with the whole organised trade union movement.

I believe that the prospects for an effective voluntary incomes policy are very much better than they were some time ago. I disagree, therefore, with the remarks just made by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). The T.U.C. report, adopted overwhelmingly at the conference of trade union executives on 2nd March, provides an excellent opportunity for the Government to get themselves off the hook by acknowledging that here is the authority and machinery to bring about by voluntary means the changes which are needed, and they should embrace the T.U.C. proposals with open arms.

Here, for the first time—and let us not minimise its importance—trade unions are freely giving up attributes of individual sovereignty to a central trade union organisation. The central organisation is taking on itself the responsibility of charting priorities in wage bargaining, priorities which the whole of the trade union movement will be invited to accept—and all this will take place with full consultation with the Government and after the most careful consideration of the Government's attitude and advice. What more do the Government want? How much more consistent with their own independent existence can the trade unions afford to give them?

I do not believe the Bill possesses one-tenth of the potential effectiveness of the T.U.C.'s proposals. If it is intended to assert Government policy on incomes in face of trade union opposition, then it does not go far enough and the seven months' delay without any control over retrospective claims will combine the maximum of irritation with the minimum of impact.

But if that is not the Government's intention, if the Bill is intended to serve, as my right hon. Friend said, as a bridge between the Government's earlier championship of coercion and their new acceptance of a voluntary policy, they should be reminded that it is the kind of bridge which, in its statement of 2nd March, the T.U.C. categorically and unambiguously repudiated.

If the Government wish by the Bill to retain a reserve of power to deal with recalcitrants who do not accept the advice of the T.U.C., I would urge them again to consider carefully the remarks of Mr. George Woodcock on this theme. Speaking at the conference of national executives, he had this to say: The Government say to us, 'Your scheme sounds all right, but what do you do with your recalcitrants?' I ask them: 'What do you do with our recalcitrants? Are you going to send them to prison?'. This, of course, is the implication of legislation. Well, you will not deal with recalcitrants by sending them to prison. I have not been able to guarantee that we shall see that everybody fits neatly into line. All that I say is that to ask for everybody to fit neatly into line is to ask something that is impossible for anybody. I do not think that the whole world comes to an end or that the incomes policy goes up the spout because someone happens to get away with a little bit. If incomes policy is not big enough, if its purpose, if its objective, if the way it is going generally, is not big enough to enable us to carry on over those little humps, then we had better not start at all. Those were the words of Mr. Woodcock and I recommend them for consideration of the Government even at this late hour. By introducing the Bill at this time the Government are jeopardising the chances of success of that same voluntary policy which they are claiming to support.

I pray in aid again the words of the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. The House will forgive me for quoting Mr. Woodcock a second time, but he has been mentioned on a number of occasions and not every mention has accorded correctly with what he has said on this point: I can see the dangers to our policy in this situation, where the Government retain their legal powers under Part II slightly extended, at a time when we are seeking to operate an entirely voluntary scheme. Clearly you would be blind if you did not see the dangers, because one thing is certain, one thing is known of all trade unions—it is one of our many good characteristics—that we prefer to deal with the people in whom the ultimate power rests. We do not like to go a circuitous route to come to the final conclusion … if that happens, then the point and purpose that I see in this conference will be vitiated, because we want from this conference the authority to get on with the job, which means we want the co-operation, the willingness of trade unionists genuinely to come to the T.U.C. Of course, if they think coming, even with the best will in the world, does not take them to a conclusion, then there is a danger that they may not come to us. Here is a Bill which is too weak to stand on its own, yet strong enough, if it is brought into frequent use, to sabotage the only alternative policy which can hold out any hopes of success. I have no doubt that I shall be told that the Bill applies to prices as well as to incomes and that if I withhold my support I am denying the Government the right to take effective action in the prices field.

I would like to answer that challenge. What does this Bill do in the prices field? Does it learn from the ineffectiveness of prices legislation during the last 12 months? Does it establish an effective machinery for price stabilisation of key commodities at national and local level? Does it in any way seek to eliminate, or even reduce, the numerous loopholes for increases which are allowed under the terms of paragraph 10 of the latest White Paper? Does it take any effective action about increases in rents, or rates, or bus fares, or, for that matter, electricity charges? We all know that it does not, and its silence on these matters condemns these provisions of the Bill to utter ineffectiveness.

We are faced with a paradoxical position. On incomes, where legislation cannot work and for which an alternative voluntary policy exists, the Government persist with legislative methods; on prices, where there is no sign of a voluntary agreement and where effective legislation is the only way in which to secure stabilisation, the Government make no move to acquire the kind of powers which are urgently necessary.

I beg the Government, even at this late stage, to look at this matter again. The Bill is ineffective, irrelevant and potentially harmful. I do not believe that I would be doing my duty by my constituents, by my party, or by my conscience if I were to give it my support in the Lobby tonight.