Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th January 1968.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Warrington 12:00 am, 18th January 1968

I understand that argument. All I am saying is that nobody can bear a burden that is too expensive and too heavy. The time really has come when the burden must be borne by other hands than ours. We cannot afford it. The price which we are paying for it is too high and the burdens which we have to bear are too great.

If that is true of our international burden, it is cheap and ungenerous to suggest that we are actuated by doctrinaire reasons or are lending ourselves to Lenin or submitting ourselves to Marxist masters. Since there are good and adequate reasons for the action which the Government have taken, it would have been more profitable for real debate to have taken place on the consequence of those actions and how Britain can play its new rôle in the world at a time when there have to be major changes of policy.

If that is true of the world rôle of Britain, clearly it is equally true that Britain has to consider again, in the light of the same situation, in face of the same problems and burdens, the nature of the Welfare State that we have to have at home.

The Government have said that they regard this debate as a matter of confidence, and they are probably right to do so. I suppose that this whole situation has arisen from a failure of confidence which is much wider than this House.

There is a good deal that can be said in defence of the Government. They have had a good deal of bad luck, so much so that sometimes I am almost inclined to believe that God must be a Conservative. But if the Government are on trial, the people of Britain are equally aware that little contribution has been made in the present situation by an Opposition who have nothing to give save that of narking criticism.

It remains true, however, that Governments are elected by the people to look after their interests when the storms rage. I have no doubt that the growth of disenchantment and disillusion which prevails in the country, and which extends to all parties and to most politicians, is a crisis of confidence that the Government can overcome, only if they present honestly and fairly to the country, however burdensome the consequences of that presentation may be, a strategy that clearly will provide us with the opportunity of escaping from the miserable treadmill that we have trodden for so many years when we have overcome crisis after crisis by staggering from one expedient to another.

Clearly, the country wants things to be done that can overcome these un-creasing conflicts. In these circumstances, we can no longer keep our options open. Therefore, the package that is being presented to the country this week is crucial. To be effective, it has to be credible. To be credible, it has to be coherent and comprehensive.

When that has been said, however, and while there is little profit in kicking over the dead leaves of past mistakes, it is right that in looking at that package one should look at it critically to see whether, in the judgment of those of us, certainly on this side of the House, who have to support it, we are satisfied that in doing what they are, the Government are dealing with the situation at home with the same courage and integrity as, I believe, they are in dealing with the defence cuts which they have made.

I have no wish to foul my own nest. In the past, when I have thought the Government wrong, in my modesty and in my loyalty I have continued to support them, but I am bound to say that when one examines the tasks which are before the Government in home affairs and in the structure of the Welfare State that we can enjoy in this country, I have a feeling of despair.

If the Government have to cut their expenditure abroad, then it makes sense to make the defence cuts which are forced upon them. If the Government have to cut their expenditure abroad it seems that they can make no real contribution in this field by prescription charges and housing cutbacks and postponing the school leaving age. If they want to take steam out of the economy it can be done by tax changes or hire purchase changes, and it would be better, perhaps, if that could be done and the whole package could be seen, but I find it difficult to understand how the Government think they can take steam out of the economy by charges which are laid for the most part upon, and liable to injure most, those who are least able to bear them. Again, I have no doctrinaire love for no prescription charges, but it seems to me, on general principals, that it is wrong, when the state of the economy is such that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to lay upon the people of this country new burdens, that the heaviest of those burdens should be laid upon the sick and the children of the poor.

I have always had the feeling, long growing, that Cabinet Government is a kind of swindle upon democracy. It enables decisions to be privately made and facelessly offered; decisions, often, which are made for reasons which may have no relevance, and into which we cannot inquire. In these days, when Cabinet resignations become increasingly rare, one often does not know who in the Cabinet stood up for what one believes in and who stood up for the things one does not believe in.

My particular criticism of these charges, however, is not merely of their incidence. I believe that they are not really the sort of matters which call for secret Cabinet decisions in this context. If it is true that the Health Service is outrunning its proper cost, then it would be better, in my judgment, to have an inquiry into the Health Service, to make a general examination of the whole system. This was done in part by Sainsbury, and how little notice, it appears, has been taken in this context of the Sainsbury Report.

In the same way, if it is right that education costs have to be saved, then rather than repudiate something which has been an article of faith, certainly for me, and for many of those who think like me, surely it would be better, rather than have these private decisions made, and which may cause irrevocable damage to the structure of our educational system, that inquiry should be made by those who have to run this service. The decision then reached could be reached clearly and openly, and the country could understand what are the real matters which have to be considered.

It does not seem to me that these cuts help our economy. If it is right that Government expenditure should be cut in these fields, the intention to make this ceiling of expenditure should be announced. If the world has to be told because it cannot otherwise believe in our good will, then when the cuts are made, care should be taken to see they are made at the point where the least damage will be done to the structure of our Welfare State.

I have promised to be brief. I have made what appear to me proper criticisms. I have done it without ill will, and I have done it because I have been asked, with other members of my party, to support the Government, who have presented us with this package, at this time of crisis. I have supported the Government before when I have not altogether been persuaded of what they were doing. I have done so because I accept that, in government, compromise is inevitable. So long as the Government broadly carry out the things in which I believe, it would be wrong that I should rely on the loyalty of other people to keep the Government whom I do not want to destroy. But let me say this to the Government. I hope this time they have got their arithmetic right. I hope that this is the last time when we shall be asked to eat our own words.