Orders of the Day — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1968.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Lewis Mr Arthur Lewis , West Ham North 12:00 am, 21st March 1968

I am now approaching my twenty-third year as a Member of Parliament. I think it is true to say that I have sat through almost every Budget debate we have had during those 23 years, and this is only the second time that I have taken part in the debate. During those 23 years we have had 13 years of the Tories in power and 10 years of Labour but I would say that in that time, during which we have had about 27 Budgets, we have had, in fact, 27 Treasury Budgets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) asked whether this was or was not a bankers' Budget. All I will say is: that prior to the Budget the Press were clamouring, at the behest of the bankers, for a certain type of Budget. Strangely enough, the type of Budget they were clamouring for came along, and the bankers were very happy with it. Over the years I have seen this repeating itself ad nauseam. It reminds me very much of the child who has a little touch of diarrhoea and whose mother tries to solve the problem by giving it a small dose of castor oil. When she finds that the castor oil does not cure the complaint, she gives it a bigger dose of castor oil; and so she goes on, never curing the trouble.

This is what has been happening year after year. Irrespective of what party has been in power, and irrespective of what Chancellor has been in office, that has happened. Going back to any year, any time, from 1945 onwards, that has been my experience. First, the Treasury has published its figures and its economic surveys. Then, after 12 months, the Treasury has told everyone that it has got the figures and the estimates wrong, and so it is going to put the screw on by imposing taxation, by slowing up, by going faster or by coming to a halt—whichever it may be. As I say, this has happened each year, and after 12 or 18 months or two years we hit an economic crisis. We gradually get out of the crisis, but then we return to crisis.

With all the remedies it is invariably the poorer members of the population who suffer most. It is all very well for Ministers, whether in the present Government or any other, to say that rents are going up but that it is only by a few shillings; rates are going up, but it is only a few shillings; that school milk is being taken away, but only a few shillings are invoved; that school dinners are going up, but that it is only a few shillings. I could go on for hours like that.

We also have Ministers saying that the workers must have the screw put on them because they are spending too much, that they are taking liberties with the country, that these people on £10, £12, £14 or £15 a week are really shocking. This is said by people who are getting £120 to £200 a week. Ministers receiving £200 a week say, "You on £10, £12, £14 and £15 should be more careful. You should cut down."

Only last week a dear old lady told me, "I nursed a bed-ridden sick husband for 25 years. I could have stayed at home and gone on National Assistance, but I went out to work to get some money. Now that he has died I get £5 7s. 6d. a week, from which I must pay rent and pay for heating, lighting and so on. I went to what used to be the National Assistance Board and I get 3s. 6d. a week supplementary benefit." Is it fair, right or reasonable for the present Government or any other to say to this woman, "Your rent, rates, gas, electricity and fares are going up, as well as a lot of other things", and then add, "You should be careful, because the country is getting into economic difficulty".

I am disgusted with the way all Governments over the years, particularly of most recent years, show preference to those who have as against those who do not. I am fortunately one of those who have, but I say this because it is a bit immoral. The newspapers write things—the Daily Mirror is an example. A journalist who writes an article perhaps once a week receives for that one article more than the average worker gets for a whole week's work at the pit or wherever it may be. He tells the workers that they should cut down, and he tells the Chancellor that we should have a restrictive Budget.

We find the Daily Mirror, led by Mr. Cecil King, saying that it is all in favour of the incomes policy and that the paper supports the Government. Well, does it? It supported incomes policy, but not when it affected the Daily Mirror. It wanted to increase its price and of course it did so. It alleged that that was because of devaluation, but devaluation did not affect the cost of the newsprint until some time this month. It put its price up in January, even though the Prices and Incomes Board said that it should not do it. That is the paper that pays exorbitant sums to journalists to tell the workers, "You should cut down on your standard of living".

Another one is the Sunday Times. I am told that it has signed an agreement for the political memoirs of some Government Ministers for £100,000. I am also told that it has paid £5,000 for one article. Then this paper puts up its price because it says that it cannot manage. What about the Government doing something about that? What about their saying that this is inflationary and should be dealt with?

I have been campaigning for years to try to alter the disgusting procedure whereby lawyers received the last year of their earnings tax-free. I was very pleased to see that at long last this is to end, but will it? It will cease only up to a point. They will still keep 5 per cent., I think it is, of their last year's earnings tax-free. If the lawyers can do it, why not the engineers, bricklayers, carpenters and so on? This is another case of one law for one and another for the other.

I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General whether he would refer to the Prices and Incomes Board the report in all the newspapers that in the recent Emile Littler libel case, which lasted for 17 days, the legal fraternity drew between £75,000 and £100,000 in fees. I should have thought that he would reply, "Yes. We shall hurry that to the Board because it is against the Government's policy." But, no. It was not referred. But it would have been if it was the ordinary worker asking for a couple of bob a week more. We see this happening all the time. The Government can always do something to stop wages, and they do it. But I believe that there is just one price rise that they have stopped during the past twelve months. I think it concerned some laundry charges. They cannot do anything about prices.

Another broken promise was that we were originally told that these powers would be retained for only 12 months. Then it was for two years, and now we are to have them for 18 months. We do not know. I believe that it is not the present Government or previous Governments but the Treasury that has got its sums and its promises wrong all the time. I believe the Government genuinely meant it when they said that the powers would be used for only 12 months, and again when they extended them by 12 months. But what happens is that in the course of time they find that what they said would occur does not. They now say, "Leave it to us. We have now got it right. We shall now be successful. We shall get out of these continual economic crises because we have the answer. We have devaluation, and this will succeed." Sir Stafford Cripps tried it and we still had the crises.

The trouble with the present Government and all Governments is that we allow the Treasury to dictate terms and policy. It may well be that there is a little bit of manoeuvring within it as to whether one puts the tax on this or on that, but basically the overall amount, whether £900 million is taken out of the economy or £900 million put in, is decided by the Treasury, and the Treasury starts working out how it shall be done.

We are told that the increased tax on petrol and so on will affect the cost of living by only a few points. It is always only a few points or only a half point, and it is all only temporary—we are told that it will be for only a short while. That happened with the whisky tax and the surcharge on petrol. I do not know how long the whisky tax has been on, but it is a temporary tax.

What amazes me is the increase in the Road Fund licence.