Orders of the Day — Prices and Incomes Bill

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

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Photo of Mr Charles Pannell Mr Charles Pannell , Leeds West 12:00 am, 21st May 1968

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Richard Wainwright) dealt with a great deal of detail which I do not think affects the main principles of the Bill. If I might come as near to his constituency as possible, I turn my attention to the West Riding, where people adopt the policy of living within their income. That is what we are talking about today, and I find that the electors of Yorkshire apply the same standards to their politicians and how they run their affairs as they do at home. I therefore do not want to touch on what was said by the hon. Gentleman.

I am much more interested in what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), because his experience is very similar to mine. I thought that he made the best speech that I have ever heard him make in the House. It was delivered with great sincerity, but it reminded me of the occasion on which a Harvard academic went to see President Roosevelt. He talked to the great man about deflation, about deficit financing, and about monetising silver. F. D. R. said, "Professor, that is fine, but one thing you have not told me. What do I do next on Monday morning?". That is the problem with which we have to deal. I believe that if we do not pledge ourselves behind the Government tonight pretty severe things will happen by Monday morning.

It is all very well to argue around the legislation as though we had all the time in the world. Over the weekend Sir Roy Harrod did not dissent from the Government that they tried for three years to avoid devaluation. So did 1, within my limits. I did not greet devaluation with the euphoria with which it was greeted by people on the Left of my party. I regarded it as a kind of defeat. It was sad, but we now have to climb out of that state of affairs.

We have now had devaluation for six months, and this debate, whatever the Chief Whip may proclaim it, is a vote of confidence in the Government. I do not know why it has not been called that, because it is a test of the Government's credibility. That is how it will be understood abroad. The test is whether the Government can rally a Parliamentary majority behind them. That is the only thing that will count. The test is whether the Government are seen to be in charge of the situation. If the majority tonight is derisory, then the Government will be devalued throughout the world. So will the Labour Party be devalued because I do not happen to believe that one can separate this party from the Government it created. Devaluation of the £ could well follow, especially in view of the things we are hearing from abroad. The whole credit of the Government rests on this vote.

I want to consider the situation in the context of the situation now. It does not matter much what we thought two or three years ago. I do not much blame my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for changing his mind from time to time. Emerson once said that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds —which indicates that my right hon. Friend is a rather large-minded man.

However, I am consistent in this, in that my hon. Friends know that I have never believed that a voluntary system was possible from the trade unions. I have always taken the argument that, on the hypothesis that wage regulation is a necessity, the State must take the responsibility because the trade unions' traditional role is to get the most they can for their members. Their job is not necessarily to consider the whole economy. I have taken part, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West has taken part, in enough demarcation and differential disputes in ensuring that craftsmen get the right incentives, to know full well that we are ready to take part in a bit of infighting to get what we want for those we represent. There is no question about that. It is no part of a union's function to frustrate its own purpose.

I want to return now to the difficulties faced by that band of brothers, the 17 hon. Members who are in the A.E.U. We are a very curious lot. Last year, under Lord Carron, the A.E.U. went on record in favour of an incomes policy. I was in favour and my hon. Friend was against. This year, under another president, by a vote of 3 to 2, a million votes were passed against the incomes policy at Croydon. One who voted for the incomes policy last year changed his mind. Two were sick. The president was out. That was hardly a qualitative vote. When the rank and file, through the National Committee, met, it decided that it was against any incomes policy, voluntary or statutory. It decided that it believed in a free-for-all.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) made one mistake when he was trying to liken the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South West (Mr. Powell) with those on this side who believe in a free-for-all. Of course, they believe in a free-for-all. But he believes that trade unions are an excretion on the body politic and that they should not have an existence at all. So, in effect, in this House the 17 members of the A.E.U., of last year's vintage or this—a good thing that we have Parliamentary privilege—are having to make up their own minds where they stand on this issue.

Presumably everyone on this side of the House agrees with price regulation. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), speaking on 13th June last year, said that he was in favour of free wage negotiations with price control. That, if I may say so, is the only logical alternative policy I have heard from those who are opposing the incomes policy tonight. Presumably, everyone on this side also believes in the limitation of company distributions and that we should stop rent increases. But many do not believe in any regulation of wages.

Taking all these suppositions together, the whole thing is a nonsense. It is not on. Let us consider rent increases. I have been chairman of a local finance committee. I know that, unless one balances the housing account, with the system of pooling housing accounts which we have now, one merely lays the burden on the general body of ratepayers, many of whom are more hard up than the beneficiaries. I also know, because I have studied the figures, that 73 per cent. of all local government expenditure goes on salaries and wages fixed by trade union agreement over which the local authority has no control. This element is far too large to brush to one side and to say that wages should have a special place and be immune.

Of course, all this has led to a great deal of double talk—the phoney productivity agreements, the promises which never come off. We have all seen them. Of course, we all agree about increased productivity and efficiency. I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) when he says that there should be a swear box for the use of the word "productivity" because it has become so devalued.

I do not think that the alternatives being put up now are serious in the context of the present situation. It is argued that we should liquidate our overseas portfolio. I do not quite see the object. Is it to make ourselves stronger or is it to use the proceeds to finance consumption, which is what I fear the answer to be? During the war, no less than two-thirds of our overseas balances were liquidated when we were trying to buy time for America to enter the war. One of the good things of post-war financing is the way in which we have built up our balances so well again. If we were to tap those balances before the weekend, that would cause such a crisis of confidence that we would get into deep trouble next Monday morning. Let us not be mistaken about this. It is a question of whether we should eat our seed corn accompanied by a massive loss of international confidence.

It is suggested also that we should go in for import controls again. I was in office when we started a sort of import control in 1964. This was the beginning of our troubles.