Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th October 1968.

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Photo of Mr Edward Leadbitter Mr Edward Leadbitter , Hartlepools, The 12:00 am, 30th October 1968

I agree with the hon. and learned Member, and one must not be too unkind. After all, the hon. and learned Member did sufficient harm himself without my putting upon his shoulders the thinking of his hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk. Both are out of date in their attitudes of thought.

I come from a part of the world where, before 1964, we had the highest unemployment figures in the country. Indeed, my constituency of Hartlepool had 12½ per cent. unemployed. In the four years which have since passed—I am addressing myself to the fact to gain some lessons which might be helpful in revealing the thinking behind the Queen's Speech—we have had more new jobs created in Hartlepool than in any similar period in 100 years. We have had more factories built or existing factories extended during those four years than in any similar period.

When we had about 4,000 men out of work, an appeal was made to the then Lord Hailsham, now the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), who came to my constituency. He did so in great fashion, wearing a cap. When we addressed ourselves to him, because the Government of the day were talking in terms of having a regional policy, the extent of his thinking about my constituency was, in his own words, "You must not worry if you become a dormitory town".

In the great debate in the House of Commons, without fear or favour, we are, in effect, talking about the difference in policy between the parties. I make the claim that the same policies as are projected within the language of the Queen's Speech have translated the Hartlepools from a state of desolation, despondency and sheer despair to a place of new hope, of vigorous direction and buoyancy of the kind which now presents itself as an example throughout the country.

At this moment, the amount of capital investment in the area has reached something like £150 million, including the nuclear power station announced by the Government, within a few days of which we had the announcement of the saving of the Furness shipyard. I put it to hon. Members opposite: when was there a day when a ship-building yard was saved by the Tory Party? There are two instances in four years when my party has saved the jobs of men in shipyards, one in Scotland and one in recent weeks on Tees-side, where 500 of my constituents work.

Whatever else is said, Government intervention, initiative and a deep concern to solve the problems of regions such as the North have resulted in that kind of success. One of the most modern shipyards in Europe—the Furness yard—has been saved by the Government, where private enterprise had abysmally let it down.

The case is therefore made out that in four years great strides have been made in the regions in improving the general economy and, as a consequence, in improving the social infrastructure of the regions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Symonds) said, there are of course still major outstanding problems. He said that in Millom 13 per cent. of the men are out of work and he told us of the desperate need for direct Government intervention.

But what are we talking about? We are talking simply about the immensity of the problem which confronted this Government and which, for the past 10 years or so, has existed in the regions and with which the Conservative Government failed to deal. They were spending on the roads in the northern region in their last year of office. £4 million. This Government are spending about £20 million. Look at the Conservatives' record in housing. Lord Hailsham said, in the region, "You must not build 18,000 houses—knock it up to 25,000." We are building far more than that. We gave the local authorities money to build. Lord Hailsham said, "Increase the number of houses," just like that, but he did not give the local authorities the wherewithal to do it. We are building more hospitals and we are certainly building more schools.

Much more, I agree, has to be done under regional policies, but where have the successes come from—if successes there are, as I have tried to claim that, in my constituency, there are—have they come from the policies of the Labour Government or the policies of the previous Administration? We do not have to argue that. Hon. Members know. They have only to read the headlines in the newspapers, in the popular Press as well as The Times and the Daily Telegraph, in the several years preceding 1964. They will tell hon. Members the position as it was. We do not have to debate it. The facts are there, that this Government, against the background of a national crisis which we inherited—we did not buy it, we did not even know the strength of it until after we were elected in 1964 and saw the books—this Government have a great and proud record in the regions.

There are one or two things which I should have liked to have seen in the Queen's Speech but which are not there. First, I should like to have seen the abolition of the graduated pension scheme. The Labour Party described the scheme as a swindle—as it was. It still is. We have not only a moral obligation, therefore, but, in terms of insurance principle, a strong economic reason why we should get rid of it. There is no question about it, and I should have liked to have seen that in the Queen's Speech.

Secondly, I should have liked to have seen proposals for radically changing the Selective Employment Tax. I have reached the point where I agree that it may be impossible to remove it altogether, because of the great amount of revenue which the tax brings in, but there are two things at least which could be done with it. First of all, remove it from the industrial classification list, because many of the anomalies arise out of attaching it to that list for collection purposes, although, as everybody in the House knows, that list was designed for purposes other than taxation.

Secondly, there should be a very pertinent attempt to have consultations with Members of the House about it. We sometimes have situations, if I may say so, in which some Ministers think they are God's gift to this place and, after their appointment, assume they have inherited a kind of wisdom which they did not have before. However, there are other Members of this House who have addressed themselves in detail to this question of S.E.T., not on political grounds but in a sincere search for ways to get rid of the anomalies and to make it acceptable. So there should be discussions about making Selective Employment Tax what its name says it ought to be—selective.

The third thing which ought to have been in the Gracious Speech is legislation to abolish prescription charges. I think this is the first time they have been mentioned today. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt), chairman of our health group in this House, who has done a lot of work on this, and who knows that I have taken an interest in it with him, no doubt will be making some reference to this later. I am sure he will, but certainly it is time the Government stopped listening to their economic advisers. Some of these people have been the bane of our lives. Some of them are academic nitwits. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I cannot understand why hon. Members opposite are shouting, because their advisers were worse. The advisers of the previous Administration were unfortunately a great tragedy, but all Governments in a democracy seem to be saddled with peculiar advisers.

I am saying this in all seriousness because of the situation which we have now about the prescription charges. There is the amount of time which is spent in filling in the forms, and helping dear old ladies who cannot read what is on the back of them, and people who go for prescriptions for their friends but not knowing what to do; there are chemists who would be saving a lot of time and money if they were not burdened with all this paper paraphernalia. The benefits of the present scheme to the nation are so highly marginal as to be questionable. I do not believe that the savings which the Government are now saying we have made because of the introduction of prescription charges are what they say they are. During the past few months the proposed savings have diminished considerably, and so many people are exempt from the charges anyway that we have a whole national machine to deal with only a handful of people. Let us get it off our backs.

More than that. We gave our word to the electorate in 1964—and in 1966, if I remember aright. One of the things which politicans today have to try to face is that our credibility is being questioned by ordinary decent people outside. Back benchers do not appear on television so often as the prima donnas. We cannot say to the public so much on television, "We are some Members of Parliament who feel like you do". Therefore, we say to the Government, not only get it off our backs but let us have some sense, and let the public see that when we give our word on precise matters such as this our word is our bond.

The economic academic advisers are not important in this context. Politics are never run on their backs; politics are run on the ability of politicians and leaders to appeal to the people and to gain a response. I feel terribly vexed about this, and it is time that the Government listened to the majority of the voices. In the Cabinet there is a handful of voices; a lot more than a handful of voices are telling the Government not to be silly and to get rid of this non-sense.

The fourth point I would like to see in the Queen's Speech is legislation to meet the urgent need to deal with the injustices of the financial burden of responsibility arising from an antiquated rating system. This we have said we will deal with. The rating systems is cock-eyed. It is over 300 years old, and there are wealthy people living in such situations that their rate contribution is far less than that made by people who are much poorer. The days of the mansion have passed, and there are people now living in houses where the rating calculation is such that their contribution to the general servicing of the local community is anomalous. Injustices are created, which are not solved by handing out charity to the poor, no matter how necessary such charity may be in the short term. The rating system must be knocked into shape so that it is acceptable in modern terms. People cannot understand why we put up with the existing system.

The fifth thing I would like to see in the Queen's Speech is legislation to provide for transferability of superannuation schemes. This again is long overdue. Many people are tied down to their occupations for the whole of their lives, not because they like their jobs but because they are tied by their superannuation schemes. They are hanging their future on the hook of a pension. The pension should be mobile so that the man with his skills, talents and initiative is able to move and has the incentive which comes from the ability to take with him his savings in terms of a pension.

The sixth matter on which I should like to see something in the Queen's Speech is the subject of equal pay.