Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queens Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st November 1968.

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Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Test 12:00 am, 1st November 1968

I have the pleasant task of congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) on an instructive and entertaining maiden speech. I know from bitter experience how terrifying it is to make a maiden speech, and that, when one is waiting, all the preceding speeches seem interminable.

I think that the House particularly appreciated the hon. Member's generous references to his predecessor. We all greatly respected Mr. Leslie Hale. He was one of those Members who could fill the House just by the announcement that he had risen to make a speech. Therefore, the hon. Member has a reputation to follow. I am sure that, after his speech today, we shall be hearing more of him on housing, of which he obviously has great knowledge, and on other matters.

In some ways, this debate is rather chaotic. It opened with a speech from the Government on education, followed by a speech from the Opposition on social security. This was followed by a very interesting speech on the mining industry. Therefore, perhaps the House will pardon me if I add to that chaos by making a reference to one or two other matters before coming to education and social security.

The first is something which is not, unfortunately, in the Gracious Speech. I greatly regret that there are no proposals for the public ownership of the ports and ancillary services. We have been looking forward to this, those of us representing port constituances—as well as our dockers—for years. I argue this case not on ideological grounds but purely because of economic need. As a trading nation, we need an integrated and efficient port industry. I pay tribute to the amount of public investment which the present Government have put into the ports as compared with the record of their predecessors.

Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for the public ownership of the ports, with a strong National Ports Authority and regional ports authorities. That is why I and some of my colleagues have put down an Amendment to the Loyal Address, virtually in the terms of the 1966 manifesto on which I fought the last election. I urge the Government to see whether it is not possible, even now, to include in the present Session legislation for the public ownership of the ports and ancillary services, like stevedoring. I will say no more, since we are to have a White Paper and I hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss the matter then.

After 75 years, we are at last to have amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1893. This is something for which I asked in my maiden speech just over two years ago, and at last it is coming. No one can say that the seamen have not been patient.

I turn now to social security. I also urge the Government to accept the main principles behind the Seebohm Report. After some experience of local authority welfare and children's committees, I think it is very important that all our welfare services, both local and national, should be properly co-ordinated. Even if the Government cannot bring in detailed legislation until after the Maud Committee on boundaries has reported, I hope that they will accept the principles.

On the new proposals for earnings-related benefits and contributions, I welcome the fact that we are to have a White Paper, but one of the first duties of the new wide Ministry of Social Security is to ensure that they have a good public relations department. It will not be easy to sell this to the general public and the factory workers, because their recollections of earnings-related schemes tend to be, unfortunately, of the graduated pension swindle introduced by the party opposite.

I use the word "swindle" advisedly. It was not a pension scheme in the normal sense; it was half pension and half taxation. Actuarially, the benefits in no way corresponded to the contributions. It is important, therefore, that the new Ministry should, during the coming few months, spend a lot of time explaining the new scheme to the people who will be affected, because of their bitter memories of the previous scheme.

I welcome the intention to introduce legislation to increase public service pensions, although it will come rather late in the day. In general, I agree here with the noble Lord the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), who opened for the Opposition, in believing that the way in which the House of Commons deals with the question of public service pensions is nothing short of disgraceful. This criticism applies whichever party is in power. The question is kicked around like a football between the political parties.

I understand that, when the Conservatives were in Government, an hon. Member on the Labour side introduced a Private Member's Bill to increase pensions, and last year we had the similar situation in reverse, with the Opposition introducing a Bill when this Government were in power. The intention is little better than to embarrass one side or the other politically. This is no way to treat public service pensioners, people who have given a lifetime of service.

I urge the Government to set up a procedure under which public service pensions may be reviewed regularly at two-year intervals. I recognise the problems attendant upon economic crisis and I understand the Treasury's argument, but it would still be possible, in certain circumstances, for the Government of the day to say, "We are sorry, but we cannot fulfil the recommendations at this stage. The increase will have to be deferred for six months, perhaps, or a year". But for goodness' sake let us have a regular review procedure so that we do not treat this question like political football, being kicked across the Floor of the House.

Now, the question of education generally. A lot has appeared in the Press recently about students' unrest and the various activities in which they have indulged. I give particular praise to the National Union of Students and the official leadership of the student movement who, throughout all that has gone on, have acted in a most responsible manner. The trouble and violence which occurs and the activities which are pursued in various places are the actions of a relatively small minority of students. However, the majority of students, decent people who want to get on with their work, have some responsibility to ensure that the minority of their colleagues do not wreck the whole thing for them.

Public opinion is hardening on this matter. Those of us who are vitally interested in the subject know this very well. In my constituency, as, I am sure, other hon. Members do, I hear comments such as, "Why are we paying grants out of our taxation for these people who spend their time sitting-in at colleges and acting in this way?". That sort of opinion is on the increase. I fight it wherever I come across it, but, at the same time, I feel that the majority of students have a responsibility to ensure that the minority do not get out of hand too often. There are ways by which they can do it.

There are genuine student grievances in certain places, particularly in art and technical education. In this connection, I refer to the events at Guildford which have made news in recent months. I do not condone what originally happened at Guildford, but I consider that the Surrey County Council acted in the most ham-fisted possible way in dealing with the situation there. It is almost inconceivable that a responsible local authority could act so stupidly as did Surrey County Council in handling the whole matter. However, having said that, I put in a word of praise for Lord Garnsworthy, who has done his best to bring reason into the matter, though, unfortunately, unsuccessfully.