Prices and Incomes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th December 1969.

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Photo of Sir Edward Brown Sir Edward Brown , Bath 12:00 am, 17th December 1969

Those of us who served on the Committee considering the first Prices and Incomes Act forecast that we should have a series of Orders such as the Order before us. We now have our second, precisely because the dam has burst. The right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) asked why Part II has to be reactivated. It is because the dam has been breached, leaving the Government faced with a serious situation, and the possibility that they must take legal sanctions against somebody, though they have refused to do so. As a result of the 1966 Act and its reactivation since industrial relations are now worse than they have been at any time in our history —and that is making quite a statement.

The following workers have passed through the dam very comfortably: the miners, with a 10 per cent. increase; the dustmen, with a 16 per cent. Increase; the exhibition stand fitters, with a 16·3 per cent. increase; and British Leyland clerical staff, with increases of from 8 per cent. to 14·4 per cent. B.E.A. and B.O.A.C. engineering workers had an increase of 30s. a week from 1st September this year. These have not been referred to the Board. There was an agreement which provided for an increase of 15 per cent. for English Clay workers. Motor vehicle retailing and repair workers had a 19·4 per cent. increase, and agricultural workers had a 15s. a week increase. Government industrial workers have had increases of from 3·3 to 12·4 per cent., and local authority manual workers, numbering 680,000. have had increases ranging from 15s. to 37s. a week, which are percentage increases ranging from 5·6 to 12·9 per cent. That is what has happened to the 3½ per cent. norm.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have never ceased to express their repugnance and disgust with the prices and incomes policy. I think that we should never have had talked about the prices policy but simply about the incomes policy. The Labour Party has condemned its continuance. The T.U.C. has condemned it and union conferences throughout the year have instructed the Labour Party to oppose it in the House. Over many years of toil and sweat we have built up a system of free collective bargaining about which in past years the right hon. Lady has been very eloquent, and it is a sad reflection that today by the order she is doing her best to produce not growth, but chaos in industrial relations.

"Long-term transitional change to a voluntary system" was the expression which she used this afternoon. I should like to quote from some of the statements she has made to show the dilemma in which the Labour Party finds itself. Speaking at Bolton on 17th September, 1966, on the introduction of the policy the right hon. Lady said: Economic planning in a democratic Socialist economy cannot operate successfully if wage-fixing is left either to the arbitrary decision of a wage-stop or to the accidents of unco-ordinated sectional bargaining. This sentence was not written 16 days ago but 16 years ago. It was written by a group of left-wing Members of Parliament who outlined in a pamphlet 'Keeping Left' their remedy for the same sort of economic crisis which plagued Britain then as plagues us now. The members of that group were named by the right hon. Lady and they were the Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) and the right hon. Lady, among others. They had no doubt that in a planned society incomes must be planned along with everything else. We called it 'socialisation of the wages sector' and declared that, to make it happen we needed the recognition by the trades union movement that wages in any industry are no longer the business only of employers and the workers in that industry but of the whole nation.'That is still the issue today…it will call for something much more imaginative than the methods of collective bargaining based on the principle of what the market will bear. But I don't believe we can get Socialism without it. That is a condemnation of the whole of the policy which is being continued today.

In Election Forum on 10th March, the Prime Minister said: I don't think you can ever legislate for wage increases, and no Party is setting out to do that…once you have the law prescribing wages I think you're on a very slippery slope. It would be repugnant I think to all Parties in this country. As to the idea of freezing all wage claims, salary claims, I suppose, dividends, rents?… I think this would be monstrously unfair". He followed this in a broadcast on the B.B.C. programme "24 Hours" on 6th October, 1966, when asked by Mr. Harris: When the powers of the Act come to an end in August. Prime Minister, won't there have to be a continuation of them? by saying: In terms of legislative powers, no…we hope to use the next few months for working out the criteria for voluntary restraint to relate incomes of all kinds, not just wages, to productivity. One could go on quoting example after example of Ministers denying what would happen but of which we see the results today.

I ask the right hon. Lady to examine Part II and its true function. The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) clearly expressed it when, in Committee in 1966, he said: What Part II of the Bill does is not to stop anyone negotiating. It does not stop anyone doing what he wants to do at the end of the day. It does not stop anyone settling negotiations. What it does is call upon people to notify what they are proposing, and, if asked to do so, to stand still for a limited period while someone other than themselves, using a set of criteria agreed upon, tests what it is that they are proposing to do. At the end of the day, they are free to go and do it, but they will at least have been called upon to justify it and the country can check, test and judge how far they are taking the national interest into account in what they are doing. That is all that Part II does. It is all that Clause 6 leads into."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 2nd August, 1966; c. 279–80.] This was the then Minister talking about the voluntary notification and what we have in Part II is a penal sanction applied at the end of it. Hon. Members opposite know it and we know it. The sanction has never been applied and because it has never been applied, claims have gone through without screening and without investigation because Ministers cannot face up to putting anybody in court. The net result is that we have this wretched order pushed through the House year after year. The right hon. Lady and her friends will not only have forfeited the loyalty of hon. Members opposite, who are being dragooned and pushed into the Lobby tonight, or who will be abstaining and sitting on their bottoms, but, and more significantly, she has forfeited the loyalties of millions of trade union workers, who will be saying so in no uncertain fashion when the next Election comes.

Who is kidding whom? The Prime Minister is running around the country making great speeches about the balance of payments while the right hon. Lady is telling the workers that they cannot have any more. But wage claims are still going through and still we see prices rise—and I fully agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that prices are rising.

The right hon. Lady and her friends should take their scrap of paper away and in its place, in what little time there is left to the Government, they should bring in an industrial relations Bill which would give the country a sense of purpose, not bring in scraps of paper which have no relevance in our time and our age.