Public Expenditure and Taxation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th November 1970.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin 12:00 am, 4th November 1970

May I first say that we have had some extremely good maiden speeches, and I would like particularly to congratulate the hon. Members who made them. I say to the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox), the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) and particularly the hon. Lady for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) that if they do as well as those whom they have succeeded, then we shall very much admire them. We admired their predecessors, and they can set themselves no higher standard.

To my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher) and Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) I would say that both of them contributed excellently to the debate. In particular my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood revealed the extent to which a means-tested society is a society that confuses a very large number of its citizens.

I begin by saying a word about what I can only describe as an "Alice in Wonderland" statement. It was the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Hordern) who said that he regarded the Chancellor as being in the position of someone running up a down-going escalator. I prefer that verse from "Alice in Wonderland" which reads: How cheerfully he seems to grin,How neatly spreads his claws,And welcomes little fishes inWith gentle smiling jaws! I do not believe that anybody who looks closely at this budget—and I shall call it a budget because that is what it is—will be persuaded that it in any way meets the economic, social or any of the other problems of this country. It was the Chancellor himself who, in his statement, said that the main economic problems facing the country were those of inflation, unemployment and inadequate growth, and yet my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnet) have shown that the statement has nothing to do with any of those problems.

Perhaps I might give the House one example. With regard to regional employment, the statement both phases out R.E.P. after several years and also clearly reduces the incentives to people to invest in the regions. I have here—and it is worth quoting—a letter from a managing director of one of the larger firms in Scotland. He writes: … I believe it is true to say that investment incentives in plant and equipment have completely disappeared … I am afraid that those of us who are engaged in trying to attract industries to development areas will have a much more difficult job now since there are no incentives left other than differential building grants. It goes even deeper than that. The hon. Members for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) and Horsham attacked the Governor of the Bank of England. They did so, I think, perhaps in an effort to try to avoid attacking their colleague the Chancellor himself. But it is not only the Governor of the Bank of England who has been critical of economic policies as set out in the statement. It was the Daily Telegraph which, on 2nd November in its financial columns, indicated that the effect of the statement would be a marginal shift from investment to consumption, and it was The Times that said on 30th October: What is clear is that monetary policy alone cannot stand as a surrogate for proper policy in this respect. With no incomes policy and an expansionist fiscal policy, the Government has created a situation in which the natural consequence of wage inflation is a reduction in our already inadequate finance for investment. To put it bluntly, that policy does not make sense. I believe, too, that the policy being followed by the Conservative Government does very little in a situation in which they themselves admit that inflation is extremely disturbing because, as several of my right hon. and hon. Friends have said during the debate, the present position is one in which the Government are not merely allowing prices to go to the levels to which pressures take them, but are deliberately encouraging them to go beyond that.

But even more strange is the fact that this statement, which is not an economic statement, nor a social statement, but is, above all, a political statement, has three major consequences; first, to shift the burden of the financial expenditure of this country from the rich to those who are less well off; second, to shift it from single people and people without children to families; third, to shift it from unearned to earned income. To my mind the oddest feature of all, coming as it does from a party which constantly declares its belief in incentives, is that if one takes the traditional incentives of the stick and the carrot, it is the stick alone that is applied to the great majority of people, and the carrot which is reserved for those who are rich. This statement might be described not as a dustman's tanner but as a director's tanner.

I now turn to say something about the cuts which have been made, and I begin by taking up what was said by the hon. Member for Horsham. He said that it was hypocritical of hon. Members on my side of the House to attack the cuts which had been made. These cuts are not being made in a situation in which taxation is being increased across the board because of an economic crisis. They are being made in a situation in which the Chancellor himself admits that the balance of payments position is sound, and that there is money to return for the purposes of consumption.