Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th March 1973.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Giles Radice Mr Giles Radice , Chester-le-Street 12:00 am, 12th March 1973

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Norman Lamont) will understand if, in this my maiden speech, I do not take up all the arguments which he so lucidly advanced. I realise that it is not usual for a new Member to speak so soon after his arrival here, and I only hope that the House will feel that the freshness of my contact with the electorate is some compensation for my lack of parliamentary skill and experience.

I am proud to be the new Member of Parliament for Chester-le-Street, the constituency with the longest record of Labour representation in the country. The names and reputations of my three predecessors are well known to the House. Jack Lawson was a Minister in the Attlee Administration, much revered in the North East and in the House for his fairness and good judgment. Pat Bartley had already begun to make a reputation before his all-too-early death. My immediate predecessor, Norman Pentland, was much loved in his constituency and deeply respected on both sides of the House for his integrity, his courage and his common sense. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] All three were miners, and all three had that sense of justice, loyalty and duty so characteristic of miners. Individually and collectively they have set a high standard of representation, which I shall do my best to maintain.

Chester-le-Street, as the media so often told us during the by-election campaign, is a constituency no longer dominated by the mining industry. In the 1940s there were probably 40 pits open. Now there are only five. But if most people now work in the factories at Birtley and Washington New Town, the sense of community which is a feature and characteristic of Durham mining villages is still very strong. There is an extraordinary number of community institutions and organisations. I hesitate to invite hon. Members to all 40 of the working men's clubs in my constituency, particularly in one evening, but they certainly are great social institutions. The respect and concern shown for old people is also something of which we can be proud in my constituency, as is the very large number of men and women who are organised in trade unions.

I thought it might be of use to the House if I were to outline the view of my constituents on some of the major issues which have been discussed during this Budget debate. In two surveys before the by-election campaign began, we asked what they considered to be the most important issues facing them and they said "Prices, pensions and jobs". It is about these that I wish briefly to speak.

To begin with jobs, unemployment in my constituency is nearly twice the national average, and the position on job opportunities is far worse. Of course, this is not a new situation. The decline of our old heavy industries has faced us for many years with the old Alice-in-Wonderland problem of having to run very hard to stand still. During the life of the last Labour administration a whole new package of measures had begun to make some impact; and I am bound to say—even in a maiden speech—that the changes in regional policy introduced by the present Government, combined with a very high level of unemployment, have created a climate of uncertainty from which we are only just beginning to recover.

What people in Chester-le-Street and the North-East generally are asking for is, first, a continuance of existing jobs and, secondly, the provision of more new and varied employment. To satisfy their needs we must have determined and consistent Government intervention over many years. We are grateful for the Government's new attitude towards the coal industry, but we are concerned that the Government have not changed their decision to phase out the regional employment premium, one of the most effective instruments of regional policy yet devised, and that there are no new measures such as, for example, a State holding company which might provide us with greater job opportunities which we require. Therefore I join with other hon. Members, par- ticularly on this side of the House, in the fight for more jobs for the North.

I turn to pensions. In Chester-le-Street there are many old-age pensioners, and many of them live on the poverty line. If it were not for action by local authorities and clubs for the over-60s, the majority would be in dire straits. Old-age pensioners everywhere will welcome the increases in the Budget, announced for October, but nobody would claim that these increases match up to the need. There will, indeed, be deep disappointment that the Government have refused to make cheap television licences available to all. The truth is—and this is a situation for which we all share some responsibility—that we do not give our old-age pensioners the standard of living which they deserve as of right.

Lastly I turn to prices. My constituents feel, with some justice, that the exceptionally sharp rise in the cost of living over the last three years, particularly in food, rent, and rates, has hit them especially hard. I have mentioned already the large number of pensioners and the high level of unemployment as special factors. But there is also the point that earnings in the North-East are £2 to £3 below the national average. Therefore, it is little wonder that the prices issue was the one most frequently mentioned on the doorstep and that housewives everywhere should have insisted on the need for control over food prices. I am afraid they will get little comfort from this Budget.

It is true that certain items of manufactured food, in the jargon of the tax specialists, are to be zero-rated, for VAT, but there is no hint of any kind of policy for controlling the main items of food by subsidy, even as a temporary measure; and, in my view and the view of my hon. Friends, we must have this kind of food subsidy if we are to control food prices.

The chief impression that I carry to the House from the by-election at Chester-le-Street is the dissatisfaction of a large majority of people. In my view, and with great respect to the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe), there is no general belief in the need for a centre party or for a strong Liberal Party. What is present is a desire that the Government should tackle the major problems, some of which I have mentioned, with determination and fairness. Judging by the result of the Chester-le-Street by-election, the Government have not yet succeeded in convincing my constituents at least that they are fair. On the contrary, many feel that this country is more deeply divided than it has been at any time since the 1930s. No body of opinion feels this more keenly than trade unionists.

Declaring my interest as someone who has worked for the General and Municipal Workers Union for eight years and who is now a sponsored Member of Parliament of that union, something very startling must have happened to turn what was formerly considered to be a very responsible and moderate union—some people thought too responsible and too moderate—into one of the leaders of the rebellion against the prices and incomes policy. One should also remember that this union is still committed in principle to a prices and incomes policy.

The Government would do well to learn from this experience, amongst others, and reconsider their policies towards the trade unions before it is too late. Certainly the issue of fairness and what people consider to be just is one that any Government ignore at their peril. Indeed, it could well decide the next election. It is only within the context of fairness and social justice that the problems which today seem so intractable, and some of which we have discussed in this debate, have any chance of being solved.

I thank the House for its courtesy and consideration.