Orders of the Day — State of Emergency

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th November 1973.

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Photo of Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin 12:00 am, 15th November 1973

I am sorry, but I shall have to repeat what I said. If the Government are prepared to state, as they have not yet been prepared to, that the state of emergency is because of the oil supply situation, and if they are also prepared to admit, what they will soon be obliged to admit, about the introduction of oil rationing, we shall support the state of emergency. Frankly, we do not believe that the Government are being honest with the country.

I turn to the point which I raised with the Home Secretary on Tuesday and which relates to the question just raised by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost). It relates directly to the reasons given by the Home Secretary for the state of emergency, namely the coal and electricity disputes. In the course of his remarks in Leicester on Monday night the right hon. Gentleman said he was determined to stop industrial violence and for this purpose he had asked for greater co-operation between police forces. He said he trusted that this greater co-operation would mean there would not be violence or intimidation of the kind which had existed in the past. Neither I nor my right hon. and hon. Friends condone industrial violence or industrial intimidation. However, we do not believe that the Home Secretary was for one moment wise to refer to industrial violence when none is being offered by either of the bodies involved in these disputes.

The House will also recall that during the course of his statement on Tuesday the Home Secretary got into some difficulty about who was breaking the law. An overtime ban is not a breach of the law. Again, my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself do not condone any attempt to break a Government by industrial action, by employers' action or by financial action. We believe that in a democracy Governments should be made and boken in the ballot box and nowhere else. Frankly, if the Home Secretary is concerned to avoid industrial violence he would be much better off advising his chief constables to consult responsible local senior union leaders about what is and what is not permitted than talking about industrial violence.

I refer back to what happened during the miners' strike in February 1972. At that time, as some of my hon. Friends will remember, a group of us went to see the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), to ask him to request chief constables to meet responsible leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers and to explain precisely what was and what was not allowed. The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that this was not part of a Home Secretary's responsibility. Eventually he agreed it might be helpful. Those of my hon. Friends who accompanied me at that meeting, several of whom are on the back benches today, will recall that where that happened—as it did, for example, in Lancashire—there was virtually no trouble during the strike. That is the way the problem should be approached—by honest co-operation and by sensible dialogue between sensible men rather than by the Government's talking about industrial violence in a way which is only likely to be provocative in the long run.

I wish to turn to what I believe to be the crisis which lies even beyond the crisis about oil. This crisis, which we shall be debating on Monday, concerns the country's economy; the 13 per cent. Bank Rate, the 2 per cent. special deposits, the £350 million deficit in October, the £936 million deficit in the first nine months of the year. I accept that the crisis of Britain is indeed in part a crisis which affects far more countries than Britain. It consists of the oil crisis, the crisis about raw materials, the crisis about shortages of feed grains and the crisis about the shortage of newsprint. These go far beyond our shores. But the problems which the whole of the Western world now faces have been compounded in Britain by the Government's handling of the economy. The real crisis will create hardship and we do not believe that the Government are acting to alleviate that hardship or in a way that calls beyond those affected to the nation as a whole. We face a very grim situation.

I do not believe that it will necessarily be grim for a long time. Towards the end of the decade we shall be perhaps better placed than most other countries in terms of fuel. I do not believe that in the four or five years of stringency that are bound to face us we should neglect another of our great assets—a law-abiding and patient people. We do not face a crisis merely of our oil supplies. We face a crisis about the trust that the people of this country are prepared to put in democracy itself. It is as serious as that.

The Home Secretary says that the Opposition should call for respect for the law from our own people and that we must, in the national interest, respond. Surely, however, we are entitled to say to the Home Secretary that respect for Jaw, respect for stage 3 as passed by Parliament, cannot begin and end with our people. It is a respect for law which must also be shown by those who have evaded stage 3 time and again by redefining jobs, by giving themselves exceptional salary increases and by evading the tax that the rest of us have to pay. There must be a respect for the law which does not begin or end with any particular category of citizen. I repeat that I believe that the crisis is more serious than one which should be met by party bickering. The Government must not only appeal, but direct, that the laws that they ask us to respect are respected by their own followers and their own supporters. It is only on the basis of a just taxation policy which gives to those who are now suffering hardships because of the reliefs which the Government so unwisely gave to the rich, that the country can face the crisis which is in front of it.