Orders of the Day — Economic and Energy Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Woodhouse Mr Christopher Woodhouse , Oxford 12:00 am, 19th December 1973

The speech by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) has clearly illustrated what has been in my mind throughout the debate, namely, that there are really two debates taking place concurrently. The hon. Gentleman has contributed to both of those debates, but I shall contribute to only one.

The subject of one debate is whether the Government have got their calculations right. The subject of the other debate is whether they have got their psychology right. I shall not contribute to the debate on the arithmetic of the measures announced this week, except to say that when I was a member of the Select Committee on Public Expenditure a year or two ago I gained the distinct impression from Treasury evidence that, as a general rule, cuts in public expenditure contained a large degree of fantasy because estimates of public expenditure for years ahead contained in the first place an element of very arbitrary calculation.

The main question is the psychological one. There are two schools of thought about it, both inside the House and outside. There are those who contemplate a fight to the finish and those who look forward to a truce and a closing of the ranks. I take my place unhesitatingly with the second group.

It is important to realise that a closing of ranks will not come about simply by agreeing to let bygones be bygones any more than it will come about by forcing an unconditional surrender. It will come about only by finding common ground, however small to begin with, on which we can all agree and which we can exploit and expand together.

I shall suggest one or two areas in which this is still possible. The first is in industrial relations. Everyone with any industrial experience knows that the Industrial Relations Act is not working. That is partly—but only partly—because of the refusal of many trade unions to operate it or to recognise the National Industrial Relations Court. The boycott of the court is only partial. In a number of cases trade unions are refusing to plead in the court, but having allowed a case to go against them by default they are taking the case to the Appeal Court, thus saving face in an expensive and undesirable way.

But that is only part of the reason. The main reason is that the Act was clumsily drafted and inadequately debated. Anyone on this side of the House who says that naturally invites the question "Why did you vote for it in the first place?" My answer is that I was completely persuaded that an industrial relations Act was necessary. I believed that it was right in principle. I suggested on Second Reading that there were a number of imperfections in the Bill as it was drafted and I did my best at later stages, whenever it was possible to get a word in edgeways, to try to improve the drafting, and I declined to vote for the premature guillotine on the Bill.

But what I do not believe, however firmly it may be said by Opposition Members, is that the Act will ever be repealed in toto. I have the support—very distinguished support—of the late Lord Donovan in saying that. It is equally certain that the Act will be reviewed and amended, probably drastically, and the sooner that is done the better. I hope that the new Secretary of State will make his intention clear on this matter, not by the kind of crafty ambiguities with which he has swept the Irish problem under the carpet temporarily, but by making frank declarations that the Act will be amended in this present Parliament. If he does so, many hon. Members on this side of the House, and elsewhere, will be ready with constructive suggestions.

The second area in which common ground can still be found is that of the cost of living. Everybody agrees, of course, that those who are by far the worst afflicted by inflation today are those living on small fixed incomes, especially pensioners. The Government believe that, if current wage claims were met in full, the inflationary effect would be so severe that everybody would suffer, and the pensioners would suffer worst of all.

Therefore, on the face of it, there seems to be a conflict between the interests of trade unionists and of pensioners. However, a way round the conflict has been available to the Government for more than a year. At about this time last year there was a mass lobby of trade unionists at the House in favour of an increase of pensions to £10 a week for the single pensioner and £16 a week for a married couple. When the trade unionists from Oxford saw me on that occasion I asked them whether they realised that such an increase would inevitably be severely inflationary, unless accompanied by a willingness on their part to abate their wage claims or in some way to compensate for the increase. They unhesitatingly replied "Yes". They said that they recognised that fact, and I therefore agreed to support them.

Unfortunately the Government did not then have the imagination to appreciate that they had before them, offered by the trade unions, a framework in which the interests of workers and pensioners could be reconciled and harmonised, instead of being in competition with each other, as in the past. The significance of that suggestion was precisely that it was the trade unionists who offered it. I hope that the offer may still be open and that the opportunity will not be missed again.

The last point I have to make is again one of psychological significance. It was referred to by the hon. Member for Loughborough. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recognised that property speculators are today the most unpopular creatures in the country. There is one at least whom many of us would like to see clapped in the Tower of London, if not in Centre Point. But there is a valid distinction, which other hon. Members on this side have drawn, between the property speculator and a property developer. A speculator simply buys and sells. A developer performs an essential function, which would still have to be performed even if all those in business today were put out of business.

This contrast was sharply illustrated yesterday in the centre pages of The Times. On the left-hand page there was a nauseating story about a group of property tycoons engaged in a competition in the game of Monopoly. On the right-hand page there was a letter from the President of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors pointing out clearly and forcefully the arguments against imagining that it was possible for development to be a function of local authorities or of the central Government. What he said was perfectly true.

Indeed, many local authorities, particularly those in the old counties, are not equipped even to carry out their present-day planning functions. I speak from experience. I must declare an interest because I am a director of a construction company, but it is a construction company which wants to build houses and other useful buildings. It does not want to be compelled, as it is compelled today by the dilatoriness and incompetence of many local planning authorities, to become, against its will, a land speculator.

The result of that dilatoriness and incompetence is that many houses built today cost as much as 50 per cent. more than they need have cost, because by their procedures, the local planning authorities delay the building by anything up to two years. The best service that the Government could perform in this area would be to shake up local authority planning drastically and severely and impose a much firmer central direction upon it.

I have mentioned just a few areas in which I believe that all of us could find common ground. I hope that the Government will explore them, and that they will exploit and expand all such areas, rather than be misled into conflicts which can end only in unconditional surrender on one side and ruin on both.