Three-Day Working Week

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 10th January 1974

That intervention was a waste of time. I have already, at some length, made clear my own attitude to the dispute. The facts which I am mentioning now simply underline the urgency of achieving a settlement.

I was about to refer to the situation in commerce and industry. Clearly, it is the small firms which are suffering most. When the CBI gives formal and, I think, reluctant quasi-approval to the Government's three-day week, someone should put to the CBI the challenge which is often put to the trade unions. If the CBI took a ballot of its membership at this moment, it would, I believe, evince a very different verdict on the Government's policy. During the last year or two we have heard a good deal from hon. Members on the Government benches about small businesses and the need to preserve and protect their position. Some recognition should be given to what is happening to small businesses under the present policy.

It is not only a matter of the shortage of steel or the shortage of fuel ; there is the sudden interruption of cash flow for businesses which depend upon the quick settlement of accounts for their survival. The consequences of this are devastating, and will be shown in the bankruptcy figures very soon.

As regards the effects on employment, again it is those least able to defend themselves who suffer first, as in any period of short-time working or unemployment—the disabled, those in indifferent health, those who have recently returned to work after a period of illness and who are the last to sign on and the first to go. Those are the first victims of the present policy. [Interruption.] I believe that all hon. Members on both sides can confirm this from experience in their own constituencies during the past few weeks. The situation is as I have described it, and it is becoming worse all the time.

I now turn to the question of the social effects. In the next week or two, we ought to have debates on this matter. We ought to consider the effect on the social services, on supplementary benefits, on the rules for unemployment benefit, and the rest. Among the matters which have reached me in the past week or so, it has been clear that special attention should be given to the rapid payment of supplementary benefit, if necessary cutting out some of the normal inquiries, in order to cope with the problems of people in urgent and unexpected need.

For example, married women with dependent children who are separated from their husbands and who normally receive a maintenance allowance but who now find that allowance cut off because of the short working week have an urgent need, in a matter of days, for supplementary benefit. There are also the problems of people who are unemployed after an uneven work record, leaving them under-insured. These also have an urgent need for supplementary benefit. There are many such cases, and they should be kept under constant review. Ministers should explain to the House the steps which are being taken by the Government centrally to deal with all these human problems.

Another example—to take the matter across Departments—is the whole question of school meals and the regulations governing payment. It is provided that local education authorities may make short-term remission of charges for families whose incomes fall temporarily. All local education authorities should be reminded by the Department—if they have not been reminded already—of the need to implement that provision generously in the present situation.

Those are merely random examples of matters which we shall have to return to again and again, and at greater length, if the present situation continues.

Inevitably, in this debate, we have concentrated our attention on the immediate aspects of the problem facing us. I have done so today, and most of those who spoke yesterday did the same, concentrating on the miners' dispute, the effect of the three-day week, and so on. I suggest that this country is facing a series of interlocking crises. We faced severe trouble even before the Middle East war sparked off the oil crisis—certainly before the current industrial disputes.

It seems to me that in 1974 we face the need for drastic adjustments, some of which we are only beginning dimly to recognise. We are, I believe, at the end of an era—an era of cheap energy, cheap food and cheap raw materials. It is a crisis which affects the whole world, and especially the developed economies of the West. Britain is less able to resist this new challenge because of the weaknesses which we face already—the weakness of our balance of payments and internal weaknesses such as the low rate of investment, poor industrial relations and the effects of Government policy in many respects. We are thus more vulnerable and less able to withstand the challenge.

There are no simple solutions to the problems confronting us. There are no easy answers. There is certainly no scope for "at a stroke" promises from any direction. The situation will demand efforts and sacrifices and radical changes of attitude from all sections of society—from trade unionists, from management, from professional people, from everyone. I believe that more and more people are coming to realise this, and there is a latent patriotism in the British people. People are wanting to respond to the national interest if they are given a clearer lead as to what the national interest is.

It is against that background that two basic things should be recognised by the Government. The first is that their policies have aggravated our national malaise beyond all recognition. One policy after another—the Industrial Relations Act, the Housing Finance Act and the tax concessions to the rich—has had a devastating effect on national morale by dividing people at a time when we most need national unity.

But the other thing is that, whatever the content of Government policies, the people of this country are entitled to be treated as intelligent adults. Time after time Ministers have been covering up the facts. Time after time they have been engaging in facile optimism. Right up to the middle of December we were being told by Ministers that we were going through a boom and that the boom would probably continue for ever. People are entitled to be told all the facts, the good facts as well as the bad. They are entitled to a clear indication of policy and a clear appeal to their sense of purpose.

I conclude by reminding the House—perhaps I am quoting what I have said previously ; I apologise for that—of something said by a person greatly respected by everyone in the House, the late John F. Kennedy, in his presidential address in 1960. He asked the American people to stop asking what the Government of their country would do for them and to start asking what they could do for America. It is that kind of lead which has been lacking in Britain in the last three and a half years. If that kind of lead were given by the Government, by a Government who had the moral authority to give it, everyone—miners, trade unionists and people in all classes of society—would be willing and ready to respond.