Employment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th January 1976.

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Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone 12:00 am, 29th January 1976

There is an answer to what the hon. Gentleman said. I gave it in my election address but I will not give it today. I want to return to what matters now—unemployment and how to deal with it. I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you will be much happier if we do that. My first major example is the construction industry. It is a sign of the obscenity of the economic system under which we operate that there should be 175,000 unemployed construction workers while homeless people are walking the streets. It is quite wrong for a Labour Government not to say, "We must now risk the investment of large sums to put those construction workers to work". The one perfunctory sentence that my right hon. Friend devoted to the construction industry was totally inadequate.

We want to hear real plans. Several hundred million pounds should be spent on this matter right away. There need not be a long delay, nor should there be a large import bill. We have the building workers and the institutions. All that would be required is the import of timber from some Scandinavian countries. The oniy other thing that is needed is a Government decision.

The other industry that I want to mention is the television and tube industry, which has recently been discussed a good deal. Here I move to the second leg of the amendment, import controls. This reference was not put in wilfully. I am not unmindful of the danger of retaliation or the importance of free trade for a large trading country like Great Britain. Those who are concerned that it should remain a united Kingdom for the sake of its economic future must be particularly concerned for its trading position. It is all of one piece.

But the talk of retaliation has been exaggerated. After all, many countries are interested in the British market where 25 million people are gainfully employed. They will not cut Britain off without a penny and say that they are not interested in her. It is a scandal to talk about import controls only in such propagandistic terms.

My proposal is much more precise. In preparation for the debate, I have taken advice from some importers. I am told by some people who are not in principle in favour of general import controls that there is a proper place for them, particularly in the period to which the Chancellor referred today. They fear that, in the months before an expected upturn, the Chancellor's own policy would be gravely in danger if, just at that time, when people were beginning to earn more —particularly if he accepted some of my proposals for earlier reflation—they could not find the things that they wanted to buy on the home market. Retooling would not have been carried out, so there would be a flood of imports. It would be just then that we should need a certain amount of protection.

If temporary protection is not allowed, then—I do not expect the Treasury and the Department of Trade to tell us how "temporary" it would be—we could not do anything about the imports problem. The flood would come in and no one would want to invest in the necessary retooling. Import controls then would bring an outcry.

It has been suggested in Whitehall and elsewhere that we are under a binding commitment to the EEC, that it would be ultra vires for us to impose certain import controls and that the Customs and Excise might feel that they were illegal. If that is so, the nation should be told and should be given the reasons. Such obstacles would not be insurmountable. They could be overcome by de novo legislation. This is a national crisis and temporary de novo legislation could overcome it.

There would be criticism of us, but other countries, like Italy and France, who are members of the EEC and who have imposed controls, have accepted such criticism. I am not asking for controls lasting until the end of the century. It would be for the Government to decide how temporary was temporary. That is what an Executive is for. Our amendment does not prescribe in detail. We do not want the House of Commons to assume the rôle of the Cabinet. This is a carefully-prepared and thought-through proposal which the Executive would have to put into effect.

Even an amendment which has not been called does not give the potential mover the right to speak all day and to prevent everybody else from taking part, so I must draw to a close. My right hon. and hon. Friends who have signed the amendment are convinced that the Government's policy is too timid to deal with this serious problem, the seriousness of which exercises us as much as any other member of the Labour Party, here or outside. There is nothing between us on this. No one here sets himself or herself up as being more concerned about this problem than any one with responsibility in the Executive. But the Government are too timid.

We want to change or shift their policy. We want them to make a start in shifting or changing their policy. To indicate that we are serious about it, this will be done in different ways tonight by different groups of my hon. Friends. The best way would have been for the House of Commons to be able to support the amendment, but we want the Government to take warning—as they ought to have done already—from the the developing discussion.

I do not take kindly to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and sometimes the Prime Minister, telling us time and again that the last Labour Party conference and Trades Union Congress accepted the policy of the £6 limit. It is historically true that the two conferences and the movement accepted the £6 limit as a sound policy only on condition that there would be a policy of reducing unemployment at the same time, hand in hand with it. If my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had gone to either conference or to both conferences and said, "Accept the £6 limit and higher unemployment", the conferences would not have accepted either policy from him.

This is not a matter of being right or wrong, because there was wisdom in the attitude of the movement—[Interruption.] Perhaps I may give myself an extension of two minutes, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.]

As I was saying, the historic record is clear. The movement, being responsible for the people who are its members, knows that unemployment will always be regarded by the working people of this country as the gravest problem.

The right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, who sat through the beginning of the debate, said haughtily at her first party conference—I want to put this on record before I conclude—that "This unemployment is not due to capitalism" She added, "I support the capitalist system", and nailed her colours to the mast. She did not talk about the ugly face of capitalism, as other Conservative leaders have sometimes done in the past. She said proudly and haughtily, "I support the capitalist system. This is the unemployment of the Labour Government." That was nonsense. It is the unemployment of the capitalist system. It is not the Labour Government that is responsible for unemployment.

There are 25 million people unemployed today in various categories and countries. It is not only in the United Kingdom that there is unemployment. There are 8½ million unemployed in the United States of America, the strongest of all capitalist countries. There are 1,400,000 unemployed in West Germany.

That is the system. The right hon. Lady can have it. She will not get away with it. The Conservative Party do not deserve to get away with it. At the right time we shall remind the electorate of the Conservative Party's responsibility. But my right hon. Friends carry the responsibility for the country and for curing unemployment as best we can. It is to call them to their duty that the amendment is being moved and will be supported in the House and in the country today.