Her Majesty's Government (Opposition Motion)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th June 1976.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey 12:00 am, 9th June 1976

I fancy that the hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to make a small point. He evidently did not hear—nor did hon. Members opposite—the speech of the Leader of the Liberal Party, who drew attention to one particular aspect of public spending in his own constituency.

Of course, local government is one of the big spending agents, but hon. Members must not try to over-simplify. They have only to look around the country to see the lengths to which public spending has gone—for example, in South Wales. This is an area where industry was once thriving. The tin plate industry once thrived there. But the boom industry in South Wales now is the vehicle licensing centre in Swansea.

Let hon. Members go to London and see the derelict conditions of dockland and contrast them with the towering office blocks of Whitehall and the Greater London Council. Let them go to Merseyside and see the closed factories at Skelmersdale and the expanding computer centre of the Inland Revenue. Let them go to Newcastle, to Washington, or to Clydeside, where the growth industries are those of bureaucracy.

Public spending is subsidising jobs in over-manned, over-subsidised railroads, steel works, motor factories, and even area health authorities. It is taking place alongside the abandonment by the Government of social programmes to which the Labour Party attaches prime importance. The Government are unable to go ahead with programmes of child benefits because of expenditure on subsidising over-manned industries and jobs.

The Government have been obliged, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) pointed out, to welsh on their undertaking to the pensioners. They have welshed on their undertaking to the pensioners because of their continued failure to control other public spending programmes.

Here we see the unacceptable face of Socialism. Public money cannot be spent, as we should wish, on the young, the sick and the old because it is being spent on the idle, the selfish and the inefficient. People know this to be so. Those who have listened to the debate know it. Many hon. Members on both sides know it. They have no confidence that the Gov- ernment, when it comes to the point, will face up to the truth and the reality of these matters.

I quote from a broadcast made two or three days ago: The only way you will stop that is in one of two ways. You either make immediate cuts in public spending, which is the honest thing to do, or you try to trick the Labour Party and the unions by talking about the money supply, giving a keynote for the currency dealings, when what you mean to do is to cut public spending once you have got the TUC conference out of the way. This is the crisis of confidence. They don't trust us. They don't trust Brian Sedgemore. They don't trust the Government. They have a horrible feeling that we don't intend to pay our way in the world, and that what we intend to do is to increase public spending, whether we can afford to do so or whether we can't. Those are the words not of an hon. Member from this side of the House but of the hon. Member for Ladywood, and they give an insight into why there should be concern. Of course we need control over public spending but not the panic cuts that have been imposed by the present Government in the last two years. To get it under control we need a deliberate strategy for public spending. Our concern is as it has always been, but there is no sign that correct measures are being put in hand.

Of course we need to secure a restraint on pay. There is no argument about that. That can only be achieved by consultation with, and the consent and understanding of, working people. Our complaint involves whether it is right to put the whole responsibility on to the TUC to the extent that the Government have. To cast the TUC in a dual rôle to that extent places an unfair burden on the TUC which is unrepresentative of its membership and of the country and it threatens to destroy the true social contract—the contract between this House and the people. It leads to coercion of the House, to deceit, and in order to fulfill deals of that kind the Government have to drive measures through the House which should not go through.

The Prime Minister asked the Opposition what we regarded as the proper price to pay for an understanding on restraint. We welcome the agreement but the problem cannot be solved as easily as the Leader of the Liberal Party suggested by thinking seriously about differentials. Lower spending should be offered as part of the deal. The people want that, less borrowing—because they understand that—less taxation, more profit, more jobs—that is what the Prime Minister should be giving as part of his social contract but it is what he has failed to give.

Because of the widespread and growing agreement about that, it should be the function of the House to reflect that agreement. Because the Government are not doing that, we find it difficult to have confidence in them. Indeed, if one presses the Government further one finds that we are being governed by an alliance bound to take us, as it has so far, in the wrong direction and down the wrong road. On the one hand, there are Marxists; on the other, there are Social Democrats. We have a pattern of half-baked Socialism. We have found that Socialist Governments destroy the dynamic of a free society, not putting in its place the discipline of a Marxist society. That is the worst of both worlds.

The Home Secretary said that he would be concerned about public spending if it went beyond 60 per cent. of national wealth. The Leader of the House said that the sky was the limit and the Prime Minister, kicking for touch, said that he was reluctant to put a figure on it at all.

That is our anxiety about the Labour Party. It is not a party that can restore the dynamic and authority of a free society. It is a party that continues to move in the wrong direction, bidding fair to wreck a free society by equivocation.

Finally, it insists on driving through the House measures for nationalisation which are doing no good whatever for the people. What is more, there are more programmes to that effect being made by the minute, the hour and the day at Transport House. Again the Prime Minister seeks to avoid giving an answer.

The Labour Party must make up its mind, for the sake of itself as well as the country, what kind of party it is going to be. The Labour Party produced a programme a fortnight ago for the expenditure of £8 billion-worth more of public money for the nationalisation of industry after industry. Do Labour Members go along with that? Do they intend to take us further in that direction?

The Prime Minister dealt with that in a characteristically robust way in a speech to his own union on Monday. He said "Not for the moment, however desirable these things may be." That is the equivocation at the heart of the Labour Party. We do not have confidence in their capacity to govern the country as a free society.

The Prime Minister this afternoon made an overture about the future of the shipbuilding and aviation industries. Whatever he may say, he cannot get away from the fact that the Bill to nationalise them has reached its present point as a result of a plainly broken pledge about the voting. Any overture he might make would, of course, be considered, but it would have to be something put forward plainly to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition or through the Leader of the House, and we should have to know what it was about.

A fortnight ago the Prime Minister made a speech in Westminster Hall trumpeting the virtues of Magna Carta as the great charter which was the foundation of our freedom. Within 36 hours he was content to take a vote secured by a cheat. If he wishes to convince our party or the people of his good faith about any of these matters, let alone his capacity to govern the country, we shall look for a great deal more than words. We shall look for deeds, and we have no confidence that we shall get them.