Orders of the Day — Economic Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th November 1976.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Dean Mr Joseph Dean , Leeds West 12:00 am, 30th November 1976

I welcome the declaration of intent by the Government in the Gracious Speech to place priority resources in inner city and other stress areas. However, I find it hard to understand how that can be achieved when there is a massive cut in the house-building programme. I wish that the stress areas had had the cosseted treatment which has been given in the past to the new towns. If they had received such treatment, we might not be discussing them as distressed areas, because they would have been dealt with adequately.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) yesterday, as the Liberals usually do, produced instant remedies, knowing that there was no possibility of his being called upon to put them into action. He said that he could cure the unemployment by asking the Minister involved with the road building programme to take action on the fact that we now have massive road-building machines of foreign origin which are now building mile after mile of motorway and major roads. I am with the hon. Gentleman on the argument that perhaps there is a case for import restrictions if he is talking about providing employment in the engineering industry, because I believe that we have companies here which could produce that type of machine. But the hon. Gentleman was saying that we should train all these youngsters and surplus labourers and turn the clock back, as it were, to the labour gangs of the late 1920s and early 1930s, thereby again building roads by manual labour.

It would be difficult to find a more bizarre and ridiculous notion. The hon. Gentleman might have taken the trouble to check his facts. I asked the city engineer of a major local authority what the cost comparison would be. He told me that we would end up with a minute stretch of roadway at the cost of what would otherwise have been a major road scheme. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is a non-starter and as ridiculous as his remark on television when he stated that senior Treasury officials had been in Washington trying to sell the country down the river, a charge which, as usual, he never substantiated.

If I were to pick out one part of the Gracious Speech which I do not welcome, it is the proposals for devolution. I think I was the first Back Bencher to speak in the devolution debate against devolution, but I have been prepared to sit back and listen to the arguments developed on merit. I was perhaps prepared to accept Assemblies for Scotland and Wales on the basis that it would mean no extra cost to my constituents. In my speech on devolution, I spelled out the preferential financial arrangements per capita that Scotland was enjoying as against my constituency, and no one refuted me.

Taking development grants as a whole, and calculating on a per capita basis, one finds that Scotland gets 5½ times the amount that English regions get while the Welsh get 6½ times. In domestic rate support grant, Scotland gets 27p and Wales 36p in the pound. It therefore comes a little hard to hear an hon. Member representing the Scottish racialist party—I mean the Scottish National Party—saying that Scotland is so badly done to. I find it hard to accept that they have been hard done to by their counterparts from Westminster. In some respects some of us, or certainly our predecessors, in the English constituencies have been rather placid and have let develop a situation which should have been arrested some time ago.

The Scotland and Wales Bill published today makes clear that the financing of the Scottish Assembly will take place via block grant—but which block grant? If we divide the financial cake distributed by the Government in three, among England, Scotland and Wales, and since the amounts are already rigidly fixed, if any increased financial assistance is to be expected from that total Government allocation to finance the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, it can happen only at the expense of money that should be made available in the English regions.

I had assumed that this was the accepted pattern, and I have been assured in private conversation with junior Ministers that it was never intended that money should go from the English regions to finance a Scottish Assembly. However, a report in the Guardian yesterday stated that prominent people in certain political parties—some in my own party—north of the border believe that the financial arrangements in the Bill are inadequate—and they took that view before the Bill was published. Where do they think the money will come from?

I have strong reasons for believing that the setting up of such Assemblies will create yet another army of civil servants north of the border. We were told that no such thing would happen—that those officials are already there. I have reason to believe that there is an option to send a thousand civil servants north of the border to see that the Assembly is well-serviced and run. When we are in our present serious financial situation and are being investigated by IMF officials—and indeed we probably now face the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s—why should we waste 30 days of parliamentary time and considerable finance on such an exercise?

In the final analysis I do not believe that such a move will provide anything extra for the Scottish and Welsh peoples. I shall be interested to be told on Second Reading why the Bill should be supported by such people as myself. Perhaps my mind is still slightly open on the subject, but I shall need some convincing that this measure will not be to the detriment of my constituents—and in the last resort my loyalty lies with them.

We hear perpetual incantations from the SNP Benches about so-called Scottish oil. We get the impression that if that oil is obtained, it will afford independence and will be the foundation-stone on which to build a new Scotland. However, the most optimistic predictions lead one to believe that by the turn of the century those resources will be very much expired. The major energy resources of the United Kingdom are not in the North Sea. They happen to be under the newfound coalfields in Yorkshire, Nottingham, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.

The Leader of the Liberal Party has asked for a certain percentage of oil revenues to finance the Scottish Assembly. In that case why should not hon. Members from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire take the view "The miners in our area are now producing coal at a very economic cost compared with their counterparts north of the border"? If that is a good argument on that ground, it is also a good argument in another context. Why should not our areas have special benefits, too?

The wrong assumption is being made by the Labour Front Bench, and certainly by SNP Members, that this Bill is nicely parcelled and tied up with pink ribbon. But unless assurances are given on some of the points I have mentioned tonight, I cannot see the devolution measure becoming an Act, and 30 valuable parliamentary days will be wasted.

One of the minor items in the Gracious Speech relates to the intention to legislate to allow direct labour organisations to tender for work for other bodies. I welcome that move where such organisations are successful. Where direct direct labour organisations are in a position to tender for work for other authorities or public bodies, they should do so. I believe that this will bring a discipline to the pricing of tenders. That is one part of the Queen's Speech I truly welcome, and I hope that the measure will have a successful passage through Parliament.