Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th March 1979.

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Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson , Coventry North West 12:00 am, 9th March 1979

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate on the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East, and I am glad also to be able to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), who, indeed, covered so comprehensively many of the matters to which I wish to draw attention that I can be the more brief myself.

I felt that my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool got the emphasis exactly right when he spoke of the regeneration of our industry, stressing that only through an increase in industrial output, an increase in industrial investment and an increase in the production of real wealth shall we be able to pay for the many desirable objectives listed in the motion.

If there is one criticism which I make of the motion—I have told my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East that I intended to mention this—it is that it draws no direct link between the absolute necessity that we produce real wealth in our economy before we can invest in the social objectives of housing, to which my hon. Friend has dedicated a lifetime of political work and experience, of education, the Health Service and the rest. We all know that the Health Service, for example, is desperately short of real resources. Therefore, as I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool was right to draw attention to the paramount need for industrial regeneration.

First, I say to the Government that it is essential that in the framing of their Budget—no doubt, they are well advanced with it now—they reject the deflationary monetarist policies that are being pressed upon them and that they recognise that only through a growing economy can we command the resources that we need for our social objectives. Moreover, only through a growing economy can we avoid a national mood of bitterness, conflict and disillusion, through the past three months of which we have, in my opinion, witnessed nothing wrong in the British people but simply the fact that for too long our economy has stagnated while others have grown, and real income in this country over a long period has not increased at anything like the rate of increase in the economies of our competitors.

First, therefore, let the Government go not for monetarism, which is only a euphemism for straightforward old deflation, but for expansion. But the key element here—again, perhaps, this should have figured in the motion—is how we are to achieve the industrial growth with greater output and investment which has eluded all Governments at least for the past two decades.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East referred to the National Enterprise Board. I have a high regard for many who work there, and I had professional contact in the past with some of them. The NEB certainly has far greater funds at its disposal than we had in the old days of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation. Nevertheless, I feel that we must view the role of the NEB quite realistically and see the size of its total resources and the rate at which it is able to commit them in relation to the totality of our present economy, which is depressed. In addition, and perhaps more important, we should view them in relation to the size of the increased industrial investment which we should like to see to restore outdated productive units and to expand the number of productive units.

Considering the National Enterprise Board in that light, we have to admit that, important tool though it is in the planning of the economy and being able sharply to direct Government moneys into areas where we know that potential for profitable and nationally important investment exists, in the totality of the economy it is not the NEB in itself which will provide what we urgently need, namely, a major element of reflation produced by and based upon industrial investment, increased output and increased net exports.

That brings me to my most important point. We must ensure that we supply more of our home market from our home-based productive units, and we must ensure also that we at least maintain, if we cannot increase, our share of world trade, a share which has dramatically and disastrously declined in almost every year since 1945. It seems to me, therefore, that the NEB, important though it is and selective though it can be if its work is professionally done—no doubt, that is how the staff will do it—is of more or less marginal significance in the totality of the economy.

I turn now to the question of planning agreements. In my view, these need not be compulsory if the Government have the will and are really serious about coming to terms with the major companies in our economy. We all know how much the top 20 or top 100 companies contribute towards employment and towards exports. These are significant factors in the economy. It follows inevitably, therefore, that if a Government are to have a successful industrial policy, which in itself is essential to a successful economic policy and the fulfilment of all our social objectives, they must be in agreement with and have a broad commonalty of approach with the major industrial concerns in our country.

I believe that a Government prepared to talk turkey with the major industrialists, prepared to see their difficulties as well as to explain to them the imperative national objectives to which their organisations can and must make an essential contribution, would find no need for planning agreements to be compulsory.

However, although I believe that that effort ought to be made, I am not sure that we have a Government who believe in the necessity for it, and it may well be that my hon. Friend the Member for Sal-ford, East, fearing a lack of will on the part of the Government to do that, has insisted on planning agreements being compulsory. As I say, my belief is that they need not be if the will were there and if the Government would sit down and negotiate the terms upon which the nationally imperative requirements of increased output and investment could be achieved. In that way, I believe, they could reach with the major companies agreements which would fulfil the national requirements. Only after such an attempt had been seriously made and had failed would one have to resort to compulsory planning agreements.

Having briefly indicated the limitations which I see reflected in the motion with reference to the National Enterprise Board, with its important though only marginally significant role in the totality of the economy, and with reference to the way in which I believe that planning agreements could be secured on a meaningful basis with the major industrial concerns, I emphasise now that if we are serious about getting a Government policy which is comprehensive and coherent in relation to industry and the economy, at least one further important factor must be considered, namely, the rate at which imports financed by North Sea oil are continuing to take a greater share of our domestic market.

It seems to me that so long as we talk merely about compulsory planning agreements, the National Enterprise Board and matters of that kind but do not face up to the crucial problem that every time we expand our economy—this objective lies at the heart of my hon. Friend's motion—imports are sucked in at a rate far greater than our national industrial output increases, sooner or later we shall be in further trouble.

When the oil runs out, or even before if we have some sense, we shall have to tackle the question of imports. Let us remember that the problem of growing unemployment is one consequence of growing imports. When we import goods from abroad, we export jobs. Therefore, the problems of growing unemployment and of our balance of payments must force us to come to terms with our partners in the EEC.

Arrangements for limiting the growth of imports are not prevented under the GATT. Indeed, for certain purposes they are even foreseen under the GATT. We shall have to come to terms with our partners in the Common Market, explaining our particular and quite distinct problems in this respect, problems which are not experienced by the other members of the EEC to anything like the same extent. I suppose that the one exception may be Italy, but it seems to me that the problems there are more political and social, and with that one exception the others have ridden out the storm. They are continuing to expand their economies. They are able to invest far more in their health services and are able to spend far more on their roads and on their construction equipment industry and all the rest than are we ourselves.

We must come to terms and put it to them quite straightforwardly that the regeneration of British industry—which is at the heart of everything; it is such an easy thing to say, but so difficult to achieve—can be achieved only within a growing home economy, which in turn involves us in limiting the growth of imports, from the EEC as from anywhere else.