Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 20th February 1986.

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Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook 5:19 pm, 20th February 1986

I beg to move, at the end of the Question to add: 'but deplores that once more the Government's expenditure plans compound the errors of previous years and therefore further increase the prospects for higher unemployment, inhibit investment, inflict additional damage on industry, intensify the severe shortage of adequate housing in many parts of the country and demonstrate the bankruptcy of this Government's economic philosophy which chooses to finance increases in unemployment rather than additional employment opportunities.'. You were in the Chair, I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore will recall that last Wednesday, in the debate on unemployment, the Chief Secretary categorically promised that he would today, on what he described as the appropriate occasion, answer a question which I put to him directly, and one which the country has asked for six years, that is, why do the Government choose to spend national resources on the cost of keeping men and women unemployed when they could invest the country's wealth in capital programmes which would begin to put Britain back to work and at the same time build desperately needed houses, replace decaying schools, renovate other areas of capital necessity and rebuild our collapsing sewers.

I do not believe that the Chief Secretary even attempted to keep that promise. But he did, refer to another item in the debate last week. In the last passage of his speech—what he no doubt regarded as a peroration — he reproduced the assertion he made eight days ago, that the programme of the Labour party committed that party, when it came into power, as he is right to anticipate, to increase spending by £24 billion.

The Chief Secretary explained last week that careful calculations had been made by the Treasury. He said that their computers and their recording machines were hot with the work that they have been doing. Therefore, taking him at his word, I assumed—for this must be the case if what he told us was true—that the careful calculation was there in the Treasury file waiting to be taken out, photographed and sent to me.

I therefore wrote to the Chief Secretary and asked him for it. After six days of havering, and conversations between his private office and mine, I received late yesterday afternoon a letter which told me that he either could not or would not supply me with the careful calculations he claimed the Treasury had made. Of course, he does not need to, because his work has been done. He has insinuated the unsubstantiated figure into the minds of sympathetic journalists who, naturally enough, parroted it in last week's papers.

I hope that those who have listened to the Chief Secretary this afternoon have managed to keep up with this calculation for, when he returned to the subject today and said that I asked for details and he was therefore going to give them to me, the details which he gave—and he was not at that time in his reticent mood—did not add up to one third of the total to which he claimed the Labour party was committed.

I want to give the Chief Secretary the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that this piece of paper does exist, and let us assume that the only reason that he did not show it to me, and was not prepared to publish it, was the ridicule which would naturally be his were it to be clear that his assumption was based on the Labour party meeting all the aspirations of its programme in its first year of existence. There is, even so, another problem that the Chief Secretary has to face. After he announced with portentous authority last Thursday that he had carefully calculated Labour's programme and it came to £24 billion, I had to point out to him that on 3 August the chairman of the Conservative party made an equally portentous annoucement that he had costed the Labour programme, and it came to £39 billion. Where did the missing £15 billion go? I will tell the Chief Secretary where it went. Both those figures are an invention intended to do one single job which now characterises all that the Government do. The Government do not like talking about their record or their policies. The Government like to distract attention from what they have done and what they have failed to do on to their scare stories about the Opposition.

Indeed, I must tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it was actually my intention to suggest that the Government would fight the next election on the slogan, "Hold on to nurse for fear of something worse". The Paymaster General actually used that phrase in an answer he gave to the Commons this afternoon. It does show the confidence the Government have in their own performance, and it shows the misunderstanding that the Government have of the British people. When I saw "nurse" on "Panorama" last Monday, it did not seem to me that many people would want to hang on to her.