Debate on the Address

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 25th June 1987.

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Photo of Mr David Knox Mr David Knox , Staffordshire Moorlands 6:44 pm, 25th June 1987

No, I shall not give way.

The balance of payments is much stronger today than when the present Administration came to power. Those investments provide a cushion against the wilder international fluctuations.

On inflation, the situation is much better than it was eight years ago. The Government have a good record in that respect. We have got away from the galloping inflation of the 1970s, which at one time reached 25 per cent. That was bad for the British economy because it created uncertainty, and that was bad for industry and commerce. It was bad socially because those living on fixed incomes found that their real spending power was cut substantially year by year. Now we have got inflation down to about 4 per cent. That may not be perfect—it is not—and it is right and proper that the Government should aim to get inflation down to the rate that it was in 1958 to 1960, a nil rate, when, incidentally, Mr. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister. But we have made substantial progress. If inflation is to be kept under control, there must be constant vigilance. One cannot just relax things, else it will be on an upward curve once again.

In this Parliament we must all look to the Government to maintain their very good balance of payments and inflation records. But I said that there are areas where much remains to be done. One of them is manufacturing industry. I find it deeply alarming that, in the first quarter of this year, output in manufacturing industry was lower than it was in the first quarter of 1974. Before the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) smiles too widely, I should tell him that in 1979, under a Labour Administration, it was lower than in 1974. So neither party has much to boast about on manufacturing industry, and a little modesty by some Labour Members would be becoming.

The record on unemployment over the past 13 years is far from good. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) was Prime Minister, unemployment was less than half a million in the closing months of 1973. It more than doubled under the Labour Government and it has more than doubled under this Government. Neither party can be terribly proud of its record on unemployment, but surely the important thing is this: whereas unemployment rose steeply in the first four years of this Government, it levelled out after 1983—admittedly at much too high a level—and over the past 12 months it has been falling. I shall not make great claims about that, but at least it is moving in the right direction now.

If we are to effect an improvement on manufacturing output and unemployment, we need to give the economy a further boost. That involves relaxing the public sector borrowing requirement a little and trying to get 1 or 2 per cent. more growth on top of the underlying growth in the economy. That would increase the demand for manufactured goods and for employment in that sector. I hope that the Government will look at that. When we come to the end of the current Parliament, we shall look not just for a good record on the balance of payments and inflation, but for a better record on manufacturing industry and unemployment.

In the Conservative election manifesto, reference was made, rightly, to the importance of small, rural schools for education and community life. The manifesto pledged that the Conservative party would ensure that the future of such schools was judged by wider factors than mere numbers. That matter will be soon put to the test in two schools in my constituency. The Labour-controlled Staffordshire county council proposes to close Waterhouses and Warslow middle schools in my constituency. Both were opened a mere eight years ago. Both have already been threatened once with closure. Four years ago the county council withdrew the threat to Waterhouses middle school, and three years ago the Secretary of State overruled the county council's desire to close Warslow middle school.

Neither school has had a real chance and the arguments put forward by the allegedly caring Socialist county council in Staffordshire for closing those schools are, frankly, bogus. First, the council says that there is a numbers argument, yet when the schools were opened the council knew roughly how many children would be at the schools this year because every child who is there now was born before the schools were opened in 1979. Having lost that argument, the county council said that there were financial reasons for closure.

Staffordshire county council is spending marginally more on school education today than in 1979 in real terms, even though it is responsible for educating fewer school children. I cannot see why the schools in Warslow and Waterhouses are not entitled to have the same amount of money spent on them now as in 1979, in exactly the same way as schools in Labour areas such as Stoke-on-Trent have the same amount of money spent on them.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will save those schools. I hope that he will give them a chance. When he has saved them, I hope that he will insist that Staffordshire county council resources the schools properly.

A matter that has caused me some concern is the consequences of the election results on this Parliament. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on her historic achievement. No one can take anything away from her in that respect. At the same time, Conservative hon. Members must recognise that in 1979 we received 43·9 per cent. of the popular vote. In 1983 it was 42·4 per cent. This year it was 42·3 per cent. On all three occasions the figures represented a lower proportion of the popular vote than any other post-war Tory Government received in an election. That means that the Government should proceed with caution and restraint over the next four years. I become alarmed when I hear about the Government's radical programme. Radical Government should be left to radical political parties. Conservative government should be the business of the Conservative party. Above all, given the proportion of the poll that the Government obtained in the recent election, during the next five years they should govern in a manner that shows respect for the views of those who did not vote for them. A real effort must be made to obtain consensus on as many issues as possible.

A further point about the outcome of the election concerns Scotland. There is no doubt and no point in denying that the Government suffered a severe setback in Scotland. There is evidence that the Government are out of touch in Scotland in significant areas, even though large amounts of central Government money have been spent in Scotland — amounts that are disproportionate to its size and population. However, that is not a reason for complacency on the part of Conservative Members. The results in Scotland do not mean that the Government have no right to govern Scotland, any more than the failure of Labour Governments to gain more votes than the Conservatives in the 1964 and 1974 general elections in England deprived them of the right to govern England.

We are still a United Kingdom and it is important to remember that. With the exception of the nationalists, all the parties in this House believe that we are a United Kingdom. So, although the Government have a right to govern Scotland, I hope that they will be conscious of the hopes, aspirations and fears—all of them genuine—of the Scottish people.

I ask the Government to re-examine the issue of devolution. I supported the Labour Government's proposals for devolution in the mid-1970s and I have no regrets about that. Although the issue seemed to go away then, it will come back. I think it was the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, who once said that he assumed that there were good reasons for opposing every Irish home rule Bill in the last century, but it was rather a pity that one of them had not reached the statute book. If it had, we might have been saved a great deal of trouble today. I am worried that if we continue to ignore people's feelings in Scotland about looking after their own affairs and having a greater say in them, we may end up with more severe problems than we have now. It is not a matter — whatever hon. Members may say — about whether Scotland will he better governed. The importance of devolution is that the Scots would have a greater say in looking after certain of their own affairs; and if things then went wrong they could blame only themselves. I believe that the Conservative party would best serve its own interests, and the interests of the United kingdom and of the Scots, if it seriously reconsidered the question of devolution.