Inevitably the Budget dominated the week, for control over the Nation's purse and consent to taxation are the very reasons for which Parliament exists. But I doubt whether a visitor from outer space watching our proceedings today, would be able to deduce that the traditional role of Members is to curtail Government expenditure, for scarcely a day passes without someone demanding more for his own pet project. The Budget is the day of reckoning, the day when we look at the total bill and have to decide who will pay, and how much.
On great occasions like this many Members have to stand, because the House of Commons is too small to seat all of us. The rule is first come first served. Some Members started the day early, and when the Chamber was unlocked at 8 o'clock on Tuesday morning, 17 were waiting to reserve their seats. Question Time before the Budget statement is usually robust and good-humoured. Every small incident is good for a cheer. Mr. Abse, the Labour Member for Pontypool, made a grand entrance 20 minutes after Questions had started in a ginger outfit with a green brocade waistcoat, and a most odd black hat—so Regency, so Regency, my dear! He was greeted with amused cheers and somehow squeezed into a row that had previously looked absolutely full. Harold WilsonThe Prime Minister came in to answer his Questions and was greeted loudly by his own side. A moment later Sir Alec Douglas-Home arrived and Conservative Members, determined not to be outdone, cheered him to the echo. Such is the good-natured atmosphere that pervades the Chamber before the Budget statement.
James CallaghanThe Chancellor got there just as the Sir Harry Hylton-FosterSpeaker, who is always absent for the Budget debate, was about to leave, because at Budget time the House does not sit as a House, but as the Committee of Ways and Means. At last the speech of the day started and Mr. Callaghan set a cracking pace—I have never heard him talk so quickly. It is said that had he gone at his normal talking speed his speech would have gone on for half-an-hour more than the two hours, two minutes it actually took. For the first hour-and-a-half he dealt with the technical aspects of the capital gains tax, the corporation tax and the reduction of overseas investment. The House was rather restless and it was plain that not everyone was following the detail. This is not surprising, for even those of us who have specialised professionally on tax matters had to concentrate hard. It seemed a long time before the large pile of papers in front of him got any smaller, and it was only at the end that he revealed the 6d on tobacco and the charges on spirits and beer. By that time we were too worn down by statistics even to gasp.
If two hours seemed long to us, I wonder how some of our predecessors endured the Budget speeches; Gladstone took five hours over his, and he was only raising about £100-million in taxation. Mr. Callaghan kept his throat moist with tonic water. Previous Chancellors have indulged in a large variety of liquid refreshment; Gladstone is reputed to have had sherry and beaten egg; Disraeli brandy and water; Goschen port; in more recent times Stafford Cripps stuck to plain water; Heathcoat Amory consumed a concoction of milk, honey and rum (the supply [end p2] of which, poor man, ran out before he had finished); Selwyn Lloyd sipped brandy, and Reginald Maudling laced his water with whisky. Reading continuously for two hours is hard on the voice, but Mr. Callaghan showed no sign of strain.
Immediately after the Budget speech there is a great rustle of paper as the detailed resolutions imposing each new tax are put to the House. There is an interesting point about this procedure. These days, as we know to our cost, extra taxes can be collected as soon as the Chancellor has sat down. Years ago, however, a Mr. Gibson Bowles refused to pay the increases saying that new taxes could only be imposed by Act of Parliament, and a resolution of the House of Commons was not enough to alter the law of the land. He took his case to the courts and won. Since then, the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act has changed the situation in the Treasury's favour provided the Budget resolutions are embodied in a Finance Act within four months.
By tradition the Leader of the Opposition makes a short reply to the Budget immediately the resolutions have been passed, tendering the well-deserved congratulations of the House to the Chancellor, and picking out the few matters of particular impact. The late Hugh Gaitskell was always very good at this. Sir Alec Douglas-Home made a short but hard-hitting speech.
The next day Mr. George Brown and Edward Heath had quite a set to. Both believe that attack is the best form of defence and Mr. Heath went to it with all guns firing. For the marshalling and presentation of evidence, his speech, and Peter Walker 's the following day, were masterly, but the Chancellor sat there smiling blandly. Mr. Brown has quite a different technique. He bulldozes his way through what he had been going to say, unperturbed by any contrary statements he has been accused of making in the past. One particular Member is acknowledged on all sides as being outstanding as a House of Commons speaker, Nigel Birch, who sits for West Flint. He never makes a speech unless he has something worth saying. He has a soft voice and an acid which compels the attention of the House. His contribution to the Budget debate on Wednesday was yet another masterpiece and should really be read as a whole. One bit, however, I should like to mention. Mr. Birch said that while he thoroughly agreed that pensioners should get prescriptions free, he questioned the wisdom of abolishing prescription charges for absolutely everyone. He pointed out that the £25 million spent on abolishing these charges could have refurbished the surgery of every G.P. in this country; could have modernised all sub-standard operating theatres and still there would have been some left over to provide more pay for doctors.
Other speeches which to my mind merit study were those by Mr. Joel Barnett, who did not want the taxpayer put into the position of being assumed guilty of evasion and having to disprove the inspectors figures (a viewpoint most of us would heartily endorse), and Mr. John Biffen of Oswestry who made a penetrating analysis of the problems of wage drift, the difficulties of getting reliable statistics and the reasons why an incomes policy is not very likely to succeed.
Two days this week have been spent on talking about housing problems. On Monday we had the Government's Rent Bill. It was introduced by the Minister, Richard Crossman. I used often to speak against him in the last Parliament when I sometimes had to answer debates on pensions. In Opposition he was an effervescent speaker; words flowed on in endless succession and it was all done with very few notes. But in power, in common with other Ministers, he has taken to reading practically every word of a prepared speech. Nevertheless, he still delivers it forcefully. The Bill is an important one; [end p3] it gives security of tenancy to all tenants occupying properties of a rateable value of less than £400 in London and £200 in the provinces. Hitherto, controlled rents have meant fixed rents; from now on they will become regulated rents and will be reviewed after a certain period of time. The rent to be charged is the fair rent, but from all sides of the House doubts were raised about the difficulties of deciding how it should be defined.
On Friday, private Members day, Keith Stainton introduced a Bill designed to protect house purchasers from the effect of jerry-building. The Government spokesman was friendly towards the objectives of the Bill and because of undertakings he gave Mr. Stainton agreed to withdraw it.
Two topics of special concern to women have been mentioned this week; the first was brought up by Lady Summerskill in the House of Lords. Last year she promoted a Bill which provided that any money saved from the housekeeping allowance should belong equally to husband and wife in the absence of an agreement to the contrary. Before that time it had belonged entirely to the husband. Very little case law has developed under the Bill as it only reached the Statute Book last October. Lady Summerskill was asking a question about a woman who has been in prison for six months for refusing to hand over to her husband a share of the housekeeping savings as ordered by the Court. The other topic was brought up by Joan Vickers. On Wednesday, she secured leave to introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill concerning the guardianship of infants. As the law stands at present the father is the legal guardian of his child and only he can give a valid signature to get a child a passport or to allow her to withdraw money from a Post Office. Miss Vickers is asking for equal rights of guardianship for the mother. The same day as this matter came up, a report of the Committee on Parliamentary Procedure recommended that such Bills (which now come on at 3.30) should not hold up the official business of the day, (especially when a large number of people are wanting to speak), but in future should be considered after 10 o'clock at night. I think this change would be welcomed.
The week's greatest battle came over the cancellation of the TSR.2 and the way in which the announcement was handled. Normally the Minister would have made a statement so that he could be questioned on it, but Mr. Healey chose to do it by a speech in the Budget debate. Loud protests were made and the noise heightened when a Member came into the Chamber and said that the Minister's full announcement had already been released to the press and at that moment was on the teleprinter. Eventually Mr. Healey said what he wanted to but the rules of order precluded much discussion in the middle of what is essentially a financial debate.
Fortunately, the House of Lords had a two-day debate on Defence this week and their Lordships had some pithy things to say about the TSR.2 decision which, they pointed out, calls into question the whole future of the British aircraft industry. Viscount Watkinson, a former Minister of Defence, found it difficult to understand how an aircraft which had been flown and proved successful could have been cancelled in favour of an option on an American aircraft which is only at the drawing board stage. Field Marshal Montgomery, now looking very brown and fit, opened the second day's debate. He doesn't waste any words; his 15 minute speech was right on the ball. One of his reasons for agreeing with the Government's defence policy is that we remain a nuclear power. He found one omission from the Defence statement which he was particularly anxious about. He said that the teaching of history is that the nation which has the command of the [end p4] sea has always in the end prevailed. Because we were masters of the sea, he said, Alamein was fought and won. We fight our wars in other people's countries and whichever way we look at it, the Western Alliance must have free use of the water areas in peace and in war.
Various other things happened this week. Someone “spied strangers” , the first time I have seen this done. We then had to decide whether they should withdraw—a reminder that “strangers” and the press are only present by the courtesy of the House and not by right. This seems rather strange to say the least of it when public knowledge is so vital to the whole democratic principle.
From the national purse to the housewife's purse—this has been the range of debate this week. It has provided a good example of the parliamentary principle that grievances should be redressed before supply is granted. Naturally, new occasions bring new grievances as well as new taxes; the former we leave to another week; the latter, I hope, to another year.