Impressions from Westminster
Since the new Session of Parliament was opened the Rhodesian problem has dominated the proceedings. Events have moved quickly and the situation has changed from day to day. Genuine differences of view are held within both parties but neither the extreme left nor the extreme right have had their way. All, however, combine to condemn the illegal declaration of independence. While the reports of debates and statements show the amount of time that has been taken up with public discussion, even they do not reveal the full extent to which the problem has overshadowed everything else. After every reported development or fresh statement, clusters of people are to be found in the committee rooms and corridors, chewing over its significance and trying to assess whether it will bring negotiations nearer or take them further away, for in the end every conflict has to be resolved by negotiation, and it is better that that should happen before and not after there has been bloodshed.
The first few weeks after the re-opening of Parliament have been comparatively quiet as far as legislation is concerned. Many of the bills introduced in the early stages of a new session are [end p1] non-controversial, in principle, for example, the Slun Clearance Bill, and the bill for more finance for rural water supplies. In November each year we have before us a measure known as the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, designed, as its name implies, to continue laws and powers that would otherwise lapse. This year the immigration control measures would have come to an end had they not been renewed and the occasion was one for lively debate on immigration policy. The clash however, came not between Opposition and Ministers, but between Ministers and their own back-benchers. The result—the control will continue as before.
The bill which would have led to the most interesting debate of all, the Nationalisation of Steel, was left out of the Queen's Speech. James CallaghanThe Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the reason—he said the Government would do it when it had the necessary majority, so clearly it has only been postponed, not dropped.
A few days ago we debated a bill of interest to all ratepayers—the Rating Relief Bill, designed to make it compulsory for local authorities to permit ratepayers to pay their rates by monthly instalments if they so wish, and also to reduce the amount payable by those on small incomes. No-one would quarrel with either of these objectives, but the trouble is that the rates of the [end p2] majority of ratepayers will go up, for instead of putting the whole cost of the relief on to the taxpayer, the ratepayer will have to foot 25%; of the bill and also pay for the extra costs of administration. This will be particularly hard on those ratepayers who just miss being granted the relief because their income is a little above £8 a week if single, or £10 a week if a married couple. The bill has only just received a second reading. We start the Committee stage next week and some of my colleagues and I have been busy drafting amendments. It is hoped that it will become law in time for next year's rates, although it will entail a lot of work for the local authority, who will require extra staff. The Rating (Interim) Relief Act will still be in operation but it would probably be better for those who got relief under it to reapply when the new bill becomes law, as they might secure a larger reducation in their rating bill.
Although a year has passed since the announcement of leasehold enfranchisement, the Bill has still not yet been published and no details about the terms are yet available.
We began the session by selecting Horace Kinga new Speaker, and one noticeable feature of his chairmanship is that question time has [end p3] been speeded up. Whereas we used only to get through about 35 questions in an hour, now we manage 50. We are also having far fewer bogus points of order. Every meeting or assembly profits by having a strong chairman. It is a highly skilled task, but one for which some people have a natural aptitude. As well as firmness, a quick sense of humour is an asset, as for example when one Member, having asked Kenneth Robinsonthe Minister of Health to start a campaign against obesity, and having gone on and on about it, in a supplementary question, was told by the Speaker to “slim” her remarks.
Private Members' Time.
About November we all enter the annual ballot for Private Members' Bills, when the first six names drawn out will certainly have any Bill they put forward discussed, and may see it pass into law. Luck was not with me this year, which I found particularly disappointing as there were several things I wanted to introduce. I am, however, glad to see that the bill which was the subject of a government filibuster last year is to be brought in this year. It concerns those who were too old to contribute for a pension when the existing scheme was introduced in 1946. All of them are now over 75, and some over 80. This year the Bill will have to be [end p4] debated; the tactic used last time of talking on the previous day's business long enought to forfeit the following day's business could not be deployed again.
It fell to my lot for the first time the other day to congratulate a “maiden” speaker in the House. A new Member's maiden speech is surrounded by tradition. He is expected to be brief, and non-controversial, a task which some undoubtedly find difficult! In return for this, he is never interrupted or heckled by other Members. However experienced a speaker may be outside the House, his first speech in the House is quite an ordeal and the technique somewhat different. It is interesting to note that Frank Cousins for instance, who was a very competent speaker at the T.U.C., is not at all good in the House of Commons.
After a maiden speaker has finished, the next speaker, regardless of party, always praises him most warmly and tried to give him some encouragement for the future. It was my duty to congratulate A. J. Wellbelovedthe new Labour Member for Erith; this was a situation which had a touch of irony about it, for this was the first Parliamentary seat I ever fought (in 1950) and as I explained to him, I did my best to prevent him becoming a Member! [end p5]
Although we have not had a full-scale economic debate recently, the situation has never been far from our minds. The prospects for next year are more difficult to assess than is usual from one year to another. This is because in spite of the 7%; bank rate, the boom has continued, and although there is an incomes policy to provide that incomes shall not rise faster than production, incomes have risen by 8%; while production has remained virtually static. Sooner or later if this goes on, new financial measures will have to be taken and prices will rise again. In spite of all the money we have borrowed, more than ever before, the underlying problems have not been resolved.