So much has happened since March that the last General Election already seems years rather than months away. Never, in the whole of the seven years since I have been in Parliament has there been such a volte face in Government policies. Can it be only six months ago that James Callaghanthe Chancellor of the Exchequer said.
“The best guidance I can give … . at this stage is that I do not forsee the need for severe increase in taxation.”
But of course—that was at the beginning of the General Election campaign. Since then there have been imposed the biggest taxation increases ever seen in this country in peace-time. The worst effects of these have yet to be felt. The Selective Employment Tax starts this month, when vastly increased amounts become payable every week on the National Insurance stamp. Already, in face of falling trade and an extra 25/- a week per man and 12/6 per woman, redundandes are being declared. Sharing the available work is no answer as part of the object of the tax was to force out surplus labour, and the tax is payable on every person who works for more than eight hours a week.
In the last 22 months there have been no less than 26 pronouncements and policies by Government spokesman on the economic situation. Never have so many statements had so little [end p1] effect on improving our financial position. This is not because of the measures, but of the men who operate them. Small wonder that those to whom we owe so much are sceptical about our future.
Looking back over the last seven years, one of the high administrative errors was to create two departments of control of economic affairs. Inevitably this involves more paper work and more civil servants and more infighting between departments. George Brown is a most erratic performer in the House; indeed, no one can have any confidence whatsoever in his ability to formulate, to profound, or to execute the right policies at the right time. We are on tenter-hooks as to what load of bricks he will drop next. To reward his abysmal performance at the end of the economic debate on 29th July by making him Foreign Secretary, seems to be the height of folly. Clearly, diplomacy is no longer a requirement of those who serve at the Foreign Office.
James Callaghan is a good talker. He usually makes a competent debating speech, but for too long people have confused the ability to make a good speech with the ability to take the right decisions and to carry them out. Mr. Callaghan can put it across, but my view, and events have borne this out, his ability falls far short of what is needed to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. You can't say he has lost command of the situation— [end p2] he never had it.
During the long hours spent in debating Finance Bills, back-bench Members on the Government side usually come into their own. This was certainly so in the time of Conservative Government. Then, Members on both sides would concentrate on putting the case on some amendments in a non-party way, in the interests of their own constituents. It was not unusual for Conservative Members to vote with the Labour opposition if they felt strongly about a particular matter. With this government, a new and, I believe, a bad tradition is growing up: even if Labour M.P.'s speak against their own government they will vote with them, or at the most, abstain from voting. This is bad for the nation; bad for the House of Commons and bad for the government, which knows that whatever it does, its own back benchers will troop through the division lobbies in large enough numbers to support it. This is a somewhat ironic result when allegedly we have the most highly educated Labour Party which has ever sat in Parliament. To my mind the bottom was reached when the vote came on the amendment concerning tax reliefs for the over 65's. These people are always the worst hit by increasing prices and inflation. During the 13 years of Tory government special tax reliefs were introduced to help them and reliefs were increased several times. [end p3] In view of the talking [sic: falling?] value of money, the amounts should have been increased this year if those people were to stay where they were. No such proposal was made in the Budget, and believing that these people should be the last to suffer, we tried to remedy this during the Committee Stage. Not one single Labour Members voted with us; sheepishly but shamefacedly, they voted against it. I hope this will be remembered during the hard winter ahead—a winter which will contain no pension increases to compensate.
The Selective Employment Tax produced the biggest post bag I, and most of my colleagues, have ever received. I had over [number missing] letters from the constituency, and many more from organisations up and down the country. The majority of the amendments put down to the Bill were never discussed because the guillotine technique was applied. This means that a certain number of hours are allocated to each clause in the Bill. At the end of the allotted time all discussion on that clause stops, and, regardless of the amount left undone, we move on to the next clause. The Act is still full of anomalies and uncertainties, and those who are trying to find out how it affects them can't get a definite answer. Administrative chaos reigns. As a result of the sustained efforts of the Opposition [end p4] the Government were forced to give in on charities and the disabled, but even they are being compelled to make a loan to the government as four or five months will elapse between paying the money and getting it back.
The Government changes announced just before the House rose were an oddly assorted lot. The opportunity was lost to dispense with the services of several Ministers who have poor show. Perhaps the real reason for the changes was to distract attention from the Prices & Incomes Bill which was going through its crucial stages the day they were announced. Michael Stewart has now had three major jobs in 22 months. He started as Minister of Education; was moved to the Foreign Office and now goes to Economic Affairs. This is an absurd way to run great Departments of State. Arthur BottomleyMr. Bottomley must be glad to escape the problems of Rhodesia—problems which he did little to help. The job of Leader of the House of Commons requires unusual talents. Herbert Bowden has proved very disappointing. He has got the business into such a farcical muddle that he has now forfeited the good wishes he started with.
Recently, owing to the terrible crime in which the three policemen were cold-bloodedly show down, I have had a large number of letters asking me about my attitude towards the [end p5] death penalty. When the Bill for its abolition was going through Parliament, I voted against it believing that there were times when hardened criminals were deterred from murder or from shooting by the existence of capital punishment. So long as the final penalty could be executed, even though it was rarely used, there was a risk which I believed would deter some. I adhere to that view.