HC Deb 22 February 1945 vol 408 cc1091-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

6.38 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Lawson (Skipton)

Now that the excitement has died down, and Members are leaving the Chamber, I wish to refer to something which I believe to be of very great importance. What I have to say arises out of the statement of the Prime Minister with regard to the welfare of the Armed Forces in the Far East: In order that Servicemen overseas may keep abreast of important developments in social policy at home, pamphlets explaining new legislation on matters of major importance will be prepared and distributed to Servicemen and Merchant Seamen."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th December. 1944; Vol. 406, c. 1789.] I welcome that declaration very much, because I believe that the more discussion of political matters in broad terms there is among those in the Forces the higher will be the fighting morale of the men concerned and the better citizens they will be when they return home. I have had some experience of this kind of discussion of broad political principles in the Forces. I hope that this intention of the Government to distribute and prepare pamphlets is an indication of some relaxation of the present Regulation, because I certainly believe that that will be necessary before the General Election comes along. There are two things we ought to watch in the distribution of these pamphlets. The first is that they shall not be in any way utilised by one party to put their particular policy at the expense of another. We do not want one-sided propaganda. Second, I believe that if the discussions to which these pamphlets are to give rise are to be of any value, both sides of any controversial issue must be put, because you cannot have a full discussion if only one side is heard. I asked the Prime Minister on 17th January who was to be responsible for preparing the pamphlets and how divergent views were to be included when the legislation was of a controversial nature. The Deputy Prime Minister replied: These pamphlets will be prepared under the authority of the Minister or Ministers responsible for the particular policy described. The object of the pamphlets will be explanation, not advocacy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th July, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 155.] My contention is that one cannot explain a piece of important social legislation without indulging in advocacy. I believe, therefore, that the case which the Government made that the pamphlets should be provided by the Ministers concerned shows political bias and makes any proper discussion on them impossible. If we are to start describing or explaining a piece of legislation, no matter how impartial we may be, we must make certain assumptions before we start. I do not think anyone will challenge me when I say that any important piece of social legislation which has been put through in the last year or so has been acceptable to the Conservative Party. They have the majority in the Government, so that any such legislation that has been acceptable to them has gone through. What will happen in the General Election? The Conservative Party will take such credit as there is to be had for the Education Act and other Measures. I am sure it will be a big part of their platform to say: "Look at all these good things the Conservative Party has done in the past." I am sure, too, that the Labour Party and the Liberal Party, who have joined in the Coalition and will be fighting as independent parties, will have to say something like this: "We agreed to these Measures as a compromise. We would have liked to go very much further, but because there was a Coalition Government and the major thing was winning the war, we had to agree to these half measures." Any explanation and description of the Town and Country Planning Bill, for instance, will inevitably put the Conservative point of view, and leave out the kind of legislation which the other parties would have introduced.

If these pamphlets contain only a description of the legislation prepared by the Ministers concerned, they will inevitably be Conservative propaganda for the next election. Presumably, when this statement refers to new legislation, what may be in mind is legislation which is foreshadowed, about which we have had White Papers and promises. At the General Election, this, I imagine, will be the main Conservative case: "We are the people who have been mainly responsible for drafting White Papers dealing with various reforms; surely we are the [...] who ought to be voted in to carry them into legislation." The pamphlets which will be issued to the troops describing the Government's schemes for the post-war world will inevitably be a reprint of the sort of promises which will be made to the electorate by the Conservative Party at the General Election. I think I am on safe ground. in maintaining that the single-view description of legislation will be propaganda for the Conservative Party, and will not in any way describe the policy and measures which are being advocated by the other parties.

I come to another point, which is of more importance. When one is describing a piece of legislation which has been passed by this Government, or which is promised after the election, one has to make the assumption that the present economic, political and social principles are valid for the world in which we are going to live after the war; that is, the basis of providing legislation is that there are certain fixed principles which must go on. I am one of those who believe that the principles on which the present order of society is based are not valid for the age in which we are moving.

What, then, are some of the principles of the existing order of society? One is that the natural resources belong as of right to private individuals. Another is that the people of this country cannot produce the goods they need or build the homes they require unless the payment of dividends at so much per cent. is maintained. Further, men cannot set to work to make the things they need unless there is to be a reasonable profit for those who own the means of production. Organised self-interest is regarded as a good and sufficient regulator of our economic life. I do not wish to go on and make out a case that these principles are bad. I hope no hon. Member will disagree that those are the principles of the present order of society, or that there are men and women in this country who believe that those principles have to give place to something different. I believe, therefore, that pamphlets describing legislation based on those principles are essentially propaganda against the principles of the order of society which I believe must come.

The order of society which is coming must be based upon the principles that natural resources belong to the whole community; that the wealth we can produce shall be distributed in accordance with the needs of the individual and the service that the individual renders to society; that the whole basis of profits, dividends and interest must be rejected. I believe that if the we build our society on the idea that it must always pay to have people working rather than people idle, and that we must reject out of hand the idea that profit is a good and sufficient regulator of production on the ground that it does not work and cannot give full employment and maximum use of our resources, and that inasmuch as it is organised self-interest it is a completely unethical basis for society. I do not think I have to bring forward arguments in support of my beliefs. I have only to demonstrate them and to remind the Government that those beliefs exist. I believe that what I have said will find a very great deal of support in the Labour Party.

In conclusion, let me say I am glad that the Government have stated their case. I wish to see the Government putting forward their case both in regard to the details of their legislation and the principles on which it is based. Democracy demands that any pamphlets which put forward that legislation in detail and therefore put forward propaganda in support of implied principles shall contain the other side. I am not asking for an equal amount of space, but for a certain amount of space, to be devoted to criticisms in detail made by the Labour Party and Liberal Party, for instance, of various Measures such as the Town and Country Planning Act and the Water Bill, and an examination of the principles on which the legislation is based, as well as the contrary point of view. I believe that that is possible and perfectly healthy, and I ask the Government to consider the matter again and decide that both points of view shall be included in those pamphlets.

6.54 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

I do not propose to express any view to-night on which party will get the benefit—to use my hon. Friend's phrase—from the undoubted achievements of the present Government, but I do dissent from his view that the Government are producing pamphlets which express a Conservative point of view and show Conservative bias, Let me remind the House of the situation with which we have to deal. As we all know, several million men are away on overseas service. The great majority of them are intensely interested in what the future has in store for them—jobs, homes, social insurance and education. The Government have ample evidence before them of their intense interest in these matters. No one would deny that in present circumstances many of these men, and many of the women in the Services, too, are cut off from White Papers and Acts of Parliament, and inevitably are largely out of touch with major political developments, and it was in relation to this background that the Prime Minister made his statement on 20th December, to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Let me say a word about these pamphlets. The pamphlets, which are to be issued to all British Forces overseas, will describe the new social legislation which it is the intention of Parliament to have in operation after the war. In some cases, for example, education, they will describe schemes which have already been embodied in Acts of Parliament, schemes to which Parliament has set the official seal of approval by enacting legislation. In other cases, for example, the new scheme of national insurance, pamphlets will describe proposals in the form of White Papers which have been debated in this House and have received the general approval of Parliament, although they have not yet been passed into law. The intermediate case will be that in which a policy has been approved in general terms in Debate on a White Paper, and a Bill is at the moment under discussion: the Family Allowances Bill could be in this intermediate position. Another example is a pamphlet on the resettlement of the demobilised soldier, which is to be published shortly by the Ministry of Labour.

I would emphasise that these pamphlets will be factual and objective statements. Their purpose is to state shortly and in simple language what is proposed. They will seek to describe and to explain, not to justify. My hon. Friend is surely wrong in claiming that no one can describe a piece of social legislation unless he agrees with it or that a purely factual description cannot be given without any trace of advocacy. Surely it can be given in a purely objective way as a statement of fact. This point can be illustrated by the 3d. booklet on the Social Insurance Scheme published by the Ministry of Reconstruction. This document—I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen it—states in simple language what the contributions and benefits would be under the new scheme if Parliament accepted it, and what would be the conditions under which the benefits would be payable. These, in my submission, are all statements of fact. There is no argument in the booklet suggesting that these rates are generous. There is, therefore, no case for including a critic's reasons for regarding them as inadequate. The sole purpose of the booklet is to enable the ordinary reader to see at a glance what his position would be under the Government's scheme.

All these proposals have, as we all know, been put forward by a Coalition Government, including members of all the main political parties. In the Debate on the Address Government spokesmen took the line that whatever the result of the next General Election may be, these plans can be taken up and carried through by the next Government and Parliament, with the sure knowledge that they are broadly based on the people's will. In the words of the Prime Minister: All the leading men in both principal parties, and in the Liberal Party as well, are pledged and committed to this great mass of social legislation, and I cannot conceive that, whatever may be the complexion of the new House, they will personally fail to make good their promises and commitments to the people I believe that the House and the country will endorse wholeheartedly this positive action of the Government to indicate to our serving men and women what they propose to do in the way of social reconstruction, if for no other reason than that our serving men have the right to know what the Government's plans are on matters vitally affecting their welfare on their return to civilian life.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

May I put two points to my hon. and learned Friend, arising out of his last words? Certainly the serving men have a right to know what the Government's plans are, but also—and I should have thought that this was something to which we could all agree, no matter what side of the House we sit on—in a few months the serving men are going to be asked to vote, one way or another, and all of us, presumably, hope. that they will vote intelligently—whatever our view of an intelligent vote may be. I do not see how they can be expected to vote intelligently unless they know the arguments one way and the other. It is not only a question of having the facts about the Government's present proposals, but also of having the arguments for and against those proposals, and how they may be modified or extended. Therefore, I want to support what the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Lawson) has said about the necessity for giving the serving men, as fairly and impartially as possible, some kind of data for actual argument, something to think over and chew over himself, and to discuss with his friends and comrades.

My second point is this. On a previous occasion, in one of these Adjournment Debates, I made a rather similar suggestion in relation to A.B.C.A. pamphlets. I suggested that the A.B.C.A. pamphlet on any Government scheme might contain a very brief summary of the Parliamentary Debate on that subject, and my hon. and learned Friend replied, impromptu, that it would be too difficult to make that summary impartial, that there would be complaints from people who had been left out, and so on. I think that if he thinks again he will see that it is not so impossible. The B.B.C. manages, most nights and at week-ends, to give a Parliamentary summary, which is very intelligent and very impartial on the whole. Occasionally it provokes some criticism from hon. Members on one side or the other, but the Minister of Information is never at a loss to defend its impartiality, as we know well; and I suggest that it would be no more difficult, in fact rather easier, with the greater time at the disposal of the people concerned, to prepare a completely impartial summary of the relevant Debates to include in these pamphlets, and in the A.B.C.A. bulletins. I am sure that, in the minute or two that remain, if my hon. and learned Friend wishes to comment on what I have said, he will have the leave of the House to do so.

7.4 P.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

It seemed to me that the hon. and learned Gentleman was entirely oblivious to the real point made, by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson). In the very few minutes that are left I would like to try to put it again—I do not expect him to reply again, but so that he and his political colleagues may think about it. We are having factual descriptions—and I accept that they will be factual—of certain main projected and proposed Acts of Parliament, which we do not expect to get passed by this Parliament before the General Election. It is not, I think, a secret that the Conservative Party will go to the country saying to the people: "Send us back to Parliament for the main purpose of passing these Acts of Parliament." That will be the Conservative Party's policy. I understand that the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, the I.L.P., the Communist Party and all parties, I think, will go to the country saying something quite different. They will be saying, almost with a shrug of assurance: "Yes, indeed, we would pass such Acts as these," but in the case of the Labour Party, they will say: "The main reason why we want you to return us to Parliament, and not the Conservative Party, is because we want to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange." Is that not what the Labour Party is going to the country to ask for this time? It will be very interesting to have a political reply to that question.

So the effect of the totality of pamphlets, each one of which, subject to the criticisms of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), with which I agree, may be quite unexceptionable, will be to give to Service men overseas a very full description of the policy of the Conservative Party, paid for out of the public purse, but not one syllabic or line of description of the policy of the Labour Party or of any other of the parties I have mentioned. That is the gravamen of our case, and it did not seem to me that, in his reply, my hon. and learned Friend referred to that argument, which was put forward by the hon. Member for Skipton in such a way that it could not be avoided. It is a deplorable position, but, in the one minute left, I hope the Minister may give a reply.

Adjourned accordingly at Seven Minutes after Seven o'Clock.