HC Deb 08 May 1950 vol 475 cc127-68

8.16 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I had intended last Friday to take advantage of the opportunity to introduce a Private Member's Motion to draw attention to the conditions of underpaid workers in this country. I had won the second place in the Ballot, but so great was the interest in the subject of the first Motion, scientific research in industry, that my Motion was not called. I am, therefore, taking the opportunity which arises from the early Adjournment tonight to raise this urgent and important question. I hope very much that the fact that our discussion takes place on an Adjournment Motion will not be regarded by hon. Members on the back benches, or by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, as indicating that we do not attach the greatest importance to it.

Speaking quite soberly, I believe that the poverty of the underpaid workers of this country is the most urgent of all social and economic issues here at home. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he introduced the Budget, emphasised that the accompaniment of the Budget by the Economic Survey represented a revolution in economic thinking and Government responsibility. He pointed out that it was agreed that the Government must accept responsibility for the general economic health of the community. I think he was right. But the revolution in economic thinking and in Government responsibility which the Economic Survey reflects is only the outcome of a deeper revolution in political thinking which preceded it.

I am just old enough to remember the election in 1906 which first returned the Labour Party to this House as an organised group. It was only 29 strong. If there were any Liberals on the benches opposite, I would remark to them that in that election I was a Liberal agent in the Kentish village in which I lived. When the Labour Party entered the House for the first time as a group in 1906, it made the problem of poverty the first issue of politics. There had previously been lonely voices both on the Conservative and Liberal benches, which had drawn attention to instances of economic injustice in this land; but, broadly speaking, until the end of the 19th century it was held that the problem of poverty, of unemployment, of low wages, was outside the scope of Parliamentary attention, and it was the coming of the Labour Party and Socialist thought into politics which brought about that political revolution in thinking. I am sometimes inclined to think that that change in political thinking which followed the entrance of the Labour Party into our national politics is the greatest and most fundamental achievement which our Labour movement has yet attained.

During the last four and a half years we have gone some way towards dealing with this problem of poverty. We have established a ground-floor in society so that whether a man or woman becomes unemployed, or sick, or aged, or suffers injury, he or she no longer falls through to the basement of destitution. But I intend to urge tonight that there is still a large gap in that ground-floor, and that if there are workers in this country, engaged in useful service to the community, working full time on behalf of society, who at the end of the week are not receiving a wage adequate to maintain their family in a condition of health—and indeed more than health, in the enjoyment of some of the amenities of life—then we have not yet established that ground-floor of social security and we are still leaving in our community a section of our people who, despite their work for the nation, are denied even a living income in return for the labour they give.

In the inter-war years we used to regard an income of £3 a week for a family as being below the poverty line. In view of the increase in the cost of living, a wage of less than £5 a week today is also below the poverty line. Even when we allow £6 per annum for the social services which all of us so greatly welcome, a family whose income is below £5 a week is not securing the conditions of a healthy life, not to speak of a full human life.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

What the hon. Member is proposing would require legislation?

Mr. Brockway

I think, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will find that my argument will indicate that I am not proposing legislation.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

How does the hon. Member intend to propose that it should be done?

Mr. Brockway

I shall later suggest that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should, in his annual Economic Survey, make a declaration of the minimum wage which he believes production would allow. I believe that that declaration, particularly if applied in the nationalised industries, would be sufficient to secure the adoption of that minimum throughout industry. Therefore, I am not proposing legislation.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is a pious hope, but I do not think it could be done without legislation.

Mr. Brockway

Perhaps I may be allowed to state my argument. I shall argue that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes an Economic Survey, and in it estimates that a certain amount of our national production is available for increased wages, then the Chancellor can use his power, both in the nationalised industries and in the system of wage councils which now exists, to establish a minimum which will become a model and example to industry as a whole.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is my point. It would require legislation to do that.

Mr. Brockway

I do not think so. Unless I am greatly mistaken, a declaration of that kind, its application to our already publicly-owned industries and the example that would give to wage councils would be effective without its being necessary to introduce legislation. That is my argument.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not think that it would be effective, and I hope that the hon. Member will not pursue that argument.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (Ayrshire, South)

On a point of Order. Is it not quite competent for the hon. Member to make out a case why the Chancellor should make this declaration, which I understand is all that he is doing?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I gather that the hon. Member's point is that he wishes to have a minimum wage rate fixed in this country.

Mr. Hughes

With all respect to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, not by legislation. So far as I have been able to follow my hon. Friend's argument, I understand he is asking that the Chancellor should make a declaration.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Yes, but he could not enforce it without legislation.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Our main purpose is not to ask for legislation but for an investigation into the facts. Secondly, there are already wage councils in existence, and all we are asking is that the Minister of Labour should, in view of the present situation, consider the advisability of using his regulations for the purpose of getting the wage councils to adopt a minimum of £5 a week. Therefore, on those two points we are not asking for legislation. We are asking, first, for an investigation and, secondly, for administrative action.

Mr. Brockway

I recognise that on the Adjournment I have not the right to put forward any argument which requires legislation to give effect to it, and I shall be careful not to do so.

To deal first with the point of investigation which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), so far as I can discover there are no facts and figures available at present which will enable us to judge what proportion of the working class population is below the figure of a £5 per week wage. In answer to a Question last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a figure which at first sight was alarming. He said that in 1948 the number of incomes between £250 and the Income Tax exemption limit of £135 was about 9,250,000; that is, there were 9,250,000 people who, according to the Income Tax investigations, fell below the standard of £5 per week. But I recognise that figure cannot be taken for the purpose of the case I am putting, because that total would include large numbers who would not be wage earners in the full sense of the term.

The White Paper on National Income and Expenditure states that the average earnings in this country in 18 industries are £6 6s. a week. In two industries the average earnings are actually placed at less than £5 a week. If £6 6s. is the average for those 18 industries, where sometimes the wages reach £8, £10, £12 and even £15 a week, it would not be an over-estimate to say that there must be at least two million fully employed workers in this country whose earnings do not amount to £5 a week.

Last week, one heard on the benches opposite, a reference to the phrase of Disraeli about Britain being two nations. We must face the fact that, despite all the lifting of the standards of life in recent years, Britain still remains two nations. We must face the fact that for thousands of the working class, existence is limited by very low wages even to conditions below subsistence, while there is a section of the community, even in these times of economic stringency, who are still able to live in conditions of luxury. I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has argued that even if all profits in the country today were distributed as wages, wages would increase little. He has overlooked the psychological importance of the fact that a worker who is receiving less than a living wage, inevitably has an added discontent and grievance if he sees other sections of the community living in conditions of luxury.

What is the approach of the Government to this problem of the underpaid worker? The Budget gave him no relief, because the underpaid worker is below the Income Tax level. As I understand it, the argument was that even if the Purchase Tax were reduced, or even if children's allowances were increased, the major portion of that assistance would go to the whole community, and therefore the assistance which would be given to the underpaid worker, because of the limited amount available, would be slight and small. As I listened to the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I found it difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the Chancellor himself recognises that if the problem of the underpaid worker is to be met, it must be by an increase of his wages rather than by any method that can be adopted in the Budget. The Chancellor is to speak with the Trades Union Congress and with the employers' federations. I hope that one result of these conversations and discussions will be that both the trade unions and the employers will recognise that the first necessity today is to lift the wages of underpaid workers to a living standard.

It is possible that tonight we may hear the view of the Government that it is necessary to leave these matters, entirely uninfluenced, to the negotiations between the trade unions and the employers. I have been a trade unionist for 43 years. I recognise the tremendous importance of the contribution the unions have made. I recognise at once that they must have the responsibility of negotiating this, that and the other rate. But I express the hope that representatives of the Government, representing the nation, will also stress the fact that since we, the nation, receive the services of the underpaid workers, we have a right to demand that those underpaid workers shall receive at least a living wage in return for the work they give.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

What the hon. Member is proposing cannot be done without legislation.

Mr. Brockway

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I am arguing that it can.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I wish to make it quite clear that my view is that it cannot.

Mr. Brockway

Then I must accept your Ruling Sir, but I wish to say that I am not going to propose tonight the introduction of any legislation. I am going to be quite content with a declaration by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that in his view and in the view of the Economic Survey, there is sufficient in this country to establish a living wage for every underpaid worker. It could be applied to publicly-owned industries without legislation; it could be applied to wage councils without legislation, and if applied in those two large spheres it could not help but become an example and a model to the whole nation. It is in that sense that I am arguing in its favour tonight.

If the present methods of settling wage standards are maintained, there will be no solution whatever and no guarantee that the standards of life of the underpaid worker will be maintained. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has referred to them as catch-as-catch-can methods. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley), in his presidential speech to the National Union of Distributive Workers, described them as guerrilla warfare, as merely a pressure on this trade and on that trade without any co-ordination in the community as a whole. Those methods last year resulted in an increase in wages, despite wage restraints, amounting to £300 million. Those £300 million did not go to the workers who deserved the increases most or indeed who served the community most. That increase was distributed according to the pressures and the strength of particular trades, and I suggest that that is not a method of distribution which we should accept.

We have now advanced to the position of a planned economy. We plan capital investment, production, exports, imports, subsidies on food to keep prices down, and we plan national expenditure in many spheres. We plan the limitation of the incomes of the rich, but we leave wages to pressures of particular trades without any planning or principle at all, with the result that there are gross inequalities at the present time. I suggest that a planned economy which omits a guarantee to every useful worker of a living wage misses the first essential of a just society.

I turn to the method that I propose by which wages of the underpaid workers should be increased. The last Economic Survey refers to the extent to which the expenditure of this country may safely rise. The figure which is gives is £400 million, and it remarks that a proportion of that may be utilised in increased consumption in this country. I suggest that of the £400 million, at least £200 million could be allowed for increased wages. That would perhaps be enough to establish, by the method of declaration, of example and influence, a minimum wage of £5 a week.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer would introduce his Economic Survey; he would say that £400 million was available and that £200 million of it would be devoted to increased wages; and he would say that in the view of the Government a standard of life could be established in this country on the £5 level and that, as an expression of our sincerity, we would apply that standard to the publicly-owned industries and the wage councils. We should give that as a model to the community The following year, as production increased, he would make a similar declaration which again would become the minimum accepted standard for the life of our community. It that were done, I can see our community, within a few years, year by year, lifting from the level of poverty hundreds of thousands of workers and putting them on a real ground floor upon which every worker and every family in the community would have the basis of a decent healthy life.

This is, to me, a matter for the social conscience of each one of us and particularly of this House. Those of us who accept services from other workers without demanding for those workers a living wage in return for their services have no right to what we receive from them. Our clothes, our food, our journeys on the railways run by the underpaid railway-men—everything which we enjoy in life is due to their labour. We, as Members of Parliament and as a House of Commons, will not be doing our duty to the workers and to the nation if we do not see that, in return for their labour, they receive at least a living income.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) spoke with the greatest possibly sincerity which, I am sure, touched a chord in the hearts of each and every one of us, but I am bound to say that I think he has unduly simplified the problem. In bringing forward a solution which, if I understood it, was all he was entitled to bring forward at the moment, and which would be nothing more than a pious hope on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, coupled with some instructions to the nationalised industries, he created rather more problems than he solved.

I hope hon. Members will bear with me when I comment on the fact that he illustrated the virtue of the planning which we have secured—the planning of investment, the planning of the limitation of the incomes of the rich and the planning of cheap living by subsidy—and he omitted, of course, to mention planning of high living by Purchase Tax. All the spheres with which we are now concerned are planned, he said, except wages. I know his mind is acute and keen to see, however, that if the State once enters the sphere of planning relations in terms of money, between employers and work people, the function of the trade union becomes entirely unnecessary.

Mr. Brockway

I indicated that all kinds of wage rates would still be in the hands of trade union negotiations. All I sought was that we should attempt to establish a minimum living standard for the community.

Mr. Butcher

The suggestion is, if I understood the hon. Member, that we should establish a minimum standard but, by virtue of the conditions under which this Debate takes place, it cannot be established by legislation. Therefore it can only be established by a pronouncement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms of a pious wish—something like his expression of a wish with regard to the remuneration of Mr. Lord. Then we might see retrospective legislation assuming a most peculiar shape.

The hon. Gentleman went on, in a passage I thought rather eloquent, to suggest that on one occasion the announcement of the Chancellor would be that the minimum standard would be £5, and that 12 months later the standard would be £5 10s. Certainly we would all wish to see a steadily rising standard of living in this country, but what is going to happen to differentials? Consider the man who is receiving with differentials, £5 7s. a week. What is to happen if the Chancellor, having announced £5 in the first year, announces 12 months later £5 10s.? Surely there is going to be some adjustment in the terms of the different crafts in the different industries? But if that happens, it will be in direct contradiction of the Chancellor's request for restraint in wage increases. The hon. Gentleman, I think, has opened up a subject in which many Members of this House would have been happy to participate had they, perhaps, had more notice.

The real problem is this, as I see it. There is really no easy way to lift the standard of living of the people of this country as a whole. The hon. Gentleman referred to the comparatively low minimum wage paid on the railways of this country. I agree with him entirely. The railwayman, I believe, under present conditions is underpaid in relation to many sections of the community. It is worth while examining the historical background of that, and the answer is that at a certain period of time the wages for employment on the railways may not have been particularly high, but there was freedom from unemployment in the terms of employment there, because the railway workers were discharged from the service of the companies only for the sort of reason for which everybody would agree employment should be terminated. But we are now reaching the position under this planned economy, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that remuneration has no relation to the responsibility of the job, nor is there a wage differential properly applied at the present time.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, Northfield)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that today there are more workers in this country working on piece work than ever before?

Mr. Butcher

Yes, I appreciate that point; and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that interruption, because it brings me to the next point, which, indeed, was the one in my mind, and that is, that remuneration must be related to production. I believe that we have now to examine the conditions of all our industries in this country to see how we can assist the ordinary worker in industry to secure the maximum amount of production of which he is capable. A lot of things have to be done, with the discussion of which I shall not detain the House tonight, but it is the duty of the employer to place at the disposal of the workers labour-saving tools which will relieve human beings of much of the drudgery they have had to do in the past, and the proportion of mechanical aids at the disposal of the workers of this country is not equal to that, for example, in America.

Secondly, I believe there is a case for granting these increases, if there is negotiation between the employers and the trade unions, to the lower paid workers; but let us realise that this is going to require an increased differential on the part of the more skilled workers. The hon. Gentleman said there was a psychological effect on the lowest paid workers in seeing others more comfortably off. I suppose that is possible, but how far is that to go? How far does it go? The days are far gone by when people were able to see the wealthy driving in their carriages while the poor begged at the gates. Those days have long gone, thanks to the influence not only of this Government but of many successive Governments.

How far is this to go? Are we to reduce everybody to one dead level of equality? Because we must be careful that, in removing the burden from the lowest paid workers, we do not deaden the efforts of those receiving more. Surely the ambition of this country—and I am sure the hon. Gentleman has placed us all in his debt in initiating this Debate—is how to dispose of the present wages force so that, on the one hand, we maintain free negotiation between workers and employers, and at the same time bring into each human being that incentive for personal advancement, so that he will lift himself and his family steadily over a period of years by greater effort and greater productivity.

8.51 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent)

Limits are imposed upon us when speaking in an Adjournment Debate and we must have regard to them. Our main objective this evening is to ask for an official investigation, to ask what administrative action may be taken, and to place the facts on record. For five years we have maintained industrial peace in this country; for five years we have worked for increased output, which has reached record heights, and has resulted in a larger volume of production than ever before in Britain's history. The chief reasons for this are: the relative regulation of our affairs; the maintenance of full employment; the good will created by the Government's social legislation; the loyalty of the organised workers to their country; and the relative high profitability of private enterprise. How long will this last? Our future depends upon the answers that are to be given to the questions we ask. Our country cannot afford the industrial friction that took place between the two world wars.

I want tonight to place on record one or two very serious extracts from the official report of the proceedings of the Preliminary Wages Conference which took place on Tuesday, 20th December, 1949, between the engineering unions and the employers. Mr. Brotherton and Mr. Hill, speaking for the engineering unions, said: In the discussions that followed the publication of the White Paper it was made quite clear by the Government that it was national policy to obtain price and profit reductions. The Government appealed for voluntary price cuts and strengthened the machinery of price control. This expectation of price and profit reductions greatly influenced the trade union movement in accepting voluntary wages restraint. Indeed, the Conference of Trade Union Executives only accepted the principle of the White Paper in March. 1948, on condition that a vigorous policy was pursued, 'designed not only to stabilise but to reduce profits and prices'. The engineers have restrained themselves for 12 years first, during the re-armament period; second, during the war; and third, during post-war recovery.

The whole trade union movement has accepted the policy of a wage stop for two years on the conditions I have quoted. Here are the conditions in the official publication dealing with the proceedings of the conference when this policy was first accepted. I had the privilege of being present, representing the executive of which I am a member, at all these conferences, and I have seen the change in the tone of the proceedings, about which I want to speak later. I will now quote from the official publication of the Trade Union Congress of a special meeting of the executive held at the Central Hall, London, on 24th March, 1948: The recommendation of the Committee is therefore, that the General Council should record:

  1. (a) its endorsement of the policy of general stabilisation as set forth in the White Paper; and
  2. (b) its acceptance of the principles which this statement proposes should be applied to wage claims at the present time"—
Now let me emphasise with all the power that I can command that those recommendations were accepted with this condition: That the Government pursues vigorously and firmly a policy designed not only to stabilise but to reduce profits and prices. It concludes: The policy outlined in this statement should be reviewed in detail immediately after the Budget and thereafter at intervals of not less than three months. I ask the House: Have those conditions upon which that policy was accepted been carried out? For unless the Government take the initiative and grasp this nettle of costs, profits, prices and wages, I can see us drifting into a catastrophic condition in this country.

I was present at a special trade union executive meeting held on 12th January of this year. I have seen the changing tone of the proceedings. It reflected itself in the vote which produced a small majority and which has long since been wiped out at a number of annual conferences. Therefore, that sets the danger signal for all of us in this country and for the Government in particular. That was three months ago, and I ask the Minister what action has been taken in the meantime or what action it is proposed to take.

Is it intended to go on running against the danger signal in the way we are going? The complacent attitude of "leave it to both sides in industry" has long since been out of date in this country. Those of us who passed through the inter-war period of industrial strife and were involved in idleness through lock-outs and in strikes that we had no desire to take part in but became involved in, do not want a repetition of that.

We have heard a great deal about the dollar gap but little about the wages gap. We have heard little about the gap between the actual production costs and the selling cost of the finished commodity. We have heard little about the gap between those to whom I belong who are engaged directly on production and the millions who are not engaged directly on production. It is for those people that I am speaking this evening. It is time that their lives, their needs and their ideas were placed on record, for in this country less than 10 million people are producing the wealth upon which 50 million people are living.

On 21st June, 1944, the present Foreign Secretary said in this House: If we had had through the nineteenth century a rise of wages comparable to the productivity of the working people, the standard of living in this country would have been doubled."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st June, 1944; Vol. 401, c. 226.] Those engaged in industry are not going to see a repetition of that in this century.

We are asking, therefore, that the Government should conduct an official investigation and work out a comprehensive costs policy, so that we may see the fluctuations that take place over the whole field, as in the case of that very fine document published by the Ministry of Labour and the "Board of Trade Journal." We want a similar document showing the costs of materials, the overhead charges, the distributive costs and the selling prices. If it is right to apply incentive schemes to manual workers, it is equally right that they should be applied to everyone else. The miner has his output measured per man-shift, and absenteeism is shown. The same also applies to engineers, but as soon as we get out of productive industry, we find very little measurement applied to the services rendered.

While we support the Government's policy of introducing and improving these incentive schemes, because those of us who are students of economic affairs are bound to agree that the country is in a serious economic position, the time has come to ask the services of the millions who are not engaged in productive industry should also be measured. Real wages are measured by what they will buy, and therefore there is increasing concern about the costs of production and the prices paid for the finished article, as well as of the profits made. Our people believe that the time has arrived when this country should accept 20th century ideas, not only in the field of science and the preparation for defence, but also on the question of wages, salaries, costs, prices and profits.

I suggest to the Prime Minister, in particular, that he should consider appointing a Royal Commission to go into these matters and report as soon as possible. I also suggest that when they make their report, it should not be placed on the file or shelved, as has happened too often in the past with these reports, but that action should be immediately taken. While that is taking place, each industry should be asked to work out a short-term policy by agreement. The Commission might consider such questions as costs, profits and wages and the effect of the changes in industry during the past 50 years. For example, I would quote the effects of taxation on productive industry, and the enormous growth of unproductive labour and overhead charges. The Commission should consider also the question of reward in accordance with service and merit.

I want to follow those suggestions by giving some concrete evidence on the need for their considerations. I am still relatively young, and yet I have seen a great flight from manual labour in this country. No one wants to do work now, relatively speaking. Few want to take off their coats, and this is largely because during my lifetime the status of the manual workers has been lowered and lowered, while that of other people has improved. I have seen a change in the attitude towards labour, and the time is ripe for the status of the manual workers and those engaged in productive industry to be improved and got more into line with 20th century ideas. There has to be reward and promotion on service—and not for the sake of playing up to people, as is done far too much. We want the conditions of our people improved and promotion on merit, technical ability and capacity, instead of what takes place far too often.

We want the growth of unproductive occupations and professions also to be considered in view of the position in industry. I happen to be in a very strong position in advocating this. We knew or ought to have known that our pre-war economy was becoming top-heavy, and it is easy to talk when there is no responsibility. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, "Hear, hear," but it is for every one of us to say what action he proposes to take when he has got responsibility. In 1945 and 1946 there were millions who had served us well in the Services and in industry. All those had to be transferred into normal industry, and that was the time when we could have used our influence in order to get more of those people interested in the need for increased output and increased numbers in productive industry. However, we have arrived at a period in Britain when there are far too many watching and too few doing the real work. This is being seen more and more.

It is said that the time for strikes has gone by. I largely agree with that, and, therefore, we shall have to use the growing, intellectual capacity of ordinary people in this country in order to achieve our ends in the 20th century manner. During the past 10 years, great changes have taken place in the methods of production and in the relative importance of industry and of the individual. The chief assets of our country are coal and the men who get it, and the industrial capacity and skill of our people. More and more we shall depend on these people. Does the present method of payment secure the best results, or is the amount of payment being received out of date for services being given to this country? In my view no adult person in Britain should be receiving less than £5 a week at the present time for a full week's wage.

Mr. Blackburn

My hon. Friend has been speaking about the engineering industry, and as a Member of Parliament who represents an engineering constituency, may I reinforce what he has now said and ask him if he does not agree that most of the engineering workers throughout the country would agree to a national minimum wage—not imposed by the Government but agreed to by the trade union movement—of £5 per week; and is that not a great credit to the engineering workers?

Mr. Ellis Smith

Yes, but I must be on my guard or Mr. Deputy-Speaker will rule me out of Order. I am not asking for legislation.

Mr. Blackburn

There is no legislation involved.

Mr. Ellis Smith

There will be, if we are not careful. I must make it clear that I am not asking for legislation but to be permitted to place the facts on record and ask for an investigation. Thirdly, I want all possible administrative action to be taken. For once, we are not being drawn off into a side line.

I was making the point that no adult person in Britain should receive less than £5 a week as a minimum wage, after all stoppages had been made. It should be a national minimum related to the cost of living. I ask the Minister, "Does he accept that?" If so, what action does he propose to take? I can see that you are getting a little uneasy, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I can understand that, but I have made clear my purpose. Secondly—and I have not said this yet—there is already legislation on the Statute Book which permits wage councils to review the conditions in industry and by regulation to fix wages accordingly. That is all that I am asking for at this stage.

I would now call attention to the report of the Ministry of Labour, dated 1st October, 1949, giving a number of figures to show what the workers are receiving. A large number of people who are surface workers in the mining industry receive, inclusive of the value-in-kind allowances, £5 per week. In the pottery industry, group M2 labourers get £4 10s., group M3 labourers get £4 10s., group M5C receive £4 14s. Women in F1 group gets £3, in F4 group £3 5s., and in group F6, £3 10s. 6d. All those are minimum weekly rates, minus stoppages. This House has a great record in recognising the need for action in this kind of thing. In soap manufacture the men get £5 2s. and the women £3 10s. What becomes of our 20-year demand for equal pay for equal work? The wages paid in industries covered by wages regulations are calculated to range from £4 10s. to £4 15s. for men and for women from £2 15s. to £3 10s. If anyone wants to check these figures, they are on pages 189 and 190 of the Ministry of Labour Report of 1st October, 1949.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

Do those figures exclude overtime?

Mr. Ellis Smith

Yes, they are minimum figures. I am pleased with the interjection because we do not want misunderstanding about these matters. The facts themselves cut so sharply that I am convinced that when they are placed on record, public opinion will deal with them in time. Those are only a few examples of low wages and of the need for equal pay for equal work. The minimum wage in industries subject to wage regulation should be £5 a week, and I should like to know what action the Minister proposes to take about this.

I want to make it quite clear that, while I am advocating State action, the need for the trade union movement is as great as ever, if not greater. This imposes upon us greater responsibility and we must be worthy of that responsibility. We must become more positive in our approach to our problems, and trade union ideas, policy and action must not be, like the law of the Medes and Persians, unalterable. We must adapt ourselves to new ideas and the quickly changing times of the 20th century.

Here are some facts which should be placed on record. This is part of the terrible burden imposed upon the productive industry of this country. In 1914 the National Debt was £649,770,000. In 1920 it was—[Interruption.] Do not try to be so funny. If my hon. Friend had been listening to my suggestions he would have understood this.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

Is. my hon. Friend referring to me?

Hon. Members

Carry on.

Mr. Ellis Smith

The National Debt in 1920—[An HON. MEMBER: "It is not all on the one side."] The interests of the people will be reflected on this side as they have been in this House for many years. If hon. Members want to create difficulties for those engaged in industry, those people will be able to read the proceedings here and judge each one of us upon our record both in war and in peace. The National Debt which productive industry was carrying in 1920 was £7,828,779,000 and in 1949 it was £25,167,611,000. The interest on that has to be produced by those engaged in productive industry.

Here is the total cost of Government officials. In 1914 it was £79 million, in 1920 £170 million, and in 1946 £259 million. In addition, terrible overhead charges are imposed upon productive industry by the trade associations, price maintenance associations, quotas and branding, and many hon. Members opposite have a great responsibility for the organising of these restrictive practices in industry. Before industry gets a chance, trade restrictions and prices are increased to an enormous extent compared with the cost of materials in other countries. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the trade unions?"] An hon. Member makes an interjection which delights me.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

There were restrictive practices on both sides of industry—in the trade union movement and among employers—for the very simple reason that there was fear of unemployment. The reasons for that have now completely disappeared and there is now no need for restrictive practices on either side of industry.

Mr. Ellis Smith

The House will agree with that, but we should be delighted to support any proposal for an investigation into our trade restrictive practices, including the effects of certain associations.

Therefore we are asking that our case should be considered. We ask for an extension of the joint consultative practices to consider the cost of production and the cost of our overhead charges. We ask for the complete recognition of the trade unions in all concerns in order that they may accept their share of responsibility in investigating these questions. These are now questions of great urgency. They are further steps in the development of democracy. To place these facts on record we ask for this investigation in order that organised labour in this country may carry on in the way that it has been carrying op during the past 10 years, putting the needs of the country before the needs of any sectional interest.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. Alport (Colchester)

I welcome the opportunity which this Adjournment Motion gives us to discuss an extremely important subject. I welcome it just as much as I deplore the arguments used by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) in his speech, because it struck me that I was hearing once again, as we have heard so often in this House and outside it, arguments best calculated to mislead those whom we—and particularly hon. Gentlemen opposite—should be in a position to guide and help.

I want to make it quite clear that I and my hon. and right hon. Friends are quite as concerned as hon. Gentlemen opposite with practical methods for improving the conditions of the lowest paid workers today. Although they never give us any credit for the fact, it is quite clear that the country, and the workers in particular, are beginning to realise that they will get practical help in their difficulties from this side of the House rather from the theorists and the woolly-headed thinkers on the other side.

Mr. Harrison

Will the hon. Member forgive me a moment——

Mr. Alport

I am afraid not. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough gave the impression that the beginning of all Government action to improve conditions of work and life within industry in this country began with the birth of the Socialist Party at the end of the 19th century.

Mr. Blackburn

Why not go back to 1500?

Mr. Alport

I agree that we go back long before then, but hon. Members opposite are never aware of any working class history before the first years of this century. They do not know, for instance, that the greatest progress in the improvement of industrial conditions was made under the Tory Social Reformers of the 1830's. They have never heard the names of Oastler and Michael Sadler. They have never heard the names of Ferreno and Parson Bull. Those names do not come into the era of working class history that they read.

Mr. Harrison

The Chartists.

Mr. Alport

And the Chartists, too, amongst whose leaders were numbered a great many Conservatives, including some of those names I have just mentioned. I suggest that the hon. Gentlemen opposite, before they are so quick to criticise this side of the House, should be more certain of their facts of working class history than they have been up to the present. [Interruption.] They "know." But they do not know that often what they are saying is nonsense, and that is the great trouble about them. They think that they know everything, yet they are so ignorant of the real facts of life.

What we have had tonight is a curious combination of the hon. Member for Eton and Slough advocating more or less a similar policy to that produced by a noble Lord in another place immediately before the election, and the fallacies which were pointed out by Members and speakers representing the party on this side of the House apply just as much to the arguments of the hon. Member for Eton and Slough as they did to those of the noble Lord.

It has been an argument which the Socialist Party have used for many years past that the only problem of improving conditions, of increasing wages, is to pay out more money, regardless of what that money means in terms of real income. It is grossly misleading for hon. Members opposite to stand up here and claim credit in the eyes of the workers who wrongly, as we think, in many cases look to them for leadership and inspiration.

Mr. Harrison

Hear, hear.

Mr. Alport

Yes, we acknowledge it; but how misled they are when they have to listen to arguments, which they have heard so often before, that it is merely a question of providing additional wages, regardless of what those wages can buy in terms of things that people need.

Mr. Brockway rose——

Mr. Alport

I am sorry—and that is precisely——

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

The hon. Member knows that that is completely untrue.

Mr. Alport

The wickedness of the hon. Members——

Mr. Blackburn

The hon. Member dare not give way.

Mr. Alport

This is the second time I have spoken in this House, and I intend to make the point which I have waited for a long time to make. I have listened to this argument, this misleading falsehood, that has been produced in this House and outside it too long and I intend to take this opportunity of doing my best to bring what I believe to be the truth to the ears of the workers, who, as I say, depend too much on hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Brockway rose——

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Alport

What is the argument that hon. Gentlemen opposite have raised? Let me refer to another point that was made by the two speakers opposite. They referred to the unrest between the wars. We acknowledge that there was unrest. There was the 1926 strike, which we remember as sadly as do hon. Members opposite. We realise the great difficulties which it caused to all classes of people, including those who were misled enough to go on strike at that time. But what was the reason for that, and what were hon. Members opposite doing during that period? They were fomenting that type of industrial unrest by using precisely the arguments which they have been using here tonight.

What is it that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough said? He said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had forgotten the psychological importance of the fact that where an underpaid worker sees somebody better off than himself, there is bound to be trouble. Is that not merely an echo, using words of somewhat more syllables, of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) said, I think, in the Budget Debate when he recounted a meeting with the late Lord Keynes on a trans-Atlantic voyage? When asked the reason for many aspects of the economic policy which the last Government were following, the late Lord Keynes said that the reason was hate. And that is what the hon. Member for Eton and Slough has been preaching tonight. I know—and this is what disturbs me so much——

Mr. Blackburn

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for the hon. Member, who has so far not even had the courtesy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), to accuse him of preaching hate when he did nothing of the kind, as those of us on this side of the House know perfectly well?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know; I was not here.

Mr. Alport

I think I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn) was not here at that time either.

Mr. Blackburn

May I point out that I was present?

Mr. Alport

I was not here during the opening words of the speech of the hon. Member for Eton and Slough, but I heard his argument and I think he was not realising where it was leading him. The truth is that that period of industrial unrest in the years immediately before the war was merely a continuation of the unrest which was being stirred up by using the unhappy economic and social consequences of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century. It is the whole basis of the Marxist theory and is being continued at the present time and will continue to prevent the drawing together, as we on this side of the House hope for and work for, of the two nations that Disraeli noted and which Marx noted almost at the same time, in the same generation, 100 years ago.

Pleas on the basis which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough used in this House tonight merely continue the gulf between those who are well-off and those who are poorly off, without giving any really practical answer as to how we are to raise those poorly off to proper minimum standards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford has often referred throughout his political life to how we are to take practical measures to raise the lowest levels of income and achieve a decent standard of living for all men and women.

It is no good harping on these undoubted grievances and stirring them up without producing any answer, or attempting to produce a practical answer. That has been shown by the tenor of speeches from hon. Members opposite tonight, for they provide no practical answer. I hope it will be noticed in all ranks of organised labour that, to all intents and purposes, the speeches from the other side of the House have amounted to a vote of no confidence in the trade union movement—[An HON. MEMBER: "And the Government"]—and the Government, but the Government are less important in this matter than the trade union movement, because very few have confidence in the Government.

Mr. Blackburn

The hon. Member had better look at the record of his own party before he accuses anyone else.

Mr. Alport

We have based industrial policy on the machinery of free negotiation. Hon. Members opposite tell us that they regard the machinery of negotiation for the improvement of wages as insufficient and that therefore the Government must take some action to supplement it, to improve it and change it in ways which were not clear from the speech of the hon. Member for Eton and Slough, in order to carry out what we all hope for—a gradual increase in the rewards of those in the lowest income groups.

Mr. Harrison

I am very much obliged for the courtesy the hon. Member has offered us. He sympathises with the lower-paid workers and the lower-paid railway workers have been mentioned on several occasions during the Debate. May I assume that when we are discussing ways and means of providing the cash to improve the standard of living of lower-paid workers on the railways on Wednesday of this week, he will go into the Lobby and vote with us for an increase in rates and fares?

Mr. Alport

Let us be quite clear; that is purely a debating point. I have paid particular attention to the problem of the railways. Not long ago I was speaking to a ticket collector on what is now the Eastern Region. We were talking about the problem of the lower-paid workers on the railways. He said to me, "I can tell you how the wages of the lower-paid workers can be raised. You saw the engine driver of that express that just went by? He gets £9 a week; I get £5 a week. Take a pound from his wages and put it on to mine, and that will solve the problem." That is precisely what hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have been preaching for many years past, and it is not now merely a question of taking the money from the so-called rich, but in the minds of many of the workers whom hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have misled, of dragging down to their own level workers who have risen a little higher than themselves in the scheme of things.

Mr. Manuel (Ayrshire, Central)

Did the hon. Member ascertain the agreed wage rates of railway locomotive drivers, or is he assuming the correctness of this £9 a week?

Mr. Alport

I was merely repeating verbatim what I was told by this railway employee. Whether he was wrong or not, I do not know.

Mr. Blackburn

The hon. Member should find out the facts himself. That is his duty as a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Alport

I am certainly entitled to repeat, without changing it, what a worker has said to me, in order to answer hon. Members opposite.

That is what has in fact been the result. They have done an injustice not only by misleading the lower-paid worker but also by misleading and putting into a false position both the people at whom they have been aiming, the people who are better off, and those within the ranks of the organised workers who, as a result of their special skill, ability and responsibility, earn and deserve higher rewards than the others. After all, hon. Members opposite argue against the trade union principle of the "differential." If the minimum wage goes up in terms of money, will it not also be necessary, right and proper and just to put up all other wages equally if the men concerned earn it and deserve it, like the engine driver to whom I have referred, with his responsibility for 500 lives? Does he not deserve £4 or £5 more per week than the ticket collector who merely clips tickets? Hon. Members are advocating what the noble Lord advocated before the election—that is an easy means to inflation and all the awful consequences inflation will produce not only to those who are well off but to those who are poorest.

It seems to me quite clear that the real answer—hon. Gentlemen opposite have asked me to make some constructive answer—to this problem is not merely to juggle with money wages, though I agree that there must and should be adjustments in the present monetary rewards of workers in various industries, including the railways. What is really important is that the cost of living should be brought down so that the money which men earn is worth more in real terms than it is at present. That is the real answer, and if hon. Gentlemen opposite in their speeches had advanced any argument whatsoever about the way in which we can bring down the cost of living—a cost which rests so hardly on the shoulders of the working class community at present—I would have been with them wholeheartedly. I certainly do not agree with the arguments they have produced. Those arguments are very misleading and very unfair to those whom they claim to represent.

Let it not be thought that I and my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House are not as determined as any hon. Member on the Government benches to do our level best to achieve a minimum standard of living for the people of this country. We believe that can be achieved through a right and wise policy designed to increase—[An HON. MEMBER: "Profits."]—the wealth of the nation as a whole while at the same time maintaining a fair distribution of reward to all sections of the community.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Williams (Hammersmith, South)

I trust that the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) will forgive me if I do not follow him in very great detail. Perhaps the kindest comment I could make on his speech is that for a number of years I have been a student and teacher of history and, to say the least of it, his history is inexact. One might add to that the comment of my hon. Friend who is a railwayman, the Member for Ayrshire, Central (Mr. Manuel), and who proved that the hon. Gentleman's facts about the railways are wrong.

I am anxious, if I can, to return to the subject of our discussion. In rising to speak to this Motion tonight one recognises immediately the dilemma in which any Government is bound to find itself at this critical time. This dilemma is the danger of inflation on one side and the problem of poverty on the other. Certainly, it is true to say that any great increase of wages leads to inflation, with the consequent spiral in the cost of living. The Chancellor, in his dealing with this problem of inflation, has generally been both wiser and more honest than his critics; for, if one were to refuse the discipline of Socialism in this system of wage increases, inevitably the people who would suffer most in the end from the increased cost of production would be the workers themselves.

I believe the Chancellor was right in setting his face against what, in the Survey, he called, "the danger of the resurgence of inflationary pressure." On the other hand, although he has been successful at keeping inflation at bay, I feel that at this point it is very important to recognise that the other problem—the problem of the real poverty of the lowest paid workers in this country—has, perhaps, become even more acute than that of inflation.

The Chancellor has set his face against tax concessions and against concessions of any kind, and he has warned the trade unions that the consequence of increased wage pressures at all levels would be mass unemployment, but I fear he has applied the stopper at the point of the break and not the point of pressure. If my interpretation is right, I fear that the danger to our economy at this time is the danger that the freeze will burst just the same because of the just claims of those who are at the lowest wage levels

The real strength of the wage claims that are being put forward at this time is that behind them are levels of real poverty. The danger of inflation is not at the level at which the Chancellor is now facing it. The lowest paid working people of this country are already deflated, and I believe that the Minister of Labour would be wise if he conceded the appeals that are being made to him to institute some inquiry into the needs of the most lowly paid among our people.

I agree that there is no easy solution to this difficult problem. Nevertheless, without beginning to make a detailed and careful inquiry, it is obvious even to the most casual observer that the decline in transport receipts and in cheap cinema seats, the decrease in small savings and the admission of the Government about the need of those who are on N.A.B. scales and the grant of increases, are evidence of the fact that at the lowest level in this country at this time there is acute and grievous poverty.

I believe that if inflation exists, it exists at the level of the drinkers of the 2,800,000 bottles of champagne that were drunk in this country last year, the spenders of capital. The evidence at the lowest level is evidence of a need for an inquiry by the Government into the whole question of the wages structure of this country. I fear that if I were to go on to add what I think the Government should do at that inquiry, I should fall into disfavour with the Chair, but I would add that even in the present legislative set-up it is possible for the Government—and I hope the Government will take this step—not only to make an inquiry into what I believe will give ample evidence of deep and serious poverty at the lowest levels, but to give the trade unions an opportunity to exercise statesmanship within the new Socialist setup of this country. It might be possible for the trade unions to begin negotiations within their own ranks and with the employers to see if some kind of wages structure could be set up within industry that would enable increases of pay and allowances to be made to those beneath the 95s. a week level, without putting pressure at the same time to increase the wages of higher paid workers.

For my own part I should have been glad if the Chancellor had said frankly to the unions who are asking for general wage increases that it is impossible for such a general increase to be made, but that the £400 million about which he was speaking ought to be—and he was prepared for it to be—spread among the most lowly paid workers in the country. It may be that I am wrong, but I believe that though there would have been all kinds of protests, in the end the workers would have recognised the justice of the offer and would have accepted it. I take strength from my remembrance of the record of the miners, for instance, from whom I myself have sprung, who in 1945, when they could have held the nation to ransom, in the interests of the nation as a whole were prepared to sacrifice their own immediate interests.

The Government itself, moreover, could give a lead in this matter if the evidence of any inquiry made were to be what I believe it would be. The contribution which the Government could make is within its own nationalised industries. There it could give a lead. Were I to suggest what could be done by the Government with the money which is being paid, for instance, by way of compensation in the railways, it would involve legislation. I will not, therefore, dare to suggest it, but the terms of the Government inquiry could extend to the level of seeking to find whether there was not a way by which the income and expenditure structure of the industries within national control could set an example to the rest of industry.

That, together, with the control which the Government exercises through its various Departments on so wide an area of life, would not be just a pious hope, as was suggested earlier in this Debate. I believe the rest of industry would take an example from the Government in this respect and the Government, by such action, would be doing something to set an example to the rest of industry of the way in which the most poorly paid workers should be treated.

At this juncture in our history this is the most important, the most difficult and the most dangerous of the questions which the Government have to face. For me, politics in the last resort resolves itself into a simple issue. I am a Socialist because I believe that all the industry, the economic resources and the political resources of the nation should be used to assist the people, and from that point of view, the poorest of the people are the first concern of Government. Without in any way attempting to exacerbate the feelings of hon. Gentlemen opposite, I say that I believe the restraint in industrial warfare which we have seen in the last five years has been due very largely—and I would even go so far as to say almost exclusively—to the fact that we have had a Government in this country which the workers have believed is concerned with them and their needs. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I offer that as my convinced and honestly held judgment. I may be wrong, but that is what I believe.

I believe that hope of the maintenance of industrial peace and increased produc- tivity in this country, and happiness and contentment even amongst the poorest of our people, depends upon the continuance of that faith in this Government by those people. For that reason I am desperately anxious, not for our sakes but for theirs, that they shall not lose that faith, and for that reason I urge the Minister of Labour to promise us tonight that he will set up such an inquiry, that he will do all that lies in his power to help those who are humblest and poorest among our people to achieve the decent, dignified standard of life which is the right of every man.

If we fail in this respect we shall have failed in the gravest responsibility of our Government. The future will then lie not with right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who feel that the day may come when they will step into our shoes, but with the Communists. There is a Scripture saying: Not many mighty, not many noble are called … but the weak things of the world … and the things that are despised and the things that are not … to bring to nothing the things that are. It is not possible to maintain a civilisation and an economy based upon the poverty and misery of the people who stand lowest in society. I believe that the first duty of this Government as of every Government is to see that those who are the poorest and meekest and greatest in need shall be dealt with. It is to the credit of this Government that, whatever may be said in criticism of them from the opposite benches, they have in the years that are gone been faithful in their loyalty to the poorest amongst our people. I trust they will continue now to be so.

9.55. p.m.

Mr. Leather (Somerset, North)

I should like to intervene for just a moment to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, South (Mr. W. T. Williams). He has talked very laudably about the faith that his own party have kept with the poorest paid workers in the community, but I do not think that that is true. If it were true, then the lowest paid workers would not today be in the very difficult position in which they find themselves. [An HON. MEMBER: "They are better off than they ever have been."] If they are much better off than they ever have been, this Debate is a sheer waste of time, because hon. Members opposite have spent the last two hours telling us how desperate their plight is. The hon. Member cannot have it both ways.

I was amazed to hear the challenge to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) on this subject—to go into the Division Lobby on Wednesday to vote in favour of the 16⅔ per cent. increase in the freight rates. Surely hon. Members are aware that that is a disastrous blow to the standard of living of the lowest paid workers in the country? There is not one single item that the wives of those poorly paid workers will have to buy that will not be affected by that increase in freight rates.

Another hon. Member referred to the people who drink champagne. I did not think I should have occasion to refer to this, but it is a fact, for which I can provide witnesses if anyone wants me to do so, and for anyone who wants to produce this kind of argument—we do not, but an hon. Member opposite has raised it—that I was in one of the dining rooms of this Palace at 8.30 tonight, and there were eight people dining there; there were five Socialists drinking wine and three Tories drinking beer. The names can be provided to the Whips' Office if that is desired.

A serious point I should like to tackle is this. Hon. Members opposite do not like the fact that I happen to be a working trade unionist. If it were not for some prejudice amongst some hon. Members opposite, I should be on the Parliamentary committee of my union at this moment. I understand their prejudices but they cannot ask me to share them.

Mr. Harrison

What is the hon. Gentleman's union?

Mr. Leather

A.S.S.E.T. Ask the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo). [HON. MEMBERS: "Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is a Communist."] No, I have made that quite clear They do not think I am a Communist. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers) has not accused me of being a Communist. I, too, feel great concern about this problem, and one thing that I deplore is this arrogance of many hon. Members opposite in thinking that they are the only people in this country who are concerned with the lowest paid workers.

Mr. Harrison

What is the lowest pay in the hon. Member's union? What is the particular grade at £5 or below?

Mr. Leather

To be perfectly frank, as the hon. Member well knows, it is impossible for me to answer because my union covers every range of the engineering industry. [Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Member did not know that, he has learned something.

The point I want to make is this. There are two ways of tackling this problem. We resent, and I heartily resent, this sneer at us that hon. Members opposite are the only people really concerned with this problem. I have come from the same status in society as most of them claim to come from.

Mr. Harrison

We are still there.

Mr. Leather

Maybe, but perhaps I have worked a little harder than the hon. Member. I have exactly the same concern as hon. Members opposite have, but I have been in the trade union movement long enough to know that the arguments——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Mr. Leather

I have been in the trade union movement long enough to know that the argument of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, South, about upgrading those at the bottom and asking everybody else to stand fast, just will not wash; the trade union movement will not wear it; and I feel certain the Minister will agree with me on that point. Differentials as an incentive to increased skill, increased craftsmanship and increased production that we all want, are important. But there is another way of solving this problem—a way that the Government have directly in their control, without worrying the trade union movement at all. Indeed, we all know perfectly well that the trade union movement would be the first to welcome it. It is to raise the real wage standards of all our workers by cutting the fantastic cost of living which is the direct result of Government policy.

Why is it that today these workers are in this difficult position? The plight of the railway workers has been referred to on many occasions, and no one would make out that today £4 10s. a week is a princely wage. In 1945–46 men on £4 10s. a week could get by, but today they cannot for the simple reason that £4 10s. will not buy today what it bought in 1945. The responsibility for that lies directly on the Government benches, and nowhere else; as a direct result of their high taxation policy, and of their nationalisation. Every financial step they have taken has been a contributory factor in raising the cost of living for these workers. We have the greatest sympathy——

Mr. Manuel

What about food subsidies?

Mr. Leather

Food subsidies are one of the things that keeps their cost of living down, and I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman should pay tribute to the chairman of the Tory Party for having started food subsidies.

There are two ways in particular in which the Government can cut the cost of living without worrying about differentials or upsetting the trade union movement. They can do so by cutting their crippling taxation, their Purchase Tax, and all their other schemes; by stopping——

Mr. Speaker

Cutting the Purchase Tax would involve legislation, and that is not in order on an Adjournment Debate.

Mr. Leather

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, and I will not pursue that argument in detail, but I do call for your protection when hon. Members opposite accuse me of making no concrete suggestions when the form of this Debate prevents me from doing so.

In conclusion, I make this one point briefly, because I know the Minister wants time to reply. Inflation is something that hon. Members should understand very well. To inflate a balloon air is blown into it, and it goes up, and up, and up, and if one does not stop pumping air in it bursts. The economy of this country is exactly like that: it is being constantly inflated by having too much money pumped into it by the Government, and the people who have been hurt most by that pumping are the lowest paid workers.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

I will not detain the House for very long, but I do want to say that the Opposition seem to have missed the entire purpose of this Debate. One of the things we are trying to bring home to the Opposition is brought out excellently in "Lloyds Bank Review," which gives the old solution to the problem which the Opposition would use if this country were silly enough to put them into power. For the first time in history full, employment creates a problem, and under the old laissez-faire system, in which the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) got to the top of the tree——

Mr. Leather

No, Sir. I have never advocated laissez-faire, and the hon. Member knows it.

Mr. Davies

Under the old laissez-faire system of society we had to have the trade union movement struggling for the best wages it could possibly get.

Mr. Leather

Would the hon. Gentleman——

Mr. Davies

I usually give way, but I cannot tonight as I want to speak only for about three minutes so that we may hear the Minister.

Mr. Leather

I am not a Liberal: I am only sitting on their benches.

Mr. Davies

The second point that the hon. Gentleman must discover is this: That the capitalist system of society has been weighed in the balance and found wanting; it has died all over the world.

Mr. Leather


Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman says "Nonsense." Because of the fear of Japanese and German competition, hon. Members opposite have asked us to use non-capitalist methods to protect us from that competition. We on this side of the House are the only ones in the most difficult transitional period in the history of mankind who have tried to meet this problem. We simply say that some system of concerted wages policy is needed in this transitional period. All we are asking is that, without taking from the authority of the trade union movement and without impinging on its excellent work, we might set up an inquiry into this problem of the wages of the lower paid workers. May we, when we are considering that problem, know the answer which is given by the bankers? An article by Mr. S. R. Dennison in last month's "Lloyds Bank Review" states: The existence of over-full employment is, indeed, the dominating element in the problem of wages. The need for a 'wages policy' arises because of the determination to keep unemployment down to a minimum … Then comes his answer: It is impossible to say by how much the objective of maintaining the maximum possible level of employment would have to be modified in order to make these problems capable of solution, but there are grounds for believing that only a slight rise from the present level of unemployment, which is 1.8 per cent. of insured workers, would make an appreciable difference"— in solving most of this problem. In other words, that is the only answer which the Opposition have to give in this period of full employment.

Tonight we have heard the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) say that the wage rate for an engine driver is £9 a week, when the basic rate is £6 18s.

Mr. Black (Wimbledon)

He did not say that.

Mr. Davies

It was stated, and whoever repeated it, should have taken the trouble to find out the facts. All that we ask the Minister tonight is whether it is a practical suggestion to have some investigation into this problem of the underpaid worker in a period of full employment, which is being maintained in England and nowhere else in the world at the present moment.

10.8 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

I am afraid that I cannot give much help to the House tonight for this reason. At five minutes past eight, I received a message that on the Adjournment would be raised the Motion which appeared on the Order Paper for Friday last and which was not reached. I got here at 8.20 p.m. after the Debate had started, and I had no opportunity to look at any of the papers that I had prepared for that Motion on Friday. After sitting here for a couple of hours, I have not heard the Motion referred to. We have been all round the world and talked of all sorts of things; we have had some interesting contributions, some very funny ones, and some which were difficult to understand.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) has gone out of the Chamber. He told us about woolly-headed thinking, and I want to say that he has done a little muddle-headed speaking. He has talked about working-class history. He may have read about it from books but some of us have taken part in these things. It is no good his saying that all the good conditions which the workers have today are due to Conservative Governments because I am old enough to remember the fight for the dockers' "tanner," and that the member of my union worked 70 hours to earn a £1 a week in Fleet Street.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster) rose——

Mr. Isaacs

The hon. Member has not trouble to be here to listen to the Debate, but has come into the House only in the last five minutes.

Mr. Nabarro

I have been here all the evening.

Mr. Isaacs

Do not provoke me to retort. The hon. Member has not been here, and that is a direct challenge. For those of us who remember the fights we had—I remember the fight we had to get an extra "tanner" for our people—it does not do well for someone who has only just come into this House to preach to us about the value of the Conservative Party to the trade union movement.

The hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather), in spite of some of the wide things he said, made a good contribution to the Debate. If I understood him correctly, his point was that earnings based upon production are a good thing for the community, because it does not matter how high wages go, as production goes up with them. We have more systems of payments by result than ever before. They are growing in extent and are more popular these days, because when a price has been fixed for the job, the employers do not try to cut it down when a man makes good pay out of it. In the old days, when I was working on book-binding, I found that when I started to earn more, the rate was cut down, because there was no union to protect us. There is a better response now on the part of employers. Having fixed the rate, they stand by that rate. Instead of envying the man who is getting a big rate, they encourage him because it is to their advantage to do so.

Mr. Leather

I entirely agree with what the Minister says, and I support him. Would he not agree, however, that this process of development has been due to the employers and trade unions? Does he not consider that they are responsible for this happy state of affairs and not this Government or any other Government? Does he not agree that this happy state of affairs has been brought about under a free enterprise system?

Mr. Isaacs

I have already indicated how wide we have got from the Motion that was on the Order Paper, which I thought we were discussing. It is a fact that the activities of the trade unions, assisted from time to time by legislation, such as fair wages contracts, have enabled us to build up a good industrial relationship in this country. Whatever may be our opinions, and whatever the strictures of my hon. Friends may be about low wages, there have been no strictures on industrial relations in this country, which are the best in any country in the world.

Let me come now to the hon. Member who opened the Debate. He did not get very far with his speech before Mr. Deputy-Speaker reminded him that we could not do this and that without legislation. He avoided using the word "legislation," but went on to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should undertake a survey, and that we could establish a wages system through the wages councils. He also said that we could give a lead by increasing wages in the nationalised industries. The Government cannot increase wages through the wages councils. They are completely free and independent. The Minister has no authority to say what wages are paid, and, as far as the nationalised industries are concerned, the Government are definitely not the body to whom applications for wages have to be made. The nationalisation Acts make it clear that the nationalised industries must negotiate with their workers, or their representatives, on all questions of wages and working conditions.

It is not my business, nor is it my duty, to deal with a number of points which have been brought forward, because many of them involve the Treasury and the Board of Trade more than the Ministry of Labour. I doubt the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) that there are two million fully employed workers whose earnings do not reach £5 a week. He said "earnings" and not "wages." I know that there are a number of industries, some of them among the wage council industries, where there is an adult minimum wage of less than £5 a week. A number of them, however, by incentives and bonuses are paid more, but the fact remains there are those wages and it is not for the Minister to say, "You must pay up to £5 a week."

One of the dangers of the Government interfering in wages and fixing a definite minimum is that so often a minimum wage becomes a maximum. Many of my colleagues in this House who have actually negotiated these wages—not studied them at some school or college—will remember that when a minimum was fixed that often became a maximum. What opportunity has any trade union to come forward and seek an increase of wages for men getting £5 a week when the answer will be, "The Government says £5 a week is enough and why should you ask for more?" There are dangers from that.

We had another interesting suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough. He picked on something that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is alleged to have said. I do not say that he did say it or he did not; I did not hear it. It is with reference to the Government increasing the wages of the underpaid workers, and that £200 million ought to be available for wage increases so that, the Chancellor is supposed to have said, wages could be standardised on the £5 level. But what about the variations on the way up the scale? Suppose the Chancellor gives £200 million or £50 million for increased wages, and that is to be shared between the various organisations. I should like to be at the meeting of the Trades Union Congress when it is decided what part shall be given to this industry and what part to the other industry. When doing my old job I should not like to have been told, "There is a million pounds to spread amongst your own members. How are you going to share it?" I would have promptly resigned and asked for another man to do the job. These things do not happen that way.

What the Government think is that the present system with all its faults and defects—and there are some—is the best. We are obliged to leave to industry the fixing of its own wages and working conditions. We have provided, through the Ministry of Labour, a system of conciliation, arbitration, negotiation and services that are unparalleled in the world, and we are able to give assistance to those bodies which have formed conclusions. If we are faced with a decision of the Government taken in the House of Commons that there is to be a certain fixed minimum wage, then our interference would be suspect by those people who do not want to pay up to the £5 minimum, and those people who want more than the £5 minimum.

So far as the question of the so-called "wage-freeze" is concerned, it has been made clear all along by the Government that there would be no objection to increases for lower paid workers. In fact, the Government raised no objections to the increases that have been made. A number of increases were given during that period, and it is to the credit of the trade unions, their responsibility to their members as well as to the feeling of enterprise in their leaders, that many of them have completely suspended their wage applications and many of them have modified the applications they have made. Some cases have gone to the National Arbitration Tribunal, and the Tribunal has seen fit in some cases to give increases, an indication that there has been no attempt to guide that Tribunal as to whether they should or should not give increases in wages. They have been free and independent and they gave some such increases.

Mr. Blackburn

Wages on the average in my constituency have gone up during the so-called "wage freeze." Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the term "wage freeze" is entirely a misnomer because the Government want wages and production to go up at the same time?

Mr. Isaacs

That is quite so. It is one of those unfortunate phrases which come into common currency like that insulting and offensive phrase coined between the wars. When a man was drawing unemployment benefit he was referred to as being "on the dole," because a newspaper used that phrase on one occasion and it kept recurring. There is no wage freeze. In fact, I remember at a meeting of a big miners' organisation when somebody was complaining about the wage freeze, one of the miners said, "Would you rather have your wages frozen under a Labour Government or paralysed under a Tory Government?" He preferred freezing because it was always possible to thaw out afterwards. If he got paralysis, he could do nothing about it at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) said—and I am sorry he used this one sentence—that we must get away from the complacent attitude of "leave it to both sides of industry," because that was out of date in this country. It is not complacency on our part. It is done because we think it is the best method of doing it. We do not think the method is out of date. If we are not to leave this matter to the free negotiation of the unions and the employers, and if we were to put something else in its place, we could only do so by legislation. We cannot discuss legislation at this moment but I can say definitely that the Government have no intention of introducing legislation to upset the wage system now operating.

There has been a suggestion that we should conduct an inquiry. The suggestion was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, and it was pretty wide. He wanted it to cover production costs, materials, overhead charges, selling prices and so on. That is a pretty wide scope to take for the purpose of deciding whether lower paid workers should have an increase in wages.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I have known my right hon. Friend for many years and I have worked with him. I always found him very fair. He ought to be fair in this matter and recognise that it was not the Motion which was being considered, and that it would have been out of order if we had asked for legislation. We had to confine ourselves to what was in order, namely, to ask for an investigation into what legislative action could be taken.

Mr. Isaacs

I hope that my hon. Friend does not think that I was speaking to him in terms of rebuke. I was not. I was simply saying that should we desire to replace the present system by another system, it would probably require legislation. We should not be in order in discussing legislation tonight. Several of my hon. Friends have referred to the need for an inquiry. I would ask them to recall the great effort that has been made by the leaders of our trade "unions to gather support for the wage standstill at the present moment. They have been fairly successful, but it is true that the strength of the support that they have is not now so strong as it was at the beginning. For us to turn round and say now that we want to institute an inquiry into the system of calculating wages would be rather throwing cold water on their efforts to support the Government in their policy of wage restraint.

In any event, I could never engage in such a movement as that. Neither this Government nor any other Government could do so without first ascertaining the views of industry, and not only the views of the trade unions. It is my great privilege to take the chair at the National Joint Advisory Council, where we have the leading employers of the country as well as the leaders of the trade unions. I would not contemplate giving the slightest hint of such an investigation without discussing the matter with those employers. Those employers are as anxious to maintain the right to negotiate wages with their workers as the workers are to negotiate with their employers. I could not possibly give any kind of indication of support to proposals such as have been made.

A point of some value from the Debate is that attention has been drawn to these low-paid workers. It brings in its train other things. I will not name the industry, but I know one which has been in the public mind in recent months in which certain workers are somewhat below the £5 level. If we look upon that as a basic line we have to remember that between these men and those who are above the line there are three or four stages. There- fore, if we move these men up to £5, the man who is at present getting £5 and is taking on a job with far more responsibility will say, "I am not going to do this job with all this extra responsibility without some extra pay." So we begin to go right up the scale of differentials, and we cannot avoid that.

Whether it is good or bad, there is another factor which is of great importance at the moment. This has come to a head quite definitely in one great industry where it is being put forward as a principle. It is that the wage of the unskilled worker has come too close to that of the highly skilled worker. The highly skilled worker has some justification for saying, "If I am to serve a five, six or seven years' apprenticeship at a very low remuneration and not get a standard wage until I am 21 and at the same time I see my school friend who has gone in as an unskilled worker and does not serve an apprenticeship getting a much better wage as an unskilled labourer than I am as an apprentice, and then at the end of the time I shall only get a few shillings more than my friend, why should I trouble to be an apprentice?" That has had some effect on the apprenticeship system of the country.

Therefore, though we have the greatest desire in the world to raise the wages of the lower paid workers, we have to remember the differentials all up the scale, and at the same time we have to remember that we may do some danger to the apprenticeship system if we make it appear to the young fellow that he will do better as an unindentured worker than as an indentured worker.

Those are the problems which are exercising our minds. They are the kind of problems that the Ministry of Labour, through the Minister, are continually discussing with the responsible officials of the trade unions. The unions come to us and explain their problems; we go to them and draw attention to the ideas of the Government on these matters. There is a constant coming to and fro between us", and although that constant movement may be more frequent now than it was in the past, in the days when I was on the other side of the fence acting for a trade union, when a different Government was in power, I had just the same freedom of access to the Ministry of Labour and was always able to go to them and get their advice and assistance on these matters. The Ministry of Labour exists to do this job for industry irrespective of whoever may be in office at the time.

I have to finish with what I said earlier. That is, that I cannot give any undertaking about any such inquiry. I should only be willing to take any steps when I found willingness on the part of the industrial leaders that any such movement should be considered. I emphasise again that the Government are satisfied that by the present system of leaving industries to work out their own wages system we are not only doing the best for industry and for the State, but we are giving a great lead to other nations—especially some of those where wages are fixed by Government decree, which we want to avoid—than by having regular Debates in the House of Commons, day by day, and week by week, as to whether an industry should have an increase in wages or not.

I have said that I could not answer some points because they were not the concern of my Ministry and I have had no notice of them. Subject to that, I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied with what I have been able to say. As I have said, I am satisfied that the Debate has served a useful purpose.

Mr. Blackburn

May we take it that, while accepting the qualification which my right hon. Friend made at the end of his speech, so far as the workers with under £5 a week are concerned, the Ministry is discussing these matters as and when opportunity occurs with the trade union movement?

Mr. Isaacs

No, Sir. The Ministry does not in the slightest degree discuss what wages should be.

Mr. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

Is it not the case that the fixing of a minimum wage is the function of the trade union movement and of the employers and not of the Government, and that if the Government will keep out of it, unless they are invited jointly by the employers and the workers it will be far better for the industry concerned?

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.