HC Deb 12 June 1956 vol 554 cc230-2
33 and 34. Mr. H. Wilson

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1) whether, in view of the continued strain to which the economic system is subject, he will now introduce legislation to enable Her Majesty's Government to control less essential building developments;

(2) whether he will now reinforce his existing policies for the support of sterling by introducing control over less essential imports.

35. Mr. Hunter

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether, with a view to strengthening the Government's financial and economic policy, he will now reintroduce building licences.

38. Sir R. Boothby

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he will introduce legislation to enable him to bring private building under control.

Mr. H. Macmillan

I made my position clear in the debate on the economic situation on 20th February. In my view these matters should be decided on practical and not on doctrinal grounds. This is the principle of the Middle Way, from which I have never swerved.

Mr. Wilson

But is the right hon. Gentleman aware, in respect of building licensing, that despite the harsh measures which he has introduced, in many directions, of monetary control, there is still an overload on the national economy, caused partly by inessential building? If he were to apply practical considerations to the matter, would he not apply control to that rather than to essential building which he has stopped?

Mr. Macmillan

There are practical considerations, and those are the ones that I have tried to apply. There is a balanced argument here. I have heard a great deal about the expenditure on petrol pumps, for example, but the actual expenditure in the last year of control was £4 million and last year was £7 million. When it is remembered that there are twice the number of cars that there were in 1939, there is a certain argument there. The total of private and miscellaneous building amounts to about 8 per cent. of the whole, but I am not denying that it might be convenient to have this weapon in our internal armoury under certain conditions. All I say is that I try to judge these matters on a practical and not a dogmatic basis.

Sir R. Boothby

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that in our present rather difficult economic situation it is not justifiable to continue to build such things as offices, dwelling-houses and petrol pumps without any limit whatsoever? Would it not really be desirable to take powers, even if they were very moderately exercised, to prevent completely wasteful expenditure?

Mr. Macmillan

Yes, Sir, but as my hon. Friend knows, and as I have said, while I do not deny that it might be useful to have this weapon in our armoury, it would require legislation and, so far as I can see, we have quite a lot of legislation to get through.

Mr. Hunter

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some newspapers which support the Government have reported that he is considering reintroducing building licences as an aid to his economic and financial policy? Are we to take it that the right hon. Gentleman's replies are a denial of those newspaper reports?

Mr. Macmillan

I have referred to what I said in the debate on 20th February, and I stick to it. I said then: I do not think that either side of the House was very much enamoured of the building control. But I have not ruled it out of my thoughts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 46.]

Mr. Wilson

Import licensing was the subject of a separate Question on the Order Paper, answered, I think, by the President of the Board of Trade; but is the Chancellor aware that, although there has been a small improvement in our gold and dollar reserves, that improvement has taken place during an extremely favourable time in world markets in which other countries have been increasing their reserves very much faster? Would the right hon. Gentleman not think it right in these conditions, facing difficulties perhaps later in the year, to introduce at any rate a small measure of import control in addition to what he already has in operation?

Mr. Macmillan

One has to remember that about one-fifth of our imports are today subject to licensing restriction. When I am told that this is a kind of contest between laisser-faire and dirigisme, it is worth while remembering that one-fifth of our imports are controlled, that one cannot borrow £10,000 in the market without Treasury permission and that hire purchase is controlled. We have a large measure of control, as a modern Government must have, over parts of the economy. We must remember also that internal controls are one thing, but when we consider the question of plunging in, regardless of all that has been done in the last ten years to free trade and to liberalise trade throughout the world, I think that it is a very big question as to whether we should rashly jump into import rationing on a wide scale.

Mr. Wilson

Whilst welcoming at any rate this change of tone on the part of the Chancellor, if not a change of heart, may I ask whether he will recall that, when this point has been raised before, his colleagues have always replied that any amount of import licensing would involve rationing, even when we have proposed controls over the most inessential dollar imports? Since the right hon. Gentleman now maintains, as he admits, this panoply of control over imports, without rationing, will he not consider the directions in which he could profitably expand it?

Mr. Macmillan

My position is exactly as I said on 20th February, when we debated this matter at great length. If I had the slightest temptation to take a more optimistic view because of the rise in reserves and the benefits of the trade situation, I should be corrected by he eternal pessimism of the right hon. Gentleman.