HC Deb 21 January 1965 vol 705 cc408-13

3.38 p.m.

Sir Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I hope that the House will allow me to make two major objections to taking these Supplementary Estimates "on the nod". The amount involved is £60.7 million, and I hate to see the House used as a rubber stamp merely to pass this vast sum of money. I have two reasons to objecting.

First, I put it to hon. Members on both sides that we should try to preserve the ancient rights and privileges of back benchers, irrespective of who is in the Government, against the encroachments of the Executive over rights which should belong to us. It is the greatest privilege and duty of private Members to watch over Government expenditure and to restrain taxation. We are, and we have been for hundreds of years, the watch-dogs of the taxpayer against the encroachments of the Executive.

I object to the usual channels, whatever the usual channels may be, fixing these matters without consulting back benchers on either side. It seems to me that the usual channels have become a kind of "Butskellian in-and-out club", a self-perpetuating oligarchy which does not consult private Members on their rights. It would be a tragedy for the country and for democracy as a whole if the House of Commons were to become a rubber-stamp Reichstag whose only function was dutifully to say "Yes" to whatever the Executive proposed. I want hon. Members on both sides to stand up for their liberties and rights, or one day the Executive will run us as they wish.

I am sorry that the Prime Minister has gone, because I wanted to put two points to him. First, the Prime Minister himself has been in the House, as I have, since 1945, but he has never been a back bencher He has always been either in office or in a "shadow" office. Therefore, he tends to look at the position from the Executive's point of view.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

I remember when the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) spoke from these benches.

Sir C. Osborne

That must have been during his self-imposed "exile"; he was still a right hon. Gentleman and had all the privileges of being so.

Secondly, the Prime Minister today, of whichever side—I saw it on my side—enjoys enormous patronage and all that goes with it. When we were on the other side of the House we saw a very strong Suez Group which was broken up by the power of patronage. Today, we see none of the Bevanites grouped below the Gangway, because too many of them have been taken into office. My point is that the back benchers should stand up for their rights and watch the Executive in the interests of the taxpayer.

My second objection is the size and nature of the Supplementary Estimates. The sum of £60½ million is a lot of money, and to pass it "on the nod", as though it were mere petty cash, is not good enough for the taxpayers I represent. It seems that some Government Departments are seized with a sense of squandermania and feel that the importance of the Department is judged by the amount of money it can spend. I should like to have this altered. I should like to see—only back benchers can insist on it—a Scrooge-like economy in all spending Departments.

Instead of there being Supplementary Estimates three times a year, I should like the Government, at the instance of back benchers on both sides, to say "No more Supplementary Estimates. You must live within the amount of money we have given you." Indeed, it would he a good thing for the nation if we told all spending Departments that they were to have a 10 per cent. cut in their original Estimates.

In regard to these winter Supplementary Estimates, the Civil Estimates for the current year amount to £4,995 million, and already there has been a summer Supplementary Estimate for £47 million, which went through "on the nod". Now we are asked to pass, again "on the nod ", another £61 million. But there are two points to be made about these Supplementary Estimates. One is that these Estimates contain nothing from the Ministry of Defence, and that Ministry is the biggest spending Department we have. Is there any more to come from the Ministry of Defence? I should fear that there would be hundreds of millions of pounds still to come in the next Supplementary Estimates. Hon. Members should remember that there are still the spring Supplementary Estimates to come, and goodness knows how much it will all cost. The people whom we represent have to find the money through taxation, and they do not think it funny. They do not like being taxed.

Category B takes £41 million out of the £61 million, and of the £41 million £38½ million is for various Commonwealth Votes. In the last Supplementary Estimates an extra £25 million was granted for those Votes, and the amount granted already on the two Votes in Category B is double what was orginally estimated, and there is still another Supplementary Estimate to come. Is there no end to it? It is high time we said something about it.

At the risk of offending my Scottish and agricultural hon. Friends, I would point out that I see that under Category B there is a Supplementary Estimate for agricultural grants for Scotland of £2,700,000, which is an increase of 21.2 per cent. on the original Estimate. That is not very good estimating to begin with.

I protest because of the never-ending increase in Government expenditure, of which this is part. I remind hon. Members that in 1938–39 the total Civil Estimates were £900 million. Ten years ago the Estimates had grown to £4,304 million, and for the current year they have risen to £7,388 million, and still we are having Supplementary Estimates. We ought to say something about it as the representatives of our constituents. I say this is not against a Tory Government or a Labour Government in particular; it applies to both. I feel that this orgy of Government spending should be stopped, and only we back benchers can help to stop it.

Finally, the nation knows, or should know now, that its greatest problem is to learn to live within its income. We as a Parliament should set an example to the people we represent. I remind the Financial Secretary that these Estimates are based on an assumption by my right hon. Friends, when they were in power, of a 4 per cent. gross productivity increase. I do not think we shall get that. I believe we shall be very lucky if we get an increase of half that amount.

The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have said in the country many times that when they came to power they inherited a terrible economic mess. Let us face it; they based their false claim on temporary fluctuations on exports and imports and said that we were importing roughly £800 million per annum more than we were exporting. I challenge any hon. Member opposite to say that he honestly believes that we shall fill that gap by increasing our exports by that amount. If we do not, then there is only one solution—to cut down home demand.

Mr. Walter Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

Would the hon. Gentleman tell us what he would do by cutting down defence expenditure for a start?

Sir C. Osborne

If I had my way I would bring all our troops back from Germany, to begin with.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I may be reading a little fast, but I do not find in the Supplementary Estimates anything referring to defence.

Sir C. Osborne

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I was tempted and I fell. These Supplementary Estimates are more than we can afford. If the Government's diagnosis of our economic position is correct, and we are living to the extent of £800 million beyond our means, then these Supplementary Estimates should not be passed. We should say, "No more Supplementary Estimates. We have to cut spending at home."

The biggest spenders at home are the Government. If we are to get our economic position right, we must cut down Government expenditure. I am supported in this by what Mr. Paul Chambers said on Monday last, to the Bradford Textile Society. Mr. Chambers was reported as saying that …if the U.K. was to achieve a surplus in its balance of payments, home demand would have to be restricted… I also commend to the Government another passage from his speech: There can be no escape from this conclusion, and I do not believe that if the fundamental economics are wrong the situation can be remedied by having artificial incentives for exports by way of bribes, tax exemptions and so on. So we come to the position that, if we are to balance our accounts as a nation, we must spend less and not pass £60 million "on the nod" like this. I am pleading that the House should not simply let these Supplementary Estimates go through "on the nod".

We all must speak from our own experience. In the business of which I have some experience in the last three months—and I speak for the small businessmen who provide the profits which give the taxation to pay for these Supplementary Estimates—I find that confidence is slowly ebbing in the trading community. I do not say that it is panic, but confidence is slowly ebbing. Turnover is just beginning to show a tendency to fall. Overheads are certainly increasing—that is undeniable. Profit margins are considerably smaller and will be yet smaller this year. Therefore the taxes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can raise from business, to pay for these Supplementary Estimates, will not be so easily available.

It is against this background that these Supplementary Estimates must be judged. It is the height of folly to pass them "on the nod", and to laugh, as hon. Members opposite have done. We are faced with the grimmest situation we have had since 1931. We shall be very lucky not to see 1 million unemployed before the year is out. I give the House these last few figures about the difficulties facing us in exporting.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman really must confine himself to the subject matter of the Supplementary Estimates.

Sir C. Osborne

With great deference, Mr. Speaker, I understand that Supplementary Estimates have to be paid out of revenue that the Government can collect.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that point, but there must be some limit to making it a reason for discussing the entire economic situation.

Sir C. Osborne

I will bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I will not continue except to say that I wish to oppose the passing of these Supplementary Estimates "on the nod" and that I want to make my protest.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne) has exercised his undoubted rights in this way. He has shown great moral courage in doing so. We are perfectly entitled to discuss Supplementary Estimates, but the House appoints an Estimates Committee which issues a Report on Supplementary Estimates and no singular aspect or point was raised in the Report of that Committee on these Supplementary Estimates.

If this sort of opportunity is abused in the House, it will ultimately deprive the House of the right to discuss Supplementary Estimates. I am sorry that my hon. Friend has done what he has done and I hope that it will not happen again.

Question put and agreed to.