HC Deb 19 December 1968 vol 775 cc1534-41
1. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs what progress has been made in the last month in the consultations with the National Economic Development Council over the planning document he is preparing for discussion with that Council.

6. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs having regard to the revised economic policies announced on 22nd November, 1968, what amendments he now proposes in his revised economic plan for early publication.

7. Mr. Peyton

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs at what intervals he intends to publish statements of the economic prospects.

15. Mr. Biffen

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs if he will now state a date when he expects to conclude his discussions on the new planning document with the National Economic Development Council.

16. Mr. Hordern

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs if he will now state what he expects to conclude his discussions on the new planning document with the National Economic Development Council.

18. Mr. Lane

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs whether he has yet placed before the National Economic Development Council a planning document assessing the economic prospect up to 1972; and if he will make a statement.

19. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs whether he will confine the number of alternative forecasts of the economic prospects until 1972 to one.

23. Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs if he will make a further statement on the progress of his national planning document.

32. Mr. Ridsdale

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs if he will make a further statement on the progress of his national planning document.

34. Mr. Higgins

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs what was the result of his discussion with the National Economic Development Council on the new national planning document.

40. Mr. Dickens

asked the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs if he will make a statement on the new planning document now in course of preparation.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Frederick Lee)

The draft planning document prepared by officials as a basis for discussion by the National Economic Development Council was circulated to members on Monday, 2nd December. It assessed the economic prospect to 1972 in terms of a range of possibilities for economic growth. The draft was not finalised until after 22nd November, 1968, and was, therefore, able to take account of measures announced on that day.

We have had two very good discussions of this draft in the Council; a half-day meeting on Wednesday, 11th December followed by an all-day meeting on Sunday, 15th December. The discussion covered a number of major issues of economic policy, including the priority to be given to the balance of payments, the prospect for the growth of output and employment and the role of private investment and prospects in individual industries.

The Council asked for further work to be done on certain questions which arose in these discussions. This work should be completed in time for further discussion at the next meeting of the Council in January. Ministers will consider the question of publication when their discussions with the Council are concluded.

Mr. Marten

May I send my good wishes and those of the whole House to the Secretary of State for a speedy and complete recovery from his illness?

As the planning document has now been fully described in the Financial Times, is it not patently absurd, in view of the fact that the Government have appointed a Paymaster-General to increase the participation of the public in the national decision-making of the country, that the same Government should refuse to make this document available? Will the Government publish or be damned?

Mr. Lee

We will certainly not be damned, anyway. I have already said that the document has been produced by officials for discussion at the N.E.D.C. Those discussions are described in my main Answer. We are now working on further papers which we have been asked to produce in time for the January meeting. That meeting will determine whether or not we can get full agreement and, when we have seen how that goes, we can look at the point raised by the hon. Gentleman about publication.

Mr. Peyton

On the question of making forecasts, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that he and his Department would be much better employed going over their past, seeing how wrong their forecasts have been and learning from the deplorable results of those mistakes a degree of modesty which might lead them to refrain from misleading every-body in future?

Mr. Lee

If hon. Members on both sides of the House were to spend their time going back on the ghosts of Christmas past they would not feel too happy about the results. We are now producing a document, which I have described, on a completely new basis and we are confident of the results.

Mr. Hordern

The right hon. Gentleman has still not answered a most important question. Why is it that these proposals and this plan have not been put before the House? Is it true that earnings are to be restricted to an annual average increase of 3½per cent.?

Mr. Lee

Hon. Gentlemen opposite are schizophrenic about this. One of them wants us to be damned, while some of them want us to go on and produce the document. If only they would make up their minds. To answer the hon. Gentleman's question about the rate of growth, I am not responsible for what appears in the newspapers. I simply said that we are discussing a wide range of possibilities, and that is the fact.

Mr. Lane

Is it true that the document holds out no hope at all for a reduction in the present burden of taxation before 1972? Would the right hon. Gentleman at least undertake to place a Green Paper before the House after the January meeting so that hon. Members have something to be going on with?

Mr. Lee

I said that, in preparation for the January meeting, we are now preparing papers which were asked for at the last meeting of the Council. Those papers will then be analysed and discussed at the meeting; and, at that stage, we will be able to decide whether or not they can be produced. I assure hon. Members that I am taking the feeling of the House and that I do not necessarily dissent from it.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Hordern)? How do the Government expect to be able to contain the rate of advance in wages during the coming period below the levels achieved during the period of compulsory wage and prices policy?

Mr. Lee

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear in his Budget strategy that the balance of payments really must be brought into surplus. This is something that we thoroughly intend to do in the next year.

The answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, which was concerned with living standards, will depend on the rate of growth, and that is going ahead quite well now. I do not see any inconsistency between this and what I have said, which is that we believe that the rate of growth as we are now seeing it will permit of a steady improvement in the standard of living.

Mr. Ridsdale

Does the National Plan say when we will get into surplus, what growth rate we can expect and what level of unemployment is expected over the next year?

Mr. Lee

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose pessimism about unemployment I do not share, has seen today's figures, which are very good indeed for the fourth month in succession. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer".] I have already answered the point by saying that I am not committed to a particular growth rate and that we are working on a number of growth rates.

Mr. Higgins

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) in extending good wishes to the Secretary of State.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it does no good whatever for him to stand at the Dispatch Box telling us that he is not responsible for what appears in the newspapers on this subject? Will he make it plain just who is responsible? Does he appreciate that it does no good for him to rely on Press leaks, either, and that we want this document published so that we may know what is going on and what the document actually says? Will he sec that that is done as quickly as possible?

Mr. Lee

I would answer the hon. Gentleman's question about Press leaks by telling him to render unto Mr. Keegan the things that are Mr. Keegan's.

Mr. Dickens

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a broad common desire for this planning document to be published so that there may be the widest possible discussion of it in 1969? Does he recognise that the first priority in such a document should be the need for a 6 per cent. rate of economic growth in 1969 and subsequently and that a document which is founded on a 3½ per cent. growth rate is not worth the paper on which it is written?

Mr. Lee

I have assured the House on three occasions that we are not confined to any specific rate of growth which may have appeared in a newspaper. I accept the need for wide dialogue on this matter. We are doing precisely that in the N.E.D.C. We then intend to discuss these matters in the little N.E.D.C.s with each of the industries—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot have it both ways. We are trying to get as wide a dialogue as possible with industry, a dialogue which, up to now, with the C.B.I. and T.U.C., has been far and away more constructive than anything I have had this afternoon with hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Barnett

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while none of us objects to him having consultations with industry, we object strongly to him ignoring the House of Commons? Will he therefore agree and concede now to publish as a White Paper, Green Paper or Yellow Paper the documents which he has submitted to the N.E.D.C. so that we may have consultations, too? Will he also tell his right hon. Friend that it is not only my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens) who will find totally unacceptable a 3½ per cent. rate of growth and that if we are to have any growth rate at all it must be a much higher one than that? Will he—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief.

Mr. Barnett

I was just about to conclude my supplementary question, Mr. Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend say whether he is basing this policy on needing a£500 million balance of payments surplus and, if so, for how many years he has such a surplus in mind?

Mr. Lee

Questions concerning the continuity of surpluses of this type must be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept what I said earlier; that this document was produced by officials for discussion within the N.E.D.C. One cannot present to Parliament a document which is not in any way finalised—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am explaining why—and which has not yet even been discussed adequately with our colleagues in the N.E.D.C. When we have completed that stage, the question of publication will arise. I have said—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Hon. Members


Mr. Lee

Hon. Members are entitled to ask questions. I am entitled to give the answers.

I have explained that we are not saying that there is no hope of the document being published. We should like to see that point arise, but we must have some- thing through which the N.E.D.C. can discuss these matters. [Interruption.] We must have a document which has been accepted and agreed by ourselves and our colleagues in the N.E.D.C.

Mr. Iain Macleod

Would the right hon. Gentleman undertake to put personally to the Prime Minister the very strong feeling that clearly there is on both sides of the House about the question of publication? Does he realise that the danger is of creating an entirely new category? If this is to be a private paper for the N.E.D.C, we can understand that, but in that case there should have been no Press conference and no leaks. This House has a right to be informed in front of the Press on matters of this importance.

Mr. Lee

I do not disagree with one word uttered by the right hon. Gentleman. Certainly, on the question of publication, I will discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. I must not be interpreted as saying that we are opposed to the document's publication. I have not said that.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about Press leaks, when he was in Ministerial office there were Press leaks as well. [Interruption.] What I have said in this respect is that this kind of paper must be given to the N.E.D.C. We have done that on a confidential basis. I cannot say from where the leaks came. When one is discussing a matter of this kind with a large body of people, certainly the Government cannot pretend—[Interruption.]—I do not know why hon. Gentlemen opposite will not listen to my answers. I have said that at this stage the document is not mete for publication because it has not been accepted.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Supplementary questions and answers should be reasonably brief. We have many Questions to get through.

Mr. Sheldon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what perturbs many people is the fact that a group of people sitting in "Chequers" are deciding the economic growth potential of this country over the next few years? Is he also aware that this is a matter of such serious importance that we must have an early debate on it and that the papers must be presented to the House so that we, too, can take part in this discussion?

Mr. Lee

The House is rightly jealous of its position in this matter. I have given an assurance that nothing that we are doing detracts from our responsibility to the House of Commons, but that we must have this dialogue with industry to make sure that that which we produce stands up when industry examines it, and that we shall then want to discuss relevant matters with the House of Commons.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Reverting to the point of substance, could not the right hon. Gentleman get either prediction or results right? What is intolerable is to get both wrong.

Mr. Lee

We are very optimistic about getting both right this time.

Mr. Marten

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest moment.