HC Deb 16 January 1976 vol 903 cc872-86

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

I beg to move, That this House, concerned at the relentless erosion of personal liberty, deplores the narrowing of the citizen's choice on every hand, whether in education, in medical treatment or in country sports; and draws attention to the need to recognise the danger of state control, the tyranny of uniformity and the threat to the freedom of society before it is too late. I did not think that time would be available for this motion, so I am very happy to be able to put forward a few thoughts on this subject and to express my sincere gratitude to the Under-Secretary for being here. I am aware that she has a very heavy work load.

This week the House has devoted three full days to debating devolution, a subject of great fascination to Scottish and Welsh Members but of considerable boredom to English Members. But I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for the speech she made in that debate. She said: I believe that it is no accident that the demand for devolution has come after a period in which Government powers have increased, are increasing and look like continuing to increase. She also said: I believe that the true demands of the people are not merely for the distribution of powers from central Government to other Government bodies or Assemblies but for a more fundamental dispersal, returning more of the decisions directly to the people."—[Official Report, 13th January 1976; Vol. 903, c. 230.] I would also like to see more decisions returned directly to the people. Hardly a week passes without some fresh restriction being put on the way our constituents go about their daily business. So much of the restriction is frustrating and unnecessary and much current legislation is uncalled for. I was brought up to believe that he governs best who governs least.

I was greatly heartened by the recent announcement of the new Prime Minister of Australia, who said it was his prime aim to get government off the backs of the people. He said he hoped that the great Australian public would be practically unconscious of the existence of his administration. I salute that Prime Minister and wish him well. I cannot help feeling a slight twinge of envy for our good friends in Australia.

One of the problems is that we in this House live too close to what is happening. One measure follows another. No sooner has a Bill left the Chamber and gone upstairs to be debated in Committee than a new Bill comes in on the conveyor belt. We tend to grow insensitive and punch drunk with it all. It is only after a long absence that the full impact of this change really registers. An Englishman returning from a spell abroad today is disturbed not so much by our economic malaise as by diminished freedom on every hand.

I visited a newly-built borstal on one occasion. It was a magnificent place with fine playing fields and workshops and with separate but identical chapels for Church of England and Roman Catholic boys. The whole place was bright and clean, cheerful and comfortable, and I wondered how different it was from the traditional place of punishment. I questioned the governor about it and he explained that unless one had served a term of imprisonment oneself or had been a prisoner of war one could not hope to understand the full meaning of the deprivation of liberty.

The penalty at that borstal was not the treatment meted out but simply and solely—and painfully—the loss of freedom. At the time I had some difficulty in understanding that point. Now, some 10 years later, I find it less difficult. It is no longer necessary to have served a term of imprisonment to be able to appreciate the significance of the deprivation of liberty.

Some of our trouble stems from the fact that the Government themselves are controlled by an extra-parliamentary institution. Some Labour Members would agree—perhaps not publicly—that the Government themselves are prisoners, a sort of wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade union movement. Four-fifths of the Labour Party's money comes from the trade unions; four-fifths of the voting power which controls the sovereign body is in the hands of the trade unions. It is profoundly wrong in principle that a great national party should be controlled by an outside interest in this way.

The relevance of that to my debate is that if the Government are prisoners, it is small wonder that the freedom of the citizen is ill defended. Governments are there to govern. If they are to dance to anyone's tune, it should be the tune played by those who cast their vote in the ballot box. I do not believe that many would claim that this is happening today.

Perhaps I can give some examples. The first is the £6 pay limit. We do not need to be economists to realise that the time when output is plummeting and costs are rocketing is not the moment for a whopping increase all round. Yet £6 was the minimum which Mr. Jack Jones and his colleagues would agree to. Another equally remarkable illustration is the so-called "lump". A Statutory Instrument is to come before the House next week requiring the small building contractor to append his photograph to a series of documents at the behest of the Treasury. That is an infringement of the liberty of the individual if ever there was one. The stated intention of this provision is to reduce tax avoidance, but every hon. Member knows that this measure is designed to facilitate a greater solidarity among building unions. If government is a prisoner, who is there to defend the liberty of the subject?

When we drive home to our constituencies tonight we shall be liable to prosecution if we exceed the 50 mph speed limit. If that were imposed on safety grounds that would be fair enough, but it is not. Instead, it has something to do with economics and fuel conservation. I think it is a ridiculous restriction. The price of a gallon of petrol is such that there is little incentive to drive at unreasonable speeds. However, the Government have said that 50 mph it shall be.

In fact, transport is a great offender. The present Minister for Transport sought to engrave his name on the roll of fame with the wonderful idea that all motorists should have their headlights on in built-up areas, regardless of how sufficient the street lighting might be and regardless of the strain that would be placed on the motorist's battery. That was to be done without so much as the by-your-leave of this House. Fortunately the House revolted and the idea was withdrawn. That is as it should be, but here was a case of creating the pattern and fitting the citizen into it later as an afterthought.

The Under-Secretary's commanding officer, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, behaved with uncharacteristic insensitivity over the television licence affair. He appeared to take the stance "That is what I say, that is what you will do". The only person who came out of that business with enhanced stature was a little-known solicitor, Mr. Congreve. I have never met Mr. Congreve but I gladly salute him for his independence of spirit. Indeed, I gladly promote him to the platform alongside the Prime Minister of Australia.

I am afraid that a number of senior Ministers share in this process of eroding our freedom. I notice that the Secretary of State for Social Services returns today from the Middle East. The right hon. Lady has been spending her Christmas Recess in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. You will find it difficult to believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but she has been advising those countries on how to run a health service.

In the Army I remember that there was an officer who had the rare qualification of speaking fluent Persian. The powers-that-be wasted no time at all; they posted that officer straight away to Iceland. There he spent the rest of his war. I can think of no more unsuitable emissary for the Government to send to the Middle East to advise on the running of a health service than the right hon. Lady. Our own service has witnessed a grave in-infringement of personal liberty. Why should not a patient choose to spend his money, if he wishes, on privacy in a hospital rather than on, for example, a colour television set? Why should not a consultant, if he so wishes, continue to practice privately? What sort of political dogma is it that deprives the National Health Service of approximately £40 million a year and which on the first day of the current month introduced increased charges for dental treatment and for spectacles to recoup about £16 million a year?

The same curious Alice-in-Wonderland stance applies in education. Parents find that their choice is ever more tightly confined. We see the grammar schools being destroyed and the direct grant

schools disappearing. A high-quality teacher-training college in my constituency which was established in 1841 is now threatened with closure. Are we prepared to discourage the abler child and to lower standards? It seems that families must make do with what the State thinks is good for them.

I am also troubled—I think that this applies to other hon. Members—about the Press. How can this country remain free unless the Press remains free? Yet the flame of freedom in that sensitive quarter flickers most dangerously today. On two fronts the Press is threatened. It is threatened with extinction by bankruptcy. The prime cause of this is overmanning. Each newspaper carries hundreds more staff than are needed. If steps are taken to remedy this, the counter-threat is immediate industrial action, which itself could prove fatal. However, no newspaper editor dare publish in his columns a description of this very sensitive, very difficult internal problem.

On the other front concerning the Press, what is being done by the Government to the freedom of editors and journalists by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill? If any hon. Member is uncertain of the answer to that question, let him ask Lord Goodman. Lord Goodman will be only too happy to explain.

No few words on personal liberty could omit a reference to private property. It has always been recognised that to acquire private property, be it a flat, house, a farm or another sort of home, is one of the ways in which people can secure a degree of independence. In this way the citizen can free himself from pressure of immediate need. He can free himself from dependence upon the State. Yet step by step this avenue of freedom is being impeded—by taxation, by regulation, by powers of confiscation and by the capital transfer tax and the Community Land Act. A proposal is now being debated in Standing Committee whereby the relative of a tenant farmer is to be accorded automatic succession to the farm without so much as a reference or a by-your-leave to the person who owns the land.

I think that a great many Labour Members would agree that there is at present a considerable curtailment of personal freedom, but I believe that they would justify this on the ground that it is a sacrifice which must be made in order to achieve a fairer society. They would claim that it is something which is in the interests of what is called social justice. There is in fact a profound gulf here set between the two sides of the House, because Socialism seeks equality and equality really is a will-o'-the-wisp—two men are equal at breakfast time and they are unequal at lunch time. But many Socialists seek to impose equality, and that sort of equality is a tyranny and the enemy of freedom.

Of course there must be equality before the law and in the sight of God. We all accept that. However, this does not imply that all inequalities are unjust. People and groups of people differ, in character and in ability. I for one, rather than regret, welcome such variety.

I know that Aristotle is considered rather out of date now, but it was he who said Injustice arises as much from treating unequals equally as from treating equals unequally. I do not accept that it is the function of the State to eliminate these differences of habit and of culture on the ground that they are what is called socially divisive. All too often nowadays we hear attacks on what is called privilege or elitism, and all too often those very attacks are themselves an assertion of total privilege for one set of ideas or of one elite.

Moreover, the price of egalitarianism is a very heavy one indeed. Taxation policies which take away too much can only result in an unwillingness to work and to take risks. The economic decline which follows harms not only those who shoulder the main burden of taxation. It harms the poor, the weak and the unfortunate, who suffer more than anyone else. We see something of this happening today.

Nations which have pursued equality as their foremost objective have very soon lost their liberty, and yet those same nations display immense inequalities in power and privilege among their citizens.

More and more aspects of our everyday life fall under State control. An Englishman returning from abroad after 10 years must rub his eyes with disbelief. Whatever yardstick is chosen, the story is the same.

Fifty years ago, when Britain administered half the world, the Civil Service—leaving out the Post Office and the dockyards—numbered about 100,000 persons. Today the Civil Service exceeds 700,000 persons. This is not the fault basically of civil servants. This is the fault of Governments.

Let us take the yardstick of public expenditure. What proportion of our gross national product does public expenditure account for today? In 1913 it was 13 per cent. In 1950 it had rocketed to 42 per cent. By 1970 it had reached 50 per cent. Today it is 60 per cent. I find that a most alarming figure.

More and more of our daily life is being controlled by the whim and power of the State. With each Act of nationalisation the process goes a step further. We suffer economically, we become less competitive and—this is far more damaging —our liberty suffers too.

In the Soviet Union the butcher, the baker, the publican, the taxi driver and the corner shopkeeper are all employees of the State. In Britain the private sector is shrinking fast, and as it does so the State becomes increasingly the employer and the master.

The Englishman gets home in the evening, having given his working day to the National Coal Board, the gas board, the Post Office or whichever of the national corporations it may be. He switches on the television in order to relax and finds that three-quarters of the advertisements are from one or other Department of State.

I look forward to the day when we shall have a Government, of whatever complexion, which will undertake a major dismantling operation; a Government which will rescind unnecessary regulations and restrictions; a Government which will encourage individual effort by reducing the disincentive of taxation; a Government which will discourage Ministers from vying with one another to get Acts of Parliament on to the statute book; a Government which will restore to the citizen the sense of liberty which has been taken from him.

If the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State can accelerate that day, she will have my support.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Today, we are discussing those subjects that hon. Members who have been successful in the Ballot have selected. I confess that I expected the House to spend the whole day debating smoking and health. The question of freedom arises there—the freedom of people to smoke and to injure themselves in the process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) on being first in the Ballot. We have had a very good debate, and I am pleased that the Government are approaching the problem as they are. Although we must allow people to be free to smoke if they wish, it is incumbent upon the Government to draw attention to the dangers of smoking. There is a definite correlation between smoking and cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, emphysema and other ailments.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) on coming second in the Ballot and being fortunate enough to have time in which to move his motion, although he will appreciate that I disagree with much of the motion and with what he said today speaking to it. The great feature of British democracy is that hon. Members may disagree fundamentally across the Floor of the House and still be on speaking terms afterwards. The hon. Member for Salisbury and I have pairing arrangements, although they do not arise very often in this busy parliamentary Session.

The hon. Member for Salisbury has raised the issue of personal liberty and freedom, but we must speak of many freedoms. There is freedom of speech—the fact that anyone in this House can move such a motion and say what he wishes against the Government of the day and the fact that the Government have to go back to the people and seek re-election at the next General Election. We fought for this freedom and we cherish it. Then there is freedom from fear, about which the late President Roosevelt spoke during the depression which beset his country. I shall return to that in a moment.

When we try to make comparisons between the freedoms that people have today, we must have something with which to compare them. I shall not go back to Aristotle. Although he and Socrates were great Greek philosophers, they lived in a slave society. They did not have very much real democracy. The growth of democracy does not stem from the city states in Greece. It is of more recent origin. It was only fairly recently that we gave women the vote. What is more, many working people were denied the right to vote not all that long ago.

Then there is freedom from want. That is very important, and I shall return to it briefly later in my remarks. There is religious freedom, the freedom to worship God as we wish, or to be agnostic or atheist if we wish.

The hon. Member for Salisbury spoke of the freedom of the Press. I was instrumental in suggesting to the Prime Minister that he set up a Royal Commission on the Press, because there is no doubt that there are certain financial difficulties now facing our newspaper industry. But when we talk about freedom of the Press, we must also talk about freedom of access to the Press. It is not good for democracy that we have a concentration of newspaper ownership in a very few hands. That is why I hope that the interim report of the Royal Commission will consider the financial problems facing Fleet Street.

I hope that it will also look at the need for allowing our large political organisations means whereby they can express themselves. The Labour Party, for instance, does not have a newspaper in Fleet Street—

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Before I became old enough to have the vote, surely there was the Daily Herald, which reflected Labour Party opinion, and the lack of consumer sales, or something, caused its collapse.

Mr. Evans

I shall not go into the history of the Daily Herald, which started in a small way and built up to a great circulation. It then entered a working arrangement with Odhams, but then Odhams was taken over by someone else. It is now run by Rupert Murdoch. I do not know whether it would be run better by that set-up or by the Labour Party.

However, at least it meant that one could turn to a daily newspaper and read the Labour view. Now, of course there is no guarantee. The Daily Mirror takes a progressive view, but there is no guarantee that the views of the Labour and Liberal parties will be expressed in its editorial or will receive some sort of support.

At present the Labour Party has a weekly publication which mainly gives information to party members. When one talks about the freedom of the Press, it must not be only the freedom of a small number of people with large financial resources to move into Fleet Street, to own newspapers, to obtain them or to close them at their whim. In a democracy there must be a means by which we can express our ideas.

We talk about the freedom to work. We must change the economic system. Recently I spoke about Roosevelt. In America during the depression the economic system was failing. It was failing in this country, too, because Lord Boyd-Orr in the Beveridge Report, referring to the situation in this country prior to the war, said that there were five giant evils on the road to progress—want, ignorance, idleness, disease and squalor. That was a fairly accurate description of the situation in pre-war Britain before the Welfare State was created.

The choice of the citizen in every respect in pre-war Britain was extremely narrow. It was to be expected. The unemployment queues were long. We must not deny that we have unemployment today, but at least the unemployed today would be the first to say that they are not treated as they were in pre-war days.

There was a time when there was little choice for the children of working people to have an education. We do not have to go far into history to discover that. However, now every child is given the opportunity to be educated. It is not just a question of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Mr. Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

We doubled our living standards in the past 25 years. However, in the last generation there has been a reduction of liberty in housing. Some people can afford to buy their own houses. About 30 per cent of council tenants wish to buy their own homes. Moreover, some people can choose between one primary school and another. I do not want to use Tyndale as an example of the way in which resources can be spent. The same resources can be spent in different ways. That is the type of freedom with which we are concerned. Rather than looking back into history, we should look forward to see what better things we can do regarding our standard of living and the distribution of resources.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman said that we had doubled our living standards in the past 25 years. He is underlining my point that there has not been a narrowing of citizens' choice in any way in that regard. Children now have a far greater opportunity of developing their talents to the utmost than in previous years. The hon. Gentleman referred to the freedom of tenants in municipal houses. There is no law which prevents a council tenant from buying a house if he wishes to do so.

Mr. Bottomley

His council house?

Mr. Evans

He can go to a building society or bank to raise the money to buy a house. Whether local authority houses should be put on the market is another issue. But the individual council tenant is free to leave his tenancy and to buy a house with the assistance of a building society or bank.

Mr. Bottomley indicated dissent.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is true. Does he deny that a council tenant is not free to buy a house if he wishes to do so?

Mr. Bottomley

I apologise for intervening a third time. If 30 per cent. of houses are to go on being owned by local authorities and tenants who want to buy their own houses leave those council-owned properties, we shall still be left with 30 per cent. of families and households being unable to buy their own homes, unless we envisage a situation where for every 100 households we have 130 homes.

Mr. Evans

I should be ruled out of order if I were drawn into a discussion of the housing problem. A circular has been sent out this week by the Minister of State encouraging co-operative housing. People may co-operate to buy the houses in which they live. I believe that there is an obligation on local authorities to ensure that those with the greatest housing need have the houses available.

If municipal tenants wish to join a co-operative housing society or to become owner-occupiers, the Government should encourage them. They should also encourage the building societies to help those people. After all, the Government lent the building societies £500 million. We should ask why they do not encourage municipal tenants, who are able to do so, to buy their own houses. Those tenants would then vacate council houses that would become available for others to rent.

It is no use the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) kidding himself about this matter. Despite the fact that people have doubled their living standards, many still cannot afford to buy their own houses. We must think about them as well.

Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)


Mr. Evans

I think that the Minister wishes to reply, but I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Neubert

There is one liberty of the subject to which the hon. Gentleman has not yet drawn attention. I refer to the liberty of a Member of Parliament drawn third in the Ballot for Private Members' motions to speak to his motion before the debate is concluded. Is the hon. Gentleman planning to give way not only to the Minister, allowing her sufficient time to answer the debate, but to me to put my motion on the record? Or is he making it clear beyond doubt that the Government find the terms of my motion highly embarrassing and do not wish to see it in print for public gaze?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. That is a rather long intervention.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman has made his point. If he knows the traditions of the House, he will know that if one is drawn second in the ballot, one is lucky, but if one is drawn third, one is being very optimistic in expecting to be called. I do not think that he can expect a very long debate on his motion. It is on the Order Paper and that is lucky for him. I am sure that others will keep this debate going when I sit down. In fact, if I am not interrupted, I shall conclude at an earlier point than I originally intended.

I turn to the narrowing of choice of medical treatment. We have the National Health Service. There was a time in Britain when the ability to pay determined whether one had medical treatment. We have only to read Bernard Shaw's "The Doctor's Dilemma" to appreciate the situation. The wealthy were put on the operating table not because they needed medical attention, but because they were able to foot the doctor's bill. Many people in need of medical treatment were denied the opportunity of receiving it.

The National Health Service is not perfect. I shall not go into the argument about pay beds, which are only a small part of the NHS, but no one can deny that we can be proud of the fact that with all its faults the NHS is working well. If someone needs medical attention, it is available to him under the NHS, not because he has a large bank balance, but because the doctor decides that he needs hospital treatment. In my view, there is not a narrowing of citizen choice, but an increase.

Let us consider the question of country sports. In the old days, certain people rode to hounds, with the villagers looking on. That was the extent of the sporting activity available to poorer people. Things are very different now, particularly with the advent of television. At Twickenham tomorrow England will play Wales at rugby, and thousands of people will see that match on their television sets. I do not propose to predict the winner—let the best team win—but there is massive interest in that match and thousands of people will be glued to their television sets. I wonder how many households are without a television set to enable them to participate to that extent in a popular sport.

That is an example of the liberty of the individual. I do not take the view that television addicts should watch television all the time, but there is no doubt that the advent of television has opened up a new life to thousands of people. We often hear comments about doubling the standard of living. I do not have a colour television, but statistics show that one-third of the people in this country do. Is that narrowing the choice of the citizen on every hand? I beg to differ from those who say that it is.

Things are not perfect but, economically, we are making great progress. I sometimes look at a map and try to think of a country in which I should like to live if I could not stay in Britain. I do not believe that there are many people who, if given the choice of living in Great Britain or elsewhere, would decide to leave these islands. We might argue about boundaries between Scotland, Wales and England, but that is merely a diversion, and we are well able to deal with the problems that face us.

I agree that we must be concerned about individual liberty. I agree, too, that we must be concerned about our civil rights, but freedom for one person may be a denial of freedom to another. The freedom of an employer to pay what wages he thinks appropriate is a denial of freedom to the employee to ensure that he gets a fair reward for his work. That is why we must have trade unions. That is why the trade union movement has been in the forefront of demanding freedom in this country. It has played a major part in ensuring that people have doubled their living standards in the past 25 years.

I could go on at great length, but we are nearly out of time. I apologise for having spoken for so long. In his essay on liberty, John Stuart Mill said that the social problem that faced us was how we could bring about the maximum amount of individual liberty and the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. We have only to look around the world to see that people are taking things into social ownership. The idea of massive fortunes remaining in the hands of the few and the vast majority being denied a share in it will not occur in the future.

We must see that we move forward to a Socialist society and at the same time maintain the maximum amount of individual liberty. That is how Britain will go ahead. I still believe that Great Britain is as good a place as anywhere in the world to live. However, let us not be too complacent, but let us strive to make it even better.

3.59 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

The motion moved by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) is extensive and involves not only a discussion of freedom—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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