HL Deb 07 November 1979 vol 402 cc822-8

3.10 p.m.

Lord THORNEYCROFT rose to call attention to the difficulties and opportunities facing the country; to take note of Her Majesty's Government's policies in dealing with them; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion in my name, which is couched in fairly unexceptional terms. It is to draw attention to the difficulties and opportunities facing the country and to take note of the policies to deal with them. At this time of year, it is indeed not unusual for the House to have a general debate which rises above the details of legislation and takes a view of the broad strategy of the Government of the day. For reasons well understood, we are not having that kind of debate on the gracious Speech this year. But it may be for the convenience of the House that we should at least have one such general debate.

My Lords, I do not speak as a member of the Government. I do not have the responsibilities and the heavy burdens of office. There is a small but positive gap between this Bench and the Front Bench there. I speak, however, as the chairman of a great political party and I think it is perhaps not unreasonable that we, all of us, on the Back Benches should have a chance of saying how we view the scene and what we think could usefully be done about it. If I start with the scene, I am going to put it shortly, drawing it on the canvas with a broad brush, but I put it this way. We are a country heavily in debt. It is said that the interest payments with which we support that debt could, of themselves, if devoted in another way, pay for a National Health Service or for the defences of the nation. It is a massive burden. We pay large sums in tax—not quite as large in direct taxes as we used to, but still very substantial. The gap between what a man earns at work and what he earns if he does not work is still, in many cases, a pretty narrow one. I observed that the Social Services Commission was urging that that should be kept narrow for a long time. I, myself, hope that such advice will not be followed.

We are a nation producing not much more than we produced at the time of the three-day week ; our productivity is among the lowest in Europe, and despite the enormous assets of North Sea oil and natural gas our balance of payments is only narrowly and sometimes uncertainly achieved. On top of that, we find ourselves faced with a planned overspend of somewhere about £3,500 million. That is a plan to spend money of that kind, which is not available and with no plans to raise it. That is a grave and difficult series of problems to confront us. Those are facts and your Lordships will observe that I have not tried to apportion blame about them; I take them as the facts of the situation confronting us at the present time. I doubt whether in this debate they will really be controverted from either side of the House.

We could meet our problems by putting up taxes; but we would have to raise the taxes to something like 38 per cent. of a standard rate or VAT at 20 per cent. We could print the money—but this is something that we have tried before, with disastrous consequences. Or we could try to borrow even more; but, as I have already indicated, the cost of borrowing is now more than we can sustain. It is true that in these circumstances to cut the planned expenditure is the only option realistically open to this country at the present time. If anybody in this House thinks that there are any other realistic options one would listen to them in the debate, but it does not seem so at this moment.

It is true that after we have cut, after we have made all the efforts that the Government are making at the present time, that, of itself, will create no room for extra taxation. We shall still be spending as large a proportion of the gross national product as before. Public spending in the coming year will be as high as, indeed marginally higher than, it was last year. But this is not an argument against the policies. Rather, it is the measure of the need for them. Therefore, I conclude that the Government are right in their decision to impose cuts and the debate is more about where we spend and what we save.

My Lords, we were left with some pretty heavy burdens; we were left with a post-dated cheque on wages of £250 million. There is no cash ready available to pay for it. It is the equivalent of 10,000 hospital beds or looking after 300,000 patients for a year. When we talk about wages, I sometimes think it a good thing to translate wages into the terms of the real things that that money represents in the country in which we live. Every wage increase which is unmatched either by increased production or by improved efficiency is a direct blow to the weak, to the sick and to the unfortunate in this country.

Of course, the best way of saving is not in services but in overheads. If I am an expert in anything, I would claim to have had some experience in cutting Government expenditure. My knowledge was learned the hard way. If your Lordships will bear with me for just a moment, as an old hand looking at the National Health Service, I think that, with a proportion of 100,000 administrators to 33,000 doctors, surely there is an opportunity there. Surely, there is something that could be done, or quite a number of things that could be done, inside the National Health Service without having any immediate or desperate effect on the patients.

Let us take my old friends in the Ministry of Defence. I remember in the old days if you approached them on cuts they would say, "Minister, it means the end of the First Armoured Division". I am not sure that there is a First Armoured Division at this moment, but the same kind of argument will be advanced all the time. The last thing they think of looking at is the enormous machinery at the centre—with the Navy, the Army and the Air Force, most of them, alas! still pursuing their separate policies for their catering services and the rest. Believe me, there is room for a good deal of movement together. And there are those who cut in most sensitive areas. I am bound to say that the Inner London Education Authority's choice of schools would bear a little examination, if I may suggest it to my noble friend.

In regard to a Government department, if one asks such a department to cut, the last thing they will offer is a deputy secretary. These are sacred to the organisation. That is why I rather favour as a profession putting in outside people to examine closely on the spot where the fat really is, and where it could most usefully be removed. Regarding the local authorities, I observe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment suggested that if we did not replace one person out of every four who left the Civil Service it would be a good thing. But what does the Brent Council do? I observe today that, having lost their chief executive, they are appointing two chief executives in his place. These are the things which the public ought to go for.

The Lambeth Council now has one local authority employee for every 28 fortunate citizens of Lambeth. They have a debt interest payment of £34 million a year which somebody has worked out as £1 a day for every family of three. There is room for indignation in Lambeth, but not at the Government for cutting. There is room for indignation at the appalling waste of public money in one area after another. I should like the indignation that the people feel, the pain and suffering which we all feel in some of these cuts, to be diverted for a moment to examine together where we can cut overheads; where we can prune overblown bureaucracies; where we can cut down the amount of administration, and how best we can concentrate on providing the real services we require.

So far I have dealt with the facts and with the actions that are taken on them. I, however, know that the crisis that confronts this country is rather more subtle than that. Many of the problems that face us as a nation are moral as much as they are monetary. The Labour Government, when they were in office, were supported by a minority of the electorate and led by social democrats—

Several noble Lords

So are you!


I know, my Lords. I accept this completely. If the noble Lord will follow me, he will see the point of what I have to say. The Labour Government were led by social democrats; yet they were determined to achieve a permanent shift to the Left, an irreversible shift to the Left. I am not absolutely sure—I know they lost the election—whether they succeeded or failed in that particular objective. What I do know is that the attempts to do it had some dramatic effects upon this nation when they were in office. I do know that the attempt to do it also has had a dramatic effect upon the Labour Party now that it is in Opposition. The attempt by the unions to obtain control of the Labour Party through the NEC is of much more than domestic importance to the Labour Party. It is a trend which goes to the very root of the prospects of this country, its government and its constitution in the years to come.

Mr. Clive Jenkins was claiming at the Trades Union Congress that the unions provided a democratic alternative government for the British people. My Lords, the unions provide nothing of the kind. It is vital that in this House, as indeed in all parts of Parliament, this principle should be asserted. What, therefore, should be the attitude to the unions? Once every few weeks I leave the Central Office and go to Transport House. There I sit down with Mr. Moss Evans, Mr. Jack Jones and other leading trade unionists and industrialists on the Ernest Bevin Memorial Trust. There we plan together how best young trade unionists can go overseas to study the events in other countries, how they run their affairs, and so forth. That is not an important discussion so far as grand policy is concerned, but to me it represents a kind of small island of sanity in a world in which sometimes sanity is sadly missing, a tiny bridge in a world where bridges are singularly absent.

The Conservative Party approaches the trade union movement not as an enemy but as a friend. Millions of trade unionists voted for the Conservative Party in the last election. The Conservative trade union movement itself is growing constantly in size. Millions of trade unionists—look what is happening in British Leyland at the present moment—are demonstrating that they are really determined to try to get an atmosphere of reality into the world in which they live and into the relations which exist between their companies and the unions of which they are loyal members.

How do we then approach this matter? The trade union movement is based on privilege—and rightly based on privilege. Under our laws, the trade unions are placed above the law as it applies to other institutions or other individuals. But the public in this country are increasingly aghast at the abuse of trade union power; at the activities of NUPE; at the blackmail tactics of unions like SLADE; at their arrogance in refusing to participate even in an inquiry.

It is not just one section of the public; it is all sections of the public. It includes millions of trade unionists as well. The Government propose some modest reforms in trade union legislation; reforms with regard to the ballot, the closed shop and the picket. As they go forward, I think that it would be a very brave man who would attack them for going too far. The criticism that they are likely to meet in the country is that they are not going far enough. I am, I claim, a friend of the trade unions. I believe in preserving the privileges which they have earned and which I believe were rightly given to them. I see the gravest danger that if those privileges are abused too far the British people will say: "Privilege is all right; but privileged men have special additional responsibilities themselves and these responsibilities have to be shown and exercised".

Going beyond the trade union side as to what happens in the places where we work, this country is pre-eminent in many things; it is pre-eminent in its capacity to invent and design; it is pre-eminent in its service industries. It is pre-eminent in agriculture; but when it comes to men working in large units, particularly when heavily unionised, we show a degree of inefficiency compared with our competitors which is going to place the gravest problems before us if we are to build up the kind of society which we want. If we are to pay the kind of wages which are earned in other parts of the world, if we are to have social services of the standards which all of us on all sides of your Lordships' House would wish to see, we must create wealth; we must earn profits; we must be able to have enough to distribute this wealth and these profits widely and for the benefit of all. We must provide opportunities for the strong and succour for the weak. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.