HL Deb 02 May 1984 vol 451 cc547-57

3.18 p.m.

Lord Beloff rose to call attention to the connection between freedom and the widest possible diffusion of private property; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the unprecendented or perhaps nearly unprecedented length of Question Time today may suggest to some of your Lordships a reluctance in this House to embark, rather unusually, on the consideration of an abstract proposition such as is contained in the Motion now before us. It was, however, the view of myself and my noble friends that, at a time when there are perceptible considerable changes in the outlook both of those professionally concerned with social and economic problems and among the general public all over the Western world, when people are beginning to look at some of the fundamental problems of our societies in a new way, there might be something to be said for standing back from the daily hurly-burly of legislative proposals and administrative changes to look at these matters as a whole—hopefully, one would imagine, from a point of view in which economic and social questions are looked at together rather than, in consequence, I think, largely, of the so-called professionalisation of economics, as two separate matters.

In a debate on freedom, it might be appropriate to conclude my explanation of why I suggest that we do this by a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do and how to do it".

It has been a common theme of social thinkers for more than two centuries that freedom is a matter of direct concern to individuals and indeed is part of what they look for in a civilised society. It has been admitted generally for a long time that individuals who are in the possession of private property within a system where it cannot be taken away, either directly through confiscation, or indirectly through inflation, are themselves in enjoyment of a very considerable measure of freedom in their choice of action, and the language they use and the opinions they express are all more easily defended than are those by those people who depend upon someone else's will or ability to give them employment and who, if they lack this, are confronted with grave difficulties of a kind which detract from not only their material profit, but also their freedom.

In the nineteenth century this happy position was obtained in all our countries by a minority of the population. But even to the acquisition of that degree of freedom by a minority of the population we owe the great explosion of ingenuity, of thought, of the arts, which goes to make up the civilisation of the nineteenth century. We are all the inheritors of it; and I fear some of us are still parasites upon it, since it is difficult to see any way in which our century has advanced, at any rate in social thought, beyond the limits attained in the nineteenth century.

The problem then, and since, has been: how does one make this ownership of property and the sense of freedom deriving from it available to wider and wider sections of the community, in the light of the fact that, as already was apparent early in the nineteenth century, modern industry, modern technology demands larger and larger-scale operations, so that the familiar, the classical, position of someone owning, say, his own farm—a piece of land—is really an inappropriate analogy? That problem was not solved in the nineteenth century; it remains to confront us today.

But there were two important attempts in the nineteenth century to bypass the problem. The first of them was what we generically style socialism; that is to say, the belief that if the resources of the community were publicly owned, people would derive from that fact the same kind of satisfaction as they would otherwise have derived from the private ownership of property. Experience which we have had in the twentieth century, and which was not available to the writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century, has made us well aware that this is not the case. It was possible, for a generation or two, to say that the fact that in the Soviet Union freedom was clearly absent was due to some particularities about Russian society—the backwardness of the country at the time of the Revolution, the lack of any strong indigenous tradition of free institutions, and the ravages of civil war and foreign war.

But we have now had some 40 years in which some of the more advanced countries of Europe, countries such as Czechoslovakia, which have been in the mainstream of European civilisation for centuries, have undergone the same experience and have ended up in very much the same place. Therefore it would now seem to be a matter of common agreement that if in a society property, particularly productive property, the source of someone's employment, the source of his housing, the source of his information and the source of governmental authority which he obeys are all in the same hands, then one has the very definition of tyranny.

One might say, however, that in the West there has been another bypass attempt, which we might call less than integral socialism—partial socialism. By that I mean the acquisition by government, by the State acting on behalf of the community, of large sections of property, particularly productive property. In the debates over nationalisations in this and other countries—our experience is no different from that of our neighbours—it was often argued that one of the great reasons for making this change was that people working within a publicly-owned industry would feel quite differently about themselves and their situation from those in private employment. Again, that has proved to be an illusion.

Earlier this afternoon references were made to the current dispute in the mining industry. One aspect of this strikes me and must strike many of those who remember the last great dispute in 1926. The language which is used by some of the leaders of the miners about the National Coal Board does not differentiate itself at all from the language which was used by Mr. A. J. Cook in 1926 about the mine owners of that day. Therefore it does not seem that the fact that the National Coal Board are our employees—speaking of ourselves as taxpayers—has made any difference to the workforce, or at least to a considerable section of that workforce. It would seem that with the present formulae of state ownership—exactly the same thing is observable in, say, France—we have again failed to solve the problem.

The other attempt at bypassing the problem, which was a more lasting and in some ways more profitable method of bypassing, was the creation of substitutes for what someone might do with property and with income; that is to say, what we customarily call the

welfare state, but which I think would more properly be called the entitlement state. By that I mean the conferring by the state upon individuals not the ability to purchase certain services or to save money in order to acquire these services, but rather an entitlement to draw on the resources of the community as a whole to provide them as an entitlement. Here again, after having made what most people would admit is very important progress in this respect, in the sense of relieving unnecessary miseries in our society, we seem to have come up against an obstacle or a series of obstacles to progress.

First, there is the fact that the entitlement system has not reduced the hard core of poverty which was observed by social observers in the nineteenth century and which is still daily called to our attention. Secondly, it has been made clear—and quite recently by many of your Lordships—that a system of this kind is, almost of necessity, so complex that it defeats the very purposes for which it was set up, in that (and this was referred to in a debate this week) a great many of the people whose needs are greatest find it most difficult to acquire that to which the state has entitled them. Those noble Lords who have come to this House from another place will no doubt confirm that the surgeries which they held in their constituencies from week to week were very largely taken up with advising people as to how to make the best of their entitlements.

There is also of course, the question as to the relationship between entitlement and the urge to produce, because all that entitlement can do is to enable the product of work to be diffused. That, of course, was a constant worry of the creators of our modern welfare provision, from the Webbs to Beveridge. However, that is an economic question which might more appropriately be discussed on another occasion.

What we can see from out experience of both socialism and the entitlement state is that there is some mismatch, not in theory but in practice, between bold schemes of social organisation of this kind and the actualities of human nature. In fact, the socialist schemes only run at all because a large margin is allowed for human instincts of acquisition to make themselves felt on the margins. It is the private plots which feed those countries, not the state-run farms.

In our own society we can, I think, see growing evidence of a preference for ownership over dependence, over entitlement. The most striking example—and it will no doubt be dwelt upon by other speakers this afternoon—has been the sale of council houses. It is obvious that most people would rather not be the tenants of a local authority even though, as we are so often reminded in this House, the local authority is their own choice through the ballot box. So popular, indeed, has the acquisition of this form of property proved to be, that I find no echo in the reports of the local elections which are to be held tomorrow that in any part of the country Labour candidates are saying, "You have only got to return us to office and we will give you back the council tenancies for which you crave". It has been accepted as a general fact by all parties that when choice is given people prefer property to entitlement.

There is also some evidence, although of a much less conclusive kind, that where people can acquire a direct interest in concerns in which they work, even large concerns, they respond in a more positive fashion than they respond to nationalisation through government-appointed boards. A very high proportion of the shares that have been offered, on denationalisation, in a number of concerns—and I suppose the National Freight Corporation is the most obvious one—have in fact been willingly and, indeed, eagerly acquired by their employees. When something is obviously far too large to be done by a small firm or by an individual entrepreneur, there would again appear to be a movement towards reconsidering the whole situation and finding some new methods of ownership in which those working would be interested in the successful outcome of the enterprise.

Finally—and, again, this is often referred to in our debates—there is the question of self-employment and the growth in self-employment and in new enterprises, which has been marked in very recent times. Therefore, there seems to be something of a perceptible shift in popular opinion. It is, of course, tremendously resisted. Where I think I differ from Her Majesty's Government and their advisers is that I believe that this is the beginning of a very long process, and that the idea that society can be transformed in this respect in one, two or three parliaments is almost certainly a illusion. After all, the contrary process took something like a century and a half.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that if we perceive willingness among people to give of their best if they are working directly for themselves and, even more, if they are working for the benefit of their own familes—in other words, if we perceive the strength of the parental instinct—and if we say that all of our social arrangements should harmonise with that, then at least we would have a yardstick by which to measure the various proposals for legal or administrative change that come before us. But there is considerable resistance because a great army of beneficiaries have grown up around both partial socialism and the entitlement state. There are a great many people who owe not only their employment but their positions of influence and power to being somewhere within these structures. We can no more imagine them surrendering them freely than the aristocrats of the eighteenth century were ready, freely, to surrender their privileges at the time of the great revolutions. So one must assume that the argument will continue and that we are by no means certain as to the particular ways in which progress can be made.

It is not simply a question of, for example, the interests of the National Union of Teachers in the limitation of parental choice, or of the interests of some branches of the health service in maintaining that particular form of organising the health of our community. There is also, as far as one can judge, some considerable resistance in the Inland Revenue to the kind of changes which would stimulate self-employment. There is a strong preference for the PAYE system, which is so usefully geared to bureaucratic convenience and the appetite of computers.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for believing that there is a sensitivity to these issues which did not exist a generation ago. To some extent I think that we have been distracted from them by the economists. They tell us to look at the size of public expenditure as compared with the size of private expenditure. Therefore, they look at an input, which in itself is neutral, rather than at the results, about which people are concerned.

My own belief is that in this country many people probably spend too little of their income on both education and health, and that we have a great deal of money in our pockets to spend on things which are not publicly provided; for example, video nasties—to take your Lordships' primary legislative interest at the moment.

But my own view is that increasing sums will not be invested either in improving our health or in bettering our educational system unless somehow we manage to join our interest in this to the interests of parents in themselves and their families. I do not know how this will be done. None of the schemes which have so far been floated seems to me to be without snags. Nevertheless, we are moving towards a recognition that a system which ignores the primary instinct of human beings for the disposal of their own work, of their own fortunes, and the planning of the future of their own families, is a system which is unlikely to command general support. It is with those general ideas in mind that I thought it would be interesting to have the reactions of the House to the proposition on the Order Paper. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has chosen an interesting subject for today's debate, though it is not a new one. He has made a stimulating speech, as he always does, though it is not one with which I or my noble friends can agree. Indeed, there would be many distinguished members of his own party who would have doubts about some of the things he said. Strictly speaking, the noble Lord's Motion advocates that private property as it now exists should be diffused; that is, more widely spread. But the noble Lord has gone beyond that. His speech was, in fact, a defence of the present Government's policies and, if I understood him aright, a plea for an even stronger dose of the same medicine—a prescription which is slowly but surely creating a permanent mood of frustration and desperation among a large section of the British community at the present time.

The noble Lord's Motion relates freedom to the possession of property. That is a very old proposition and it gives rise to an old argument. It also brings into the debate the very substance of political divisions. The noble Lord takes an old-fashioned view but, in my opinion, it is a dangerous one because if this country were to travel along the road which he advocates, we would find ourselves in deep trouble and the great majority of our people, far from gaining freedom, would lose some of the freedoms that they now enjoy.

Years ago I was much impressed by R. H. Tawney, who taught me a great deal about the so-called "partial socialism" to which the noble Lord referred. One of his books was Christianity and the Social Order. No doubt the noble Lord remembers it very well. What Tawney wrote is relevant to this debate. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote from this book, so as to get our discussion into perspective. This is what R. H. Tawney said: There are few topics on which more nonsense is talked than that of property. Statements are still sometimes encountered which defend property in general or attack it in general. They appear to rest on the assumption that all forms of property are equally justified or equally without justification. The assumption is fallacious and the statements are meaningless … The important point of principle is to discriminate between property for use and property for power or exploitation, a distinction which largely though not wholly coincides with distinctions based on magnitude. Some forms of property … which are privately owned … ought to be publicly owned … some other forms of property … ought to be owned on a much larger scale by a much larger number of persons because until they are so owned the mass of mankind are starved of the necessities and amenities of a cultured existence". Tawney's general approach is as relevant today as it was when he wrote those words, and his criticism of the diffusion of property, as advocated in the noble Lord's Motion, is as valid as ever. Although they are obviously related, we must distinguish between political freedom on the one hand and economic freedom on the other. The struggle for religious and political freedom continued into this century, and most of us have been involved in the effort to achieve economic freedom.

The only question in this debate is whether the measures advocated by the noble Lord and, generally, the policies of the present Government are, in fact, enhancing the political and economic freedom of the people of this country—and by that I mean the great majority of the people of this country, and not a select few.

Since the last war the Western democracies, which had previously periodically been locked in conflict, have succeeded in maintaining a balance, in preserving freedom while avoiding the excesses of the extreme Left or the extreme Right. Given the previous history, it has been one of the most heartening periods of modern times. Even so, the policies which have made this possible have not been those advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. They have, by and large, operated mixed economies, with a balance as between the public and private sectors on the pattern laid down by the post-war Labour Government.

The noble Lord is always at his liveliest when he is criticising the Labour Party, but I want to say this to him—and I say it with conviction because I and my colleagues have been witnesses to these things. The policies of the Labour Party since 1945 have extended the boundaries of individual freedom in Britain. Let me explain how this has taken place, in response to the rather superficial references of the noble Lord to the welfare state, which he described as "the entitlement state". Let me remind him of what happened from 1945 onwards.

First, I well recall the tim when people dreaded illness, not only for its own sake, but also because they could not afford the doctor's bill, let alone a hospital bill. I recall visiting the Caernarvon and Anglesey hospital in Bangor many years ago and the secretary there showed me the patients' register of the hospital at the turn of the century. There were entries such as, "John Jones, Gwalchmai, Anglesey, sent home—no means to pay". Another read, "William Roberts Nefyn, sent home—no means to pay". They could not afford to stay on in the hospital.

As a distinguished historian the noble Lord really ought to get down to the facts. The National Health Service was created to remove this fear once and for all, and to give everyone, at every level of society, the same access to the best treatment possible. That is an extension of freedom. A departure from this basic principle, a move towards privatisation of the health service, would be a retrograde step of the worst kind.

I am a great admirer of the United States and of its people, but we must remember that illness in the United States can reduce a family to penury. Is that what the noble Lord wants here—because from what he said that appeared to be his objective.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, as that is a direct question perhaps I may answer it.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, by all means.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, would look at the article by Mr. Marac in the current issue of the Economist, comparing the costs of the health service and the methods by which it is organised in Britain and in the United States, he would find (though by very different routes) that we have come up against the same obstacle—and it is the one which worries me—namely, that we cannot provide the best medical attention for all our people because of the way in which we finance it. The United States have come to this conclusion by a quite different route. The contrast between Britain and the United States may well have been true in Tawney's time. It is not true today.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the evidence that we have is contrary to that of the noble Lord. The National Health Service, for all its weaknesses—and our fear is that it will become weaker under the present Administration—provides opportunities to the people of this country as a whole which do not exist in the United States of America.

I have read the article in the Economist to which the noble Lord referred. It is not relevant to the point I am making about the availability of free medical treatment in the two countries.

Lord Molloy My Lords, would my noble friend give way?

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

No, my Lords. I should like to give way to my noble friend but I must proceed with my speech.

Secondly, I recall the time when a large section of the population dreaded old age. They feared it because there was every possibility that they would have to go to what was then called the workhouse. That would mean—or could mean—a grim and cruel end to an old couple's life because they would live in the workhouse apart from each other after living together for decades. The much maligned Labour Party put an end to that. It abolished the workhouse, and homes and suitable housing for elderly people with improved pensions and other measures were introduced. That, my Lords, was an extension of freedom.

Thirdly, as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, knows full well, educational opportunities for the vast majority of young people were severely restricted before 1945. I shall avoid detail because we have debated these matters recently. The Butler Act, as taken up by the Labour Government, transformed the scene and gave opportunities for further education to thousands of young people who would never have enjoyed it under the old dispensation. That, my Lords, was an extension of freedom. In all these fields the Western democracies have followed the lead given by the Attlee Government, and some have by now overtaken us in certain areas. But, as I have said, the basic freedoms were also preserved in all these countries.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, stress was laid on the importance to the individual of secure employment. The freedom of the unemployed man or woman is strictly limited. If we cannot understand that, we do not know what freedom means. There are over a million young people under 25 who are out of a job now. They are not free as I understand freedom. I shall not pursue this point at length because my noble friend Lord Wilson of Rievaulx is to open a debate on unemployment in a few days' time. However, the noble Lord's Motion entitles us to ask how the policies of the Government he supports have affected freedom in Britain and whether the next few years are likely to enhance our liberties. This is the gravamen of the argument.

I would hope that I am not as prejudiced in my general attitude to the Conservative Party as the noble Lord, I fear, is towards my party. For example, I recognise that members of the party opposite are as attached to certain concepts of freedom as we are; to the rule of law, and to freedom under the law. I would, however, argue that in pursuance of certain objectives this Government have for five years obstinately refused to recognise the damage they have done, and are doing, to the social fabric of the nation. People on the Right, Left, and centre of politics have urged and pleaded with the Government to modify their economic policy.

Three years ago 364 university economists criticised the Government's economic policies. One of the things they said which is relevant to the noble Lord's Motion was: Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability". Since then, unemployment has gone up by 2 million, and bankruptcies have been running at a record level.

The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, who is to speak later—and I am delighted that he is taking part in the debate—will say, and he is entitled to, that the Government have brought inflation down and that we are seeing some growth in the economy. That is to be welcomed. But it must be seen in perspective. The American recovery has led to some improvement in world conditions, but the big question is what effect the growth will have on unemployment, and whether the rate of growth can be sustained.

These are relevant to the Motion because the price this country has paid for the Government's economic policies in terms of unemployment and the freedom of between 3 and 4 million people to work has been a massive one. I understand that economic research institutes in West Germany and the United States are at present forecasting a substantial fall in unemployment in those two countries. The noble Lord might like to tell us if we can expect similar relief in this country. It really would be very good news if he can say clearly that these people who are now deprived of the freedom to work will in fact have a better prospect of work.

Privatisation is another variation on the theme of setting the people free. It is conveniently overlooked that the public ownership of certain areas brought essential services to millions of our fellow citizens: rural electrification, gas, piped-water supplies, rural telephone services, rural housing and rural transport are all examples of this. All these developments have improved the quality of life of our people and contributed to their economic freedom. Now we have this obsessive cult of privatisation

I do not believe that the public sector is perfect. I have felt for a long time that there has been a tendency towards over-centralisation, and a falling off of local accountability and control. Great power in any sphere has its obvious dangers, and democratic control of public industry is absolutely essential. Even so, public industry is subjected to far more control and public scrutiny than private industry, into which the present Government wish to convert it. Do John Smith or William Jones feel that their freedom has been extended as a result of the Telecommunications Bill? They certainly do not. They regard it as an irrelevance, and they know from long experience that the boardrooms of Britain are not cathedrals of freedom. The switch from the public to the private sector diminishes accountability every time. The ownership of property does not, therefore, bring freedom any more than it brings happiness.

We have heard a great deal about house ownership. I am very much in favour of it, although I do not think that it is one of the essential ingredients of freedom. The noble Lord himself referred to the sale of council houses. I know two neighbouring families in a small council estate in Anglesey. One have bought their own house while their next-door neighbours have not. There is no real sense in which one family is more free than the other. The fact is that this country must have a reservoir of houses to let. What is needed today is a sensible housing policy and not the hotch-potch of inconsistency which serves as a policy for the present Government.

I well remember that when I was doing my best to obey the noble Lord's injunction to diffuse private property by taking the Leasehold Reform Act through the House of Commons in 1967 we were obdurately opposed by the party opposite at every stage, yet that Act increased home ownership more than any other single piece of legislation which has gone through Parliament during this century.

In conclusion, I must say to the noble Lord that our concern—and it is shared by many in the Conservative Party—is that this Government are moving steadily away from democratic principles and from local accountability and freedom. In local government this includes the cancellation of elections, the creation of transitional nominated councils, the abolition of metropolitan authorities and the GLC, as well as other measures now before the House.

We hear a great deal about "the mandate and the manifesto", and I do not underestimate election promises. At the same time I well recall the words of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he referred to the absolute legislative power confided in Parliament and concentrated in the hands of a Government armed with a parliamentary majority, briefed and served by a professional Civil Service, and I quote his exact words: when such a Government is indoctrinated with the false political doctrine of the mandate and the manifesto … the expression 'elective dictatorship' is not a contradiction". That is what the noble and learned Lord said. The Government and the noble Lord should ponder these words today.

This country's success over 300 years has been to create a progressively more stable society in which freedom has grown from generation to generation. Freedom is most at risk in an unstable society and there is ample evidence of this as we look around the world today. The noble Lord believes strongly in the doctrine behind his Motion, but I am afraid that he is not facing up to reality. Part of that reality is that a huge section of the land and of the marketable wealth in this country is still in the hands of comparatively few people. For example, the richest 5 per cent, of the adult population owned 45 per cent. of the marketable wealth in 1981. I should certainly like to see the nation's wealth shared out more fairly. I do not see that happening under the present Government. The steps taken in the name of the noble Lord's doctrine concentrate the ownership of property in limited hands; they do not diffuse it.

We on this side believe that freedom requires that people are free from want and disease and the fear of these things and that they are financially and physically secure. There is a great truth in the old quotation: Give me neither wealth nor property, but enough for my sustenance. I started with R. H. Tawney and I will end with him. He said: The goal to be sought must… make it evident that the common good takes precedence over private interests and ambitions and that all men are fellow servants". It is because, for all our defects and deficiencies, we in the Labour party believe in this that we reject the noble Lord's Motion.