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Adjournment (Christmas)

Volume 260: debated on Friday 11 December 1931

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House at its rising this day do adjourn until Tuesday, 2nd February next; provided always that, if it appears to the satisfaction of Mr. Speaker, after consultation with His Majesty's Government, that the public interest requires that the House should meet at any earlier time during the Adjournment, Mr. Speaker may give notice that he is so satisfied, and thereupon the House shall meet at the time stated in such notice and shall transact its business as if it had been duly adjourned to that time, and any Government Orders of the Day and Notices of Motion that may stand on the Order Book for the 2nd day of February or any subsequent day shall be appointed for the day on which the House shall so meet."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.30 a.m.

I wish to voice what I believe is a widespread regret that this House should be dismissed for some two months without even an indication of the Government policy on any of those issues which were treated as so urgent at the time of the General Election. We rise in ignorance of what policy the Government mean to Pursue in order to correct the gravely adverse balance of trade. The great staple industries of the country, notably iron and steel, are not merely being refused the assistance of which they are so urgently in need; they have not even been vouchsafed any assurance as to the ultimate intention of the Government to afford help which might enable them to carry on the struggle. Apart from the wheat quota, the farmer is left in the unhappy position of not knowing whether he is to throw good money after bad by getting his land ready for cultivation. The Empire is left in complete uncertainty as to whether the Government really mean business or not when they talk about Empire economic co-operation. Everything is to be left to drift, while the Government are to sit down and resume the process of trying to make up their mind as to a policy. I say "resume", because we all remember the curious ten days at the end of the last Parliament when the formula hunt was in progress—a formula which was left unfound. In the end, the Government, incapable of finding even a formula, let alone a policy, decided to go to the country on a slogan—the word "national". They got away with it, largely because the mass of the electors had it in their minds that the word "national" implied a national policy and a policy of action. They really cannot get away with this now. You cannot govern with slogans, or even with formulas. You must have a policy.

The Prime Minister now assures us that the Government are going to spend the Christmas holiday in looking for a policy. As a parent, I am rather suspicious of holiday tasks, especially with a pupil who in the past has shown himself so reluctant in facing any serious problem. I do not feel at all certain that, when the House meets again, we shall discover that a policy has been found, or that in the urgent day by day routine before Easter we shall not have one excuse after another for postponing either the announcement or the execution of any policy until the hands of the Government are forced. That is not a satisfactory state of affairs. That is not what the country and the House asked for. The House wants guidance. It wants to feel the hand of a master. It is tired of wondering what is going to arise from the scuffling behind the curtain before the curtain is next drawn up. If I may use a parallel from our earlier experiences, they are wondering how long they have to guess in this game of hunt the slipper with which member of the Cabinet is the elusive slipper of policy finally going to be found.

All this would be very entertaining if things were not so serious. That is the real issue. A great many of us feel that the Government are taking a grave risk and a grave responsibility in dismissing the House with so meagre a record of work achieved, with the avowed declaration that they have not at present a policy, and with no certain assurance that when we do meet again there will be a policy or any action to put it into effect. I do not wish to carry my protest any further, but I feel bound to register it in the hope that it may have proved unnecessary and that nothing very serious will happen in the next two or three months, but also with a feeling that things are more serious than the Government are prepared, in their actions at any rate, to admit.

I rise to call attention to the position in which we stand. The House has on occasion sat even up to Christmas when there has been an emergency, and I think that, if the Government had been ready with further proposals to deal with the critical situation which exists in many directions, every indication shows that the House would have been ready and willing to sit to any time in order to do the national business. But we are adjourning long before Christmas, on the 11th December, and the date proposed for the reassembly of Parliament is the 2nd February, although I am relieved to see that in the Motion power is invested in you, Mr. Speaker, after consultation with the Government to call Parliament together at an earlier date should the necessity arise. The 2nd February is putting us perilously near Easter if any business of an important character is to be carried through before that date. Those of us who have experience of Parliamentary practice are well aware of the considerable amount of financial business which must be transacted before the end of the financial year, and that takes time. There is no more important matter to which this House can give attention than financial business at the present time, and ample opportunity should be given to the House to carry out its duty in that respect.

We see upon the Order Paper for the re-assembly many little things, minor Bills. No doubt they might be swept away, but indications are not favourable, looking at those minor Measures, that the Government are at all anxious and eager to carry out the pledges to deal with major questions which were given by the Government at the general election. It is true that time might be saved when the House meets if private Members were persuaded to give up their Wednesday evenings and their Fridays. That might obtain if there were emergency measures to be taken. Although the House has always been willing, since I have had the honour of being a Member of this Assembly, to give opportunities to private Members, one might expect confidently in a national emergency that sacrifices would be made. So little has been done and what has to be faced and dealt with is so vast that it causes great anxiety to many of us.

There is a strong feeling in many of the constituencies that Parliament is not getting on with the business which it was elected to carry out. We have done nothing effective to deal with the adverse balance of trade which is all the time mounting up against us. We have done little of nothing to relieve the great and distressful load of unemployment which has come to so many of our people. Today an announcement has been made already of a decision which threatens to add to the unemployed in very large numbers. We have done nothing to deal with the cognate question, and I regret,—and I know that there are others in the House who also regret—that that subject has not received the attention of Parliament during the period of the Session which is drawing to a close. Undoubtedly, if the national situation is to be improved, if the pound is to be balanced, and if the burdens of taxation are to be eased as they so urgently need to be on the broad shoulders of the taxpayer, large economies must be made in public expenditure. I will not develop this subject because there are other matters waiting to be considered, but my voice alone is raised to-day to press economy upon the attention of the Government.

I wish to voice the very grave anxiety which is felt both in this Chamber and in the constituencies that the House is adjourning for the Christmas Recess, having done so little. We have passed the Statute of Westminster Act which was not before the electorate, and which has caused the gravest misgivings among many of us, and we have passed Measures for dealing with abnormal importations of manufactured goods, but I hope and trust that no one will imagine that we have done anything to establish a tariff. Under that Measure as it has been applied, it has merely been prohibition of certain imported goods by means of very high duties. As many of us expected, it has caused considerable alarm already among the various nations with whom we deal and from whom we buy. The Horticultural Measure, apparently to deal with market gardening and horticulture, suffers in the same way. The whole question of whether the country is to be relieved by tariffs, by quotas or by prohibitions is still not solved. I hope and trust—and I know that I am speaking for many here and many outside—that on occasion the Government will be ready long before the 2nd February and will come to you, Mr. Speaker, to exercise those powers which are to be given to you by the Motion now before the House.

We have received unexpected assistance from various quarters, but I wonder, if we pressed the Motion to a division, whether we should get their support or not. I want to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether the following points would be included as a matter of public interest requiring that the House should meet at an earlier date than the 2nd February. I put a question to the Prime Minister the other day as to whether, if there were a rise in the cost of living, he would consider raising unemployment pay to its former level. The Prime Minister said that it was a hypothetical question and could not be dealt with. But we are suspending operations for two months and in that time it is expected that something may happen. If the point which I have raised does happen, will the Government call Parliament together to consider it? The next point relates to unemployment. Yesterday, the Minister of Health said that they were considering with the local authorities and the public assistance committees various points arising in regard to the payment of unemployment benefit under the transitional period clause. If it is considered that some alteration should take place in the method of dealing with that matter, not taking into account pensions and compensation, will that be one of the causes to bring Parliament together a little earlier? These two matters are of far greater importance to us than the points raised by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton). I am prepartd to leave those matters in the hands of the so-called National Government, hut if the points which I have mentioned arise, I want the Government to call Parliament together a little earlier to deal with them.

The very impressive majority with which the Government were supported last night showed that the country was alive to the crisis in October. I cannot help expressing a considerable amount of anxiety as to whether the Government realise the seriousness of the crisis. We are a densely populated country, with a high standard of living, and we are importing five-sixths of our daily bread, our export trade is declining, our currency has been forcibly depreciated by 30 per cent., and to my amazement yesterday the Prime Minister indicated that the business for the 2nd February was the Town and Country Planning Bill; Wednesday, 3rd February, Private Members' Day; Thursday, Children Bill; Friday, Merchant Shipping (Safety and Load Line Conventions) Bill. Could not those matters be postponed, when we have very serious questions to deal with?

I went away yesterday very much cheered by the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He told us that there would be no serious deficit in the Budget, but I read this morning in a company report that the increased Beer Duty, for instance, will not bring in anything like the amount of revenue that was estimated by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think the estimate was that it would bring in £4,500,000 up to 1st April next. I understand, however, that instead of the revenue being £4,500,000 from the Beer Duty it is almost resulting in a loss. Then there is the Income Tax. That tax is easy to impose but it is very difficult to collect, as the Government will find out. Unemployment showed signs of decreasing a week or two ago, but that decline has been checked. The last figures are not encouraging, I am very sorry to say. Then there is the matter raised by the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood), the suspension of the work on the Cunard ship. The Cunard Company is a splendidly managed company, as the President of the Board of Trade showed to-day. It has a wonderful fleet, but it has suspended the construction of this ship. That is an extremely serious step to take. Three thousand men will be directly affected and many more will be indirectly affected, even going so far, I understand, as the docks at Southampton. I would not like to say how many men will be affected, but the effect on the ancillary trades must be very great. In their statement this morning the company say:
"It is the practice of the company to finance the construction of such a ship as 534 by making use of the bill market."
That is the question which I put to the President of the Board of Trade to-day. The bank rate in this country is very high. I saw a notice in the "Times" this morning to this effect:
"In London money is scarce and dear, but in New York it is cheap and in Paris it is cheaper still. The discount rates in Paris are 2 per cent., in New York 3½ per cent. and in London nearly 6 per cent."
Why should that be. Why should our bank rate be so much higher than the bank rate in New York and Paris. A year or two ago no one would have had the presumption to criticise those eminent and mysterious gentlemen who control our finances, but they have not been so successful of late, and I am fortified in that expression of opinion by the Midland Bank Review. It is well for the Government to take that into consideration—

The right hon. Gentleman is now going beyond giving reasons why we should meet earlier.

I thought those were good reasons, in that we are very near a crisis coming. If you do not wish me to proceed, I will not do so, but I do assure you, the Government and the House that we are approaching a very serious moment, I wanted to impress upon the Government the necessity of taking some steps to obviate the difficulties in which the country will find itself, but I will not pursue that point if you think it is out of Order. If I must found my argument upon an earlier meeting of Parliament, I will do so by saying that it is essential that we should meet earlier, in January, in order that we may have an agricultural policy put before us. The agricultural policy of the Government seems to be extremely nebulous at the present time. We were told that we should have a quota for wheat. I should like the farmers to know what they are to have; what price they are to have. If the Government could give us earlier some idea as to the price the farmers will get for their wheat, there might be a chance of more wheat being cultivated this year. We are in the position of being suspended in mid-air. As I understand it, there is a quota proposal which has not been approved by the millers. I do not see how you can work it without the millers, I hope the Government will give us some idea of the price we are to get for our wheat. It is all a question of price. I do not care whether you have it by a quota or any other system, but if it is to be adopted we must know the price. To the farmer it is the price that is of real importance.

I have risen with a deep sense of responsibility. I think the country is drifting to a more serious crisis than it realises. I do not want to criticise the Government, I want to help them because upon the success of this Government will depend the success of the country. I only make these observations with a view to helping the Government and the country in a time which is extremely serious.

I beg to move, in line 2 to leave out the words "Tuesday, 2nd February" and to insert instead thereof the words "Monday, 4th January".

I have just handed this Amendment in.

I want to raise a serious point of Order. When the Prime Minister gave notice of this Motion last night I at once proceeded to the Table of the House and gave notice that I would raise this point. The moment the House assembled I gave a copy of the Amendment, in writing, to the Clerks at the Table, in the name of the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) and myself, which we intended to move to-day. I want to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether it is quite fair after we had given this notice for hon. Members, who had not given notice in writing, to get preference over other hon. Members who, have been at some trouble and had shown you all the courtesy to which you are entitled. Are we not entitled to ask that we should get the same courtesy in return?

I understand that the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) is complaining that I have given preference to the Leader of the Opposition.

I got a notice this morning from the hon. Member in writing saying that he proposed to move an Amendment. Shortly afterwards I had a similar Motion in writing from the Leader of the Opposition. It is customary in this House to give preference to the Leader of the Official Opposition.

I would have given notice last night if I could. I went to the Clerks at the Table and they said they could not take it until the Prime Minister's motion appeared on the Order Paper. Our notice was in before any other notice. We took deliberate care to consult people to see if any Motion would be put, and one of the most active Members of the Opposition gave no indication in his speech that such a Motion was to be put down. When we come down here and one of our members is standing in his place in order to move the Amendment and is not called it is not giving us that courtesy which ought to be observed either by you, Sir, or anyone else. [Interruption.] It is not fair.

The hon. Member for Gorbals is deliberately accusing me of discourtesy to the House. If he has any grievance against me, he will kindly put a Motion down on the Order Paper.

I want your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to whether it is in Order for you to call upon a right hon. Gentleman who made no attempt to rise while I and other hon. Members on this Bench have been continually on our feet in order to move our Amendment.

All that can be put in the Motion to be put on the Paper. Mr. Lansbury—

I want to be as orderly as possible. Further to that point of Order, I want for my own benefit to understand the Rules of the House, and I want your guidance. I want to know whether it is in order for you, as Speaker of this House, to call upon a right hon. Gentleman when he is seated and has made no attempt to rise when other Members are on their feet?

12 n.

I do not propose to argue this question with hon. Members. They must put their Motion on the Order Paper.

On a point of Order. I want to ask you, Sir—I am not repeating charges against you at all, but to put this point to you very directly—whether, after having sounded the House in the ordinary way as to whether any other section were proposing to put an Amendment of this kind on the Order Paper; if it had been put down by any other section of the House we should not have put it down because they would be better supported than ourselves—but after having sounded the House and found that no other section, either Government back benchers or the Official Opposition, were taking such steps, we took the appropriate steps that are necessary under the rules of the House to Table our Amendment, then when it comes to the point of moving such an Amendment, our spokesman, who is on his feet, is not called while the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, who is not on his feet—

Order, order. The hon. Member is not in order in arguing the matter. He must put a Motion on the Order Paper.

Further to the point of Order. I am not seeking to argue with you or question your right, but surely I am entitled to be guided by you, as Speaker of this House and as the custodian of the Rules of the House. I have asked you a plain question and up to now you have not answered it. I want to know whether it is in order, and whether your duty allows you to call upon a right hon. Member who is not on his feet and who has shown no indication in that manner that he wants to speak, while I am not called although I am on my feet.

I should like to say that the Whips of the Opposition have had no communication with anybody in regard to this Motion for the Adjournment, and the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) has no right to say that he consulted all sections of the House on the matter.

I do not know what "sounded" may mean, but I want the House to understand that so far as we are concerned we were not consulted by anyone on this matter. I would also like to say that on the first occasion that I spoke as Leader of the small group which sits here, I said that I would safeguard the rights of the Opposition in this House; and the rights of the Opposition in this House are that they take precedence on an occasion of this kind, as Mr. Speaker has already laid down—[Interruption.] We intend to maintain that position. In moving that the House meets on 4th January, I think we shall have the support of almost every speaker who has so far addressed the House from the Government benches. When I listened to the right hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton) I wondered why he had not voted with us last night. He has said almost exactly what our Resolution said—that the Government had done nothing effective, done nothing for unemployment and, generally speaking that it had been the most incompetent Government of modern times. We ought not to leave the Government in this situation. The book that boys of my generation used to read, "Japhet in search of a Father," is nothing compared with a Cabinet in search of a policy. The going from pillar to post in the way that they are doing really would be amusing if it were not for the seriousness of the position. On the last occasion when a Motion of this kind was carried in this House, within a very short time the Government that brought it forward was dissolved and another Government took its place. I am wondering whether that is going to happen on this occasion, whether out of all the confusion that has arisen we shall not find ourselves confronted with a new kind of National Government in a few weeks time.

But, in all seriousness, the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) and the right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) really ought to go into the Lobby with us on this occasion. With regard to the unemployment that will be caused by the stoppage of work on the Cunard steamer, I would mention that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did not support us last night when we endeavoured to raise the whole question of governmental interference with trade and money. We cannot argue that subject on this Motion for the Adjournment. Exactly what the right hon. Gentleman said is the whole reason why both at the Election and several times during this short part of the Session we have raised the question of money and trade. I believe that from the ordinary point of view of industry, under ordinary normal conditions as they prevail to-day, not under Socialist conditions, if the Government tackled the question of credit and the monetary system we could do a very great deal to ameliorate the position. The Cunard Company probably know their own business best, but it is a fact that when the last Government gave the guarantee for the insurance the building of that ship was looked upon as something which would rehabilitate the passenger shipping industry of this country. Now, out of the blue as it were, has come the news that the company cannot carry on the work. I am sorry there is no Cabinet Minister here and that the President of the Board of Trade has gone. I would have liked to have put it to him, that after all it is not so much a question of someone finding money as it is of someone backing the undertaking. In spite of what has been said in the Memorandum of the Company and what has been said here to-day, I cannot understand that there is any real reason for giving up this work, except the fact that money is too dear at the moment.

Does the right hon. Gentleman allege that the Cunard Company is short of credit? Does he not realise that the ship would have to be run, and that if it is likely to incur immense losses the Company cannot build the ship?

I am aware of all that, and of the fact that a considerable amount of money has been spent, but I also know that the Company cannot pay the high rate of interest now prevailing. The Government could help in this.

On a point of Order. I was pulled up by you, Mr. Speaker, for dealing with this very same subject.

I was taking note of what the right hon. Gentleman was saying. He cannot discuss the merits of the Cunard Company, or the cessation of the building of this ship.

I do not want to dispute your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I would like to make one suggestion to the Government on the matter, but if I ought not to enlarge the scope of it I will not do so.