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Minister Of Education (Speech)

Volume 415: debated on Wednesday 31 October 1945

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

10.0 p.m.

I desire to call attention to a matter which, I am sure the House will agree, although it is in cheerful mood, is a matter of great importance. I suppose no one would deny that the threat of bread rationing in this country is a matter which should be treated with some gravity. I want to say nothing which could be described as discourtesy to the right hon. Lady the Minister of Education, who is, if I may be permitted to say so, an esteemed Member of our Assembly. [Hon. Members: "No, no."] Yes, I use the phrase deliberately. This is not a party matter, but a matter which has caused a great deal of perturbation in a number of homes in the country. The statement of the right hon. Lady has been directly contradicted by two Cabinet Ministers, and, however it might be considered here, it is not a matter which, outside this House, would be considered lightly. Therefore, I intend to deal with the matter seriously, to give the Government an opportunity, which I am sure they will be only too glad to take, of acknowledg ing that a mistake has been made in the speech which was delivered.

There is a precedent for this action. Some years ago, I made a speech, as a Member of the Government, on the subject of relations with Russia. That speech caused some criticism, and the present Under-Secretary of State for India raised the question on the Motion for the Adjournment. I venture to think that the words he used on that occasion apply exactly to the present situation. He said:
"A statement was made publicly by a British Cabinet Minister—"
that is, myself—
"—a right hon. Gentleman who is a member of the Cabinet, and, as such, his views were broadcast throughout the world. I think, therefore, that it is only right that these statements, if they be untrue, should be publicly withdrawn."
That is my justification for raising this matter to-night, and I hope the right hon. Lady will follow my example. I said a moment ago that I wanted to make no attack on her; in fact, I go further than that and say that I think she is to a great extent suffering because of the dislike of her colleagues to giving information. Indeed, of those who voted in a Gallup Poll on the question whether the Government gave sufficient information on questions agitating the country, over 50 per cent. said that they did not. I will quote examples—the refusal of the Government to give a specific answer on the number of personnel in the Armed Forces; their complete refusal to give any information as to the future Constitution of Palestine—a situation which has resulted in aggravating the troubles in that country—the refusal of the Minister of Health to give any information as to the number of houses being built, and the refusal of any Member of the Government to state what has been the effect of the dock strike on exports and imports.

The reason for this is obvious and there I must say that I think the Opposition and the Opposition Press have been extremely tolerant with the Government on this matter. Hon. Members opposite know perfectly well what the reason is, and nobody better than the Leader of the House, who is present to-night. The reason why the Government have denied information to the public about the calamitous effect of the dock strike is that it is politically inconvenient to call attention to the fact that a number of dockers, who are strong supporters of Socialism, have struck against their trade union leaders and also against the Socialist Government who are in effect, although not in name, their employers. No matter what the injury to the export trade or damage to the interests of the country, the object of the Government is to be very mild and say as little as possible, to say, "It is deplorable that these people should strike, and that we should have to bring in soldiers, but cry the whole thing down as much as possible in the Press and in the House, because if you do not you will show that a Socialist Government means universal strikes."[Laughter.] Hon. Members are inclined to laugh. I never mind a little laughter, but I can assure you that the people of this country, particularly in the constituencies where the dockers are striking, are not laughing at all at this situation. Hon. Members may think it funny, but other people do not. Hence, this undue reticence on the part of the Government.

The right, hon. Lady has been a victim, as I say, of the reticence of her own party. Being a very courageous person she is, to vary a well-known metaphor, the angel who rushed in where her male colleagues, the archangels, feared to tread. Her action would have been most public-spirited, so unlike that of her friends behind her, who treat this matter as a question of mirth. Her colleagues seem to take this strike as an extraordinarily funny thing. The right hon. Lady, who is considerably more courageous and more public-spirited than a great number of her supporters, thought it necessary to make a statement on the subject. I think it was a very valuable thing to have done, if her statement had not been directly contrary to the facts. There was only one thing wrong with it; it did not represent the facts. What was the statement? She spoke at Jarrow, in the midst of the dock strike, and one would have supposed that she would have consulted her right hon. Friend beside her who, from his appearance at this moment, seems to be a very genial person. But she did not consult him, nor did she consult the Minister of Labour. These are the words she used:
"Unless grain ships can be turned round quickly enough to get to Canada and away again before the St. Lawrence freezes, bread will have to be rationed in Britain this winter."
The House now being in serious mood may I say this: I stand here and assert at this Box and I have reason to know from correspondence which has reached a great number of Members, that that statement caused perturbation. I challenge hon. Gentlemen opposite to roar with laughter at that statement. They have at least got some sense of decency. The statement made by the right hon. Lady was completely contradicted yesterday by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour, who, I think, with a good deal of joy at being able to contradict his colleague, got up and said:
"I am happy to have the authority of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food to say there is no intention to ration bread."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 248.]
The Minister of Food went even further. I ask this specific question which I hope will be answered by the right hon. Lady or the Leader of the House: Can we have an assurance that, in future, in matters of grave moment affecting the welfare and the life of every person in this country, there will not be contradictory statements of this kind by Members of the Government, and that when it is necessary to make a statement on matters of important policy it will be made either by the head of the Government, the appropriate Minister concerned, or if any other Cabinet Minister makes it, he or she will do so with the authority of the Minister responsible and in this House? Failing that, I can assure Members of the Government opposite, to whom I am most grateful for the courtesy extended to me, and whose mirth—they think things funny that the rest of the world do not think funny; and they think things serious which the rest of the world regard as fantastic—and if I may indulge in a sense of humour, I would say that in forty years in this House I have never perceived such a remarkable collection as those who sit on the benches opposite.

10.10 p.m.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this matter tonight, because it gives me an opportunity of telling the House the exact facts of the situation, and of putting them in the proper perspective. I am a little surprised at the right hon. Gentleman, who has chosen to raise the matter in the House, because he has not, in the twenty years that we have sat together in this House, himself been noted as a model of discretion. Perhaps the simplest way in which I can deal with this matter is just to state facts. I was addressing some young people in my constituency which—I have to correct the right hon. Gentleman—is not thecentre of the dock strike; there are, I think, no dockers out on strike in that area. I talked to these young people, among other things, about trade unionism, and about the danger that unofficial strikes might break down effective trade union machinery. I told them that I was speaking not as a Cabinet Minister, but as a former trade union organiser. [An Hon. Member: "You cannot."] I am telling the House the facts. This is what I said. I am going to quote the actual words I used, and I believe that these were the words sent verbatim by the local reporter. I want to make it perfectly clear that it was a piece of honest reporting and that no blame whatever attaches to the reporter. Speaking of the dock strike, I said:

"While the weight of loss falls on the ordinary man and woman and especially on the troops facing the most difficult winter of the war. The dockers' children attending our primary schools can tell their fathers the date when the St. Lawrance freezes. Unless the grain ships can be turned round quick enough to get to Canada, and away again before that date, bread might have to be rationed here this winter. There are ships lying loaded in the docks full of hides now rotting that are desperately needed to make the shoes for children to go to school in."
That was what I said. This House is traditionally generous to those who make mistakes and honestly confess them. While I was speaking I thought I was giving a simple illustration of the possible consequences that might result if the strike was long continued. It did not occur to me, and I am sure it did not occur to anyone in the small group to whom I was speaking, that I was making a Cabinet pronouncement about rationing. Obviously that could and would only be made by the Minister of Food.

I do not blame the newspapers. I can see how they dramatised the news when it came over the wire in words quite divorced from their context. There is really nothing more that I can say, except to state to the House that while regretting the consequences that occurred, which I do not deny, I can merely say that in future I shall be very careful in the illustrations that I use in making speeches.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen Minutes past Ten o'Clock.