I do not want to cover the wider aspects of our whole economy on this Bill. In so far as I raise economic matters, it will only be in relation to the Bill which is now before the House.
In his opening speech, the Minister told us that the Government propose, by 1955, to introduce some permanent price control machinery. I must say I was surprised that the Minister deferred the introduction of permanent price control machinery until then because, in this House in 1950, the Minister made a peevish and intemperate speech about the uselessness of the Supplies and Services Bill of that year, saying that it was quite unnecessary and unwanted and that, in fact, it should be scrapped and permanent price legislation introduced in its place. Although that statement was made in this House in 1950 by the present Minister when he was sitting on the Opposition Benches, we are now told by him that it will be 1955—five years after that speech was made by the Minister from the Opposition Benches—before we see the permanent price legislation.
In view of the length of time which has elapsed since the Minister stated that the Supplies and Services Bill is unnecessary and unwanted and that it should be scrapped and permanent price legislation introduced in its stead, I do not know whether we shall see that legislation by the year 1955 or what the character of the legislation is likely to be. I have an unhappy feeling about price legislation and all the talk we have heard about price legislation over the past two years. We can see clearly that the Government are slipping away, day by day and month by month, from their responsibility for the regulation of prices in this country.
Week after week and month after month, Price Control Orders have been repealed. Week after week and month after month, something else is taken out of the control of the Prices Sectionof the Department of Industry and Commerce. Now, a whole collection of commodities have been allowed to ride free of any control or any effective supervision by the Department of Industry and Commerce—and we are going to have a further period of 18 months of it. How much of the remnants of price control will be here at the end of 18 months it is not possible, at this stage, to forecast. If the Government continue to shed responsibility for price control in the next 18 months as they have, in an accelerated way, shed that responsibility over the past two years, I venture to say that, 18 months hence, there will hardly be a Price Control Order in operation at all.
I am one of those people who believed, and still believe, that price control is imperative. It is imperative not merely in the general public interest but particularly in the case of those sections of our community who are compelled to live on subsistence standards. Price levels for them are not the basis of a mere academic discussion. Price levels for them determine the standard of living in their homes. If the Government adopt the attitude that price control is unnecessary and can easily be relinquished then for those people there will be a still bleaker outlook in the future than that which exists to-day.
If price control is necessary, price supervision is even more imperative. One may say that there is a sufficiency of goods on the market to ensure availability of supplies, but we must not forget that it is possible for groups and rings so to orientate themselves as to fix prices on the market at levels which give them an unreasonable return on their money. These days, people are struggling to make ends meet, to get the best possible value for meagre wages and to see that they get access to the sweet things of life. It is highly desirable that no group and no ring should feel that it is outside the range of supervision and control so far as price levels are concerned. Nobody will attempt to deny that the public confidence in price control, as exercised by the present Government during the past two years,has been rudely shaken. The public have a feeling that the Government have thrown away from their own control the range of supervision which, during the past two years, at least assured the public that their interests would be protected in some measure against the rapacity of those who wanted to exact the highest possible price for anything they produced or sold.
I do not think it will be easy for the Minister or the Government to ride away from what should be their obvious responsibility—that is, to give the public an efficient system of price regulation, price control and, above all, price supervision so as to ensure that there will be no exploitation of the public and especially of the weakest and most defenceless section of the community. Price control and price supervision are necessary for other reasons also. Of course, the public do not take a deep and scholarly interest in the factors which affect price levels nor in the factors which go to make the ultimate wholesale and retail prices. All they know is that every time prices rise and wages remain static, their standard of living is correspondingly reduced. In the public interest, as well as from the point of view of promoting a wider knowledge of the factors which enter into price control and price regulation, I think there ought to be a permanent prices tribunal which, from time to time, would be asked to examine price levels in particular industries and, by means of a public hearing, to hold a full examination of all the factors which are involved in the fixation of prices.
In that way, the public would be enabled to appreciate the factors which are at work and which ultimately determine the prices which they pay for the commodities which they purchase. I hope that when the Minister is replying to this debate he will give us some more information in respect of the future character of the price control machinery than we have got from him so far. At most, we have an idea that, by 1955, some type of machinery will be produced. We have heard rather vague references to a Bill which the Minister introduced in thisHouse many years ago and which he subsequently abandoned. I think the Title of the Bill was the Price Regulation and Efficiency Bill. Beyond a vague reference to that Bill, and an intimation that we will see some kind of price regulation machinery in 18 months' time, we have no idea whatever of the direction in which the Government's mind is travelling, but we do know that, every day, the Government are shedding more and more of the responsibility which, previously, they had in regard to price control. I do not think it would be irrational to bet or prophesy to-day that when this Bill goes through both Houses of the Oireachtas, more Price Control Orders will be repealed.
It has lately become fashionable at dinners, functions and other occasions, for Ministers to talk in terms of approval and pride of what they describe as "price stability." What is the basis for all this ranting about price stability?
What are the facts about price stability to-day? Can anybody deny that prices are higher to-day than they have ever been in the past 30 years? Do the Government's figures issued by the Central Statistics Office not prove that the prices of commodities to-day are higher than they were in 1923, 30 years ago? Does everybody not know to-day that prices are higher in Ireland than at any time of peace in living memory? Never before in times of peace have we hit the price level we have hit to-day. In face of these unchallengeable facts, we get people preening themselves that we have reached price stability. We are now expected to take pride in the fact that we are paying 4/2 for butter that we could buy a couple of years ago for 2/10, but because we get the privilege of paying 4/2 for it, and have had that privilege regularly, constantly and with stability for the past 16 months, we are obliged to believe that there is a virtue in the stability which makes us pay 4/2 for 2/10 butter. That is called price stability.
We have another privilege to-day, of course, masquerading under the euphemism of price stability, that thepeople are now paying 5/- a lb. for 2/8 tea. They have been paying that 5/- a lb. for it for the past 16 months, and now they are told to cheer up, to forget their wounds and their sorrows because we have reached price stability, which takes the form of having to pay 5/- a lb. for 2/8 tea, or, as Deputy Byrne says, 9d. for the loaf they could get 18 months ago for 6d. Then we have people saying that is price stability. Would it not be a damned good job if we had no price stability, if that is what is masquerading as price stability—gearing prices up to this high level and telling the people that they ought to be glad they have that stability?
Let us look at the stability we have. I asked a question recently to ascertain the number of commodities that had varied in price since 14th June, 1951. A natural kindness and regard for the feelings of Deputies prevents me going completely through this document, but it is a document of six pages showing increases in prices since June, 1951, which is pretty good going in a short period. What is the range of commodities which have increased in price? I will not go through them all; I will be satisfied to touch on those that affect the ordinary man and woman. This document shows increases in sweets, milk, peas, yeast, fuel, petrol, paraffin oil, methylated spirits, coal, coke, electricity, gas, cigarettes, tobacco, agricultural machinery, bicycles, and various kinds of building materials. There is a source of consolation in the fact, as the House will be glad to hear, that one firm has reduced the price of pot scourers by 3/6 a gross on the wholesale price. Other commodities which have gone up in price are sewing threads, slates, tablet soap, springs of all kinds, steel of all kinds and tiles.
Coming to the food and drink group, we find that these are up in price: ale, beer, stout, whiskey, bread, flour and wheaten meal, creamery butter, cheese, cocoa, condensed milk, cream milk, unsweetened condensed milk, sugar and oatmeal. In face of these increases, what is the purpose of telling us that we have reached stability?Has this Government in the past two years not been responsible for lifting the price level in that short period by a percentage which has not applied to any other period of two years since this State was formed 31 years ago? In face of these facts, it seems to me to be nothing short of a cynical mockery of the people's sufferings that we should be talking about price stability at the same time and in the same year as the Government issues that long litany of price increases inflicted on the community by the policy of the Department and the policy of the Government.
Does everybody not know perfectly well that it is harder to live to-day for the ordinary man and woman than it has ever been in the past 30 years? At a recent meeting of the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society in Dublin, references were made by people, who are not members of political Parties but religious, indicating that there was widespread unemployment and poverty in this city. Anybody with any connection with these charitable organisations knows that their funds now are not capable of alleviating one tithe of the distress they are called upon to relieve in consequence of the worsening economic situation.
Let us look at the plight of those of our people who are compelled to exist on social welfare benefits. Thanks to this Government's policy of increasing prices by more than 20 per cent. in the past two years, grievous hardships have been inflicted on many helpless men and women and young children up and down this country. Take the case of the old age pensioner and relate the position of that man or woman to the problem of endeavouring to exist on the meagre pittances which they receive to-day under our social welfare legislation. According to an answer by the Taoiseach in the House, on the 1939 value the £ is now 8/7. The old age pensioner to-day receives as a maximum 21/6, and interpreting that sum in terms of 1939 purchasing power, that person is living to-day on less than he or she had in 1939. In other words, although the old age pensioner of 1939 had an old age pension of 10/-,which nobody was prepared to say was adequate for that person's requirements, to-day, because of the increase in the cost of living, that person is trying to exist on a purchasing power which is less than that of 1939.
Take then the case, in relation to prices, of widows and orphans. The new maximum widows' and orphans' pension, the pension paid to a widow with two children, is 38/- a week. Thanks to the rise in the price level, that person is now getting in terms of 1939 purchasing power no more than 18/- per week. Nobody will say that was a reasonable competence on which to expect a person to exist in 1939, and yet to-day we are giving that person only 18/- per week in terms of 1939 purchasing power to sustain herself and her two children.
When you move from that into the other categories of human beings dependent on our social services, you find the very same catastrophic effects on their economy. Their standard of living has been debased. Their efforts to exist are efforts which inflict upon them intense pain and suffering. I should like in that connection to refer to a letter which I received from a constituent this evening asking could she get any home assistance. Her husband is 73 years of age and she is 68. The two of them are living on 21/6 a week. I endeavoured to get home assistance for this poor unfortunate soul and the home assistance officer, when he visited her, asked her had she any live stock and how she fed the live stock. She had not as much as a hare on her bit of ground. She says in the letter that last week she had to pay 14/11 for a shirt for her husband and 3/10 for two ounces of tobacco. "You can imagine," she says, "how much I would have for feeding live stock, seeing that I have got to spend these two amounts out of 21/6 a week." It is idle to pretend that we have a healthy economy while you have cases like that. They can be duplicated up and down the country in every city and town, and furnish a clear indication that there is much yet to be done before we can view with any optimistic complacency the economic position of this country to-day. I think it is no wonder thatin consequence of the rise in price levels we have had an aggravation of the whole unemployment position.
Documents issued to Deputies in the past few days contain some startling news. We see that in the week from the 24th to the 31st October the number of unemployed in that week alone had risen by 8,000—8,000 up in consequence of the termination of the Employment Period Order.