§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ Mr. BARNES
I rise to call attention to a question in which much interest is taken by the manual labouring classes throughout the country, and by an ever-increasing number of all sections of the community. Briefly summarised, that view can be said to be that the consumer has too long been left to the tender mercy 436 of the food speculator, that the new programme of the Government in regard to wheat is long overdue, and that a good deal more may still have to be done which is not included in the proposals of the Government up to date. The Government have done a little to deal with this matter during the last two years and the few months since the War began. They have done a little in regard to coal, after setting up about half a dozen Committees. They have done a little in regard to many other things, but, speaking generally, I think it may be said that every step taken during the last two years has been taken haltingly and nervously, as if they had been afraid of the course they were going to follow, and has been taken so slowly that most of the opposing interests have had time to put their house in order and largely neutralise the benefits to the public that would have accrued. I cannot help thinking that the Government have had at the back of their minds a mournful, lingering feeling of regret for the demise of an antiquated system or principle which, as soon as the War began, was promptly thrown overboard as useless and dangerous for the purpose of fighting the War. It has, however, been allowed to do its worst, or nearly its worst, in regard to the civil population. The policy of laissez faire is no more good in regard to social economics than it is in regard to fighting the War. I submit to the President of the Board of Trade that it is as dead as Queen Anne, and the sooner he recognises that fact and makes up his mind to step forward a good deal more boldly upon the lines of regulation and control, the better for all concerned.
It is more than two years ago since a deputation, consisting of trade unionists, co-operators, and other interests connected with the labour movement, waited on the Government and urged that a certain course should be taken. The Government were then asked to do that which is being partly done now. That is to say, representations were made that the Government should buy up all the foreign wheat, and further, that they should buy up the whole crop, which was then, I believe, making 35s. or 30s. a quarter. I believe the proposition was that it should be bought up at 40s., or something like that. That was not done, and ever since, during these last two years, food speculators, including the British farmer, have lined their pockets with the pickings from 437 the poor man's loaf. That is bad, and must be discontinued. I put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer some months ago in regard to the profits of shipowners, and the answer I received indicates, to some extent, the mind of the Government on this matter. I cited a case in which a number of ship dealers in Cardiff or Newport had made an immense sum of money; I believe about £3,000,000, and I suggested that the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to have had that £3,000,000. He replied that he was quite content to have taken what was due under the Excess Profits Tax, and not to take the whole amount, because he said it was necessary to leave in the hands of the shipowners a certain amount of money for the replacement of ships after the War. I cannot help thinking that that indicates a bland and childlike faith in the shipowners and ship dealers of this country, which had not been justified, at all events, up to that date—that he should leave in their hands illegitimate profits in the expectation that they should buy ships with those profits after the War. On that preposterous plea the ship dealers were practically given a taxing authority over the people of this country. That is bad.
Nothing has so angered the people of this country during the last two years as the enormous profits made off the people's food, except it has been the shameless excuses put up for them by the Government's spokesmen. Anything that I may have to say will be in the direction of encouraging the Government to go on in the new course they seem to have cut out for themselves. I am glad to welcome the Wheat Commission, and to know that the Government have at last taken some steps to deal with what had become a crying evil. But there are one or two things that I would like to mention in connection with the Wheat Commission. I am not very clear as to the powers of the Wheat Commission. I should like to be assured that they have the power not only to buy wheat abroad, but to buy the whole supply coming to this country from abroad. I think they ought to have the same power of buying at home as well as abroad. It is all very well to give them power to buy abroad, but I see no reason why the Government should not apply at home the same principle in regard to wheat as they have already applied in regard to the wool clip. Why should not this Commission be authorised to buy the 438 wheat of this country at a price, at a fair price, which could be ascertained, having regard to the increase in the cost of production since the War began, which could be added to the then price? As a matter of fact, the Government have already done that sort of thing with labour. Labour is now tied up to particular workshops under the Munitions Act; it cannot go where it can get higher wages. Having, therefore, thrown over the economic principle in regard to labour, I see no reason why the farmer should not be dealt with in the same way.
Why is this Wheat Commission a Commission entirely of so-called experts? I used to have a great regard for experts, and I have now, more or less, in their proper sphere; but I cannot get out of my mind an experience I had upstairs with regard to experts. I was one of a Committee of four who sat to consider a railway Bill. We had experts on both sides. Going up to the Committee a more or less unsophisticated sort of fellow, I was much impressed with the first lot of experts. It seemed to me that nothing in the world could beat down the case for a certain course being taken until I had heard the experts from the other side, who said exactly opposite what had been told us by the first lot of experts. Since then my faith in experts has considerably diminished. Therefore, I think there ought to be some representation on the Wheat Commission apart from experts, and I think there ought to be representation of the consumers in the country. The interests of the consumers, I think, are not safely left merely with experts, and I would suggest to the Government and to the President of the Board of Trade that something ought to be done, even now, so that there may be representation of the consumers on the Wheat Commission. Another question which I would like to put in regard to this matter is, Why you have left out the bakers? I believe that powers have been given to the Commission to buy foreign wheat, and I believe that further powers should be given in regard to buying wheat at home. I believe they are empowered to deal with the miller. Why not the baker? Hon. Members will remember that a certain scandal occurred at the beginning of the War, when a large firm of bakers in the West of England, I forget their name—
§ Mr. BARNES
At all events, bakers did the same thing—made huge profits. I have a case in my mind in Scotland where a large firm of bakers made a large sum of money owing, as I think, to illegitimate profits. Therefore, I think the Government might go further and authorise this Wheat Commission to deal with all the stages of production, from the wheatfield right down to the bread delivered at the working man's door. I know that there is the difficulty that if you fix the price for a large baker you may possibly fix a price at which a small shopkeeper baker cannot live. I have every sympathy with the small shopkeeper, small baker, or any other kind, because I am perfectly sure that he is at present fighting an almost hopeless battle. The small shopkeeper very often conducts his business in back streets with the help of his wife and children when the children ought to be playing or at school. I believe that he is an anomaly altogether, and in this particular war I do not think that we ought to have regard to the small baker, but that the interests of the consumer ought to come first. Therefore, I think that the Government should consider fixing the price of bread as well as regulating the price of flour from abroad, as we hope they will.
Now, in regard to beef. I suppose that nothing could have prevented a considerable rise in the price in this country, because there have been various factors working in that direction. The countries who are at war in alliance with us have had great destruction in their herds, and they have had to buy very largely in cases in which, I believe, that they did not buy prior to the War. There has been a large increase also in the price of feeding-stuffs, and I suppose that that accounts more or less for the rise of from 60 to 80 per cent. in the price of wheat. I find considerable consolation in the fact that, though the price has risen with us, it has risen a great deal more in Berlin and Vienna. According to the Committee's Report issued the other day, I find that in Berlin it has risen 198 per cent., and in Vienna no less than 344 per cent. I hope that it will go up in these countries still more, because the more it goes up in Germany, Austria, and in the other countries against us, I suppose the sooner this horrible War will be concluded. And I would like to say here that I endorse entirely the tone and language of the Prime Minister last week when he said 440 that there is only one ending to this War, that is, getting reparation for past mischief and some security against its repetition for the future.
Next, take bacon. I have said I believe that a considerable rise in wheat was more or less inevitable. I do not think that the same is true of bacon. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, to whose persistency in the matter I would like to pay a tribute, some weeks ago elicited figures from the Front Bench in regard to the importation of bacon. I believe that the importation of bacon has been nearly doubled during the War, and my hon. Friend suggested that the rise was not a question of the supply being limited so much as one of manipulation on the part of the Yankee speculators, and therefore the same principle does not apply to bacon as applies to meat. In spite of that, we find that bacon has gone up very considerably in price, almost if not quite as much as beef. I am glad to know that the Government has done something in regard to freights so as to put the matter at a reasonable rate. I believe that they now control the tonnage from South America and from the Dominions, and I would suggest that somehow or other they should control the tonnage to some extent from the States, and if possible bring these Yankee speculators to book, so that they should not be, as they are now, making these large profits from bacon.
I come now to milk. Milk is one of the most important items in the food problem. Milk is necessary for children of all classes, especially the children of the soldiers who are fighting for us at the front, for sickly people generally, and for all those people who ought to be our special care. There are lots of those people who cannot buy it at the price at which it is now to be bought. Milk is one of those things that were very constant in price prior to the War. I can go back for many years before the War, and during the whole of that time milk was practically the one price, 4d. a quart. It was as unvarying in price as four ale, which has also gone up in price 50 per cent. In that case the rise is due to a tax, whereas everyone knows that it is not a tax on the dairy farmer which has increased the price of milk. It ought to be easy to deal with the farmer in this matter, and it should be dealt with at once. The milk is all produced in the country. Therefore it should be easier to deal with it than with beef which has to 441 be brought from all over the world, and is dealt with by American and other speculators, and I cannot help thinking that if the President of the Board of Trade would only put his head into it, with the Board of Agriculture, something might be done to bring the cost of milk down to a more reasonable level. I do not mean to say that he should put his head into the milk pan, but rather into the milk question. Milk is now 6d. a quart, and that that price is unnecessary is proved by the fact that there are plenty of dairymen who are not so greedy as others, who are now selling it at 5d. Not more than two or three miles from where I live there is a dairyman in Peckham who is, and has been, selling his milk at 5d. a quart, and he sells the milk of town cows. That is to say he feeds them at his place, and therefore he has not the advantage which the dairy farmers have in the country now of having had a unusually heavy crop of grass this year. If that man can sell his milk for 5d. it should be equally easy for other men in London to sell at the same price. Again, many of the cooperative societies are selling at 5d. a quart, and one the other day in the Midlands I saw was making a handsome dividend by selling it at 5d. Therefore, the conclusion is that milk might be sold at a much lower price than that at which it is now sold. It is not sold at the lower price because, as I believe, of manipulation and waste.
Let me give you an instance of manipulation which I take from the case of the Cheshire Milk Producers' Association. I find that this association announced yesterday that practically all the farmers had made their milk contract on the basis of the association's prices. During the negotiations twelve hundred gallons of milk a day were delivered to the association's factories for conversion into cheese. Some of this has now been withdrawn and put on the market for public consumption. That seems to me to be an instance of manipulating the milk supply in a way contrary to public interests, and it ought to be the business of some public Department to see that that is not done. I gave an instance last week. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has yet considered it. I sent him a circular, sent out, I think, by the Somerset and Wilts Farmers' Association, in which the secretary actually encouraged the farmers, who are members of that association, rather than send their milk to 442 Bournemouth, at a price at which they said they could not sell it, to give it to the pigs. A day or two ago I had a letter from an Eastern town in which the writer tells an instance where an association is even doing worse than that. Instead of giving it to the pigs they are putting it down drains. He says:Our milk is nearly all produced in the neighbourhood and there is very little expense to get it. It is mostly within van distance, but there is the Trust to contend with, the East Anglican Dairy Farmers'" Association. There are a lot of milk retailers who keep no cows and buy all their milk from that association. Great pressure has been put upon the retailers by dark and insidious methods to make the price 6d. retail.But perhaps the most interesting part is that in which he tells of a man belonging to this farmers' association who has been throwing down the drains as much as thirty gallons of milk that remained unsold. The man said that the association used the heavy grass crop of this season and had been getting more milk than was required to meet their orders.
The right hon. Gentleman has clearly pointed out this gentleman as an individual, and not as a member of the association. Does he say that this was done under instructions?
§ Mr. BARNES
I hope that I did not convey this impression. I said most directly that in the other case there were direct instructions to give the milk to the pigs. I make no such allegation here. It is the case of a farmer who happens to be a member of this particular association who has been giving instructions that milk should be put down the drain instead of increasing the supply to a particular town.
§ Mr. BARNES
I am not authorised to give the farmer's name. I have written asking leave to give the name, but that has not come to hand, and therefore I do not give the name. But it is quite enough that this letter says so. I have had numerous letters of the same character, and I think that there is no doubt that the practice has been indulged in by farmers in different parts of the country- 443 The Food Prices Committee the other Say said, and quite truly, that milk has an economic relation with cheese and beef, and this brings me to the first of three propositions that I shall lay down in regard to this milk question. The Food Prices Committee is quite clear that it is open to the farmer, any time he thinks proper, to cease dairying and to turn his cows into beef or his milk into cheese. I submit that it should not be possible for the dairy farmer to do anything of the kind. What has happened in regard to labour? Are we allowed to go here and there exactly as we like? Suppose I was depending upon earning my living as an engineer, which I used to do; if I work in a munition shop I shall have to stay there as long as the War lasts. That principle is carried out in regard to the labour world. The idea of economic law has been thrown overboard. Moreover, it has been thrown overboard not only in regard to the labour world, but men are now taken, willy-nilly, and put into the Army and have got to stay there in the trenches at a shilling a day.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
It is true, as my right hon. Friend says, that the munitions worker is not allowed to leave the works, but his wages are not reduced.
§ Mr. BARNES
His wages are fixed. He does not get the benefit which otherwise would result to him from the abnormal demand for his labour. The right principle is that the interests of the State must transcend the interests of a particular man.
§ Mr. BARNES
I ask the Government to apply the same principle to the dairymen, and that, during the War, once a dairyman always a dairyman. That is a sound principle, and I think it a fair principle. It is the principle which is applied to other people than dairymen, and I submit that to the consideration of the right hon. Gentleman. The second principle I want to submit to him is that it ought to be made a penal offence to destroy milk or to withhold milk from the market. I will not go so far as to say that it ought to be a penal offence to manipulate milk for cheese making and so on, but, at all events, it should be a 444 penal offence to limit the supply either by destroying milk or in any other way. The third thing I wish to submit to the right hon. Gentleman is that some effort ought to be made to ascertain what may be called a reasonable price for milk. Agitations are going on in London on this subject, and I have taken part in them myself at Streatham Common and elsewhere, and I know that there is to be a meeting in Hyde Park next Saturday. All sorts of statements are made at these meetings, which may or may not be true, but I believe all those who make them think they are true. Why should not the Government, with all the machinery at its disposal, ascertain what is the increased cost of production among farmers? It ought to be easy to learn to what extent the farmers' legitimate cost has been increased during the last two years and two months. It ought to be possible for the Government Department to ascertain to what extent it was reasonable to increase the price of milk since the War began. I submit that if these three principles were carried out milk would come down from the illegitimate price of 6d. a quart, which it bears now, and which is the cause of many children having gone without milk that they ought to have had, and, therefore, the cause very likely of future trouble in the community.
I wish to make another suggestion about milk, leading up to the question of a Food Minister. I am a Scotsman, and I suppose, therefore, a logically minded sort of fellow; and it occurred to me the other day that it was an extraordinary thing that milk should be carted about the country over long distances in the way it is, seeing that the bulk of it consists of 80 per cent. of water. Is it not possible to take the milk out of the water before conveying it in carts or on railways? I do not say it is a practicable proposal for adoption to-morrow. I know that it is quite easy to put water into milk, but what I am submitting is that there ought to be some process by which the milk can be separated from the water which is in it before it is transported. That is done in America, and why should we not do it ourselves? That is my suggestion. Instead of using railway tonnage, and carting milk about the country in its present heavy form, why cannot the water be extracted and water reintroduced at the place where it is consumed? By such a process a great saving would be achieved. That ought to be done by a Government 445 Department, in order that the consumer may get the benefit of its being done. I know it is done in America, and that milk, in that form, is imported. I want to see it done on some proper and scientific scale by a Government Department; in other words, I think the time has come when we ought to have in this country a Food Minister. I make all allowances in regard to the President of the Board of Trade. After all, the Board of Trade is a sort of maid of all work; it has to deal with shipping and commerce and all sorts of things, in addition to labour and food. I think that food and labour might very well be jettisoned by the Board of Trade, who will have plenty to do, especially in regard to the recent Paris Conference and the resolutions passed there, and in respect of all the questions of social and industrial reconstruction that will come up after the War. I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Henderson) has been gathering up all the tangled threads of labour. I suppose the object he has in mind is to get the nucleus of a Labour Department. The same thing might be done with regard to food, and I hope that some time or another it will be done. I believe there is a sort of war-time psychology just now in regard to food. People have been trained to expect a rise in prices, and food speculators take particular care that the expectation is realised. There is a passage in the Food Prices Committee's Report in regard to the retail price. The Report says:To fix the retail price would involve taking into account all the items of the increased cost of living in the case of the retailer—I am glad to see the Chairman of the Committee is here, and perhaps he will be able to explain it later on—such as taxation, food, clothing, labour, horse-feed, cans, etc.I thought, in my simplicity, that the increased war tax paid during the last year or two by the retailer of milk was intended to be paid by the retailer, instead of which the Committee appear to be encouraging the retailer to turn over his burden to the unfortunate consumer. I may be wrong, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman opposite will put me right if I am wrong in regard to that matter. At all events, a Food Minister would be able to do something to put that sort of thing right. As a matter of fact, the Report which the Food Prices Committee issued the other day seem to be only a sort of running comment upon the prices move- 446 ment. I think we ought to have some Government authority to keep a watchful eye, and a heavy hand, if it be necessary, to exercise control in these matters. We have not got that now, and it seems to me we cannot have it until we have a proper authority. In time we may have food tickets in this country, and if we are going to have them it seems to me that we should not wait until we are forced into their use, and then be unprepared. I believe I am quite right in thinking that most of us eat and drink too much, with the result that we lessen the supply to the poor and therefore increase the prices which the poor have to pay. I believe that there is still a great deal of waste on the part of the rich. The other day I read in a daily newspaper that it is still customary in the West End to supply dinners at £1 per head, and sometimes a good deal more than that; and I read, quite recently, that 2s. 6d. was paid for a peach and 2s. for a pear. This is no time for that sort of extravagance, and where it is indulged in by the rich to that extent they are simply increasing the burden on the poor. I trust that will be kept in mind.
To control it seems to me to involve dealing with it, not by a Board such as the Board of Trade, which has many other things to do, but by an authority which has nothing elese to do except to look after the food question. Then there is the question of confectionery. As I go about the country, and as I go about London, I see that expensive confectionery is rather more common now than it was two years ago. If I remember aright, we have been told that sugar is 120 per cent. higher in price than it was two years ago. To what extent is that due to the consumption of sugar in the manufacture of sweetstuffs that people are far better without? That is a matter which, in my opinion, ought to be made the business of a Minister of Food. One other point to which I wish to refer has reference to the value of money, and how that value of money is affected by taxation. I have given my opinion before on this matter, and I repeat it now, that heavy as is taxation in the country, it ought to be heavier still, and that, as a matter of more honest policy in paying our way as far as possible, we ought to have taxed the rich a great deal more than we have as yet taxed them; and, if we had done that, it seems to me it would 447 at all events to some extent have discouraged this sort of luxurious living which, as I have stated, is still being practised in the West End. The corollary of that is the question of loans, and the more loans are raised the more the value of the currency reduced. These are things which I have mentioned over and over again and I have received no answer to them from the Front Bench. I submit that the Government have not taken the firm steps in the matter of food prices that they might have done. I welcome an indication of firmer action in the appointment of the Wheat Commission, and I may be allowed to express the hope that now the Government have taken this new step they will see to it that, as speedily as possible and so far as they have power, the people of this country will have food made available to them at the most reasonable prices possible.
I would not have intervened so early in the Debate had it not been for the allegation made by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken that thousands of gallons of milk are being poured down the sewers either at the farmhouses or on the premises of those to whom the farmers sell their milk.
I do not know what happens in Scotland; I am not acquainted with what is going on in that country, but I think the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the East of England. A similar story came from the West of England a fortnight ago, and was announced as a fact by the "Evening News." I took the opportunity of challenging the "Evening News" to name the individual to whom reference was made, and who was alleged to have done exactly the same thing as the right hon. Gentleman suggests has been done in the East of England. No reply has yet been forthcoming as to the identity of the individual in the West of England, and I defy the right hon. Gentleman opposite to produce the name of the person to whom he refers in the East of England against whom he made the allegation. I think it is most unfair, in the face of the serious increase in the cost of food and the undoubted distress which many poor people will have to face this winter, that an allegation of this cruel character should be made, either in this House or 448 through the public Press anonymously, without any possibility of identifying those who, by suggestion, are inculpated. It is cruel to those who, in the course of coming months, will have to pay very high prices for the food they will consume; and if the right hon. Gentleman can by any means discover—I do not think he will be able—the name of any person or persons among the farming community who are pouring milk down their drains at the present time, I hope he will be honest enough to announce those names to the House of Commons or through the Press.
The right hon. Gentlemen made a good many surprising statements—surprising from the point of view of agriculturists. He asked whether it was not possible to control the price of wheat in much the same way as the Board of Trade tries to control the price of milk to some extent. Surely the answer to that is that practically the whole of the milk consumed in this country is produced here, and therefore there is a natural protection for it, whereas not more than 18 per cent. of the wheat which is consumed in the United Kingdom is grown there. That presents to the Government a difficulty which they cannot possibly get over when they are asked to control the prices of wheat in the same manner as they control the prices of coal or milk which enjoy a monopoly, because the whole of the home supplies are produced within our borders. You cannot, in times of crises like these, make good defects in our agricultural system which are due to Government neglect for at least a generation before the outbreak of this War. The right hon. Gentleman, in his suggestions as to the price of milk, suggested that 6d. per quart was too high a price under existing circumstances and conditions. I quite agree. I think it is if you take the average for the whole country. But do not let it be thought that anything like 6d. per quart goes into the pockets of those who actually produce the milk. A large portion represents the profits of the middleman, and, in some cases, of several middlemen. I believe the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is suggesting to various farmers that they should not charge a greater price for their milk than 1s. 3d. per gallon.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Pretyman)
One and fourpence.
I am very glad to hear the hon. Gentleman has fixed it at that low figure. I am bound to say I see no reason, at any rate under the conditions as they exist to-day—of course, I cannot say what may be the case three months hence—for any farmer in this country charging more than 1s. 4d. per gallon for his milk. If that is so, and if farmers are restricted to that figure, I would ask the House and the hon. Gentleman to look with great care at the actual price charged to consumers in our towns. I think if he does he will find that the margin of profit to-day passing to the dealers and middlemen is far greater, bearing in mind the cost of cattle and of feeding stuffs, than is that passing to the majority of the farmers who keep milch cattle. One indication of the difficulties under which dairy farmers are carrying on their business is that at almost every market centre in England to-day milch cattle and heifers are unfortunately being sold to the butcher in increasing quantities instead of being retained to produce milk as heretofore. If it were possible, I should like to see strong Government action taken against those farmers who are putting milch cattle on the market to be converted into beef in existing conditions.
I do find that in the West of England a large quantity of milk which formerly used to pass to consumers in provincial towns is being, at the present time, bought up by agents of chocolate and cocoa factories. I suggest to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman that, considering the cost of milk to-day and the loss which the juvenile population of our towns particularly is suffering in consequence of the high price of milk, no milk ought to be bought for conversion into milk chocolate which, before the War, was bought for the purpose of consumption as milk by the population of our towns. Milk chocolate is a comparatively modern product. We could perfectly well do without it ten years ago, and surely there is no necessity for introducing milk into our chocolate in times like these!
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Blackfriars Division suggests that the farmers should not be allowed to convert milk into cheese. I honestly hope that the Government will not listen to such advice as that, and I hope so for two main reasons. First of all, because cheese is, from the point of view of its nutritive value, the nearest equivalent to 450 meat, and if the population is bound to go without meat, or to eat less meat, cheese is unquestionably the best substitute they can buy. The other reason for hoping that cheese production will be in no way limited or reduced is that because the bulk of the farmers on the farms which are producing cheese are giving the whey, which is the chief by-product of cheese, to their pigs, and this alone is keeping the price of bacon below a figure at which it would be impossible for poor people to obtain it. If you restrict cheese-making you will make bacon much more expensive than it is to-day, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman who so ably presided over the destinies of the Board of Agriculture in days gone by will support me in what I say as to the necessity for maintaining the production of cheese.
We have had a very interesting statement this last week from the right hon. Gentleman as to the measure of control which he proposes to exercise over the imports of wheat. Personally, I am in entire sympathy with those proposals, but with one proviso, and that is that no steps shall be taken by the Government to throw large quantities of imported wheat upon the market at any one time, because violent fluctuations in the wheat market—and at times during the last twelve months they have been very violent—cause an enormous unsettlement in the minds of millers and farmers. After all, the farmer does not sow his wheat unless, taking into account his labour and the cost of the raw material, he can grow it at a profit. And when wheat on one day is at 65s. per quarter, and within a fortnight stands at a little over 40s. per quarter, such a condition of affairs frightens the farmer. I am not quoting exact figures. I think the lowest price it has fallen to was 46s. But any fall of that magnitude is quite enough to deter a large wheat-growing farmer, in view of the serious shortage of labour, putting in any more wheat than he can possibly help. And that difficulty must be caused if the Government, which now has control of such an enormous quantity of the world's supply of wheat, throws it in large quantities on the market at any one time. I believe it is impossible for the Government to store, in silos or granaries, any considerable quantity of wheat because such buildings do not exist in this country, and it is impossible to utilise ordinary buildings for that purpose. That seems to make it all the more 451 difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to deal with these hundreds of thousands of quarters of wheat when they arrive in this country. But I should like to have some assurance from him that these imports will be so dealt with as not to seriously unsettle the wheat markets of this country.
I realise that we have now reached a stage when our national requirements of men outweigh considerations for maintaining the production of food on the farms of this country. I am very glad that the Government have at last made a perfectly straightforward and candid statement on this subject in announcing that men shall not be retained—I mean men of military age and otherwise eligible—upon farms after the 31st December next, or, in the case of the dairying interest, beyond the 31st March next. But I think it is only fair to ask that some effective and efficient substitutes shall be found when these men are withdrawn. I cannot say in many parts of the country that some of the substitutes which the War Office have been seeking to provide have at all answered the requirements of the farmers, and to show how serious the present position is as regards the maintenance of our home food supplies, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, according to official figures, there has been this year a decrease of the wheat area in Great Britain, as compared with last year, of not less than 260,000 acres, and also we have to face the fact that the wheat crop this year stands at 88½ per cent. only of the full average crop reckoned over the period of the last ten years, and that the average yield per acre has sunk to thirty-one bushels as compared to something between thirty-two and thirty-three bushels at which it has stood during the last decade. The truth is that the land of England and Wales—I cannot speak for Scotland—is growing increasingly foul, and its productive capacity is being very seriously affected. As each war year passes that difficulty unfortunately will become more pronounced, and the produce per acre will become proportionately reduced. But if these able-bodied workers on the farms, including all your skilled workers of military age who formerly were exempted, are going to be withdrawn from the farms, that condition is bound 452 to become greatly aggravated. We have been told only this afternoon by the President of the Board of Agriculture that a considerable area of land which was previously cultivated has unfortunately become derelict this year. I have not the area of that land, but 112,000 additional acres are lying fallow this autumn which this last summer were under farm crops. These figures show an alarming tendency, especially if the increased proportion of food which has got to come from overseas is in any way interrupted in its passage—its very long passage in the case of Australia—to the shores of this country.
Can we not develop some policy which will release for the purposes of farming a considerable number of more or less suitable persons who have hitherto not been utilised for those purposes? There are, to my knowledge, being discharged from the Army a considerable number of soldiers who are perfectly fit to carry on some agricultural process or other, but for some reason it is very difficult to obtain the services of these men even when their discharge is finally decided upon. In some cases these men have been quite efficient farm workers. By way of contrast, I may mention that in my own district, at any rate in the early part of the War, we had in our Bed Cross Hospitals a large number of Belgian soldiers who, after their discharge, were to be found on many local farms, where they did quite excellent work, and some of them are to be found there at the present time. But when it comes to getting British discharged soldier labour it is infinitely more difficult, and the amount of "red-tapeism" which appears to stand in the way makes it a hopeless task for most farmers and their friends. We are told that the War Office are affording every facility during harvest-time and other periods when the need of men is greatest for allowing soldiers serving at home to go and work on the land, but in those parts of the country which are remote from the large camps it has been found very difficult to get efficient labour of that character. In the East of England, as Sir Ailwyn Fellowes has testified this afternoon in another place, they have succeeded. In Norfolk and Suffolk it has been found possible to secure, on the whole, very efficient soldier labour; and in my Constituency, which borders on Salisbury Plain, there has been no great difficulty in finding efficient labour of a similar kind. But when 453 you pass to the Midlands or to the West of England, particularly the West Midlands, is is extremely difficult to obtain soldier labour that is of any value at all upon a farm. Many cases have occurred where soldiers in large numbers have been sent to work on the land and at least two-thirds of them have had to be sent back as quite useless for the purpose. Would it not be possible for "B" and "C" classes of attested Reservists to be granted special facilities for working on English and Welsh farms during the coming six or twelve months? They include a large number of experienced farm workers whose value would be very considerable.
Also, can we not get a better sense of proportion in the matter of the employment of children? During this War I have never advocated a large employment upon the land of children taken from the schools for this purpose, but so far as food production in this country is concerned we are approaching a serious crisis, and I consider that it is quite open to those who might in normal times deprecate the employment of child labour upon farms strongly to advocate, in the interests of food production and food adequacy, the employment in every part of England to-day of children, at any rate over the age of twelve, assuming they are reasonably capable and are properly supervised in their work, if their employment is likely to be of service in the home production of food. Personally, I hope that no unreasonable prejudice based upon peace conditions will stand in the way of the employment of these children, both boys and girls.
In some counties, in Norfolk the local education authority have taken what I regard as an enlightened view on this subject, but it is not the same in other counties, particularly those counties which are only partially agricultural, whose education authorities are largely manned by persons of more urban sympathies and experience. I hardly know how this difficulty of carrying on food production in this country is to be overcome during the next twelve months. I suggest to the House that, however desirable it may be to import large quantities of wheat from the Argentine or from our Australasian Colonies, there is in the process an enormous risk which may conceivably not 454 grow less as the War proceeds, and that the greatest security which this country can possibly enjoy in the matter of food lies in the greater production of it within our own shores. If greater encouragement is given to farmers, stronger appeals made to their patriotism, and greater facilities afforded them to employ efficient labour of a totally different character from that which they have employed in the past, which may not be immediately required either for military purposes or for the output of munitions or for other national necessities, I believe that the food position will become much less alarming than it is at the present time, and that we shall not be faced with any danger of a "Stop-the-War" cry based upon an increasing number of ill-nourished persons, particularly children in our great towns, or with the temptation which undoubtedly does face many food producers to-day to desist from their patriotic efforts to produce the food which the country requires owing to the enormous difficulties which appear to meet them at every turn.
§ Mr. GEORGE LAMBERT
My right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Barnes) deprecated the excessive and exorbitant prices of food. I entirely share that sentiment with him, although he represents possibly more the consumers and I represent a large agricultural constituency, where the producers are possibly in the majority, but where, for all that, the prices of food are inflicting a grievous hardship upon a large number of our population. I sympathise entirely with the right hon. Gentleman, and in anything I say this afternoon I shall not be trying in any way to bolster up prices or to express any sympathy with what are called war profits. War profits are to me an abomination. I do not care whether they are on the production of food, or on shipping, or on munitions. With men who get large profits out of the country's peril I have no sympathy whatever. But I must point out, as my hon. Friend (Captain Bathurst) has done, that there is, and will be in the coming year, a serious shortage of home-grown fruit. My right hon. Friend says, "Appoint a Minister of Food." May I suggest to him that all the Ministers in the world may be appointed, but they cannot put a quart into a pint pot. That is the trouble now amongst the food producers of this country. At least 30 per cent. of the permanent agricultural labour has left the land. There never was enough on the land, 455 and now, 30 per cent. having been taken, you must expect a large reduction in the home-grown food supply. Farmers' sons have been jeered at as shirkers. I have not the smallest doubt that some farmers have endeavoured to screen their sons—some unjustly. Again, I have no sympathy whatever. But you must remember that a farmer's son working with his father on the land will probably do a day and a half's work in a day when it is necessary. That is a point which I put before the House in justification of those farmers who wish to keep their sons at home genuinely to assist them in the cultivation of their farms.
The Government policy we have had a little difficulty in understanding. There has been no co-ordination in taking agricultural labour from the land. Each Department—the War Office, the Board of Agriculture, and the Local Government Board—seems to have had a different policy. The Prime Minister stated in this House, as clearly as any man can state a policy, that it was essential for the labour necessary for producing the highest possible amount of home-grown food to be kept upon the land. The War Office took no notice of this, nor did the military representatives. My hon. Friend opposite asked me to supply him with cases where the military representatives took no notice of the Prime Minister's statement. I thought it best to give my experience in North Devon. I am sorry to say it is typical of what has happened all over the country. Here is what the military representative said when faced with the Prime Minister's statement:That is one of those delicately-worded phrases of the Prime Minister which do not carry us much farther.Then said the chairman of the tribunal:We must go by our instruction.The military representative replied:They are not instructions. It is a vague phrase.
§ Mr. HAROLD SMITH
He is quite right. Every tribunal must abide by the rules, not by the Prime Minister's speech.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
With great respect, I think the Prime Minister must be taken as an exponent of the policy of the Government in this matter. Surely the Act of Parliament has to be interpreted by the tribunals, but the policy of the Government must be interpreted by the Prime Minister himself. I want to speak as to what has been going on with regard 456 to agricultural labour. All the men were called up before the tribunal. Men were taken and actually returned to the farmers again, because of this recent policy of the Board of Agriculture and the War Office. We have been told now that the War Office will not take up any genuine agricultural labourer till 1st January, and that the farmers, by the 1st January, must find efficient substitutes. All I have to say is that efficient substitutes for carters and ploughmen are quite impossible to get in the country districts to-day. It is quite impossible. It is no use talking about it. It is far more easy to find a substitute for a Cabinet Minister than it is to find one for an experienced carter. In fact, I dare say we might find perhaps 500 Cabinet Ministers in the making in the House and not one single carter! I myself had a little experience of substitutes that were sent to us by the War Office. Two men came over to help in the harvesting. They were very willing young fellows On the first day of harvesting one had to retire at 5 o'clock and the other upset a wagon with a £70 horse in the shafts. These were no substitutes for experienced carters. I am perfectly sure that both my hon. Friends who are sitting on the Front Bench opposite know I am telling the absolute truth in this matter—that experienced carters and ploughmen are quite impossible to obtain.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow talked about milk. A gentleman who is engaged in the milk industry said to me a few hours ago that if many more men were taken from the dairying industry milk would become as dear as port wine. I dare say it would be a good deal more wholesome. But at the present time dairymen are at their wits' end for labourers. I want hon. Members who represent labour really to grasp this essential fact, that there are no week-ends for milkers. The milker has to be at his work seven days a week. He cannot go off on Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning, or Sunday night. That is the difficulty—to get milkers to milk, and to get the labour essential for carrying on the dairying industry. It is not by business, of course, nicely to balance the needs of the Army and the needs of the people required for milking or for food production. But I do assure the House that there is a real difficulty in this matter of dairy farming. There is a common idea that dairy farmers are making huge profits. That is quite erroneous. The price of the cow and the 457 price of artificial food has gone up so enormously, the cost of labour and the difficulty of getting it is such that I have met dairy farmers who say they will throw up the whole thing.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
Many, as my hon. Friend reminds us, are doing so. The other day I came across one of the largest dairy farmers in Devonshire. This gentleman has a very large dairy in the neighbourhood of Plymouth. He said to me: "Mr. Lambert, if it had not been for the speech of Lord Selborne, that the farmer who deserted his farm at the present time was like the soldier who deserted his trench, I would give the whole thing up. I cannot get the people to milk the cows or to distribute the milk." I am putting these facts forward of my own knowledge, and I do ask hon. Gentlemen opposite not to believe that farmers who are producing milk are making huge profits out of their milk production, even with milk at 1s. 4d. per gallon. I have warned the Board of Agriculture and the President of the Board of Trade that if more men are taken away from the dairying industry you will not get farmers to carry it on. You cannot manage a dairy without milk.' Moreover, in this matter the consumers are getting a real bounty in railway rates. The Government at the present time are paying the increased wage bill of the railwaymen. If the railway companies had to recoup themselves, they would certainly have to charge very much higher rates. We are told that women should take the place of men. I agree they should take the place of men in milking, but we cannot get women milkers. They are going into the munitions works, where they have not to go on the Saturday afternoon and Sunday, like they would if they had to milk cows. I will not at present go into the question of small holdings. You have to take the country as it is. It is a country of large holdings. You cannot alter the system in the middle of a war. We have had a Committee on Food Prices, presided over, as any Committee of the kind would be very ably, by my right hon. Friend Mr. Robertson.
There has been a Wheat Commission appointed. I am perfectly certain that the wheat production in this country this coming year must be very largely decreased. The production for 1915–16 was 458 about 7,500,000 quarters British, and 26,000,000 quarters of foreign corn, making a total of about 34,000,000 quarters. As my hon. Friend behind me said, the wheat area this year has decreased by 250,000 acres, despite the increased price. Putting aside the question of patriotism in this matter, the farmer would naturally take advantage of the increased prices by growing as much wheat as possible—that is, if he had the labour to do it! He had not the labour last year, and still less is he going to get it this year.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing my argument. I want to put a few figures, which I have tried to think out, before the Government this evening. I asked an experienced friend of mine the other day how large he thought the wheat area this year would be decreased. He replied, "At least 25 per cent." That is just about my own estimate. There are about 2,000,000 acres of wheat cultivated in Britain. A 25 per cent. reduction will mean that at least 500,000 acres less will be put in this year than last year. That is a very moderate estimate. If you take that 500,000, with the reduction last year, you get 750,000 less acres of wheat put down this year. Putting the crop at three-and-a-half quarters per acre, you get over 2,600,000 quarters of wheat which will have to be imported from abroad—wheat that will not be grown, and that cannot be grown, in this country. Farmers would grow it if they had the chance of the labour putting it in. They have not got that chance. What does it all mean? There is no getting away from the figures. Unless the population is to be rationed, that 2,000,000 quarters of wheat will have to be brought from abroad. There is only one place where there is a surplus of wheat, and that is Australia. That 2,000,000 and odd quarters of wheat weigh 480,000 tons. That will require something like 100 ships, of 5,000 tons each, for four and a half months, to fetch those quarters of wheat from Australia. Where can the Government put their hands on 100 ships of 5,000 tons? I think we want to put the facts as they are. The question of reaping was referred to by the hon. Member for Sheffield, but there is the question of threshing. I know many farmers, and they are gravely inconvenienced this year, 459 for they cannot get the threshing machines. The engines have been commandeered by the Government.
I would suggest to the Government that they must very carefully consider this question of food production. If they have to bring wheat from Australia or the Argentine, as the House has been told, they will have to submit to several tolls. The first toll will be the submarine, and the submarine menace will not get less acute as the War goes on. There will be the speculator, and there will be the shipper. All these will take toll. They will take a pretty heavy toll from the wheat, which will naturaly increase the price of bread. I do not want to go into the question of shipping, but one cannot help seeing that the Government themselves have borne a large share in the increase of freights by taking up such a tremendous number of merchant ships for all kinds of expeditions to all parts of the world. I am not going to say a word against those who have the conduct of these expeditions, but a remark of a friend of mine who came home from Mesopotamia not long ago showed me the difficulties they had there. He told me of a ship of about 6,000 tons and there was no outside derrick to unload her. The only derrick was on board the ship. She had to be unloaded on a mud-bank. There was only Arab labour. One carried an article to one place and put it down, and another carried an article to another place and put it down. That sort of thing detains the ships. If ships are utilised for these expeditions they cannot be utilised for bringing food to the country. To my mind it is a matter which will require the grave consideration of the Government as to whether they need utilise so many ships in so many expeditions.
May I say a word about the Army itself? My right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee the other day said, "Physician, comb thyself." Can there be any economy exercised in the Army? I see as I go along the East Coast a very large number of men engaged in what is called Home defence. Is it necessary to have very large numbers of men engaged in Home defence? Surely the Navy can defend our shore against an invasion. Many men have been enlisted purposely for Home defence. Many of these are of a good type for agriculture. Many men have been taken from agriculture for Home defence. I would ask the Government whether these men might not be better used in producing food than they 460 are now used in what is called Home defence? As one who has been a good many years at the Admiralty, I suggest that if the Admiralty at the present moment are not capable of defending these shores against invasion the Board of Admiralty should be called to account. There was a case mentioned last night by a noble peer. His under-gardener joined the Army about two years ago. When he left he had seven children. His wife had an allowance, I think, of 32s. 6d. a week. This man, quite a capable man in agricultural pursuits, has been somewhere in Essex for two years as an officer's groom. The allowance to his wife has gone up to, I think, 35s. a week because there has been an increase in the family. May I ask whether some economy could be not exercised in the Army recruiting men who may be valuable for agriculture. Surely someone else could be got to do the work of an officer's groom. I am not one of those whom the Prime Minister called "professional whimperers." I never was so proud of this old country. It has done wonders in this War. But I ask the Government very seriously to consider the question of home food production, for it will be a very sorry tragedy indeed if the supreme sacrifices our men have made across the water are in any way hampered by a financial crisis or a food famine at home.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I think there is a general view in the country that the Government ought to have given its attention earlier to this question than has been the case. Although certain things have been done by the Board of Trade and other Departments, and certain steps have been taken, it is felt that there has been undue delay in regard to the action taken by the Departments and in regard to the consideration given to the whole question. Many hon. Members will remember that we raised this question and discussed it at length in February, 1915, and I remember on that occasion, when some of us were urging certain Government action to be taken, including the Government laying its hands, as far as possible, on the supplies of foreign wheat, the reply of the President of the Board of Trade was that we must not try to bring about the millennium in the middle of a great war. In point of fact, the President of the Board of Trade himself, after all these months, is beginning with hesitating step to approach towards this millennium, if it can be called a millennium, because it is 461 announced by the Board of Trade that a big departure is going to be made with regard to the purchase and control of foreign wheat.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
made an observation which was not heard in the Reporters' Gallery.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
The right hon. Gentleman was replying to myself, and in regard to various matters I had raised, of which this was distinctly one—
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The hon. Gentleman had been defending in this House a scheme which, I pointed out, would involve the House, not only in importing, but itself becoming the sole merchant not only for wheat, but a great many other commodities. I said that might be a desirable operation in the view of the hon. Member, and would be an attempt to approach the millennium in the middle of a war.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's memory is quite clear on that point, because what I have said, and say now, is that if the Government purchases wheat, or anything else, that should be placed on the retail market subject to conditions that are going to ensure the purchasing of food at the lowest price possible to the ordinary consumer. I am quite sure the President of the Board of Trade is wholly with me in that respect. I do not believe you can reorganise the whole industrial system in the middle of a war, and I have never said so either here or outside. I believe if it were attempted it would be very badly done, and I say that as a Socialist who believes in the reorganising of society; but I do not believe this reorganisation is a thing that can be suddenly attempted and rushed through without, to a very large extent, incurring the risk of failure. I believe we ought to put aside our various views in this matter, and regard it purely in the light of the present emergency. I believe that food, whether it be food for the soldiers or food for the civilian population, ought to be regarded at a moment like the present practically as munitions of war, and ought to be organised from the standpoint of munitions of war. From that point of view, therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the great supplies of foodstuffs should reach both the troops in the field and those who are doing the work at home on the railways, in the mines, and in the factories, at the very lowest possible 462 price. I believe that is common ground, and, so far as I am concerned, I am not prepared to put forward any particular theory simply from the standpoint of a theory, but only so far as it is likely to effect some practical good at the moment.
There is a suspicion, I think, that there has been some desire on the part of the Board of Trade and other Departments that commercial interests should be as little as possible disturbed. There has been a good deal of feeling that there is always an outcry from certain quarters where there is disturbance. We know very well that the various interests do not like being interfered with, and there is a feeling that they might have been interfered with earlier, and that this larger measure of public control might have been exercised over the food supplies of this country. I say quite definitely, in my opinion, the country is paying the price and the penalty now for years of neglect before the War. The matter is not one which can be suddenly revolutionised, and that it would have been a good thing, both from the standpoint of peace and of war, if far more attention had been paid in the years before the War to the organisation of our food supply, and, above all, to the development of our home food resources to the utmost possible extent. I am convinced that action must be taken, and will have to be taken, by the Government on very wide lines before the coming winter unless there is to be another steep rise in the prices of foodstuffs. You cannot be in the least surprised that in the great industrial centres, when you speak about the equality of sacrifices, the mind of the average workman contrasts on the one hand the soldier fighting for a shilling or two a day in the trenches, and the soldier's wife getting perhaps 12s. 6d. separation allowance, and, on the other hand, the fact, which undoubtedly obtains, that shipowners, and some, at least, of our farmers are making very substantial profits at the present time.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I said "some of the shipowners and the farmers." So far as shipowners have got ships that are not 463 commandeered by the Government they are making very substantial profits at the present time. But I will deal more fully with that later. I was merely at the moment drawing a contrast which is in the workman's mind when he sees published figures of shipowners' profits and the profits of millers and others, and, comparing that with the sacrifice which the soldier is asked to undergo, he asks: What is the real sincerity behind these phrases about equality of sacrifice? Now, there are those who think that all these matters can be settled, and ought to be settled, by the operation of the laws of supply and demand, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackfriars said in regard to labour, the laws of supply and demand have been to a very large extent set aside. We have had Orders in Council preventing employers from holding out the bribe of higher wages to lure men away from other employers. What is that but interfering with the laws of supply and demand? We have had the Munitions of War Act, which in 4,000 establishments forbids a workman to leave his employment, even if he gets the offer of higher wages, without the express permission either of his employer or a munitions tribunal, under a penalty of six weeks' enforced idleness. What is that but setting aside the laws of supply and demand? Working men say, and say with great logic and great force, that if this is going to apply to them, it ought to apply to any commercial interest that is making any undue profit out of this War. I do not think anybody ought to be making undue profits at the present time. I think that ought to apply to the workpeople, and that no workpeople ought to be anxious to wring the last shilling out of the country. But if it is going to apply to the workpeople, and they are to be limited and controlled in respect of wages, I say the same rule ought to apply to any other interest that is enriched by the War. [An HON. MEMBER: "That has been done."] I suppose the hon. Member refers to the Excess Profits Tax. [An HON. MEMBER: "I do."] The reason why the working people do not attach undue importance to the Excess Profits Tax is that they believe that they are asked to pay this increased tax really by increased prices for their commodities, and but for these increased prices there would not be these excess profits. Therefore, the workpeople would be very glad if less excess 464 profits of that kind were made, provided the commodities were sold at a less price. After all, even in respect of excess profits, those who pay the tax still retain 40 per cent. of the excess, which is a very substantial amount.
I think every one of us ought to try honestly to face this question, and to face it, as far as possible, without mere angry declamation. I think the first thing to be admitted is that, under the present circumstances and under existing commercial conditions, a certain rise in food prices and in other prices is inevitable. You cannot have a War like the present and imagine that everything can go on as before. You cannot have this immense expenditure of £5,000,000 a day without it reacting on food prices. Some people imagine that everything can be precisely as it was before. It is not so. I think it is true that there is a certain shortage in many of these articles of food. There is a certain shortage, I believe, in meat. It is not that less meat is being imported, for I believe in some directions more meat is being imported, but it is true that many of the soldiers—and nobody will grudge this—are being better fed than ever they were in their lives, and it does seem to me a very extraordinary thing that we should have to undergo the tremendous calamity of a War before those men are properly fed. Yet it is the fact that you are giving better and more regular food to the Army that has helped to bring about a certain shortage in the supply of meat and some other commodities. Then there is the question of shortage in regard to ships. Ships have been sent to the bottom of the sea, and a large number of ships have been commandeered for war purposes. Then there is a shortage of labour at some of the docks and on many of the farms. Then I would say, in regard to the administration of the Conscription Act in certain districts, that there has been no real wide view taken of all the needs of the country. The financial and commercial needs of the country have been overlooked in many cases, and that is a matter the country will have to pay for very quickly. Then, undoubtedly, in other directions there has been an increase in the cost of production. I admit all that frankly. Nobody could honestly face the question without realising it is so, but I say, at the end of it all, that, so far from making Government action less necessary, all those factors make Government action more necessary, because if you leave it to the ordinary interplay of 465 competition all these things will play into the hands of those who control the food supplies of the country, and it is absolutely essential that certain very clear and well-considered action should be taken.
I am quite sure that if the Government had felt in regard, say, to the wheat supply twelve months ago that there were urgent military reasons involved in that matter, they would not have hesitated, but would have dealt with the matter then, and the Government ought to feel there are military reasons involved in the whole question of food supply, whether it be food for the soldiers of war or for the soldiers of industry. I think there is too much competition in regard to the buying of the nation's supplies at the present time. There are too many employers making profits before the food reaches the consumer, and it is the elimination of the needless profits and of waste and overlapping that is the real problem before the Government. If the Government tell us that they cannot do that and cannot reorganise these things and get rid of the waste of overlapping and undue profits of middlemen, then frankly I say there is no solution of the problem, and prices will go higher. Probably the representatives of the Government will tell us that they cannot control large buying in neutral markets, that a large part of our food supplies comes from abroad—from America, the Argentine, and so on. Whilst that is perfectly true, and the Government are hampered by the large supplies from neutral markets, it is also true that there is a great difference between good and bad buying in neutral markets. There has been during this War a great deal of very bad buying in neutral markets. You have had the Allied Governments entering the same markets against each other, and that ought not to have happened. Where you have too many competing people and traders going into the same market, even if it is a neutral market, they help to send up prices against each other and against the people of the country. When you are buying in neutral countries things that are vital and essential to the life of the people, such as meat, wheat, and the like, there ought to be one buyer, and that buyer ought to be the Government on behalf of the people. I believe a good deal has been done already to get rid of the competition between Allied Governments, but if that competition still exists at all it 466 ought to be got rid of entirely now, because, apart from anything else, the mere fact you have one buyer and you may be able to develop alternative sources of supply will be a very powerful instrument over some of the neutral traders.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I know they do, but I think they can do it to a much greater extent. Let me take a concrete illustration. The Government buy at the present time a great deal of meat in the Argentine markets. They buy chilled and frozen meat. The Government buy 80 per cent. of the supply, and they bring it over in insulated steamers at fixed freights. The meat purchased by the Government is intended in the main for the use of the troops, and in so far as there is a surplus it is placed by the Government on the ordinary commercial market; but the real intention of purchasing by the Government is for the soldiers, and only about 20 per cent. of the supply comes to the civilian population, and this is not bought by the Government, but it is bought in the ordinary way through the ordinary commercial channels, and it has to run the gauntlet of the traders and retailers and wholesale people on this side. The Government claim, and rightly claim, that they have saved the country millions of pounds in regard to this large-scale buying of meat for the Army, and I want to know why this buying should not be extended on behalf of the civilian population. That is the real crux of this matter, and we want to be assured that this is being done. We have heard the announcement of the Government policy with regard to the supply of wheat. The real proof of the pudding will be in the eating. It will depend very largely on the conditions under which the Government does its buying, and if it is possible to get an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman, I should like one as to the conditions in respect of freightage in regard to the Government purchases and the way the wheat is going to be brought to this country. Will the same rule which applies to the buying of sugar and the freightage be applied to wheat which has been bought in Australia? I should like the President of the Board of Trade to give an assurance on that point, because it is a matter of great importance, and it will have an effect upon the price of wheat and bread.
467 If you are going to control more and more from the standpoint of the Government, acting on behalf of the nation, these enormous purchases of wheat from abroad, you must also take survey of the whole supply. Perhaps the President of the Board of Trade can assure us that the Commission which is being set up has power to deal with the home supplies as well as foreign supplies. In any case, it is not in dispute that, in respect of wheat, many farmers are making undue and excessive profits at the present time. I do not wish to bring any general charges against farmers. If they can charge a certain price for their wheat, then they will charge it. If a farmer is able to sell wheat at 65s., what useful purpose is going to be served if he sells it for 60s.? The benefit of the lower rate may never reach the consumer, and he may be making a gift to the millers or bakers or someone else. The very least the farmer has a right to ask is that if any regulation of the selling price of his wheat is going to be made, it ought to be done under conditions to secure that the advantage is not going to the middleman, but to the mass of the people who buy it. Therefore, it is important that this should be done. I wish to say frankly that I think it would be a wrong policy to try to underpay the farmers for the work they do, or fix any price that is not going to fairly recognise that farmers have had increased cost of production as a result of the War. There is not the least doubt of that.
There is the increased cost of fertilisers, of store cattle, of labour, and in many cases difficulties arising from a shortage of labour. All these matters ought to be honestly faced, and any price that is fixed ought not to be fixed by people who know nothing about the problem, but by people who understand it, and who are willing that the farmers shall be well paid for the work they do. All I desire is to prevent any element of extortion or excess entering into this problem, and what I am stating here I have stated on many "working-class platforms, and I know the working people are not anxious to see the farmer underpaid. Farmers ought to be honestly paid for their work, and they ought to honestly pay their labourers, and that could certainly be done and at the same time a real saving might be effected so far as some of the prices are concerned.
I am bound to say that I have heard fanners declare with no uncertain sound 468 that if we did anything in the way of restricting them, no matter how high the price of wheat might grow, we should have to face the risk of their not sowing any large quantities in the future, and the risk of them turning their production in other directions. Any workman who used that kind of language at the present time would be in danger of landing himself under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. The farmer ought to recognise that we are at war, and if he gets an honest price he has no right to expect anything else, and he has no right to say, "You must charge anything I agree to charge or the supplies are going to be cut off." That is not a good course for the farmers to take up. Representative farmers have hinted broadly in that direction, although I believe those sentiments would be repudiated by many of the best farmers in the country.
I now come to the shipping problem. I believe this matter has aroused as much feeling as any question that is before the country at the present time. I have here a recent pronouncement made by a trade union secretary, representing the Boilermakers' Society, Mr. John Hill. I believe this official has taken a great part in war work of various kinds, and this is what he says:I am sorry I cannot believe, as some people profess they do, that we are all brothers now, duke's son and cook's son, all suffering and working together in industry as in war—He is very cautious, but I think his opinion reflects what is being said by many others. He continues:We gave up our right to strike and in return we have been maligned by faked figures supplied to the Press and to the Government until even some honest men look upon many of us as a lazy, drunken mob, revelling in high wages which we waste on useless luxuries.He goes on to say:Advances in wages since July, 1914, amount to less than 15 per cent. on the average, but during the same period the average increased cost of living is officially stated at 45 per cent. The net result was that they had suffered a reduction of 30 per cent. in real wages.Then he says:The ships we build have been sold again at prices 500 to 1,000 per cent. more than their cost of construction in 1914. It is therefore quite clear that the shipowners are not making any sacrifice…. Take one shipbuilding company—not the most profitable one. On a capital of £360,000 this company made a profit on one year of war of over £240,000. This is just about 70 per cent.That is the case in regard to shipbuilding. If you come to shipowners we have the figures which have been published in the shipowning journals showing that whereas the freightage per ton from South 469 America to Liverpool at the commencement of the War was 10s.; it rose at the beginning of this year to 150s., and these increases were actually published in the official journals of the shipowners. You will never be able to persuade working people, while that sort of thing is happening, that very excessive profits are not being made. They know that these profits are being made, and they want some definite assurance on the part of the Government that whilst the shipowners are being paid a fair price for the use of their ships, as they should be, they in turn ought not to be allowed to impose extortionate and excessive prices. I know that 50 per cent. of British ships have been commandeered at the present time, so there is no new principle to be established in regard to this matter, and it remains for the Government to see that a fair deal is estblished. While I believe that the Government has, on the whole, done much up to the present, I think we have been too generous with the shipowners. I know that the hon. Member for Toxteth (Mr. Houston) will not agree with that, but I can assure him that, with the exception of the shipowners, what I have stated is almost the universal view of everybody else. I expect that we shall hear something to-day from the President of the Board of Trade with respect to shipping. I am not worrying about one method as against another, but the Government ought to be in a position to fix a fair freightage for goods brought into this country. It has been done already with regard to meat from the Argentine and with regard to the transport of soldiers, and munitions of war and food for the soldiers, and there is no real reason why it should not be extended to other things.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I think, perhaps, the President of the Board of Trade may have some light to throw upon that matter. I understand that action is being taken by the Board of Trade in Wales and elsewhere to secure some extra power over neutral shipowners; but even if we cannot wholly control neutral shipowners, it will be a tremendous gain if British shipowners do not make excessive profits. The President of the Board of Trade may have something to say, if he thinks it wise 470 to declare his policy, with regard to putting greater pressure upon neutral shipowners than has yet been done. If this could be worked out more fully, the Government, with increased powers with regard to shipping and freights, could more easily determine the really vitally necessary things that ought to come in, and the things that might be spared at the present time. Apart from prohibition, the matter now is largely settled by the freight which the shipowners can demand. You cannot expect the shipowner to make up his mind what is more necessary and what is less necessary. He is guided by the freight which he is able to obtain, and it is his business to be guided by the freight.
§ Mr. ANDERSON
I think it is. I do not see how a shipowner can decide the matter. There might be something which he thought of no account at all, but which might be absolutely essential so far as the Government and the country were concerned. The people who are in the best position to determine the more necessary things are the Government themselves, and they ought to have more power in the matter. With regard to milk, the hon. Member opposite (Captain Bathurst) said that in his view 1s. 4d. per gallon provided a very reasonable and proper profit so far as the farmers were concerned. We have had statements that a good deal less than 1s. 4d. per gallon would in many cases provide a very fair profit for the farmer, but in London under present contracts milk has gone up beyond 1s. 4d. per gallon. Is the hon. Member therefore prepared to insist that the Government should intervene in the matter, and to say that there ought to be some measure of control when prices rise beyond 1s. 4d.?
§ Mr. ANDERSON
If you are going to regulate the price the producer is going to get, it follows that you must see that the benefit is not going to the wholesale distributor or to the retail dairyman, but to the people. I do not want to take anything from the farmer in order to give it to the distributor or to the retailer. We have one wholesale distributor, known as the 471 United Dairies Company, which I believe controls 70 per cent. of all the milk supplies to London. This milk combine insists that the district price which it sets up must be charged by any retail dairyman before it will supply him with milk. For instance, if any man in the district which is regarded as a 6d. district is able by business organisation to sell his milk either at 5d. or 5½ d. he is not able to do so, because, if he did so, his supplies would be at once cut off by this combine. That is a principle which ought not to be allowed to obtain, and in my opinion it calls for Government action and intervention. If the Government refuses to deal with this problem, it will have to face during this winter very considerable wage movements in the country. I believe that the increasing of wages is altogether the wrong way to settle this question. You cannot have wage movements without a great deal of passion and bitterness being aroused between employers and employed, and the increasing of wages is no real remedy for the problem, because it is only a minority of the best organised workmen who can enforce the increase, and it will never reach large numbers of workpeople who need it most. It will never reach women workers getting 14s. and 15s. per week with the cost of living 70 per cent. up as compared with pre-war prices. It will never reach old age pensioners. Last of all, there is no doubt that rises in wages, under present circumstances especially, tend to react upon prices, and to force them up once more in a vicious circle.
The real remedy is to grapple with the problem of food prices. If you do and you are able to control prices, then you advantage everybody from the least to the greatest, whereas rises in wages in most cases merely benefit that small proportion of strongly organised workpeople who are best able to enforce the advance. I warn the Government that unless something is done not only to steady prices but to bring prices down they are courting these wage movements. They will come inevitably. There will be a great demand for a reconsideration of the old question of separation allowances. There will be a great demand for an increase in the scale of pensions. There will be a demand for increased pay for women workers, for workers under the Trades Boards, and so on. All these matters will come up for consideration. The lessons we are learning now ought to be perma- 472 nently laid to heart. We ought to organise our food supplies on some new basis, on a more model basis than at present. The element of profiteering ought to be more eliminated, and the public good ought to be more thought of. We ought to make the best use of our own land and of our own resources. I say that without reference to some of those difficult problems which are supposed to centre around this question; but I want to read to the House an extract from the "Glasgow Herald" of 19th September, and to ask if a land system which permits of this kind of thing in time of war is a defensible land system?Although one-half of the Scottish Deer Forests cannot be let in these days, the understanding is that the extensive black-face sheep grazing of Auchallander will be added to the Forest Wilderness. Over 10,000 sheep are to be cleared off Auchallander next week. The like of that is a national loss. The views of the Scottish Land Court on the question would be interesting.That is from a responsible Scottish paper, I should say the first paper in Scotland, "The Glasgow Herald." This is an extract from Mr. John Morton, of Whelphill, Crawford, hon. secretary of the Black-faced Breeders' Association:Members in the South were surprised to hear in these times when so much is said and being done to increase the food supply of the country that the displacing of sheep for deer was still going on, while others are making arrangements to still further clear off sheep to make room for deer.I say that ought not to be tolerated at the present time when the country is concerned so vitally about its food supply. It seems to me a most extraordinary thing. We often hear in these days that the whole nation is a family. The nation should always be a family, in time of peace and in time of war. But if the nation is really going to be a family, then all the members of the nation must learn to behave as members of a family, and undue exploitation must not be tolerated. I believe that one of the lessons that will be remembered, I hope, long after the War is over, is that we must adopt some principle of co-operation with regard to food supplies, and thus advance the public happiness, the public well-being, and the public good.
§ Mr. LOUGH
I congratulate my hon. Friend who has just sat down on the common sense and excellent speech which he has delivered. I particularly noticed two remarks that he made at the beginning of his speech, and everything that he said afterwards was consistent with them. He said that we cannot reorganise the institutions of the country in the midst of a 473 great war, and that he intended to put aside any special theories that he might have and simply try to get something done of a practical character in the great crisis with which we are faced. I welcome those statements. They ought to foe very encouraging to the Government to proceed in a moderate and common sense way. I wish my right hon. Friend (Mr. Barnes) had observed just as discreet moderation and language and had been as careful to keep to some principle as the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. He commenced by a statement about speculating, and at times we hear outcries against speculating distributors. I would like to challenge anyone opposite: there has not been a single distributor since the Debates on this question commenced accused of making any undue fortune. The distributors have behaved extraordinarily well, but in spite of that we cannot get moderation except in an odd speech such as the hon. Member for Attercliffe has just made. My right hon. friend the Member for the Blackfriars Division denounced what he called this policy of laissez-faire. I am not a French scholar, but I understand that laissez-faire means "leave to do." What is wrong with that? Laissez-faire in this country means that while people are very tolerant with the Government, and allow the Government almost to make any experiment, especially in a time like the present, they claim the right to secure benefits which the Government with all its resources at its disposal fail to do. That is all I claim in regard to this important question of food prices. It is a question in which I take great interest. I think that this very delicate question should be discussed properly. It is easy to exaggerate, and you may raise a little clamour and have a crowd with you, but I think we ought to try and imitate the model of the speech which we have just heard. We ought not to make any strong statements with regard to the situation unless we can bring forward facts to support them.
Secondly, I think that no complaint should exist in this House with regard to what the Government has done, and that the complaint should rather be that the Government has done too much rather than that it has done too little. I hear a slight murmur of objection against that, but I want to support it by one or two facts extracted from the Report of the Committee, and I want to point attention to the fact that except for those vague phrases which we hear from the opposite 474 side, no reason has really been given for the violent action which is demanded to be taken by the Government. I do think that this is a problem which the House ought to grapple with. If there is discontent throughout the country, this House ought to say the word which may allay it. If there is an evil, this House ought to grapple with it. My first complaint about the Committee is that it was not a Committee of the House of Commons. I think that a Committee of this House would be better qualified to deal with this question than the benevolent Sub-Committee of the Board of Trade which has been set up. A Committee of this House would have greater power than such a Sub-Committee, and would have been able to send for persons, papers, and records. It would have had greater publicity, and any Member of this House could go and hear what took place there, and the public could follow its proceedings. The evidence could be analysed, and, finally, the Report, if it were a good Report, would receive support from plenty of people in the House who might not have been on the Committee, but who would insist that effect should be given to it by the House. Therefore, the first fault I find with this proceeding is, that it is one of those sort of blows at Parliament which I must say the Prime Minister lately is too fond of giving. We have had a secret Cabinet Committee and a Departmental Committee like this other one, but he would never allow the House of Commons, whose sacred duty it is to inquire into these matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for the City, who is not present now, says that the reason why we do not do these things is because we are paid £400 a year for keeping our mouths shut and for having Reports of this kind presented to us. I, personally, do not think that. I am in favour of the payment of Members. I think it is a principle which cannot be evaded, but I say if we are paid we ought to do our work, and we should have made this inquiry for ourselves, and made it thorough, as, in fact, it is not being made.
The Committee consists of twelve ladies and gentlemen, four of them being Members of this House. I do not wish to make any reflections on the personality of the Committee, but I do think that my right hon. Friend, who made himself the willing assistant of the Prime Minister in this Report with two or three hon. Members, should have used his influence to secure that we had a Committee of the House, 475 and we should then, I think, have had a better Report than that which has been presented to us. Nobody has said much about the Report. My right hon. Friend who opened the Debate spoke very slightingly about it, and the Press of this country has treated it very slightingly. Really the Report may be described as the pious opinions of a few outsiders who were afraid to grapple with the problem. Look at some of the proposals. Take the proposal that we should have a meatless day. I wonder whether that was proposed as a religious observance or as a recommendation of an important Committee in a crisis like this. I understand that a meatless day is observed by large sections of the community in every week, and it is an excellent plan to follow in time of peace or of war.
§ Mr. LOUGH
There are very few of us in that position. I agree with the meatless day, and personally I have been able to fall in with it by proxy. One member of my family circle is a vegetarian, and so we keep up practically a meatless day without myself being deprived of any. Another recommendation from the Committee is that municipal shops should be opened in the midst of war. I am glad that the hon. Member who has just sat down did not say anything like that, and I recall again the moderate words which he used that we ought to have no reorganisation during a crisis like that through which the nation is passing. My right hon. Friend near me says that the hon. Gentleman wanted those shops. I am afraid to pursue that any further, because I might disturb the harmony of the Committee. I only say that it is a very tall order to propose, with the present depletion of labour to set up such shops, and I think any hon. Member would hesitate before he asked the House to assent to such a proposal. I do not want to deal too hardly with the Report. It is a Report of amateurs. If it had been done by the House of Commons it would have been well done. Let us examine the Report. One of their statements is:If additional summer milk could be imported from Ireland in any considerable quantity.There is great merit in an "if." Why does not the Committee solve that? That is the business of the Committee. Why 476 did it not ascertain whether additional summer milk could be imported from Ireland? No summer milk can be imported for the next eight months. We will all agree about that, and let us hope the War will be over by that time. What a curious recommendation to put forward for a sane House of Commons to adopt. Then the Committee say that it should be considered whether it could be put on sale under Government control. Who is to consider it? They were appointed to consider it. Why did they not do so in their wisdom? Why did they not work it out for themselves? I say in the words of a right hon. Friend, that it is just eyewash; although I do not wish to use such language which appears a little strong. Another paragraph in the Report says:In view of recent statements as to the possibility of drying and reliquifying milk without loss of food value, a scientific inquiry as to the possibility of obtaining dessicated milk (milk powder) in large quantities might be entered into.Why do they not go into it. Who is to do it? We had that trotted out in the unhappy speech we had at the beginning of the Debate. We were to take out 87 per cent. of the water, and the remainder of the milk was to be imported here and rewatered and distributed throughout the great cities of this country. That was sanely said here this afternoon, and nobody smiled at it. I do say that the House of Commons might fairly expect a serious matter of this kind to be dealt with in a more deliberate way than this, and what I will not call wild suggestions, but very intricate and elaborate suggestions of this; kind ought not to be made to deal with the situation unless it is felt that some progress can be made with them.
I know it may be said that I have been a little hard on the Committee, and I may be asked what have you got to say yourself. I will tell you my opinion. I think all along there has been the greatest exaggeration on this subject, and that this country ought to congratulate itself. No one can read this Report without realising: the splendid way in which the country has been served with regard to this important matter through the great crisis which the War has created. When you think of the number of our ships that have been sunk, and of the vast requirements of the nation, although there has been a rise in prices, I say that the rise in prices has not been out of the way. The nation generally, and this House in particular, have tried to meet the difficulties of the 477 situation, and on the whole have succeeded very well. What does the Committee say on this point? It makes the average increase on expenditure for living as 45 per cent. Both hon. Gentlemen who spoke from the other side admit that there must be a certain increase. What would they put it at? We have had constant appeals for increases of wages, and the bases on which those demands were founded was simply because of the rise in the cost of living. I notice that the Report deals with the question of wages, but it does not give any percentages. I should not be surprised if on looking into it you found that the increased earnings of the working classes equalled the increased cost in very many cases. I do not want to say anything about that or to begrudge that increase to them, but if so the working classes are happy to live in a country which has such great resources, and which can carry through so successfully in a crisis like this.
The question of meat was mentioned. I do want to say a word broadly if I can about the farmers' point of view. I sympathise with my hon. Friend behind (Captain Bathurst) and my right hon. Friend (Mr. G. Lambert), and I say it is a ridiculous thing for us to grudge the farmers anything at the present time. Why do I do so? I have been in this House for twenty-five years, and no class of the community has served us so well and got so little for it as the farmer. Why, the farmers can hardly live anywhere. I know them best in Ireland, where I admit they are doing very well now at last, though we have got the habit here of speaking as if the millenium had come if they do well for a year or two. When I look at the things called farms in Ireland with their fences and gates, and at the clothes of the farmers, and the houses they live in, and the shelters for their cattle, I say it is a ridiculous thing to call it farming at all. If during a short period like this they get something which makes up for the lean years of the past, then none of us ought to grudge it to them. We are told that meat has advanced 60 per cent. in this country, while in Berlin it has increased 140 per cent., and Vienna 340 per cent., so that we have not done badly in meat. Bacon has advanced only 45 per cent. The question of bacon was mentioned by my right hon. Friend, who opened the Debate. He said he did not understand bacon. I can tell him something about it, because I have an interest 478 in a large co-operative society where there are 1,600 members. They are getting 94s. per cwt. for their bacon. It does not pay them to produce it, and I know plenty who are not producing it. I am told by my right hon. Friend and others that the price of milk is hardly enough to induce farmers to continue its production. We have got to remember that the cow has got to live as well as the man, and the food of the cow has doubled and the food of the pig has also doubled. I think when we have only an increase of 45 per cent. we ought to congratulate ourselves.
With regard to milk, everybody knows; that it has only advanced 35 per cent., and if we get it in the cities all through the winter at that advance we ought to be very thankful. There is one excellent recommendation in the Report, which says that children under five ought to get milk free from the Municipality. I support that and I also support the recommendation that poor mothers approaching confinement should be under no scarcity of milk. That is quite a different thing from reorganising the whole country. I suggest that we may easily exaggerate the situation. We ought rather to adopt the tone of the last speaker and agree that we have got through pretty well up to the present. I do not want, however, to leave the matter at that. I now come to the crux of the Debate. What was it for which my right hon. Friend asked? He asked for it in vague words. Even the hon. Member who has just sat down, although he demanded, as he said, "no change," he still appealed to the President of the Board of Trade to carry the action of the Government further. He pointed—although not so eloquently as it was pointed out in an unhappy speech by the President of the Board of Trade—he pointed indefinitely to the Sugar Commission, and said, "Let us do as we have done with sugar." He said that in effect. Those words were not used by my two wise hon. Friends on the opposite benches, but they were used by the President of the Board of Trade, and I want to give him a word of warning before he does that.
What about sugar? Sugar is the one thing that has out-towered everything in the increase of price. Sugar has gone up 166 per cent. I put this point to the House: If we take sugar out of the 45 per cent., there has hardly been any increase in the cost of living at all. [Laughter.] Sugar is the third largest commodity used in the country, and it has gone up, according to 479 this Report, 166 per cent. Now I come to the joke: How has sugar been handled? It has been controlled by the Government absolutely since the first day of the War. The Government control of sugar has been the crowning scandal of our proceedings since the War began. Even this afternoon we had quite an explosion in this peaceable House about sugar. Hon. Members in all parts were asking about sugar, about the unequal distribution of it, and the horrible price of it. What has the Government done? It has established a monopoly in sugar. It constituted itself the sugar merchant, and so it raised the price from l½ d. a lb. to 6d. It has made it up to the Berlin and Vienna level. [An HON. MEMBER: "There is a duty on it."] My two hon. Friends, with that fact before them, which I take from this book, did not say a word about it, but they would secretly encourage the President of the Board of Trade to do with wheat what he has done with sugar. I warn him, if he does not want to get into a hornets' nest, to do nothing of the kind. The difference between sugar and wheat that has been observed by the Government up to now is that with regard to sugar the Government allowed no imports but their own. There is no laissez faire about sugar. If I could bring sugar in freely I could sell it at 4d. a lb., but I should not be allowed to do so. Why should it be made a crime to sell cheap sugar in the country? The Government have made it a crime. An hon. Member opposite presses the Board of Trade and the Government to deal with wheat and meat as they have already dealt with sugar. I warn them to be careful. What has happened with regard to sugar ought not to encourage them to go further, but should be held out as an awful warning as to what will happen by foolish Government action in a crisis of this kind.
What would I do? No account has been taken of the huge increase in taxation that has been put on foods. [An HON. MEMBER: "Sugar."] I will come to sugar in a moment; that is not the highest. No account has been taken of what the Government has laid on in indirect taxes on food. Let me tell the House a little about it. The Government has laid on 50 per cent. in taxation on the pre-War cost of tea. It is a shilling a lb. on tea that used to sell at 8d. wholesale price. The Government has laid on 75 per cent. or 100 per 480 cent. on coffee and cocoa, and it has laid on 100 per cent. on the pre-War cost of sugar, which was 1½ d. a lb. Every penny on sugar represents a burden of £14,000,000 on the backs of the people. I dare say the right hon. Gentleman would say that we must get money. Yes, but we ought to recognise, when we are paying this increase as compared with pre-War times, that we are making a great contribution towards the cost of the War, with which we all want to push on. We ought not to have our minds in water-tight compartments. We remember the Budget Resolutions on the Budget night, but the next night we commence to grumble and say, "What about the price of food?" The Government has put unnecessarily heavy taxation on a great many of these articles. I want the House to realise that the greater the Government control, the greater is the rise in prices. It is not a question of sugar alone. The Government has in a way controlled shipping; it has dabbled in ships. The Admiralty and the Board of Trade have dealt with ships. The greater the Government control of ships, the more we have had to pay for them. In the same way the Government took charge of petrol, and, notwithstanding the heavy burden upon it, encouraged those who had the control of the article to lay a heavier charge on it. Hon. Gentlemen opposite who have now disappeared think that if the Government controlled all distribution the people would get everything for nothing.
What has happened already in regard to wheat? The 4-lb. loaf has gone up, and when this precious Wheat Commission is set up it will be up another 1d. or 1½ d., if the House allows them to do it. I am not against the extension of Government control in principle. I accept what the hon. Member who preceded me said, that this is not the time to produce our fads. I see the hon. Member for South-West Ham (Mr. W. Thorne) is present. He voted against the increase of the sugar tax. If I could get the Government to open the ports to sugar, I believe that sugar would go down within three months. I do not desire to lay down any fixed rule, but I suggest that we should take full advantage of the great organisation of the distributing agencies which exist in this country. Let me remind the House that there are many articles which have not advanced in price since the War began. I can tell them of three of the most important commodities without which we 481 could not live a day—tea, coffee, and cocoa. They are three articles in which I am a little concerned privately. They have not advanced at all; they are all cheaper to-day than before the War. Any rise there has been has been put on by the foolish Gentlemen—I do not wish to say anything disrespectful—who sit on the Treasury Bench. The Government ought to pay great respect to the distributive organisation which has been of such assistance throughout the War. I would recommend the Government, as I have often recommended them before, to avail themselves in every trade of the assistance of business men in buying any supplies and keeping down prices. I do not believe that these men will not be influenced by patriotic motives. They would give the Government all the assistance in their power, and would follow the old business principles, which would be a great deal safer than adopting these new, vague theories.
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
I feel that I ought to begin, as my right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Lough) began, by congratulating him on the moderation of his speech. He referred to two things in particular—first, sugar; and, secondly, tea. With regard to sugar, he said it was a horrible example of Government interference. What are the facts? At the present moment, through the very action which the right hon. Gentleman condemns in unmeasured terms, sugar is cheaper in this country than it is in America—
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
Apart from the duties. The House might well think that he has selected an article of an exceptional character. Before the War we got our chief supplies from our present enemies. That is not true of any other commodity in foodstuffs. The whole of the enemy supply is cut off. We have no sugar industry of our own. America, on the other hand, has a considerable sugar industry and has possession of a country—Cuba—which produces large quantities of sugar; yet in these circumstances—the statement will bear investigation; I cannot give the figure for to-day, but I looked it up not many days ago—sugar is cheaper in this country, apart from the duty, than it is in the United States of America. That fact, in view of the circumstances I have related, is the greatest tribute that can possibly be paid to the effect of Government control. The House should thank the 482 right hon. Gentleman not for pointing to a horrible example of the results of Government interference, but for selecting the most remarkable thing he could have selected in favour of Government interference. As to tea, the right hon. Gentleman has told the House that it has not advanced in price. There are many Members of this House who are as well acquainted with tea as the right hon. Gentleman who would contradict his statement. The price of tea has risen considerably. He knows very well that Indian tea companies have made a penny more profit per pound than they did in the year preceding the War. That is a very considerable matter for the old age pensioner.
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that there has been a considerable advance, or, if tea is sold at the same price, it is not the same tea.
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
There the right hon. Gentleman has again selected an instance which really points in exactly the opposite direction to that which he represented to the House.
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
The Government is not to be charged, as he charged them, with having done too much in the direction of Government control. The real fault of the Government in respect of the general conduct of the War has been lack of faith in the power of the Government. We ought to be surprised that there is so little Government control—I am speaking of the whole bulk of the subject. I am very well acquainted with all that the President of the Board of Trade has done, and done very well, but what he has done in the matter of food supplies has not amounted to a very great deal. The real fault of the Government has been the lack of faith in the power of the Government. It is as if a general who went to war did not believe in the courage of his own soldiers. That has been the position of the Government in regard to all these matters of supplies. It has not concerned food only; it has concerned materials necessary for war. The most important war materials—I will not mention them here, but I 483 could name war materials which were not seriously considered by the Government until the middle of last year, when the War had been waged for nearly a year. Need we be surprised if, at the present moment, they have not taken into full consideration such comparatively minor although really important articles as foodstuffs? The President of the Board of Trade will know that if I criticise any action of his, it is not on personal grounds. No one has a greater respect for his ability than I have, and I only wish I could add his ability to my opinions given to-day. If he will now re-read his speech which was referred to in that very excellent and truly moderate, in the proper sense, speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Anderson)—if he will read again what he said in February, 1915, when the War had been in progress for six months, he will see that what has been the root evil in this matter has been that the Board of Trade has no faith in the powers of government which it possesses. They have the power, and they do not use it.
In that speech my right hon. Friend was tempted rather to make light of the rise in food prices which had occurred. He rather ridiculed Government buying, and said a business man always bought badly. If that is true, the Wheat Commission ought never to have been set up. If he will read the speech in which he spoke about the millennium he will see that the effect it had upon the House was that it was not the business of the Government to interfere in this matter more than it could possibly help. War is a very serious undertaking which cannot be fought without the strong arm of the State. That is true not only of military operations, which at one time in the world's history were not always conducted by States, but it is true also of the very grave subject we have under consideration to-day. I do not want to "Hansardise" the right hon. Gentleman, but I will simply leave him to read his speech and reflect whether it was not the very fact that he enterained such opinions early in 1915 that led to the inaction which has characterised the Board of Trade in so many matters. Even quite lately, I think in his latest utterances and in the letter which my right hon. Friend addressed to one of my hon. Friends below the Gangway, and in the speech which he made in his own constituency, he still showed that lack of faith in the powers 484 which are possessed by Governments. If only at the beginning he had realised that possessing, as we did, more than a half of the effective tonnage of all the world, and with the powers we had to charter neutral tonnage, as it could have been chartered at that time, and as I know it was suggested to the Government that it should be chartered, and if the Government had taken possession of the ships, the very thing my right hon. Friend ridiculed at the beginning of the War, we should not have had the great burden of freights which we now bear and which are such a scandal in the minds of the majority of the nation, for it is a scandal that this tax should be levied—it really is equivalent of a tax—by the shipowners of the country. I am not reproaching shipowners individually. What advantage would it be either in the case of the farmer or a shipowner if he said, "I will be a good fellow in this matter. I will convey your goods at such and such freights"? That advantage would never reach the consumer. It would simply be taken up by other intermediaries before the goods reached the consumer. It is the system that we are attacking. It is not a question of attacking individuals. I think these considerations rather dispose of the phrase my right hon. Friend used in one of these communications when he spoke of freights being a world's problem. For the British Empire freights were not a world problem if they had been dealt with at the beginning of the War.
§ Sir L. CHIOZZA MONEY
I promised to finish my speech at seven o'clock, and must not allow myself to be diverted. If my hon. Friend really desires an answer, of course freights ought to be fixed, and they are fixed. He is really laughing at a fact which is already in existence. The President of the Board of Trade has fixed freights for the conveyance to this country of any number of commodities. That is the only reason I did not reply to him. It did not seem to me to be necessary. With regard to food, my right hon. Friend used the expression world prices. That really also is rather misleading. Take the work of the Commission that he has now set up. Will that Commission really be tied by world prices in the matter of wheat? The answer is in the negative, because these are the things the Wheat Commission, if it is given proper 485 powers—and I presume it will have full powers—can do. It can commandeer the whole of the wheat output of this country at a reasonable price, allowing a fair profit to the producers. It can get into communication with the Governments of our Colonies, as it is indeed already doing, and it can buy from Australia, I am glad to say, an enormous quantity of wheat in the coming season. I hardly like to tell the House the figure I was told this morning by an authority on the subject, but I am glad to be able to say that from Australia alone in the coming season we can obtain a very large proportion of our imported supplies of wheat. I hesitate to name the figure, because it seems such a very large proportion indeed. So that there again the right hon. Gentleman's Wheat Commission can go into the market, not in the ordinary way, as a commercial man goes. It can negotiate with the Government of Australia and can buy that wheat, not at a world price but at a fair price, which is quite a different matter, and it can bring that wheal to this country in ships at a commandeered freight—the very thing my hon. Friend (Mr. Mason) laughed at—and it is going to do it. By this means, therefore, I hope we can obtain our wheat at a figure which is really below what is commonly called the "world price." Of course, that observation has no relevance to such things as coal or milk, or even such things as meat, because there again we have the great advantage not only of being able to commandeer the whole of the home supply, but of being able to make these large-scale negotiations with the Governments of our Dominions over the seas, which I hope and believe will mark the commerce of the future and distinguish it from the commerce of the past. That is to say, we shall elevate all these questions of the food and material supplies of this great people of ours out of the region of what is commonly called trade altogether, and make" it a matter of negotiation and arrangement between the various States of the Empire, and also I hope afterwards, perhaps simultaneously, with foreign countries, and so obtain supplies with security and at a price which will be impossible under any other circumstances. If any hon. Member is tempted to believe that that is an idle dream let him consider, as my hon. Friend (Mr. Mason) does, what my right hon. Friend has so well done already with 486 regard to the wheat of Australasia. If he had not taken that action, which was so businesslike in the very best sense of the word, we know very well that our troops would either have had to go short of the meat they are now eating or we should have had to pay a famine price for it. So that we have actually realised in practice the truth of what I have put before the House.
One other thing I will say about world prices. The United States of America have not suffered by prices in this way as we have here, and that throws its own light upon the question of world prices. In America, according to all official investigation of retail prices by the United States Government at Washington—the fact is published in the "Labour Gazette" to-day—prices had risen on 15th May, 1916, a comparatively recent date, as compared with June, 1914, by only 11 per cent., when allowance is made for all the articles commonly used by the working classes of America. It makes it the more remarkable that we have done so well in regard to one commodity, sugar, as compared with America. In regard to commodities generally, America has done better than we have, but in regard to sugar we have done better than America, which surely throws its own light upon the advantages of Government control. I want to beg my right hon. Friend very earnestly indeed to extend the sphere of his operations. The Wheat Commission has been set up. Anxiety has been expressed, in which I join, as to the powers which it will possess. I hope it will have powers all along the line, and that it will not only be able to deal with imported supplies, but also that it will be able to commandeer home supplies at a fair rate of profit to the farmer. I should like to see such a Royal Commission working, as I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Captain Bathurst) would like it to work, in conjunction with other efforts to encourage and to stimulate the British farmer to produce more wheat, and that those efforts should have relevance not only to the events of the passing hour, but should extend far beyond them to those very urgent needs which will exist when this War comes to an end. It is a terribly serious problem, and not a word which was stated by the hon. and gallant Gentleman or by my hon. Friend (Mr. Lambert), I am sure, wag exaggerated, and I hope it will have the earnest attention of the Government, 487 I want to beg my right hon. Friend to extend his operations beyond wheat. After all, there are plenty of men in this country who are willing to do the work. This is work for men who, I am glad to think, exist in the country and are anxious to undertake such honourable tasks for the nation at such a time. I should like to see my right hon. Friend extend his operations to the control of meat and dairy produce, including milk, and also he might with very great profit control the supplies of oils and fats. They are partly controlled already. An hon. Member opposite is doing the most magnificent work in seeing that we get our supplies of oils and fats into the country. Let him go further. Let him take control not only of oils and fats, but of the making of margarine. It is true that margarine has not appreciated a great deal, but what we want in regard to margarine is very largely to increase the output; and if the Government takes it in hand, I am sure that output could be very largely increased during the War, and therefore set us free of one of the most unfortunate necessities we labour under of importing very large quantities of margarine from Holland. With regard to shipping, I still think that to the control of use which is exercised by Lord Curzon's Committee, and exercised so well, even after more than two years and two months of war, it is not too late for my right hon. Friend to consider taking the sole charge of the nation's shipping, including the control of freight rates.
One other thing ought to be mentioned, and that is feeding stuffs. The farmer has a right to ask that if, on the one hand, his supplies are to be taken, as they have been taken in the case of the wool clip, as is pointed out in the Food Prices Report, at fixed fair prices, as is done here and in Australia and elsewhere, the farmer ought to be protected in respect of what he buys; and I should therefore like to see my right hon. Friend add to the articles to be controlled manures, fertilisers, and feeding stuffs, including, of course, maize. The maize that is coming into this country to be used by our farmers is being brought at a most extravagant rate of freights, so that £1,000 worth of maize has to pay shipping charges of something like £2,000 or £3,000. I do not think I am exaggerating the figure. In face of 488 that we must expect that the foods which are made out of the feeding stuffs, with such charges upon them, must in their turn be dear, and we must therefore afford to the farmer the protection which he can rightly demand in such circumstances. I have already paid a tribute in his presence to the right hon. Gentleman's ability, and I beg him earnestly to apply that ability to the powers of government which he possesses, and to have the courage to deal with these things on the only scale which is worthy of the operations of such a nation as this at such a time.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I have to thank my hon. Friend for the kind remarks with which he closed his speech, and I' need hardly assure him that nothing that he says in criticism of the administration of the Board of Trade is likely to be regarded by me as having any personal element in it. I have listened to my hon. Friend with great care, with the same care with which I have listened to previous speakers, and with which I have read the Report of the Departmental Committee, all the time hungering and thirsting for business proposals which would add to the abundance of food in this country, to the lowering of the cost of that food to the consumer, or in any way extending the organisation of the Government with the object of benefiting our own people.
When the House discussed this matter in February, 1915, there was a different tone on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. Anderson) made on that occasion, as he did to-day, a resonant and powerful speech. At that time I asked what were the practical proposals which were made by my hon. Friend, and so far as I can remember the only practical proposal that he made was that the British Government should become the one and only business manager of the British Mercantile Marine. It was when my hon. Friend pressed that suggestion upon the House that I made the remark which has been referred to more than once this afternoon, namely, that it was a mistake to attempt to bring about the millennium in the middle of a great war. I hesitate to read the extract, but as it has been referred to, I fear I must inflict it upon the House. I was pointing out that the commandeering of the whole of the Mercantile Marine was a most unbusinesslike proceeding, which in itself would create inequalities in new?
489 directions, and would not cure the evils from which we were at that time suffering. I said:There is only one way by which, by commandeering the whole of the mercantile marine, you can hold the balance fairly as between all routes and all merchants and all consumers, and that is that you must become not only shipowners but merchants. Indeed you must become not only an individual merchant, you must become a super merchant, the only merchant—the only merchant in wheat, the only merchant in hides, the only merchant in wool, the only merchant in oil. I know the hon. Gentleman who spoke last think that is next door to the millennium."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th February, 1915, col. 1186, Vol. LXIX.]I have no doubt he still thinks it, but this afternoon he comes with quite different proposals. I have no desire to plume myself on my consistency, but I say that any man who thinks that during a great war the proper thing to do is to fix your views as early as possible in the progress of that war, and never alter them, is not fit for the conduct of a great office. He must adapt himself to circumstances. He must from time to time revise his preconceptions. He must be prepared to take action which in times of peace he might not on principle uphold. For my own part I have been prepared to take whatever steps I thought was likely to prevent any form of exploitation, and to provide for the people of this country what they require. Over a year ago the hon. Member for Attercliffe opened his speech, as he did to-day, by admitting that there must be a rise in prices during the War. The whole question is: how much? That is at the very root of the matter. It is difficult to analyse the cause of the rise in prices without every speech that has been made in explanation in this House actually acting as a bull point on the market. I do suggest not only in this House but in the Press we should not carelessly by speech, by article, or by letter do anything to increase the advantage which foreign producers as well as home producers are sure to make of an impression being created that prices must rise, that the tendency is upwards, and that they might as well accelerate the rise. It is so easy for us in giving descriptions and explanations here to do more harm than good.
There is one aspect of the change in prices to which I must draw the attention of the House. If we may refer to the marked reasons for prices going up we shall find that they are the restriction of production, the narrowing of markets the difficulties of carriage, and, I might also add, the inflation of the currency. There is far too little attention paid to that. The currency of the world is inflated, and 490 values are not now what they appear to be. We may use all these explanations, but there is another explanation in this country, and that is that we have not restricted our consuming capacity. On the contrary, we have, throughout the War, increased our consuming capacity. I am not referring only to the Army, although it is perfectly certain that whenever there is a war the Army will always have to be better fed than those same individuals are fed in times of peace. It is not a question of them having lived in poverty before the War. We are bound to feed the men more abundantly than in times of peace, when the whole success depends upon their being in the pink of health, full of energy, spending the whole of their time in the open air, and having to stand privations and hardships which they do not know in civil employment. All these are reasons for giving them a far more abundant dietary than they would have even in the heaviest trade. That is one direction in which our consuming capacity has increased. What about the people at home? They are consuming more. There are some classes of the community who are undoubtedly suffering. The old age pensioners are suffering. Those with fixed incomes of all kinds are suffering. There are great sections of our population, not only in London, but in the provinces as well, who are feeling the burden of high prices. The correspondence which we have at the Board of Trade—and I need hardly say it is very large every day—is full of suggestions as well as information. Some of the suggestions are wise, but most are extremely foolish. The information is invaluable. Let me take some of the samples of the kind of thing that has been written to the Board of Trade quite recently. I will take only the case of meat. I will take one or two munition areas. First of all, they are cases where the consumption of meat tends to go up higher with the heavy wages, or, rather, with the larger remuneration, because overtime has added greatly to the earning power of the working classes, and it has had a great deal to do with the higher prices now paid for some articles of food:The working classes are buying meat freely, and do not object to pay for it. They are paying for the best meat.Take another munition town:The munition workers are spending money freely, and usually on the best parts. Others are undoubtedly practising economy, buying less meat and of the cheaper cuts.491 Take some cases of towns engaged in the general trade:The people are well employed, and women who never worked out do so now, which gives them good appetites, and is one of the causes of more meat being purchased.Take a cotton town. Even in cotton areas there appears to be larger purchasing of food.The people have plenty of money to spend. The sale of 1s. margarine is well up, but large numbers of people will have pure butter at high prices, and insist on getting the best bacon. It is surprising.Take a great Midland town:Many munition workers are now getting the better cuts of English meat, whereas formerly they had the cheapest foreign meat. Those whose wages have not increased much are cutting down their requirements. It is the customary thing to ask 'How much does that joint come to?' not 'How much does it weigh?' They have only so much to spend, and they try to make it eke out. Among others, possibly inferior cuts sell quickly, and best cuts are not in demand, but it is not the case in munition centres.The House must have been well aware that one of the reasons for the trouble in the railway world in the demand made by railway servants for higher remuneration was that in many towns where they were working they were working at fixed rates of remuneration alongside men who were earning enormous incomes in comparison with them. It was not a mere question of jealousy that one household was earning more than another. It was largely a question of food. One was able to buy the best cuts, and only the scrag ends were left for the others. Therefore we must take into account the consuming power of our people. It has in a great many districts largely increased, and that is one of the factors which has led to the increase in prices. Let me take various articles of food in which there have been a rise in prices. I will take fish. Why is fish dearer? Fish is not dearer because there is any undue profiteering out of fish; not because there is any exploitation of the customer. It is dearer because there are not the same number of fishing boats at sea, because they are engaged in trawling for mines instead of for fish. The reason why we have not more fish in England is because there are not the men, the material, or the instruments to get them. Consequently the amount of fish that is brought in is very small. Take the case of eggs. Everybody knows that we have got gigantic quantities of eggs from Siberia and Russia in the past. The whole of that supply has been cut off, and, naturally, eggs are bringing in a much greater price than they ever brought before. I need not go back to the in- 492 creased prices of beef, mutton, and bacon. They are all due to the fact that either the consuming capacity of our people has gone up or that the supply has been interfered with. This should be mentioned in the course of this Debate, and it should be mentioned outside. I can imagine nothing more grossly unfair than to arouse public indignation on this subject without giving the true explanation for a great many of the rises which have taken place.
One of the most difficult questions we have to deal with was touched on in the Report of the Departmental Committee. Here my right hon. Friend (Mr. Lough) was a little hard on some of his colleagues in this House, and those who compose that Committee. I agree with him that there are many advantages in having a Committee of this kind, a Select Committee of the House of Commons; but what we were anxious to obtain was that, as members of the Committee, we should have some of the best specialists whom we could draw in from outside. There is Mr. Brodrick, who is one of the most efficient servants of the Wholesale Cooperative Society. He is not a Member of this House. I was most anxious to get his services. The same remark applies to other gentlemen who sat on this Committee. I am sure that the whole House will agree with me that no one has been of more assistance than Professor Ashley, of Birmingham. That Sir Gilbert Claughton is a high-minded and able official is a fact which will appeal to the hon. Member for Attercliffe. If any complaint can be made it is this, that, having gone into this question, the Committee have realised, as we have realised in the Departments, how exceedingly difficult it is to deal with it. It was no discovery to us. I must confess that I was not surprised at the Report. The recommendations made by this Committee must be dealt with by the Departments concerned. It is not only a question of the Board of Trade. The Board of Agriculture is involved. A great many of these recommendations touch the Department of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Acland). The Local Government Board is also involved. The Local Government Board, the Board of Agriculture, and the Board of Trade are all at the present time doing their best to carry out the recommendations of the Committee. If the recommendations are not heroic, it is for the good reason that heroic remedies do more harm than good.
493 Amongst the difficult questions he had to deal with was the supply of milk. I do not know for what reason my right hon. Friend who opened this discussion said that the question of milk was easier to deal with than any other. In the experience of the Committee it appears to have been most difficult. When the hon. member for Attercliffe secured the signatures of six of his colleagues to a memorandum they simply put in that memorandum, a pious wish that the Government would do its duty, but they gave us absolutely no light on how to deal with the question. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackfriars said that he had some recommendations to make about milk. I listened to him with great interest. One was that he very much disliked the manipulation of milk, by which he meant the use of milk for cheese when the dairy farmer could not get what he required for the milk which he sold. I am not altogether certain that turning milk into cheese is such a heinous offence. Looking down the list of prices, I find that the percentage of increase in milk since the outbreak of the War is 39, and the percentage increase in the price of cheese is 52. You cannot make cheese without milk, and it may be that the Cheshire farmers in transferring some of their milk to making cheese were really doing good for the community. My right hon. Friend, I think, forgot the cheese eater. In the goodness of his heart he was thinking only of women and children. But other people must have cheese.
§ Mr. BARNES
What I said was that in order to keep up the price of milk they were turning it into cheese, and were withholding the cheese from the market to suit their own purposes.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I do not know what evidence there is of withholding cheese from the market. Any farmer doing so would leave himself open to the operation of the Statute, and if there is any evidence of this brought to the Board of Trade, we will not hesitate to order a prosecution. The amount of cheese now on the market is less than we require, and we have to get cheese largely from abroad. One of the dangers which you run when you touch a delicate subject like this is that you may transfer the milk which is urgently required in the great towns—no one realises this more than I do—from the very children who require it for their sustenance into the making of cheese which is not available for them. That may be a good 494 thing or a bad thing. One thing quite certain is, if you do not make the production of milk remunerative for the farmer there is no arrangement under the sun which you can make that will compel him to go on milking the cows. What so many people seem to forget is that cows go dry. They forget altogether that farmers may decide not to have their cows served, but actually to sell them for beef. It may be that in selling them for beef they are helping us in one section of the market where we require supplies. But I should not blame the farmer if he gave us what we required most, beef, and decided because he could not make money out of the milk, or could only make a loss out of the milk which he sold, to get rid of the animals. I regret to say that I do know of some dairy farmers who have already reduced their milking herds. That is a very grave danger for the children of this country. Their reasons for doing so is not only that they cannot get the profit which they want—do not let us put down everything to profit—but that they cannot get the milkers. A very large number of milkers have been taken all over the country, and in some districts it is almost impossible to get women milkers. Then I am assured by those who know more about milch cows than I do, that, taken over a large area, the women, as a rule, do not get as much milk out of the cow as the men.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
No more is it the case in the county of Northumberland, but I am assured that that is actually the case in the south of England. Not only is there a difficulty in replacing the milkers who have been taken, but when you do replace them by women you do not necessarily get the maximum yield from the cows. We have been in communication with the War Office about milkers. The War Office have made arrangements which will, we hope, throughout the present contract season, assure to farmers those who are necessary for the production of milk. I think that it is our duty, and I hope we shall have the support of the House in this, to make such representations to the War Office from time to time as will ensure to us an abundant supply of milk. Let us by all means press substitution as far as it will go, but remember that there are some things about a milk farm which women.
495 cannot do, and ought not to be asked to do. Those services must be performed by men. My right hon. Friend made three suggestions for arranging the milk market. Let us go on the principle, he said, once a dairyman always a dairyman.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I know, but possibly some cows may go dry during the War, and we do not get much further forward. I do not think that there is any real tendency among farmers who are dairymen to do anything else. Remember that the organisation of the farmer is already fixed. The method of work, the soil itself, the buildings—all these things tend to make a man who is a dairy farmer remain a dairy farmer. There is also the further point that a man who has been a dairy farmer most of the time does not care to become anything else. He knows that. He specialises on that. He backs his ability, and the chances are that once he is a dairy farmer he will always remain a dairy farmer, without any of the statutory aids to which my right hon. Friend referred. Then the right hon. Gentleman wished to make it an offence to destroy or withhold milk. I am with him there. I think that it ought to be made an offence wilfully to destroy milk. An instance was given by him this afternoon, which I am sure he will endeavour to verify, of milk having been poured down a sewer. That would be just as wicked an offence against the public weal as the withholding of milk altogether from the market. I can imagine nothing worse. If it is possible to devise means whereby we can prevent the destruction of milk which is required, I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Agriculture will take the necessary steps to do so.
Then my right hon. Friend says that we must fix a price for milk. I would not like to accept right off what he has said with regard to that, but I feel sure that a good deal can be done by letting all those who are engaged in the milk trade realise that the Government has its eye on them, and I think that we have a right to ask from the retail firms, as well as from the farmers' organisations, full information as to any reasons for making a change. Let us have the chance of investigating them, and if they are not justifiable I am quite sure that the Department will be ready to say so. Then my right hon. Friend suggested that we should go 496 in for desiccated milk. On that I will only make one observation. Up to the present there has not been any desiccated milk made from whole milk that is entirely satisfactory. Desiccated milk made entirely from skimmed milk is not likely to supply the necessary nourishment for young persons. He has, however, suggested a superhuman cure for all our ills in the shape of a Ministry of Food. It has become the fashion nowadays, whenever we are dealing with any topic, to have a Minister specially for it It is not only my right hon. Friend who has made the suggestion, but one of the correspondents of the Board of Trade has already suggested, in the course of a long and abusive letter, that the only way out of our difficulties was to have a "minister of gastronomic munitions."
Let me take the subject of meat, because it was with meat that the Report of the Departmental Committee was mainly concerned. The Committee on the whole approved of the steps that have been taken by the Government, but they made a number of suggestions which we had already partly acted on, but which we shall act on now with greater vigour. They suggest that we should be doing more in reference to providing refrigerating tonnage. That was a topic over which we had already had a great deal of difficulty from time to time during the last twelve months. Difficulties in the adjustment of finance, difficulties owing to the rise of cost and shortage of material put old contracts entirely out of joint, and have led to a great deal of readjustment. In some cases we have been able to reach the terms which we thought were fair, and with regard to cargo vessels one of the officials of the Department has succeeded in adjusting the financial differences in the case, I believe, of no fewer than 200 vessels, which is a very remarkable achievement, and in getting shippers and shipowners together to settle their differences without any official interference, merely by his good offices. The same sort of thing has failed in the case of one or two refrigerating vessels which run in the Australasian trade. But I can assure the House that if these financial adjustments are not reached, we are not going to allow those vessels to remain out of the water. If they are not reached we shall requisition the vessels on the stocks, finish them ourselves, and run them for Government contracts.
497 Then the Committee suggest that we should do more for port labour. I am glad to say that at the present time there is not such an acute shortage of port labour as there was a year ago, but undoubtedly the loading and the discharging of vessels in our ports are much slower than they were. They have gone up in some of our ports almost 100 per cent. That is, of course, a very serious matter in these days of shortage of tonnage. Then the Committee suggest that more should be done with regard to the slaughtering of livestock, and that is now having the consideration of the Board of Agriculture. A great deal has already been done to prevent the undue slaughtering of livestock, but the fact remains that there are more live animals in the country to-day than there were at the beginning of the War. That shows an amount of economic strength which must be a surprise not only to Europe, but to America, and I hope that America will take note of the fact. If we are driven to it, we can afford to kill a great many of our animals without coming down to pre-war level.
Then some suggestions were made with regard to restrictions on retailers. That is a matter into which we are going at the present time, and if we can devise a scheme which really will be a benefit to the consumer we shall undoubtedly adopt it. We are making arrangements now, and have already made arrangements, for getting in larger returns from the retail trade than we have ever had before. Conferences have already been held with the retail trade, and returns from the multiple-shop companies are also coming forward more freely. I may point out as an example of the shortage of meat that at the beginning of June, taking the biggest group of multiple shops, the number has been cut down from 3,500 to just over 2,000 shops which are now open. That is one of the best examples of the shortage of meat.
§ Mr. H. SMITH
May I add that that company has paid no dividend on the ordinary shares since the War began?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
That was one of the companies I had in mind. It is obvious that when there is so much less meat to be sold the working charges per pound are bound to be higher without there being any profiteering or exploitation. That in 498 itself is one of the main explanations of the retailing of meat having become more expensive.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Has the right hon. Gentleman any evidence of any exploitation—because, if not, it would be proper that people should be told so?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
No; with regard to meat we have absolutely no evidence, and I would like to add that, among the numerous correspondence which reached the Board of Trade, we have not the slightest evidence of exploitation on that point. I can say the same with regard to some other commodities, as I take them in turn. If there were exploitation, we have large statutory powers, which we should not hesitate to apply. If they were not large enough, we should come down to the House and ask to have them enlarged, and I am quite sure that the necessary powers would be given.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
We did not think it necessary for this reason, that the retail meat trade was prepared to give the fullest possible information to the Committee, and, I believe, did give to the Committee all that it asked for. They also kept in the closest possible touch with us, and I do not think that their interests suffered from the absence of a representative on the Committee. Then there is the recommendation of municipal shops, as to which I must leave the Local Government Board to speak while I pass on to other matters. There were recommendations as to the wages of women workers, and general recommendations as to the improvement of wages and other matters. All these concern other Departments, and the House will forgive me if I do not deal with them now. But I may inform the House how far the meat operations have gone.
When we started in the meat business I looked forward with some degree of nervousness to dealings so vast as these have become. They started happily, and we have had the willing co-operation of some gentlemen who knew a good deal about the trade, and in particular I must once more mention Sir Thomas Robinson, the Agent-General of Queensland, who has given his time night and morning, every day, since we first started our meat 499 operations, in the autumn of 1914. He has done his work so well that not only our Government, but the Allied Governments, are grateful to him for those services. These operations have been on a gigantic scale. Up to the present time our total purchases amount to £60,000,000 sterling. We supply not only our own forces, but the Italian and French Armies. We do that, not because we forced the arrangement on them, but because they asked us to perform that service. We market an enormous amount of meat here for British distribution. The total amount probably comes to well over 150,000 tons. A distribution so large was bound to be put under control in order to bring the best benefit to those in this country who wanted it. We provided a Committee that worked with great regularity, and arrangements were made whereby the profits of the merchants were strictly limited. We also eliminated altogether the intervening merchant, the unnecessary middleman, so that the meat we handed over to the merchant under very rigid conditions should go out to the retail trade without further profits being made.
This meant taking over an enormous amount of insulated tonnage. The insulated tonnage of the River Plate at the present time runs out to something like four hundred and fifty thousand tons of meat a year, and the Australasian comes to rather more than that. We have had to readjust our meat prices with the Australian Governments, for there the working costs have gone up just as ours have here. I hope there is no suggestion of exploitation in that quarter; there is no evidence of it. They have come to an agreement with us—and Mr. Massey, who is now in England, is to discuss with us the question of the New Zealand supplies of meat—in the price of meat f.o.b., which has been justified by those representing the Colonial Governments. Without their cooperation it would have been impossible for us to keep up the supplies at the present level, and while that has been done there has been no increase in the freight rate. I am glad that no one has been so unkind this afternoon as to suggest that I have any tender feeling for the shipowners, and so far as British shipowners are concerned my heart is as cold as steel. We have not given them a single increase since the beginning of the War. They have gone on rigidly at a fixed rate, and they will 500 have to do so until the War is over. The meat control, as far as it has gone, has been conducted on those lines; the best will be done to manage it as well as. possible, and I hope the House will allow it to be conducted on business lines. When I come to Home supplies we are met by entirely different considerations. The difficulties, as in the case of sugar, were certainly by no means small. If the British farmer withholds his meat, he will come under the general statute as to withholders; but at the present moment I see no signs of it, and, indeed, the farmer would be a great fool to keep his cattle too long, eating up his forage and grass, when he might turn them into money in the market. The Board of Agriculture naturally takes a deep interest in the supply of meat.
With regard to sugar, my right hon. Friend (Mr. Lough) knows far more about sugar and other groceries than I do, but it is a fact that sugar is cheaper in this country than in America. Though they have no Commission, though they have all the advantages of laissez faire, and all the experience in the handling of sugar, yet their sugar is dearer than it is here. My right hon. Friend tells us that the pre-war price of sugar was 1½ d. a pound, and that now it is 6d., but he ought to have explained that the figure of 1½ d. was for wholesale granulated, and that the figure of 6d. is for retailed cubes. If that is the sort of information we get from experts of the reputation of my right hon. Friend, I must say we are just as well off in the hands of the Sugar Commission.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The argument of my right hon. Friend was that the Sugar Commission generally managed things badly, and that we ought not to copy the Sugar Commission in connection with the Wheat Commission. My right hon. Friend is quite entitled to his theoretical view, and I agree with him that on the whole Governments do not buy as well as private merchants. The Wheat Commission has the inestimable advantage of having its buying conducted under the greatest sugar buyer in Europe. If it had been a purely representative Commission, drawn from every section of the House, representing every interest, I 501 should have despaired of it, but it has been appointed with a single eye to the conduct of business; it has sat every day, morning, noon, and night; the members have to be constantly there, and they have been selected very much in. the same way as you select the staff of a great firm, representing every section of the trade, not only those who know something of the Argentine and America, but those who deal with more distant parts, as well as those who have the handling of grain and know something of distribution in this country. Let not the House run away with the idea that even distribution in this country is a simple problem. We should lose the whole advantage we get by centralised buying if we had wasteful distribution.
My hon. Friend said a great deal about "going slowly along the line of State action." I have no apology to make for that. To make a mistake in a time of great stress would be such a grave danger to our people and our food supply, that we were justified in going cautiously rather than recklessly. Our margin of safety in regard to food supplies in this country was not too large, and a mistake made in handling supplies might reduce that margin below the danger point. I have no apology to make for going slowly along the pathway we now follow. The House will remember perfectly well that as long ago as October, 1914, when we saw the chance of our margin of supply going down, we made very large purchases secretly through a first-rate firm, and the market thought for a long time that it was buying on its own account. It leaked out, however, which made it impossible for the secret buying to continue; but before those transactions were over more than 3,000,000 quarters of wheat were handled, as well as very large quantities of flour, and by this means we managed to keep up the margin right through 1915. Indian wheat had to be dealt with. The Indian Government had not only to consider the consumers at home, and we thought the best way to deal with it was to take the whole of the firms engaged in that trade—there, were only some half-dozen of them—and turn them into Government agents, paying them a commission, and allowing them nothing in the way of profits. In this way 2,500,000 quarters of wheat were brought from India and distributed here. That was by using business men, who knew the operations, instead of using 502 amateurs, however enthusiastic. Then came long the storage scheme of my Noble Friend Lord Selborne, who succeeded in making arrangements with a trade buyer in this country which enabled him to pile up quantities of wheat, and once more make the margin of safety large. The hon. Member for Wiltshire said that our storage capacity in England and Wales was too small. It was small, but my Noble Friend Lord Selborne succeeded in doing what seemed impossible, and he greatly enlarged it simply by organisation. The result has been that we are still holding on Government account a very large amount of wheat, without inconveniencing a single port or warehouse. That is a transaction for which my Noble Friend deserves credit, and it was one which naturally led to the step we have just recently taken. If I had thought that private firms could have carried on the business during the whole year without any Government assistance I should have been glad to have seen them do it, but we could not take that risk. We have to bring the wheat from great distances, and it means using tonnage which in itself is uneconomical; but if we had left it to private merchants, the advantage of the fixed rate might have disappeared in the course of time, and the money have passed into the wrong pocket.
The whole advantage of this artificial arrangement ought to accrue to the State and to the consumer. That means that it was inevitable that we should go the whole distance. If we had gone half way we should have put the merchant equally out of action. The merchant cannot go on with the great block of Government action hanging over his head; he might have become bankrupt at any moment, because naturally a merchant in that position would not only draw in his horns but would put up the shutters. If we were to put the merchants out of business obviously the Government must take command. We felt it much better to make our plans in secret, and then to come down to the House and make the announcement at the same time that we made it to the trade itself. The Commission may not be going to be efficient in a week or two. The Sugar Commission did not work well at first, and it had many difficulties in 1914. I believe, furthermore, as regards the consumers, that it was due very largely to the representations which came from those consumers, 503 those who actually used sugar in manufacture, that the Commission started its operations.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
No, Sir, not the brewers; those who were not making alcoholic liquors at all. So my right hon. Friend is wrong on every point. Furthermore, sugar that is used by the brewery trade is not imported by the Commission at all. I do not believe that the Commission can itself reach the maximum of efficiency at first, but let us give it a chance. We have chosen the best season of the year for it to allow a margin larger now than ever. We were able to prepare the ground for the Commission by making an arrangement with the Australian Government to give us a large amount of wheat in hand, and we are prepared to extend that operation. Mention has been made of the amount of purchases made in Australia. It is just as well not to make public the prices. There are other places in the world to which we can go, and it is as well that the vendors there should not know what we are paying in Australia. Wheat and shipping are inextricably bound up together. It would have been impossible for us to have carried through our purchases in Australia on business lines unless we had been prepared, under the stress of our present circumstances, to divert vessels into that trade. These are uneconomic operations, because, as the House knows, the outside that you can get in the Australian wheat year is two and a half trips—two and a half voyages of a cargo vessel to and from Australia—whereas tramp vessels run across the Atlantic as many as six or eight voyages in the course of the year, thus almost thirding the efficiency of the tonnage we now have. We are prepared to take these risks and to embark on that uneconomical operation in order to have our supplies here and not be dependent on one market alone. "But at what price are we going to do it?" asks my hon. Friend. We are going to do it on the equivalent, as near as we can make it, of what are known as Blue-Book rates. For my part, I think the best way of getting the quickest dispatch out of these vessels, and the most efficient way of holding the balance between tramps and liners is to pay all wheat carriage on the basis of a voyage charter. That is being worked out by those who are skilled in making these 504 calculations—we are not leaving it to the shipowners—and we shall get the whole advantage of the voyage charter basis in the incentive which comes to managers, captains and engineers to hurry their vessels round, not only in and out of port, but between ports. We must impose, I fear, on the shipping industry whatever disadvantages may come from that, in order that the whole advantage of this transaction shall accrue to the State.
The hon. Member for Attercliffe seemed to think this was one of the rare occasions on which we have controlled shipping. If he were sitting on the Departmental Committee which is inquiring into the control of Shipping he would realise that this is not a "rare occasion." The number of ships under control is remarkably small; I will tell the House how many. It will not do any good to the enemy, and there is no reason therefore why the House should not know. If you take vessels employed permanently abroad there are 297. The House may say, "Why are any vessels employed permanently abroad?" Let the House remember we have not only to deal with this War, but we have to provide for our not being put entirely out of the shipping business after the War. These foreign connections in many cases have taken a whole generation to build up. The services performed by British ships between foreign ports are one of the most valuable of our invisible exports. These vessels not only provide income for the shipowner, who is easily pilloried, but they provide employment for those who build ships and those who man them. They employ a large number of people in subsidiary trades at home, and, what is more, the cultivation of that foreign trade has had a great deal to do with our having command of the greatest mercantile marine of the world, without which we should have been unable to wage this War, and without which our Allies would have been beaten as well as starved. That service has been cut down. In normal times there are not a hundred vessels engaged in purely foreign trade—there are thousands! We have merely kept the skeleton of that connection alive.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
A great many are under foreign contracts, from which there is no escape. Let the House remember, when the War is over, that one of the most essential things for us to recover will be a good deal of that foreign trade which 505 has now naturally passed into the hands of neutrals. Take the next category—cargo liners loading on berths, and tramps chartered to liner companies while loading on berths—588. Not a large number again to keep alive the connection between this country and other countries—a mere skeleton of the organisation necessary. Last of all, take free tramps—tramps which go out and get the high prices that occasionally figure in the Press and form the basis of questions in this House. There are only 233. The House might have thought from what was said by the hon. Member for Attercliffe that these free vessels, getting these abnormally high rates, are making them out of the flesh and blood of our people. How many are engaged in carrying food—these returns have been very carefully got out—something like sixty. I have given the House a total that reaches 1,118 vessels, which are for one reason or another—good national reasons—free to trade where they will in their own accustomed grooves.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am giving details now for the first time, details which previously have not been published, and I am doing so because I understand that outside feeling is directed against Shipping. I think it is about time the country knew that out of a total merchant fleet of nearly 10,000 vessels only 1,100 ocean-going vessels are free to conduct their own operations. Then what of the rest? First of all, there is a very large number of vessels engaged in the service of the Army and Navy. Everybody knows that one reason why we have suffered a shortage of shipping in every other trade is that we have been bound to employ an enormous number of vessels in the service of this country and our Allies. I have no intention of giving these figures. Then there are a certain number of vessels temporarily released to the owners, in order that they may carry on intermediate voyages with commodities urgently needed in this country—for instance, timber and fat. The Foodstuffs Requisitioning Committee has a very large number of vessels under requisition. There are steamers trading on behalf of the Allied Governments and steamers trading on behalf of the Colonies. Take the last three categories; not one is running under what are known as Admiralty rates. The Requisitioning Committee 506 ordered vessels to go into the trade for the carriage of wheat. They were bound to go. The merchants knew that they could not go into any other trade Of course, the freights came down; it was one way of bringing them down. How far has that been effective? Take the rates of freight across the Atlantic for the carriage of wheat. It was up to 18s. a quarter. The operations of the Committee over which the Chairman of Ways and Means presides brought it down to 8s. per quarter. I believe at one time it touched 7s. Now it is above that again, because there is a variable moving in the market, and that variable moving in the market was essential so long as the trade was in private hands.
Let me point out one of the difficulties. When a man buys wheat for shipping, he does not always buy it three months ahead and then go to the Chairman of Ways and Means and say, "I shall want a vessel about that time." He may buy a long way ahead, or he may buy only a day before he ships it. The Whitley Committee has had to judge as well as it could the amount of tonnage that would be necessary for the cross-Atlantic trade. On the best expert information they could get, they named a figure, whatever it was. It sometimes happened they did not prophesy accurately; they did their best; they erred on the right side; they put more vessels into it than the trade actually wanted, and when it became impossible to fill them up they were ready, perhaps, to take something else. Wheat always had the preference. Suppose a man came along with a spot cargo, why should he be provided with tonnage at the moment he asks for it? The Requisitioning Committee could not work along these lines. It was impossible to do so. If a man were so improvident, speculative, or bold as to buy at the last moment and had not already covered himself for tonnage, he must, of course, take the risk of not having the ships there. Otherwise, the result would be to give the advantage to the man who buys at the last moment. The man who was far-seeing would get no advantage, while the speculator and the profiteer would get all the benefit. Therefore we chose this other method. Do not imagine it was not complained of by some of those who had not the advantage of open market rates. But on the whole it was accepted by the trade as just.
I come now to the question of the Member for Northamptonshire—what, 507 about those running for the Allied Governments? Some were running on old charters which had lower rates than are now paid, some under artificial rates, and some, like those running under the French coal agreement, were under fixed rates. It is true they were arrived at by negotiations, but the French Government were satisfied. They extended the arrangements to Italy; the Italian Government was equally satisfied. We had to do a great deal for Russia. There, again, we exercised the powers we had. Although they were not what are known as Blue-Book rates they were fixed rates, far below the open market rates. With regard to the Colonies, there is absolutely no Government in the world which has dealt more ruthlessly with shipowners than Australia. Those vessels, when trading on behalf of the Colonies, were bound to accept remuneration and conditions which in many respects appeared to be harsh to those who owned or managed the vessels.
§ Mr. HOUSTON
May I interrupt? Would the right hon. Gentleman mind telling the House the result of the Government management of ships to Australia?
§ 8.0 P.M
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am quite content to answer for our own Government. Wherever you embark on Government management of ships it is one of the most difficult things in the world to avoid uneconomic use of ships. One way in which we have been able to carry through many operations is that the Admiralty have succeeded in a great many directions in doing with a smaller number of vessels than previously. I have no doubt that in course of time they will be able to carry it further. I have pointed out, however—I hope this will go outside—that the bulk of the Mercantile Marine is under control, that all except a small part of that which is under control is running at Blue-Book rates, that the remainder of that which is under control is running at fixed rates, which bear no relation whatever to the open market rates, and that only a small fraction are running at free rates—I have given the exact figures—while of those that are running at free rates only three score are bringing what can, by any stretch of the imagination, be called foodstuffs. If that were known a great deal of the hubbub outside would have been subdued, and I think it is the duty of 508 those who have any influence on opinion outside to make it known.
I would like to give some illustrations of the effect of freights on food prices, because that is really the question under discussion. Take meat. The price of meat appears to have increased by from 4d. to 5d. How much of that has gone in additional freights since the War began? Three-eighths of a penny. Take American bacon. The market price is from 8d. to 9d. a pound higher on the average, as far as I can ascertain. The freight is a halfpenny per pound higher. Take Canadian cheese. The price to the purchaser is from 4d. to 5d. a pound higher. Freight is a halfpenny a pound out of that. If you care to take wheat, to which I have already referred, you find exactly the same thing. To put down the heavy rise in the price of foodstuffs to freights is nothing less than a distortion of the facts. It does nothing whatever to satisfy public opinion or to give us any help in the solution of these difficult problems. The real thing from which we are suffering now with regard to shipping is exactly what we are suffering from in other directions. It really is a shortage. We are doing our best to put vessels into the water as quickly as we can. Let the House remember that we have actually lost by enemy action and by marine risks no less than 2,000,000 gross tons of shipping since the War began. That is more than the whole Mercantile Marine of France before the War. It is more than the whole Mercantile Marine of Spain or of Italy before the War. Is it possible to lose all that vast amount of shipping without its creating, along with all the Government requirements, a most serious shortage? I suppose that comes to pretty nearly 3,000,000 tons dead weight. When you come to the Allied Fleets, the same has happened there. Heavy losses by enemy action have really penalised consumers in every part of the world.
I believe that we have proceeded to deal with this problem, if I may say so, from the right end. The important thing is to provide plenty in this country. I do not say that prices can be left altogether to care for themselves. That is not possible. But the one thing that we ought to avoid in this country is, from any cause whatever, to put ourselves into the position of a blockaded people. Bread tickets, meat coupons, all those artificial arrangements are harmful, and they are harmful to those 509 who have the least with which to buy. It is not the rich who suffer by your bread tickets or meat cards. In Germany and Austria it is not the rich who are suffering now; it is those who cannot go to the producer on the quiet, and pay him far beyond the maximum prices for what they want. It is those who, unable to get to the farmer, stand in long queues, with their tickets in their hands or in their pockets, waiting for commodities which very often at the end of the day they are told are not to be found there. The rationing of Germany and of Austria has been a vast undertaking. It has led to an enormous number of evils. The rationing of this country would alike lead to great evils, and it would be those with fixed incomes, fixed occupations, and fixed residences who would suffer first. We want to avoid any rationing of our people in food. We have had two examples of rationing, and I think the Order Paper shows how seriously both of them have been received by the consumer. We have rationed petrol, and we have had 200,000 letters in protest against it. Then we rationed sugar, and thousands and thousands of letters have come from the poor. God forbid that we should have to ration anything else. The policy of the Government is to provide plenty, to see that we have in this country abundance, and to see that it is brought here under terms which allow no one to exploit it, or to become unduly rich at the expense of the consumer. It is that policy that we intend to pursue.
§ Mr. WARDLE
The right hon. Gentleman, in the course of his eloquent and splendid speech, which, whether we agree with all of it or not, we are bound to admit covered a very wide field, has made an honest attempt to justify the policy of the Government. So far as I am concerned, I quite agree with his statement in the last part of his speech that the main thing we have to do is to see that there is plenty in the country for the people to buy if they can buy it. But I would like to enter one little caveat against a part of the statement. After all, there is in the case of Germany and Austria, at any rate, this to be said in favour of their rationing—that by that means they have been able to hold out longer, and in consequence to make it much more difficult for us to win the War. I rose mainly to deal with one point with regard to the question of supplies. I agree that plenty is the object to be aimed at. On the question of shipping, I think the right hon. Gentleman has done a very 510 wise thing in making the statement which he has put before us to-day If there is—and there is—the feeling of anger with regard to shipping profits to which attention has been called time after time, it is partly due to the reticence of the Government in dealing with the problem. If they had made this statement sooner they would have done much to kill the agitation which has been going on outside. There can be no doubt that the very large profits which have been announced do lend themselves to the idea that it is because the Government have allowed them to charge high freights the shipping companies have been able to make these large profits. The increased prices on the one hand and the announced profits on the other have no doubt made people believe that freight did play a much larger part in the rise of prices than they do. If the figures which the right hon. Gentleman has put before the House to-day had been made public long ago much of the agitation, as far as shipping is concerned, would certainly have subsided. But surely there must still be some means by which freights can be kept lower than they are even at the present time. My hon. Friend (Sir L. Chiozza Money) told us, for instance, that Ceylon tea was 138s. a ton. It really seems most exorbitant, especially when compared with the freights charged before the War.
The right hon. Gentleman dealt with certain aspects of a part of the Report of the Food Prices Committee. There is one aspect of it with which he did not deal, and which he said ought to be referred to the Local Government Board. That is one of the difficulties we have in dealing with this question of food prices. We are referred from one Department to another. First there is the Board of Trade; then there is the Board of Agriculture; then there is the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to sugar; then we have the Local Government Board with regard to municipalities. When we have all this overlapping of Departments, can there be any wonder that my right hon. Friend the Member for the Blackfriars Division should say that in regard to this matter a single authority would be better? He may be wrong. It might not act. At the same time, from the very fact that when you want to criticise in this matter you are referred from one Department to another, it does seem as if there might be some method by which this overlapping could be avoided. I want to refer to the 511 question of municipalities being taken into partnership, so to speak, with the Government in this question. The right hon. Gentleman said truly that distribution is one of the greatest difficulties. Years ago I served on the committee of a very large co-operative stores, and I know something of the difficulties of distribution. I do not believe in holding up other people and saying that they are better than we, but we have not in this country carried out the policy of taking municipalities into account in regard to distribution to the extent that they have in France, in Italy, or even in Russia. So far as the evidence which I have been able to get goes, in Russia, France, and Italy, the municipalities have been called in and given large powers with regard to distribution. In Milan they are running their own cornmills and bakeries, and distributing the loaf to the retailers at fixed prices. This policy, which has been extended largely and amazingly successfully in Russia, has had the effect in those countries of bringing down prices and of securing abundant supplies to the people in the various areas.
If the difficulties with regard to distribution in this country are of the nature referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, I believe it would be a good policy, having largely scrapped laissez-faire with regard to State action, to scrap it in regard to the distribution of commodities once they have been purchased. The right hon. Gentleman goes cautiously. Personally, I am glad that no Socialist, as such, has been responsible for bringing in what, to some extent, is the Socialist era, as we are practising it during this War. The right hon. Gentleman is right to go cautiously, but the fact is this: We are being driven by our experience every day to this conclusion, that where the State has taken bold and prompt action, that action has been effective. It has been absolutely necessary, too; for if we had allowed the old methods to prevail, neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any Member of this House, nor, I believe, any member of the public, would have foreseen what some of our difficulties would be. Having proved that, and gone cautiously at first, I hope he will get bolder and bolder. I am quite sure of this: getting supplies as he dones now, and commanding the markets of the world as the British Government can do, by an organisation such as he has been able to set up in this country, he can do for the civil population what has been 512 done for our own Army and the Armies of France and Italy. While I am personally quite agreeable and willing that he should go cautiously, he also should go boldly forward on the line of action he has taken. May I remind him—there is no doubt whatever of it—that there is one thing in this country to-day that stares people in the face, and that is that we have by our corporate action, and by State action, provided handsomely, well, and cheaply for our Armies, and the country says, "What you can do for the Army you can do for the civil population." Before I sit down I should like to pay my tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for what I think is a very fine statement of his whole policy. I hope that as a result of the agitation outside—for I think the right hon. Gentleman will admit that he has been driven by the force of public opinion outside in the direction in which he has gone more quickly than he would have done if he had been left to himself—I hope as a result of the success of his efforts that he will adopt a bolder policy in the future than in the past.
§ Mr. FIELD
I desire to join the last speaker in the tribute he paid to the eloquent speech of the light hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. I agree with what has been said, that if the right hon. Gentleman had made his explanation regarding freights, and as to how they affect the cost of food, that undoubtedly the bitter feeling which exists amongst a large number of consumers would have been considerably modified. I also agree with what one speaker said in respect to the overlapping of what may be called Departmental authorities. If you make a suggestion, or ask a question, you are referred from the Board of Trade to the Department of the Board of Agriculture, or the Local Government Board, or perhaps the Treasury. If it is impossible, or undesirable, at present to have a Ministry of Supplies, there ought certainly to be greater co-ordination between the various Departments that are concerned in the food supplies and the distribution to the people. The point, however, I got up to make a few remarks upon was in regard to the meat supplies. The Report of the Committee almost foreshadows the idea of municipal authorities starting shops for the sale of that particular article. If that be so, I cannot understand why they are not also taking over various other food commodities. There is no reason why one particular class of 513 supplies should be commandeered by the Government and others left out. There is considerably more difficulty in dealing with meat supplies than some people who are not aware of the technicalities of the trade will imagine. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman who, when he was dealing with the problem of agriculture, naturally obtained a certain amount of information that was not available to the people in general. The hon. Member who opened this Debate had rather peculiar questions to put to-day. He wanted to know why it was that the price of store cattle had gone up so much. The reason is quite obvious. Meat is getting dear, scarce, and higher in price in every country in the world, and that is reflected in other departments. That being so, of course the price will go up in the same way as it has in every other country in the world.
The English people as a rule have not the same grip or grasp of what may be called State Socialism as they have on the Continent. Some thirteen or fourteen years ago I attended as a delegate a great International Congress at Budapest. I was astonished to find in my travels through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, and the other countries through which I went the knowledge on the subject. At that time, if one had ventured to make a suggestion here in this House, you were looked upon as an out-and-out Socialist. The fact is that this great War has brought home lessons to us which show that the Government must take a far greater interest in what may be called the general social condition of the people than they have hitherto done. I am glad the Labour party is sufficiently powerful now to bring to the minds of the Government this fact: that certain powerful cliques and interests will have power to affect legislation as they have had in the past with regard to the things which have to do with the majority of the people, such, for instance, as their food supplies.
Some people may say that that really is not the question that would naturally arise in connection with the subject under consideration. I hold that it is absolutely the kernel of the whole business. The Government are responsible for the safety of the country, and you cannot have the people safe or contented unless they are fairly fed, and you cannot have them fairly fed, as under normal conditions, unless the Government take precautions. I do not know whether a humble Member of the House is permitted to make a suggestion 514 to such an exalted personage as the President of the Board of Trade. But I put down a question respecting certain companies, and I gave the right hon. Gentleman the names and the dividends realised by these companies; notwithstanding the satisfactory nature of the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman, he has not explained this fact: that in certain circumstances some of these shipping companies have made more money since the beginning of the War than their whole capital. Some of them have declared dividends of 150 per cent., and have paid off old debts, and so far as I can certainly learn, have done very little to improve the condition of the sailor. Nor have they earmarked revenue for providing ships. It is quite evident that transportation lies at the bottom of the prosperity of the nation, and it ought to be the duty of the Government in connection with the control of the shipping to make some such revelation as would enable this transportation of all the food supplies to be carried on at a reasonable rate of freight. I can understand that is a large proposition, but, after all, it means that the shipping section of the community should not be allowed to make an enormous profit out of the War, and I am still of opinion that the shipowners who have made such enormous profits ought to be compelled to give all that profit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not here to listen to my few remarks on this subject, because I have put down a good many questions about these enormous freights, and I hope the result of this discussion will be that the whole matter will be looked into, and that he will, as I expect, carry out all the promises he has made. Some of us quite recognise the fact that a large number of vessels have been sunk, that a large number have been commandeered by the Government, and that for various reaasons the vessels engaged in the carrying trade have become fewer, and the demand on their capacity has increased. That explains the position to a large extent, but still some of us cannot quite understand how it is that these tramp steamers have not been more utilised. I think the Board of Trade ought to endeavour to make some arrangement whereby these tramp steamers could be utilised to a larger extent than they are at the present time. Of course, I am not a shipping expert, and I am unable to suggest how it can be done, hut surely, with the enormous staff the Board of Trade 515 have at their disposal, and the powers they can exercise, something should be done in that direction. In conclusion, although I am inclined to criticise some portions of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, at the same time I quite agree it was a great speech, an able speech, and it explained a great many points with regard to which hitherto there have been great misconceptions, and on the whole I believe the speech of the right hon. Gentleman this evening will have an enormous influence on the question and produce good results.
§ Mr. DAVID MASON
I did not intend to continue the Debate after the able speech of the President of the Board of Trade, but for one rather amazing admission I understood him to have made. He was referring to some of the principal causes which have brought about this rise in prices, and I certainly thought—and many others sitting near me thought—he stated that one of the causes was the inflation of the currency. I happened to have some conversation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer a few moments ago, and I called his attention to the admission, as I thought—the records to-morrow will show whether it was an admission or not—and he informed me that the President of the Board of Trade did not make that statement. What he did say was, the inflation of the currency throughout the world. Of course, I naturally accept that statement on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it was not an admission made by the President of the Board of Trade in the sense in which I certainly understood it to be. I regret that fact, because I rather hoped that the President of the Board of Trade would admit now what I think is admitted by a great many authorities in a great many quarters. I feel compelled, as a result of this conversation, to emphasise again the point which I have ventured to put in this House: that this is one of the main contributing factors, perhaps the principal one, although, of course, there are a great number of factors to bring about the rise in the price of commodities. But I think a great number of people believe this to be one of the principal factors and one for which the Government are responsible.
In confirmation of that I should just like to refer to the Debate which we had on food prices on 11th February, 1915. On that occasion the Prime Minister made a very admirable and very interesting sur- 516 vey of all the causes which had contributed to bring about the rise in the price of commodities. He referred more particularly to wheat, and he stated on that occasion that the rise in the price of wheat had been principally brought about by a shortage. That was combated by many hon. Members opposite, and the then Leader of the Opposition, the present Secretary of State for the Colonies, in a very able speech in reply to the Prime Minister, pointed out that the Prime; Minister's contention could not be borne out at that time, and we also know that at that time the wheat crop of the United States of America was the largest on record—an extraordinary crop, and abnormal in many respects. It is quite true, as I ventured to point out in debate, that we did not have; much supply from Australia, or, of course, from Russia, owing to the Dardanelles being closed, and that no doubt had some; effect. But to state, as the Prime Minister then stated, that that was the principal cause, was not, I think, borne out by the facts. We had a plentiful supply of wheat, comparatively speaking, at that time, and the world's supply was enormouly augmented by this stock of the United States of America.
I ventured then to point out that one cause which had not been referred to in debate was this particular cause of the gradual, as it then was, inflation of the currency. I gave the figures, and I will recapitulate what I said on that occasion. I pointed out that before the War the total issue of Bank of England notes was something like £28,500,000, and that this had been increased, comparing the 14th January of the year previous with the 14th January of that year, to £35,000,000, and, in addition, we had £35,829,000 of Treasury notes, giving a total of paper money outstanding of something like £71,000,000, as against £28,000,000 a year before. It is well known, I think, to many that the increase of Treasury notes has gone on merrily ever since at the rate of about £1,500,000 a week, until we have the enormous total to-day of, I think, £134,000,000 of Treasury notes, plus the more or less stationary issue of the Bank of England of £35,000,000. That will give you a paper currency in this country of about £169,000,000. For the President of the Board of Trade or any Chancellor of the Exchequer to expect this House, and people outside this House, to imagine that there has been no inflation in the 517 face of these facts really, I think, is almost childish. Not to admit it from sheer obstinacy, and to refer to it as only applying to the rest of the world, is really playing with the House of Commons. After all, facts are facts, and these are facts I am submitting, and I think it would be far better for the Government to admit the fact and try to defend it than to run away from it. Over and over again some of us have drawn attention to this fact. I myself, in conjunction with the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge), have attempted to make amendments to the Finance Act, and have again and again pointed out this in food price debates. We have admitted, of course, the other causes which primarily have reduced the production of the world, while consumption has gone on all the same, which has been one of the main causes of the rise in the prices of commodities.
At the same time, while admitting the shortage of ships, the depletion of labour, and also that the withdrawal of labour from productive work has been bound to have its effect, we have stated on more than one occasion that this contributory cause has accentuated and aggravated the evil of the position. We have tried hard to make our view prevail with the Government, and we have not yet got them to state why they persist in this policy of supporting the exchange with America which they do, which does the exact opposite to what they intended it to do, because the figures show that the exports to this country have never been equalled in the history of America. We have repeatedly pointed out that the rise in prices has been stimulated by artificial methods of diluting the currency and preventing the necessary corrective taking place by the export of gold. We have pointed out that that is an unsound method of finance which impoverishes the country and weakens our power to carry on a long war. It does not seem possible to get the Government to meet this argument, and I regret to have to raise it now, when neither the President of the Board of Trade nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer are able to reply. I hope the Government will settle the problem, because there is ample evidence to show that what I have stated is the main contributing factor in bringing about a rise in prices.
The Committee minute states that the Committee was appointed to investigate 518 the principal causes which have led to an increase of prices, and it is suggested that they should put forward some recommendation for the amelioration of the situation. That really means that the Government do not know what the main contributing causes are of the rise in prices, or else that they are anxious for the appointment of a Committee in order that they may listen to what the members of that Committee said, and then, if they offer no practical remedy, the Government will be able to say that they are doing all that can be done to ameliorate the situation. The Government ask for practical remedies, and some of us have suggested them. We have said that there are only two ways of rectifying the position. One is to pursue the War with the utmost vigour in order to bring it to a close as soon as possible, and the other remedy is that we certainly should not accentuate the evil but gradually redeem this outstanding paper currency, and we should not go forward with its continual issue. Anyone who studies the figures will see that the increase shows an average of £1,500,000 a week. If our own authority is not sufficient I can quote the leading French economist Bastiat. I will quote from a speech of the late Lord Goschen which, I think, absolutely proves the contention which I am now submitting:Sometimes Governments, simply for their own. purposes, issue a quantity of paper money; the natural consequence will be over importation; prices will rise in consequence of the increase in circulation, and accordingly attract commodities from other markets, while the exports having risen also, will be less easy of sale abroad Or, over-importation takes place in the first instance, and Governments in order to remedy artificially, and apparently what can only actually be remedied by the cessation of the real primary cause, commit the fatal error of increasing the circulation by an issue of paper money.This might almost have been said in regard to the position to-day, because it is so appropriate. The quotation proceeds:They think thus to increase the means of paying the debt which is being incurred; but the only effect is still further to increase the evil; for importation, instead of being checked is fostered by such a plan, when during a period of apprehension caused by a large efflux of gold from England to America, views were expressed in Manchester and Liverpool that a much larger issue of bank notes ought to be permitted, this opinion tended manifestly to a depreciation of our currency. But as a consequence of the depreciation of the currency if any country is to offer inducement for further importation, by creating an appearance of high prices, and at the same time to increase the difficulty of paying for such importation, how is the final balance to be paid?I think that shows very conclusively that what we have submitted is sound finance, according to political economists and past Members of this House, and surely such 519 views ought to receive some consideration from the Government. It may be contended that although what I have put forward is quite sound in principle, what is now being done is necessary as a war measure. The Government, however, do not even take that view. If the Government say that we regard this continual issue of paper and depreciating the currency as necessary because of the War, although we might not agree with that view, at any rate it is a logical and reasonable argument to put forward. But when the Government deny it and contend that such a state of things does not exist, their position is both illogical and absurd. They do not appear able to meet the situation, and one despairs of making any impression upon them. I might quote the appeal of leading journals outside the House such as the "Nation" and the "Economist," journals of great repute, experts on finance, and many bankers and leading economists. I had a communication from a professor at Edinburgh University who confirms what I have just said.
520 I cannot lay my hands on it just at the moment, but in that letter he said that he thought the rate of interest at which the Government was borrowing was too high, and that undoubtedly the continual issue of these currency notes was one of the contributing factors in bringing about the rise in prices. This is only one of many references to show that what I am contending is perfectly sound.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Wednesday).
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.
§ Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 22nd of February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twelve minutes before Nine o'clock.