HC Deb 23 March 1917 vol 91 cc2157-216

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."—[Mr. Baldwin.]


I beg to move to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add instead thereof the words "in the opinion of this House, the Government should issue Regulations under the Defence of the Realm Act directing the local authorities throughout the country to establish depots for the sale and delivery of coal, sugar, and other necessaries."

I desire to call the attention of the House to the complete want of organisation in the supply of coal and sugar and other domestic necessities at the present time. During the last winter, which, I think, everyone will agree has been one of the most severe for many years, the people, and particularly the poorer people, have suffered very great hardship from the want of a proper, frequent, and regular supply of coal. These people, of course, have no means of laying in large stocks of coal, and their requirements are small, though they are frequent, and time and again during the hard frost, with bitter East winds that prevailed in January and February, many of them had no coal whatever for their domestic purposes That was not limited to the poor alone. The difficulty ranged from the lowest to the highest. There was the case of an ex-Cabinet Minister—and nothing could be higher than that, of course—who really had to go, or send, in his own motor car to fetch a sack of coal with which to cook his dinner. [An HON. MEMBER: "Name!"] Seeing that the Government have control of the coal mines and transport, that there is no real scarcity of coal, that there is plenty of coal being won, and much more that could be won, really it does not seem to me there is any real necessity for the stringency in the supply of this most necessary article of domestic use. The distributing merchants have pleaded all sorts of things, among others that the trade unions have thrown difficulty in the way of their men being used for delivering coal. I do not know whether that is true or not, but it is all the more certain that something ought to be done, and must be done, and can be done, on this subject. The demands of the Admiralty are very great and must be met, and the demands of the Ministry of Munitions and the munition factories must also be met. But given all that there is an ample margin, I contend, for providing a supply for the domestic use of the people of the country. The dealers say that they cannot get the coal and that they cannot get the men to work, and I have known several cases where they have offered to let you have the coal if you would bring your own sack. People have to run round the place getting sacks here and there, and they are not coal sacks, but ordinary sacks, and they manage in this way to get in probably half a ton.

I think that all this inconvenience is quite unnecessary, and my remedy for it is this. I would call upon, if necessary, the local authorities to establish depots for the supply of coal in their district to supply the inhabitants. This would not be a very difficult matter, because, as a matter of fact, all the local authorities have depots for road mending material, and they have the space to put this coal, and they could deliver regularly and indiscriminately to the people of their district. I know there are demands for national service, but I cannot believe that there would be any difficulty in getting the number of men to superintend this work, or give such clerical or other assistance as might be necessary to carry it out. At all events, it ought to be done. As a rule I am not in favour of local authorities embarking upon commercial enterprises, but there are certain things which they ought to do, and which the best local authorities do now, such as providing gas, water, electric light and tramways, and they might, for the convenience and benefit of the community, add to that a coal depot and thus secure a regular supply to the inhabitants of their district. I feel sure that if that comes about we shall get coal better, and we shall get the coal we order instead of an inferior quality.

With regard to sugar we had a very interesting interview with the Food Controller the other night, and he told us a great many things which were very interesting. He gave us a great deal of information but very little sugar. He told us that probably the quantity fixed for an individual of three-quarters of a pound might possibly be reduced to half a pound. I do not believe the public would object to that, in fact I am sure they would submit to any reasonable restrictions put upon them for the purpose of getting through this War. What is complained of at present is that although a man is entitled to three-quarters of a pound of sugar he does not get it, and on account of the irregularity of the supply it is not to be wondered at that people lay by a little stock, and in this way may be brought under the opprobium of hoarding. The Food Controller has made his proposals with regard to hoarding, and he is going to issue an Order against it making it a penal offence under the Defence of the Realm Act, and he is also going to supplement that by police inspection and search. We put up with a great many things, and we are suffering a great deal under the Defence of the Realm Act and under the numberless authorities and the higher authorities and their assistants who are even more autocratic than their heads.

But there is a point of view which even the War will not bring us to submit and that is to domiciliary visits from the police. They have; done away with the police in Russia, and I should be very sorry, and I should most strenuously oppose any order of that kind even if it landed me in gaol. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] I am perfectly certain that it would be a hateful thing, and it would not be effective because the police would not like it, and if a policeman is to be sent out to search a house from top to bottom for a pound of sugar he would probably be the whole of the day searching and probably the householder would see that he would never find that pound of sugar. My remedy is this: It is hopeless to stop the hoarding of sugar if it has been bought. The way to stop that is to deal with the issue of the sugar, and here again the local authorities could carry it out if their services are brought into use. The local authority has a register of every inhabitant in the district, and they take care of that because they have to collect the rates. This could be done perfectly easily in most districts in a very short time, and they could make use of the policeman, and this is the only way I would make use of the police, to ascertain the number of people resident in each house, and having ascertained that, issue cards monthly, dividing the monthly cards into four perforated slips, beginning, say, with the 1st April to the 7th inclusive, next from the 8th to the 14th April inclusive, and next from the 10th to the 21st inclusive, and so on; and as the inhabitant got his quantum on each slip, ¾ lb. or ½lb., as the case may be, the grocer, or whoever he bought it from, should be bound to detach his coupon and put it upon his file. After being deprived of his coupon that man is debarred, and he cannot get any more sugar from any one because his next ticket bears the wrong date. The next week the same things happens, and so on, and I think that is an excellent scheme. The double check is that the grocer who has sold that sugar has to. account for it, and that would be the measure of the quantity of sugar the grocer sells, and it would be a guide as to what supplies are to be issued to him. I am quite sure you will have to come to it, and the sooner you come to it the better. The local authorities have all the paraphernalia to enable them to do it. It is far better to stop the issue of sugar at the fountain head than to try and search for it after it has been issued. It would be a hopeless task, employing a lot of men who would be much better employed doing something else. That is the suggestion I make with regard to sugar.

The Sugar Commission was a very good proposal, and they did very well. They bought up the sugar, and they have managed to keep the price very reasonable, though not low, and they have stopped all speculation. The first mistake they made was that they refused to buy German sugar through Holland, and they ultimately bought it through America. That was a great mistake. There would have been more sugar available now if they had not grudged the idea of buying German and Austrian sugar. That, however, has gone. They took care with regard to the issue to the brokers and the large dealers, but they did not follow that further. The result has been that the distribution of sugar has been most unfair and unjust. Men who are entitled to a quantity never get it. I heard of a farmer in my Constituency who got a very large quantity of sugar. He drives to one village and gets his quota there, then he drives to another and gets his quota there, and then to a third village and gets his quota there again. That is human nature, and you cannot do away with human nature. There are means, however, by which you can check sugar at the issue. Every man should be entitled to get his quota and no more, and there should not be any hoarding or any injustice in the distribution. We are under a very strict government, and we can put up with a great many things, but I fancy that we want some sort of authority to look after the domestic wants of the people. The Army is well represented and the Admiralty is well represented, but the poor householder is left to shunt for himself. The Board of Trade or somebody ought to take a very keen interest in looking after the domestic supplies. I have suggested a means of doing it, and I sincerely hope that it will be adopted; in fact, I am sure that you will have to adopt it sooner or later, and the best way is to seize the opportunity now and get to work. You would be able to do it in the next two or three months, and it would be much more satisfactory to the public.


I beg to second the Amendment just proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire.

I think it most unfortunate that this, the most important subject which can engage the attention of the House of Commons in reference to our domestic concerns, should have been left to a Friday sitting, when we can only have a very sparse attendance of Members. On many former occasions the question of our food supply—food prices and food distribution—has been before the House. I remember six or seven months ago, on the occasion of the Adjournment of the House for the Autumn Recess, that a great debate was organised by an institution known as the Liberal Ginger Group to deal with this important subject. At that time our difficulties were mainly difficulties of price, but the heroic remedy suggested by that group to deal with a much less serious situation was that of rationing. After seven months, during which the situation has grown increasingly serious, and when we are now face to face not simply with the problem of rising prices, but when we have to deal with a serious and a growing scarcity, not a single one of these Gentlemen is in evidence. Obviously, they only now raised subjects on the inspiration or at the suggestion of the Government.

We are face to face with a situation of scarcity. We have the statements which have been made in this House by the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty, and we know from the speech made by the Food Controller in another place that the situation, which they painted in very dark colours, is now far more serious. We have not only to consider the shortage in sugar, which was probably the most pressing thing when this Motion was put on the Paper, but we have also, as the Food Controller indicated, to face within a very short time a shortage in the staple article of food—a shortage in our bread supply. It is obvious, therefore, that it is the duty of the Government at once and without delay to deal with the difficulties of distribution. There is not only the difficulty arising from the shortage of supplies, which is going to increase, but there is also the serious difficulty of distribution, owing to a large extent to the shortage of labour. The Food Controller spoke at some length of transport difficulties, and he indicated that these to some extent would be dealt with as regards sugar. But the transport difficulties affect every article. They affect coal, sugar, potatoes, and they are likely also to affect bread. Obviously, therefore, the normal machinery of distribution has broken down, and we may take it also that all the appeals which have been made in regard to voluntary rationing are bound to prove inadequate. We Know that many people are not showing the slightest indication that they see the necessity of responding to these appeals. Instead of responding to them, indeed, they have simply used the appeals as a motive for gathering together increased stocks so as to protect themselves against a scarcity which they believe is imminent. Consequently, the appeals have to a large extent aggravated the evil. The amount available, which if fairly distributed would have met the wants of the community, has been seriously diminished.

There are also the difficulties which the ordinary consumer has to face in obtaining his supplies through the ordinary channels of trade. We are told that they have the opportunity, as regular customers, of obtaining supplies from the shopkeepers or traders with whom in the past they have been wont to deal. But we all know, as a matter of fact, that as the result of the working of the Military Service Acts many small shopkeepers have been thrown out of business altogether. How, then, are these people who are customers of shops that no longer exist to obtain from those shopkeepers the amount to which they ought to be entitled? That applies, for example, both in the matter of potatoes and of sugar. In the case of all the grocers and the greengrocers whose businesses have come to an end their former customers are absolutely at their wits end to obtain a supply either of sugar or of potatoes. The result of it is seen all over London at the present time. In nearly every district of London every morning of the week you will see long queues of women and children, standing with bags, often controlled by policemen, trying to get a miserable supply of a pound or two of potatoes, of which they are so urgently in need. Obviously that is a system which is hopelessly inadequate. I notice that one of the London borough councils has been public-spirited enough to take the matter in hand. The officials of that council are actually, on their own initiative, organising a system of distribution through the municipal authority. I hope that is an example which will be followed and that other authorities will be stimulated by the Local Government Board to do the same thing.

There is another argument for the method of local organisation. By it you will make a far better use of the labour which is available than you can make under existing conditions. At the present time you have all these small purveyors competing with one another, with separate organisations. You have the people going from shop to shop seeking their supplies, and not only wasting their own time by standing in long queues and so forth, but also wasting the time of these distributors. It would be far better, instead of leaving these people to compete with one another. to have them organised by their local authorities, so that the best possible use would be made of the labour that is actually available. It is not only that you have inconvenience, waste of time, and waste of effort: you have, admittedly, a most unfair and unjust distribution at the present time. In many poor districts—I will take the matter of sugar—where there are large families of children, during recent months those families have found it impossible to obtain any supplies of sugar at all. What has happened? The people from the more prosperous districts, many of them with motor cars, have gone round to shops in the poorer districts, bought up the supplies, and consequently have left practically nothing available for the poorer inhabitants of those areas.


I hope the hon. Gentleman is not going to make such statements as that without being able to substantiate them. Nothing of the sort has been brought to my notice.


I dare say the hon. Gentleman will say that nothing of the sort has been brought to his notice, but I am speaking of information which has been given to me, for example, by social workers in some of these poor areas.


The hon. Member has not handed it on to me.


Questions have been put about it in this House, and when the matter was put by question to the hon. Gentleman, he said that inquiries were being made. Now that you have changed the system of insisting upon a certain supply of other goods being bought, it is probable that there will be some change. I think the hon. Gentleman has heard complaints of this very thing from many quarters of this House; in fact, it was so widespread that it has not been believed to be necessary to adduce new instances. If the hon. Gentleman docs desire to obtain those instances, they can easily be supplied, and I am not the only Member of this House who would be able to give them. There is not the slightest doubt that the poorer classes, especially the children of the poor, to whom sugar is an absolute necessity, have suffered very severely owing to the inequality of treatment. I understood that the change in method of distribution which the Food Controller has just adopted has been adopted as a result, and solely as a result, of these representations, in order to overcome the difficulty. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman denies that there has been hoarding?


Certainly, I do not.


That is my whole point, that there was hoarding, that people had been going round to different districts and getting supplies to which they were not entitled. The Order the Food Controller has issued to enable policemen to come into our houses and see what sugar we have got is a proof of hoarding. I am surprised, in view of that Order, that the hon. Member should ask me to get up and supply instances. He must have forgotten what his chief is doing. In view of the statement which Lord Devonport made upstairs he might have abstained from that interruption.


The statement to which I took exception was the statement to the effect that rich persons are driving round poorer districts in motor cars to obtain supplies of sugar which should go to the poor.


I think they have done so. I can get the evidence. Indeed, Lord Devonport told us upstairs that the very threat of an Order about hoarding had brought a very distinguished aristocratic lady to Grosvenor House to beseech him not to deal with herself.


A lady of degree!


I do not know what "a lady of degree" means. This lady of degree had apparently been doing this very sort of tiling. When a lady of degree -comes in a white sheet to Grosvenor House, why should the hon. Gentleman come to me and ask me for examples? Of course, if he desires to send a policeman to any more of these people who are hoarding I will endeavour to find out about them for him. The difficulties of distribution have been equally marked in regard to potatoes. The hon. Member -who represents the Food Controller here knows how difficult the situation in regard to potatoes is, and that the system -whereby people have to stand in queues at the various shops in their localities is not one which can lead to a fair distribution. Only those people who are free to go can do it. A lot of poor people are engaged in work during the day. How can they go and stand about during the day at all? How can women with young children procure potatoes, if the only way to procure them is to go at eight o'clock in the morning and stand in a queue in this bitterly cold March weather? The case for some better organisation is overwhelming. If it were merely a matter of prices, I would not suggest upsetting the ordinary machinery of distribution. It is not a matter of prices. The question now is whether many thou- sands of people in this country are to have these food supplies at all. The only way to secure them is by a better method of distribution. I know that it would make a great demand upon the local authorities to do this kind of thing. I have no doubt that there are very great difficulties in the way, but if an endeavour were made to organise with the retail traders in that area it could be done perfectly well. All the retail traders in these areas have certain staffs, but as long as they are discharging this duty of distribution on a competitive system there is overlapping and waste. Surely the only people who can get rid of the waste and overlapping are the local authorities, who could organise the retail distributors for the purpose. If it is not done, there is undoubtedly going to be very serious discontent in this country. There has already been discontent in regard to sugar and potatoes, but when it comes to bread it will be infinitely worse, and we know it is going to come to bread. If you are going to have queues at bakers' shops, as you have now at greengrocers' shops and as you have had at provisions shops for sugar, this discontent will be very greatly aggravated, and no statement from the Front Bench of the difficulties in respect of this matter of organisation will satisfy the public when that situation arises.

We have always been told that the new Government would not be afraid of governing this country. Why was it that the late Government fell? Its crime was that it would not govern. We have had three months now of the Food Controller. Has he controlled? Has he governed? We Have had voluntary appeal after voluntary appeal, and they have, of course, been responded to by patriotic people, but a very large number of people have only taken advantage of these appeals in order to put themselves in an absolutely safe position, in view of the imminent scarcity, and so aggravated the position of those who have been patriotic and have honestly responded to the appeals. The time for voluntary appeals has gone by. We know that the situation is going to grow worse. We know that the maritime situation is growing worse. It is so bad now that the Admiralty dare not give the figures which were given by the last Government. There was never, I was going to say a greater fraud perpetrated, but that is a strong statement—we know a great many frauds have been perpetrated in this House—but I think this House had never been so completely taken in as it was by the First Lord of the Admiralty when he told us he was going to reveal far more than had ever been told before. He was going to issue weekly figures about submarines. He has issued weekly figures, but has told us far less than we were told by the Government. It is a grave dereliction of duty upon the part of the Government not to give greater information, because if better information were at the disposal of the public they would more clearly realise the seriousness of the situation and would be willing to submit to the necessary steps which the Government will have to take. We. have only vague statements. From time to time the Food Controller issues an additional warning; but these additional warnings are not going to be sufficient to enable the country to pass through the stress of the next three or four months. Something more is required. We have had talk constantly of scientific organisation, but we have seen very little of it. There has certainly been no scientific organisation in regard to the taking and using of men for the Army. What we want now is some scientific organisation in respect of the distribution of the necessaries of life to the people of this country. If steps are taken now, while there is yet time, you will do much to prevent the growing discontent. Not only will you do that, but by that method more than by any other you will strengthen this country during the greatest test it has ever had to pass through, namely, the trying months immediately before us which are going to decide whether we shall succeed in this War or not.


I think the House is very much indebted to my hon. Friend (Mr. Henderson) for putting down this Amendment and for affording an opportunity for a discussion of two very important questions—the control of sugar and of coal. I understand we are somewhat limited in the scope of debate because it is not my intention to talk about the question of potatoes and other things.


Other domestic necessaries.


If that is so, the Debate can cover a very large field, and we are discussing everything under the sun that is eatable and drinkable. I want to confine my remarks to sugar and coal. I sympathise very much with the hon. Gentleman who has charge of this Department. I think he has got about the worse position there is in the Government. He has been hammered at more than any Minister during the time he has been in the House. I quite recognise that it is very easy to knock down but it is a very difficult job to build up. I have been through the mill in other directions the same as my hon. Friend is going through the mill to-day. In the very early stages of the movement I used to hammer at other people and thought I could control and do things a great deal better than those in authority, but when I got into the position myself I found there were very grave difficulties in the way. It is not so easy as one imagines, and I am very much afraid if my hon. Friends were put into the hon. Gentleman's position they would find great difficulties in the way as well. Therefore, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope, whatever criticism is passed today, he will not take it too hard, because the matter is very serious. We were told the other day by the Food Controller that there is no shortage of sugar in the way that there is a shortage of some other things. He told us there was sufficient sugar issued every week for the purpose of supplying every individual in this country to the extent of ¾ lb. every week, and that was quite irrespective of the amount sent out to the sugar boilers and the mineral water manufacturers, and he gave us the figures. If that is so, it goes to prove that the method of distribution wants amending in many directions. The Motion is a very good one, because it appears to me that the local authorities are in a far better position to know how the sugar would be distributed. Every local authority knows the number of people in every house. That is evident. He has made a suggestion about having a card perforated. I am not quite sure whether that is the best plan, but it is a very good suggestion. I have suggested to the hon. Gentleman the adoption of what I call the family book system, which is on all fours with the suggestion made by my hon. Friend. I recognise that if the family book was adopted it would mean that a certain number of people in every locality would have to deal with certain grocers, and at the end of the week the grocers would be in a position to know the number of customers and the number of people to whom they had to supply sugar. Under such a system every person would have to state the number in the family, particularly the number of children. If something of that kind is done the grocer in each case would be in a position to know the amount of sugar that he would require every week. Some people may say that that would perhaps give a monopoly to certain grocers in a particular area, but I think that could be regulated. There are certain grocers no doubt in every district who could only cater for a limited number of people, while the larger grocers could cater for a greater number. If something of that kind could be adopted, and if my hon. Friend could find a solution of the distribution problem, we should get over many of the difficulties and troubles with which we have to contend. I find in travelling about the country—and I probably travel as much as any hon. Member—that in some districts there is no difficulty in obtaining sugar, while in other districts there is great difficulty. I cannot understand how it is that in going to one district you can get as much sugar as you like, certainly you can easily get your ¾ lb. per head without any difficulty, while in other districts you cannot get anything like that amount. When I left home this morning there was not a bit of sugar in the house. I am not, vulgarly speaking, swanking about that. It is a simple fact, because sugar was not obtainable in our district in the East End of London. If I am in that difficulty, hon. Members may judge what is the position of people who are in a far worse social position than I am.

1.0 P.M.

I do not think that the remedy suggested by the Food Controller is a remedy at all. It seems to me that if you knock down one evil another is going to take its place. That usually happens when you are dealing with problems of this kind. The Food Controller is going to make it a penal offence for grocers to supply sugar consequent upon the sale of other goods. What will happen in that case? Our wives are in a far better position than the wives of men in the ordinary rank and file, and the result will be that we and many others can give our wife sufficient money to go to the grocer to purchase 30s. or £2 worth of eggs, cheese, and goods of that kind, while the ordinary housewife will only have a few shillings to spend at the same shop. It is perfectly evident that the person who can spend 30s. or £2 is going to have the preference over the poorer individual who can only spend 5s. I think you will find that when you have started carrying out this Order that you are only knocking down one evil and that another evil is cropping up. I can see nothing for it but some form of registration. How that registration is to be brought about it is not for me to say. I simply throw out the suggestion, and it is for the Food Controller to consider it. In travelling about one finds that some hotels are in a better position than other hotels, and the same applies to restaurants. Some hotels are getting far more sugar than they are entitled to. It is easy for an hotel to calculate the number of its customers as a general rule. They may have casual visitors, but as a rule the hotel proprietor who caters for commercial travellers and that class of person has a pretty good idea of the number of his weekly customers, and I do not think that they ought to be in a better position than any other people. In London, so far as I know, in the restaurants, such as Lyons and others, the sugar is allowanced out, as it is now in the House of Commons. That is a very good regulation. You only get two pieces of sugar with a pot of tea or coffee That is a proper regulation, and something of that kind will have to be done in regard to all hotels and restaurants. It has been brought to the notice of a number of us that large drapers and furniture dealers have been getting bags of sugar, and have been supplying their large customers with sugar where they purchase furniture and drapery. That ought to be stopped. That is a leakage which should be stopped at once if the statement, is true. It was brought to the notice of the Parliamentary Committee of which I am a member, the other day, by one of the prominent members of that Committee, and I said, "If you can vouch for that statement I will bring it before the Food Controller at the first opportunity." I have received some very pathetic letters in regard to this sugar question, and I dare say other hon. Members have received similar letters. I got one letter this morning from a farm labourer who is working somewhere in the eastern counties. The letter is addressed from Ipswich. The man says he has six children under ten years of age and he is not in a position to get more than 2 lbs. of sugar per week. If there are six children under ten years of age there may be one or two others over that age, and then there is the man and his wife. As he is only getting a wage of, I think, £1 1s. per week, as a ploughman, I think he is in an awkward predicament, and he writes very pathetically asking that he might get his proper amount of sugar. He says that, in consequence of the low wages he is receiving, it is quite impossible for him to buy very little else, and the result is the children have to go without their proper share of sugar. No doubt there are many hundreds of similar cases which could be brought to the notice of the Food Controller. I believe the hon. Gentleman and those associated with him are trying to do their best to solve this sugar problem, and if they could find ways and means of solving the distribution problem I do not think there would be much complaint. One complaint I have to make is that the Food Control Department are not taking the country sufficiently into their confidence. If you find yourselves in the position of not being able to supply ¾ lb. of sugar per head per week you ought to tell the country that there is not sufficient sugar to provide that amount, and if you find there is only sufficient for ½ lb. per head per week tell the country so, and at the same time make provision so that everybody will get their ½ lb. If the wage earners of this country can only get their proper share—of course, we shall all complain, more or less, about shortage, whether it be of coal, sugar, or potatoes— you will not have any serious complaints. It is because the people are not getting their proper share that they feel they have just cause of complaint.

With regard to the question of coal, I happen to be one of those who have been hammering away for many years in favour of local authorities being given powers not only in regard to the distribution of coal, but of milk and other commodities, because the present system of distribution is absolutely absurd. At the present time you will get sometimes four or five trolleys going down a street and the men in charge calling out "coal," and you will have half a dozen milkmen passing your house to supply milk in the same street. That is a waste of time and energy. Last winter there was an urgent demand for coal by poor people who buy it in 28 lbs. and 14 lbs., and small lots like that. I believe that the question could be solved through the local authorities. A great many municipal boroughs in this country have got control of gas or electricity undertakings. Therefore they have to buy coal. All you require is to give them more power. They could use their various depots where they store away their materials. This problem can be solved much more easily than the sugar problem. If the local authorities can get power when making their contracts for coal for generating purposes and for making gas, the difficulty would not be great. I would appeal to my hon. Friend who is in charge of the Food Department to do his best to find a solution of the sugar distribution, and I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and the Local Government Board will give their most serious consideration to the other points which I have mentioned.

I do not think that anybody can see the end of the War, at any rate this side of Christmas. We were all hoping, and the soldiers were saying, that this would be the last winter in the trenches, but if the War goes on until winter comes again the position will be very serious for the working classes of the country. There will be a greater shortage of labour than at present, and they will not have even as many people to distribute coal as they have this year. Therefore, if power to buy and distribute coal could be given, the matter could be dealt with quite easily. In my own Division we have dust collectors; who come around twice a week. The dust collectors call at my house on Tuesdays and Fridays and to other people's houses on Mondays and Wednesdays, and this suggests a method of distribution. They pass people's houses every day in the week, so that the problem can easily be solved. There may be some local authorities who are not prepared to accept the power, and where you have a very large number of coal merchants you will get their opposition. But what we have to consider is the general community. I only urge that, whatever shortage there is, let the wage earners get their fair share and they will be perfectly satisfied.


I desire to make a few observations on the subject of coal. I do so because I have been, in a humble way, endeavouring for the past few months to increase the supply of that very necessary commodity. Before I come to that subject I desire to express my sympathy with the Motion made by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire. Since an illustration drawn from personal experience has just been offered by the hon. Member for West Ham, perhaps I may be able to illustrate what I mean by stating also my own case. At the present moment I have not an ounce of coal in my house. Five weeks ago I gave an order to my coal merchant for a ton of coal. I was candid enough to tell him that I had about a fortnight's supply, and that he need not hurry as other people probably wanted it worse than I. I have not had an ounce of coal for the past three weeks in my house. I have been on the phone, and he has told me that he might be able to send it to-morrow, so I do not want to claim any sympathy in any great degree for that. I am going to make an appeal to the representative of the Board of Trade (Mr. G. Roberts) to help me in my small effort even more than he has helped me for the past few months. Yesterday I put a question by Private Notice to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and he gave me a most favourable answer. I asked him if the Board of Trade had now decided to make a certain small railway in Ireland from the main line to a newly developed colliery and to make it as a war measure. He answered, "Yes."

If the Rules of the House had permitted me, my gratitude would have gone out to him and I would have expressed not only my own but the gratitude of my colleagues to him and to the Board of Trade for having decided to make this small railway. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland, two or three months ago, in the depth of winter, with half a foot of snow on the ground, travelled from Dublin to the heart of the country, to where the coalfield is situated, and there investigated the whole subject on the spot, and this is only one of many instances in which the occupant of the great office of Chief Secretary for Ireland has shown practical sympathy with the cause of Irish prosperity. In that respect, indeed, he is living up to the historical moral of Ireland, "Hiberniores ipsis Hibernicis." He put that maxim before his mind when he took office, and I desire to say that he is making every honest effort to act up to it. We are grateful to him. To the Board of Trade, too, I should like to convey my thanks for the expeditious manner in which they have put this thing through, and I have risen only for the purpose of making a suggestion which would expedite the completion of this necessary and useful work. In a document which I prepared in Ireland, and which I read to the Chief Secretary when he paid a visit to this colliery, I gave reasons why this should be regarded as a war measure, and I made a statement as to the advantages to be derived from the development of the colliery. We were raising only about 80 tons per day; with the facility of carriage that we shall now have we shall raise 1,000 tons per day. We were only hampered by the want of facilities for transit, and I put these reasons before him: First, coal is scarce and dear in Ireland, there is an admitted shortage of tonnage which would probably become still more acute, and by the development of this colliery there would be a considerable number of ships released which could be used elsewhere.

On that point I want the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Board of Trade to note this: I pointed out to the Chief Secretary that in the previous week fifty vessels had brought about 20,000 tons of coal into Dublin. If fifty vessels came to Dublin and delivered 20,000 tons of coal, there might probably be another fifty vessels on their way to the coal port to be loaded up. Therefore, there were 100 vessels engaged in supplying coals to Dublin for domestic and industrial purposes. We can raise one-third of that necessary supply, and you would therefore need one-third of the shipping engaged in that trade alone. This colliery served by the railway can supply that quantity. That is the practical suggestion I have to make to the Board of Trade is this, and I trust that there will be conveyed to the Chief Secretary my sincere thanks for the manner in which he has acted up to the present. I further beg my hon. Friend to make note of this: I have already approached the Secretary of State for War and I have suggested to him to supply the Board of Trade for a few weeks or a month with a dozen soldiers from the Curragh Camp in Ireland. There are at present about 4,000 men in the Curragh, and a thousand of these men could make this railway in three or four weeks. That is nothing unusual, and it should be done. There is a precedent for what I propose, because the military were used a short time ago to make a railway of about six miles in length for industrial war purposes near Grantham, and what was done there can easily be done in Ireland. Though the quantity available, as compared with the vast supplies in this country, is a small one, nevertheless it will be appreciated in Ireland, because the coal that we supply is being used for war purposes.

We supply Kynoch, Limited, at Arklow, where they are making vast quantities of munitions, and we produce a plentiful supply for war purposes. We supply all the military all over the country with the best anthracite coal, which they say is as good as any coal got from Wales. Therefore it is most important that this work, so well taken in hand up to the present moment by the Government, by the Department of the Chief Secretary, and the Department of the Board of Trade, should be expedited and completed at once, if it is to be of use. That is the suggestion I have to make. I trust that the Board -of Trade will now approach the War Office. I have already given to the Noble Lord the Secretary of State for War a copy of this document, to which I have referred, and copies of other documents that will enable him to understand the suggestion which I make, and, as I believe the Board of Trade are most anxious to put this matter through, I hope they will now approach the War Office to get these soldiers, which is not at all unusual, and at once begin the work, for the sooner it is begun the better, and the sooner something will be done to help on the War.


I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member who submitted the Amendment before the House. It must be some satisfaction to the representative of the Board of Trade, and also to the representative of the Food Controller, to have heard the sympathetic way in which the matter has been discussed, the freedom from rancour, and the obvious desire which is felt to bring about some better conditions in the supply of sugar and other necessaries I rise for the purpose of pointing out the differences between some of the commodities that have been mentioned. The inadequate distribution of sugar arises very largely from its scarcity, whereas the inconveniences experienced in the distribution of coal arises not from scarcity so much as from difficulty of transport. In the North, especially in my own Constituency, men are working short time. The colliery proprietors have been exceedingly cautious, and have stored very large quantities of coal, until the time has come when no more can be stored. The difficulties of transport have been so great that, in the neighbouring seaport of Sunderland, somewhere about six or seven miles from the coal field, it has been impossible to get coal delivered there in the quantities required, and the reason for my rising is to get from the representative of the Board of Trade some indication that real efforts are being made to solve this problem. Is it possible to prevent the transport of things which are not vitally necessary to make way for the transport of coal which, next to food, is a necessity, and the absence of which emphasises the scarcity of provision?

I have no desire whatever to lecture the representative of the Board of Trade, because I realise the many difficulties which have to be overcome, and they have been recognised by preceding speakers to a very handsome degree. But, in this case, I hope that when the hon. Gentleman comes to reply, he will give us some ray of hope that these difficulties are being dealt with in a practical way and with a view to their being overcome. Seaham Harbour, arising from certain circumstances into which I need not enter, is no longer a port capable of being used to the extent which it was formerly for sending out coal by sea, and I ask the Board of Trade whether it is not possible to increase the transport facilities for coal by reducing the transit of other articles of consumption. For instance, I believe that we are to have during the coming year the transport of some million barrels of beer, which to a great number of people, is not a necessity, but which occupies facilities of transport. Coal is a necessity, and I would like to associate myself with the Mover of this proposal by pointing out that during the summer time there possibly may be some opportunity of sending coal down South, where it is very largely used. In the summer time men are not often fully employed, and by adopting the suggestion which I have thrown out, the Board of Trade would be conferring a very great boon on a very large number of well-deserving men, on whom the absence of employment is imposing great hardship. These men are willing to work, the coal is wanted, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to see if there are any means whereby those who want the coal will be able to obtain a supply, and thus do away with a rather distressing state of affairs.


Coal and various other commodities have been referred to, and in regard to the first commodity, having been a miner all my life, and for many years a permanent official of the Miners' Organisation, I think I may say without egotism' that I know something about coal, and that I may, therefore, be permitted to say a few words upon the subject. I desire to associate myself entirely with the Amendment before the House, and with what has been said in support of it. I may mention before war was declared, I and others associated with me in an official capacity, always laid in a stock of coal to last us through the winter. When war was declared, knowing that there would be a scarcity of coal during the winter, and that, in addition, prices would rise very considerably, my three colleagues and myself said we would not do what we had been accustomed to do for years, neither with regard to coal nor any other commodity, and, therefore, there has been no hoarding of those commodities in our case. We were determined to play the game, but there came a moment when we could not get coal although we lived within a mile of a colliery and within two or three miles of quite a number of collieries. I happened in the emergency to communicate with a namesake who is agent of the Babington Colliery. I explained our position and he at once sent a man to see that I was to have some coal during that day, so that we were supplied, but there were numbers of poor people who could not do as I had done and whose houses were absolutely destitute of fire or coal. The strange thing is that whilst there has been that scarcity of coal, and while prices have been growing so very highly in some parts of the country, some pits have not been working more than two or three days per week. The men have actually threatened to go on strike if more work were not found for them, as they could not live on the small amount of money they were allowed to make. When the Government took over the control of the collieries they ought to have pooled the wagons throughout the whole country at the same time. I think that was quite as necessary as taking over control of the collieries. I do not know whether any representations of that kind have been made to the Department immediately concerned, but I do know that colliery owners in our own county of Notts have come to me more than once and have strongly urged the necessity of the wagons being pooled. Collieries have stood idle frequently because they could not get wagons into which to put the coal. When at home I see every day of my life scores of long trains going past with empty wagons, and in many cases undoubtedly those wagons could be loaded each way if they were pooled, as they ought to have been. I think employers and workmen would agree that wagons should be pooled, and if they had been they would have rendered far better service and the pits would have been able to have been worked better.

I notice that the Minister took rather strong exception to the statements made by the Seconder of the Amendment. I can quite understand that the exception was well founded and that such an incident as the Seconder referred to did not come within the knowledge of the Minister. Let me say that that does not prove that such an incident has not justification. I put a question yesterday to the President of the Board of Agriculture which was very carefully drawn and every statement of which is absolutely true. I asked whether he is aware that in the western portion of Nottingham it frequently happens that potatoes cannot be obtained at any price, whilst in the immediate neighbourhood there are 9 acres of land from which the potatoes planted last year have not been raised? I received this astonishing reply: Sir R. Winfrey: From inquiries which the Board have had made in the district, it does not appear that any considerable area of potatoes of last year's crop still remain unlifted in the county of Nottingham, nor have they learned of any area of the size mentioned unlifted within the immediate neighbourhood of Nottingham."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd March, 1917, col. 2066.] I live in the city of Nottingham within two miles of the city boundary, and when I sit in my office I see the very piece of land referred to, nine acres, within a mile of my own house, where the potatoes of last year still lie. I never saw a better looking crop than that was last October or November. I cannot for the life of me understand how any inquiry, even of a perfunctory character, can have been made without this fact coming to light. The man has lost £200 simply because when the potatoes ought to have been lifted every man he had got on his farm was taken and he was left absolutely alone. I fear that if inquiry were made we should find a number of cases of this kind up and down the country. As an hon. Member has remarked, it is a very easy thing to criticise. I am not speaking in a spirit of criticism at all. There is no-Member more prepared to extend sympathy and give all the encouragement and help that lies within my power to Ministers who are doing their best, as I quite believe they are. But at the same time we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the distribution is not what it ought to be, and that ample examination of these facts and positions would certainly alter the situation largely and at the same time bring larger quantities of essential commodities to the doors of the people who really need them.


I do not rise either in any spirit of criticism, nor am I going to refer to sugar or coal, since, being a bachelor, I have not been troubled in looking after these articles. I should like to emphasise one point, not that there are so great grievances, but the splendid way in which all the people throughout the country have put up with those grievances. The good-natured way in which the people stand in queues, even when they have to leave and find the whole of the commodities gone, and have to go somewhere else is worthy of our admiration. The people of the country throughout the length and breadth of the land have put up with grievances and tried to meet them and adapt themselves to them. The point is not that there are grievances, but the particular remedy which is suggested, and that is that the local authorities ought to deal with these matters. We talk about local authorities as if they had unlimited men to work for them and unlimited labour and unlimited depots and unlimited brains. I am not myself wedded altogether to the suggestions made in the Amendment. They have not got unlimited resources, and I am doubtful whether they are the best fitted to carry out the suggestions which hon. Members seem to have in their minds. I was rather surprised that objection was made to domiciliary visits. The most hateful person in this country at the present time is the one who is hoarding commodities, and why he should be protected from domiciliary visits I fail to understand. If there are people such as the hon. and learned Member for North-West Lanark (Mr. Pringle) mentioned, who go round in their motor cars to villages and get commodities and hoard them, why anything should be done to protect them I cannot understand. At the same time, I am certain that he did not mean this House to understand that every man who has a motor car is doing that kind of thing, because I am sure he will agree with me that there are thousands of people in this country possessing motor cars who would only too readily lend them to take coal, potatoes, and other commodities to the poor people.

I do not think the problem in regard to coal is so pressing as that with regard to sugar, because in another couple of months, and before this organisation could be properly set up, the summer will be with us, when the coal problem will not be quite so pressing, but, as hon. Members have pointed out, if the War is to continue over next winter—and as every hon. Member will agree the long view ought always to be taken and safety-be the great thing—now is the time to set about putting our house in order; and the only point that I would like to emphasise is this. I do feel that the Government of this country is not getting the most out of the people between forty and sixty who are willing to volunteer to help, but who cannot give their whole time to the country. I believe that this work could be organised, and best organised, by volunteers, men who are not paid, because if we had it carried out by the local authorities and they were going to pay their men there would be a great expense. I do not object to the local authorities organising within the local districts, but, having organised and set out their plans, they could let the work be carried out by volunteers, men who could come in their motors two days a week, for instance, or men who could come every evening in the week, but could not leave their business all the time. That class of business men should be organised, and I am positive of this, that if the need were and the middle classes or the better classes were asked to take coal or commodities to the houses of the less wealthy members of the community, they would do it. All the Government has to do is to call out to the men between forty and sixty and ask them to give two days a week or every evening in the week, and I am certain they will get a response throughout the length and breadth of the land.


I should like to associate myself with the Amendment now before the House, mainly on the question of coal, and especially from the London point of view, and the reason that I am anxious that the Government should do something is that I know too well what great hardships the poor of London suffered during the recent five or six weeks of very severe weather. Everybody who knows the coal trade in London knows that it is one in regard to which the poor people have to get supplies in very small quantities, owing to the want of storage, particularly in tenement houses, where there are two, three, or four families, and the result of that is that these people have to get their coal in week by week, or even twice a week in some cases, and they have their coal in very small quantities, by a quarter-hundredweight or a half-hundredweight at a time. In the recent cold weather there is no doubt there was a good deal of shortage of coal in the -coal depots in London, and, in addition to that, it was found that the dealers in the poorer parts of London were not selling coal at the price issued by the Board of Trade. I have asked in this House more than one question of the Under-Secretary for the Board of Trade as to what he was doing with regard to getting the Board's prices carried out by the dealers supplying these small quantities of coal. Up till now nothing tangible has been done by the Board of Trade. I believe the Board have a Committee of the coal retail dealers who fix the price at which coal shall be retailed by the retailers of London, and that if complaints are made to the Board of Trade and to that Committee the Committee take the, matter in hand, and, if the complaint is proved, punish the dealer by refusing to let him have any further supplies. The effect of that in London, I think, is of very little use, and it is also of very little use for the Board of Trade to issue what is practically an official price for the sale of coal without adding some method by which they can enforce that price being charged to all consumers in the county of London.

It is quite true that in London we have a by-law, which is carried out by the county council, to the effect that the coal retailer must exhibit in legible figures the price at which he is selling the coal, and if he does not sell the coal at the price so exhibited it is a punishable offence, and the police can proceed against him. What has happened during the recent cold weather has been that, although the Board of Trade have issued a fixed price for retailed coal, a great many of the retailers in London have sold at very much higher prices. The Board of Trade price has been 1s: 11d., and I believe in some cases for very small quantities retailers have charged as much as 3s. 6d.; and as long as a retailer exhibited that price in the place where he sold the coal in legible figures there was no offence, committed. I am very anxious that the Government should prevent a repetition of this kind of thing next winter, because it is a very great hardship that small people should be charged these very excessive prices. I ask the Under-Secretary whether they could not make it an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act for any coal dealer to sell coal above the prices issued by the Board of Trade? It is because I know how-great the hardship is to the poor that I think that it is very necessary that these small consumers should be protected in some way. If some kind of arrangement could be made by which coal was stored during the summer months, when, I believe, it is easier to get supplies than it is when the cold weather comes, and if something could be done on the lines of the Motion now before the House, so far as London is concerned, I believe we should not have a repetition of what we have had during the past winter. I do not condemn all the coal dealers, because some of them have been very good and have sold at the Board of Trade prices and delivered to their customers in the regular way; but in every trade you have black sheep, and in London, where you get these small quantities doled out by small dealers who have charged these excessive prices, it is most necessary that something should be done to prevent it, and that is why I am in sympathy with the Amendment.


I feel it my duty to my Constituents to offer a few observations on the Amendment of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen. The House is bound to thank my hon. Friend for having brought forward his Amendment as it is very necessary at the present time that the suggestion he puts forward should be followed out. The position of affairs is admittedly serious. I do not know that the country realises how serious is the position in the supply of wheat and other domestic necessities. The submarine campaign is daily sinking an enormous amount of tonnage. That is depriving the community of food. It is estimated that submarines are sinking 10,000 tons per day, which is 3,600,000 tons per year. Even in peace-time we have never been able to build so large a tonnage as that; therefore, in view of the sinking of these vessels which carry our food to this country the position as to the food supply is serious. It is that serious position of affairs which has led the Government to initiate the National Service scheme. There is the production of food is this country, and the building of ships to replace those sunk. With these circum- stances before us I feel that it is absolutely necessary that something like the suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend should be adopted. The Government certainly have done something in the way of facilitating arrangements. As my hon. Friend has said, they have taken over the railways, the mines, the trucks, and other things, and thus have sought to facilitate distribution. Having gone so far, I think they ought to go further, take over the entire control of the food supply, and organise it, as my hon. Friend suggests, through the local authorities. Many instances have been given by various speakers as to the need for dealing with coal, sugar, and other things needed for domestic purposes. I need not, therefore, labour that point. It has been clearly proved that there is a lack in all these commodities. What, then, we have to deal with—at any rate, what I have to deal with in putting my views before the House—is to back up the Amendment of my hon. and learned Friend and to call for something definite, something complete. If rationing has to come would it not be better that it should come now, or something similar to it, rather than in two or three months? The declared purpose of the Germans is to starve us. They expect us to be shortest in all the supplies for domestic purposes in June. In that month it will be too late for the hon. Gentleman who represents the Ministry of Food to institute his system. What my hon. Friend calls for is that now, to-day, a system should be instituted, and the machinery should be completed, so that it may be in good condition and actively working when the critical months are here.


Everybody acknowledges that it is necessary to conserve the food supplies that are in the country at the present time. I am finding no fault with the appeals made to the country to be as careful as possible in respect of foodstuffs. I am not quite certain, however, whether the Food Controller himself has justified his existence. I am very doubtful about it indeed. Take, for instance, potatoes. We are told that only so many potatoes are to be sold to any one family in any one week. We are also told that the price is fixed. The price may be fixed, but there are very few people who are paying that price. I know-dealers have been prosecuted for charging more than lid. a pound for potatoes, but I do not think that either the Food Controller, or his representative here the Parliamentary Secretary, is quite clever enough to encompass many of the people in this country who are doing these things. We are familiar with families who order their potatoes from the greengrocers along with other stuff. They are paying far more than l½d. for potatoes, and getting as many as they want. Need I also point out to the Food Controller that it is the easiest possible thing in the world for potatoes to be booked to the account of these people as apples, brussels sprouts, onions, or anything else? The Food Controller cannot prevent it! Therefore, I do hope that some concession will be made in connection with the Amendment which has been moved.

I am not quite certain that I should adopt the Amendment as it stands. I do, however, suggest that if the Board of Trade or the Food Controller were to make the municipalities their representatives in each district, and the municipalities were to set up small committees of business men to organise the purchase—I put the purchase as well—and the distribution of the food supply we should have a great deal better results than we have at the present time. I think I ought to recognise—shall I say—the wisdom, the concealed wisdom, of fixing the price of potatoes at so much per ton for one month, so much more the next month, and a bigger price the next month! Those farmers and merchants with stocks of potatoes will, I can quite see, do all they possibly can to keep the potatoes a longer time than they would do if the potatoes had been fixed at a flat rate for the various months. I believe, however, that greater use might be made of the municipalities in connection with the distribution of potatoes, coal, and, may I add, milk. There is also, in many large towns, the difficulty in connection with the distribution of coal. You cannot get carters to distribute the coal. If the Government, through the municipalities, were to make more use of some of our discharged soldiers than are being made of them they would secure the men to do the driving and to help. My hon. Friend knows that there are quite a large number of discharged soldiers who are finding it extremely difficult to get light employment of any kind.

Hon. Members may say that carting coal is not light employment. You have already got men who follow carts in the hope of being called upon to help carry the coal to the cellar; and, if you can get a supply of drivers, that is what you mainly require. I think more use might be made for that purpose of discharged soldiers than you are making of them at the present time. I want to emphasise what was said by the hon. Member for Mid-Lanark with regard to well-to-do people getting a larger share of foodstuffs than they are entitled to. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Food Controller was rather hasty in interjecting remarks while my hon. Friend was speaking. I know it is difficult to prove what has been done in this respect, but I do suggest that when information is supplied to the Controller some notice shall be taken of it. We cannot hold men and women by the back of the neck and say that these people are getting potatoes booked as apples. But I want to suggest that when attention is drawn to the fact that this thing is going on, the Food Controller should make inquiry and satisfy himself as to the accuracy or otherwise of the allegation.


I do not know whether the hon. Member is suggesting that in cases where sufficient information is brought to the attention of the Food Controller action is not taken; I can assure him that it is taken.


The difficulty is that Government Departments seem to want definite proof of what is happening. Definite proof may be given in one instance, but not in all cases. I do suggest that, as far as well-to-do people are concerned, the implication is that they order potatoes through the greengrocer and the potatoes are booked as other commodities, and when a suggestion is made that that is going on the Department ought to make inquiries. I should like to say a few words with regard to the question of domiciliary visits. I hope the Department will think twice or thrice before they put that into operation. The first time such visits are made in any large centre to the houses of the working people a feeling of resentment will spring up, and something worse than resentment if care is not taken, because the people are not in that contented frame of mind which some would have us believe. They will resent these incursions into their homes even more than they resent the actual shortage of potatoes or sugar. I therefore hope the Controller will give this matter careful consideration before he puts into operation any system of visiting the homes of the people.

2.0 P.M.


It may be convenient if at this point I make a few observations in reply to the criticisms which have been made respecting the supply of coal to the country. My hon. Friend who introduced the proposal directed attention to the fact that the Government had now assumed the control of the coal mines. But I have to remind my hon. Friend that it was only as from 1st December last that the Government took over the South Wales coalfields and that they have only taken over as from the 1st of the present month the other coalfields; therefore I suggest this is hardly an occasion for expecting that we have been able to develop a perfect system. Indeed, we have been told that perfection is never to be expected from public control. My hon. Friend spoke of the hardships which all classes in the community have been subjected to during the winter months, and perhaps it may be some little consolation that the hardships for once have not been confined to one class. It is quite true that, owing to a breakdown in the arrangements for the distribution of coal, there were people of all classes who were unable to get supplies. I should have liked to have seen the Cabinet Minister who fetched his own coal. Personally, I should have no objection, as I do not own a motor, to commandeering the family perambulator in order to fetch coal for myself. We were subjected to a great deal of pressure. A number of people of all classes interviewed us and complained that they could not get coal. In many cases they own motor cars and were able to fetch their own supplies. They could also get supplies for their poorer relations, and no doubt many did so. But still approaching the subject seriously, I admit that during the recent severe weather there was a temporary breakdown in the arrangements for the distribution of coal in London. But that was not due to any act of omission or commission on the part of the Food Controller. That gentleman has hardly had time to get down to the work of his office, but he is approaching the whole problem very energetically and proceeding in a most admirable manner, and I believe in a short time we shall see some very tangible results from his control of the coal mines of the country.

After all, it is well to remember that the main problem, in London at least, was the lack of labour. There was, no doubt, a coal insufficiency at certain places, but coal had been brought by rail and by sea to London and a scarcity of labour in the Metropolis itself accounted for the breakdown in the distribution, accompanied as it was by very heavy demands owing to the severe weather we were experiencing. We did all we could to help relieve the situation. We were supported by the War Office, which lent us a number of soldiers and a number of motor lorries to assist in the distribution of coal. Very naturally we turned our attention first of all to the needs of the poorer districts, and I am sure every Member of the House will agree that that was quite a proper thing to do. After all, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Thorne) has pointed out, large numbers of poor people living in London are not able under any circumstances to store any quantity of coal. Many of them have to buy it in very small quantities—28 lbs. at a time—and others live under such depressed circumstances that they have not the vitality which people of the well-to-do classes enjoy, and, therefore, when they suffer from deprivation of coal their hardship is intensified as compared with that experienced by other classes of the community. I am sure all Members of the House will be glad that the officials of the Board of Trade directed their attention first to the needs of the poorer classes in London, and the aid afforded by the War Office was from the outset utilised in that direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newington pointed out a number of violations in respect of prices. Now that is a very difficult problem, and we have done our best to grapple with it. But the Board of Trade is in rather a difficult position in that regard, because we have no compulsory powers which enable us to deal with the class of persons referred to. However we did the next best thing. We got together the coal merchants of London, and we persuaded them to agree that the prices which had been settled after consultation should be the prices charged by the retailer, and that in the event of the retailer charging prices in excess of those thus agreed upon, the wholesaler would withhold supplies from him. My hon. Friend says that that was of very little value, but I should apprehend that it is a pretty drastic measure to be able to take, because my hon. Friend knows—and none better—that the London County Council have certain powers in relation to this matter, in that a retailer is compelled under the by-laws to exhibit the price he charges, and, in the event of his charging a price in excess of that which he is thus exhibiting, the London County Council have power to take action, and I believe it is perfectly true to say that the officers of the London County Council, inspired and encouraged by the questions put in this House, have taken action in quite a number of cases, and convictions have been obtained.


They are not governed by the limitation of price.


If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that point in a moment. To sum up that aspect of the matter, we found that it was not attributable to a shortage of coal or to ordinary transport matters, but it was a question in London, at any rate, almost exclusively of a shortage of labour, particularly of coal porters. The general question of coal production and distribution is now entrusted to the Controller of Coal Mines, acting under instructions of the Board of Trade, and the Coal Controller hopes, by the arrangements he has in contemplation, to be able to obviate a lot of the difficulties we have encountered in the last year or two. It is absolutely imperative to relieve the railways, as far as possible, of the carriage of coal, as well as of other commodities. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing), as I understand, thinks we ought to have a sort of priority scheme—that we ought to take the commodities in the order of their importance, and that the railways ought to be conducted in order to secure the transport accordingly. The Coal Controller is now considering whether it is not possible to confine the consumption of coal to the districts in which the coal is produced—that is to say, we will map out the country into districts and attempt to secure that the coal produced in those districts shall be consumed in the confines: of those districts. It may be that coal is carried right from the North of England to the South, whereas an equally suitable type of coal might be brought from collieries near at hand. The Coal Con- troller has the whole of this problem under his consideration, and I am very confident that he will be able to make such arrangements as will, at one and the same time, relieve the railways of a good deal of traffic and ensure a more ample and easier distribution of coal. I think with that assurance we may hope that something better will ensue.

Respecting the central point of the Amendment, I have no objection in principle to local authorities being invested with larger powers. If I were to enter any objection here, that would, of course, be incompatible with some of my past expressions of opinion, but, nevertheless, I think we should have failed to realise what an enormous problem we imposed upon local authorities at a time like this if we were to charge them with the purchase and the distribution of all the necessaries of life. Although I have urged throughout my public career an extension of the powers of local authorities, I do not want to see the local authorities given those powers, and compelled to exercise them, under conditions which would not give them a fair chance, and which would allow opponents of that principle to say, "This is just what we predicted," whereas we should know the thing was started at an inappropriate time which offered no reasonable chance of success. At the same time, I have made some inquiry, and my right hon. Friend at the Local Government Board assures me that there has been very little anxiety exhibited on the part of local authorities for any exceptional powers. After all, we have adopted, at any rate, the principle of local self-government, and it is the expressions of those local government bodies that have to guide us very largely in this House.


They have got to be controlled here very often.


Then, I apprehend, that we should have extreme opposition in the House if we attempted to control them from here, to the total destruction of the principle of local government. What-ever it might be, the fact is that the local authorities at present have no statutory powers to embark on the wide trading that is contemplated by this Amendment. I do not rule it out. I think this is one of the questions for the Coal Controller, for I am only now speaking in respect of coal, and my right hon. Friend will deal with the wider issue. I think the Coal Controller will be compelled to consider this as one of the measures which may have to be devised as a war measure, if we see that the War is likely to last throughout the next winter. In fact, I should regard it as my duty to direct his attention, if necessary, to the desirability of investing local authorities with the power to make arrangements for the acquisition and distribution of coal in their respective localities. That is quite a different thing from expecting local authorities to undertake the whole of this task. Local authorities are suffering like private traders from shortage of labour, and it is almost impossible in time of war to improvise machinery, to build depots, and to undertake the work exclusively of universal providers for the district. As I say, personally I do not rule out the idea of local authorities being invested with larger powers, and it may well happen that the Coal Controller will see, as he proceeds a little further, that this is one of the measures he ought to devise as a war measure, in order to obviate what has undoubtedly occurred during the past winter, that is, a temporary breakdown in the distribution of coal, which, I acknowledge, is one of the prime necessities of life.

There are just one or two other points on this matter to which I would make allusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Derbyshire (Mr. Hancock) says that the Government, immediately they assumed control of the mines, ought to have pooled wagons. I think that is expecting rather too rapid action. All this may be very useful as an argument why the Government ought to have exercised its control before, but having regard to the fact that the control only commenced as from the beginning of this month, to expect all this work could have been accomplished within that short time is expecting the impossible. Nevertheless, the Coal Controller has this question of the pooling of wagons under consideration, and I believe he has made some little progress in that direction. I think the only other point is the one raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Kildare (Mr. John O'Connor), and I certainly will convey to the President the views he has expressed and his appreciation of the interest and assistance rendered by my right hon. Friend to secure the laying down of a new railway in order that the coal mine in which he is interested may be developed. I believe we are all glad to know that there is a possibility of the coal mining industry being developed in Ireland. I know that I had to confess one day that I was badly informed with respect to coal mining in Ireland—in fact, if I had been honest I should have said that I knew nothing about it. After the rebuke I received I have sought to improve my knowledge on the subject, and I am informed that already the coal produced in this particular mine has risen from 80 tons to 1,000 tons per annum, and we may look forward to this venture having a very successful future. The hon. and learned Member will not expect me to give any undertaking to-day that the President will be able to release 1,000 troops for the purpose of laying down this railway; but I will convey the information to the President, and it will rest with him as to how far he can carry out his suggestion.


I think the House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member who has raised this question. I think the hon. Member who represents the Ministry of Food so ably will agree that it is well that there should be criticism on this subject of a helpful kind in regard to a matter which is vitally connected with the successful prosecution of the War. I think there is no question which is more likely to affect public opinion amongst the large masses of the people than want of organisation or due consideration in relation to this vital matter of food distribution on a fair and equitable basis between all sections of the community. I join with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. W. Thorne) in his tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary for the way in which he labours under a heavy storm of criticism from time to time, but I am sure he is the last man in the House to object to that, because I remember very well when he sat upon these benches there was no man who more industriously and more helpfully criticised the Department in which he was interested, by reason of the fact that his criticisms and questions were always directed to help forward and not to hinder the progress of that administration.

With regard to the distribution of sugar, reference has been made to the meeting upstairs at which Lord Devonport spoke We were then told that towards the end of March a Committee is to be set up inquiring into the distribution of sugar. I do not want to indulge in captious criticism, and anything I say will be with a view to help forward the question. I happen to know something about inquiries made into the distribution of sugar in this country, because in the latter part of November last I happened to be Chairman of a Sub-Committee of the Board of Trade, in conjunction with the Local Government Board, who were discussing the question of the distribution of sugar, and it does seem to me to be an extraordinary thing that, under the auspices of the Government, we are expected to act promptly, and that nevertheless three months should elapse before they consider it necessary to investigate the question. I believe that there may be something wanting in the organisation of the Department which to-day mainly comes under criticism and consideration.

It is the tendency nowadays to appoint a controller for almost every article, and this seems to me to be open to serious criticism and objection. We have had an example of it in this direction: We were told, and we were very sorry to hear it, that during a whole month, or the greater part of February and part of March, the Food Controller was unfortunately absent from his office through illness, and we were told day by day by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that questions relating to the distribution of sugar hoarding and making restrictions would all be considered when the Controller came back after his illness. I think that fact indicates a lack of organisation in the Department itself. What would be said if the Board of Agriculture or the War Office was conducted on those lines? Suppose that in regard to questions asked about ships or troops or men we were told that the head of the Department was ill, that he would be back in the course of a week or fortnight, and then it was hoped that these matters would receive consideration! Without wishing to be captious, I hope this matter is of such vital importance that the organisation of the Department will be such that the machinery will continue to work, and the administration of the Department proceed even in the unfortunate absence of the head of the Department.

We have heard something about two new Orders with regard to sugar and hoarding, and I entirely agree with the hon. Member for West Ham that it is worse than useless to remove one grievance if you are going to set up another. I do not altogether agree with the hon. Member in his criticism of the genesis of the regulation made by some grocers with regard to the sale of sugar. I believe at the outset that that was intended as a legitimate defence against hoarding, and improper action on the part of a certain section of the public. The grocers found members of the public were going from shop to shop and using other grocers as a means of hoarding without having any regular trade with a particular grocer. This practice degenerated into an abuse, but I believe grocers have used this as a means of obtaining trade very unfairly, and I am glad it is going to be removed. The other Order which I believe is intended to take its place is one which I understand is to prevent the purchase of more than a certain amount of sugar per week. I should like to point out that that will not of itself—I am criticising without having seen the Order—prevent hoarding, if there is a deliberate intention to get behind the law or what is required by the Order, and it will not prevent a person, if so disposed, going from one shop to another shop.

There is to be a penalty put upon the grocer and he is not to sell more than he believes is the right quantity for the number of the householder. One grocer cannot know what an individual has done at another shop, and he will be perfectly innocent, so far as he is concerned, if he has satisfied himself, as far as he can, that he is only selling to an individual or householder the right quantity of sugar. I assume that there are people so greedy as to endeavour to get more than their share, and the Order will have to be strengthened in such a way as to prevent people going from shop to shop. That leads me to believe that the Ministry of Food will have to come down to some form of registration with regard to the limitation of purchases at some particular establishment. I am fully alive to the very great difficulties of that course. I need not elaborate them, but, as a matter of fact, the Committee of which I was a member practically had under consideration, and were on the point of recommending, something in the nature of a book, such as has been described by the hon. Member for West Ham. When the agreed quantity of sugar for the household had been arrived at, entries of the quantities purchased would be made in the book week by week. No sugar could then be purchased without the book was produced, and a certain check would thus be ob- tained as to the total quantity of sugar the individual had purchased. I do not suggest that would be a perfect scheme, or that it could not be got round. There might be certain influences brought to bear, as has been the case in the purchase of petrol, and I do not say that you could make even that water-tight, but I do believe something in that direction will have to be designed and carried out if we are to have anything like fair distribution as between the various classes of the population.

I do not altogether agree with the Mover of this Amendment in his remarks, or in the words which he has in his Resolution, with regard to the local authorities. I quite recognise that the local authorities will have to be brought into this matter. I quite recognise that information with regard to population and to numbers will have to be obtained very largely from the local authorities, but one must remember that the local authorities at the present time are suffering very seriously from a shortage of staff, and that they are not equipped hardly at any time, and certainly not at the moment, to undertake in detail the work of distribution. They can, however, co-operate and give advice and information. They can work in collaboration, but caution will have to be observed in plunging into a complete municipal distribution when there already exists the means of distribution. I believe their advice and assistance can be and ought very largely to be obtained. I wish to emphasise the fact that at the bottom of the whole problem is the question of shipping, and I would ask the Ministry of Food to make it clear that they must have, and that the public must have, from the Admiralty a regular and consistent supply of truthful and complete information with regard to shipping in this country. I ventured to say in the House a week or two ago, when I was speaking upon the question of the information of losses and the question of shipping, that it is no good at all making alarmist and serious announcements one day and the next day or the next week for the public to get the impression, however it may be conveyed—


That matter is outside the scope of this Amendment.


With great respect, the question of the distribution and supply of sugar is connected to some extent with the question of tonnage, and I was only making an appeal to the Ministry of Food that it should be borne in mind and that representations should be made to the Admiralty in that direction.


We have heard a great deal during the Debate about the distribution of coal in this country. In Ireland not only have we a shortage of coal, but the price is so enormous that it is quite impossible for the poor in the cities there to purchase coal. I understand that in the large cities in this country an arrangement has been made between the coal owners on the one hand and the Board of Trade on the other as to the fixing of prices. As far back as 10th December last the Food Committee of the Irish party asked the Board of Trade that a similar Regulation should be carried out in Ireland and that a Commission should be set up of two or three men who would visit every city in Ireland and fix an absolute price for coal, or, as an alternative, that the right should be given to the local authorities to set up depots and distribute coal. Neither the one nor the other of these two proposals was acceded to by the Board of Trade, with the result that on 16th December coal which was sold in Manchester at 26s. per ton was sold in Limerick at 55s. per ton; coal sold in Stockport at 26s. 8d. per ton was sold in Maryborough at 52s. 6d. per ton; and coal sold in Leicester at 27s. per ton was sold in Sligo at 59s. 6d. per ton, a difference of £1 per ton as between the price in Manchester and the price in Limerick, and the price in Stockport and the price in Sligo. The increase goes to the shipowner on the one hand and to the wholesale buyer of coal on the other. We asked that the same standard should be set up in Ireland as in this country. The municipal authorities in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork asked the coal owners to meet them with a view to fixing prices, but they met with a point-blank refusal, and there was no alternative for the people or the municipal authorities but to go on, as they had been doing, paying 16s., 18s., and in one case, in the South of Ireland, 24s. more for coal than is paid in Manchester. The normal difference would be about 9s. per ton. I should like to press upon the right hon. Gentleman that the Board of Trade should, even at this moment, step in and do something to protect the poor people in these cities, be- cause, if it is difficult for the poor man in this city, earning £3 or £4 per week, how much more difficult must it be for poor people in Dublin or Cork, where the wages are not nearly so high?

I now come to the question of the distribution of sugar. Some time ago we asked that a separate Commission should be set up for Ireland. We met with a refusal. We again ask that a Commission should be set up for Ireland. I do not say that sugar is not obtainable, providing there is proper distribution, in Ireland as in this country. I believe that we are getting our proportion of sugar as compared with Scotland and Wales, but there has been a cornering of sugar in Ireland by the big merchants and others, and it is to prevent this cornering and unequal distribution, particularly among the poorer classes, that we demand for Ireland the appointment of a Food Contoller, who would protect the interests of the poor. If we do not get a separate Food Controller, I hope, if any Committee is set up to go into the question of distribution, that Ireland will be represented, because, after all, it is very hard for an Englishman, or a Welshman, or a Scotsman sitting here in London on any Commission to be as well up in what ought to apply to Ireland in the question of sugar or anything else as an Irishman would be. I do not in the least criticise the Food Controller or the Parliamentary Secretary with regard to the quantity of sugar going into Ireland. What I do complain of is that the distribution of sugar in Ireland is not what it ought to be. I am sure my colleagues would support the suggestion in the Amendment that powers should be given to the local authorities to organise the purchase and distribution of the necessaries of life.

I would point out to the representative of the Food Controller that the methods by which the Food Controller is fixing prices for bacon and butter and other produce do not tend to achieve what he is aiming at. You fix the price at 10s. a cwt. more in England than in Ireland for bacon. If you do that, you will not get the same quantity of bacon from Ireland. I should like to know upon whose advice the Food Controller has acted in fixing this price? I hope it is not a gentleman named Harris, a sausage maker. If you fix the price at a difference of 10s. a cwt. between English and Irish bacon, what will be the result? Mr. Harris will send over his buyers to the markets in Ireland and purchase all the store pigs which can be killed, transport them to this country, and, although they come over as Irish pigs, they are sold as English bacon at 10s. a cwt. more than if they were killed in Ireland. That is not playing an honest game with the Irish bacon curers and the Irish people. The Food Controller should have fixed standard prices for butter and bacon. If the difference between the English and Irish price for butter is 6s. a cwt., we are going to keep the butter in our own stores, and the English prices will go up. We are prepared to sell our butter if we can get equal prices. If you are going to fix standard prices for butter and bacon, which are the two industries we have in Ireland, the Food Controller ought at least to consult somebody who understands Irish interests and not merely an English trader. I do not ask that an Irishman in Ireland should be appointed, but that an Irishman who is in the City of London and who, for the last twenty-five years, has been one of the largest purchasers of Irish butter and become, should be consulted as to the fixing of Irish prices. I will not mention the name to the hon. Gentleman in Debate, but I will give it to him afterwards, and I am satisfied that if he mentions it to the Food Controller he will know the man I am suggesting, who is a man who will give fair play between the two parties if you want to get a good supply of both butter and bacon you will have to deal fairly between the men who sell and the purchasers. Members of the Irish party have nothing but thanks to extend to the hon. Gentleman who represents the Food Controller in this House, because whenever we put a question to him, either in the Lobby or in the House itself, we expect and always get a straight answer from him. He does not beat about the bush. If he says, "I cannot do it," he will not do it. If he says "I can do it," he will do it. I would ask him to convey the wishes of the Irish Members to the Food Controller. We have to depend upon agriculture, upon butter and upon bacon. Therefore, in fixing the price for those commodities it should not be allowed to remain in the hands of any of the interested parties. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will try to meet the wishes of the Irish people generally.


I assure the House that I in no way complain of the general tone of this Debate, and I wish to express to those hon. Members who have evinced some sympathy with myself in my present position, my deep appreciation of such sympathy. It must be borne in mind that the Department which I represent in this House is an absolutely new Department, with no departmental precedents to work upon. It is largely, almost wholly, staffed, not with permanent officials, but with those who, in a most patriotic spirit, have voluntarily given their services for the period of the War. During the little more than three months it has been in existence the head of the Department has unfortunately been laid up with a somewhat severe illness, which has, I admit, to some extent interfered with the work of the Department. Throughout the whole of that time the strain upon the Department has been enormous. I should like to testify here to the patriotic industry of the whole of the staff, Civil servants as well as temporary officials, for the admirable work they have conducted under the very difficult conditions during the last three months. I am not going to disguise from this House—I hope that on food questions I may never be accused of dishonesty to this House—the fact that the food position and the food outlook are not wholly satisfactory. But it would be much easier to cope with the difficulties and the problems which face us if the food stringency, which already exists to some extent and is likely to develop, had been foreseen at a somewhat earlier period of the War, and more far-reaching steps had been taken to grapple with it. But, in spite of the shortage of shipping tonnage—and, after all, we depend for the bulk of our food upon overseas supplies—and the activity of enemy submarines, our poorer classes are suffering less from serious shortage of food than in any other of the belligerent countries. For that we have reason to be thankful, and one can only hope that that condition of affairs may continue until the end of the War.

So far as this Debate to-day is concerned, most of the suggestions made by various hon. Members have been of a distinctly helpful character, and I shall certainly submit to the Food Controller, with a considerable amount of personal sympathy, several of those suggestions, with a view to their possible adoption. If I took exception, as I did, to one sentence in the speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Pringle), it was solely because I think it most undesirable that the impression should go abroad, first of all, that the hoarding of sugar and other foods is limited to one class only of the community, because it is not; and, secondly, that rich people are invading the poorer districts, where they do not themselves reside, flaunting their motor cars in the process, and obtaining from the shopkeepers who are in the habit of providing those poorer people part of those supplies which had been intended for a less fortunate class. I took exception to that because I feel that there is nothing more dangerous in the present crisis than to arouse panic unnecessarily, and particularly to excite anything in the nature of class prejudice. Every class of the community has now got its sacrifices to face, and from what I know, and I know a good deal more than I did three months ago, as regards the food position and the way in which different classes of the community are facing it, I have no reason to believe that there is more selfishness or more lack of anxiety to show a full measure of self-sacrifice amongst any one class than there is amongst any other.

When I look at the actual Motion on the Paper, I am bound to tell the hon. Member (Mr. Henderson) that his speech did not appear in the main to support the suggestion which is embodied in his Motion, at any rate, so far as food is concerned. I am not quite sure whether, as regards coal, he did not found himself more largely on his own printed Motion. Put what exactly he submits for the consideration of the House in this Motion, is that the Government should issue regulations directing local authorities to establish depots for the sale and delivery of sugar and other necessaries of life. He did not develop that proposal, but that is the proposal which I have to meet. It is not one which appeals in the smallest degree to the Food Controller or the Ministry of Food. In fact, we have reason to think that any such course would bring about a considerable amount of chaos. It would, in fact, be divorcing and diverting the distribution of food from its natural commercial channels, and if you do so, you are destroying a human machine which, after all, possesses an immense amount of experience and practical knowledge and seeking to set up another machine which possesses neither. I cannot believe that that is going to conduce to the more effective distribution of the essential foods Surely dislocation and confusion must necessarily ensue. In fact, if the Sugar Commission, which has on the whole fulfilled its purpose extraordinary well during the last two and a half years, has a weakness—and I admit it is not wholly free from weaknesses—it exhibits it in those directions where it seeks to interfere with the natural channels of distribution. For instance, one of the great difficulties that the Sugar Commission has had to face has been the shifting of large masses of people from their ordinary areas into those districts where munitions and other work of national war importance are to be found. In those cases it has been found necessary to release from the reserve supply of sugar, which is none too large, some additional contribution to the needs of those certainly overcrowded districts. The very fact that such a step has had to be taken has involved a considerable amount of difficulty in the trade. For instance, a large number of grocers, co-operative and otherwise, in those areas have found themselves with a large additional number of members or customers demanding a supply which they had not to dole out in the year 1915, Which is taken as the standard or basis upon which the whole machinery of the Sugar Commission has been worked.

There is one obvious weakness when you come to think of it, in sending into such a populous district an unusual amount of sugar, and that is that that sugar normally would be distributed through entirely different channels, and it is utterly impossible to save a certain amount of waste of that commodity owing to the fact that certain grocers and other purveyors, although they may be receiving from their wholesale merchants 50 per cent. of the 1915 allowance of sugar, have not in fact the same number of customers amongst whom to distribute it. That is one cause of the leakage to which the Food Controller referred in a Committee Room of this House two days ago and which results in three-quarters of a pound not being actually available per head of population. As regards the availability of that ¾ lb. it is perfectly true that a very large number of persons in this country are not receiving anything like that amount. It is due, no doubt, apart from the defect of the existing system to which I have just referred, to a certain amount of hoarding which is about to be stopped, I hope effectually, by an Order which has not yet been issued, and of which I do not myself know the terms.


Do they not tell you?


The Order, as the hon. Member knows, has not yet been issued. It is still in embryo. I know the gist of the Order, but I do not know the actual terms. I may say at once in that connection that I do not think any hon. Member need be alarmed that his house is going to be invaded by the police with a search warrant to inspect his domestic stores and cupboards unless some member of the family, which I can hardly believe in the case of any Member of this House, has been storing abnormal supplies of food, to the detriment of other people, who have not been able to get their proper quantum.


Some malicious person may lay information against them.


I can confidently say that the Food Controller and the Ministry of Food are not likely to take action in consequence of some irresponsible informer bringing an allegation -with regard to hoarding food, if it cannot be substantiated from more responsible sources. There is a very easy way of finding out what is taking place, and I think that is probably the course which will be adopted. It is perfectly open for the Food Controller to call for the investigation of trade books, and if there is reason to believe that in the case of a certain tradesman a preposterously large amount of sugar or any other essential commodity has recently been sold by that individual, it is perfectly easy to call for an examination of his books and to discover through them where such supplies have gone.


Not if the person buys for cash.


Will the hon. Member deal with the point regarding a person who goes from one shop to another, and how far you can check that customer if, wishing to do an improper act, such person offers to pay cash instead of having the purchase entered into a book?


I do not want to be led into too close an examination of the machinery of this Order, which has not yet been issued, but in connection with the question of cash payment it is perfectly easy to insist that the vendor of any food commodity shall keep a record of all cash transactions, which record shall be produced, on request, to the Food Controller or the Minister of Food. The hon. Member (Mr. France) referred in his speech—and I want to recognise the sympathetic character of that speech—to the abandonment of the present condition of the sale of other groceries as a condition of the sale of sugar. I was also interested to notice that the hon. Member for South-West Ham (Mr. Thorne) recognised that by stopping the insistence upon this condition one of the safeguards may be removed which at the present time, in some cases, prevents selfish and unscrupulous people going to several grocers with whom they do not normally deal in order to obtain more than their fair quota of sugar. The right hon. Gentleman opposite recognised that difficulty, and I think he rather favoured this practice by grocers, if kept within reasonable limits.


I think the Sugar Commission had some conversation with the retail houses on the subject, but as far as the Board of Trade was concerned we knew nothing about it.

3.0 p.m.


At any rate it was recognised by the late Government, and the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, in answer to a question in this House, expressed recognition of the value of the practice. Unfortunately, this practice has been abused, and in many cases the vendor of sugar has demanded the purchase of groceries costing from 8s. to 12s. as a condition of the purchase of 1 lb. of sugar. That, obviously, throws a most unfair burden upon the poorer classes; but I recognise, and the Food Controller recognises, that if you are going to scrap this system you are bound to substitute something else. What that something else is to be I cannot at present say, but you are bound to substitute something else to prevent this practice of going from one shop to another being followed by selfish persons to the detriment of their poorer neighbours. The hon. Member for West Ham has proposed more than once in this House, as he has done to-day, something in the nature of a trade register which shall be kept compulsorily by everyone selling such commodities, and which will ensure that every purchaser of such commodities deals with one shop only for such purchases. I think that is well worthy of sympathetic consideration. This question of the unequal distribution of sugar is now being submitted for careful investigation to a Departmental Committee which the Food Controller is setting up, upon which representatives of this House will sit. I hope that this suggestion of the hon. Member for West Ham will be brought before that Committee, with a view to its possible adoption as a means of avoiding the poissible disadvantage to the poor which may arise from the scrapping of the system of making certain conditions for the purchase of other goods to apply in connection with the sale of sugar.

Hoarding is not the only reason why the due quota of sugar has not been obtainable per head of the population. As the House probably knows, there have been considerable transport difficulties on the railways as "well as on the sea which have interfered with the steady supply of sugar; and there has been, as the Food Controller pointed out the other day, a certain amount of leakage from the retail dealers for sugar boiling, confectionery, mineral waters, and other like outlets. The truth is that, although on the paper there is three-quarters of a pound available per head of the population, that three-quarters of a pound has not been forthcoming, and the reasons for this inequality of distribution have not yet been sufficiently fathomed. They will be inquired into by the Committee which has just been appointed. I was not aware, until the hon. Member mentioned it to-day, that certain traders and furniture dealers were selling sugar, and I shall be glad to hear from the hon. Member more specific information on that subject, and, if he will furnish it, due investigation will be made.


I will get the information from the gentleman who mentioned the matter to me, and will convoy it to my hon. Friend if he gives it to me.


That is all that I can reasonably ask. The same hon. Member suggested with regard to the amount of food supplies available that we should take the nation into our confidence, and tell the country what supplies are really available, and that the working classes would not complain as long as they got their fair proportion of the available supply. I can say that the Food Controller and myself are entirely in accord with what the hon. Member said on that subject. We do not want to conceal anything from the public, and our greatest anxiety is to ensure, so far as possible, that the supplies of essential food in the country shall be equitably distributed among, not only every class of the community, but among all persons in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member also touched on the waste of man-power in the distribution of certain commodities, among others, of milk. It is hoped that it may be possible, with the help of general National Service, to organise better distribution of milk without the waste of man-power which is now involved. In fact, in Manchester and other large provincial centres of population there is only one distribution of milk per day, and it is found quite satisfactory. It has not been found possible, so far, to adopt the same system in London, and it is only fair to mention that the medical authorities are a little apprehensive of what might happen during the summer months, especially in London, if there was only one distribution of milk. But the matter is not being lost sight of, and it is quite possible, and I think probable, that the system adopted in Manchester will spread to the other large centres of population.


May I point out that I do not think anybody suggested that there should be only one distribution of milk? What I did suggest was that there was a waste of labour in having so many milkmen running up and down the street.


I recognise the point and think that it is well worth the consideration of the Government, but I am bound to say that there is a large waste of man-power owing to various milk carts crossing each other and supplying the various customers in the different parts of the area of distribution. The hon. Member for Mid-Derby (Mr. Hancock) referred to the question of potatoes and pointed out that in the immediate neighbourhood of Nottingham potatoes were unobtainable, though there were 9 acres just outside the city where the potato clamps had not yet been taken up by the farmer. It is a question whether it is not to the advantage of that district that those clamps have remained hitherto undisturbed. We have definitely encouraged fanners to keep certain parts of their potatoes in clamps rather than put all their potatoes on the market at the same time. We believe that as a result during the months of April, and possibly for some part of the month of May, some potato supplies will be forthcoming, whereas, without any Government interference, the whole of the potato supply of the country would probably come to an end in the course of the next three weeks.


Will the hon. Member do his best to see that there is a proper distribution of that?


I think that the hon. Member will realise that it is very difficult to set up an effective system for distributing a commodity the supplies of which are running out very rapidly and of which there will be no supplies in the course of the next few weeks. There is this advantage in inducing fanners to keep a certain proportion of their potatoes on their farms, that during the present month there are certain substitutes for potatoes which possibly may not be forthcoming during the course of the next four or six weeks, and therefore it is desirable to safeguard your supplies in order to make them last as long as possible. I believe that the best method of coping with the potato shortage is for all patriots who can afford substitutes to go absolutely without potatoes during the next two or three months. If well-to-do persons would be self-denying enough to go entirely without potatoes for the next few weeks I have every reason to believe that the potato supply will last, at any rate, for another two months, and possibly until the new potato crop comes upon the market. The hon. Member for South-West Ham and the hon. Member for North Carnarvon (Mr. C. Rees) said with perfect truth that the poor people of this country have tried in the most patient way to meet the food privations which they have had to face. That I fully recognise, and so, I think, does every Member of this House. I hope that Members of this House in their own particular sphere of influence, and especially in their constituencies, will do all in their power, while fostering all due food economy, to maintain that spirit of patience and avoid anything in the nature of panic, so as to carry us through what are bound to be the somewhat critical months ahead. The hon. Member for South-East Lancashire (Mr. T. Wilson) also referred to the question of potatoes, and mentioned that some families were paying much more than 1½d., because the balance was, in fact, being charged on other things and potatoes were being debited against brussels sprouts and other green groceries. That case has not yet been brought to my attention, but if the hon. Member will give mo the facts and the figures, I will take care to see that the case is investigated. Of course, I need hardly say that it is obvious that it would only be repeating the spirit of the Potato Order, but the Ministry of Food Control would be bound to take action in such a case. The hon. Member for the Morley Division (Mr. France), in commenting upon the unfortunate absence through illness of the Food Controller, suggested that some of his powers should be delegated to others. I think the Food Controller, from the very nature of his office, must be something of a despot, and as such it is very difficult for him to delegate his powers to other people.


I would point out that if the Food Controller were ill for an indefinite period, and his control entirely ceased, that is a reason for complete organisation rather than despotic action.


I can assure the hon. Gentleman that during the time the Food Controller was ill his control by no means ceased. In fact, I think it only fair to say—although, perhaps, speaking as one under him, I ought not to refer to it—that at the time the Food Controller was ill, and rather seriously ill, he was still handling the affairs of his Department, and exercising a very considerable control even from his sick room. I have no doubt that in the event of a prolonged illness he himself would realise the reasonableness of delegating his powers to others. The hon. Member for East Limerick (Mr. Lundon) made a special appeal on behalf of Ireland, and asked, not for the first time, for a separate Sugar Commission to be set up for Ireland. We are not by any means satisfied that it is desirable to separate Great Britain from Ireland regarding the sugar supply. Ireland, as a matter of fact, has received of the somewhat limited national stock a generous proportion of the whole supply of sugar, whether based on area or on population. The difficulties of distribution in Ireland, as elsewhere, are such that it is by no means certain that the appointment of a Commission would solve them. It has been a serious consideration as to whether there should not be a separate Committee, subject to the control of the Sugar Commission, to supervise a more effective distribution of sugar in Ireland, and if hon. Members representing that country were to make a special appeal to the Food Controller in that direction, I feel sure he would not be unsympathetic. I may say. that inspectors have been specially appointed in order to investigate the sugar position in Ireland, and they have reported that, on the whole, the distribution of sugar in Ireland is not unsatisfactory.

The same hon. Member referred to the fixed price of Irish bacon compared with the price of English bacon. It is perfectly true that the first price was fixed as the result of a conference with the Home and Provincial Produce Exchange, upon which Irish interests were adequately represented. It was decided that there should be, for the time being, a difference in the price of 10s. between Irish and English bacon. I would point out that the difference was based upon consideration of figures relating to normal conditions, for the two different varieties of this commodity, over a considerable period of time. Such figures are open to reconsideration every fortnight, and I have reason to believe that the difference of 10s. has already been substantially reduced, and possibly may be reduced further on reconsideration hereafter. But we have recognised that the relative commercial value of the two products have always shown a difference in price. We have recognised that and acted upon it. I am not going to be drawn into a controversy as to the respective merits of English and Irish bacon, being an English pig breeder myself; I mean that the fact of my being an English pig breeder myself might lay me open to some suspicion if I developed such a theme. We have to recognise the fact that the public do not give such a large price for the one commodity as they do for the other.


Wiltshire bacon is the best!


I should like the representatives of Ireland to understand that Irish interests are being carefully watched. Only recently a deputation of Irish bacon curers was received by the Food Controller, and after fully stating their case it was recognised that Ireland had certain claims which are not going to be lost sight of, and this applies just as much to butter as it does to bacon, or any other Irish commodity. The hon. Member stated that Ireland is preponderantly an agricultural country, and it is because it is preponderantly an agricultural country we look to it, at such a time as this, to furnish us with the largest possible supply of food their fertile soil can produce, and we are not likely to do anything to discourage the increased production of food commodities and such livestock as Ireland provides us with. When the hon. Member asks that Irish pigs, when converted into bacon in this country, should be described as English and not as Irish, it would be necessary for that purpose to amend the Trade Marks Act, which would hardly be considered a justifiable war activity. I think I have replied to most of the questions that have been raised in the course of this Debate.


Does the Order apply to every food commodity or only to sugar?


I have not yet seen the draft of the Order, but I know it is the intention of the Food Controller to make this Order apply, not merely to sugar, but all ordinary and essential food commodities.


It is really important that we should know whether it would apply to not only sugar, but to bacon, tea, cheese, and other commodities. A person might go into a shop and make a purchase which might last for more than a fortnight; he might buy a side of bacon, which would be more than necessary for a fortnight's consumption. It is most essential that he should know whether it is to apply to other commodities, or merely to sugar.


I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not press me upon this matter because I have not seen the Order to enable me to give him a precise answer, but I have reason to believe it will extend to many other commodities besides sugar. I have reason to believe that the Order will be so framed and interpreted that the ordinary methods of reasonable purchase on the part of the patriotic customer will not be interfered with. That is to say, when I say that, although it may specify that such a commodity as that of sugar shall only be purchased in fortnightly quantities, it certainly will not provide that articles such as ham, or even bacon and other like commodities must be bought by every individual according to fortnightly requirements. I have no reason to suppose that it will be either framed or interpreted in such a way.


When will the Order be issued?


The matter is at the present moment under the consideration of the War Cabinet, and I have reason to believe it will be issued in the course of the next few days. I venture to hope that the House will not press me on this subject, because probably I might mislead them in such a case; but in any case whatever the Order contains, I am quite sure that it will be carried out with all reasonableness, with all sweet reasonableness, without any undue encroachment on the domestic habits of the patriotic householder. In all these food questions we may be entering on more critical times, and may I ask that we shall all exercise a due sense of proportion. After all, even if potatoes run short, the country is not going to starve in consequence, and even if supplies of sugar are not so large as they are to-day owing to the perils of the sea, there is no reason why the country should be in a state of panic, and there is no reason why food riots should occur, such as might interfere with the successful prosecution of the War. Only the other day a deputation came to me from a certain seaport town, the name of which I will not mention. It was introduced by a Member of this House and in somewhat minatory language the chief spokesman explained to me that there was a potato famine in that locality, and that food riots were contemplated. I asked that gentleman to think for a moment of those men belonging to a very famous regiment who had passed from that same city and neighbourhood and were at the present time sacrificing their lives and every comfort in the trenches in France, and I ventured to ask whether it was an exhibition of the same patriotic spirit for a certain number of restless civilians in that city to talk of food riots because for a time they had to go without potatoes.

Do let us have some sense of proportion in these matters. As I say, we may have to go short in a good many commodities the consumption of which we have been in the habit of enjoying in large quantities. We may have to go entirely without some commodities, but do not let us either ourselves indulge in a spirit of restlessness or particularly allow those less informed than ourselves to indulge in a spirit of restlessness such as is likely to interfere with the successful prosecution of the War. Some comment has been made upon the fact that no serious organised effort has hitherto been made to preach the gospel of food economy throughout the country. I should like to say on behalf of the Minister of Food that the National War Savings Committee have stepped into the breach, and after the excellent work which they have done in connection with the recent War Loan, I think we can look to them to carry out the new campaign on which they patriotically offer to embark with every possibility of success. It is a most necessary campaign, and a campaign in which I venture to hope that every Member of this House will take part. If Members of this House are prepared to support the National War Savings Committee in this new enterprise of theirs, and if they are prepared to disseminate in every way the gospel of food economy in their own constituencies, I have reason to believe that the difficulties which face us in the matter of the due provision of food will be largely minimised and possibly eventually overcome altogether.


I am sure all Members will be very ready to respond to the appeal which has just been made to us by the hon. Gentleman who represents the Food Controller's Department. His Department is engaged upon work which must be done; someone has to do it. It is work of extreme difficulty, and necessarily entails some measure of popular criticism of the Department concerned, because it is out of the question that such a Department engaged in such a task could satisfy everyone. As it has to impose upon the public some measures of restriction, inevitably the Department must find itself the target for some adverse comment. I hope they will not be discouraged by that fact, or consider that that fact indicates that there is any general dissatisfaction with the Department, or lack of recognition of the difficulties with which it is faced. I am sure that the Department is taking a wise course in undertaking a propaganda in the country to bring home to the people the necessity of economy in the matter of food, and I have no doubt that hon. Members to whom an appeal has just been made, will be very ready to forward to the best of their ability a campaign of that character. In that connection I wish to refer to one observation of the hon. Member. He said that the Food Controller and himself sympathised very warmly with the appeal that had been made for a frank statement to the nation of what was precisely the state of our present food stocks and the prospects for the future. I did not gather whether that sympathy was being trans- lated into action. Possibly there may be reasons which may make it inadvisable to publish to the whole world what the precise situation is. If, without detriment to the public interests, a statement could be made generally public, I am sure that the nation would welcome it cordially. At least, I think that the hon. Member might perhaps enable those who are prepared to assist him in his propagandist campaign to know fully what the precise state of things is, before we are asked to address the nation at large.

There is another point to which I should like to refer. The hon. Member the Parliamentary Secretary told us, I think, rather to the surprise of hon. Members, that although an Order of very great importance, and affecting vast numbers of people was now before the War Cabinet and would be issued probably in the course of a very few days, he himself was not familiar with the terms. We in this House have great confidence in the hon. Member. All of us, I think, no matter what our views on political questions may be—and of course those are utterly irrelevant at the present time—have always regarded him as particularly honest and conscientious in his work, and we regard him in the Food Controller's Department almost in the light of a representative of the House of Commons there. We are therefore somewhat disconcerted to learn that measures are taken without consultation with him and without his having full information on important matters of detail. Perhaps these observations, and the manner in which the House has now endorsed them, may come to the Food Controller's knowledge and serve to him as an indication that we trust he will give a full measure of responsibility and a full share of control and confidence to the member of his Department who is specially in touch with the House of Commons and charged with the duty of representing and defending and explaining the acts of the Department to this House.

With regard to the measures taken to secure a better distribution of sugar, the hon. Member said that his Department had now decided to prohibit the practice which has prevailed in grocers' shops throughout the country, or in many districts of the country, of refusing to sell sugar unless other commodities are bought at the same time. That, I think, has already been done, or is just on the point of being done. He said, also, that it would be absurd to take this step without simultaneously imposing some other check in place of it, but he gave us no indication of what that check is likely to be, and there seems to be a possibility that within the next few days the one limitation which does now exist, and which has been imposed by the grocery trade itself, may be swept away and no alternative established, and that the position may be even worse as a consequence than it is at the present time. I would urge on the hon. Member that any complementary measures which are contemplated should be adopted at the same time as the abolition of this existing restriction, and not come some weeks subsequently when perhaps the position may have been considerably worsened.

Also, the impression was left upon my mind, and perhaps on the minds of other hon. Members, that the Department has not yet fully thought out the method by which it is to stop the hoarding of food commodities. We have had a declaration that hoarding is to be stopped, that stern measures are to be taken—quite properly, I think—against persons who seek to accumulate supplies unduly; but we are told, also, that the police or inspectors are not to enter people's houses and to look into their larders and cupboards to see what stocks they have. But I feel some uncertainty as to whether the Food Department really have elaborated any effective means of enforcing the very proper measures which they desire to take. If the hon. Member should be making, by leave of the House, any supplementary observations, perhaps he could a little elaborate that point. In what I have said I hope he will not think I have been at all unduly critical. If I point out difficulties it is only in order to emphasise the need of taking proper measures to meet them, and I will end, as I began, by expressing to the hon. Member the very cordial sympathy with which, I am sure, this House at large regards the strenuous efforts which, in the urgent national interests, his Department is taking to cope with undoubtedly a grave and difficult situation.


I wish to endorse what my right hon. Friend has said about the question of holding meetings in the country on this topic. Those of us who have been on the platform on nearly all national topics know perfectly well that you cannot make any impression on an audience unless the audience know what you are talking about, and there is no use going to an audience and asking them to economise if you cannot give them substantial reasons for economising. And if you go to a meeting and explain that you want them to economise because we have not got certain supplies of food, they very naturally ask why who have not got those supplies. The Government does not tell us why. The hon. Member for Morley (Mr. France) pointed out that the Admiralty did not tell the truth with regard to the figures that were issued from week to week with regard to supplies, and the hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this Vote at the present moment (Captain Bathurst) is not apparently told all things even by the Food Controller, so that the average ignorance of the average Member of Parliament begins to be colossal when he discusses it with the public. As a matter of fact, why does not somebody tell the straightforward truth to the nation on this point? The nation ought to be told that in certain specific food articles we are within measurable distance of famine. That is the plain truth with regard to sugar, with regard to potatoes, and with regard to bread. In other foodstuffs, there is more in the country than is required. There is no shortage of meat, for instance, and there is no shortage of other foodstuffs, but in three main essential things there is a very serious shortage, and a shortage which will be intensified if our Admiralty is not able to cope sufficiently quickly with the submarine menace. I do not suggest for a moment that that is a position that we need be afraid of. After all, the two subjects that have been discussed to-day are sugar and potatoes. I do not use either of them myself, and never have, so that I cannot economise in either, but I have managed to exist, and I think I am a fairly healthy specimen of what can be done without sugar and potatoes. It is not impossible for the people of this country to exist without those things, and what you therefore want is an adjustment.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that those of us who live in such a way that we can exist easily without consuming any of those commodities ought, as a simple measure of duty, to consume nothing of them. There is no reason why any Member of this House should ever eat a potato again until the British are in Berlin, or for that matter take sugar either, so that it becomes a question as I say of adjust- ment, and I think, instead of nibbling round this question, instead of Ministers and ex-Ministers getting up and suggesting this, that, and the other, they should get up and tell the straightforward truth; tell the people of this country that there is a very grave shortage of sugar, that sugar even now is being torpedoed in the English Channel, and has been torpedoed in the English Channel within the past ten. days, and that thus the supply of sugar has been shortened; tell them the same about the other foodstuffs, about wheat; tell them the difficulty there is in getting wheat to this country owing to the submarine menace, and that these things may come about. Do not throw sand in the eyes of the people of this country. The people of this country are not afraid to be told these things, and they are quite willing to meet them, but what they are not willing to do is to listen to Members of Parliament addressing them in meetings and asking them to economise for no obvious reason.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeen is not satisfied with the reply of the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. My hon. Friend has suggested a very simple expedient. The hon. Gentleman who has just defended the Food Controller evidently does not quite understand it. May I again put it quite simply? What my hon. Friend asked him to do is to hand over the registration of the population in regard to sugar to the local authorities. That is his proposition. He wishes to allow the local authorities to register everybody inside their area for the purpose of obtaining sugar. What would happen as the result of this? The people who were entitled to be registered would carry their sugar tickets. Each sugar ticket would be divided into four, one space for each week for the month. When they took the ticket for the sugar a portion of the ticket would be taken from them. Hence you would be unable to have an over-issue of sugar. A man could not get a fresh supply until the second week or the third week, because the preceding week's ticket would have been taken from him. The local authority collect our rates, and my hon. Friend suggests that such local authority, which knows all about us, should be entrusted with the work. Again, if you had one ticket for one week, and so on, nobody could go from shop to shop and get a further supply. Such a thing would be absolutely impossible. In the case of a person who had got their first week's supply they would only have the three other portions of the ticket in their pocket, and, therefore, could not hand in the first one again. That again would prevent over-issue. Lastly, another point made by my hon. Friend was that the tickets which the grocer would collect from the public would be quite the measure of his requirements from the Sugar Commission.


How about the prevention of forgery?


It is easy enough to stop forgery. The Government print Treasury Notes and there appears to be no difficulty in respect to them, and there ought to be none in the other case. You could enact heavy penalties for the prevention of forgery. It would appear, however, that there must be soon some measure of control through rationing, therefore the sooner we try it the better. Let us try it on one perfectly simple and necessary article of food like sugar. If it is successful in respect to sugar, other difficulties which might present themselves to my hon. Friend in dealing with other rations would, in the light of that experience, disappear. It is suggested to me from below the Gangway that we are doing that in regard to such neutral countries as Norway and Sweden, and finding it successful. It is not beyond the ability and experience of the Department to try that here. I only want further to say this, that I sympathise very much with my hon. Friend who has just sat down in his remarks on the relations of the Food Controller and the Parliamentary Secretary. Some days ago, when we were talking about this matter in the House, I put a supplementary question, inquiring whether we had in this House to wait until Lord Devonport had recovered from his illness before we could get a decision affecting the food of the people? If you are going to carry the theory there embodied very far, what does it mean? It means that you are going to set up a large number of little tin gods in the country who, unless they are in good health, will not be performing their functions, and who, if they are not in good health, will not allow anybody else to fulfil those functions. What you want is not a Food Controller but a Food Department—a Department which will have control, so that if the head of the Department is not there one morning the next responsible man will take control of the work of the nation, and so the work of the Department will go on.

My hon. Friend apologised for the fact that even when he was in bed Lord Devon-port to a large extent was in control. He ought not to have been in control. He ought to have been getting better, and he would have got better more quickly if he had not been bothering his head about control. Matters ought to have been left in the control of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. He is not quite a baby, or so inexperienced an individual that he could not have taken charge of his Department. Why was he chosen for the post that he occupies? Because the Prime Minister thought he was the most capable man in the House of Commons on this particular subject in which he has interested himself! That is why he is where he is. Lord Devonport not only goes to bed ill, but he takes the control with him! That sort of thing is absolutely ridiculous. I hope what has been said here this afternoon will be noted: that we are quite content in this matter to leave things in the hands of my hon. Friend if and when his chief is ill. Obviously when the chief is not ill the two can quarrel about the control of the Department. When Lord Devonport is ill, when he is not in the saddle, then I hope my hon. Friend will have control; but I hope he will not come again and apologise for not being in the saddle, otherwise I may be forced to believe that he has not sufficient courage to justify his office. I think, however, he has shown that already, and I hope that he will take his courage in both hands in the future and take over the duties of the post when the circumstances are as they have been stated.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

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