§ Motion made, and Question proposed,
§ "That a sum, not exceeding £ 1,451,700, be granted to his Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920 for the salaries and expenses of the Ministry of Food."—Note: £1,300,000 has been voted on account.
§ The MINISTER of FOOD (Mr. G. H. Roberts)
These are, probably, the last Estimates which will be submitted in respect of a Ministry of Food, and I propose at a later stage to make some remarks regarding the steps which have already been taken for the demobilisation of the Ministry; but I will content myself at this point with saying that, whilst it was a very difficult thing to build up the Ministry, the process of destroying it is one not less difficult. On the one hand, there are almost continuous representations in this House and elsewhere that prices and supplies would be in a far more satisfactory state if the Ministry of Food went out of business at once; in fact, it is alleged that the Department is acting as a clog in industry. On the other hand, I am urged by such bodies as the Executive of the Labour party, the Central Board of the Co-operative Union, and the Consumers' Council that, in the interests of the consumer, control should be preserved at least for a time, if not permanently. Therefore, it is clear, if I am to give satisfaction to all parties, that the task with which I am confronted is one of unusual difficulty. I can only say that my interests are those of the late Lord Rhondda and of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Clynes) who immediately preceded me, namely, the interests of the consumers in general. The office of the Food Controller has fallen upon me at a time when it is expected that the Ministry will go out of existence. I repeat that whilst it has been a task of very great difficulty to create the Ministry 782 with its wide ramifications, we find that in demobilising it we are also beset with many difficulties.
Before, however, I deal in detail with the dissolution of the Ministry of Food, I will attempt a short review of the work which it has accomplished. In the past the people of our country gave comparatively little heed from where their food came, or how it came. It was only after the War had been in operation for some time that the problem secured proper consideration. Our policy heretofore had been to rely mainly upon oversea sources for essential foods. For example, all our sugar came from abroad, as did a large proportion of grain, and also a large percentage of the meat that was consumed here. Further, we were largely dependent upon imported feeding-stuffs. In pre-war days, however, we had unlimited ships and a large amount of foreign securities. The balance of our imports over our exports was paid for by the freight which we received and by the interest on our securities. The War has changed all that. Our ships were sunk, our securities had to be realised, and ultimately, in many cases, price and quality were governed by the fact that we could only have recourse to a single market. In the latter part of 1916 the difficulties about food became increasingly obvious. The Wheat Commission was set up in October, 1916, and about the same time the Board of Trade assumed control over certain food supplies. At the end of 1916 the Office of the Food Controller and the Ministry of Food were definitely established, and it will be remembered that the Sugar Commission had been in existence since the first month of the War. Apart from the work of the Royal Commission on Wheat Supply and Sugar Supply, no general control of supplies, distribution, or prices was attempted in the first six mouths of the Ministry's existence. A voluntary rationing scheme was started, and subsequently developed by a campaign for national economy. Cereal supplies were conserved by drastic restrictions on brewing and by the increased extraction of flour from wheat. The prices of a number of articles were limited either directly or indirectly and a number of preparatory and subsidiary measures were taken. With the appointment of Lord Rhondda in the middle of 1917 began the extended system of control which, with the increased stringency of food conditions, gradually covered the supply, prices, 783 and distribution of practically every food. It is interesting to note that this fuller control came into existence partly as the result of the Reports of the Commissions on Industrial Unrest, which referred to dissatisfaction with food prices and distribution as one of the main causes of the unrest.
4.0 P. M.
I think the best method of tracing the history of the Department from that date will be to touch briefly on the work which has been done under the three headings of distribution, price, and supply. As regards distribution and rationing, I think no one will deny the Department's success. The machinery for rationing was established in August, 1917, on the basis of a scheme previously prepared. The rationing of sugar started on 1st January, 1918. Meat, butter, and other articles followed shortly afterwards. A uniform scheme of national rationing came into force in July, 1918. The services rendered by these measures are universally acknowledged. There was towards the end of 1917 industrial unrest as a result of the difficulty of obtaining food and of the preference obtained by those whose purses were unrestricted, and it might have resulted in almost any consequences. Before rationing was instituted in London at the end of February, 1918, over 1,300,000 people were found in queues outside food shops every week. In the first week of rationing these figures fell to under 200,000, and in the third week of rationing queues had practically disappeared altogether. Our rationing system had some original and effective features. Of these I will only mention the single ration book covering all commodities, a system of registration of customers with retailers, and, as a result, the possibility of the absolute guarantee of supplies to the consumer. I may also allude to the arrangement by which a money value was given to the meat coupons, the only means of securing equitable distribution. The methods adopted by the Ministry both for the distribution of supplies to the retailer through the trade and for the rationing of the consumer have been far more effective than in any other country during the War, and they have been absolutely fair. Even during the war we knew of the inequalities and unfairness of the German rationing arrangements, and this has appeared even more clearly from the information which has come to hand since 784 the Armistice. I shall refer in a moment to the services rendered to the Ministry of Food and to the country by the many business men and others. I may take this opportunity of saying that the formulation and central administration of this rationing scheme was primarily the work of a few permanent Civil servants.
I turn to the question of supplies. It is interesting here to note that whilst credit is generally given for the success achieved in rationing and distribution, we are criticised because of our trading operations. To this I may say, on behalf of myself and those who preceded me in this office, that at any rate we have done our best to secure efficiency. The trading operations of the Ministry have not been conducted by a few strange and inexpert bureaucrats, but we have sought and have been vouchsafed the services of the most expert men in the various trades concerned, and I feel that this House and the country owe a debt of gratitude to those many business men who have rendered services in this manner, often at detriment to their own interests. I was interested the other day to read in "The Times"—and I would like here also to make acknowledgment of the splendid way in which the Press generally has backed the Ministry of Food—criticism when it can be preferred has been invariably of a very helpful character, and after all no Ministry has a right to claim to be immune from criticism, but we are entitled to expect that criticism shall be helpful and with disinterested motives. But I want to say that "The Times" suggested that we should render an account of our trading and financial transactions, and I hope to be able to meet that criticism. But let me interpolate that I had intended to meet it to the best of my ability even before "The Times" was good enough to address me on the subject.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is much more familiar with that organ than I am, but on this point I am glad to say that the trading account for 1917–18 has been completed, and I propose to lay it shortly on the Table of the House, together with a brief financial Report, including the Appropriation Account, the Trading Account, and the Balance Sheet. The account for 1918–19 will not, of course, be finally completed for some time, but I hope that a 785 provisional summary may be laid before the House soon after the Whitsuntide Vacation. Meanwhile it may be of interest, as illustrating the methods of working the Ministry, if I give here very briefly some of the results for 1917. The general effect is that on the trading of 1917–18 a gross profit of £1,549,000 was secured on a total turnover of over £67,000,000. Against this gross profit is charged the whole of the administrative expenditure of the Ministry of Food, including rationing, the work of the Food Committees, and the services incurred by other Government Departments on behalf of the Ministry. This total expenditure is £1,416,000. Therefore we have, after deducting this expenditure from the gross profit, a net profit of £133,000, or about a quarter of 1 per cent. on the total turnover. These figures exclude the work of the Wheat Commission and the Sugar Commission. A considerable quantity of administrative expenditure in respect of these Commissions is included. They also exclude a sum of £250,000 incurred in respect of the broad subsidy.
Mr. KENNEDY JONES
The right hon. Gentleman will pardon me for interrupting him, but why does he take a portion of the Department of the Ministry of Food in order to produce a balance, when as a matter of fact, if he included the Wheat Commission and the Sugar Commission, he would have no profit at all?
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I do not think the hon. Gentleman has exactly seen the point. I am dealing with the period of 1917–18, at which time the operations of the Wheat Commission and the Sugar Commission were not then included in the Ministry of Food, and my hon. Friend will find, when I do submit the statement to which I have referred—it will be laid on the Table—the whole matter will be dealt with. I merely give this as an illustration. I think my hon. Friends will find that the most effective way of dealing with any points that they would like to have elucidated will be in the course of the Debate which will ensue, and I myself or my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. McCurdy) will be pleased to give the fullest possible information. The receipts and expenditure for the year 1917–18 thus balance almost exactly. The work of the Ministry of Food has been conducted without direct charge on the Exchequer and without making a profit from the public, 786 and the prices paid by the public for food was sufficient to cover all the charges, including administration. At the same time food prices in this country have been kept at a lower level than elsewhere.
Perhaps I may, with the indulgence of the House, make a few observations respecting the general course of prices. Since, in view of the comparative abundance of supply, public attention is now being called to prices, I may be excused for dealing a little more fully with the matter. Generally speaking, the ten-tendency of food prices in this country and in all other countries has throughout the War been to increase. This was inevitable in view of the continual increase of credit and other causes, which generally depreciated the value of money. The operations of food control have, however, had an unquestionable effect in limiting the rate of increase at various stages. For the first three years of the War, that is up to July, 1917, the prices of the principal food in this country rose on the whole fairly steadily: the average increase in each month was 3 per cent. on the 1914 prices. The development of food control from July, 1917, onwards, checked this rate appreciably. From that date to the Armistice the average monthly increase was less than three-quarters of 1 per cent. on the 1914 prices. Since the Armistice, that is November, 1918, to April, 1919, there has been a decrease averaging for the five months 4 per cent. per month. The lower rate of the increase between July, 1917, and the Armistice was in a measure attributable to the bread subsidies, but even making allowance for that there was a continuous decrease of 2 per cent., or rather I should say that the increase was kept at less than 2 per cent., or rather two-thirds of the rate that prevailed before.
This represents the definite and unquestionable result of food control in checking the increase in prices. It may be illustrated in two further ways—a comparison with what was happening in other countries and in respect to other articles in this country. As to the first comparison, it may perhaps be sufficient to say that up to July, 1917, the relative increase in prices of the main articles of food was in this country greater than in any other of the principal countries concerned, with the sole exception of Austria. At the time of the Armistice the proportionate increase was less than in any of these countries, with the sole 787 exception of the United States, where, as we are all aware, prices had started on a much higher level. The disadvantages of the first three years of the War has been wiped out and this country was put in the relatively most favourable position. A comparison with other articles in this country shows similar results. From July, 1917, onwards, while the principal controlled foods were increasing in price at an average rate of less than three-quarters of 1 per cent. of the 1914 prices, textiles were increasing at more than 5per cent. a month; wool nearly 3 per cent. per month, and articles such as soap, 6½ per cent. Particularly up to July, 1917, food prices in this country increased as rapidly as or more rapidly than food prices elsewhere or the prices of other articles in this country. Since then they have increased far less rapidly and they have begun to fall much earlier.
To these general results I may add a few details as to the actual prices in different countries. I will take October, 1918, which was before the Armistice. At that date the price of the 4lb. loaf in this country was 9d.; in France, 10½d.; in Germany, 11½d.; in Sweden, 11½d.; in the United States, 1s. 5½d; and in Austria, 1s. 10½d. These, of course, except in the case of the United States, and, I think, also of Austria, are prices affected by a bread subsidy.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I have sought to ascertain them, but I have failed to secure the information. Then I come to the prices of beef. The price of beef per pound in the United Kingdom was 1s. 5½d., and this compares with 1s. 9d. in the United States, 2s. 11d. in France, 2s. 2d. in Germany, 3s. 2d. in Sweden, and 5s, 1d. in Austria. Butter in the United Kingdom sold at 2s. 5d. as against 2s. 8d. in the United States, 4s. 1d. in France, 5s. 5d. in Germany, and 10s. in Austria. Even more marked differences can be shown for many other articles. Turning to another aspect of the prices question I may remind the House that, in addressing the Industrial Conference, in February, the Prime Minister expressed his expectation that the cost of food in the working-class family would fall by about 2s. per week by the end of March, and 4s. altogether early in the 788 summer. This experience has been more than realised. Up to the end of March the reduction has been 3s. instead of 2s., and since then there has been a fall in the prices of milk and imported meat. The figures for the beginning of May are not yet available, but I think it is clear that the decrease of 4s. has already been more than realised. At the same time I must utter a warning against exaggerated hopes of a large decrease in food prices. The restoration of peace will, amongst other things, mean the reopening of the world market, and will subject us, like all other countries, to the influence of world prices in respect of any articles we may need to import. Parenthetically, I may add that our dependence upon outside resources places us at the mercy of world prices to a larger extent than if we were much larger producers at home.
Generally I think it may be said that the Department has been responsible for the vastest operations ever undertaken in relation to the individual life of every member of the community. Eighty-five per cent. of the total food of the country was actually bought and sold by the Government. Prices were fixed for even a larger amount—for 94 per cent. of foodstuffs. Luxuries have been the only commodities untouched. The turnover of the Ministry of Food alone during the financial year 1918–19 was about £550,000,000 sterling, and including the Wheat and Sugar Commission it was in the region of £900,000,000. This figure differs from the much smaller figure given for 1917–18, partly through the exclusion of the Commission and partly because the development of the Ministry was only gradual from the middle of 1917 onwards. As an example of the scale on which the operations of the Ministry have been conducted I may mention that the livestock organisation for the distribution of home-killed meat and the provision of feeding stuffs for producers has had to deal with over 800 cattle markets, 500,000 farmers, over 31,000 butchers, and over 24,000,000 animals. Here perhaps I may also be allowed to say that from the outset we have freely placed at the disposal of our Allies all our resources for securing adequate supplies of such essential foodstuffs as grain, meat, fats, etc., sugar and oil seed. Upon our commercial organisation for securing foodstuffs has been built up the existing inter-Allied fabric with their various executives for securing wheat, 789 meat, fats, sugar and oil seed, together with the Food Section of the Supreme Economic Council.
Having given this brief retrospect of the past I perhaps ought, before I sit down, to give such indication as is possible of its course for the future. But before I do so I am sure the House will desire that I should deal with two or three questions which are commanding special attention at the moment. These are milk prices, potatoes, and fish prices. I will also make reference to the question of food supplies in Europe. With regard to milk prices, as the House is aware, the maximum prices for milk during the summer months to the end of September have recently been announced. These figures were fixed after exhaustive inquiry by a travelling Commission, including representatives of the producers, the consumers, and the Departments concerned. What has been done is, substantially, if not entirely, in accord with the recommendations of that Commission. In respect of one novel feature which has also been the subject, perhaps, of the strongest criticism, we have acted entirely in accordance with the Commission's recommendation. I refer to the granting of lower prices to producers in certain parts of England on the ground that the cost of production in those parts is less. This has caused, I am aware, a considerable feeling of resentment among the producers in those districts, but I can only assure the House that the criticism has been nothing like as serious as when in our last fixing of prices we made a flat price for the whole country, irrespective of the varying classes of production. There can, I think, be no question that the producers in the four south-western counties will be fully rewarded by the prices paid to them. I can also assure the House that the benefit of the reduction will be obtained for the consumers and will not be absorbed by middlemen. So far as the milk produced in those counties is consumed there, it will be the subject of maximum prices based on the lower producers' prices; but so far as it is exported to other areas with higher producers' prices, arrangements are being made whereby the wholesalers and retailers who buy the cheaper milk will pay the difference of 2d. per gallon to the Ministry of Food to form a fund which will be used to cheapen other milk or other dairy products to consumers.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
We shall utilise it to the best of our ability to effect a reduction in the cost of these commodities. I am always ready to receive representations from any parties who feel themselves aggrieved, and in accordance with this policy I am to-morrow receiving representatives of the four counties concerned, when the whole matter will be brought under review. We are not establishing a new practice, for the information which is furnished to me proves that the milk produced in those four counties has in pre-war days generally realised a, less sum than the general milk of the country. I believe, even when prices were lower in pre-war days, there was a difference of 1½d. per gallon, so that now the prices are much higher there is not, so far as the 2d. is concerned, any great variation of practice involved. But in another part of the country, in Lancashire, the farmers have raised objections because, whereas in Yorkshire a specially high price has been allowed, it has not been allowed in Lancashire. Of course, I have been conscious of the difficulties of a Minister or anybody else in doing what is absolutely a fair thing, and because we experience that difficulty we called to our aid this travelling Commission, a body consisting of representatives of the farmers, of the commerce, and of the Ministry of Food, and when I say that their recommendations were made unanimous, I should add that the only reservation made was on the part of a representative of the Consumers' Council who felt that the principle of differentiation ought to have been extended much wider. There are, of course, peculiarities here. I am advised that most of the producers in Lancashire are producers and retailers. They thus secure both profits. All these varying conditions have to be taken into account for while I am concerned to do justice to those who are engaged in production of course I am expected to look after the interests of the consuming public.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
If the hon. Gentleman desires a statement as to future policy I will later on make some allusion to it, but I am not able to make any definite announcement.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
That is their contention; at any rate they are asking for a higher price. In fact it appears to me that the representations they have made to me might be described as exorbitant. They have alleged they have not had a fair opportunity of giving evidence before the travelling Commission. This was no fault of the travelling Commission. The Lancashire farmers did not avail themselves wholly of the opportunity given to them. Nevertheless, we have offered them an opportunity of coming forward with further evidence, and if they are able to make good their case then, of course, we will have to review the price which has been fixed for Lancashire. It is rather a unique position for me, for whereas I have always been associated with hon. Friends on the other side, and have secured somewhat of a reputation for creating industrial strife, on this occasion I am the person who is being struck at. There, again, I can only say we are giving the farmers of Lancashire a further opportunity of submitting evidence, and, according to the case they make out, we will review the matter. It is a serious thing to cut off the milk supply of large industrial centres without allowing the Ministry or the parties concerned an opportunity of going fully into the matter.
§ Captain Sir B. STANIER
Can the hon. Gentleman give any more information as to what is to be done with this 2d. from the western counties?
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I am afraid I cannot at this moment. We are only concerned that the 2d. shall not go to extend the profits of the middleman, and we felt that the only method that could be adopted was for the Ministry of Food to take possession of it and to turn it to the best account in the interest of the consumers. The exact method by which that shall be achieved is not for the moment determined. Then I come to potatoes. After several conferences with the interests concerned, I have decided that local committees, including representatives of the Ministry of Food and the growers, shall be set up in the large potato growing districts. It will be the duty of these committees to make prompt investigation in all cases where claims are made by potato growers in respect of loss, and to report their recommendations to the 792 Ministry. Where the facts are found by the local committees to disclose liability on our part to make compensation, such compensation will be made at once. The growers may rest assured that they will receive the fairest possible treatment under this arrangement. I propose to set up these committees immediately I receive the names of the representatives nominated by the growers, which I am expecting daily. As regards the exportable surplus of potatoes, so far we have shipped 300,000 tons to European countries, and it is possible that a further quantity may be sold to the German Government. I may add also that potatoes have been cleared from the farms rapidly during the last few months, and of the stocks in hand on 1st March nearly 30 per cent. were cleared during that month. The whole question of the prices of agricultural produce is one of extreme difficulty. Before I assumed positions of responsibility, I was very anxious to ascertain the cost of producing certain cereals and dairy produce. I must confess that conditions are so variable that it is extremely difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to do it withont, on the one hand, assuring unwarranted profits, and, on the other, doing injustice to certain classes. I feel that, if we are to continue the work of food control, and as, in my opinion, if it is to be done effectively it must also embrace that of supplies, we shall find that the House of Commons or the Ministry has taken up a task which appears to me, at any rate, to be one that is really insoluble.
I will just make a brief allusion to fish prices. With a view to relinquishing control as quickly as possible and in the expectation that, having regard to the increased supplies of fish available, lower prices than those fixed by the Order might reasonably be charged, I suspended, a month or two ago, the Order fixing maximum prices for fish, with the exception of certain varieties, because I found, at least in connection with fish, that the maximum price tended to become the standard price. In most places prices have, in fact, fallen as a result of this suspension, but I regret to say that in some quarters there has been a rise, and, in my opinion, so far as the evidence before me shows, an unjustifiable rise in prices. I have caused the matter to be thoroughly investigated, and I can only say that if the facts prove to me that wholesalers are charging prices which are not justifiable, then I shall 793 seriously consider the withdrawal of their licences. Further, I shall not hesitate to reimpose at once the maximum prices for fish if the situation demands it, and the prices so fixed will not be those in the previous Order, but will be on a very much lower scale.
With regard to the Supreme Economic Council, while referring to particular aspects of the Ministry's work, such as those to which I have referred, I think I should mention the work done by the Ministry through the Supreme Economic Council to relieve the position in Europe so far as foodstuffs are concerned. Besides the measures which it has been necessary to undertake for the feeding of Germany and German-Austria, large supplies of flour and other cereals, preserved meat, condensed milk, biscuits and various oils and fats, have been sent to Serbia, Roumania, Poland, and to the Czecho-Slovak and Jugo-Slovak States. I am sure we shall feel that this work has been of great importance and has proved the usefulness of the Ministry at this stage.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I can do so. If my hon. Friend desires the information perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will supply it; the list is very long. I will now come to what we have done since the Armistice, and what we are going to do to dismantle the organisation. First of all, we abolished coupons at the end of last week, although the ration books themselves will be in use for another two months. In the case of meat, we have already taken some items off the coupons, and we increased the ration of butcher's meat from 4d. to 5d. per coupon at the end of last year. The ration of butter and margarine was increased from 5 oz. to 6 ozs. early in January. The rationing restrictions on margarine we removed at the beginning of March. The individual allowance of butter has just been increased from 1 oz. to 2 ozs. Lard was released from the coupon in the middle of December. The sugar ration was raised from 8 ozs. to 12 ozs. towards the end of January. In many cases reductions in prices have also been made. For example, margarine was reduced by 2d. per pound. as early as the 17th November and has since been decontrolled. Meat, both home-produced and imported, was reduced by 2d. a pound on 3rd March and imported meat has just been reduced by another 2d. a 794 pound, thereby helping us to get back to the old parity as between imported and home-produced.
Mr. KENNEDY JONES
Can the right hon. Gentleman say anything about the date when you are going to take control off imported meat?
§ Mr. ROBERTS
Not the actual date. Cheese has been reduced by 2d. a pound and there have also been reductions in the prices of condensed milk, dried fruits, canned salmon, and a number of other articles. But I must utter a word of warning against premature decontrol. The prospective price of bacon, in particular, during the coming summer is giving me some anxiety; and I shall have no hesitation in reimposing the maximum prices for fish if the attitude of the trade compels me to do so.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
I said that the question of the price of bacon is causing me some anxiety, and that I shall have no hesitation in reimposing the maximum prices for fish. I am watching the prices of bacon, and will have no hesitation in dealing with it, as I propose to deal with the fish, if the attitude of the trade compels me to do so. I may further add that the pre-war quality of bread has been restored. We have also liquidated most of our stocks and shall sell them off below cost price as soon as decontrol is possible. Numerous relaxations have been made to the trade, and the import and export prohibitions previously enforced have been very largely relaxed. We have also made very large reductions in the staff of the Department. The total staff of the Ministry was 8,606 on 11th November and is now 5,301, or a reduction of 40per cent. At the end of June a further large reduction will take place, and then, if the present proposals are carried out, there will be a further decline till the expiration of the Ministry, which may take place in the middle of November or early in December, but that I will deal with later.
I will now deal with the future of the Ministry, its dissolution and the steps that 795 will be taken to transfer certain of its functions to other Government Departments. The Ministry of Food was established as a war-time Department, and has always been so treated. In the absence of further legislation the Ministry itself cannot endure for more than one year after the termination of the War, and the powers upon which it acts (under the Defence of the Realm Act) will actually cease six months earlier. The need for the Ministry arose out of a shortage of food supplies. So soon as the restoration of peace throughout the world brings that shortage to an end, the presumption is that better service will be given to the public by allowing a free course to trade. Certainly when there is no shortage of supplies there cannot be the same grounds for elaborately controlling their distribution, but there are, as I have indicated, a number of items of food control which may, for various reasons, justly be regarded as permanent in character. Generally speaking, I accepted the position of Food Controller clearly understanding that this post would be temporary, and I am acting throughout on the lines of bringing about the demobilisation of the Ministry of Food as rapidly as is consistent with the due protection of the interests of consumers. A very large number of relaxations, including practically the abolition of the whole rationing system, have already been brought about. Many others will follow during the next two or three months, and by 30th September, when home-grown meat will have been freed from control and when the summer milk prices come to an end, it seems clear to me that there will not remain sufficient work to require a separate Ministry with a full Minister at its head. Beyond that time there are three classes of work that remain for consideration. There will be certain remnants of administrative work which cannot then be completed. Among these may be mentioned the control of flour mills, the winding-up of the Sugar Commission, the control and distribution of imported butter and the liquidation of certain stocks of tea, etc. The completion of these remnants of administrative work should, however, in all cases be a question of only a few months. The completion of accounts and the winding-up of financial transactions generally must inevitably occupy a much more extended period.
There are certain permanent measures of control which I think will be accepted by 796 all sections of the community. One of these, and naturally a matter of great im-importance, is the question of milk control. This is at the moment under discussion between the various Departments concerned. My view is that an extended system of control is necessary in the interests of health and or an improved quantity and quality of production. Here I am not able to make any definite pronouncement, nor do I think it is appropriate that I should do so. I can only say that the whole problem is now being investigated by the Government and it is for the Government to determine whether and to what extent control should be exercised, and, further, to what Department should be entrusted the control of the supply that was agreed upon. It has appeared to me that it may be the Ministry of Health should be the appropriate Department in this connection. There is a number of provisions for the protection of consumers by the specified standard of foods, requiring the regulating of prices and probably the licensing of dealers, as to which I have already announced that legislation is being prepared. There are certain statistical returns which are clearly of sufficient importance to be made permanent. I think also that public opinion will demand some permanent investigation and record of prices in regard to the cost of living upon which so much turns in the consideration of wage questions. Here I feel that the ascertainment of the costs of production and their publication may have a very good effect in eliminating abuses. If the public are informed as to what is the cost of producing a given commodity, then it is in a position to judge whether the price asked is fair or otherwise. We have found, despite the present position in the fish trade, that the fact that we publish bi-weekly our suggestion to the public as to the prices at which various grades of fish ought to be sold has had a very good effect.
At any rate, we have kept up the machinery of ascertaining what is a fair price. Following the course of the market, we are able to advise the public accordingly, and we are in a better position to resume our effective control if it appears to be essential to do so. There is a very large volume of opinion in favour of the retention and the development of national kitchens. I prefer to take the general line of conferring upon local authorities the power to establish these kitchens. It has appeared to me not altogether an appro- 797 priate thing in times of peace for the central Government to claim to be able to establish these kitchens in any local authority area without regard to the desire of the people of that area. Therefore, it seems to me that the proper line of development there is the conferment upon local authorities of the power to establish and to maintain national kitchens.
Finally, of course, there is the question of fixing prices, and, connected with that, the control of trusts and combines. I have represented to the Government my views in detail upon these points. They proceed on the assumption that the Ministry of Food is to be wound up and that certain powers exercised during the War which by common consent ought to be made permanent shall be transferred to the appropriate Department. But it is urged that the Ministry of Food ought to be kept in existence, to been larged and to be entrusted with the whole task of food supply, and of the fostering of food production at home, and, in fact, that the whole machinery of the Government should be reorganised, for under such a system it appears to me that the Board of Agriculture would be very much attenuated, because it is proposed that the whole work now done by the Board of Agriculture—
§ Mr. ROBERTS
By the Consumers' Council, and those who are at the back of it—that this whole work should be taken away from the Board of Agriculture because it is stated that the Ministry of Food is the only Ministry to which the consumers' interests can be entrusted. Of course, that is extremely gratifying to me and to those who have preceded me, but it is really not a matter for me to determine. If it is desired that such a Ministry should be called into existence, and that this wide transference from other Ministries of powers now exercised by them is to be made to such a Ministry, that is a question for the House and the public, and not for a single Minister to determine. Broadly, there are two alternatives. One is that such items as are continued should be distributed between the different Departments. The other is that they should all be grouped together in one Department, which should continue as a separate Ministry or as a separate sub-division of a Ministry with perhaps a special Parliamentary Secretary. There is one warn- 798 ing, however, that I feel I ought to give. The Minister of Food has exercised complete and thorough control over practically every foodstuff. Its success has depended upon the completeness of this control, and upon the fact that they adopted no half-measures. I believe this rule will have to apply in future, that no half-measure should be adopted in this regard, and that you will have to control supplies as well as prices, otherwise your purpose will be defeated. That is a gigantic undertaking, and a consideration of all the implications of that problem is one that ought to be undertaken in a very clear, reasoning fashion, and it is not one which can be hastily decided on the Estimates of the Ministry or even in one day's discussion.
There is one point which I have kept in mind at the Ministry of Food. I am not at a temporary War Department for the purpose of utilising my position to apply any particular theories I may entertain or advocate. I am there to administer a Department according as I have understood the sense of the House and the country. If it is desired that the Department shall exist for the purpose of applying various theories and principles let those theories and principles be applied by the House of Commons after all interested parties have had an opportunity of being considered and consulted, and after the Government has formulated its views and presented them in the form of Bills, and allow the House of Commons then to determine what should occur. That is the general view which has animated me, and I see no reason to depart from it. There must be many points in which various hon. Members are interested which it has been impossible for me to deal with. On any questions which are raised in the course of the Debate, either I or the Parliamentary Secretary will do as we have endeavoured to do throughout, and take the House completely into our confidence, for we have nothing whatever to hide. It is not true that there are limpets in the Ministry of Food who are simply hanging on to jobs. I am experiencing extreme difficulty in keeping the staff together. It is composed largely of business men, and I have had to make personal requests in many cases for them to remain with me in order to get through our work. They are doing so at great personal detriment to themselves. They will be glad to get away as soon as possible, and the sooner we are able to release them, of course the sooner the Department will have 799 to be dissolved. I hope that at least I have succeeded in giving the Committee some sort of a survey of the work of the Ministry, and even imparted to them some information in respect of a few questions of outstanding interest at the moment, and also that I have frankly declared my view of the future of the Ministry and the steps I have taken to demobilise it and at the same time to retain certain powers which I feel, in the interests of the consuming public, ought to assume a permanent character.
§ Mr. CLYNES
I am sure the Committee will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for his lucid statement. If I have to offer some criticism of certain announcements he has made, that must not be taken as in any sense lessening my own regard for the work which he and the Department have done. He began by giving an account which brought to my mind the lamentable fact that this great Department of War Service was not established in time to allow the public to derive from it the degree of benefit and protection to which it was entitled under war conditions. The Food Ministry was established about two years too late, but that ought not to diminish in any way our regard for the value of the work which has been done, or to lessen the credit due to a very large number of business men and Civil servants, who did the work very efficiently indeed when once they were allowed. It may be invidious to name names, but, having had some personal experience of the work that was done at the Ministry of Food, I cannot avoid repeating my own appreciation of the very valuable work done for the public, but in a private manner, without the public knowing much about it, by a number of very accomplished Civil servants of great and outstanding constructive ability. Having said this, I cannot avoid mentioning the name of Sir William Beveridge, a man whose public service has not been adequately known to the public, particularly in regard to the great work which he did in constructing, in advising, and perfecting the great rationing scheme which rendered so much public service to the country. Many other men, of course, assisted him, but they must take it that I am not in any way unmindful of their work, in mentioning the name of their chief on account of his really outstanding work in the most trying time of the War. We did not, as a 800 Government, establish the Ministry of Food or allow men who were fit to do this work to do it until a state of scarcity created conditions of intolerable profiteering and conditions of scrambling for food amongst those who needed it, and nothing more illustrates the value of the Ministry of Food than the figure given by my right hon. Friend when he showed how in a very few weeks the queues, which numbered thousands and which were formed of almost millions of people, disappeared is if by magic after something like a system for distributing the foods which were available had been established. I think also that my right hon. Friend can claim a great deal of credit for being able to show the Committee that this tremendous business, by which the State during the period of the War has bought and sold food running in point of value into hundreds of millions of pounds, has been done on what might be termed a margin of profit no greater than just sufficient to allow for the payment of administration expenses, and the 1 per cent. which he has mentioned as being the fraction of profit required merely for the covering of administrative expenses is the answer to those who have complained on occasion that the Ministry was conducting its great food business even as a profiteer itself.
5.0 P. M.
But I am disappointed in several respects, and my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I state my feeling on what was to me the most important, though the last section of the speech, and I am required by my Friends who act with me on this side of the House officially to state our point of view on the outline which has been given to us of the intentions with regard to the future functions or existence of the Ministry. It is true that the Ministry of Food was forced into existence as a necessary war measure. It is true that, in due course, and especially in the last half-year of the War, the Food Ministry became a potent factor in hastening the end of the War, in strengthening the hands of the Allies, and in taking such measures as greatly increased the difficulties of the enemy in the prosecution of the War against us. The Committee will recollect the fact that before the War began the tendency in food supply was to make great profits even as compared with the high profits enjoyed in many trades. The tendency was to diminish very largely, the competition amongst those who supplied foods and by a system of trade co- 801 operation to establish trusts and combines, which were able to deprive the community of the benefits derivable from ordinary competition and gave to those who were investing money in great food and trading companies enormous rewards for their business. Abroad, more than in this country, we saw the establishment of food trusts and great important trading companies which by their operations placed the consuming spirit of this country at their mercy. That was the tendency before the War. That tendency has developed and strengthened during the period of the War. That tendency is ripe now, and as a nation dependent so much upon food-providers outside our own shores we ought not to take any steps which will make it easy for these trusts and combines, these great importing companies, and these food-providers further to arrange co-operative measures amongst themselves. Further, to put an end to competition in trade, and further to place the public at their mercy as regards the price at which they will sell foods.
What has been revealed in America and what has filtered through gradually to us from American sources in regard to the operation of the food trusts there ought to compel the Government here to maintain permanently some instrument that will be an effective safeguard against the operation of meat trusts. We are, and must be for a great many years, very large importers of fruits, meats and cereals, and great trading companies can place us completely at their mercy unless steps are taken either by a Government singly, if it can take it, and, if not, then by the Allied Governments in co-operation, in order to protect the people of these different countries from excessive charges and from the making of enormous fortunes by those who are engaged in these trades. America was compelled during the War to take very extreme steps against the operation of trusts within her own shores, and it ought to be said in respect of America that two things were done greatly to our advantage. One was done by the people of the United States incurtailing their own consumption of many articles, especially cereals, in order that the volume of supply could be the greater for the Allies; and the other was the step taken by the American Government on the advice and owing very largely to the American Food Controller, Mr. Hoover, to enable us and the other Allied countries to buy our food 802 from America in the American market at the same price as the Americans themselves were paying for the supplies of food for their own Army and Navy. That was a kindly Allied-like action on the part of the American Government and the American people, and it ought to be acknowledged loudly so that all may know, because it did have a very beneficial bearing upon our conduct of the War at a time when the shipping situation of this country made it almost impossible for us to turn anywhere else for food. The shores of America at the moment were, of course, a dear market, but they were the nearest market and we were driven to them. Under any circumstances we should have been compelled to buy. We were not free to choose our market and we had to buy there, and I would like to pay the acknowledgments of organised workers of this country, if of no other section, to the American people and the American Government for their immense services in respect of food supplies during that period of the War.
§ Mr. CLYNES
I am sorry that at the moment I had not the Canadian people in mind, and I am obliged to the hon. Member for the addition. All I have said in respect of the Americans can with equal truth be applied to that part of our great Empire. We have had a statement this afternoon by my right hon. Friend, which to my mind amounts to this, that in respect of the lessons which preceded the War and in spite of all the knowledge and experience which we have gained in matters of food during the War, we are now rapidly to return to pre-war conditions, and literally to throw away all the experience and knowledge which we have gained because of war conditions. I agree with what my right hon. Friend says as to the difficulties of retaining at the Ministry of Food many of its most accomplished servants. There is a great deal of nonsense appearing in certain sections of the Press as to the limpets of Whitehall and as to men being most anxious to retain their remunerative positions. I can remember, as the Food Controller at the time of the Armistice and for a month or two afterwards, that the first difficulty which surrounded the Ministry of Food was the difficulty arising from the natural desire of men who had come into the public service for the period of the War immediately to 803 be released for their private business as soon as the War was over. Week after week I was filled with very great concern at the reports which were reaching me of these men, very able and necessary men, who wished to be released from services which were very frequently given without salary and without any kind of public recognition. The public does not know how much it owes to that kind of free labour, given out of a sense of patriotism and as part of one's contribution towards the winning of the War. But even if the country were deprived of some men of great personal ability, because of their great business experience, the needs of the nation in regard to the future food supplies should be sufficient to compel us to try to maintain some instrument, whether through the Ministry of Food or some other State Department matters little to me, that will enable us to protect our people against the inner working of many of these trusts and combines to which I have referred.
My right hon. Friend, I think, showed to some extent the need for the maintenance of some method of effective control when he quoted the illustration of fish prices. Quite recently my right hon. Friend took off the pressure from the supply and distribution of fish. Immediately the traders in fish were free to charge what they like the tendency was for prices to go up higher than they ought to have gone. That after-war incident in that necessary article of food shows us the danger of too-early restoring that state of things while any kind of scarcity exists in the country. I think we may turn to the fact that there is not one of the difficulties in respect of food supplies which existed during the War which exists now, such as the difficulties about labour supply, the supply of trawlers and fishing tackle, and the danger of the occupation itself, because of submarines and other war conditions. These have disappeared, and yet fish is extremely clear. Though I hope the fishermen who are doing the work and getting the fish are being well paid, as they ought to be, it seems clear that the fish has not become as cheap an article of food as it ought to have done in the absence in these days of the war conditions to which I have referred. Let us turn again to another consideration apart altogether from the immense sums of money which it is known that the owners of trawlers, the fish merchants and big dealers have made, even since the end of 804 the War. Let us turn to the fish prices in an ordinary hotel or restaurant and you will find that a serving of fish for which you pay 1s. or 1s. 6d. really cannot have cost at a wholesale price the man who retails it more than a few coppers. Fish of a quality which can be bought by the retailer at 1s. a pound is, I am certain, being sold at many of these hotels and restaurants at six or seven times the price. I cannot think of any growth in establishment charges, in increases in wages and in hotel management expenses, all of which must be taken into account, that are so great as to entitle these very heavy charges, which are matters of common knowledge, to be maintained, and even to be increased, as they are being increased, according to one's own personal experience, now that the War is over.
There is an immense number of people who are dining out. The conditions of industry and life which war created are to a very great extent existing to-day, and they compel a great many people to have their meals away from home. I submit, therefore, that very much of our war-period experience is too valuable to remain unused or to be thrown away. I do not suggest that it ought to be used in order to impose restraint upon the individual trader or to harass the retail dealer. We should give them the fullest measure of liberty. There is no gain now that the rationing system has ceased in harassing the small shopkeepers or in harassing the individual consumer. The more liberty you give the better for all. But there is every reason for keeping public and a repressing hand in respect to supplies and prices on those who have these great trading food companies in their keeping. My right hon. Friend made the merest passing allusion to a point on which I thought he would give us very much more information—the question of the stocks of food. All he said was that the Ministry was to dispose of these stocks of food at a loss. He did not explain why. If there be any reason for disposing of these stocks at a loss, that reason should be explained. In addition, we ought to know something of what are the quantities. In peace time great stocks of food need not be kept. It is only in war time we require very large stocks of the principal foods of the country, because of war dangers, so that there can be no public advantage which I can call to mind in concealing informaton as to the quantities in 805 hand, or as to the reason for disposing, if need be, of these stocks at a loss to the country.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is not aware that I had, in response to questions, given the stocks that we had in hand, but I am quite willing to supply them to my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. CLYNES
I am much obliged for that information. I have not recently seen any figures as to stocks. Perhaps the manner of my right hon. Friend's allusion to this matter misled me into thinking that he did not attach importance to it, and I am sorry. One or two very brief comments now as to the absence of any statement this afternoon regarding the attitude of the Ministry with respect to the recurring claims and grievances of the class known as the farming class. I say frankly that even from the labour standpoint, and from the narrow standpoint of wages, we must look at farming and food production in this country from a higher and more just standpoint than was prominent among the public before the War began. We had agriculture pursued, as a necessary business and enterprise, by a number of farmers, food producers, and agriculturists who clearly were receiving from their business rewards far below the rewards which fell to the lot of professional men, commercial men, or those who conducted factories or other industries or businesses. If I learned nothing else at the Ministry of Food I learned a little more than I previously had known of the arduousness of the farmer's work, of its risks, and uncertainties, and the fact that in a night a large farmer might lose, even through stress of weather and the effects of a storm, a thousand pounds worth. I learned more of the work which has to be done by the men who superintend and manage the great farms in this country. Great as we are as a naval power, and much as we are able to depend upon our resources for carrying into the country large food supplies from abroad, if we are to have any farming at all it should be maintained by a food policy which will treat our farm workers, including the farmer himself, fairly and reasonably on lines that will afford a return for the capital and labour involved, and that will compare favourably with any other business or enterprise in this country.
Farm labourers, I am glad to say, are showing that they will no longer be con- 806 tent the low wages which many of them too long have had, or with the bad housing conditions that exist in many parts of agricultural England. There is no excuse in those parts that there is no room to build the houses there. There is spaciousness, but there have not been the enterprises, organising power and all the other qualities necessary to provide good homes for those who are doing the most essential of all work in any country. I grant that many farmers, landowners and agriculturists, prompted by a public spirit, or perhaps a larger measure of human outlook than others, have done a great deal to solve the housing difficulties of their employés. Still there are other great agriculturists and food producers who, by paying good wages or by arranging schemes for distributing profits amongst themselves or their employés, have done a great deal to set a good example to their fellows. But these things cannot be determined satisfactorily except on a national basis. There ought to be a national policy. It should not be left merely to the individual conduct of any well-meaning farmer. I do not know how far private landlordism might have been a handicap to the farmer or farm labourer, but if it be a handicap there is a second greater handicap which must be lessened, that is the existence of a disposition for excessive cheapness of the foods provided by the farm labourer in this country. If the farmers, the men who put both their capital and their labour into the production of food, are to be treated fairly and to be reasonably rewarded it can only be done by the public being willing to pay a fair price for the foods that are supplied. I wish for fairness, not merely for the labourer but for the farmer as well.
My right hon. Friend this afternoon, greatly to my disappointment, did not say anything on the question of beer or spirits. Unhappily the Food Ministry was made the medium for the performance of a good many of the odd jobs that were going during the period of the War. All I suggest now is that there is no longer any excuse for not providing reasonably necessary supplies of wholesome beer on the ground that we have not the material to make it. That difficulty at least has been removed, and I dare say that my right hon. Friend will find this summer in many agricultural centres well-grounded complaints from food producers that during their work of producing food they cannot get a reasonable 807 quantity of drink to consume during the hot weather. As to quantities, there is now no further excuse, and I can assure my right hon. Friend, who, of course, has himself a very wide opportunity for receiving information, that this is a cause of very great dissatisfaction to the country. Workmen who submitted properly and readily to these restrictions and personal limitations during the War do not see the need for these sacrifices being continued now that the War is over, and we might, without doing any damage whatever to the cause of temperance, see, as a Government, that these grievances are removed, while supplying reason able quantities of wholesome beer to those who wish to consume it. So long as my right hon. Friend is in charge of this portion of national work he might derive some advantage from establishing, in the case of beer, for the purpose of advice, guidance and information, some such body as that which I took a lead myself in establishing in the case of other foods, while the War was on—I refer to the Consumers' Council. If I am asked why I and not establish a Consumers' Council for drink as well as for food, the answer is, that drink supplies had to be very severely curtailed, and, indeed, at one point we were considering the question as to whether the brewing of beer would have to be prevented altogether, because we were so uncertain in regard to the supply of the trade for brewing purposes. But we have changed conditions now. I am sure that my right hon. Friend and his Department will derive some advantage from outside consultation with the representatives of workmen or representatives of the consuming public on the question of the consumption and supplies of beer.
I agree that it is necessary in the case of milk to have some permanent form of control in respect both to wholesale and retail supplies. There is no article of food which ought to be distributed more scientifically, yet there is no article in the distribution of which there are greater wastage and greater deterioration. It is necessary to organise on scientific lines the retail distribution of milk in our streets and towns as it has been necessary to organise on scientific lines the retail distribution of our letters. What would be said of the spectacle if we saw one postman crossing another, each postman having got a bundle of letters regardless 808 of where they had to be distributed? Yet that is what we see in the case of milk distribution. Cart passes cart, and, instead of one being quite sufficient for a series of streets, you have some six or seven, and in that way you have an enormous wastage of power of distribution. To a lesser degree the same system exists in regard to the distribution of the wholesale supplies of milk, and I share the view expressed by my right hon. Friend that if at and when this work is undertaken it might appropriately be placed in the hands of the Ministry of Health, which hereafter is to be established. So far as I gather, that is the only one form of permanent control which has been promised, unless we attach great importance to the Bills which are in due course to be introduced with regard to the registration of certain shopkeepers or traders in food and in respect to compelling certain people to conform to our laws as to weights and measures.
Herein I think it is not unfair to offer the comment that if my right hon. Friend can on these matters now definitely and finally tell us the policy of the Government it seems rather strange that he should not be able to announce the policy on the fate of the Ministry in respect to many of its larger aspects if those things have been considered and decided. I think it is not enough for my right hon. Friend to say that it is not his function to make announcements to the House or to determine what is to be done. These are matters, as he told us, which belong to Parliament and on which Parliament and the country as a whole will judge. But while the country will have an opportunity of settling the policy as to what is to be the fate of the Ministry in those larger aspects, I regret that my right hon. Friend, while he has accepted the responsibility for milk and one or two other minor matters on which he has definitely announced the result of the consideration and policy, yet on the other things has not been able to do anything at all. I do not agree that sufficient has been done in the case of the establishment and development of national kitchens. I know that the present head of that section has worked with very great industry, and with very great knowledge of his task since he began his work. I know that Mr. Spencer was very enthusiastic in that branch of the service, but I think Mr. Spencer and others would be the first to 809 admit that many of our local authorities did not show sufficient enthusiasm in this branch of the Ministry's work to make it the great success which it ought to have been. I regret very much to hear from my right hon. Friend the statement that it is intended to refer this matter of the future state of the national kitchens to our local authorities. I do not in any sense withhold from them their due share of public spirit, but the fact is that during the War they have been enormously overburdened and are overburdened still, and whilst they might with safety have some charge of this work with the co-operation of others, I do not think it ought to be entirely thrown on them, but that there ought to be some central State authority that will keep in touch with the municipal bodies, and that would inspire them, and in some cases, as I think would be needed; compel them to take some necessary action in this matter. Let me say a word as to the special directions in which I think these national kitchens might be developed. I agree that ordinarily there is not the same public need for the establishment of these kitchens in certain parts as there was while the War was on. I quite agree about that, but let us look at how industry is developing. Its tendency is to bring men more and more together in very great companies, and instead of having men working in hundreds or scores more men will work in thousands, and establishments will grow bigger and bigger, and the men will have to journey from their homes by train, 'bus or tram miles away to their place of business. Most of them have still to carry their food in their handkerchiefs or tin cans or baskets, or whatever it may be. That is not good for their health or for their work. Under this head I know that many private employers have done very great public and human service in establishing in connection with their workshops great dining rooms and places for human beings to take their food. I have inspected with feelings of the greatest gratitude and pleasure some of those institutions, which are fit for any man or woman to take their meals in. But this is work which will not again be done completely and on anything like a national scale until it is taken in hand by the nation itself and until some Department can be held responsible and answerable for it. It is in connection with the production of coal and steel and iron and cotton goods, 810 and the different products that make up the commerce of the country, that we want to extend this idea of national kitchens in the sense that we want to extend the proper provision of the sale at a reasonable cost of food to those men while they are at work under terms which would be self-respecting to them and food which will be sustaining in face of the work they have to perform. Allowing for what I think is the need for these criticisms I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food upon his courage in accepting his arduous office at a time when it was beset with its greatest difficulties and, if I may say so, upon the sympathetic and able manner in which his duties have so far been performed. If to-night he can do some service to the nation in urging upon the Government the wisdom of not entirely throwing away the great experience derived by his Ministry during the period of the War and the wisdom of using that experience and that knowledge that has been gained he will be reckoned as having even a higher title to gratitude for the public services which he has already discharged.
§ Major WHELER
If the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken will allow me to say so, I am sure all agriculturists in the House have listened with great interest and pleasure to his remarks about farmers and the land. He alluded to the desirability of not harassing the small trader. I hope he realises that the farmer is a very much harassed man and therefore should be included at the present time in the category of those who ought not to be harassed. I rose to make a few remarks and call attention to one subject and that is the question of milk. The right hon. Gentleman the Food Controller, in his statement this afternoon, said that there was a considerable feeling of resentment about milk prices. I think he has quite failed to realise that there is a great deal more than resentment. There is a feeling of great indignation and very strong indignation as to the way in which the milk producers of this country are being treated, and to use the word "resentment" as the description of the state of affairs is very far from the fact. I think the hon. Gentleman hardly realises what is going on throughout the country and the meetings which are being held. While I, for one, deprecate at once any withholding of supplies and think it is most desirable that any body of men should move by con- 811 stitutional means and methods and not withhold their supplies, yet I do feel that the milk producer has got a very strong case, and that it is a case which should receive further consideration at the hands of the Food Controller, when he is considering, as I understand he will consider, the price, at any rate, in the four South-western counties when he is receiving the deputation which is to wait upon him upon that branch of the subject. I think the House has got to consider this fact, that the question of milk is one of the most vital as to the future health of the country. Not so very long ago a Memorandum was issued by the Ministry of Food on milk supplies, and in it there are two paragraphs to which I desire to draw special attention. They appear under the heading "Outlines of General Policy," and are as follows:Does the House realise that the indignation which is being felt by milk producers will undoubtedly result in a very much less production of milk? Certain arrangements have been made with a view to the supply of milk, but what is happening, and will happen if those prices are fixed, will mean that a very large number of cows in milk will gradually go to the butcher, and next winter there will be no cows to take their place. Therefore I would ask whether it is not rather a suicidal policy to allow resentment to grow up amongst those producing milk, and, on the other hand, whether it would not be a wiser thing to consider the granting, at any rate, of some slight increase in the price which would encourage the milk producer to produce more, so that you would have a supply in the winter, which undoubtedly at present is in peril owing to the great resentment felt throughout the country. I want especially to raise this point, because only this morning at the Central Chamber of Agriculture, over which I have the honour to preside, there was another of the very large and numerous meetings being held throughout the country, and a resolution was passed as follows by the Council:
- "(a) Provided the related questions of milk production and manufacture can be met, the production of milk is a field in which State encouragement to the home producer."
- (b) An increase in milk production, especially in winter, would directly benefit the health in particular to the child population and would render the country less dependent imported milk products.'Your committee are of opinion that summer price of milk as fixed by the Food Controller is inadequate for the following reasons: (1) increasing 812 rate of wages, (2) shortening of hours of work, (3) late spring, (4) the reduction of a halfpenny per gallon for once-a-day delivery, (5) flooded low-lying, grass lands.I think generally speaking when the milk price has been fixed at some less rate the bulk of the people assume that that is done because the cows can be turned out to grass in the summer, and that therefore there is very little expense. This year the conditions are very different. You have the abnormally late spring. The Commission which reported, and on which to a certain extent I understand the Food Controller has based his decision, did so in April or the end of March, and they did not realise the conditions which exist to-day. There is very little grass throughout the country, and therefore feeding-stuffs are almost as essential for cows to-day as they were in the depth of winter. Then there are no reserves of hay to fall back upon, and the conditions are not normal because the farmer is threatened again with increases of wages, and has got to take into account the shortening of hours, which is a serious matter in the milk and dairying industry, where the question of Sunday labour is one of the most difficult things to adjust. In that way the question of higher wages and shorter hours with a rate for overtime are very serious factors for the farmer to consider. Only this morning I was told of a case of a certain farmer where his men refused to come and he had to do the work himself. All these difficulties make the situation this year very different from what it was last year, and I would venture to say that these matters ought to be further and seriously considered by the Food Controller with reference to an alteration in the prices. Coming to the Commission itself, we will admit that there were certain practical agriculturists upon it. The Commission reported at the end of March. There is one point which arises very strongly with reference to the claim which is going to be put forward by the four south-western counties as to the reduction in price, and that is that on the Commission there was not a single West countryman. Therefore, giving the Commission all credit for its efforts, everybody realises it could not possibly have all the facts from all those counties. Therefore I do not think its findings ought to be taken absolutely as the deciding factor in settling these prices. Further, may I ask why, if this report is to be the deciding factor, we have not had the Report of that Commission published, so that the farming 813 community at any rate might know the reason for which these alterations of price have been made, because that might in itself allay a considerable amount of the feeling which has been expressed throughout the country. I think the agricultural community as a whole are entirely opposed to the differentiation of prices, and they want to know why it should take place in this industry, when in all other industries a flat rate has been imposed. It seems to be rather a suicidal policy in this case. You have a district where milk has been produced, possibly, slightly cheaper than elsewhere, and surely it is to your interest to foster that industry in that district, whereas we find that, because it is produced cheaper, it is to be penalised to the extent of 2d. per gallon, with the result that the industry will not flourish in that district as it ought to do.
In regard to taking off a ½d. per gallon where milk is delivered only once during a day, in these days, when the farmer is so hard pressed for labour—and as we heard to-day only 10 per cent. of the military agricultural labourers are allowed to remain, adding another to the farmers'difficulties—it is almost impossible for them to deliver twice a day in some districts, and that being the case, I do not it all understand why they should be penalised by the loss of ½d. per gallon when they make only one delivery a day. I hope the Food Controller will reconsider that matter, because it is one on which the milk producers of this country feel very strongly indeed. I should like to say, in conclusion, that if this House wishes to get a steady, regular, and sufficient supply of milk in the country, it is committing a suicidal policy by harassing the farmer and the milk producer in the way that is now being done. If you want a good milk supply, a very good class cattle, and plenty of cream for the children in this country, surely it is a very foolish policy to cut the prices down, all for the sake of 2d. per gallon in a particular district. I, therefore, urge very strongly that the Food Controller will reconsider the question, and if he would give a 2d. rise per gallon throughout, he would do a great deal to get rid of the resentment which is felt to-day, and, what is more, he would ensure a milk supply this winter, which I venture to say is in jeopardy unless some step is taken to meet the protests of the farmers.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
May I very briefly associate myself with the appeal which 814 the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has made, and may I also associate myself with his remarks in regard to the right hon. Gentleman who sits beside me (Mr. Clynes). I wish a larger number of our people who live in cities could become Food Controllers, so as to get a better idea of the difficulties of an agriculturist's life. This subject of milk appeals to me, and I think to everyone who understands the circumstances of the case, inasmuch as we are undoubtedly jeopardising the supply of milk for next winter and next year. It is all very well to have a Food Controller, but no man can control food unless it is first produced, and I have always observed that when the Food Controller's Vote is on, the producers are not represented on the Government Bench. I mean by that that the Board of Agriculture is not represented. I beg the Government that they should not conduct their agricultural operations by controlling food and producing food in watertight compartments. I should like to have seen the Board of Agriculture represented here to-day, so that they could tell us whether or not there are any indications of the slaughter of heifers and cows which will be required to produce milk next winter and next year. Indeed, it is not a question of next winter and next year only, because if the cows are slaughtered now, it will be three or four years before that stock can be raised again to produce milk for the population. I am not one of those who would wish to see the price of milk higher. Everyone can realise, that to the children of the country, and to them others, milk is an essential article of diet, and it should be as cheap as possible; but we must realise too that the producers of milk are to-day suffering under unusual difficulties. No-one can realise, and nobody will realise, how difficult it is to get milk. In other trades you get a Saturday afternoon off and a Sunday off, but the cow has got to be milked fourteen times a week, and it is difficult for many people who get Saturday afternoon and Sunday off to realise that you have to be there on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday to look after the cows. In fact, I should like to invent a new sort of cow that did not require to be milked a week-ends. It would be very admirable indeed. The great competition that there has been from munition establishments and others makes it extremely difficult for the farmer who is a milk producer to carry on. I have had 815 letters galore; in fact, I have got a pocketful here now, about these milk prices, and I hope my right hon. Friend will realise that in the recent decision of the War Office even, in taking away essential labour from the land, you are discouraging the milk producer to a very great extent. I have letters here in which a producer of milk says, "My indispensable man is taken away. What am I to do?" I cannot tell him, and I can give him no advice. As I happened to raise this subject last week, I am inundated with letters from people all over the country. It is the business of the Food Controller and of the President of the Board of Agriculture to drive a little agricultural sense into the War Office. It is difficult, I know, but they really must realise that if you take away this labour then the milk and other farm products cannot be produced.
The Food Controller is to receive a deputation to-morrow from the four Western counties. I do not quite understand why you have differentiated with regard to these four counties, and I do not see how you are to carry it out. I asked my right hon. Friend yesterday a question: Assuming that you send the milk from, say, Somerset, or Dorset, or Devon, or Cornwall, to any large centre of population, how are you to distinguish that milk from the milk that is produced from the other counties? I do not believe it will be possible, and I believe the whole of the 2d. a gallon advantage will go into the middleman's pocket. If it will go into the consumers' pocket, that is another matter, but do not, for heaven's sake, penalise us in the West Country for the benefit of the middleman. I do not see how you can help it. You cannot mark milk. You cannot colour it, except, probably, that our milk in the four Western counties is a little richer; but, for all that, I am afraid there will be ways of getting over it by mixing a worse quality of milk with our milk. I would ask my right hon. Friend when he meets the deputation to-morrow really to make up his mind on this point, as to how he can carry out that policy of giving the four Western counties 2d. per gallon less for their milk and, at the same time, preventing the middleman from reaping all the advantage. I will not detain the Committee longer upon the question of milk, but there is one other question to which I must allude from a West Country point of view. I have had letters coming up to me from a very small town in my Constituency 816 complaining that owing to the rationing system they are not allowed to use their own meat. This is the town of Chagford, in Devonshire, a well-known moorland resort. They have not any meat at all this week-end. They are not allowed to kill their own meat, and the frozen meat apparently did not arrive. At Exeter, too, which is a large city, the butchers are complaining that their meat is in a disgracefully dirty condition, and much of it the butchers refuse to sell. I ask my right hon. Friend why we should be penalised doubly by having this meat sent down, when we in the West Country produce the best meat in the world, and we have to put up with this chilled and dirty stuff that the butchers do not like to sell? I draw attention to that very briefly, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Food Controller will seriously take into consideration the question of the milk supply in the next three or four years.
§ 6.0 P. M.
§ Colonel MILDMAY
I also should like to say a few words in appreciation of the terms in which the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Clynes) spoke of the farmers. I am glad he spoke of the arduous nature and the uncertainty of their business, because that is so very often forgotten. In regard to what he said as to private ownership, it ought not to be forgotten, I think, that the agricultural landlord provides the capital which places the farm at the disposal of the farmer for a very small return—a return of about 2 per cent. I rose for the purpose of saying a few words with regard to this milk question, but I want to make it perfectly clear that the West Country farmers have no idea of penalising or injuring the consumer. They are not asking to be favoured in any way. All they ask for is justice, and they maintain that they do not receive justice by cutting out the four Western counties. If it is justice, it is a rough and clumsy sort of justice, and it is the clumsiness of it which causes the criticism. I think it cannot be contradicted that 2d. a gallon means £4 a year on every cow, taking the production of a cow at 500 gallons a year, which, I believe, is pretty near the right figure. How can you expect a farmer who lives on the borders of one of these four counties to put up quietly with this tax of £4 a cow, when he sees his next-door neighbour, farming under exactly the same conditions as himself, not similarly penalised? The right hon. Member for South Moulton (Mr. G. Lambert), at Question Time yesterday, and 817 again to-day, asked what was to prevent the middleman outside the four counties buying milk within the four counties and pocketing the 2d. as well as his ordinary profit, and we were told it was to be prevented somehow. We have been told also that there is to be a tax, which is to be paid by the middleman outside the four counties to the Food Ministry, and, further, that before selling such milk he will have to get a licence. What an infinite trouble this will be to the middleman! And is it not perfectly certain that he will prefer to deal with any county in England rather than with the four counties? In this sense the four counties will be penalised.
To me, this provision looks like control gone mad, and will meet with criticism throughout the country. I want to make it quite clear that in criticising this provision we are not opposing the interests of the consumer. We are urging reconsideration of this plan not because we are opposing the interests of the consumer. I feel myself that in all that has gone on lately the interests of the consumer, the man-in-the-street, the general taxpayer, have been too much neglected, especially in connection with the claims of the coal industry, the railways, and all other things. We have got to watch the interests of the general consumer, because he has not the same opportunity of watching those interests as have other classes. But it is in the interests of the consumer that we protest against this arrangement, because we fear that it is only too likely to produce a milk famine in the time to come. Everyone, I think, can see the clumsiness of this expedient, and I would only urge that what is required is further inquiry into the whole provision. That further inquiry, I believe, will come as a result of representation which will be made to-morrow, and I would strongly support what has already been said as to the unwisdom of creating such a differential area as that which is contemplated in these four counties.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir GILBERTWILLS
The difficult and complex problems with which the Food Controller has to deal are such that he is inevitably faced with more criticism, and even hostility, than with any very open expression of gratitude, but if I, as a mere Back Bench Member, may express my opinion, I consider that he is probably far more entitled, for the magnificent work which he and his Department have done, to the latter than he is to the former, though for a very few 818 moments I should like to concentrate on a criticism. It is a criticism which has already been alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman himself, and by other speakers who followed him. In alluding to it at all, I may crave the indulgence of the House, because it is a very long time since I made any demands upon its time, and the question to which I want to allude is one upon which I feel very strongly myself, and I may say it is felt equally strongly throughout the length and breadth of the constituency which I have the honour to represent. I allude to the question of the four counties. During the War, certain measures and restrictions were absolutely necessary in the public interest to guard the public against actual want and against having to pay excessive prices for the necessities of life. But when those Regulations were made, control of that sort was general in its application, and equal. Now, it appears to me that in the Regulation which the right hon. Gentleman has told us he has found it necessary to make with regard to these counties, a new, and—if he will forgive me the expression—a crude attempt is being made to counteract by Regulation the results which nature has produced by the contour of the land, by the composition of the soil, and so forth.
We are very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having expressed his willingness, in the kind way he has done, to receive a deputation from the counties affected to-morrow, and doubtless in any of the arguments which I venture to lay before him I shall be anticipating what will be said—and very much better said—by the deputation which will wait upon him to-morrow. But, if I may, I would point out that to-day is the only opportunity for voicing this matter in the House of Commons, and to-morrow that chance will have gone by. I am not qualified to speak for the four counties concerned, but I claim that I am qualified to speak for a very wide grazing district in one of them, and I may tell the right hon. Gentleman a thing which he intimated he already knew, that this policy has aroused a great deal of criticism, and, to put it shortly, the farmers are passing through a period between absolute bewilderment and very deep indignation at the policy which has been outlined. The right hon. Gentleman told us that the recommendations which he adopted were unanimously expressed by the Commission he appointed to look into this matter. But that Commission was really a party of wise men from the 819 East who went down to the West, and we venture very much to doubt their wisdom. Put shortly, the farmers do not understand the reason, and they are deeply resentful at what they consider to be an indefensible differentiation between themselves and their neighbours and a very gross injustice. Even the right hon. Gentleman only told us that this was done upon the recommendations of a Commission, but he did not actually inform us what the recommendations were, and how they were arrived at. I made some inquiries about this, and I have heard it stated that the reason why this expedient has been adopted is because the four counties concerned are better adapted for the production of dairy produce than the rest of the country. Opinions may differ on that point, but assuming, for the sake of argument, that that is true, then there are just one or two points to which I would most respectfully invite the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.
In the first place, the rent of land is entirely regulated by this quality, and from that it follows that, if a farmer is enjoying a rich grazing, he is paying more for that land than he would if it were poor, unproductive soil. That, of course, goes without saying, and I must apologise for mentioning the argument. In the second place, boundaries are a purely arbitrary division; the geological construction of the land takes no notice of them whatever. Again, that argument is almost too obvious to waste the time of the House upon it. In the third place, the cost of feeding-stuffs, and, in fact, of all the other articles which a farmer needs to buy, has gone up just as much in these four counties as in the refit of England, and I think it has already been pointed out by my hon. Friend opposite that the more cattle a man raises on his land, the less he is able to devote to mowing, and consequently the more feeding-stuffs he has got to buy, and surely it is not the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to try to decrease the milk produce in that part of the world. Rates and taxes are the same. Farmers in those four counties come under Schedule B just the same as any other farmers, and when we come to a question of wages, I would point out that wages have gone up proportionately higher in the West Country than in other agricultural parts of England; in fact, I believe I am right in saying, although I 820 am not absolutely certain, that until the day before yesterday wages were actually higher in the county of Devon than they were in the county of Gloucester. So that in all these matters the West Country farmer—if I may address him in that way, to prevent a repetition of the term "the four counties"—is at no advantage as compared with his agricultural neighbours, elsewhere. But there is one very distinct disadvantage under which he will suffer if this differentiation is continued. I allude to markets. From the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, wherever the markets are near the boundaries dividing the six counties, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire, the West Country farmer will be at a distinct disadvantage compared with his neighbours for the purchase of dairy cattle, because, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Totnes (Colonel Mildmay) pointed out, this extra 2d. is going to make a difference of about £4 to £5 on each cow. Therefore the market with be weighted against the men who are in counties which are not receiving this treatment. Finally, I would allude to one further point, namely, a town such as Bristol, which is served in its milk supply by certainly two, if not three, counties—Gloucestershire, Somersetshire, and possibly Wiltshire. It has been pointed out that you cannot make any distinction between milk produced on one side of a border, and milk produced on the other. The right hon. Gentleman in dealing with that point indicated that this 2d. would not go to the middleman. We do not quite know how he is going to avoid it. He suggested it would go to the consumer. May I most respectfully ask him to consider whether it is fair to tax one set of farmers in one part of the country in order that consumers in quite a different part of the country may benefit. I cannot think that the right hon. Gentleman has perhaps taken that question into consideration in arriving at his decision.
The West Country farmer believes to this day that the only Minister of the Crown that can tax him is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the consent of the House of Commons. But this, in the case of a big dairy-farmer, may produce a tax amounting to £200 or even £300 a year. I have little more to add except that personally I believe that milk prices are already high enough. I am not sure that they are not too high, as evidenced by the 821 abnormal slaughter of calves going on now. I would almost prefer to see prices lowered in the rest of the country than raised in these four counties.
But the one thing about which all my friends and my Constituents are most anxious, is that there shall be equality of prices throughout the whole county. The House will, I am sure, forgive me if before sitting down I draw attention to the fact that the West country cannot be criticised as unpatriotic. The recent past history will show that the soldiers and sailors who have been born and bred in that part of the world have rendered patriotic service to their country. The West country's military record during the present War will bear very close scrutiny. Their agricultural effort will bear equally close scrutiny. They are in revolt, however, at what they believe to be injustice. It is because I consider that a grave injustice is being inflicted upon them that I have ventured to make these remarks this afternoon. I would beg the right hon. Gentleman to take into his consideration the points which have been raised, and to give them careful and sympathetic attention.
§ Major MORRISON-BELL
In view of the admirable manner in which the last speaker dealt with the subject, as well also as the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Lambert), and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Totnes (Colonel Mildmay), I need only be very brief. T do not think the Minister can realise—it is, indeed, impossible unless he goes down to the West country—the consternation this Order has caused in these four counties. Those concerned fail to realise why they should be discriminated against, for practically their burdens of production are exactly the same as those of their competitors. I believe the excuse has been given that the climate in the West country is more favourable, the pasturage more luxurious, and so on. But all that is compensated for in a way that has been described. There is one point, perhaps, that has not been covered. I should like to bring it out to the House, especially in connection with the county of Devon. During the War, Devonshire, advised by the Agricultural Committee, ploughed up its grassland to a great extent. Not only did the county carry out its orders, but I am informed—for I was not there at the time—that the farmers even went beyond their quota, 822 and more land was ploughed up in Devonshire than even asked for by the Agricultural Committee. Consequently, these farmers, in having to deal with this reduced milk price, are really starting their campaign against their competitors in other counties at a disadvantage. A great deal of the pastures have been ploughed up, and consequently they are at a distinct disadvantage. Really owing to their excessive zeal and patriotism in ploughing up even more than was asked for they are disadvantage. That is a point which the Food Controller should certainly take into consideration when dealing with the deputation which he receives to-morrow. The only satisfactory point, I consider, in the remarks in which he dealt with the subject this afternoon was that he made it clear that the question is not yet closed, and that he is prepared to reconsider this decision when he meets the deputation. That is really, I hope, the line on which we may receive some satisfaction, for if this Order goes through as it is now I am perfectly certain it means a very grave danger to the milk supply of the future throughout these four counties. All of us concerned here have had letters from farmers saying that with the best intentions in the world they will be perfectly unable to continue the milk production at these prices. They will have to grade their cattle, and that will, I believe, have its reaction next year and the following year. That is one of the dangers, I think, not foreseen by the Travelling Commission when they fixed this price. As the right hon. Gentleman has declared his willingness to receive a deputation to-morrow, and as the whole gist of the case has been so admirably put by the speakers who preceded me—though I should feel justified owing to the consternation which has been caused in my part of the world in going further into this question—I shall conclude by expressing the hope that the Food Controller is going to meet this matter in a reasonable manner.
§ Mr. IRVING
I, like others, if I cared so to do, could very largely criticise the apparent vagaries and shortcomings of the Ministry of Food. Whilst, however, I could find much ground for dissatisfaction in connection with their work if I had that object in view, I should like to say from my point of view I would have been very much dissatisfied had that Department not been set up and exercised its functions. In our criticism of the Department we all fail to recognise what is a 823 fairly true statement—that it is very much easier to criticise than to perform. I, for one, for a considerable time, have been in a kind of terror for fear somebody should suggest that I should take on the office of Food Controller. Whether, if such had happened, I should have rendered as successful an account of my stewardship to the one to which we have listened this afternoon I very much doubt. Rather, I am of opinion that if the Department has made a mess of things there would have been a bigger mess had it been entrusted to my hands. What, however, hag surprised me, particularly in the discussion which has gone on, is how the discussion in the main has departed from the larger issue involved in the statement to which we have listened, and concentrated itself upon what, after all, may be an important question, but still, judged from the whole point of view, is a very small question indeed, namely, the cost of the production of milk.
I do not profess to know very much, if anything, about the cost of the production of milk. But I confess to having a. keen interest in the supply of it. It is in that context, and using that as a text which can be applied to many other things, that I altogether deprecate the tone of the Department in their statement which indicates that they are all too willing to disband the Ministry; that they are not anxious to do—and they certainly are not—and, as one of the previous speakers said, they should do—they are not putting up against those who want to disband the Ministry the result of their experience and knowledge of the past years of the War, so as in the national interest to urge the retention of the Ministry. If we look at the matter for the moment we see that it required a world-war to set up a Department of food in this country. That is typical of the "happy-go-lucky," "go-as-you-please" methods of this country in the past. I would say that we are par excellence a nation of people who have a kind of anarchist temperament of individualist enterprise run absolutely mad. If you could imagine any one thing upon this earth that the nation generations ago, much less to-day, should have set itself to control, not in the interests of profit-making for farmers or anybody else, but in the interests of a plentiful supply of absolutely pure and unadulterated food at as near the cost of production as possible, it is this. Can one imagine more than 824 this a feature of national life that should appeal to people that have any national conception at all, that saw and believed in the effect of national action in prosecuting the War? Yet we had not seen the necessity of, or entered into that conception, of the same principle for peace time objects, which should result in the same success as resulted in the case of war-time objects. I speak of the peace and happiness of the nation, which are far preferable to anything which can result from war. It is from that aspect that I would ask for the further consideration for the retention of this Ministry.
We are told—referring to the question of milk again—that some form of control is to be retained, and that it is to be put under, probably, the control of the new Health Ministry. There is one aspect of this milk discussion that I have been waiting to hear mentioned. It is somewhat significant to me, a townsman, not to have heard any of these protagonists of the farmers for obtaining better prices—not to hear a single representative of the farmers' interest who has even mentioned that which from a national point of view is even more important than the question of price; that is the question of the cleanliness and the purity of the milk. I have had a quarter of a century's experience as a member of a health committee. During those years, apart from discussions in that committee of which I am a member, we have had reports from medical officers of health up and down the country, and in the large centres of population. What we have been told from these sources, which was based upon investigations, was that the production of milk in this country to-day is about the most filthy form of production that it is possible to conceive. After all, if the farmers in the past have not been able to extract as much profit as they would like or as was their legitimate due from the production of milk, you can draw the inference from that statement, which I do not think can be reasonably contradicted, because it is based upon the universal reports of the medical officers of health concerned, that the nation itself has lost considerably in health and vitality and consequent happiness because of the fact that the individual farmer has not been the person to consider other than his own interests, and certainly not the one to consider first and foremost the necessity of pure and cleanly production in the interests of the nation. I would suggest, if no other form of control be possible, that 825 probably the Health Ministry is the proper body, at any rate, most akin to this work, to take up that control. I suggest it is far better to have a Department whose one function is to look after the control and the supply and the purity of all the foodstuffs that we need as a nation.
Members of health committees, from their own experience, know that without the control of milk being put upon them at all the functions they have already to perform are more numerous than they can effectively do from the point of view of part-time service which an ordinary health committee can give. I consider it would be no less than a disaster for this nation, having understood in the necessities of war-time the vast neglect which pressure of circumstances compel them to take cognisance of, and, having set up a Ministry of Food—we must confess both from the point of view of distribution and of price, and I hope we may also say from the point of view of eliminating deleterious stuff in connection with our food supply—I think it would be suicidal on the part of the nation to cast all that experience behind them and to return to the individual and competitive estate where each individual is animated by the desire to make a successful business of his trade, first and foremost, and with the necessary individual and unrestricted competition round about him having to follow on the lines of adulteration and short measure which you cannot escape, than by a national form of control such as the Food Ministry has proved itself fairly effective, despite all the criticisms, against it during the past two years of its existence.
There is another point which they ought to take into consideration, or at any rate those of us who are inclined to get rid of all these forms of control, and return to the sweet old days that are gone. I have heard during the last few weeks a good many scores of times pleas for the return to the old days of private enterprise. I have yet to hear many people recognise, so far as expressing their recognition goes, the fact that the days of private enterprise had to be ended after very many generations of opportunity to make them effective, under the stress and circumstances of war, or that private enterprise would have ended our national existence. We had to wrest these things from the hands of private enterprise. It is, to my mind, regrettable that those engaged in occupations, or those like myself engaged in none, 826 should all of us in the national interest not recognise that what we want to do is not to abolish the result of our experience during the stressed circumstances arising out of the War, but to take advantage of them and realise that these measures undertaken in times of extraordinary difficulties, in the hands of men who themselves were inexperienced, plus the difficulties they had to face, plus the traditional aspect of things that had so long obtained before the national control came in, were bound to result in blunders and extravagance and vagaries of all sorts. Does it not follow that as a matter of ordinary course the experience which the Department has gained by the removal of those stressed circumstances which have driven them hither and thither that with that experience and a broader national outlook they may, and almost certainly would, in time to come, diminish all those blunders until they had disappeared, and as a result of the continuation of the Food Ministry in office we should build up a form of control over the food supply of the nation which from my point none but an insane nation would ever think of going back to the old conditions where no control existed?
Take the question of food supplies. I have had some experience in connection with fishery work, and I do not think that this House, or very many people outside, realise what an extraordinary asset, uncultivated and undeveloped, the fisheries of these Islands are in the matter of food supply to the nation. If you leave the fish supply to the same individual competition and not to the development of the supply of fish and its production for national use, if you retain the methods which have long obtained, which have destroyed hundreds, of thousands of tons of fish in order to make manure and all this whilst people up and down the country were starving be cause they could not obtain access to it, and all this done in order that high prices might prevail, how are you going to counteract that absolutely mad and stupid game which has been going on for generations without some national control in the national interest and not in the interests of individuals at all.
There is one other matter I would urge on behalf of the retention of this Ministry which I think is worthy of some consideration. During the War it was found necessary not only to set up a Food Department for the supply of food and the restriction of prices, but at the same time later ex- 827 perience showed that it was necessary to bring into being a body of men and women representative of the consumer's interest as apart from the Government Department who were dealing with supply and prices. The Food Consumers' Council has now been in existence for some considerable time. It has no personal or collective interest in the maintenance of the Food Ministry; indeed from the personal point of view it might very well welcome the disappearance of the Ministry and its own disappearance as a voluntary working organisation. The people on that body have given persistent and unpaid services in the interests of the community, and this body composed of representatives from all sections of the community, including the huge co-operative societies and trade unions, with no interests to serve except that of the consumers of this nation from a national point of view, that body has expressed itself as altogether opposed in the national interest to the disappearance of the Food Ministry, and as an alternative have expressed the opinion that at least if the Ministry cannot be maintained intact, developed and extended in its work and operations, that at least a considerable part of its functions could be maintained permanently under the direct control of a Minister of Food responsible to this House and to the nation.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I should like to draw attention to the question of the alteration in price to the producers of milk in the four counties which is being allowed by the Ministry. I do not understand on what principle the Minister can maintain that it is expedient or advisable to say that a farmer living on one side of a road in Somersetshire should receive less for his milk than the farmer on the other side. However that may be, it seems to me that it is imposing a special tax upon those particular people. The hon, Member opposite said that some simple people thought this could only be done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the approval of this House. Unfortunately the various controls which have been set up lately travelled in the imposition of this form of taxation. There was the question of wool and the control imposed a special tax upon a particular class, and there were other cases of a similar nature. What I want to draw the attention of the Food Controller specially to is this. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman who represents the Food Ministry under what authority is he doing 828 this? He will reply, I presume, under the Defence of the Realm Act. That is the only authority which can be presumed to authorise such an enactment. The Defence of the Realm Act says:His Majesty in Council has power during the continuance of the present War to Issue Regulations as to the powers and duties of the Admiralty and Army Council, and members of His Majesty's Forces, and other persons acting in his behalf for securing the public safety and the defence of the Realm.Those are the only words on which the right hon. Gentleman can base any authority for doing what he is doing Can it be said that the ordering of farmers in four particular counties to charge 2d. less for their milk than the farmers in other particular counties secures the public safety and the defence of the realm? I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for one of the Divisions of Devonshire (Mr. Lambert), who knows what excellent milk is produced in Devonshire, and how well they farm there, is not here. I believe he occupies the position of Leader of part of the Liberal party. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) is one of the Whips, but, if not, perhaps he will be able to get at the right hon. Gentleman, and convey to him my advice. Let the farmers in these counties refuse to accept the Order of the Food Controller, and say, "We are going to charge whatever we please for our milk, and just what we can get." I believe, if they did that, that it would be quite impossible for the right hon. Gentleman to prevent them, because the Defence of the Realm Act relates to military occupation and military powers, and to nothing else. It was instituted because it was felt that it was necessary to give the Government power to do certain drastic things with regard to the military safety of the realm. It was never meant that anyone might go down to Farmer Jones, living in one of the parishes of Devonshire, and say to him, "You are only to charge 8d. per gallon"—or whatever the price may be—"for your milk, whereas Farmer Lambert, living on the other side of the road, may charge 10d."It is absurd to say that would result in the defence or the safety of the realm, even if it were argued that the children in those particular counties would eventually become better citizens or finer men and women because they would get their milk 2d. cheaper. Why should those particular counties be chosen in order to provide for the safety of those 829 counties? Speaking in all seriousness, I recommend the farmers in question—and I hope, if they read the newspapers, that they will read my remarks—to set the right hon. Gentleman at defiance. I do not believe that he has the slightest authority for doing this, and the time has come when those of us who have meekly submitted to all these Orders, the majority of which have been quite illegal, should for once set pseudo-authority at defiance, and refuse to pay this impost, which I maintain is illegally charged.
Mr. KENNEDY JONES
I am only going to intervene for a very few moments in order to call attention to a very remark able omission from the speech of the Minister of Food. He told us, in a curiously detached way, that on some little transaction of £66,000,000 there was a profit of something like £1,000,000 which had gone towards the establishment charges of the Ministry. Are we going to have balance-sheets presented to us on the year's working of the Ministry of Food? The Ministry, which I frankly admit has performed its work with a great deal of credit and considerable dispatch and efficiency, began buying generally in July, 1917, so that by July, 1918, it had been at work a year, and I think I am within the facts when I say that, taking all the controls—wheat, meat, sugar, potatoes, dried fruits, cheese, butter, cream, etc.—the turnover was something approaching £900,000,000. I want a balance-sheet, and I think the Committee ought to have a balance-sheet, not of the whole Department or in the aggregate, but a balance-sheet of each separate control. Take the case of meat. I remember asking the right hon. Gentleman, some eight weeks ago, as to the price they paid for imported meat, and as to the quantities and commitments to which they were pledged. I got a long answer, which was circulated and printed with the Official Report. It said—Of the 73,000 tons held by the Ministry, 40,000 tons were purchased in North America at an approximate cost of 1s. 3d. per 1b., and 33,000 tons in South America at an approximate cost of 10½d. per 1b. The meat is pooled and sold at a flat rateThat answer, as a matter of fact, did not square with the information that I myself possessed as to purchases of meat, and I asked the persons on the other side of the water if they would supply me with the actual facts. I do not pledge myself to what I am going to read to the Com- 830 mittee, but I can assure hon. Members that the information comes from a source from which we purchase meat. Here is what they say—Most of the Army beef has come from South America. There are 50,000 to 60,000 tons a month. The contract price to the United Kingdom Government, f.o.b. South America, is 5¾d. per lb. Add, as a reasonable cost of transportation, insurance, handling, etc., 1½d. per lb., and the total cost to the Government should be 7d. per lb. landed here in this Kingdom. Some of this beef is now being applied to civilian consumption, namely, 1,000 tons last week, and the same amount this week.Then this information goes on to this effect—As a quid pro quo for the low price of 5¾d. from South America, the Government allow the American packers 20 per cent. tonnage from South America in order to carry their own products, and the packers price this tonnage at 10£d. per lb. The United Kingdom Government has insisted on buying this meat, which the packers price at 10½d. per lb., and the Government sells it to the wholesale trade through the packers as selling agents, to whom they pay 2 per cent. commission at 28½ cents, which is 1s. 2½d. per lb.I think the Committee will agree that there is a very great discrepancy between the figures which have been given to me by the authorities who actually transmit the beef to this country and the figures which were given in answer to the question which I asked some eight weeks ago. In view of all these things it seems to me desirable—in fact, more than desirable. It seems to me that this Committee ought to insist that we should have balance-sheets of each department in the Food Ministry, correctly audited and correctly set out. It is all the more desirable in view of the prevalent idea that we ought to nationalise a great many of the industries. We have had this Food Ministry for two years acting as a great commercial concern. We want to know from the experience of that Ministry whether it is to the advantage of the nation, to the advantage of the individual, to the advantage of the tax-payer, that Government officials should be allowed to control businesses in preference to private individuals. I quite agree that in view of the War it was necessary to create this Department and to get complete control, but, if for a moment it is contemplated to continue any part of it, let us have detailed information, complete, explicit, precise, as to what has been the result of the activities of the Department, whether, in fact, it has not been more culpable than all the profiteers, and whether it has conducted the thing with 831 ordinary commercial efficiency and intelligence. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to give me an answer to the question whether the Ministry is going to produce a balance-sheet?
§ 7.0 P M
§ Mr. HOGGE
I think the demand which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Kennedy Jones) that the Ministry of Food should produce balance-sheets of the business propositions which they have undertaken is a perfectly sound one. It is a demand which has been pressed upon the Government ever since we began to discuss these Estimates. I am all the more in favour of the suggestion made by my hon. Friend, because the Committee will recollect that he himself had something to do with the control of food in the earlier part of the War. If a member of this Committee, with the experience that he has derived from his own association with the control of food, suggests that it is advisable, one infers that there is great necessity for having these balance-sheets, and for finding out exactly what the Ministry has done. Personally, therefore, I support most strongly the suggestion made by my hon. Friend, that the Committee should be put into possession of these balance sheets. The discussion to-day has ranged over a considerable number of topics, all of them of considerable interest. In the course of the Minister's speech, I interjected one or two remarks, asking for a little more information, and on one or two of those points I should like to amplify my interchanges. My right hon. Friend referred to the amount of the contribution made from the Ministry of Food to our Allies, particularly to the smaller Allies, associated with us in the War. It would be interesting to know, for the purposes of future reference exactly what contribution the Ministry of Food was able to make to those Allies at the particular time; and, if the information can be given, the particular nature of the supplies given to those small countries. I should also like either my right hon. Friend, or the Parliamentary Secretary, when they intervene again in the Debate, to deal with one topic which was not touched on in their preliminary remarks. We have, at the moment, a subsidy on bread in this country; it amounts, I believe, to £50,000,000. I have had it stated to me, and I dare say other hon. Members of the Committee have had it put to them, that, as a matter of fact, this 832 subsidy of £50,000,000 is probably very largely an under estimate, and that if we get out with less than between from 70 to 80 million pounds, we should consider ourselves lucky. The only way to bring down the price of bread to the consumer is to lower the average of the price of flour in this country, and I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether he can give the Committee any information as to what, if anything, is being done to import into the country the large stocks of wheat in the Argentine and in Australia which would be available for consumption if they could be got here? A great deal of shipping has been released, and we have the advantage now of a large number of ships which were previously confined in German harbours, and which are either now in this country or being used by this country on the commercial routes for various purposes. The Committee ought to be in possession of the facts regarding that, and why it is, now that there are those facilities, that we do not get those imports of wheat which would reduce the average price of flour; which would, in turn, reduce the subsidy on bread and relieve the taxpayer in this country. It is high time that we returned, as soon as possible, to absolute free trade in corn, without any subsidy or without any guarantees, and one way of doing that is to open up the markets of the world which, at the present time, seem to be closed to us for one reason or another. I. should like my right hon. Friend to deal with that and to tell us what the Government policy is and whether they are doing everything in their power to ship that wheat from the Argentine and from Australia. Also, if so, in what quantities; when they expect it to arrive in this country in any quantity; and how soon the arrival of that wheat will have some affect on the price of bread, and thus relieve the country from the subsidy?
There is only one other point I want to make. I rather gathered that my right hon. Friend wanted to ascertain the feeling of the Committee in regard to the date of his own demise and the funeral of his own Ministry. I am not quite sure whether one grasped exactly the alternatives that he suggested to the Committee. If I am wrong in the analysis I make of those alternatives, he will correct me. It seemed to me that there were three suggstions made in regard to the Ministry of Food. The first, a perfectly simple one, was that the Ministry of Food should be 833 continued. That, of course, was a possibility, and, as a matter of fact, it has certain attractions to a, certain number of people. Certainly it would have a very large attraction to the unnecessary crowd of officials, not only in the Ministry of Food in London, but all over the country in the various divisional offices, where their services seem to have been necessary. Another suggestion I gathered from him was that the functions of the Ministry of Food might be so diminished that it would be unnecessary to continue it as a separate Ministry, and that instead it might be handed over as a whole to some other Ministry in the Government, and a Parliamentary Secretary might be attached to that Ministry, who would deal with the Ministry of Food side of the business. The third suggestion was that the various functions of the Ministry, which could best be described as permanent functions, should be detached from the Ministry of Food before its death, and handed over to the appropriaate Departments among all the Ministries in the Government, so that they could continue the control in separate Departments.
If I have stated the three suggestions correctly, I should like to tell my right hon. Friend that I am perfectly certain that the opinion of the Committee, so far as I have been able to ascertain it, is that we want the Ministry of Food to die at the earliest possible moment, and that we will all attend its obsequies with the greatest possible pleasure. I do not, of course, associate with that the representative of the Ministry who is sitting on the Front Bench at the present moment, but the Committee wishes its ending, and, if it did not wish that, I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that the country wants that at the earliest possible moment. If there is any Ministry of which the country is more tired than another, it is the Ministry of Food. [An HON. MEMBER: "No, no!"] An hon. Member says, "No!" but every housewife I have ever met during the period of the War has had more of control of her household and domestic arrangements through the Ministry of Food than she requires for the rest of her natural life. I think, if you have a poll even of the women of the country, leaving out those of us who do not attend to that side of household work, you would have an enormous and unanimous vote against the continuance of the Ministry of Food. Therefore, it is perfectly accurate to say 834 that we desire the Ministry of Food to die at the earliest possible moment. I think, also, that if the right hon. Gentleman wants to know the opinion of the Committee, the Committee is not in favour of attaching to any other Ministry a separate Department of Food, controlled by a new Parliamentary Secretary. If there is one function in the Government that the Committee is also tired of, it is the continual creation of new Parliamentary Secretaries. There are far too many of them, and they interfere with each other. Moreover, if it were done in that way, you would have what occurs in every large Government Department or Ministry, these interests competing with each other in such a way that, instead of having smooth operations, you would have the necessary friction which is associated with all these divergent opinions under one roof. Therefore, I strongly advise my right hon Friend to adhere to the last of the three suggestions, and before his Ministry dies to devolve on the relevant Department those permanent functions of the Ministry of Food which he and his predecessors have found to be useful in the national interest in their particular directions. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of these, and one has been discussed this afternoon. There is the question of the supply of milk and its control. Obviously, that is a function which associates itself naturally with the health of the community, and, as my right hon Friend suggested, could very easily and naturally go to the Ministry of Health. So with such a subject as prices and statistics from the statistical side. That could go very well to the Board of Trade, only, if it does so, I hope it will be done more thoroughly and completely than in the past, because I understand that when the right hon Gentleman and his predecessors were attempting to fix maximum prices for particular articles, that frequently an ad hoc inquiry had to be made in order to arrive at the facts. I think the Board of Trade would be the proper body to which these matters should be referred.
If, therefore, my right hon. Friend wants to ascertain the views of the Committee on these points, I think he can take it that we are in favour of the abolition of the Ministry of Food at the earliest possible moment, of the demobilisation of the officials connected with the Ministry at as speedy a rate as he can arrange for, and the preservation of those permanent functions which have proved of use, and 835 their attachment to the relevant Ministries. In winding up the Food Control Ministry, the right hon. Gentleman should put out of his head, and out of the head of any future Government, any idea of attempting, outside war time, to interfere with the natural forces of private enterprise. A great deal too much is said to-day about collectivist and communistic methods. I am perfectly certain that what this country wants more than anything else is the fresh breeze of individualism blowing through its lungs once again. There is a lot of talk about this, but, compared with what has been achieved by this method during the War, a great many more facts will require to be adduced before the old habits of individualism and private enterprise which have achieved so much can be ruled out of court. Those are my views, and I hope what I have said, particularly about the winding-up of the Ministry of Food, will assist the right hon. Gentleman to carry through the Committee what seems to me the most economical proposal that can be made.
§ Sir CHARLES HENRY
With the concluding remarks of my hon. Friend I find myself in complete agreement. Like him, and like the majority of the Committee, I hailed with satisfaction the announcement of the Food Controller that these were likely to be the last Estimates for his Ministry that would be presented to Parliament. When my hon. Friend stated his alternative for the Ministry of Food, I did not find myself in very full agreement with him. In my opinion, it would be a great mistake if when this Ministry is dissolved its functions should be handed over to different Departments. Some of those functions will have to be continued, but I would like them to be centred in one Department as for as possible. I think the Department most suitable to take them over would probably be the Board of Agriculture. As to the bread subsidy, I would like to endorse what fell from the hon. Member. I consider that as soon as possible, and the sooner the better, the bread subsidy should come to an end, and although one may criticise it and recognise that it was desirable during the War, yet now we are told there are fairly abundant food supplies in different parts of the world, and it is merely a matter of tonnage to bring the food-stuffs over here, I hope the bread subsidy may be done away with in the very near future.
836 There was one matter which attracted considerable interest in my Constituency at the last election—a matter which came next after the question of dealing with the Kaiser and securing a full war indemnity. Perhaps it attracted more attention than any other. It was the return to the system of the home brewing of beer as soon as possible. I have asked my right hon. Friend several questions concerning this matter, but I have never been able to secure a definite reply. He stated this afternoon that the Food Controller is now really the head of the Wheat Commission. He has, therefore, at his disposal, or under his jurisdiction, the grain supplies of this country. We were told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week, when he presented his Budget, that there was no scarcity of grain, and the right hon. Gentleman adduced that as a reason for increasing the barrelage of beer that should be brewed. I should like my right hon. Friend to put this point to the Chancellor of the Exchequer: If there is a sufficient supply of grain for this country to enable the brewers to have additional supplies to brew beer, can he not at this juncture reinstate those who were in the habit of brewing their own beer before the War? The cottage brewing of beer, I maintain, has been of great advantage to the country. It has been dropped during the War, but there is now no reason why those who for generations have brewed their own beer should not be allowed to resume doing so. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may object as it may probably result in some loss to Excise revenue. But I understand it is proposed to deal with this matter by a system of registration fees. All I can say is, I am certain that those who have brewed their beer in the past will readily pay that registration fee. They want the beer; they do not want to be entirely at the mercy of the brewers and to take what beer may be presented to them. In many country districts the majority of public-houses are tied houses and the community have to take whatever beverage is offered to them or go without. I would press upon my right hon. Friend that, in the interest of temperance, it is desirable to have a resumption of home brewing. It rests with him. Ho may have, to fight with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about it, but he can if he chooses meet what is a real and absolutely justifiable demand. It cannot be suggested that there is an insufficient 837 supply of malt or grain, and I therefore do most earnestly ask my right hon. Friend to deal with the subject at once, in view of the fact that there is a strong demand on the part of those who want to brew home beer in reasonable quantities.
§ Lieut.-Colonel MEYSEY-THOMPSON
I think the speech of the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) was perfectly right. He said we wanted to see the balance-sheet of every Department of the Ministry of Food. The question is, Are we really indebted to the Department for increasing the food production of this country to an extent which bears any relation to the cost of the Department? My experience is that in every single instance where the Food Production Department has interfered with agriculture the interference has resulted in decreased production rather than an increase. The debate which we have listened to this afternoon with so much interest in regard to the milk supply is a case in point. Four years ago, and ever since, I have protested most strongly against the excessive cutting up of grass lands, against the Regulations with regard to live stock, and against the new Regulations constantly brought out by the Food Production Department. The destruction of old grass lands was disastrous and we are feeling the necessity of those lands very strongly at the present moment. I said four years ago, and I have repeated it many times, since—and there are many others better qualified than myself to speak on the subject who will agree—that what has happened would actually happen if the Government persisted in their policy. What has been the result of that policy? There has been a shortage of both meat and milk, and that has been brought about, more than anything else, by the interference of the Food Control Department. It is not the fault of the farmers or of the landowners who have sacrificed their own interests over and over again in order to maintain the food supplies of this country.
I quite agree with the hon. Member opposite (Sir Charles Henry) with regard to the cottage brewing of beer. The policy of the Government has been for some years to kill our industries and stop production in this country. I am a believer in cheaper food, but we do not necessarily get cheaper food or cheaper beer if we destroy home industries. My object is to secure the greater production in this coun- 838 try of every form of food, because that must be of benefit, not only to the people of this country, but to the world at large. Of course, the question of revenue has to be considered, but how can you provide the revenue to keep up these big, expensive Departments if you go on killing the home industries? You only inflict injury thereby on this country. The sooner this Food Control Department and the sooner all these non-productive Departments disappear the better it will be for this country. During the War they were forced upon us; they were necessary evils; in some cases I think they were unnecessary evils, but they were evils which we had to submit to, and they have done their worst. What we want to be released from is this immense mass of non-productive Departments. The country is calling for that relief. Every time I go down to my own county I am asked why we are maintaining an enormous number of people, drawing good wages, not for increasing production in this country but for obstructing it. I do implore the Government to set everybody in this country at work as speedily as possible on greater production. We are very grateful to America and other countries which have supplied us with food and other requisites, but do let us have our own people employed here on production, and let us close down as soon as possible the non-productive Departments which have been a heavy burden upon this country.
§ Mr. S. WALSH
It is very seldom indeed that a great Department of State is invited to commit upon itself the "happy dispatch." Yet that was the invitation which the hon. Member (Mr. Hogge) extended to the Food Minister. He invited him to perform the act of self-destruction as quickly as possible, and to get out of the way, so as to leave the fresh breezes of individualism to blow once again through the country's affairs, We have all very short memories—very short indeed. I wonder if we do remember now what was the effect of the fresh breezes of individualism on the nation's life before the Food Ministry was established. And even when the Food Ministry had been established after some considerable time, do we remember what great mischief had been effected by the fresh breezes of individualism? Do we remember the queues of women, 100 or 200 yards long, in nearly all our great cities and towns. Do we re- 839 member how very nearly a revolution came to us? Do we remember when the late Lord Rhondda left the Local Government Board to take up Food Control, how these queues disappeared and how a man who had been a member of the Cross Benches in this House and whom nobody credited with any great administrative capacity in public affairs suddenly did one of the best pieces of public work ever accomplished, and then went to his grave amidst heartfelt sorrows and universal thanksgiving for what he had done? Do we remember how a man, a very well-known trade unionist, a man who had taken no very prominent part in national life, became Parliamentary Secretary to the Food Ministry and subsequently succeeded Lord Rhondda? Does not everyone know that that man to-day stands at the very head of the trade union movement because of the popular estimation of this Food Ministry?
In complete contradistinction to the remark of the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge), I assert that there is not one housewife out of ten thousand who desires the control of the Food Ministry to be removed. I think I know a great deal more of housewives in the industrial classes at first hand than does the hon. Member for East Edinburgh. I also know the opinion of the great trade union and Labour movement on this Ministry. It is that there is no Ministry that has done such effective work, or that deserves so well of public estimation. That which was deserving of public thanksgiving and acclamation under the late Lord Rhondda and afterwards of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Platting Division of Manchester (Mr. Clynes) is surely not deserving of unmitigated censure if it has passed into the hands of different people. The policy is the same and the effective good work is the same. It is the first Ministry that has enabled the consumers to come into touch with the work of a State Department. The Consumers' Council is the most effective means ever introduced by any State Department to give the people practical knowledge of what is going on and practical control of the shaping of events. We talk about profiteering. There is not a single one of us but who has condemned it on public platforms. Where would the prices of the essentials of life have risen to but for this Ministry? Is there a single one of us 840 who did not talk about the housewives' dissatisfaction in regard to food prices? She never knew what she had to pay. If she paid one price overnight, the following morning the price went soaring out of her reach. It was necessary to bring to the knowledge of the people the controlled prices, which were the natural prices they should pay. If this Ministry is going to be abolished now or within a short time, that same instinctive and fundamental greed, and not the desire for a fair rate of profit which animates many people, will again bring havoc and anxiety into the homes of the working people. I would earnestly appeal to the Government, if my remarks can carry any weight with them, to be very careful indeed about bringing this Ministry to an untimely end.
I acknowledge that at this moment in my county the farmers are on strike against the milk prices. I am not going to say a single word as to the merits or demerits of the dispute between the local food committees and the farmers, because I know too little of the facts to sit in judgment. But I do know, as every member of this Commitee knows, that milk is an absolute essential to the life of the children of the nation, and they have a right to that milk at the lowest possible price, and that the mothers, on whom so much responsibility for the social life depends, are entitled to have that commodity at the lowest possible price. If there were no Food Control Committees or no Food Ministry, where would not the insatiable greed of people lead prices?
§ Lieut.-Colonel MEYSEY-THOMPSON
I do not want to be misunderstood, and I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to misrepresent me. I tried to point out that the injudicious interference of the Food Control Department was diminishing the supply of milk instead of increasing it. I am anxious to get an increased supply of milk.
§ Lieut.-Colonel MEYSEY-THOMPSON
I have been interested in the production of milk for some thirty years and I know something about it.
§ Mr. WALSH
You must prove it. You must not make an unsupported assertion about the injudicious interference of a 841 Ministry. The mere assertion carries no conviction at all. If you can prove to this House that on a particular occasion or occasions this Ministry injudiciously interfered and prevented a greater supply of milk or of any other public commodity that, of course, would carry weight.
§ Mr. WALSH
I am sorry, Sir. I did not wish to be discourteous, and I so seldom act in this way that I trust I may be forgiven. The fact is that so many assertions have been made against the Food Ministry, and made repeatedly, yet hardly one of those assertions is helped by a scintilla of proof. Food production is not a matter for the Food Ministry at all, but really one for the Board of Agriculture. From my knowledge of the two Departments I can say that no Department has been so careful, within reason, having regard to the national safety, of the interests of the farmers and of the whole of the community as has been the Board of Agriculture. I never thought I should hear the hon. Member for Central Edinburgh speak as though the War were entirely over. If there is one thing about which we are anxious it is the supply of food to the semi-starving populations—first of our Allies, who have the first claim upon us, and, secondly, the populations of the belligerent nations. There is not a single one of us, however keenly or bitterly we may have thought about past conflicts, but recognises that upon this nation rests the grave responsibility of seeing that starvation shall not be continued one moment longer than the facts justify. Food therefore must go to Germany, to Serbia, and to Belgium, and, perhaps, in a lesser degree to France. There is hardly one of our Allies or one of our opponents but who stands in the direst need of food. It is perfectly well known that there is an actual world shortage of food at this moment. Anybody who knows anything about business is aware that the smallest shortage sends prices up enormously. In my own industry of coal-mining, if the supply fails to meet the demand by about 1,000 tons, the price goes up enormously. Unless we have a State Department which constantly recognises that the interests of the whole 842 of the community is greater than that of any section, then believe me that a comparatively small shortage in the supply of food will raise the price enormously to the individual and we shall have the same grave troubles as we saw when the queues were formed; we shall have people talking about revolution, we shall have a development of the Bolshevik theory, and there is not a man in this House who does not desire to destroy that accursed doctrine. A great responsibility rests upon us to see that nothing the House does helps to feed and fatten that theory which, if persisted in, means the destruction of society. I am satisfied, and I know I speak for millions of organised workmen in this country when I say that no Ministry stands higher in the estimation of the working people than does the Ministry of Food.
§ Captain Sir B. STANIER
I should like to join in the appeal which has been made to the Food Controller to do what he can for home brewing in the cottages of our country districts. The hon. Member for Wellington (Sir C. Henry) said that he was questioned about this at many places. I have also been questioned about it at practically every meeting, and even last night, when I addressed a large meeting in my own Constituency, the only question asked me was: "What have the Government done to enable home brewing to be brought back again into the rural districts? "This appeal is supported by the farmers on be half of the labourers who asked the question. The farmers have told us that the men who were able to brew home-brewed beer were able to work longer hours and do better work, that home-brewed beer was undoubtedly a food as well as a drink to these men, and that it was urgently required. We have had the old bogey that the Inland Revenue is dissatisfied. But the registration fee imposed in the past can easily be imposed again. I see no difficulty in that matter. It is a drink that is wholesome, clean, and necessary for carrying on the work, and I would appeal most earnestly to the Parliamentary Secretary to do all in his power to enable this industry which has been put on one side during the War to be taken up again. Something should be said immediately so that arrangements can be made in order that the people can get the malt at the earliest possible moment.
As to the milk question, the last speaker—who, I regret to say, is not here now— 843 asked for some proof why the milk-producers of the country should now be asking for better terms. I believe I am right in saying that the percentage of rise in the price of milk since the War began is a lesser amount than that of any food commodity. I believe that Mr. Buckley, the organiser in regard to milk in the Food Production Department, made the statement that it was only about 62 per cent. on pre-war figures. If that is the figure—I am only speaking from memory—you can justify it in every way by the rise in wages and in the cost of artificial foods to enable milk to be produced. They are the two most important factors in production of milk. If that is so I think the right hon. Gentleman is justified when he says that nothing should be done to jeopardise the future supply of milk.
Though I do not belong to the four Western counties, which are being penalised, as Secretary of the Agricultural Committee of this House, I believe I have received quite as many if not more resolutions from those counties than even the Food Controller himself has received. I have had innumerable letters sent me. The way I look at it is this. Each district of the country is divided up agriculturally into different sections. One is milk, another is corn, one is potatoes, another is grazing, and so on. It is not an absolute fact that the four Western counties are absolutely milk-producing counties? Therefore, for Heaven's sake, if it is of any importance to have milk in this country, why penalise one of the best milk-producing districts and in that way jeopardise the milk not only of the district but of the whole country, because if those four counties will not supply the milk for themselves we shall have to send milk from other districts and we shall have to go short. I believe we should encourage the districts that produce the food which belongs to those districts, and I beg of the Food Controller to think twice whether he is not doing at the present, and if he is, and he must know the particulars far better than we can tell, he should immediately put it back again and ask the farmers to do all they can to produce milk. Milk is wanted in greater quantities in every part of the United Kingdom. It has not increased in the ratio of the population. That has been definitely proved. 844 We want to increase the supply of milk because it is absolutely essential for the well-being of the country.
We have heard speeches on the opposite side practically asking for free trade in wheat, and asking that if it comes back to this country the price of the loaf shall be brought down. Is it not right that we in this House of Commons should have a return of the wheat that has been bought by the Government during the War period? We want to know how much and we want to know what price they have given for it. The Secretary to the Board of Agriculture told us the other night that the Government has paid 30s. a quarter more for wheat than the farmers of this country have been paid, even with the subsidy or the guarantee that the Government has given them. If that is so, is it not only fair that we should be given more information and that a return of the prices paid by the Government and the amount of wheat that has been bought at those prices and whence it has come, whether from the Argentine, from the United States, from Australia, or other of our Colonies, and also the amount available at present for importation. There is a great vexed question in agricultural circles at present as to the future policy to be defined by the Government for the guidance of agriculturists. We want these figures in order to guide us. The President of the Board of Agriculture gives us vague speeches. When he is cross-questioned on those speeches he gives us evasive replies as to what should be the future policy. It is these facts which are required to enable us to go into the matter, and work out the future policy of agriculture. Then the agriculturists will produce the article that is most urgently required in the future, as they did in the past. They did it with no uncertain voice. They did it, I think, with the knowledge, consent, and approval of His Majesty's Government, and we ask for these figures to be put before the country, so that we shall know what is going to be done. I urgently appeal to the Food Controller to give us these three concessions I have asked for and help us in the work that we are carrying on.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I think some reply should be made from these benches to the speech of the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury). If I understood him correctly he wishes the farmers openly to defy this proposed Order of the Food Minister. I refer to the special 2d. 845 per gallon on milk from the four Western counties. I think everyone who heard the speech must have, been very surprised indeed. That is what I have been brought up to understand is what is now called Bolshevism. It is generally associated with people who wave red flags and sing revolutionary songs. I hope the farmers who read the speech in the papers will not take any such advice, and that if the proposed order is carried through they will obey it loyally as they have done in the past.
With regard to potatoes, may I suggest that the potato supply in the East Riding of Yorkshire requires the right hon. Gentleman's most earnest attention. We expected with the Armistice, and we hoped that with the return to normal conditions, the price of potatoes would gradually fall. Let me read out the prices per ton, free on rail, for the last five months. In December the price was raised to £6 10s. a ton, in January and February £7, in March £7 10s., in April £8, and in May £8 10s. Where is it going to stop? At the same time we are informed that there are ample supplies and that in the East Biding zone 25,000 tons are in hand, and yet the prices rise to these figures, which I am informed are unnecessary. I wish we could be told how much per ton goes in the working expenses of the potato control. The next grievance is the shortage of potatoes. I was in Hull last night and most of the shops had no potatoes for sale at all. On Saturday half the shops had no potatoes, and many poor households had to go without them over the week-end. The reason is partly shortage of railway wagons, but there is also a shortage artificially created by the farmers, who hold the potatoes up in hope of this rise in price. I am going to make a constructive proposal to meet the shortage of rolling stock and that is, that the right hon. Gentleman shall include the North Lincolnshire zone in the East Yorkshire area. Before this control the vegetables, and potatoes in particular, from the rich districts of the north of Lincolnshire, were brought by means of inland water transport to Hull and Goole. As the North Lincolnshire area is outside the East Yorkshire zone, potatoes cannot be brought to Hull in that way, and that important means of transport is neglected. Keelmen and lightermen are out of work, and there are not enough railway wagons available to carry the potatoes by rail. If that suggestion were adopted as soon as possible it would case the supply, and 846 people would be able to buy the potatoes they need. I understand the farmers in that part of the country are very satisfied indeed with the potato control, and they want to keep it on for the 1919 crop. I hope if they are successful in getting the control kept on every stop will be taken to keep down the price, which seems abnormally high, and to increase the supplies by using all available means of transport.
I should like to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member (Mr. Walsh) with regard to food supplies for Europe. I am sure the Food Controller is well aware of the position in Europe and the tragic state of affairs which afflicts the population of the greater part of Central and Eastern Europe. Late enemies, present enemies, Allies, and neutrals are all very short of food, and I hope every step will be taken to conserve food supplies in this country and to encourage the production of our own food as much as possible, in order to save tonnage to allow food to be got into Europe, where it is so badly needed, as soon as possible, before general anarchy overtakes those suffering populations solely from lack of food. We are doing away with our own rationing, and naturally people are pleased to be free from restrictions, but let us remember that there is a tremendous shortage of food in Eastern and Central Europe, and I hope the Food Controller will keep his machinery well oiled and ready, so that, if necessary, we may have to ration ourselves again to save the starving peoples who have suffered as the result of the War, while our victory has saved us.
§ Colonel ROUNDELL
I feel it my bounden duty to bring forward the subject of the very serious situation in the West Riding of Yorkshire, more particularly in the Skipton Division, which I represent, with regard to milk production and prices. At a meeting last Saturday at Settle, attended by large numbers of farmers, the following resolution was passed absolutely unanimously: "That no milk be sent out of the district after to night, only by those producers who supply hospitals and orphanages, until an official settlement is arrived at with the Food Controller, and that the support of the milk producers of this district be given to the Lancashire milk producers."
8.0 P M
I do not come here for a moment to back up what some of my Friends on the opposite benches would term 847 Bolshevism on the part of the farmers. Nobody regrets more than I do, as a landowner in that part of the country, that the farmers should be forced into taking the action which they have taken on this occasion. We have heard from several hon. Members what are the main causes that arise from the price of milk and the trouble that is going on in connection with this question. Every one of us who are connected with agriculture knows that the trouble hangs mainly upon two questions—the increase in the rate of wages and the increase in the cost of feeding-stuffs. There is another point which I think comes in in this particular district in which I live, and that is the extreme difficulty at the present time, and for many years past of getting the foodstuffs away from the farms and into the big towns. Many of these farms are scattered, isolated on wild hillsides, and over and over again I have heard, not only from my own tenants, but also from others, of the great difficulties they have experienced in trying to get their milk away to the station, in many instances three, four, and five miles away, along very bad roads. That sort of thing helps to keep up the price; it helps to make the cost of production greater. I know something of this question. About twelve or fourteen years ago I found that several farms on my property in that part of the country, which ought to be producing milk, were unable to do so because they were hidden away in the midst of fields three and four miles away from a station, and there were very bad roads and approaches to the farms. I decided to take the matter in hand and see if I could not do something towards helping these farmers to get their milk away into the big towns I started a dairy which I built out of my own capital, and which I hoped would turn out to be a co-operative dairy. My friends came to me in the usual way that one's friends do on these occasions, like Job's comforters, with tall hats on their heads and weepers down their backs, and they said, "You have done one of the most stupid things you could possibly do in putting your money into one of these dairies. It will never be co-operative, and it will never pay." In regard to the first of these predictions it was perfectly true, because I am sorry to say it is not co-operative at the present time, but I can say this, the dairy has paid mo not only in cash, but in a 848 handsome return ever since it was started. We have been turning over 3,000 gallons of milk a week, and it has paid me in one sense far more than any other, and that is that it has helped the farmers to get an outlet and a market for their milk which they had not got before.
I think the men who came together and held the meeting I have referred to must not be altogether blamed because they felt bound to take the action upon which they have decided. I think, and I hope hon. Members will agree with me when I say that most of these men who went to that meeting and took that action were not what I as a landowner know as the grumbling, bad sort of farmer. They are really good men, keen on their work, who farm their farms in high style, who have studied the question, and know what they are talking about. I make an appeal to the Food Controller to reconsider, if possible, the question of these milk prices as regards the West Riding of Yorkshire, and also over the boundary in Lancashire. I do not think any harm could be done if he met the farmers. I would like to suggest that he should meet a deputation of them as he is going to meet a deputation of farmers from the West country. At the present moment anybody who moves amongst farmers, and anybody who knows anything about them, knows that farmers are in a very irritable, nervous state, and have been for some time. Nothing but good could come out of my suggestion. If it does not commend itself to the Food Controller I suggest for his earnest consideration a reconsideration of this question of milk prices, and I do so in the interests not only of the farmers among whom I live, but also in the interests of the consumers throughout the length and breadth of the country.
I feel that we can congratulate ourselves on having obtained one thing from the Food Controller, and that is that in the near future we may see that body dissolving itself. I think that almost entirely the whole farming community will welcome its disappearance, not because of any personal enmity towards any Food Controller, but because we realise that in control of any sort you hinder the natural development of our industry. Take the question of milk. I have had a large number of letters and telegrams on the subject. We are told that in the West of England milk was produced cheaper than in other parts. I do not think that that was the case. I 849 think the case was that we were so far away from great centres and great markets that there was not a sufficient amount of competition for the milk which we produced, and I think that in the present case if the Food Controller goes carefully into the factors of the production of milk in the West, he will find that the wages and the amount of money demanded for the land and every other detail are as high as in any of the Midland or Southern Counties. There is one point which I should like to raise, because it is likely to affect very considerably the consumers in. the West of England, and that is that at the present time you have milk controlled and cream entirely uncontrolled, with the result that you have in a considerable number of cases a very high price being paid for cream—4s. a lb. is fairly common, and 5s. a lb. is also known in some of these districts. The result of that will be that during the coming summer months the farmers will be bound in self-defence, so that they can pay their way, to turn their produce largely into the production of cream. The result will be, by reducing the price of milk in this particular district, that you will undoubtedly cause a very severe shortage directly we get the usual number of visitors coming into the West country and demanding cream, which is a pure luxury when you compare it with the milk which is needed urgently for the children of the West country. How does the Food Controller propose to collect the 2d. which is to be extracted on ail milk going to the West country? There are a considerable number of cases which, it seems to me, are likely to cause great difficulty. There is, in one instance, a factory for the production of dried milk. How does he propose to extract the 2d. in that particular case? If the dried milk is sent away, is that to pay in the ordinary course, and how is he going to deal with the factor of price in that particular case.
I complain that in this food control business the fixing of the price of milk is done definitely in a wrong way. The farmers in the extreme west of Cornwall in a district which I know well—and I am glad to see their representative is here—have for a good many years bought and Bold their milk in a considerable number of instances in an entirely different way than buying and selling it by the gallon. They buy it directly because of the amount of butter fat which it produces. In other words, the higher the quality of milk the 850 better the price they get for it. In this particular district, in which many of the herds are purebred Guernseys, the milk has an extremely high percentage of butter fat, which is far more valuable than the milk coming from some of the up-country breeds, and yet these men, who have specialised in this particular industry, are told that they are to get a less price. If you are to get a less price for a good article than you do for a bad one, you must, on the same principle, do the same thing in other directions. Suppose we apply it to Government salaries. If you have a bad Minister, you would have to double his salary, and if you have a good Minister, you would have to reduce his. That is practically what is being done at the present time in the case of milk. For that reason I do ask the Government to see whether they cannot meet the demands of the consumers and the producers in the West, and safeguard their interests in the difficult position in which they find themselves.
§ Sir CLIFFORD CORY
I have been submerged with letters and telegrams from the farmers in my district. One communication comes from the chairman of a meeting of 400 farmers, held at Penzance, protesting against the 2d. reduction in the price of milk in that district. The farmers down there, instead of being better oft, as compared with the farmers up country, are worse off. The hon. Member for Yorkshire (Colonel Roundell) said there were farms in his district which were three or four miles away from a main line railway, but I am sorry to say that in my Constituency there are farms ten or twelve miles away from any railway, and the farmers, instead of being able to farm cheaply, have to haul their manures and feeding-stuffs which they require ten or twelve miles along the road from the station. Moreover, the artificial manures and feeding-stuffs have to come a considerable distance on rail because these farmers live a considerable distance from the centres where they are manufactured. It is said that their land will produce more than the up-country land, but any advantage they have in that respect is more than counterbalanced by the increased rent they have to pay. We all know that rates and taxes have increased quite as much down there as in any other part of the country and wages have increased. Indeed, they are very 851 much higher there than they are in other purely rural districts, because they have the competition of the mines down there which draw labour from the agricultural districts. As my hon. Friend has said, the tendency will be that instead of selling milk to the butter and cheese factories, which, I understand, will be taxed to the extent of this 2d., they will make it into cream, and this will be a disaster to the community. But cream is a luxury, and I daresay that they will get high prices for it, when the visitors come down in large numbers in the summer months. Whereas if they make it into butter and cheese, as they have hitherto done in their co-operative factories, it would be very much better for the community. But you cannot expect them to do that if they are going to be taxed 2d. per gallon in the way suggested. They have not had the opportunity of getting the high current prices during the past winter, owing to their distance from the great industrial populous districts. It is said that a travelling Commission went round, and the case could have been put more strongly before it, but these men, living in remote districts, did not appreciate what was going on. There was no West countryman on that Commission. If there had been he would have understood the district, and could have called evidence. I trust that the representative on the Government Bench will represent to the Food Controller what a great hardship is inflicted on these deserving agriculturists in this district, who have shown great enterprise in having these cooperative factories, and that he may remove this tax.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
I want to hear testimony to the good work accomplished by the Ministry of Food. I do not say a word against the interests of the farmer, the milk producer, or anybody concerned in the production of food. They should have every assistance, and be given the best possible facilities for carrying on their operations, but I am at the moment concerned more about the consumer—the purchaser—and as a representative of the Labour party who has lived and moved among workers, and the poorest of the poor, every day of his life until he entered this House. My experience goes back to the days when one witnessed what took place prior to the establishment of food control, and I am convinced that there is no Department of the Government that 852 has accomplished such splendid results as the Food Control Department has accomplished in tackling a stupendous problem, and saving the country from absolute disaster. When we remember the painful scenes that were witnessed, the bitter winter, when we had to see our wives and daughters crushed and huddled in the mob, awaiting their turn for the chance of a little bit of food, the thing was repellant, and it made people as much rebels as anything that could exist to see their families having to undergo these hardships, and no doubt many lives were lost, and many strong, robust women were reduced physically and also mentally, owing to the struggle which they had to endure in that period. When food control was established, when it was realised that there was some opportunity of controlling supplies, that produced at once a feeling of confidence that there would be a sharing out of the supplies among the working classes as a whole. Everybody realised the shortage of food in the country, and the difficulty of solving the problem thus created, and that if it was the case of the strongest coming out on top, the rich would get the biggest share, and the poor, the poorest of the poor, would have to go without. It was because the people realised that, though there was not enough to go round that all would have an equal share, the poor equally with the rich, that a feeling of confidence was established which prevented the serious state of things that was then existing from developing on the lines I have indicated.
This feeling of confidence enabled food control to be established. I know that it has cost a lot of money. It has been an expensive piece of machinery to set up, but the need was great and had to be met. We are all glad to-day to have got rid of our coupons, but until the food supply is absolutely safe food control must be secured. I am in agreement with the Consumers' Council, and with my colleagues of the National Labour party, that, though the pressure is not so great as it was, there is still need for the control to be maintained. If I had known earlier that I was to have the opportunity and privilege of saying a few words to-night I would have got the returns of the number of convictions in Great Britain on prosecutions instituted by the Ministry of Food. I happen to be in the position, no doubt like scores of others in this House, of being a justice of the peace, and I have sat 853 for days in a week dealing only with food cases, of cases of overcharging, and other matters. We have also had to deal with numbers of cases of hoarding, not by poor people, for they could not afford to buy the food to hoard. It was the rich people who committed that offence. If the Food Ministry had done nothing else but take the steps which it did take to prevent certain people hoarding beyond their needs, then its establishment would have been justified, and I wish to add my testimony to the effect that there is no Department of the Government which has accomplished such useful work, and done so much to save panic, destruction, and possibly revolution, and I give the Ministry credit for its splendid services, by which many lives have been saved, services to the nation that some of us will never forget.
§ Mr. ACLAND
May I first say a word about the question to which the hon. Member who has just spoken has been addressing himself, namely, as to the need for the continuance of the work of the Ministry we are discussing. It seems to me that for some months it may be, I hope it will not be for some years, the food question will continue to be a very great international question, and the distribution of the food available will have to be done by discussion and adjustment between the different countries, and after a general view has been formed of the supplies and the amount of food which the different countries will need in order to deal with their populations. As long as that goes on, some measure of control by the Ministry here will be essential. One thing is that the public should not be led to think that the shortage of food is over and that we can eat as much as we wish. There will be a shortage in many commodities for a long time to come. It is our duty really, I suppose in the interests of the peace and well-being of the human race, to go without food as much as we reasonably can and to be satisfied with what is sufficient and not to think that the times of plenty and abundance have returned, and not therefore to be selfish in our own interests. I think, therefore, in view of the general international situation, some control, so as to see that distribution is as good as it can be made, and to see that there is no danger of excessive prices being charged to those who can least afford them, is probably absolutely necessary in the general interests.
854 Let me say a word about this question of milk, as to which the cry is "still they come." I do want to say this. Realising as we all must do the absolute necessity of having as large a supply of milk and as cheap a supply of milk as can possibly be provided, nevertheless, it is from that point of view very necessary that the Food Ministry should make no mistake in fixing the price for certain districts in the country. It is all very well to say that we want to have milk, as we all do, abundant and cheap, but even more important than that is to be certain that it will be produced. Farmers are not men to deal with in all sorts of ways on many questions which are business questions, but which are also really psychological questions. You have got to be able to convince the farmer not only that you are giving him a reasonable price from abusiness point of view, but that in general you are treating him fairly, if you want him to continue to produce the milk that the whole population needs in as great an abundance as it can be produced. If they think they are not being fairly treated farmers as a class are quite capable of changing their system of farming, so that the milk is no longer produced, even though really the price of it is a reasonably good one, because, as I say, so much with them depends upon their state of mind and their general feeling as to whether they are being fairly treated or not. I have had, of course, shoals of letters and telegrams, like other West Country Members, about this question, and what has struck me is this. I am bound to say that the cases I have got in them have not proved to me that the price is not one in general at which milk could be produced at a reasonable marketable profit. But what seems to me to be in the minds of the farmers more than anything else is that it is unfair to make a differentiation of 2d. between these four Western counties and the neighbouring counties. That is a thing which it seems to mo the representatives of the Food Ministry will have to be able to prove to the deputation they are going to meet to-morrow, and if they cannot prove it I think they would be really well advised to modify the Order that they have made. If you can prove that, well and good, because the farmer can understand plain reasoning and facts and figures as well as any other man. But the thing which at present is in his mind more 855 than anything else is that he cannot see what justification there is under present circumstances for making this differentiation. If you go to the West of England at present and pass through the Vale in Wiltshire and the Exe Valley in Devon, I think it would puzzle a much cleverer agriculturist than I am to show that there is any difference in the condition of the grass in that district in Wiltshire and in Devonshire this year. I should think probably, even if you went to a district of Buckinghamshire, that it would be difficult to show at this season that Somerset and Devon and Cornwall are more favourably situated than that district. Certainly, with regard to wages, if you make your price depend on that, there is no argument, but rather the reverse, because the minimum fixed by the Agricultural Wages Board is higher in Devon and Cornwall than in the counties of Oxfordshire, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. I think you will find in an extremely late year like this that on the average farm in Devonshire to-day, where a great deal of the land is not really valley land, but highish hilly land, that the grass there is later and less than on the average farm in the less hilly counties to the east of them which are given the higher prices. I can give one practical experience in that direction. I have to dispose of a certain piece of grass, after which there has always been a very great run by the farmers round about to get their stock on to it, and which is very good land. This season has been so late that up to last week I had not even an inquiry from farmers as to whether I would let them put their beasts on that land, and how many beasts, and what I would charge for it. The grass is astoundingly low now there, and the only argument any of us heard in favour of the Western counties having a lower price is that the grass is usually better there; but I think it would be very difficult to make out that argument against the facts at present. At any rate, nothing is worse policy in the long run than leaving the farmers under the sense that they are being unfairly dealt with, or under the sense that other people have been more favourably dealt with. If, as a result of the deputation to-morrow, my hon. Friend opposite and those associated with him are not able to show that there really is a difference in the conditions, then, in the interests of food production itself, I think it might be wise for them to modify the present Order.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of FOOD (Mr. McCurdy)
In the first place, I should like to express my appreciation of the very kind way in which various hon. and right hon. Members have referred to the activities of the Ministry of Food. I do not know to what extent that is due to the fact that we are an expiring Ministry, and, therefore, perhaps, it comes natural to think a little kindly of us upon the eve of our dissolution. De, moribund is nil nisi bonum. But the first speech to which we listened this afternoon, the speech of the right hon. Member for the Platting Division of Manchester (Mr. Clynes), was certainly a very interesting speech. He told us that he would give the Committee what he called the official Labour view with regard to the questions involved in the future of the Ministry of Food, and that view was, as expressed by him, that the process of decontrol is proceeding too rapidly, that he views with considerable apprehension the contemplated extinction of the Ministry of Food, and that, in his opinion, the Ministry of Food or some similar organisation ought to be preserved as a permanent instrument necessary to protect the public against the operations of trusts and combines in this country. I was appointed, nearly a year ago now, by the Minister of Reconstruction, Chairman of a Committee to inquire into the steps which might be necessary to safeguard the people of this country against the operation of trusts and combinations, and during the many meetings which I attended in that capacity I heard a very great deal of evidence—very interesting evidence, which I hope will some day be made public—with regard to the extraordinary way in which, during the War, the growth of trusts and trade combinations, which was extending at a rapid rate before the War, had been accelerated, and I realised what a real menace to the interests of the consumers and producers alike in all parts of the world are the operations of such great syndicates as that great syndicate which now practically controls the production, the distribution, and the sale of meat and of food products in the United States, that great trust which is known as the Big Five. I should certainly, therefore, associate myself most cordially with the view expressed by my right hon. Friend, that we do need a permanent instrument to be created in this country to protect the public against the operations of trusts and combinations. 857 The only difference between us is that, so far as the Ministry of Food are concerned, we are not presumptuous enough to think that it is our destiny to furnish that necessary instrument for the protection of the British public. We regard ourselves as a temporary Ministry, created for purely business purposes, which, after having tried to serve those purposes during the War, is now engaged in the not wholly congenial but necessary task of digging its own grave and preparing for its own funeral obsequies.
Then the right hon. Gentleman enunciated some more items of what I understood him to say was the official Labour view. He said this country wants a national policy for agriculture. I am sure we should agree, but again I should say I could not assent to the idea that it is the function of the Ministry of Food to furnish this, country with the national agricultural policy which the right hon. Gentleman desires. Then he said he wanted a national policy for liquor control, and again I agree. I am always in agreement with my right hon. Friend, but I would venture to suggest that it is not the function of this expiring war Ministry to adumbrate or to elaborate a policy on that somewhat vexed subject. The right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) added a fourth great national work which, he said expressly, he regarded it as the function of the Food Controller to provide, and that was, to use his words, "to drive a little agricultural sense into the Wax Office." Again, I must, on behalf of the Ministry of Food, modestly decline the honour of undertaking that possibly necessary task. Then the hon. Member for the Ince Division of Lancashire (Mr. S. Walsh) treated this matter upon broader and generous grounds and drew a picture which I am sure, from the knowledge which comes to my possession from what I see and hear in the Ministry of Food, is a picture which hon. Members would do well not to regard as being over-coloured—a picture of a possible gloomy future which may still lie before Europe in the matter of food supplies before the present unrest is finally replaced by really settled conditions of peace. He put forward the view that, in view of the international situation, it was not a time in which Food Ministries in this or any country ought to be dissolved. If I may say so very respectfully, that is a large question, but it is a question which, no doubt, has been fully considered by the 858 War Cabinet, and it is not a question upon which the Ministry itself could with propriety add its opinion. Then I come to the questions that have been raised during the course, of the very interesting discussion which has taken place to-day upon matters which are certainly in every sense the concern of the Ministry—matters for which the Ministry are responsible; for which, if they are ill-conducted, the Ministry would be properly the subject of blame, questions like the control of bread and milk and potatoes. First of all, I should like to refer to the speech that was made by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Kennedy Jones) when he asked whether the Ministry of Food would be prepared to publish a proper balance-sheet showing the whole of the financial operations of the Ministry as a trading concern, from a period which I think he mentioned as from July, 1917, to July, 1918, so as to show what was the result, in terms of profit or loss, viewed from a financial point of view, of the operations of the Ministry. Certainly, that balance-sheet is now being prepared, because it is not the first time that my hon. Friend has indicated that he desired information of that kind, and the fullest possible information will be afforded of the trading operations of the Ministry at as early a moment as it is possible to prepare it. They are large and complicated accounts which are asked for, because they are not merely the accounts of the Ministry of Food proper, they are accounts which involve the operations of semi-independent bodies like the Sugar Commission and the Wheat Commission; and in the case of the. Wheat Commission the accounts are again complicated by the fact that they are not independent of the international operations of the national bodies of which they again form part. I can assure the hon. Member he shall have the fullest possible information upon the subject, and at the same time I may say, in regard to a similar question which was put by the hon. and gallant Member for the Ludlow Division (Sir B. Stanier), who wanted to know whether he could have returns showing the wheat purchases made by the Wheat Commission and the prices paid for foreign and home wheat respectively, I will certainly see that those returns are supplied to him as soon as possible.
Incidentally I may just say, with regard to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hornsey, that some figures furnished to him by the Ministry of Food with regard 859 to the price paid for South American meat were in conflict with certain private information which he read from a document in his possession, arose, as I understand the document which he read, from a pure misunderstanding on his part, and I think the Ministry can easily satisfy him that there is no contradiction in the information he received from a private source, if I understand him correctly, and the information furnished to him by the Ministry, the explanation being that one set of figures related to certain contract prices for beef supplied to the Board of Trade for Army purposes, and the other figures related to totally different parcels of things supplied to the Ministry of Food under very different conditions.
I turn from these matters to the greater question which has occupied most of our time to-day, and that is the question of the milk, and certainly the recent fixing of the maximum prices for the forthcoming season on a basis which differentiates the price to the consumer in certain parts of England does seem to have met with very serious and widespread criticism from all quarters of the House to-day. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Food Controller, who is meeting a deputation on this very matter to-morrow, will pay all proper attention when he comes to decide finally what is to be done. I should like to say a word or two to-night, lest hon. Members should go away with the idea that the Ministry of Food has no answer to the very numerous criticisms which have been levelled against us this afternoon. It has been argued as though this fixing of differential rates were some novel and indefensible procedure naturally calculated to cause resentment, or, at any rate, suspicion in the mind of the British farmer. Let me first say that, before the period of the War, when there was no question of control of prices, or fixing maximum prices at all, the simple economic law which prevailed throughout the whole of these Islands was that the price of commodities varied in different localities in accordance with the cost of production, and all the Ministry have endeavoured to do, with such expert assistance as they had at their command, was to apply, broadly and fairly, as best they could, what undoubtedly is regarded as a reasonable law of economics, and, in fixing the prices which the consumer had to pay, to have some regard to the cost of production and to the profit which the 860 vendor would receive. It was found that in the West Riding of Yorkshire, for example, the production of milk was extremely costly, owing to the peculiar conditions, the atmospheric conditions being such that all crops, including grass, are stunted in growth, lowered in feeding value, and perhaps in some instances rendered directly injurious to stock, and it is the almost universal custom for milk producers to change the greater part of their herds annually. In spite of those facts, agricultural land in this district is highly rented. Then the Commission, which advised the Ministry in this matter, thought that those were facts that ought to be taken into consideration for the purpose of allowing a higher price to the producers of milk who are producing their milk under the more expensive and difficult conditions in those areas, and I understand there is no objection on the part of the producers who had the facts considered in that way, to allow a higher price in consequence. When it conies to the reverse side, and when the Commission found that in four counties milk could be produced more cheaply than in the remaining parts of Great Britain, that owing to the climatic conditions, owing to the earlier summer and milder autumn, it was possible for cows to remain at pasture for longer months, and there was not the same need for artificial expensive foods during the same period, and when they took those things into account, and came to the conclusion that the cost of production is lower in those counties, then our action in acting upon that, and fixing a price in relation to the cost of production, appears in some quarters to be unreasonable.
An HON. MEMBER
Would it be possible to produce the evidence on what that decision was come to, in the same way as was done in the case of the West Riding?
§ Mr. McCURDY
If I may say so, the whole matter comes before my right hon. Friend the Food Controller to-morrow, when a deputation is seeing him, and I think in those circumstances no one would expect me to venture to anticipate what course he will think it right to take. But I am just giving the House a few words of explanation, and I say this much more on the question of milk before I pass to other topics, that the prices which are the subject of criticism were fixed, as I say, upon the advice of a commission appointed for that purpose, which included representatives of producers appointed by 861 the Central Agricultural Advisory Council, representatives of the Boards of Agriculture, and several technical experts in milk production, and the action of the Ministry is based upon the advice given by the Commission which travelled about the country, visited, I think, some fourteen different parts of the country, and held over twenty meetings for the purpose of considering what was the cost of production in different parts of the country, and what would be a fair price to allow having regard to the cost. In doing so, we were following precisely the same course which was adopted by the Potato-Growers (Prices) Commission, who fixed a price for the potato crop, and in the same way went out to different parts of the country, ascertained what the cost of production was in different parts of the country, and allowed prices to potato growers which varied from county to county in accordance with the cost of production. No one has ever suggested that was an unreasonable thing on the part of the Potato Growers (Prices) Commission, to fix the price of the potato crop, and to vary it locally, having regard to the varying cost of production in the different areas, or that it was unreasonable on the part of the Ministry of Food to adopt the report of that Commission. I have yet to learn what there is in milk which so distinguishes it as a commodity that the economic principle which we are bound to apply to other commodities in ordinary use is supposed not to be applied to milk!
Then the hon. Member for Edinburgh wanted to know what had been done by the Ministry of Food for this country in the matter of supplying foodstuffs to the Allied peoples. I have before me very full particulars as to supplies, and I shall be very glad to send to my hon. Friend full particulars if he would like to have them. I would only say briefly to the Committee that supplies have been arranged from the United Kingdom to the populations of Rumania, Serbia, Esthonia, Poland, Czecho-Slovakia and the districts inhabited by the Southern Slavs. These amount at the present time to very substantial sums indeed. I think those I have just mentioned amount at the present time to something like £5,000,000 worth of feeding stuffs, apart from the feeding stuffs supplied directly from America—this, I think, up to 28th April. Then some hon. Members wanted to know what steps had been taken by the Ministry of Food to reduce as far 862 as possible the incidence of the bread subsidy. I may say that I have had the duty a short time ago of presiding for some little time over a small committee that went very thoroughly into this question of bread subsidy. We explored every avenue that appeared open to us by which the very heavy amount which the bread subsidy cost the British taxpayer might be reduced. Amongst the various avenues we explored we did not overlook the avenue indicated by the hon. Member for Edinburgh—the possible acceleration of imports into this country of American and Argentine wheat, so accelerating the time when the subsidy will be no longer necessary, because imported wheat, at a moderate price, will make it possible for the 9d. loaf to be produced by purely economic causes without any State intervention. The conclusion to which we unanimously came, after very careful inquiries, was that the question was entirely one of shipping and transport, and that there was no possibility, so far as we could see—certainly not before next September—of sufficient shipping being made available to enable supplies of wheat from the Argentine, Australia, and America to come in in sufficient quantities to materially affect the incidence of the bread subsidy.
9.0 P M.
A very interesting maiden speech was made by the hon. Member for Central Hull which gave me, and probably other officials of the Ministry of Food, a pleasant surprise in the statement, which was quite novel, in regard to the vexed question of potatoes. There was a very great deal of trouble in connection with the potato crop, because, as some hon. Members know, at the time the matter was arranged the submarine menace was very real, and there was a possibility, by no means remote, of a real shortage in this country. Special efforts were made by the Government and the Ministry to increase the potato crop. Great inducements were given to growers in all parts of the country to increase their yield. When the War unexpectedly collapsed one result was that we found ourselves with a rather large surplus stock of potatoes and faced with the problem as to how these stocks were to be disposed of. Therefore I was certainly surprised to hear from the hon. Member that in his part of the world there is no surplus, but a shortage of potatoes. I will certainly communicate at once with 863 the Department of the Ministry concerned, and let them know the state of affairs in Central Hull. I am sure steps will be taken to apply a remedy at once. I think I have dealt now with all the points—
§ Mr. McCURDY
I am much obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman as to the question of home-brewed beer. As I have already said with regard to the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman as to the necessity of some national policy with regard to local control, these are matters which are really not properly within the province of the Ministry of Food all. Though frequently for the purpose of convenience questions are answered by this Department all the decisions with regard to beer and spirits are, in the last resort, not matters in which we have authority or decision. Therefore, I can hold out no hope that this is a matter in which the Ministry of Food is likely to exercise—
§ Mr. McCURDY
Again, if I may say so, that is a question so far as the Ministry of Food is concerned, of which I am not aware we can say what is intended as to the policy of home-brewing. The policy in that matter is one which immediately concerns the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is a matter in which the Ministry of Food is not in a position to exercise any influence. I have again to thank hon. Members for their appreciative references to the work of the Ministry during the War. We are a young Ministry and a rapidly-expiring Ministry. Like the classic mule we have neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. The Ministry was started for business purposes and in the course of the War it has become what it is. We have undoubtedly made mistakes. We have yet to learn some lessons. I trust, although I have no apprehension that our mistakes will be forgotten—indeed, one might be sure they will be remembered—yet I hope some of the lessons we have learned may also be remembered and applied by some other Department, or some new Department, created for the purpose of bringing benefit to the consumers, producers, and public generally of the country.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow; Committee to sit again To-morrow.864
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.