That a sum, not exceeding £1,451,700, 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.
§ Resolution read a second time.
§ Captain Sir B. STANIER
I beg to move to leave out "£1,451,700," and insert instead thereof "£1,451,600."
I move this reduction in order to inquire from the hon. Member (Mr. McCurdy) if he can give any information regarding the settlement of the milk 1393 question. We know that deputations have been received, especially from the Western districts, and we would like to have some information as to what is about to be done? We would also like to know what has been done in regard to the milk strike in Lancashire? These are important matters which affect a very large section of the community, particularly women and children, and more especially invalids, and I hope that a full statement may be made.
I rise to voice a protest against the taking off of 2d. a gallon from the wholesale supply price of milk in the four Southern counties, Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, and Somerset. The reason given for the reduction is that those counties enjoy more sunshine and richer land, and that the milk coming from them, can be sold at 2d. a gallon less than milk produced in other counties of England. If the land is richer and they do get more sunshine, it is paid for in the rent. It is impossible for the Devon and Cornwall farmers to have a price fixed lower than that of their neighbours. How can you differentiate between the north and south side of a road, for instance, and say there is to be a certain price in Devon and Cornwall, and that it is to be 2d. a gallon higher in the next county? The price of cream in those counties is uncontrolled. The reason of the shortage of butter is that cream can be sold at the price it will fetch, and cream is fetching 5s. a lb. in Devonshire. If you want butter, which we all realise is the case, and in order to make 4 lbs. of butter you have got to take 5 lbs. of cream, and butter has to be sold at the controlled price of 2s. 6d., then there is not much encouragement for the farmer to produce butter. Those are matters of great importance for farmers in the South-West of England. I would like to know what is going to be done in order that they may be put on fair terms with farmers in other counties of England, and I would point out that if the butter is wanted, then the price of creammust be fixed, so that farmers may know that, if they make butter, they can get a fair price for it, and that they shall not be allowed to sell the cream at an uncontrolled price.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of FOOD (Mr. McCurdy)
I am sorry that I had no notice that these questions were going to be raised, or I would have taken care that the proper officials connected with the Min- 1394 istry of Food, and competent to give full details, would have been present to enable me to give a rather fuller reply to the questions that have been raised. The hon. Member for Salop (Sir B. Stanier) asked me to make some statement as to what decision has been come to on the question of the summer prices for milk. The hon. Member for Torquay (Colonel Burn) asked me to make some statement with regard to the question of milk price in the four South-Western counties, and the price of cream. My right hon. Friend the Food Controller and myself, during the last two or three days, have spent a considerable time in interviewing representatives of the local producers of milk from the four counties in question, and also from other parts of the country. I myself saw a large deputation from the National Farmers' Union, representative of all parts of the country, on Friday last, and we have listened very carefully to the representations that have been made by way of criticism of the prices which were fixed by the Milk Commission Report and adopted by the Food Controller as the prices of milk. On the question whether it is right that differential rates should be established for milk in different parts of the country, I must point out that in times of peace, before there was any food control at all, milk, like all other commodities, followed the ordinary economic rule, and its price varied in different parts of the country with the cost of production, and there is no doubt that before the War the four South-Western counties were exceptionally favoured in this respect, that they did enjoy a longer summer, and there was less need for artificial feeding, and the price of milk has always been at a lower level in those counties, and not only is there a case for differentiation as regards those counties on the ground that cost of production is cheaper there, but we saw representatives of the National Farmers' Union the other day, and while representatives of Devon and Cornwall were pressing upon me the view that whatever else was done there ought to be a flat rate for milk throughout the country, other members of deputations representing Surrey and Sussex were assuring me that in those counties the cost of production has always been higher, and that they had a legitimate right to demand that whatever price was fixed for milk in other places, it ought to be fixed at something higher in their case, to meet the higher cost of production.
1395 So this grievance, which I venture to think is sentimental rather than practical in its character—I will give reasons in a moment—and which is undoubtedly felt keenly by several milk producers in the South-Western counties, is not one such as milk producers in other parts of the country agree with. I have said that the grievance is sentimental rather than practical in character. On the deputation which I saw the other day, although I heard a good many representatives of all the different counties, and a great deal was said on behalf of the four counties against differential rating, and a great deal was said on behalf of some of the other counties in favour of differential rates, there was not one of them that gave any figures to suggest that the price in fact fixed in respect of any county was not a fair price, having regard to the cost of production for the forthcoming season. I pointed that fact out to the deputation when I made my reply. So far as the Food Ministry is concerned we have in this matter acted upon the advice of an expert body which inquired into the cost of production in different parts of the country, and was assisted in so doing by the presence among its members of representatives of the producers, appointed for the purpose by the Agricultural Advisory Council. As I pointed out to a deputation only the other day, if in any of the counties it can be shown to be a fact that new circumstances have arisen which were not taken into consideration by the Milk Commission when they advised the Ministry as to milk prices—
§ Mr. McCURDY
That was one of the points raised the other day. I think the Travelling Commission did take into account the new charges, and the fact that in some districts wages far in excess of the statutory minimum are now being paid.
§ Mr. McCURDY
That was not then made, and, therefore, could not have been taken into account, but it is being taken into account. After the Debate in Committee upon this Vote and after the question had been raised on the floor of this House by the representatives of those counties as to whether the prices fixed for 1396 milk were fair and adequate under the circumstances, my right hon. Friend the Food Controller agreed to refer back to the Milk Commission the question which had been raised in the course of the last few days by representatives both of the four counties referred to and of Lancashire, where some trouble has arisen which has already been referred to. The Commission has taken further evidence with regard to that, and I understand that it will be published now within a few hours.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I have not got it, and I do not think that even if I had had notice I should have been able to give it; but I think it will be in the hands of the Food Controller within a few hours, and it will be made public as soon as possible. With regard to the price of cream, it was suggested that, having regard to the fact that the price of butter is controlled, it is a mistake on the part of the Food Ministry to allow the sale of cream free from restrictions. That is a matter which was very carefully considered by the Food Council a few weeks ago, when the Order was made, and I think, if I may say so, that it is a mistake to suppose that butter and cream are in practice convertible. It is perfectly true that the making of cream is the first part of the process of making butter, but it does not in the least follow that because a man is prohibited from making cream he will therefore utilise the surplus milk for making butter. They are separate businesses, and it is a question of having a business connection for the disposal of the product. We are arriving at the summer months, when there is a temporary surplus of milk in various parts of the country, and a good deal of it is apt to be wasted during that time. People who have got a surplus quantity of milk have not necessarily the facilities or the business connections which would make it profitable for them to proceed to make, over a very limited period of the year, their surplus milk into butter. On the other hand, there are parts of the country, like Devon and Cornwall, where in normal times the making of cream is a quite separate and lucrative industry, and we see no reason why under those circumstances we should not allow the milk producers of those counties to make cream again during this period. We are not anxious to maintain control any longer than is necessary, and are certainly not 1397 anxious to impose any new controls upon the food of this country unless a real necessity is shown. We therefore allowed the making of cream without imposing any restriction as to price, and we are satisfied, after getting the best advice we could, that the result is not in any way to interfere to any appreciable extent with the production of butter in this country. I would also point out that in practice it would really be impossible for us to put an effective control upon cream, because, as soon as there is a surplus of milk, it is open to wealthy people to purchase as much milk as they desire and to set the milk and skim off the cream for themselves. Having regard to those various considerations, we came to the conclusion that no real case had been made out for imposing control upon the freedom of producer and consumer alike in regard to cream.
§ Lieutenant-Colonel WEIGALL
I only want to ask one question, because I see that my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture is present. I want, if possible, to get from the representatives of the Government a definite assurance as to the position with regard to milk next winter. I feel convinced that neither the Food Controller nor the President of the Board of Agriculture has realised the intimate relationship between summer and winter supplies. When I spoke to the Consumers' Council of the Food Ministry the other day, they appeared to imagine that it was possible to assess the price for a couple of months only. They said, "Why go on and assess a figure for August and September? Let us go month by month"; apparently imagining that the supply could be turned on and off at will. But the whole of the winter milk supply is dependent upon the cows which are now producing milk this summer. The period to be considered is the period of lactation, which, to all intents and purposes, is a year. Who is going to be responsible next winter for the supply of milk to the consumer? Is it to be the Board of Agriculture or the Food Ministry? We are given to understand that the Food Ministry's activities will end early next autumn. I am not speaking from the point of view of the producer or the consumer as such, but from the point of view of the nation as a whole. It is an extremely vital question to the whole of the nation. Is either the Food Minister or the representative of the Board of Agricul- 1398 ture prepared here and now to give a joint and several assurance that the arrangements they are making will ensure to the nation an adequate supply of milk next winter? Before this Debate ends, I hope that one or other of the representatives of those two Departments will give that assurance, because from the nation's point of view that is all that really matters.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I am sorry to have to say that I think the hon. Gentleman's reply was anything but satisfactory. There is one great difficulty in speaking on farming questions, namely, that one cannot generalise for the whole country. Speaking for my own county of Sussex, with which I am intimately acquainted, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the prices fixed for milk by this Commission are below the cost of production. A unanimous resolution to that effect was passed at Lewes last week by the National Farmers' Union. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, farmers in the West Riding of Yorkshire are practically on strike, and those in Lancashire have been on strike, and only desisted at the request of the Agricultural Committee. The four counties in the West of England are entirely dissatisfied and almost on the verge of strike, on account of the prices fixed for them. In spite of all that, the hon. Gentlemen's chief the other day apparently treated the future of the milk supply with levity, or rather with truculence. Is he going to milk the cows himself, or is he going to make them give milk, or put the farmers in prison if they do not milk the cows, or if they do not make them give milk? I would like the Committee really to understand that this matter is serious as regards the supply of milk in the future. The farmers are extremely dissatisfied. I have heard only to-day of farms in Hampshire having been given in right and left. In my county of Sussex we have lost money during the winter, and on the 1st May, when the new Order came in, we had three inches of snow, and in some places four or five inches. The first fortnight of this month has been the most expensive period for milk production that we have ever known. The Army authorities took nearly all the hay, and such little as was left cost us £9 2s. 6d. per ton. while the price for the supply of milk was 1s. 4d. Can it be wondered at that farmers are getting tired of this control and are saying that they will not go on? Now, I gather from the hon. Gen- 1399 tleman that he is not aware whether, in fixing this price, the prospective increase of 6s. 6d. a week in wages was taken into account or not. I understand that it never was taken into account when the Committee fixed these prices, and yet this enormous increase of wages is going to come into operation next week. It not only affects the milkers of the cows, but the cost, of everything that goes towards milk production. Everyone engaged in the industry is to receive increased wages, and it adds to the cost of every item of food produced on the farm that is given to the cows. I wish to impress upon the Committee that we are heading, as far as I can see, for a distinct milk shortage, next winter more particularly. I feel certain that as soon as the Committee realises that it will insist upon the Food Controller or the Board of Agriculture—I do not care which—taking steps to provide some security that we have a proper milk supply. I noticed to-day that a question was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Sir B. Stanier) as to whether the prices of milk will be fixed for next winter. If the milk is to be obtained, the control must be removed. I do not understand why we do have control now. The number of cows in the country is as many as it was before the War. There was no shortage of milk, under the ordinary laws of supply and demand, before the War, and I believe now that, if the control was withdrawn and we had a free market, the Jaws of supply and demand would ensure a proper milk supply. It is quite true that, owing to the alteration in the rate of wages and the hours of labour, difficulties have been placed upon milk producers in regard to getting men to milk the cows on Saturdays and Sundays, but I believe the arrangement can be made sufficiently elastic to overcome that. But the prices must be altered to meet this increase of wages and to offer more inducement to the farmers to work under the difficulties they now have. I wish to fix the responsibility on the Food Controller for the future, and I want him or his representative to say now that he takes the responsibility for the milk supply of next winter.
§ Colonel FITZROY
It is not for me to tell the Food Controller how to conduct the duties of his office, but I must offer a word of warning to the hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench representing the Food 1400 Controller, and that is to be careful what he does with the milk supply of the country. There is no particular department of the agricultural industry which is so complicated as is milk production; if you frighten farmers who are at present producing milk for the large centres of population you may cause a very dangerous state of affairs to arise. I have had some communications during the last few days with representatives of the National Farmers' Union in Lancashire, where I think they have actually gone on strike at one town, or at any rate have threatened to strike. I very much deprecate the action which they took on that occasion, because I do not think, whatever their grievances might be, they are justified in withholding the supply of milk from the large centres of industry in the North of England, and I hope they will not take that action, but that they will take constitutional methods of getting their grievances redressed. Anyhow, I hope the hon. Gentleman will to-day tell the Food Controller to be very careful what he does in this matter. As far as the agricultural industry is concerned, there is no particular phase of it in which a farmer is engaged in which if he likes he can get out of the whole thing and give up as he can in the milk production part of it. If a man keeps a certain number of cows and supplies milk to some towns close by, he can if he likes sell the whole lot, and the supply ceases, and the only way you can make him keep on his business is to allow him a reasonable return on his undertaking. The hon. Gentleman who preceded me said he could not understand why this particular industry should be controlled, and I do not understand either. It is quite easy to us to see why some of the articles produced on farms have had to be controlled during the War, because for the moment the supply from abroad was cut off, and it is largely the supply from abroad which controls the price in ordinary times, but an article like milk does not compete with foreign supplies. It is all produced in this country, and the ordinary laws of supply and demand tend to keep the price down. If the price went up a lot of people would go into the industry, and, the supply becoming greater than the demand, the price would go down, and although the price might rise for a short time if the Government removed the control of the milk industry, in the very near future I think it would be reduced to its proper level and that there would be no 1401 complaint. I cannot understand why the Food Controller does not publish the Report of the Commission that went about the country to find out the cost of production of milk. If you were to lay all your cards on the table and show the farmers that you had arrived at these prices after proper calculation of the cost of production, if they did have a grievance, at any rate you would have an answer, but at present you have none, because you are keeping them in the dark. Before this report was made by the travelling Milk Production Commission I asked the Food Controller whether he would have the report published when they had finished, and he said he would consider it. But let him consider it afresh and publish the actual report of these Commissioners, so as to show the farmers on what grounds you arrived at the conclusions that you did. If he will do that I am sure he will remove a great deal of the grievance from which they now suffer. I ask him, in conclusion, to represent to the Minister of Food to be very careful indeed as to what he does in regard to the control that he has over the milk supply of this country.
§ Mr. McCURDY
Several hon. Members have asked that some statement should be made with regard to the policy which the Ministry of Food proposes to adopt for the purpose of ensuring a supply of milk. The hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Cautley) suggested that the best policy would be the entire removal of the control, and I rather understood the hon. and gallant Member for the Daventry Division (Colonel FitzRoy) agreed to some extent with that point of view and thought that if the milk question were left to the operation of the ordinary law of supply and demand the result would be a supply of milk at reasonable prices for the people of this country. I am bound to say that that is not the view of the Ministry of Food. One of the surprising things which we learned when we came to take an accurate stock of the food resources of the country, and scientifically to investigate what those resources were, was the discovery that in times of profound peace this country did not have an adequate milk supply for the physiological needs of its people, that there were whole districts in which the children of the industrial classes saw practically no milk at all, and that if you took the entire milk supply of the country it was not enough if it was divided round with perfect impartiality to 1402 give anything like an adequate supply of mild to every family in this country. And we not only discovered that the milk supply of this country was inadequate in amount, but we discovered also that such as it was it was open to very serious criticism on the ground of quality. The methods by which the milk is collected and distributed are haphazard and unscientific in the extreme, with a multiplicity of changes and of handlings in the course of transit, when every stage and every fresh handling is multiplying the risk and almost the certainty of contamination.
§ Colonel FITZROY
In asking for no control, I did not mean that there should be no control over distribution.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I dare say that when we understand one another we often find ourselves in agreement, and it is because my right hon. Friend the Food Controller and previous Food Ministers were so much impressed by the unsatisfactory state of the supply and distribution of milk in times of peace that we certainly desire that before the Ministry of Food finally passes out of being we should, if possible, leave the framework of some policy which would ensure to the consumers of this country a better supply of milk for the future.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
Do you suggest that the fixing of prices will increase either the quantity or quality of milk?
§ Mr. McCURDY
I do, indeed. Unless you can assure the producer of an adequate price, I do not see how you can encourage production, and therefore I can assure my hon. Friend that the fixation of prices is a matter which you can never wholly dismiss once you launch upon any scheme of control which has for its object the maintenance or increase of the supply.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I cannot answer all sorts of questions at once. I said the fixation of prices. The question of the protection of the consumer by the imposition of a maximum price is a totally different question altogether, which is not relevant to the question of encouraging production, and I am answering the suggestion that the proper way to deal with milk is to remove the control altogether, and I am saying that that is not the view of the Ministry of Food. It is, I believe, not the view of the Board of Agriculture or of the Local Government Board. At the present 1403 time, and for some little time past, all these three Departments of the Government have been in consultation, and are considering what will be the best means of assuring a more adequate and better supply of milk, and in what form it will be necessary to take control over the distribution for that purpose. With regard to the Report of the Milk Commissioners, I will convey to my right hon. Friend the representations that have been made and the desires expressed that that Report should be made public as soon as possible.
§ Lieutenant-Colonel WEIGALL
Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that an adequate supply of milk will be forthcoming next winter?
§ Mr. McCURDY
The answer I have given is that the three Departments in question are now considering what policy the Government should adopt to ensure what my hon. and gallant Friend desires.
§ Mr. MOUNT
I am afraid my hon. Friend did not understand the purport of my interruption. I understood he was trying to show that the object of the Ministry was to encourage the supply of milk because they found that the supply was short. The object of my interruption was to ask how he proposed to increase the quantity of milk produced by fixing a maximum which the producers thought was too low. The object of those who advocate—and I associate myself with that advocacy—the de-control of milk, is that we believe the leaving of milk to the laws of supply and demand will increase the supply. I am sorry I did not hear my hon. Friend say a word in regard to publishing the Report of the travelling Commission, because I think it is a most extraordinary position, and a very difficult position, in which some of us Members are placed when we attempt to defend the action of the Government with regard to their milk policy. We are told that these prices are fixed in consequence of the evidence brought before the Commission and of the Report published by it. We use that argument to those who question us, and we are brought up roundly and asked what is that Report. We think it is only right that we should be allowed to see the Report of the Commission so as to be able to judge for ourselves whether or not, and how far, the prices fixed by the Food Controller are justified. I think it is a most extraordinary position of the Food Ministry to take 1404 up, to think they are going to increase the amount of milk by fixing a maximum price which is insufficient in the view of those who produce the milk.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Resolution agreed to.