§ (UNCLASSIFIED SERVICES.)
§ MINISTRY OF FOOD.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £395,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1921, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Food.
§ The MINISTER of FOOD (Mr. McCurdy)
The Supplementary Estimate which I am introducing for the Ministry of Food does not indicate any increase of expenditure contemplated for the services of the Ministry of Food when the original Estimates were introduced. On the contrary, as will, I think, be abundantly clear when I have explained the different items, they do indicate that very substantial and drastic economies have been effected in the expenditure of the Ministry of Food during the six months which have elapsed since the original Estimates were placed before this Committee, and to a very large extent the sum which I am now asking the House to vote really represents what I may call the funeral expenses of the activities and departments of the Ministry of Food which unquestionably have rendered great services in their time to the country, but which were costing a large sum of money, and which, I am happy to announce, have now come to an end. If I take the most important item, or group of items in the Estimates, there is, first, the sum of £210,000 and certain ancillary sums by way of expenses which 1626 I ask in respect of the regional organisation. The asking of that sum is, in effect, the fulfilment of a pledge which I gave to this Committee in May last. Twelve months ago the regional organisation of the Ministry of Food, the machinery which is responsible for the rationing of food and for the equitable distribution of food supplies in case of shortage, and which, incidentally, had the privilege of providing London with a substantial portion of its food supplies in the railway strike which took place last year, was a year ago costing the country at the rate of £1,500,000 a year. The work was largely performed by local authorities, excellently performed by them, and I should like to express my tribute of gratitude on behalf of the Ministry for the assistance which the local authorities have rendered us.
It was, however, an expensive organisation, and, when I presented the original Estimates in May last, I asked for only a grant at the rate, not of £1,500,000, but of £1,000,000 a year, and that only for the first three months of the current financial year. I informed the Committee that I was then engaged in making arrangements to reduce the cost of my regional organisation, and I said that I hoped to reduce the cost of it by 60 per cent. and to make a saving of something like £300,000 a year on the 30th June then next and now June last. I therefore contemplated in May last that for the first three months of the financial year the regional organisation would cost the country at the rate of £1,000,000 a year, and that for the last nine months of the financial year ending in March next I hoped to effect a reduction of something like 60 per cent. on those figures. I have effected the whole of the reduction which I then promised, and I am now asking for a Grant at the reduced rate of £412,000; but I am asking for that Grant, not for nine months which in May last I thought would be necessary, but for only six months expiring, if not on the 31st of this month, within a very few days afterwards. Therefore, the cost of the regional organisation, which a year ago was £1,500,000 a year, was reduced by me to £1,000,000 for the first three months of the current year, and to the rate of £412,000 for the next six months, and for the remainder of the current financial year, and I hope for the remainder of the 1627 present Parliament, it will have ceased to exist and have passed away altogether. The item of £210,000, therefore, represents the final payment which the House is asked to make in respect of services of great value which have been already rendered by a Department of the Ministry with which I have now succeeded in dispensing altogether. Compared with last year, that item alone represents a saving to the National Exchequer of £1,500,000 a year.
The next important group of items relate to the liquidation of the work of the Livestock Commissioners. When I spoke on the original Estimate six months ago, the work of the Livestock Commissioners, which was essential so long as the control of prices of home-killed meat was maintained, demanded from the taxpayers a sum of £247,000 a year. In May last I announced my intention, if it were possible, to bring the whole of that expenditure to an end within three months. The whole of that expenditure has now been brought to an end, and, compared with six months ago, there is a further reduction of £247,000 in any future Estimate that may be presented on behalf of the Ministry of Food. I was, however, disappointed in one respect. When we came to wind up the affairs of the Livestock Commissioners, a body which is carried on in something like 1,000 provincial offices, which has to keep accounts and records of financial transactions with some hundreds of thousands of farmers and some 35,000 butchers, it was found quite impossible to liquidate the affairs of that vast department within the three months for which I had provided in the original Estimate. There were a thousand provincial offices to close; there were rents and rates to be paid; there were dilapidations to be assessed, and there were the whole of the accounts with all the traders on the one side and the farmers on the other which it had been impossible to keep up to date, especially in view of the great burden which was thrown upon the whole of my department in September of the previous year, and, as a result, the actual full work of the department did not come to an end till nearly a week after the three months which I had provided. A reasonable period after that was found necessary to 1628 complete the work that had to be done, and, in effect, I am asking for £31,000 in the first item of this Supplementary Estimate for what, if I might put it in that form, is equivalent to a little over a month's work of the Livestock Commissioners, and ancillary to that, there are the expenses which, I think, amount to £15,000 and which are shown in another line of the Estimate. These incidental expenses of £15,000 represent debts incurred in the previous financial year and not sent forward to the Ministry for reimbursement. They cover the whole expenses of over 1,000 provincial offices, so that no very large sum went into the provinces in any particular centre, in respect of arrears of rent, rates, fuel, lighting and payments in respect of dilapidations and other items of that kind.
The third important item is a sum of £9,000 which appears under the head of Australian meat. In May of last year, just about the time I introduced the estimates to this Committee, the Ministry of Food were asked to undertake a new task of considerable magnitude. There were at that time very large supplies of Australasian meat, some of which had accumulated, as everybody knows, in consequence of the disorganisation of shipping facilities to Australia during the latter part of the war and in the earlier period of the armistice. Up to May of this year, as was common knowledge, these accumulated stocks were causing great embarrassment to the Government. They represented tens of millions pounds worth of property of the British taxpayer which was in jeopardy, and they were causing at least equal embarrassment to traders and to those Colonial producers who were looking forward to the possibility of resuming normal trade relations with this country. The people here knew well, through the perfectly accurate information conveyed by the Press, that early in the year the docks were congested, there was no landing space on the quays, and sometimes as many as a dozen ships at a time were being held up outside the great ports of London and Liverpool for want of space to deliver their cargo. We had in fact to deal with something like two years normal supply from Australasia, and the problem of dealing with that was handed over to the Ministry of Food. I am glad to say that in the six months that 1629 followed the organisation of the Ministry has been successful in dealing with it, and something like four-fifths of the supplies have now been disposed of without injury, I hope, either to the British Treasury or to the British trader. The docks, quays and refrigerating stores are no longer congested, and I am in a position to make arrangements which will enable Australian producers freely to resume, at any rate, a very substantial proportion of their normal trade with this country in the forthcoming spring. That item accounts for £9,000. It represents a saving to the trade and Treasury of this country which I will not venture to estimate but which must exceed by many times at least that item in the supplementary estimate, if indeed it would not exceed by many times the whole of the sum for which I am asking to-day.
The next item is another liquidation account, and that is the National Kitchens. These were a most useful and valuable experiment during the war. On the whole they have cost the country very little. The total commitments in respect of the National Kitchens amounted to about £16,000, of which something like £11,000 has been recovered, and this item represented the funeral expenses of another department of the Ministry of Food which rendered valuable service in time of war and which I am glad to have been able now to dispense with in the more urgent interests of economy. Taking these items together I may say that in these supplementary estimates I am asking for a sum of between £200,000 and £300,000 as liquidation expenses in connection with Departments of the Ministry which 12 months ago, and indeed 6 months ago, were costing approximately one and three-quarter millions. I know that among the Labour party it will be said that I am proceeding far too rapidly with the reduction of the machinery of the Ministry of Food, which has proved of such great value until quite recent times. But on the other hand I am sure that from those who demand economy in this House and especially the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean), who is not one of those who merely demand economy as a platform stick with which to beat the Government, I shall receive sympathy, support and appreciation for what is a far more substantial contribution to the actual demand for 1630 economy in the interests of the country than all the speeches that have been delivered on the subject in the last 6 months.
The remainder of the items, which are very small altogether, are made up of real additions, which must be set off against the substantial savings which I have indicated. The only really substantial item among them is that relating to the Agricultural Costings Committee. One of the things which the war revealed to the Government of this country, somewhat to its consternation, was that, prior to the war, this country possessed no accurate information of any kind with regard to the cost of food, with regard to prospects as to supplies, or with regard to prices in this country; and it was absolutely necessary, for the working of the Ministry of Food during the war, to establish for the first time a body of experts capable of conducting accurately and scientifically costing investigations which could form the basis for the multitudinous price orders and regulations which were issued during the war. I have always hoped that that part of the work of the Ministry of Food, if no other, would survive its ultimate demands, because I conceive it to be in the highest interest of this country that the Government, of whatever political complexion it be, should be possessed of accurate information with regard to economic facts. Towards the end of last year we were asked by the Ministry of Agriculture, by the Scottish Board of Agriculture, and by the Department of Agriculture for Ireland, to expand to some extent, and to modify the activities of our costing department, for the purpose of constituting a Costings Committee which could properly investigate the extremely difficult problem of agricultural costing. It is the most difficult costing problem of any in this country, because, unfortunately, book-keeping has not been brought to a fine art among the agricultural community up to the present time.
We, therefore, in conjunction with and at the request of those other Departments of State, set up a Committee whose function it is to obtain the cost of production, for the purpose, so long as any control is necessary, of assisting the Food Controller in safeguarding the consumer in respect of prices; and also to obtain costs and results of farming for the use of the Departments of Agriculture and of the Agricultural Wages Board, 1631 in order that those Departments may be advised as regards the most efficient and economical methods of agricultural production in this country. It is, I venture to think, a body whose successful working is really essential to the efficient carrying out of the agricultural policy of the Government as indicated in the Agriculture Bill. That Committee has a head-quarter's staff consisting of one director, one deputy-director—both of whom are chartered accountants—and four chief costing officers, namely, two for England and Wales, one for Scotland, and one for Ireland, each with small staff of costing officers experienced in agriculture. They are at the present time engaged in important investigations in regard to the cost of production of milk in different parts of the country; and £25,000 of the first item on the list, and nearly the whole of the item of £10,000 for travelling expenses which appears later, is attributable to the cost incurred by that Committee. No provision of any kind was made at the time of the last Estimate, and the reason for that, I may say frankly, was that, considering the importance of the work to agriculture, there was some doubt as to whether I might not under the new Bill take power to transfer that department altogether. It has not been found advisable to do that, and I have now, therefore, to ask for the cost, which I am sure this Committee will not grudge.
Then there are one or two smaller items. In the first place, there is a sum of £3,250 included in the first item for the cost to the Ministry of substituting ex-service men for women employés. The Ministry of Food does not, I am sorry to say, afford a very hopeful opening for ex-service men, because we are constantly, from week and from day to day, preparing for the time when we shall be able, without injury to the taxpayer, to trade or to the consumer, to relinquish our functions altogether. Obviously a Ministry which looks forward to no extended period of life is in some respects not the most desirable opening for an ex-service man. We have, however, taken on a considerable number of ex-service men. At the present time 30 per cent, of our staff are ex-service men, and it has been necessary, where women clerks have been replaced by ex-service men, in accordance with what I know to be the general wish of this Committee, to pay a higher level 1632 of wages; and that sum of £3,250 represents the cost of substituting those ex-service men for women employés. Most of our officials are temporary officials, and do not come under the Civil Service regulations with regard to bonuses, as to which I do not know much myself. So far as they are concerned, they have had, subject to the strict scrutiny of the Treasury, to be allowed, like all other workers in this country, a certain increase of pay in respect of the increased cost of living. I need not say that that does not include the higher officials, who do not share in that; this, of course, refers to the lower grades of staff in the Ministry. That is responsible for another £12,500.
With regard to the increase in our law expenses, that is entirely due to the fact that we have found it necessary to institute a considerably larger number of prosecutions for overcharges and other offences against the consumer, and that those prosecutions have been justifiable and salutary is clearly shown by two facts. Firstly, 94 per cent. of them have been successful, and we have to set off, against the increased sum for which we are asking an increase of £17,000, which has been recovered by way of costs in successful prosecutions. In the second place, not one instance has been brought before me of any suggestion on the part of any trader—and I get complaints from them every day in respect of matters on which they feel aggrieved—that those prosecutions arc not necessary and salutary. You must not merely consider the number of prosecutions that we find it necessary to undertake and the success of those prosecutions, but also the fact that the Enforcement Department of the Ministry of Food has been entrusted with the duty of assisting to collect something like £1,500,000 under the Restrictions on the Use of Flour Orders, which inures to the benefit of the taxpayer. In the absence of enforcements, I am afraid that there might be a substantial reduction in the amount which we have been able to collect for the taxpayer in that way.
The only item with which I have not dealt is that relating to Peace Conference Expenses, which. I think, might also come under the title of funeral expenses. With regard to the Peace Conference Expenses, I would merely say that they do not represent anything which relates to the proper functions of the Ministry of Food. They have nothing to do with 1633 the supply or distribution, or the price or cost of food. We were asked to undertake certain responsibilities in connection with the food supplies for British and foreign delegates at the Hotel Majestic at the Peace Conference, and what happened was that, after the food accounts had all been wound up, someone discovered that there were claims for dilapidations of furniture. There was also a somewhat belated claim by the British Expeditionary Force for the use of lorries, and I am sure that no one would wish to withhold from the British Expeditionary Force anything which is justly due to them. Someone had to pay.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how the reference to lorries comes in. The item is:Provisions for dilapidation of furniture, fittings and utensils at the Hotel Majestic.
§ Mr. McCURDY
If the Noble Lord will repress his anxiety, and read to the end of the line, instead of getting up before he has got to it, he will find the wordsand for delayed claims.The reference to delayed claims was a claim by the British Expeditionary Force for the loan of motor lorries. [HON. MEMBERS: "For how much."]
§ Earl WINTERTON
In view of the extraordinary grammatical nature of the sentence, can the right hon. Gentleman give the Committee an assurance that the words "delayed claims" do not refer to the delayed claims in respect of the Hotel Majestic?
§ Lieut.-Colonel POWNALL
Can the right hon. Gentleman say why that comes under the heading of Peace Conference Expenses?
§ Mr. McCURDY
The Parliamentary Secretary informs me that the lorries of the Expeditionary Force were on this occasion used for the purpose of taking either food or furniture to and from the Hotel Majestic, and that is why the item comes under the heading of Peace Conference Expenses. Finally, there is an item of credits, which does not require explanation. The Supplementary Estimates, when considered, tell a story of what has certainly been a persistent attempt at most drastic and substantial retrenchment and economy on the part of one of the Departments of His Majesty's Government, and I hope, though without 1634 any confident hope, that some credit may be given to us in respect of that.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
The speech of the right hon. Gentleman has throughout been lit up with some rays of hope but dimmed with regrets at the prospect of a funeral. If it was a funeral of the Department I should not mind so much. The real truth is, as was the case with a certain monarch of this country, it takes such an unconscionable time in dying, and it can look forward to a life, so far as I can understand, under the Act passed some time in July, until September, 1922. My right hon. Friend claims that this estimate is an example of drastic economy. That reminds me of the position taken up by a colleague of the right hon. Gentleman some time ago, when, in defending the Ministry of Munitions, he said that it was a great revenue Department. These defences, put up by men of quite obvious intelligence and capacity, only show that they are asserting their great powers to defend wholly indefensible cases. I propose to go into detail in connection with the items with which my right hon. Friend has dealt. I am quite justified in calling the attention of the Committee to what the Prime Minister recently asked not only the public but this House to do. In his own words, we areto go through the estimates,as he says he is doing,with a view to cutting down to the very lowest limit which is compatible with national security and national efficiency.He said that our business is to get examples of public economy. These Supplementary Estimates provide a real general opportunity for setting an example which will be of some use to the Prime Minister and the Government and some encouragement to the country. The object of my Motion is that, instead of granting the £395,000 now asked for, we should grant £95,000 and cut off the £300,000. My case is that the extra £95,000 is quite sufficient, after the prolonged discussion we have had in this House on several occasions, during the next four or five months.
I will deal now with the Estimates in detail. Item "A" includes an original estimate for £659,000 for salaries, wages and allowances, and the revised estimate is £734,500, making an extra sum of £75,500. We are dealing with a Ministry 1635 whose main object should be, not to spend money, but to wind up. That Ministry at the moment consists of 530 headquarter officials, 7 directors, 10 principal officers, 21 assistant principal officers, 3 principal accountants, 35 assistant accountants, 30 heads of sections, 31 assistants, and a clerical staff of 400, and the total estimate for the present year is not less than 150,000 for headquarters staff alone. The need for this Ministry is declining every day. Sugar has been decontrolled, tea has been decontrolled, and bacon will shortly be decontrolled. The case for the control of bacon has completely gone. Representations have been made by great business organisations all over the country pledging their authority and reputation that decontrol will at once mean an immensely decreased cost of this great necessity of life. I pray in aid of this that my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary are looking forward very speedily to the decontrol of bacon. Soon wheat is to be decontrolled. It is one of the best hopes for minimising the hardships of the winter to lessen the price of bread. That will be brought about by allowing the bread to go free. There is overwhelming evidence all over the vast business community that the best thing that can be done in the interests of the nation is to get rid of the Ministry of Food.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Some of my hon. Friends may not agree with me, but I am as deeply interested as they are in minimising the cost of food for the people of this country, and it is because I believe that the best way to achieve it at the earliest possible moment is to get rid of all these governmental restrictions on food that I take this action. How does the right hon. Gentleman justify the increase of £75,000 in salaries, wages and allowances alone? Take travelling expenses. It is necessary for hon. Members to have the original Estimate in their hands to understand what the Supplementary Estimate means. This item was B on page 29 of the old Estimate. The original Estimate was: Headquarters officials, £32,000—that is, £2,000 more than 1919–20. Then there is the Royal Commission on Wheat Supply. That is 1636 on the very verge of abolition. There never was a clearer case for decontrol than that of wheat. The Wheat Commission might have been absorbed by the general activities of the Ministry of Food long ago with great advantage to all concerned. There is £3,000 for travelling for them. Then there is Livestock Commission £8,000 and provincial officers £30,000 for travelling expenses. There is the Mission to the United States, but I know nothing of that; and there is the costing investigation. Now they want another £10,000 for travelling expenses in addition to the Estimate which was adopted last June. I pass to Item C, "Incidental Expenses." In the original Estimate there was a sum of £600 for newspaper and Press cuttings. Surely that is not necessary now!
§ 1.0 P.M.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Then there is advertisement orders, £2,500. Surely there is no need for that! There is cablegrams, £800. I am certain that they are not using cables to-day to the same extent as six months ago. The case for sugar and tea is gone. That for wheat and bacon is going. Yet they are asking for an additional sum of £15,000, and £10,000 more than last year. Coming to law charges, I find that that appears to be an item in which there was a real though not a great saving, because the prosecutions themselves brought in £17,000 and the additional sum charged was only £5,000. I think that that £5,000 might very well have been saved and the receipts might very easily have balanced the actual expenditure, but perhaps that is not an unsatisfactory item as it stands. May I just remind the Committee that in the oringinal Estimate for salaries and allowances there was a deduction made of £91,000 for anticipated reductions during the current year. The original estimate was £365,000, but instead of having the anticipated reduction they have had to ask for an additional £75,000. Coming to the question of regional organisation, I submit that the comparison of these items causes very serious unrest in our minds as to the validity of the request of the executive, especially with regard to this big item. Let us keep hi mind the general assumption that the need for the Ministry is fortunately 1637 declining daily. What need is there now for this substitution, for Food Control Committee expenses, of £585,000 for the six months?
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I know, but in place of that, what is the Ministry of Food actually doing? With a declining necessity for it, it is setting up a new sub-department. It is contemplating that.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I am doing nothing of the sort. My right hon. Friend must not say that. What we did was this. We were spending £1,500,000 on the regional organisation. We reduced that to £1,000,000. We substituted new organisation at the rate of £400,000. At the end of this month we get rid of the whole thing altogether. It cannot be said that we are setting up a new department. We are abolishing it altogether.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
That really is a most astonishing explanation to me. The original Estimate was £1,500,000, and there was a reduction to £1,000,000. It is now £585,000. There is the regional organisation, which—
§ Mr. McCURDY
I have said twice and I will say a third time that we reduced the cost of the regional organisation from £1,500,000 to £1,000,000 for the first three months of the current year, then to £400,000 for the next six months, and at the end of this month we reduce it to nothing. That item means that in the last six months I effected a saving on the current rate of expenditure which has brought the expenditure from £1,500,000, which it was, to nothing.
§ Mr. E. WOOD
A point as to which many of us are rather confused is why, if all this has taken place, it is now necessary for the Minister of Food to ask for a further £200,000.
§ Mr. McCURDY
The reason for the £200,000 now is that when the Estimates were introduced in May I did not ask for a penny for the regional organisation for the six months in question. I asked for money for the first three months at the 1638 rate of £1,000,000 a year, and the Committee granted it. I then said I would try to reduce the cost for the remaining nine months. I now find I have reduced it to £200,000 and have put an end altogether to further expenditure. I am asking for the money only in order to pay for what, as I told the Committee, I was going to do.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
All I can say is that this is one of the most muddled Supplementary Estimate I have seen in all my fairly long experience of the House. I ask hon. Members to look at the items. There is £85,000 more on the Food Control Committee expenses. It is an additional sum required. If you look at the Item E. 1 on page 17 you see under the heading "Regional Organisation" the words "Salaries—District Offices established from 1st July to succeed the Food Control Committee Organisation." That is exactly my point. Following these words there are set out the salaries of 117 District Food Officers receiving from £400 to £600 a year; 106 officers at £350 to £400 a year; and other salaries, which make a total of 513 officers of the Regional Organisation, which succeeds the Food Control Committee Organisation. The item goes on to mention Sub-Offices, and shows that there are 161 Part-time Officers, 1,900 Clerical Staff. That makes a total of 4,022 officers for the Regional Organisation which succeeds the Food Control Committee Organisation. These salaries are to be granted for an organisation which my right hon. Friend says does not any longer exist.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of FOOD (Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson)
The right hon. Gentleman has omitted to read the next note, which refers to deductions. That note makes it perfectly clear.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Then at the end of this year there will be no Food Control Committee and no Regional Organisation?
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I am very glad to hear it, but there is nothing on this Supplementary Estimate to show that that is so. There is the item of National Kitchens. The right hon. Gentleman told us that they were being abolished. Why did not the right hon. Gentleman put down £100? He has now brought in a charge of £2,750. He knew the Kitchens were to be abolished. Why did he not take his money at the time? It was a negligible Estimate then, for the whole thing was gone. Any business man, I should have thought, would have estimated them instead of coming here now. Another item is Peace Conference Expenses, and it is a further example of the way in which these Estimates are submitted. Some hon. Member asked a happy question, and it turned out that under the words "and for delayed claims" there was camouflaged His Majesty's military motor lorries. Everybody thought that an item of that sort referred to the Hotel Majestic. I think we ought to know something more about these Peace Conference expenses. Of course, the money is all gone, and there is very little real control left here. Notwithstanding the fact that the Regional Organisation comes to an end on 31st December, I suggest that the other items to which I have referred, salaries, wages and allowances, an extra £10,000 for travelling expenses, £15,000 for incidental expenses, a total which is twice the original Vote, and £10,000 more than last year, should receive from the Committee most careful attention, and a vote from the Committee which will ensure their reduction? But I suppose the money is spent? If this Committee decides that the £15,000 for incidental expenses is not justified, what is going to happen? It shows in what a futile position the House of Commons is. At the present moment, since the Regional Establishment has gone, I do not move a reduction which stands in my name, but at a later stage I shall move a reduction in view of the actual position which, after some trouble, we have now elucidated.
§ Sir PHILIP MAGNUS
I desire to ask a question about the Agricultural Costings Committee. We are asked to 1640 grant £75,500 for additional salaries, and £66,500 appears to be in connection with the Agricultural Costings Committee. There is a further item of £10,000 in connection with this Committee for travelling expenses, making altogether £76,500. I understood the Minister of Food was asked to take over this Committee for a certain time and that it is intended that it shall be transferred to some other Ministry, I suppose to the Ministry of Agriculture later on. Can that transfer not take place at once, with a view to lessening the cost of this Committee, as the probability is that the Ministry of Agriculture would have further and greater facilities than the Ministry of Food to carry on this important work. In that way this expenditure of £76,500 might, if not immediately, be very soon avoided.
§ Mr. McCURDY
This sum of £75,600 includes, for instance, an amount of £12,000 for increases in salaries in accordance with the general scale. There is also a sum of £10,000 for additional expenses which is made up of two principal items, one being £5,000 for the 25 per cent. increase in fares and the other increased subsistence allowance. There are other items, and the balance is the cost of the Agricultural Costings Committee. I will say at once that if it could be shown to me that a saving would be effected by transferring the Agricultural Costings Committee to the Ministry of Agriculture, I should press for its transference to-morrow, and if the Minister of Agriculture desired its transference I would assent to it irrespective of whether it meant any reductions, but I am not aware that it would make any difference. It would not alter the organisation of the Committee, which is complete and self-contained. I will look into the matter, and if any saving can be effected I will press strongly for its transference.
§ Mr. G. LOCKER-LAMPSON
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean), referred just now to this as a "muddled Estimate." I venture to say that not a single Member who looks at the Estimate in the least understands what the right hon. Gentleman proposes. It is quite impossible to do so. The right hon. Gentleman knows that a Parliamentary Committee which has been sitting on this subject 1641 lias time and again recommended that Estimates should be presented in a comprehensible form; otherwise it is a farce for hon. Members to come here and sit through weary hour after weary hour to try and understand them. I do not say it is the right hon. Gentleman's fault, but I hope that in future he will produce an Estimate which can be understood by the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman in his speech did his best to explain exactly what it means. I understand that this money has already been spent, and that makes one perfectly hopeless about these matters. I do not see the good of coming down to this House and discussing this question when the Government have already spent the money; it is an absolute farce.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles asked what would happen if the Government were defeated in the Lobby on this subject—though there is not the remotest possible chance of that—when they had already spent the money. I really think the time is coming when this should be altered, and I wish hon. Members, in their own interests, would press for that. In saying that, I mean in the interests of the Labour party as well as of all others. I suppose the Labour party will be in power one of these days. I have not got the slightest apprehension of being under a moderate Labour Government. It will be just as much in their interests to see that these matters are run on constitutional lines. I do not really understand how much of the Food Ministry is to remain; how much is in the past and present tense, and how much is to be in the future tense. I had hoped that this would be the last speech of the right hon. Gentleman as Minister of Food, but there is not the slightest chance of that, and we are going, I suppose, to have dozens of speeches from him as Minister of Food, and for I do not know how many years. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies I hope he will give us some indication as to what part of the Ministry is to remain and how long they expect that part to go on, and how much they expect that part is going to cost. That will be extremely interesting. I should like to ask about what seems to me to be a most extraordinary state of affairs which exists in Scotland. I believe hon. Members have received a printed form from, I think, the Glasgow Chamber of 1642 Commerce as to what is going on in regard to hams and bacon. I have had some correspondence from a firm on the subject. I under stand the Food Ministry is charging 224s. 6d. per cwt. for the best quality of hams from any British port, against the price of 146s. per cwt. straight from the packing houses. If that is the case, it is a most ridiculous position. We are simply paying for the right hon. Gentle man out of the taxpayers' money and increasing the cost of food. This firm tell me that owing to the fact that they have not paid this enormously increased price—
The actual transaction to which the hon. Gentleman refers would come under the Vote for the Food Minister's salary, but the hon. Member is justified in asking how much longer this control is going on, and when it comes to an end, whether at Christmas or in any known time.
§ Mr. LOCKER-LAMPSON
I am very much obliged, Sir. It seems to me that if this really is the case, the consumers of this country are actually having to pay far more than they would without control for these particular commodities, and that the sooner we do away with this control, the better it will be. I have also been in correspondence with a very large firm of millers, and they tell me that they are storing 5,000 tons of bags of flour for the Government. They have had it nine months; they may not sell it; they cannot get rid of it; and the flour is absolutely crawling with mites over the floor; and they say that unless it is sold immediately it will not be fit for human food in a few days' time. If you diminish the supply of flour, prices go up. That is an economic law, and, therefore, if the only result of the Ministry of Food in these cases is to raise the price to the consumers, I say again that control should come to an end as soon as possible.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I beg to move, that the vote be reduced by £110,000.
This is made up of Item A, £75,000 for salaries and wages; Item B, £10,000 additional travelling expenses; Item C, £15,000 additional incidental expenses; and Item E, £85,000 additional Food Control Committee expenses. I omit Item D, law charges, because they are practically balanced, and the total comes to £110,000.
The right hon. Gentleman's addition is not very accurate, but we will take it at £110,000.
Captain STANLEY WILSON
I wish to say a word in support of the Amendment which has just been moved, and I would like to echo the protest of the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. G. Locker-Lampson) with regard to the presentation of these Estimates. Never in the course of 20 years' experience of the House of Commons have I seen Estimates presented in such a manner as these are. I defy any hon. Member of the Committee to realise from what it says about regional organisation that it means that the Ministry are abandoning regional organisation. How is anybody to tell from such an Estimate that they are going to abolish regional organisation? I would willingly pay £210,000, not only to abolish regional organisation, but to abolish the right hon. Gentleman himself as well. What an extraordinary position the Government find themselves in with regard to their Supplementary Estimates. They come down here to the House of Commons, and the only way, so far as I can see, that they can get their Estimates through is by the support of the Labour party. It only shows how, if the Labour party ever do get into office, of which I am not quite so confident as my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, they will play ducks and drakes with the finances of this country, and it shows how well justified the Secretary of State for War was when he said the Labour party are not fit to rule. What we on these Benches want to see is the complete abolition of the Ministry of Food. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that we are going to get rid of regional organisation, but what we ask is: When is he going to abolish himself and also his Parliamentary Secretary? We like them personally. The Parliamentary Secretary is a very old friend of mine; but still, in spite of my affection for him and my delight in seeing him on the Front Bench, I think the time has arrived when the Food Control Ministry ought to be abolished, and I maintain that this can only be done by us, the Coalition Members. It is we, and we alone, who can put a check upon Government extravagance, and I do say to hon. Members in this Committee, and I hope it will go out to those hon. Members who support the Government and who are now in the luncheon rooms, that only by 1644 voting against the Government and giving the Government a nasty shake—we do not want to turn them out of office— can we bring them on the right road of economy. The sooner hon. Members who are supporting the Government realise that, the better will it be for the finances of the country. I am perfectly certain that in supporting the right hon. Member for Peebles in his Amendment, I am doing what my constituents wish me to do. At the last election they always asked me to vote on every possible occasion against Government control. We are gradually-getting rid of control of various items of food, and I hope that within the course of a very few months we shall get rid of the Minister of Food and his assistants altogether.
§ Mr. MYERS
I think we shall all be agreed upon one point, that, having regard to the circumstances which prevailed during the period of the War, some form of food control was essential in the interests of the community. The difference, if there is any difference, now between us seems to be as to whether its continuation can be justified or not. I think some of the arguments that were advanced by the right hon. Member for Peebles were somewhat hurried and some of his points not altogether convincing. The one outstanding fact is, in my judgment, that most of the expenditure has already been incurred on services which were considered to be necessary and desirable, that we have the promise of the Minister that some of this expenditure will not recur, and that in a very short space of time the Department is likely to go out of existence. The right hon. Gentleman had 1,900 of a clerical staff, at wages varying from £2 to £4 a week, which took over £237,000. These are the people who have carried the burden of the work in this particular Department.
I am interested in this item of £26,000 for law charges. I have served on a Food Control Committee, and I know something of the difficulties we have had, in the most trying times, to come up with those people who are breaking the law and imposing upon the consumers. While a fair measure of success has attended the efforts of the Food Control authorities in the country in coming up with these people, I am inclined to believe that, for every prosecution that has taken place, dozens and scores of people have not been detected, and if this particular item had 1645 been considerably larger than it is, the size of the item would have very largely represented the extent of the protection the consuming public would have achieved. There is another item in this Estimate which refers to National Kitchens, £2,750. In some parts of the country these institutions have rendered a real, efficient service to the community, and I am afraid that, having regard to the circumstances prevailing at present and the hardships of the forthcoming winter, some such institutions of this character will have to be continued, either through the medium of the Food Ministry or some other agency. I agree with some of the criticism which has I been directed in respect to the Peace Conference expenses, and the explanation of the Minister, in my judgment, was altogether unconvincing upon this point. He mentioned that certain charges had come against his Department which were not actually connected with his Department at all. If that is so, why should his Department be called upon to meet that expenditure? But when you read "Provision for dilapidations of furniture, fittings, and utensils at the Hotel Majestic for compensation for injury," that hardly suggests anything in the nature of food control. It rather suggests another commodity not quite so substantial and more virulent in its operation, and, having regard to the fact that it was at the Hotel Majestic, there may be something in that point. Anyhow, £15,000 presented in the Estimates under circumstances of that character need something more in the nature of explanation than has yet been given by the Minister in charge of the Department.
I come to the question of control, and I am wondering what virtue there is in this demand for de-control on the part of hon. Members opposite, because we hear in the other direction of tremendous agitation in favour of control being continued, and of control being applied where control is not at the present time in operation. I believe, so far as the Food Control Department is concerned, some measure of de-control could be safely introduced in the direction of supplies. I think the evidence available indicates that we could with safety give the supply of the world's wheat this freedom, and remove all restrictions from the point of view of supply in that direction. Only 1646 this week the de-control of sugar has taken place. From information we have had from America during the past few months, the de-control of sugar, so far as supplies are concerned, could well have been put into operation some time ago. In reference to bacon, we understand that the bacon producers of Denmark are anxious to be relieved of all the irritations and restrictions that are imposed upon their supplies, and I think we could remove the control from many of these articles at the present time. But when it becomes a question of prices, that is another matter, and I believe that, for some time yet the Food Control Department will have to keep hold of the retail prices of articles in this country. If they do not exercise some such control, the public are going to be called upon to pay to a far greater extent even than at the present time, and evidence can be produced in support of this contention. When fish was de-controlled there was an immediate upward tendency in prices. When pork was de-controlled, the same thing took place, and even now there are commodities upon the market which are partially controlled. Controlled butter to-day can be purchased over the counter at 3s. 4d. a pound. But there is what is known as free butter on the market. We get controlled butter for 3s. 4d., but we have to pay 5s. a pound for free butter. That is an evidence that if the de-control of butter took effect to-morrow, up would go the price from 3s. 4d. to 5s. a pound all round.
We have seen, also, evidence of this in other directions. Take the tea people. The hon. Member who spoke a moment ago said something about de-control in order to give economic law its freedom. If economic law got its freedom we could all subscribe to that point of view; but we know there are standard articles on the market which happen to be a monopoly, and which have not that price put upon them to the consumer which the law of supply and demand should determine, but have a price put upon them which has no relation to anything except the monopoly of the article in the hands of a small section of traders. Unless this Department keeps its hold on retail prices of this character, the 176 per cent., at which the increase in the cost of living over the pre-War period now stands, and which is in the main due to excessive food prices, prices are going to be sustained, notwithstanding that there is an 1647 attempt to pull wages down. If we could be satisfied that the full interpretation of the economic law could work, we could agree to absolute de-control at the earliest possible moment. It does not work. Artificially organised interests, some of which have neither soul nor conscience, impose their monopoly price upon the community, and it is from that point of view the public will need in the future, for some time, the protection of this Department, or some other Department operating in the same direction. While some measure of criticism may reasonably be directed against some of these items, and while we may be in favour of de-control of many of the staple articles of food from the point of view of supply, we on these Benches are convinced that we must not proceed with the abolition of this Department too early, but at least maintain some hold on the spending capacity of the people against the ramifications of these trusts and syndicates, which are imposing excessive prices upon the purchasing community of the country.
§ Mr. G. ROBERTS
The criticism advanced against the Ministry of Food comes from quarters which are against the continuance of that Ministry at all. It is the same class of criticism which we heard when the recent Bill was before the House. Nevertheless, having heard all the criticism, and what was to be said in favour of the continuance of the Ministry, Parliament decided that it would give the Government power to continue the Ministry, if felt necessary, until some date in 1922. That seems to me to have settled the matter from that point of view. It does not necessarily follow that the Ministry should be kept in existence until that time. Nevertheless it did represent the considered opinion of Parliament that a case might be made out during that period for the continuance of the Ministry's operations.
The situation was bound to be an extraordinarily difficult one. To me the central point now is, that had the Ministry, when the original Estimates were being prepared, been regarded as a permanent body, and had its continuance been determined upon, the Estimates would have been prepared accordingly. They would have been on the larger scale contemplated by a permanent Ministry; in fact, those concerned budgetted having regard to the possibility that Parliament might 1648 not agree to renew the Ministerial powers, and recognising that circumstances were changing, and that even if Parliament did determine to continue the existence of the Ministry, great economies might be effected, and the very elaborate organisation that we had throughout the country of Food Control Committees in every area might not be necessary. In effect, then, this Supplementary Estimate is an unfortunate circumstance for the Ministry. If it had been a permanent body, in all probability it would have been entirely unnecessary to present a Supplementary Estimate, because the original Estimates would have been framed in contemplation of expenditure over the whole period.
Even so, great economies have been effected, and we are to-day assured by the Food Controller that a great deal of this further expenditure will very soon come to an end. Whenever it was intended or proposed to abandon the Ministry, difficulties would inevitably beset the Food Controller whoever he was. We are now surrounded by a set of circumstances which could not possibly have been foreseen when the original Estimates were being shaped. As my hon. Friend who has just resumed his seat stated, whilst we might with safety remove control from certain commodities, nevertheless, if he had been speaking in the early part of the year I am sure he would have advanced the suggestion that it was not wise to do so. There were incalculable circumstances then to be taken into account, and still to-day there is not an ample supply of food in the world. If circumstances were normal there would still be a scarcity. One fact has not been realised, and that is that we always based our estimates on the possibility of an effective European demand. Europe has been slower in recovering than we estimated. Even if we at the Ministry of Food had estimated a more rapid recovery on the part of the European nations, because of the element of uncertainty it would have been extremely unwise on our part to have completely decontrolled. Some people talk as if, as soon as the Armistice was signed, the whole of the machinery of the Ministry of Food ought to have been scrapped. But purchases had to be made long in advance, and it is very easy now to proffer criticism; we are simply speaking after the event!
It will be remembered that the War ended sooner than anybody thought. I 1649 know that when I was at the Ministry of Food, we were making purchases in advance, and in contemplation of a War of longer duration than actually happened. Having, however, made these contracts with the Dominion Governments and other parties, you could not repudiate them simply because the enemy had collapsed and more favourable circumstances could be taken into account. During the early part of the year my right hon. Friend had an extraordinary difficulty in disposing of Australian mutton. We were then told that if the market was free and the private trader was able to come in and buy he would be able to purchase at a lower price, and the consumer would immediately get the advantage, but, in fact, had there been no food control in existence, the traders of the country would have had to combine together to enter into these contracts with the Australian Government and the other parties, and it would not have been possible for them, except at a great loss, to have put that meat on the market at a lower price than the Food Controller did. Time had to be allowed to get rid of these stocks.
Take bacon. Even in respect to that my right hon. Friend was committed considerably in advance. When I was at the Ministry I de-controlled bacon at one point. I had the assurance of the traders —of the wholesaler, the secondary wholesaler, and the importer—that we were holding up prices and that, given perfect liberty, prices—they assured us—would be reduced. We took their word, but we were very soon disillusioned. A great increase of prices took place just at the time when public opinion was inflamed, and the great mass of the people thought they were being bled by the profiteer Even if it be that at this particular point you are paying more for some commodity than the world market may justify, I say, recognise that the operations of the Food Controller may have secured you from very considerable disaster.
Again, take sugar. Who could have told at the early part of the year whether it would or would not be wise to de-control sugar? The market gave me a very great deal of anxiety. The world-supply was very short. If my memory serves me rightly, instead of the normal supply of 18½ million tons, the estimate for the year was 14½ million tons. Moreover, 1650 America was in a position then to be able, and willing, to pay any price for sugar. At that time we contemplated that if we were to de-control sugar people would have to pay considerably more for it than 1s. 2d. per lb. Since then America has suffered like other countries, from depression. The American people are not consuming the volume of sugar which appeared likely at that particular time. Thus it is that sugar has become freer, not because, I again say, the supply has become normal, but because owing to circumstances, the great consuming publics of nearly every country are not in a position to take up the normal consumption. If it had been, as I have suggested, that the European countries had made as rapid a recovery as Belgium is doing, the Food Ministry would not have been in the position it is to-day. Some of these items are really liquidation items, and you cannot possibly foresee what they will be until such time as you have decided upon de-control, and you then get merely the change of expenditure of a temporary character; instead of the normal expenditure on salaries and general charges you get one sum which you will have to bear at any particular time when you have decided to liquidate the Department of the Ministry of Food. Bear in mind that these Departments have been carrying on operations of enormous magnitude and complexity, and even when you have decided upon de-controlling a commodity it is not possible to close down within a day or two. It takes you weeks, and in some cases months, to clear up all these operations, and we ought to give some consideration to the Food Controller on that point. As to the Peace Conference expenditure, I remember that when I had to defend the Estimates of the Food Controller I rather resented having to accept responsibility for what occurred at the Hotel Majestic, but, nevertheless, there it was, and I think, broadly speaking, it was a justifiable procedure. The Government took possession of the Hotel Majestic for the many officers attending the Peace Conference. If they had been scattered about Paris, and paid their regular allowances, the probability is the cost would have been much heavier, apart from the convenience of having them housed in one building. The item which has been fastened on to, and which was explained by my right hon. Friend (Mr. 1651 McCurdy), that for delayed claims, was really a food item; it was simply the transportation of food to the Hotel Majestic. If delay occurred in presenting the claim to the Ministry of Food, that is not a responsibility of my right hon. Friend or of the Parliamentary Secretary.
§ Mr. ROBERTS
My hon. Friend will realise that we had possession of the hotel for a matter of a couple of years. This is a hotel that had been taken over from private owners, and you are bound to recoup them for damage done affecting their property during your period of occupation. I have not the detailed items before me, and I confess, with other Members, that it is difficult to understand all these items; but when I read it I concluded that that was what it was, and I think that investigation will prove I am right. With respect to the legal charges, the only criticism of my right hon. Friend the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) was that the costs recovered would not balance the whole of the charges. I do not know whether he has very keen sympathy with the legal profession, but I notice that he glossed over that particular item. The fact, however, that the costs recovered do not balance the charges is not a matter that can abide with the Food Controller, but is a question for those who try the cases. My right hon. Friend could not go to Court and say, "You have got to charge them more because I have got a deficiency here of some £9,000 to make good."
The only further item to which I want to make allusion is one for which I must accept special responsibility, and that is the expenditure under the head, "Agricultural Costings Committee." When I went to the Ministry of Food I found it was absolutely impossible to get anything like trustworthy estimates of the cost of producing food. I am not going to speak critically of a Ministry which is not represented on the Front Bench, but it did appear to me amazing that while we had in existence a Board of Agriculture for this country, and Agricultural Departments in Scotland and in Ireland, it was absolutely impossible for the Minister who 1652 was charged with the duty of fixing prices to get anything like a reliable idea of what it cost to produce different articles of food in this country. If my memory serves me right, I invited certain officials to come across from the Ministry of Labour, because they had been engaged there in following the course of food prices, and were able to furnish us with the cost-of-living index, month by month. Whatever happens to the Ministry of Food, I hope this Agricultural Costings Committee will be incorporated permanently in the appropriate body, that is, the Ministry of Agriculture. Last year I was subjected to a great deal of criticism, in fact, it was difficult for me to get a hearing in some parts of the country, on the matter of milk prices, but there was the difficulty that we had no data to guide us. You had to make your own investigations, and you had to fix prices—may be on a generous scale in order to ensure supplies. [An HON. MEMBER: "Very generous!"] Well, the hon. Member is perhaps more competent than I was to judge, but I fixed the price which I felt to be fair, and a price that would secure supplies, because the maintenance of supplies is of greater importance than prices. If data had been available over some period, or there had been a body comparable to the Agricultural Costings Committee able to advise us, one might have saved the consumer considerable sums of money. But we were not in the possession of that information, and I feel that the Government will not be able to pursue that vigorous agricultural policy to which, I trust, they have now given themselves, unless they have a well-organised, competent scientific body of the Agricultural Costings Committee type to advise them on the costs of production in agriculture. I know it never can be done accurately, because the conditions of agriculture are not comparable with those of any other industry. The factor of the weather, and the variations of soil on farm and farm, will always make it impossible for us to fix a price which is absolutely equitable for all classes of producers, but we ought to have the fullest possible information, and therefore I venture to express the hope that this Agricultural Costings Committee will not be allowed to go out of existence, but will be one of those permanent institutions transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. I am afraid I have occupied a little more time than I 1653 had contemplated, but having regard to the fact that I preceded my right hon. Friend (Mr. McCurdy) in his present position, I thought the House would tolerate me.
§ Mr. REMER
My right hon. Friend who has just resumed his seat will not accuse me, I think, of having been one of the critics after the event. He will remember that when he re-controlled bacon in August, 1919, I was one of the Members of this House who criticised him on that particular account, and I take it that the results of that control have justified the criticism which I then brought before the House. It is a considerable disappointment to me that in the speech from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. McCurdy) we have not heard one word as to when this Ministry over which he presides is coming to an end. We have not been given one definite date. Is it going to end at the end of this year, or at the end of the financial year, the 31st March next, or is it going to go on for the full time for which Parliament sanctioned it? When he introduced the Ministry of Food Continuance Bill, of which I moved the rejection, he made a statement that he did not anticipate that he would require two years to complete the work which he had in hand. I am disappointed that we have had no word from him this afternoon, and I hope some information will be given to us before the Vote is taken as to when the Ministry of Food is actually coming to an end. There is the very serious question, also, of the control of bacon. It has been estimated, and I do not think anyone will deny the fact, that the re-control of bacon in August, 1919, cost the nation at least £20,000,000 sterling, and at the present moment officials, for whom we are granting these sums of money, are engaged in charging, not lower prices for bacon, but considerably higher prices for bacon than would be charged if it was left to private enterprise to import bacon. When the right hon. Gentleman who has just resumed his seat re-controlled bacon in August, 1919, the price of hogs, the raw material upon which the price of bacon depends, was 23 cents in the United States.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I am sorry to interrupt, but I think I must really rise to ask, on a point of Order, 1654 whether my hon. Friend is in order in going into details with regard to the question of bacon? I do not want to run away from the point, but it is my duty to point out that in the items included in this Supplementary Estimate there is no single item such as that suggested for the salaries of officials of the bacon section, and it is not possible for me to go into the—
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Sir E. Cornwall)
I will submit to the hon. Member a little longer in order to see whether or not I consider him out of order.
§ Mr. REMER
My point is that the continuance of control of bacon is costing the people of this country very much more than it ought to do, and I think the control should cease at once. Therefore, taking into consideration the question of the exchange, and so on, the price of bacon new, even at a moderate estimate, would be about 6d. or 8d. per lb. less than it is at the present time. The continuance of control is only continuing the muddle and mess which the Department has got into, and the result has been that a quantity of bacon has been arriving filthy and putrid, and it has been condemned. Over 1,000,000 lbs. of bacon has been condemned at Liverpool and will not be allowed to be sold as human food. When we hear of facts of this kind, the sooner the Government get out of this control and let somebody else who knows something about it deal with these questions the better it will be, and then we shall be provided with cheaper bacon. I am only using bacon as an illustration, but the other controls are quite as bad. I am satisfied that the whole system of control could be cleared off without any loss whatever to the nation. The right hon. Gentleman told us a long story almost with tears in his eyes about the Australian meat supply. He told us about the docks being congested and that there were no quay spaces, but he did not tell us that the control had caused two years supply of meat to be stored in this country. Who was responsible for the blunder of bringing all this meat into the country which the people did not want? Instances like these bring discredit upon the Government of this country, and they are demanding that there shall be a radical reduction in the number of Government officials. 1655 I should like to refer to another observation made by the right hon. Gentleman. He told us that food control was of very great value to the nation, but I am at a loss to understand what value it is. The right hon. Gentleman did not give one illustration as to how the country is gaining by food control. He told us that it was necessary for his Department to give accurate information. I am very sorry to say that some of the information which is given in this House in reply to questions is not accurate; in fact, it is very misleading. I have no hesitation in saying that when the history of food control in this country is written it will show that it was incompetent and inefficient, and it has been one complete mess and muddle during the whole of the financial year we are now discussing. If you read the speeches of the Food Minister himself you will find that he gives long prophecies of what the market condition of the world is going to be six, nine, or even twelve months ahead. In consequence of prophecies of that kind I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are thousands of people walking barefooted in Europe. Any business man will tell you that you cannot prophesy as to what prices are going to be twelve months ahead. When the financial loss which is now being made through the incompetence of some of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers is revealed there will be a sad day of reckoning for those who are responsible. I have every sympathy with this Motion, and I shall go into the Lobby against the Government. I shall try by every means in my power to bring about a complete abolition of this Ministry at the earliest date possible.
§ Mr. WILSON-FOX
I make no apology for joining in the Debate on this important question, although I may not be able to add anything new. I do, however, think that the conditions under which we are now living are of such gravity and importance that hon. Members of this House, even if they feel that they may be repeating what others have said, are wise in endeavouring to reflect in this House the growing feeling of dissatisfaction throughout the country at the expenditure of the Government and at the continuance of Government control. I do not think that the Government have quite realised the strength of the feeling in this country on this question. I have only 1656 returned from my constituency in the Midlands quite recently, and I find that the principal subject in which they are interested is the growing burden of taxation and the irksomeness of Government control. There are not many opportunities on which private Members can bring before the Government their views upon these questions. I am not one of those who condemn the action of the Food Ministry root and branch. I had special opportunities of observing its work, and it did most valuable service during the War; but what I think is not sufficiently remembered is that the War to all intents and purposes ended two years ago, and I am sure the man in the street feels that enough has not been done to remove the difficulties in which the Food Ministry rendered such efficient and valuable service. No one denies that when efficiency, great care, and discrimination were required, on the whole, the Ministry did its work well, but in peace conditions we do not require the machinery and the vast expenditure which war exacts from us. There were many things which were done in the War which we had to do regardless of cost. In peace we have to think of cost all the time. For that reason those of us who invariably endeavour to criticise and control the action of the Government in regard to expenditure do attach great importance to the consideration of Estimates such as these. We feel that they betray in all sorts of unlooked-for and unexpected places the real attitude of the Government Departments in regard to questions of finance.
The criticism which I make upon these Estimates, and which was made very clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. G. Locker-Lamp-son) earlier in the discussion, is that the figures before us to-day are not Estimates at all. They are accounts, and accounts very imperfectly presented. It is very difficult on the face of them to understand what they mean. As I understand it, the object of presenting Estimates is to inform the House in advance what sums the Government proposes to expend, and to ask the leave of the House to spend those sums before they are expended. This is really a waste-paper basket of delayed accounts. These sums have been already spent, and it is idle to ask permission to spend sums which have been already spent. It is really a Vote of Indemnity for which we are asked. It is 1657 not permission to spend more money. That being so, the point of view from which one has to regard them is not that with which one comes down to the House expecting to criticise Estimates I am one of those who think that a great deal more attention should be paid in the future than has been paid in the past to the criticism of Estimates, and that the machinery which enables this House to criticise and control expenditure requires to be strengthened and extended. I have been one of, I think, three Select Committees on national expenditure, all of which have advised that there should be an Estimates Committee, which should prepare for the consideraton of the House reports upon the Estimates which it will be called upon to consider. I venture to think that, if Estimates such as these had been carefully considered in advance by an efficient Estimates Committee, you would not have had to listen to the somewhat desultory and uninformed discussion to whch you have been compelled to listen to-day.
The meaning of these Estimates has had to be dragged out of the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary with a corkscrew. With the best will in the world and the best intention to inform the House what they mean, they have found it extremely difficult to do so, and I venture to think, from the attitude that they assumed when they came down to this Committee, that they had not the slightest idea that these sorts of questions would be raised. The attitude of the Department in preparing these Estimates and defending them is not one which I am sure commends itself to the majority of the Members of this Committee. I have said enough to show my attitude on the subject of the Estimates; it is one which I am convinced commands general support in the House, which has been newly awakened to the deep importance of these questions of national expenditure and finance. I have said already that I consider the Food Ministry during war time rendered valuable services, but I do support the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green for explicit information as to what it is now proposed to do with this Department, which, so far as the ordinary plain man can see, has for most purposes, if not for all purposes, become entirely unnecessary. There is an old game with which most people at one time of their lives have been rather familiar. 1658 It consists of picking a flower to pieces and says "This year, next year, sometime, never." I want to know when this Department is really going to cease its activities. Is it going to be this year, next year, sometime, or, as I suspect and am afraid, never? If I am right in that suspicion, then these will not be the last Estimates which the Ministry of Food will present to this Committee, but I hope that they will learn a lesson from what has taken place on this occasion, and that next time they come and ask for expenditure, it will be before the expenditure has been incurred and not subsequently.
§ Mr. HOPKINS
I should like, respectfully, to add my protest to that made by the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. G. Locker-Lampson) against the way in which these Estimates have been presented. There is nothing on this Paper to show the Committee that the great bulk, at least five-sixths, of this money has been already expended. The Minister in the course of a somewhat lengthy speech did not find one sentence to inform the Committee that the money had been already spent and was practically beyond our control. I should like to ask, as this money has been spent without being voted by Parliament, from where he got it to spend? I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman can inform me, but the supposition one has to form is that he got it from the current receipts in the trading of his Department. If that be the case, it is really a scandalous and most unbusinesslike proceeding that money for Government expenditure should not be brought to the Treasury. It is a proceeding which every business man in this House would utterly repudiate in his own business. Every sum received on Government account should be brought into the Treasury and every expenditure on Government account should be drawn from the Treasury. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, who must have handled many tens of millions in the course of the business of his Department, thinks that he has modestly confined himself to spending only these few hundreds of thousands when he might equally have spent millions. I cannot see that Parliamentary control over expenditure can possibly be effective, or be of the very least use, or anything but a farce if Estimates are presented to us after the money has been 1659 expended without Parliamentary sanction and in a form which I regret to say is far from frank.
§ Mr. KILEY
I cannot follow the enthusiastic example of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts) who has nothing but the most profuse praise for every act and deed for which the Food Ministry is responsible. At the same time, I am not prepared to follow the example of the hon. Member who followed my right hon. Friend in denouncing the Department from beginning to end. There has undoubtedly been very useful work performed by the Department. But having said that I think most members of the Committee will agree there has been little said to justify the continuance of the Department, which many of us consider should cease to exist, and which we have been daily expecting to finish its work. It is demanding over and above its original estimate a sum of nearly half a million sterling. If we were satisfied that that sum would complete the amount to be spent, heavy as it is, we might be prepared to vote it without any great regret.
The point I want to raise this afternoon is one in which a constituent of mine is very much concerned. He demands to know what right the Minister has not merely to make the taxpayer produce this enormous sum, but what right he has to levy a very heavy toll upon the profits of the commodities with which he deals. My constituent is an importer of Danish bacon, and he tells me he is bound to pay the Ministry of Food 237s. per cwt., whereas he can import all the bacon he wants—and there is an abundance of it in the market—for 200s. per cwt. He considers, therefore, that he is blackmailed or profiteered to the extent of 37s. for every cwt. of bacon he purchases. I understand that the conditions of sale and delivery for bacon obtained through the Food Ministry and on the open market are identical. Nevertheless the Food Controller demands a profit of 37s. My constituent has to put his profit on that 37s., the shopkeeper no doubt has to do the same, and by the time the unfortunate consumer comes along he has to pay for his bacon a sum immensely in excess of what there is any real need to pay to-day. I suggest to the Food 1660 Controller that this kind of transaction should come to an end. If the Food Minister will buy commodities let him hand them over to the trade without profit and then come to the House for his expenses. At present neither the consumer nor the retailer know what is happening. We have good cause for complaint. It is time for this Committee to say to the Food Controller that he should limit his control to prices, and should discontinue his trading operations. He may have been justified in buying and selling as he did by war conditions, but those conditions no longer exist and there is scarcely any essential commodity of which there is anything like a world shortage to-day. But there is a danger perhaps of some profiteering occurring. One notices in all the profiteering reports which have been issued up to date, that there seems to be a general agreement among those who sit on the Committees there is no evidence of profiteering. I confess I am very much mystified by the report. Certainly I have not been on any of the Committees and therefore one is bound to accept their statement that in their judgment there is no profiteering. There may be some justification for the continuance of this Ministry of Food on the lines of regulating prices, but I am sure the Committee and the country would gladly welcome an announcement from the Minister that he intends to do away with his control forthwith. Of course he may have some stocks on hand and should there be a loss on them the Treasury might have something to say. Still the Committee would be delighted to receive an assurance that he will forthwith commence to unload his stocks, and if any of them have been purchased at a price higher than the present market price then he should go to the Treasury, put his cards on the table, and ask permission to unload the stock at the public market price and face a loss rather than keep the stuff until it becomes unfit, or in the hope that he may be able to make a profit on some other article. I appeal to the Minister to give us an assurance this afternoon that he intends to de-control at the earliest possible date and that his Department will only continue for the regulation of prices.
§ Mr. SUGDEN
It is to many of us a difficult matter to criticise the Government which we have at present to support. 1661 We have a duty to the Government, but we also have a duty to our constituents, and to that section of the constituency which is not able to carry its own burden —I mean the poorer classes. The Food Controller told us this afternoon that his province, his function, and his duty, is to present food to the people cheaper than it can be obtained in the ordinary way. But I deliberately say that he has so mismanaged the trade organisation, both of the producer and of those who stand between the producer and the people who hand the commodities to the consumer— he has so mismanaged his work as to make food more expensive than it would have been had it been allowed to go free. I make that assertion, and I can prove it. The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement that by an adjustment of the market in regard to the stocks which we hold, out of flour purchased at a certain figure and now to be handed out to the public at a lower figure, he hopes to make £1,500,000. If any trader were to profiteer to that extent I venture to say—
§ Mr. SUGDEN
It is undoubtedly what the right hon. Gentleman did say. He stated that certain commodities—sugar and flour—taken into stock at certain figures, were now compulsorily lessened in price to the distributor (although he had paid a higher price for them) and given to the consumer, and that, as a result of the difference between the price at which the distributors had been compelled to accept the flour and the price at which they were to hand it over to the consumer, he would make £1,500,000. I think that correctly sets forth what he stated.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I will not interrupt the hon. Member again, whatever he says, but may I say that I made no reference to sugar.
§ Mr. McCURDY
I made no reference to flour, no reference to profits, and no reference to any of the matters to which the hon. Member has referred.
§ Mr. SUGDEN
I am prepared to accept the decision of the reporters who take down our sayings. I can prove definitely 1662 that what I have stated is accurate, and that that is what the right hon. Gentleman said. Here is a letter from one of these traders which has come to me:On 1st November sugar was reduced 16s. per cwt., and a further reduction was made on Monday last. It will be argued that we have had the benefit of the advances, namely, 14s. per cwt. in March and 32s. in May; but then we were not allowed to accumulate stocks, whilst the cutting down of the ration during the coal strike has further increased the retailers' stocks at the present time. Again, the Government have reduced the price of flour 4s. per sack, and announce that credits on stocks will not be allowed. When the flour was advanced 22s. 6d. per 280 lbs. in September, the retailer was protected against loss, but was prevented from making a profit. The loss ought not to be forced on the retailers, who were not allowed to make a profit on the advance in September.Now the Food Controller is going to make, on the differentiation between the cost of flour, not £1,500,000, but £2,250,000. On sugar he will not make quite so much, but he will certainly make £1,750,000. I say that that method of handling the cost and the price of food commodities is not a right and an equitable one. When the right hon. Gentleman confesses, as he did in his opening statement, that of the meat purchased he had still one-fifth to dispose of, I suggest that, were he to place that matter in the hands of the large trading organisations and co-operative societies of the country, and of large individual traders, they would dispose of that meat to better advantage than he or his staff can. The right hon. Gentleman stated that he had acquired a special trading knowledge in regard to the cost of food and the figures and statistics bearing on food. If that is so why have we this débâcle in regard to the handling and the adjustment of prices of food commodities? I respectfully suggest that, in asking for the money that is detailed here—money that is already spent—the right hon. Gentleman does not make out a case to prove that he yet has the facilities or the necessary experience for distributing food from the producer to the people.
I am bearing in mind the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has said that it is not possible to liquidate in a month, or three months, or six months, or even 12 months, a great wholesale and retail trading organisation such as he represents; but I suggest that he might carefully watch the leakages, and the 1663 illogicality of many of his actions, of many of the systems that he is employing in regard to food distribution, and that. he might give opportunities for the keen individualistic, as well as the co-operative section of the trading community to handle the position now. Let me take the case of milk. We know the remarkable differentiation that obtains in different parts of the country in regard to the price of milk. I suggest that, if he will give us the full stocks that he possesses of oilcake and the rest of it, it will be possible for milk—vital and essential food as it is—to be handed to the consumer for at least 1¼d. less per quart all over the country.
I am not here to criticise small items. One could make great play on the question of the Hotel Majestic, but, to my mind, that is too small a matter, having regard to large sums of money that we are considering. I only want to ask, with regard to that, whether we are bearing the whole cost of repairs, etc., to the Hotel Majestic, or whether we are bearing a proportion with our other Allies, according to our financial agreement and obligation. If we are bearing the whole cost, I, for one, suggest that our Allies ought to bear their part as well. I have only one other question to put before the Committee. I want to know whether it is the policy of the Food Ministry to take into consideration the immediate dispersement of the surplus stocks that they now hold. I am not condemning them for looking ahead, and providing food supplies to face what was a grave question during the latter part of the War days; but I submit that the power of control has by them sometimes been used to compel the poorer people to pay higher prices, whereas, if these commodities had been handled in an expert and organised trade fashion, the food would have been cheaper. The goods could be sold, possibly abroad, when they are not wanted in this country (and some of them are not wanted in this country) to others who are in greater necessity, and at higher prices, as we are now doing in regard to coal. I should like to know whether, on the surplus stocks not required in this country, profits will be required from the other countries which acquire this produce.
I do not want to vote against the Government, because I feel that it is the best 1664 Government we have available, and the alternative to it is not before us; but I would ask the Minister to help us to make his office suitable, efficient, and practical, as to which some of us have at present very grave doubts. Although we should be sorry to lose him as a personality, I, at any rate, join with others in hoping that he will soon be able efficiently to complete the task to which he has set his hand, and we hope that he will receive that measure of promotion which all good people obtain if they do their work efficiently, and for ever close this control.
§ Mr. ORMSBY-GORE
I cannot quite agree with my hon. Friend who has just sat down that it is not the duty of this Committee to discuss the details of the expenditure set out in this Supplementary Estimate, even if it is only a matter of a few thousands. I assure my hon. Friend that Supplementary Estimates afford the one opportunity which the House of Commons gets of fulfilling that most necessary function. Owing to the fact that that function is not sufficiently attended to by this House, and that Debates take place on broad questions of policy, such as control versus decontrol, Government Departments are spending thousands of pounds which have never been voted by the House, and which they have no right to spend. They think that they can employ any number of clerks and officials, and give any number of orders for first-class fares to meetings up and down the country, simply because the House will not pay attention to such details. It is most essential that on an occasion like this, when we have before us an absolutely scandalous Estimate such as this, we should go into details and demand from the Minister in charge who gave him the authority to expend these sums of money upon what they were expended in detail and what is the justification for spending the taxpayers' money on restoring the decorations of the Hotel Majestic in Paris. Let me take that example—£15,000 for dilapidations of furniture, fittings, and utensils in the Hotel Majestic, compensation for injury, and delayed claims. That sentence is a clear example of the way in which Government Departments prevent the House of Commons from knowing the true facts. The right hon. Gentleman said that we should not want 1665 to grudge the British Expeditionary Force anything for their lorries. We may not, but we want to know how much of this £15,000 is for lorries, how much for fittings, how much for utensils, and how much for dilapidations; and why the people who created those dilapidations do not pay for them. In the Army, if a soldier does not keep his kit, he is charged for it; but if a lot of clerks go to Paris on behalf of the Ministry of Food, and rag about with the furniture, the British House of Commons is called upon to pay for the dilapidations. That item alone, and the way in which it is presented to us, is quite sufficient to justify the hon. Gentleman in voting against the Government on this occasion. They are quite safe. They have the Labour party who will always save them in case of difficulty. I hope the Committee will pay attention to Item "B." Here is a Ministry and the total cost of their estimate originally was £1,200,000, in which is an item of £75,000 for travelling expenses. Although they say they are in a moribund condition, although they say they are reducing their staff, and although we are told that the regional staff is coming to an end this month, they now come for another £10,000 for travelling expenses in addition to the £75,000 already voted. This is for railway fares for officials travelling up and down the country, hired motor cars, and the rest of it. Anybody who travels on the railways knows that the amount of first class fares given to officials to go up and down the country on quite unnecessary expeditions, when the whole matter could be settled by a twopenny letter through the post, is a growing scandal. I hope the Committee will set its face against the growing increase of this travelling backwards and forwards, which means so much expense to the taxpayers and ratepayers. This is an item which we, here and now, ought to reject. We should not vote this additional £10,000, and if the Ministry cannot do all the necessary travelling on the £75,000, they should pay for the unnecessary travelling themselves.
The right hon. Gentleman tells us that the Ministry is winding up, and yet he demands 33⅓ per cent. increase over the original Estimate. That shows that original estimating is quite outrageous. When are we going to get back to the 1666 normal times, when every Supplementary Estimate was rightly regarded as a financial crime? When are we going to get back to the position that Ministers of Departments ought never to come again to the House to ask for a further sum unless some great exceptional event has happened in the meantime? All these traditions seem to have gone, and the worst thing of all is that they do not wait for the Supplementary Estimates to be brought in: they do not wait for the 33⅓ per cent, increase, but they spend the money and then ask for an Act to indemnify themselves. So long as the House of Commons allows that sort of thing to go on we shall never get forward in the direction of economy in any Department, and unless the House sets its face rigidly against that method we shall never restore the control of the House of Commons over the Executive in the matter of financial control, which had to go in wartime and which we have not go back since Some Members seem to think that the Government might resign if they are defeated on a Supplementary Estimate They have often been defeated on Supplementary Estimates. They do not resign, but they do not spend so much money. The only way in which we can make any impression upon this Government, and the vicious habits of finance that it has got into, the vicious methods of spending money without the approval of Parliament, is to take every part of these Supplementary Estimates, every £5 and every £10, and to insist that they shall not spend one farthing without the previous consent of the representatives of the people.
Lieut.-Colonel SPENDER CLAY
I should like to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Ormsby-Gore), and I shall support him in the Division Lobby in voting against the Government. It is quite clear that the Minister of Food has not many friends in this House. The only person who supported him was the right hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts). I hope that we have heard the swan-song of the right hon. Gentleman, and that his office will be abolished at an early date. We should like to know when that happy day is likely to arrive. Something has been said about the trading transactions of the Ministry of Food, and remarks on this point require to be emphasised. I have in my possession a letter which deals with the question 1667 of ham. The effect of my correspondence is that the cost to the consumer is no less than £1,413,000 per week, owing to the fact that ham can be bought at 146s. per cwt. c.i.f. in the open market, as against 224s. 6d. charged by the Ministry of Food. I do not think further comment is necessary. Some reference has been made to the Agricultural Costings Committee. I object to the way in which this item has been muddled up with other items for additional expenditure, consequent upon the continuance of the Ministry of Food. I am not going to say that I think the Agricultural Costings Committee should be abolished. It is a useful and necessary body, and I object very strongly to its being under this Ministry. It ought to be under the Ministry of Agriculture. How in the name of fortune it ever got under this Ministry is more than I can understand. I hope that when the Agricultural Costings Committee are calculating the value of the corn grown during the present year they will take into consideration the violent fluctuation which has taken place in the price of corn. What is the policy of the Ministry of Food with regard to the selling of the wheat and oats which they have in stock. Like a great many private traders, they are carrying too big a stock. They have thrown a lot of stock on the market suddenly, and at the present time I understand that in various parts of the country it is impossible, for the British farmers to sell corn. The Government, by their mismanagement of that stock, put so much corn on the market that the British farmer cannot sell his corn at a time when he most requires money in order to pay wages and to pay for the stock he has had to buy during the year. When the harvest has come to an end, and he is threshing, he is unable to get any money to pay the debts which he has incurred. Though none of us like to see the Minister trading in any way, still we are entitled to an explanation as to what has been done in that direction. They will not even take it in certain parts of the country at any price. We have heard of the attitude which the Ministry have taken with regard to the large stocks of flour, and the whole thing savours of gross mismanagement. I do not feel in this case like the hon. Gentleman who said that he felt bound in all cases to 1668 support the Government. We naturally support the Government in the great majority of cases. The devil we know is better than the devil we do not know, and we might get a very much worse Government, but on these Supplementary Estimates it is essential that there should be most careful consideration of every item, and I shall certainly support the Amendment.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
I will not join in the wholesale condemnation of the Ministry. The Labour party is at least consistent. It votes in accordance with its speeches and arguments. We have listened here day after day to speeches condemning the Government, and threatening vengeance on its head and then have seen those who made these speeches troop into the Lobby to support the Government which they had condemned. It is refreshing to hear these declarations of an intention to vote against the Government, and we will watch to see how far they are observed. This Ministry was brought into existence to meet a special need. We are asked to deal with a Supplementary Estimate, and it is rather difficult to bring in all one would like to say, yet one must bear testimony to the work of the Ministry from the economic point of view and from the point of view of the poorer classes of the community. I wonder what would have been the condition of things if the Ministry of Food had not been created and allowed to exercise its powers. I know that every man objects to being interfered with, and that the War came to an end two years ago; but the profiteer did not go out of existence when the War ended. It was the profiteer that the Ministry of Food had to fight, and it is the profiteer who remains an evil in the land even though the War is at an end, and the Ministry of Food has had to contend with that evil influence which exists throughout the world. If the food profiteer had not existed there would have been no need for the Ministry. The producer, the middleman and everyone who is handling a commodity objects to be interfered with and says, "Give me the right to do what I like." That is the secret of the condemnation of the Ministry—the interference with those who possibly could have made more profit and have exploited the poor people and have made poverty even more tragic than it has been.
1669 3.0 P.M.
One is glad to hear from an economy point of view that the Ministry is drawing to an end. We have been invited to a great many funerals to-day or we have been informed that we are attending funerals, but in one or two instances I find that instead of attending a funeral we have been attending the unveiling of the memorial stone because the corpse has gone before the funeral has taken place and the grave has been filled up. However, I join my hon. Friend on the other side who says that it is not right to spend the money first and come to the House afterwards. To that extent we as a Labour party are willing to join the condemnation of any Department which wilfully and wickedly expends money and then tells us that the money is spent. But we are such innocent people on this side of the House that we do not always understand all the wonderful ways of Ministries and Departments. But when these clever people on the other side, the old parliamentary hands, who have held office for years, complain I can only say what a lot of duffers and dummies they must be that they could not have discovered these things long ago rather than join in the cry at the last moment that this thing is done and they did not know.
I see here the item "Peace Conference Expenses." When I take this title and then look at the description: "Provision for Dilapidation of Furniture," I wonder what sort of a Peace Conference it was. I think that it is a printer's error, unless it is one of these conferences which I have attended sometimes, which started with shaking hands and kissing each other and finished up with breaking each other's heads. I happened to be one of a party that went to France during the War period, and among the things handed to me at the front were a gas-mask and a tin helmet. I was told that unless I delivered that gas-mask and helmet back to the sergeant who had given them to me, and handed them back in a good and serviceable condition without marks or indents, I should have to pay for them. The people who attended this Peace Conference ought to have been made to pay for all the dilapidations they brought about. I see it is dilapidations to furniture. Did they throw the furniture at each other's heads? The thing is incon- 1670 ceivable. I would like to be one of a Committee to go into the details of expenditure at this Peace Conference. How much was paid for medical and surgical attendance? I am convinced that the delegates must have broken heads as well as gas brackets. Having said so much by way of criticism, I want to bear my testimony to the useful and splendid services of the Ministry of Food during critical times. Mistakes have been made, and mistakes will always be made, but when you realise the stupendous task they had to undertake and the influences against them to destroy their usefulness, I think they did well.
§ Lieut.-Colonel POWNALL
There are several matters which still require further explanation. There is the item for travelling expenses, £85,000 spent in one year. I imagine that the food inspectors and officials travelling up and down the country do not have an allowance of more than £2 a day. Allowing 300 working days in a year, a simple calculation gives a figure of 141 food officials, each spending £2 a day for every one of 300 days in the year. In business I have had some experience of travellers' expenses, but it takes a very big organisation to warrant the keeping of 141 men travelling up and down the country for 300 days in the year. There are some Items which, frankly, I do not understand. Item E, on page 16, is Food Control Committee expenses—£500,000; revised Estimate, £585,000; additional sum, £85,000; and on the following page there is a reference to district offices established on 1st July to succeed the Food Control Committee Organisation. On 1st July you set up an extensive machinery to replace an organisation which presumably stopped on 30th June. Why, when you were given £500,000 for a year's expenses, should you want an extra £85,000 for the three months that the new organisation functioned? It may be that there is an explanation. I have read the speech made by the Minister of Food on the 6th May in introducing his Estimates, and I cannot find any mention in that speech of the proposed regional organisation. Presumably, the organisation was thought of between 6th May and 1st July. If so, it was set up very quickly. It seems a lack of foresight to set up such an elaborate organisation at such a heavy cost and in such a way, and yet 1671 on 31st December it is to come to an end. The great majority of officials will find themselves out of employment in January next. If they were taken on only on 1st July, they have a grievance against the State for employing them at relatively short notice and pushing them out of their positions at even shorter notice.
In six months' time, we have every reason to hope, wheat and sugar may be decontrolled. What other things will still be controlled then I do not know; I hope none. Is the Minister of Food already thinking of the steps he can take to reduce his staff as from 1st April next?—because if the two main things now under control are decontrolled from the end of the financial year, I hope he will succeed in demobilising most, if not all, of his 22 sections. Five-sixths of this money has already been spent. We are asked early in December to vote the salaries of officials who started work on 1st July, and are leaving their jobs on 31st December next. That means that three-fifths of the salaries has been earned and paid. Another right hon. Gentleman recently asked for £200,000, and he admitted quite frankly that he had received £150,000 from the Civil Contingencies Fund. Private Members want to know if some steps cannot be taken to stop the Front Bench from drawing money in this way and coming down long afterwards, and sometimes when an Office is winding up, as in this case, and asking for our approval.
§ Lieut.-Colonel D. WHITE
I only intervene because of the remark of the right hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts) that the discussion was far more appropriate on the salary of the Minister of Food. He implied that those of us who criticised these Estimates were actuated by a dislike of the Ministry of Food and of control. That was not a strictly accurate statement as to the position of most of those who oppose. I think most hon. Members agree that the Ministry in the past has been very valuable.[HON. MEMBERS: "NO, NO!"] Anyhow, speaking for myself, I think so. That is quite a different point from dealing with the Supplementary Estimates for an organisation which ought to have been foreseen before the original Estimate was submitted. When the country is crying out for economy. This change ought not to have 1672 been made if it was going to cost a single penny piece more than the organisation which it replaced. In any case, I think the right hon. Gentleman had followed a very bad precedent in coming down and saying "it is no good protesting against this Supplementary Estimate, because the money is already spent." I have quite made up my mind that, unless an overwhelming case for meeting a sudden emergency can be made out, I shall vote against any Supplementary Estimate where the money has been spent beforehand. Perhaps the worst item in the whole of those Estimates is that for travelling expenditure. One knows from experience, not only of officials of the Ministry of Food, but of the Ministry of Health and other Departments, where four, five, and six inspectors come tumbling down for weeks to carry out duties which could perfectly well have been done by correspondence. I shall certainly support the right hon. Member for Peebles if he goes to a Division.
§ Mr. E. WOOD
I am sure hon. Members have quite correctly represented the view of many in the Committee in saying that on the whole it was actuated with a desire to get rid of control now that we are restored to peace conditions. In saying that I can assure hon. Members opposite, who appear to misunderstand our point of view, that we are in no sense unmindful of the value of the work done by the Ministry of Food and by the right hon. Gentleman in the critical days of the War, in the difficulties up to date and at the present time. As I understand the Debate to-day, we have been discussing questions which are apparently questions of detail and also an important question of principle. As to the details in the Estimates I confess I find it very difficult to follow my right hon. Friend's justification for asking for an increase in individual items in view of the repeated declarations by important Members of the Government and the head of the Government as to the necessity for scrupulous economy in details. It really is no good for hon. Members of this House and Members of His Majesty's Government to continue to pay lip-service to economy unless they are willing to cut off things which in themselves are desirable, but which at the present moment are not absolute necessities-Take the example of the Agricultural 1673 Costings Committee. Hon. Members have spoken in terms of commendation of the value of the work of that Committee. According to the explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman in reply to the hon. Member for London University (Sir P. Magnus), there is a charge of between £30,000 and £40,000 for that Committee. I share the views expressed as to the value of its work, but I say most emphatically that it is not work that cannot afford to wait, and at present it is of some importance to save £40,000 or £50,000 per year. I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's difficulties, but I am sure he would not meet with opposition, now that we are in peace time, if the work of this Committee were postponed for two or three years until we were through the worst of our financial stringency.
A good many hon. Members speaking for the Labour Benches appear to be under a misconception which really permeates a good deal of the argument on this subject, and that is that the same conclusions which hold good in time of war are equally good in time of peace. That in my judgment is very far from being the truth. An hon. Member even justified the continuance of the Ministry on the ground that it was likely that food kitchens would be wanted during the winter. I have no doubt it may be very desirable to have food kitchens, not only in this winter, but in the winter of 1922, but I should be sorry if my right hon. Friend thought that that was a justification for him retaining his present office as Food Minister, because after all, large municipalities can run their food kitchens as well, I think, as my right hon. Friend. The point of principle is really the more important, and I do not apologise for emphasising what has been said as to the extremely unfortunate manner of treatment in the matter that has been meted out to this Committee. It really is a waste of time for us to come and discuss at length—I admit I am wasting time now in discussing it—expenditure that is past and that is not liable to recall. One hon. Member said that if it had been expenditure that was still under discussion, he would have voted against it, and my hon. and gallant Friend who spoke last said that just because it had been spent he also would vote against it. Therefore, it appears that in this Estimate there is solace for every heart.
1674 I personally shall join my hon. and gallant Friend who spoke last and vote against it, not so much because I am quite satisfied as to every item on which the right hon. Gentleman moved the reduction as because I have got to take such opportunities as I can to make my feeling and opinion felt by the Government, that as far as I am concerned I am not satisfied with the way in which the Committee is being treated in these matters. If it were possible for the Committee in these Supplementary Estimates to fight the Government with a rapier, knowing all the facts, it might be said you ought not to vote except on the pure merits of the particular proposals you are discussing; but every hon. Member who knows anything about these Estimates knows that in all these matters we are in the position, not of being able to use a rapier, but of having to use a heavy bludgeon, and we have to hit them where we can, and therefore I have to take every opportunity that offers itself to emphasise my profound regret at the course they have from time to time adopted. As far as I can judge, there is no justification for my right hon. Friend in this matter. What would have prevented him from asking for rather more money when he took the original Estimate, or, failing that, what would have prevented him from introducing the Supplementary Estimate earlier? In either case he would have saved the House the humiliating and degrading position of being invited to be a mere registering machine, as it were, to rub the blotting-paper over my right hon. Friend's blots, a process that I myself am not prepared to take part in.
I would appeal to other hon. Friends of mine who support the Coalition. It really is true what the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Captain S. Wilson) said earlier in the Debate, that unless the Coalition Members stir themselves and act on questions of economy, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite can waste their breath till they are tired; they will never make an impression. They know that just as well as we do, and the Labour party will always vote for His Majesty's Government if it is a question of spending money if they think there are enough Coalition Members going to vote against them. I appeal to my hon. Friends who represent Coalition constituencies not to act in the spirit of the hon.
1675 Member for Royton (Mr. Sugden) and feel that it is something rather shady to vote against the Government on these matters, but really to recognise the fact that nothing will happen until they do vote against my right hon. Friend. I am not saying whether this actual thing is light or wrong, but we have to take the opportunities we can, and until we do take those opportunities and perhaps confound the innocent with the guilty a little bit, but try to be on the side of the angels all the time, we have not any hope at all that the Government will really pay more than lip service, which is not followed by deeds, in the matter of trying to economise unnecessary expenditure.
In the early part of this year, in March last, the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury gave us the Estimates for the Civil Service. He was as sunny as ever when he came to deal with the Food Ministry, and he told us that this Vote showed a decrease of £1,508,000 resulting from the expectation at the date of this Estimate of the cessation of food control in the course of the summer. The swallows have gone home, and we still have the Ministry of Food, and I confess that, although I have listened to all this Debate, I frankly cannot say now whether or not the right hon. Gentleman has sung his swan-song. Is he going? Is the Food Ministry going to finish on the 31st December? I personally do not think it is. What I think is going to happen is that they are going to give up trading concerns, such as buying wheat, cornering sugar, and dealing in butter, but that they are going to keep on an interference—it may be just or unjust — with other traders going up and down the country, and I want to ask a definite question as to who is going out of the Ministry of Food and who is going to remain. We have got to pay these gentlemen's salaries.
Here I have the British Imperial Calendar and Civil Service List for 1920, and I turn to the Ministry of Food. There is the right hon. Gentleman himself, with his private secretaries, and a secretary, who has a private secretary. Then there is the Parliamentary Secretary and his private secretary, with a second secretary, another private secretary, and financial and assistant secre- 1676 taires, and, of course, I imagine they will all be there, but I want to know about the heads of branches. There are 25 heads of branches. They range from a Mr. Sisam, who looks after the bacon supply and distribution, down to Mr. Hiam, who looks after the vegetable supplies. Then there is a Mr. Knocker, who looks after enforcement. How does Mr. Knocker look after enforcement? Who does he enforce? How does he enforce it, and will he be paid next year for enforcing it? Will the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies really tell us honestly and definitely whether the whole of these 25 gentlemen, from Mr. Sisam down to Mr. Hiam, and including Mr. Knocker, will have disappeared, and will the taxpayers cease to be burdened with their salaries as from 31st December? Then there is another point. There is the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies, and let the Committee remember this, that it is all these officials who spend the money. It is not only their salaries, but they make business for other people, and they all force the spending of money merely by being there, because they have to justify their existence.
The address of the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies is Trafalgar House, S.W.I. What is going to happen to the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies? Is it going to disappear as from the 31st December of this year? It is a fairly expensive and big Commission. I daresay it will be said that this Commission has done admirable work, but it is a fairly big body. For instance, it has a clerical staff at Trafalgar House at the present time of no fewer than 400, whose salaries range from £1 to £5 a week, at a total cost to the taxpayer of £69,165. Will these 400 secretaries have disappeared on the 31st December? Then what about the higher officials? Will the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres be in command of the wheat supplies? Will Sir George Saltmarsh be there? Will there be a Bread Committee presided over by Mr. Hugh F. Paul, a Finance Committee, a Flour Mills Control Committee, a Director of Finance, a Director of Contracts, and a secretary?
I do not want to sack them. I only ask, will they have gone or will they not? I could have said 1677 a good deal about kitchens. What has happened to the kitchens and the money spent on equipping them? There is a certain amount of mystery about that, but I will not go into that. I will confine myself to asking the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us exactly how many of these officials will be gone at the end of this year, and how many will be left. I take it for granted that the Minister of Food will be still in his place, and, I hope, also the Parliamentary Secretary. I want them to tell me a little about the Consumers' Council, a mysterious and powerful body which does not appear in the Estimates.
Might I ask the Minister of Food or the Parliamentary Secretary if the Consumers' Council are paid any salaries or allowances? Are they to be continued in their position, and, if so, what will their cost be?
Unlike those hon. Members who often speak against the Government, but do not vote against it, I am generally one of those who vote against it, but do so silently. I can only say, so far as economy is concerned, I shall always support any Motion that is going to make this Government more economical. I should like to say that I am not speaking against the Ministry of Food. I should hope they are trying to be as economical as they can, but it surprises me that the right hon. Gentleman, who will agree with me that he wishes to cut down expenditure in every way, does not cut it down by stopping his officials from travelling as much as they are doing. One hon. Member asked why the right hon. Gentleman did not bring in a bigger Estimate at first. I say, let him bring in a small Estimate at first, and see that he keeps within it, and I personally believe that, if the right hon. Gentleman really studied economy, he could keep within the Estimate he originally introduced. Many of the items are due to re-organisation of the office. Why did not the right hon. Gentleman leave the office as it was? Then we have expenses for agricultural costings. It says in paragraph B, "Travelling expenses— Additional amount required consequent on the continuance of the Ministry for 1678 Agricultural Costings." Why did not the right hon. Gentleman say, "I am unable to continue this, as I have no money for it?" If the right hon. Gentleman really had economy at heart he would have done that. It is really no advantage to this State to spend a Supplementary Estimate of from £25,000 to £40,000 at the present moment to find out the costings, say, in regard to milk. We are spending this sum of money to find out what it is costing to produce milk. The whole conditions may be changed next year, and the costings ascertained at the moment are going to be of no value in future. The right hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. G. Roberts) said the Board of Agriculture had no officials who could undertake this duty when it was necessary to control prices. That is a difficult situation; but to say it is a good thing at the present moment to spend this money to find out the cost of producing milk or any other agricultural produce is, in my opinion, nothing but sheer waste of money. If the Ministry of Food were to tell us they are going to spend no more on this between now and the 1st April, that might make me withdraw my objection to this Estimate, but when we see the Ministry of Food asking for supplementary sums to be spent on these particular forms of expenditure, I say that every Member of this House is justified in voting against this Supplementary Estimate, and I do hope it will not only show this Ministry that the House is determined to reduce Supplementary Estimates, but to produce economy in every direction.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
We have had a very varied discussion on this Estimate, and I must say at once to the Committee that if I were to reply in detail to all the questions addressed to me, I am afraid it would make too large a demand on the patience of the Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I will, however, so far as I can within reason, endeavour to deal with the various points that have been raised. Let me say, in the first place, broadly, that criticism as I have heard the Debate—and I have heard practically the whole of it—has been addressed to the Government from two different sources. In the first place, there has been criticism from those who object root and branch to having the Ministry of Food at all, and it is a perfectly legitimate and perfectly intelligible 1679 point of view. A certain number of Members of the Committee are those who took that view in the summer, when the question of the continuance of the Ministry of Food was before this House in a Bill. They have not changed that view, and they still come down here and say that they were always opposed to the Ministry, and always voted against any money for it, and will continue to do so. That is, at all events, an intelligible proposition, but it is not the view the House of Commons as a whole has taken, because the House of Commons as a whole, having considered the matter in the summer as to whether the Ministry was or was not to be continued, decided, and Parliament has enacted, that the Ministry is to be continued. I say it is hopeless, therefore, for me to attempt to argue the merits of that question, and embark on a Second Reading discussion as to the continuance or discontinuance of the Ministry. I should like, however, to say this. There is a certain confusion, it always seems to me, in the minds of some of those who speak about the question of food control. There are really two forms at least of control, which are clearly distinguished and which are very often confused. There is a form of control in the proper sense of the word, which consist in control over distribution, the control of the retail prices, or the control of the wholesale prices or the importers' prices, or, it may be, control of importation itself. That is control in the legitimate sense of the word.
There is also, as it is sometimes loosely said, the form of control which consists of actual Government trading in commodities, and it is particularly to this that speakers, like my hon. and gallant Friend opposite, have directed their attention. I would transgress the limits of order on a Supplementary Estimate if I went into any great detail as to Government trading in various commodities, but perhaps I may be allowed to say this much: that it is the policy of the Government, it is the declared intention of the Government— and it is the Government's intention—to bring to an end at the earliest possible date Government trading. I should like also to say this, which I think the Committee should know and recognise, that it is not altogether easy to do that. You cannot just say a Government is going to stop trading in this or that commodity to- 1680 morrow, because, after all, you have the consumer to consider. Before the Government goes out of trade it has to be sure that the consumer is not going to suffer from shortness of supply. It would not be in order to develop that point, but I hope the Committee realise it, and that members of the Committee, whatever else they may have against the Government, or against this Estimate, whether in substance or form, realise that the Government have not been trading from the sheer joy of being in trade. Their intention and policy is at the earliest possible date to get out of that sort of Government control.
Probably the easiest and best way to deal with the various points which have been put to me will be to commence with my right hon. Friend opposite (Sir. D. Maclean), follow his method, and take the items as he went through them. We have had a good deal of objection raised to item £66,500, whilst objections have also been raised to the items which make up this amount. In opening the discussion the right hon. Gentleman gave details of the items. There was £12,500 for war bonuses or the temporary equivalent of the war bonus. There was £3,250 for the substitution of ex-service men for women. I do not imagine there is any serious objection to either of these items. There is £25,000 for agricultural costings investigations. Some objection has been raised by one or two hon. Members to the setting up of this Agricultural Costings Investigations Committee, but I should be very much surprised if that view is at all shared by members of the Committee and particularly by members of the agricultural body in this House. I cannot conceive any field of investigation in national economy which represents greater possibilities than this question of costings in the agricultural industry. I believe it will be fruitful of the most valuable results, and that in the long run, from the point of view, as I say, of national economy, it will pay for itself over and over again, and even within a short space of time.
The next item, £66,000, objected to, and the largest, is that for the liquidation of the Live Stock Fund. I do not know if my right hon. Friend objects to that because, if he does, I would ask him to say what he would rather have. It is quite true that the liquidation of this 1681 fund has taken rather longer than it was "expected to do. In this respect I throw myself upon the mercy of the Committee. When the main Estimates were before the House my recollection of what took place was that I said we hoped to be able to complete this matter in three months. For one reason or another that has not happened. It is partly because it has proved to be rather a bigger job than we expected, partly because of the various difficulties in labour matters, the coal strike, and other things, and because, on account of these, some part of the activities of the Department were directed into other channels. That brings me to the next question raised by my right hon. Friend—that of allowance for travelling expenses. I do not think my right hon. Friend is quite reasonable in this objection. It was explained to him that a large portion, practically half of this particular sum, was due to unexpected work in connection with the Costings Investigation. It was explained that the balance is due also to two causes—the increased railway fares, which were certainly not foreseen, and the increase of statistics allowance corresponded to the increase of War bonus, which, as the Committee knows, is governed by the index figures of the cost of living. I say these items are perfectly legitimate, and that the items of the Supplementary Estimate are precisely those which could not be foreseen at the time of the original Estimate. I do not understand that my right hon. Friend took any serious objection to the increased amount of law charges, except that he did indicate that he was sorry that it was not balanced entirely by a corresponding Appropriation Bill. Frankly, I do not think it is important. I think, on the whole, that the increase of prosecutions has resulted in the law being better obeyed and more widely enforced than it had been during the previous twelve months.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I have just explained about Item C. The greater part of this £15,000 represents the expenses of closing about 1,000 of the various offices in connection with the Live Stock Fund.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
It is so. It is exactly what I have told my right hon. Friend. There were over 1,000 provincial offices which were being financed directly by the Live Stock Fund, and these expenses include the closing accounts—the final instalments of rent and rates, fuel, cleaning, stationery, postage, and other things.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that if you have been occupying a large number of buildings for some time, there are always charges for dilapidation and other charges when you go out. I am coming to one charge of that kind in connection with the items of the Peace Conference expenses. These are precisely the same kind—claims which arise when you abandon offices and which do not arise until that particular moment. It is idle for my right hon. Friend to select a moment in the last year when the offices were in full swing and when no claims of this sort arose, and then when you finally liquidate to say, "Here is a considerable increase over the amount for the previous year." My right hon. Friend must decide which horse he is going to ride. Does he want the work of this Department to be liquidated or does he want it to go on? If he wants it liquidated he must be prepared to face the ordinary charges which occur in any business when you bring it to an end, and he must not complain that those charges exceed the amount which is ordinarily required when a business is being continued as a going concern. With regard to the Food Control Committee expenses and the question I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham (Lieut.-Colonel Assheton-Pownall), may I say that there appears to be a little confusion as regards this. This particular item does not refer to anything which has happened during the present financial year. When the regional organisation was being carried on by the local authorities there were certain claims in the ordinary course for the expenses of those authorities. Largely owing to the railway strike in October, 1919, there was considerable delay in presenting the claims for the quarter, and although they had been pro- 1683 vided for in anticipation in the original estimate they were not in fact checked and completed at the time of presenting the Estimates. They have now been checked and completed, and the extra sum of £85,000 becomes necessary. It is a question of re-voting this sum, which has already appeared in accounts for 1919–20 as a corresponding saving for that quarter. There is no new money. It is a re-voting of money.
That brings me to the main bone of contention in the Estimates, the question of the regional organisation. There still seems to me a certain amount of obscurity in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir D. Maclean) and some of my hon. Friends on this matter. I am utterly surprised at the objection which has been taken to the form of this Estimate. I am the more surprised because I have—frankly, I say it myself—some experience of looking at Estimates with a somewhat critical and jaundiced eye with a view to finding criticisms, and, honestly, I cannot find anything in the form of this particular item such as to justify the criticisms which have been brought against it. Just let me explain to the Committee again what are the facts. You have in the Ministry of Food the ordinary organisation of a Government office. You have a headquarters staff operating in London, and you have that office operating also through a number of district offices scattered up and down the country—
§ The Yeoman-Usher of the Black Rod having come with a, Message, the. Chairman left the Chair.