HC Deb 03 March 1926 vol 192 cc1568-74

I beg to move, That, in view of the evidence submitted to the Royal Commission and the experiences of the Food Council, together with recent revelations respecting short weight and short measure in the sale of food, legislation to protect the consumer is urgent and necessary. In rising to move this Motion, I wish to say at the outset that I am very sorry that the two Bills which we have just been discussing should have intervened, because it is now impossible for me to make the lengthy statement which might be made on this Motion. A year ago a similar Motion was introduced by the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), and discussion then took place with reference to the cost of living, and the Commission which had been set up at that time. In that discussion, evidence was produced which pointed very clearly to the fact that something would have to be done in the interests of the workers of this country. But although the Commission has been sitting and a year has gone by since that Motion was introduced, nothing has been done by the Government to reduce the cost of living. I speak more particularly on behalf of the miners of this country in saying that when one considers the reductions in wages which have taken place, one cannot but wonder if the Government ever take into account that it is practically impossible on the wages they are receiving for working people to keep fit and remain at their daily work.

I refer to one of the best wages boards in the country when I refer to the Yorkshire miners, and it will be found that in Yorkshire wages have been reduced to 46.67 per cent. above the 1914 standard, while the cost of living is between 70 and 75 per cent. above the 1914 rate. Deducting one figure from the other one can only come to the conclusion that these miners to-day are working for wages 25 per cent. or 28 per cent. less than they were getting in 1914. I am aware that the Commission was set up in November, 1924, and took evidence from time to time, and one result of their inquiry has been to show the appalling way in which the people of the country have been robbed by short weight and high charges in connection with foodstuffs. We ask the Government to introduce a Bill which will do something for the workers in this respect. I know the Government will tell us, as they did in answer to a question the other day, that it is their intention to introduce a Bill, but we are not satisfied with the mere declaration of their intention. We ask, when are they going to introduce the Bill?

When one reads the evidence as to short weight and so on given in evidence before this Commission, one can readily understand that the country at large should insist on this matter being brought before the House and on something, tangible being done. In reading through the reports we find that, so far as prosecutions are concerned, the Weight and Measures Act does not interfere with people except in so far as coal and one or two other things are concerned. It does not apply to the other essentials. This business has been going on for years, and we have only been able to ascertain through this Royal Commission and the evidence given before it how far the people of this country have been robbed. This applies more particularly to the workers, and it is a thing that ought to be brought to an end by the introduction of a Bill. I do not propose at this late hour to go into the question so far as the Royal Commission is concerned, because I want to give an opportunity to others to take part in the Debate.


I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has put in a very plain way the facts of which we have to complain. First, I think, we ought to recognise the necessity of protecting the public, inasmuch as we import into this country four-fifths of our wheat, three-fifths of our meat, three-fifths of our eggs, and one-half of our dairy produce. I think these facts ought to prove to 'every Member of this House the necessity of protecting the public from the middleman and the wholesaler who distribute the food to the people. My hon. Friend has pointed out a few of the ways in which the public have been robbed and plundered in the distribution of food.

Though we only produce this small amount of foodstuffs in our own country, there are 1,250,000 people—willing workers—unemployed. We do not get many definite facts, but, from estimates that have been given to us, we learn that in this country there are some 12,000,000 acres of land not cultivated or under-cultivated. It does not appear credible that there should be 12,000,000 acres of land either not cultivated or under-cultivated, while there are 1,250,000 workers out of employment. One would have thought that in this House, which is supposed to represent the intelligence of this country, something might have been brought forward whereby these idle lands might have been brought to these idle hands.

No man should have the power to stop Parliament from dealing with a matter of this kind. The question, it appears to me, largely deals with the few facts that have been brought out by the Food Council. Always let us remember that the purchasing power—and while we speak about the miners, we can speak also about the population of the country—has been reduced by over £500,000,000 per year in the shape of reductions in wages. That only proves the necessity of safeguarding the people with this reduced purchasing power. Let us also remember that the distribution of food supplies that are imported ought to be a national obligation. Let us see what has been done in this respect. I have not too much time, but I really feel it a hardship, Mr. Speaker. We do not take up the time of this House as a rule, but there is something wrong with Parliamentary procedure that in a case like this, where a private Member, by the luck of the ballot, draws probably the chance of a lifetime, the Chairman of Ways and Means comes and introduces two Bills that the judgment of the House has said were frivolous, and so robs the private Member of his chance.

The increase in the cost of living is roughly 75 per cent. The decreased purchasing power of the working classes in the aggregate is from 20 to 30 per cent. lower than in 1914. I am not dealing particularly with the case of the miners, which some of us know, but with the general decrease over the country. I make another statement in respect to that, and it is, that there is all the more reason why Parliament, as selected by the people of this country, should do something. I have never complained of the other side. I have never got up and belittled hon. Members opposite. They were chosen by the people. They were chosen by the democratic votes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"!] Yes, but I think the people were wrong! I hope they will not make the same mistake again. Amongst the evidence that was given to the Food Council one thing that struck me more than anything I read—I am sure my Scottish friends will rather applaud me for it—was the evidence given by a bailie from Scotland and also an inspector of weights and measures.

I have here the evidence of Mr. Charles Findlater Macdonald, and Mr. Archibald H. Hamilton, a bailie of Scotland, and I culled their evidence for my Scotch friends. I have a very sincere respect for my Scotch friends. They are very persistent, but on some occasions when I miss my train that respect is turned to—. I may say that the other side thinks exactly as I do about the time they keep us here. Those gentlemen say that they took 11,049 samples of sugar, and that 2,129 of those samples were incorrect, and that the percentage of deficiency in weight out of the whole was 15.6 per cent. [Interruption.] I do not want to use swear words, and I do not want helping in that way. I have a very great respect for the hon. Member, but my vocabulary, if I care to use it, is quite sufficient. Out of 1,690 samples of butter they found 234 deficient in weight, or a percentage of 12.1.

I will only trouble the House with one other matter that I hope will appeal to my Scottish friends. There is a long total here of all the foodstuffs and of all the samples they have taken with the percentage of deficiency in weight. One thing, however, struck me more than another about the evidence of these Scottish gentlemen. Why it should be mixed up with evidence given to the Food Council I do not know, but they stated that they took 475 samples of whisky, and that there were 261 deficient and the percentage of the deficiency was 25 per cent.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister)

The hon. Member will remember that I gave an undertaking that Scottish interests should be fully considered.


This matter probably appealed to me, but not from a drinker's point of view, at least, our national beverage amongst the miners does not rise to the height of whisky. We cannot go beyond beer. In all the rest of the articles of which they took samples, and I shall not weary the House by going through the whole of the list, there was a deficiency in weight of 14.9 per cent.

In regard to short measure with milk, the general evidence was that it varied from 5 per cent. to 30 per cent. Milk is the food of the children. I have been interested in them all my life—well, I have nine living—and I have been interested since 1903 as chairman of the Public Health Committee of my own local authority. I have helped in my way. I have been mayor of my own town, too, and I have always claimed to look upon my municipal record as a much better record than the one I have here. I helped to make progress there, but as for progress here—well, it is very slow. Coming to packages, out of 9,663 weighed or measured 1,743 were found to be deficient. I am not going into the profits of the wholesale or retail dealers who stand between the foodstuffs and the consumers. All I have to say is that it is time this matter was dealt with. The public have been robbed and plundered sufficiently long. I ask the Government to deal with this matter as speedily as possible in this Session—that is what the Food Council have asked—and to deal with it in such a drastic way that those people who from little peculations have got to robbing the public shall know the dangers which they run.


I share the general regret that we should have had two such unimportant Bills this evening to curtail one of the most delightful, invigorating and helpful speeches I have listened to in this House for a long time. The Government are very much alive to the necessity of following out the recommendations of the Food Council by legislation. What the two hon. Members have said in regard to urging the Govern- ment does not fall on deaf ears. Perhaps it would be helpful if they would remember that when they are dealing with other Government matters which are being brought forward. The two hon. Members will recollect that only yesterday my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade stated that the Government were anxious to undertake legislative action on this subject as soon, as possible. The Food Council's Report was published only on the 20th February, and the hon. Member for the Wentworth Division (Mr. Hirst), who urged more speedy progress in introducing legislation, will understand that this is an intricate matter and a very far-reaching matter, and I am sure he will take it from me that my right hon. Friend in charge of the Measure is not losing any time about it. Hon. Members will be aware that local authorities in the main are in favour of legislation following on the recommendations of the Food Council, and will also be aware that the great mass of the trading associations are also in favour of legislation.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Forward to