HC Deb 09 April 1936 vol 310 cc3033-40

3.15 p.m.


I wish to raise the question of grain storage in relation to national defence for two reasons. Firstly, because in the Whit Paper on Defence there is no reference at all to the question of the provision of food in this country or to grain storage and, whilst the majority of the House is only too anxious and willing to support the Government in any effort to repair the defences of the country, many of us are extremely anxious about this question of grain storage. My second reason for wishing to open a discussion on the subject is that the Prime Minister, in replying to a question from me on 31st March, said he would welcome a debate on the subject. I should like to offer a few observations, not because I think anything I can say on this matter will be of any particular interest to the House but in the hope of eliciting a constructive statement from the Government as to the investigations that are now being carried out, and also in the hope that we shall have some promise of action not too long delayed.


My hon. Friend is talking of grain storage. Grain is one of a variety of foodstuffs. Does he treat grain on some different footing from other essential foodstuffs, and does he treat essential foodstuffs on some different footing from raw material? I want to understand the width of what it is I am to reply to.


My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) will deal with the production of foodstuffs. I thought of narrowing down my speech to the storage of grain, and particularly wheat, if only for the reason that 63 per cent. of our imports are cereals, and of this 63 per cent. two-thirds are wheat. Apart from the import of oil, iron ore and certain minerals, the nature of which it is not in the public interest to mention, wheat is all-important to us, and for this reason I had thought of limiting my speech to this narrow issue. I was somewhat surprised at the modesty of the hon. Gentleman's statement yesterday when he referred to the possibility of his being present to-day. I should like to express my lively satisfaction that the possibility should have materialised. At a time when preparations are being made to increase our military security it is surely common sense not to neglect reasonable precautions in regard to the most important element in the defence of the Realm, the provision of food.

There are two ways of dealing with this question. The first is the question of home production and of increasing the fertility of the soil, and the second is the question of the storage of grain. I should like to reaffirm the truism that we cannot hurry nature and, while an industry can switch over its production in peace time to the manufacture of war materials in a short time, particularly if preliminary arrangements have been made, almost all crops take a year to grow and harvest and, if war were to break out in the late spring of any year, it would probably take about 18 months before any appreciable increase in our production would become apparent.

Therefore, if agriculture is to play its part in the defence of the country, the fertility of the soil must be increased during preceding years of peace, and that can be done only by carrying a high population of cattle. This touches the root of the matter. We must feed in time of war not only our people, but our livestock also. If we stored a sufficient quantity of wheat in this country in granaries or silos, we should have the offals also which we need for feeding our livestock. The President of the Board of Trade, in reply to a question put to him on 26th March, answered: Granaries cannot be an effective security against the risk of war unless they are full."—OFFRIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1936; col. 1420, Vol. 310.] That is obvious to everybody. Therefore, I would urge my hon. Friend to take steps to fill the granaries which we have at the present time. I am not asking him to spend enormous sums of money upon building granaries or silos, but to take steps to fill the granaries and silos that we have, with certain exceptions.




If I may be allowed to continue my argument, I will wind up by giving the reason why this should be done. I am asking the Government to fill the granaries that we have, with certain exceptions. Those exceptions are the silos and granaries at our ports, which will provide obvious vulnerable targets of attack by bombing aeroplanes. It has been calculated that the wheat requirements of the country cost something like £40,000,000 a year, and that if a year's supply were stored, the cost of storage, calculated at 6 per cent., would be £2,500,000. According to the Ministry of Agriculture report on the Marketing of Wheat in England and Wales, 1928, the storage capacity in this country is sufficient for very nearly a year's supply. I am not suggesting that we should store as great an amount as that, although that has been advocated by people outside this House, but it would be worth while to investigate whether it would not be in the interests of the country, in view of the uncertain international situation and the privations and anxieties which this country experienced in 1917, to consider the storage of six months' supply of wheat in the granaries and silos of this country. On the basis I have just given, the cost of the storage of six months supply is £1,250,000. It would give security to this country which a battleship costing £7,000,000 cannot alone give. I do not by that mean to suggest at all that battleships are not absolutely vital to the safety and security of this country—they are—but if we could store that amount of wheat for so small a sum, it would be very much worth while.

May I put five practical proposals before my hon. Friend for his consideration? They are probably familiar to the Government already, and, no doubt, familiar to many Members of this House. I would ask him to investigate them even if they are familiar to him. First of all, I believe that the vulnerability of our present granaries and silos at our ports could be lessened if steps were to be taken to encourage the millers to keep their granaries full. This could be done by a small bonus given to the millers, based upon the difference between keeping their granaries full and the average quantities they have kept in those granaries during the last two or three years. It is a fact that during 1935, 68½ per cent. of English wheat sold in this country was sold before February. Surely, farmers could be encouraged to hold off their wheat from the market. By a small bonus for every quarter of wheat could they not be encouraged to hold off their wheat from the market for each month of the cereal year until the next harvest?

There is no better way of storing English wheat, on account of the greater moisture content than in the stack. If that were done on any large scale it would increase the margin of safety which is so badly needed at the present time, because an enemy could not possibly attack or destroy wheat stored on a large scale in stacks spread up and down the country. The suggestion has been made that we might refit and revive the country mills which were somewhat hastily destroyed during the popularity of rationalisation. If the matter were considered urgent as a result of investigations made by the Government, municipal authorities could be asked to build granaries of a size bearing relation to the population of their respective districts.

Lastly, there is the question of the storage of surplus Canadian wheat in this country. I put a question to my hon. Friend on this subject yesterday, and he said that he would make a note of it. I suggested that the Canadian Wheat Board might be approached with a view to the storage of some of their surplus wheat on this side of the Atlantic instead of on the other side of the Atlantic, and that the Government of the United Kingdom might pay for the small extra cost of storage. I have the figures given by the Canadian Minister of Trade and Commerce, from which it is clear that for the week ending the 6th March, 1936, there were just under 220,000,000 bushels of wheat stored on the Canadian side of the Atlantic. It would be a wise thing if we were to approach the Canadian Wheat Board and ask them to store some of that wheat in this country. These enormous surpluses of wheat at present in Canada are depressing prices and ruining the Canadian farmers. By having some of that wheat stored in this country not only should we remove the depressing and ruinous effect on prices in Canada and do the Canadian farmer a good turn, but we should be adding to the margin of safety in this country.

If it is said that the sort of action which I have suggested would increase the price of wheat, my reply is that it is strange doctrine that we should refuse to defend ourselves because we might temporarily increase the price of any particular commodity. If it is said that the cost of storage would be too great a burden on His Majesty's Government, surely with wheat at its present price, and if it is thought that the price of wheat might rise, some arrangement might be made whereby the margin of increase might primarily be used to pay for the cost of the storage.

It is because I believe that this question is of some urgency and that there is anxiety in the country that I have raised it to-day. I have done so in the belief that in time of war we could still command the seas. If we lost that command in time of war then, obviously, we should be a beaten people and no amount of stores of grain, iron ore, oil or of anything else could possibly save us. What I have said is based on the assumption that we should still command the seas. Although the Government are daily doing all that they can to avert the danger and menace of war not only in this year of grace but in the future, surely it is statesmanship also to minimise the effects of war should war come upon us again. After all, we only wriggled through the last war.

My reason for putting these proposals to the Government is that we only wriggled through 1917 on account of the convoy system and hastily improvised home grown production. Submarines still exist, and it is probable that the post-war submarine will in another war again force us back to the convoy system. This time we shall have to consider the effect of bombing planes on convoys. I have never shared the view held by many people that a warship cannot defend itself against aerial attack, but I agree that aerial attack is much more likely to prove effective against merchant ships than against warships. No one so far has experienced air attacks on convoys. No one can accurately foretell the result. Therefore, it is conceivable, I will not put it any higher, that an unforeseen emergency might arise due to the unknown factor of aerial power. The lesson of history shows that there is always an interim period between the invention of a new form of offence and the invention of a defensive weapon to meet the new invention. Surely, as far as we are concerned, as far as this country is concerned, the whole lesson of English history is that of all the nations of the world we stand to suffer most during that interim period, we are more vulnerable than any other nation.

If that is the case it would be statesmanship to provide an extra margin of safety in the event of an unforeseen emer- gency or contingency arising, however temporary it might be. If we had for example a six months' supply of wheat stored in this country it would free the mercantile marine, if only temporarily, for the transport of oil, munitions and troops, and, what is more, it would free cruisers for other purposes for which they might be required. In that connection I would remind the House that we have only 50 cruisers at the present time. In time of war 18 or 20 would be required to be with the battle fleet, and at any single time 10 may be taken as being in harbour refuelling, taking in stores, or undergoing repairs, and, therefore, of our 50 cruisers only 20, some of them over age, would be available to defend the daily imports coming into these islands of 50,000 tons of foodstuffs and 110,000 tons of merchandise, and to protect the convoys over 85,000 miles of trade routes. Therefore, I submit that the Admiralty would be relieved of a serious strain if they knew that whatever happened we had wheat stored in this country, capable of lasting six months without imports, and they would be free to concentrate on meeting a temporary emergency or whatever dangers might beset us.

I would urge on the Government with all respect that they should consider one last suggestion. I believe that there is a widespread feeling of anxiety in regard to this matter. Would it not be possible for one Member of the Government to be responsible to this House on the question of grain storage. I know that the Committee of Imperial Defence is responsible. The matter is in capable hands, and I know that a number of committees have been looking into the matter. It is a question which was raised as far back as 1904, and I believe there was a Royal Commission on the subject in 1905. Conservative Members of Parliament have been raising the question on and off ever since then, but with the memories, anxieties and privations of 1917 still fresh in our minds, surely it would be wise to go into the matter again, not from the point of view of postponing any further investigation or examination but from the point of view of really tackling it once and for all.

Surely, if we adopt that point of view, would it not be well to have one Member of the Government responsible to the House of Commons, so that those of us who are interested in this question and would like to see the matter dealt with can come to the House and put questions to him, and make sure that this matter will really be dealt with in the near future?