HC Deb 02 June 1938 vol 336 cc2279-314

Order for Second Reading read.

3.59 P.m.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Oliver Stanley)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The usual function of a Minister in moving the Second Reading of a Bill is twofold—first, to explain the actual provisions of the Bill and, second, to explain the principle upon which the Bill is based. The second of those two tasks will, I think, be a singularly easy one for me to-day, because I expect that the principle embodied in the Bill will be obvious in every part of the House. I well remember sitting here during a Debate in February upon a Motion moved by an hon. Member opposite on the question of food storage, when the Government and the spokesman of the Government, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, were pressed on all sides for a statement approving this principle and this policy. I remember many uncomplimentary epithets which were flung at the Minister for the Coordination of Defence for his speech that night. I think that the least that was said of him was that he was a stonewaller. As a matter of fact, my right hon. Friend at that moment was already considering certain transactions for the acquisition of food, and it is clear that a premature disclosure of them would have had grave disadvantages in the way both of price and facility for obtaining what was required. But I do feel, after that Debate, that there is really no dispute on any side of the House as to the desirability of the Government being in a position to accumulate certain stocks of essential commodities for use in a possible emergency in the future, which we all hope will not happen.

This Bill will give the Government a power which hitherto they have not possessed to create stocks of this character for civilian use. Hon. Members, of course, realise that the Service Departments are already entitled to bear on their Votes the accumulation of reserves for use in the Services; and this Bill, through my Department, will confer a similar privilege in respect of commodities for the civil population. That is the principle of the Bill and on it I think there is no dispute. I wish to say something later as to the sort of general lines of policy upon which that principle is to be carried out. I therefore at once turn to the other part of my task, and that is an explanation of the provisions of the Bill. But I think I should first of all explain the relationship between my right hon. Friend the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, and myself, in this matter. This Bill is being introduced by me, and the expenditure which will be incurred in carrying it out will be borne on Votes for which I am responsible, and the responsibility for the execution will be mine. Therefore it might be said that, from a Parliamentary point of view, I am responsible. On the other hand, there must be a division of functions between my right hon. Friend and myself. The position there is still as it was stated by the Prime Minister in answer to a question as far back as last December, when he said: Provision for any expenditure which might be required for the purpose of food storage would fall to be included in the Parliamentary Vote for the Board of Trade. But since food storage is really a part of the larger subject of national defence, any questions upon the policy of food storage should be addressed to the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December, 1937; col. 1158, Vol. 330.] That division does seem to me clearly right and logical. This policy is essentially one of the Defence Services and as such must in principle fall within the function of a Minister who has to coordinate those Services. Both the necessities of those Services and their resources must fluctuate from time to time; their needs must vary in relation to the preparedness or possibility of defence, as to the degree of vulnerability at one time or another of one locality or another. Similarly the resources upon which a call is to be made must be subject to adjustment in relation to the calls made for other Services which my right hon. Friend has to co-ordinate. On the other hand my Department is obviously much more closely in touch with those commercial interests and more conversant with those commercial methods which have to be used in the execution of the policy, when the policy is once decided upon. The closest possible co-operation and contact are necessary between whoever is carrying out these orders, buying and managing these reserves, and the existing traders in the particular commodity. It is through a Department such as mine, where contacts of that kind already exist, that clearly the work of execution should be carried out.

I may roughly put it this way: In policy I should put such questions as the scale of the reserves to be accumulated, the nature of the reserve which is required at any particular time, the commodities to be selected. Once that is decided, the responsibility for carrying it out, for buying these stores, making arrangements for their maintenance and their storage and turning over, will be done through me and through my Department. In the appropriate case either it will be the Food (Defence Plans) Department, or the Ministry of Mines in the case of petroleum, or the Board of Trade which will deal with fertilisers. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter), who speaks on this subject with very great authority, during a speech which he made in the Debate in February referred to the prospects of the Food (Defence Plans) Department in the most gloomy terms. He drew a rather sordid picture of a household in which the part of the niggardly stepfather was played by my right hon. Friend and in which I was the unwilling mother, while the Department was the unwanted, uncherished, and, as far as I can make out, the doubtfully legitimate child.

Sir Arthur Salter

I said unwillingly conceived and late born.

Mr. Stanley

I did not like to quote the whole of the hon. Gentleman's metaphor, but it is a fact that he mixed up alimony and affiliation.

Sir A. Salter

With great respect, I said nothing about the right hon. Gentleman being the mother.

Mr. Stanley

I was not complaining, because I think the hon. Member showed a refreshing innocence in a rather sordid matter. I beg the hon. Gentleman to seek a new picture more in accordance with his usual cheerful geniality. Let him seek a normal Victorian family. Let him represent my right hon. Friend as the heavy but benevolent father and myself as the devoted wife. The father, know- ing the extent of the family income, knowing the other calls upon the family budget, lays down the general principles for the maintenance, the upbringing and the education of his offspring, while I, the mother, translate them into more homely domestic terms, buying clothes and engaging the governess. If the hon. Gentleman looks upon it in that light I do not think he need have any fear that this division of functions will result in any neglect of a Department which is recognised both by my right hon. Friend and myself as being of the utmost importance in the general scheme for the security of the country.

So I turn to the actual contents of the Bill. It is, I am glad to say, in contrast to some Measures which I have recently had to introduce, both short and simple. The first Clause empowers the Board of Trade to obtain information as to stocks of essential commodities and as to storage and other facilities in connection with them. This part is obviously essential; it is an essential preliminary to any proper plan of Government creation of reserves. I must pay a tribute, on behalf of the Government, to the voluntary co-operation which we have received in this matter from the great majority of the traders who are concerned. Without any of these powers they have been glad and willing to give us all the information that we require, but there is a minority which has not come into line, and the whole House will agree that this information we should have and that power must therefore be taken for us to obtain it.

Clause 2 is, of course, largely the operative Clause of the Bill. It is the Clause which gives to the Board of Trade the power to expend money in the creation of these stocks of essential commodities. I have tried in this Clause to make the powers conferred upon the Board of Trade as flexible as possible. Everyone will realise that you cannot, in finding the best and most economical method of dealing with all this range of commodities, lay down any one general principle. In the case of one commodity you may be able to create a reserve cheaply and easily on quite different lines from those which you have to adopt in the case of another commodity. For instance, in the one case it may be possible by certain inducements, by certain payments in respect of unused capital, simply to induce traders to carry, on Government behalf, more than the normal stock which they would be carrying. On the other hand, in some commodities that might be found quite impossible, and it will then be necessary for the Government itself to purchase the necessary reserves.

It is the same with the question of storage, maintenance and turning over. In some cases it may be possible to make arrangements of one sort or another with the traders concerned. In others the Government will have to assume the sole responsibility for these functions. Clause 2 as drafted does give to the Board of Trade the power to adopt any of these methods which it may think is the best and cheapest in respect of the particular commodity concerned. Sub-section (3) of Clause 2 deals with a different point and is of considerable importance. The effect of the Sub-section is to provide that any liquidation—I mean complete liquidation of stocks accumulated under the powers of this Bill—cannot take effect without another Act of Parliament defining the manner in which it is to be carried out. One of the difficulties which anyone who has studied this problem has always foreseen is the effect upon the general trade of the country of large stocks, accumulated in Government hands, which might without any previous notice be thrown upon the market and disorganise the ordinary channels of trade. We all hope that a day will come when the period of emergency will pass, when measures of this character will become unnecessary and the stocks acquired under the Bill will be no longer required.

It is essential that, when we come to decide that the happy moment has arrived when liquidation is possible and necessary, it should not be hanging over the traders as a secret possibility which may burst upon them at any moment. Under the terms of this Sub-section it will be necessary for Parliament to decide, with full publicity, how, when the time comes, the liquidation of the stocks is to be carried out. That does not mean, of course, that we have not retained the power, which obviously we must have, to vary the stocks during the period while the Act is in force. Many of the commodities which we may have to buy are commodities which deteriorate, and have to be turned over more or less rapidly to prevent that deterioration; and we have, of course, retained the power, as we must, to vary the emphasis which may from time to time be placed upon the stock of a particular commodity. In the light of the circumstances of the day, we may think that we require more of one thing and less of another. Circumstances may afterwards alter, and we may require less of the first thing and more of the second. We must obviously have power to make alterations of that kind.

Mr. Lewis

Would my right hon. Friend explain why it is thought desirable that there should be the utmost secrecy before the purchases are made, and the utmost publicity before the sales are made?

Mr. Stanley

It is not a question of publicity in the case of sales; it is that the traders should not feel that at any moment the Government have it in their power, without any notification, to wind up the whole transaction, and throw, perhaps, millions of pounds' worth of commodities on to the market. The fact that that cannot be done until it is authorised by a further Act of Parliament is a guarantee that they can carry on during the interval their ordinary trading methods without fear of an upset of that character.

Clause 3 is the financial Clause. I do not know that I need explain it in detail, because it is set out very clearly, but the principle of it is that a revolving fund shall be set up which will be under the control and management of the Board of Trade. Into that fund will be paid both the sums of money which will be voted by Parliament from time to time and any receipts which the Board of Trade gets from the sale of these stocks during the process of turning them over; and out of the fund will be paid all the expenses incurred by the Board of Trade in carrying out these transactions for the creation of reserves. Sub-section (3) also validates those transactions which, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer informed the House, have already been carried out. I think the Government can well be gratified by the spirit in which the House received the announcement that these anticipatory purchases had already been made. The method adopted was admittedly an extraordinary one, but I think all of us realise that the times, too, are extraordinary, and that it was a wise thing to complete the purchase of these particular commodities before the publicity given by the discussion of a Bill. I think hon. Members will agree with me that those three commodities, namely, wheat, whale oil and sugar, were just the three commodities that anyone interested in the subject would know that the Government would have to buy, and would probably have to buy first. These financial transactions, when the Bill becomes law, can be cleared up, and, of course, the money for them will come out of the money voted by a Supplementary Estimate which will be presented in July.

Clause 4 is merely the usual Clause enabling us to enforce the powers under Clause 1. Clause 5 gives the power to make orders—orders which, as a matter of fact, will be of only one character, that is to say, orders defining what is an essential commodity. These orders will in due course be laid before Parliament, but will not, of course, be subject to resolutions. Clause 6 is the interpretation Clause, on which I need not dwell; but I should like to say a word or two about the Schedule, which describes the types of commodities which may be declared to be essential commodities in time of war. The Schedule limits the commodities to foodstuffs, forage, fertilisers and petroleum. I do not think I need make out a case for the inclusion of any of these four types of commodities. All of us are agreed as to the prime necessity of including foodstuffs. Petroleum, obviously, is equally essential, and equally liable to dislocation in an emergency. Fertilisers stand, perhaps, on a rather different footing, but we include them on the ground that one of the first things the country will have to do at the outbreak of any war is to put into force the policy of increasing the home production of food. That must necessitate, if the season is favourable, an immediate increase in the use of fertilisers as the first step in a policy of increased production, and it is, therefore, essential that we should have, at whatever time the emergency breaks out, a sufficient stock of fertilisers in the country to enable that policy to be put into operation at the earliest possible moment.

Probably hon. Members will be more inclined, rather than to criticise the inclusion of these particular commodities, to question the exclusion of others, and I want to make quite plain at the outset the reason why the Government have at the moment restricted the powers under the Bill to commodities of these four types. They have given very careful consideration to the subject, and fully recognise the arguments on the other side. On the other hand, one must realise that under this Bill the Government are taking very big and very unusual powers. Undoubtedly, whatever safeguards you give them, and however much you try to work in co-operation with them, it is disturbing to those engaged in trading in the commodities covered by the Bill to know that the Government have these large powers which at any time they may use, and the knowledge of Government action on a large scale is bound to have some upsetting effect upon normal business.

There is also a very great danger that quite undue reliance may be placed by industries or traders upon the powers that the Government have under the Bill, and this may cause them to neglect the steps which I think we are all entitled to look to them to take, not only for the sake of the general community but for their own. After all, an industry which has to shut down because of shortage of stocks of raw materials during an emergency, is, when it is shut down, unable to earn profits or to avoid loss, and, apart from wider considerations, it is to the financial interest of the industry itself to take measures to prevent that occurring. We do not want measures which should be taken by industries to be avoided in the belief that the Government themselves are going to create large stocks of commodities which in fact they may have no intention whatever of purchasing, and which they do not believe to be appropriate commodities for reserves of this kind. Therefore, we have confined the Bill to those types of commodities which we know now are absolutely certain to be required for acquisition under the Bill. If at any other time we believe that some type of commodity, at present excluded from the Bill, is necessary, then we shall have to come again to the House for extended powers.

Having dealt with the provisions of the Bill, I think that probably it will be of interest to the House to have, and that it is entitled to have, some details of the transactions which have already been carried out and which are being validated by the Bill. I have, and I am sure the House has, some difficulty in knowing exactly what information it is really pos- sible to ask for and to give in the discussion of this subject. I was particularly struck by the fact that during the previous Debate hon. Members in all parts of the House disclaimed willingly, and, if I may say so, I think rightly, any desire to have certain and precise information. The hon. Member for Oxford University, for instance, said that he did not want to know, and did not think he was entitled to ask for, the amount of the stock of any particular commodity or the exact location of any storage of these commodities. I am anxious to give to the House all the information that I possibly can, but hon. Members and others recognise that there is a limit beyond which it is not to the national advantage to go in making disclosures of this kind.

Let me deal first with wheat. The Chancellor in his speech explained how the purchase of the wheat had been effected, and I should like to give the House some information about the arrangements we made for its maintenance in storage. Wheat, as hon. Members know, is a commodity which requires very frequent turning over to prevent its deterioration, and from that point of view it is, perhaps, one of the most difficult commodities to include in a storage policy of this kind. Hon. Members will recollect that the Chancellor named the concerns, Joseph Rank, Limited, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society of England, who had assisted in the buying of this wheat. These concerns, with the Co-operative Wholesale Society of Scotland and Messrs. Spillers, have been entrusted with the custody of the wheat. They will hold it on Government account and take it over when the time comes for milling to prevent deterioration; and, when they do that, they will make it good by an equivalent purchase on account of the Government. I may add that, as in connection with the transactions for purchase, these concerns are taking no commission, and are being paid only their out-of-pocket expenses; and they have also given the Government a pledge that they will maintain their own normal reserves at the same time as they are carrying these extra stocks for the Government. I think we can say that they have co-operated with us in a real desire to help the national interest.

With regard to storage, this wheat will be stored in the ports. It will be dispersed as far as possible, and as far as possible, of course, it will be stored in ports on the West Coast. I have studied carefully all the arguments for inland storage, and I quite admit, as all of us must, its desirability, if it is practicable, in comparison with alternative forms of storage. But the trouble about inland storage is that it would add enormously to the cost. It would add not only to the cost of construction in so far as the Government had to build new silos in inland districts, but it would add very greatly indeed to the cost of maintenance and of turning over. The fact that most of the mills are in the ports means that if you first of all land the wheat at the docks, then take it inland, and then, when the time comes for milling it, have to take it back to the docks, it adds enormously to the expenditure, and, I believe, something like doubles or trebles it. It is our view that that extra money, spent, I agree, in getting increased security for that wheat, could better be spent in the purchase of other essential commodities.

With regard to sugar, the arrangements for purchase have already been completed, but the method there has been a rather different one. It has been to buy from a trader certain stocks which he now has in this country, or potential stocks in the future, on the condition that he replaces them immediately or in the future by an equivalent amount. A certain amount has already been earmarked, and the stocks bought by the trader to replace them have already arrived in this country. This sugar will be in the custody of the British Sugar Corporation, which will be responsible for the technical supervision of the storage and for the turning over, and I am glad to say that this company also is receiving no commission for this work, but only out-of-pocket expenses. There again I would like to pay a tribute to the way in which the company has met us. With regard to storage, the sugar is to be dispersed in inland centres, and arrangements have already been made for the erection of the new warehouses which will be required.

Now for the third commodity, whale oil. Whale oil is selected as providing one of our greatest necessities, which would be fat. It is used as one of the basic components of margarine, and whale oil has been selected as being of all oils the easiest oil to store. It can be kept in its crude state for a very long period of time, even for years, without any deterioration, and that fact, of course, simplifies enormously the problem of turning over the stock. The purchase of this whale oil has been completed. Most of the purchase is already in this country or on the way, but the final arrangements for its dispersion into storage and its management are not as far advanced as they are in the case of the other commodities, and I am not yet able to make a final pronouncement upon them. I should like to say, however, with reference to all these three stocks, that no further purchases of any of the three are at present contemplated. The House will realise that in July it will be necessary to bring forward a Supplementary Estimate, which will give me the opportunity of giving the same kind of information as I have already given to the House about any further transactions which may have been carried through during the interval.

Mr. Vyvyan Adams

Will my right hon. Friend be able to give us any estimate of the cost in the current year?

Mr. Stanley

That, of course, will be shown on the Supplementary Estimate. I want now to say one or two words about the object of the kind of food storage which we contemplate under this Bill, because it is a matter on which I think there is a certain amount of misunderstanding, not among those who speak about it in this House, but among those who read about it outside. I do not believe there is anyone here who has studied the matter who wants a storage policy, or thinks it possible to have a storage policy, which makes this country independent of outside supplies for anything but the most limited period. To attempt to do so would be the most gigantic task, involving huge sums of money, and all of us agree that that money could much better be spent on the Services whose duty it is to ensure that the approaches to this Island are kept open.

This is not a prevention, it is a precaution. However powerful our defences may be, we have always to face two contingencies. The first is that, whether by naval action, which causes us temporarily to lose control of the seas, or by air action, which may make the approach to our shores difficult, there is an interruption in the supplies of essential commodities from abroad. The other contingency is that, although we may have in this country ample supplies of the commodities required, there may be, through air action in a particular district, such a breakdown of distribution that it is impossible to get the supplies to the consumer in that particular place. It is clear that the types of reserves which we need for those two contingencies are dissimilar. I have dealt so far, in the three types which have been purchased already, only with the first contingency, that is, the temporary interruption of the import of those commodities from abroad. The other, the dislocation of distribution in a particular district, calls for quite different sorts of reserves. It is no good having stocks of crude whale oil or unmilled wheat, and the locality of the storage must, of course, depend upon the vulnerability of the district. What one wants under circumstances of that kind is not whale oil or wheat, but something which can be consumed immediately by the public or which can as readily and quickly as possible be made consumable. I should not like the House to think that we have overlooked that contingency, and the necessity for providing for it is one of the main objects of this Bill.

One point, I think, is quite clear, that in any decision which we may take as to this, we must keep in the closest possible touch with the Air-Raid Precautions Department, because clearly the sort of schemes for evacuation which were discussed in the House only yesterday have the greatest possible bearing upon the location and the amount of reserves of this kind. After all, whatever we do, we cannot under this Bill do more than guard against a contingency. Our first objective must always be to try to retain the command of the seas, to try to enable our ships to enter the ports of this country in war as well as in peace, and for that reason this expenditure on food storage must take its place in relation to the expenditure which we think desirable upon the other Services. I must almost apologise for mentioning the word "finance" in connection with national security, but it does seem to me that the way in which Debates in this House have to be carried on makes for the discussion of the whole of this problem in compartments. One day we are discuss- ing food storage, yesterday we were discussing air-raid precautions, another day we shall have the Air Force Estimates, and on each of these days hon. Members can put forward claims for that particular branch of security which in themselves may seem moderate and desirable, but when you total them all up, the total may seem extravagant and disastrous.

There is, after all, some limit, however elastic it may be, to the financial and commercial capacity of this country, and I would like to make this point, because we sometimes try to deceive ourselves into thinking we can shuffle it off by putting it all op capital expenditure. There is a limit to borrowing potentialities, just as there is a limit to expenditure out of revenue. Commerce and finance, which, after all, are my chief concern, are just as important a factor in this country in a war as are the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force. Indeed, in the case of a long war, they may be the decisive factor, and the risk of throwing away that weapon is one that we have to weigh very carefully. To a mere amateur strategist like myself, speaking in the presence of experts, it seems that we have always to have in our mind two possibilities, the short war and the long war, and that over-insurance against the loss of the short war may well deprive us of our capacity to win the long war, just as under-insurance against the loss of the short war may deprive us of ever having the opportunity of bringing our long-term resources into play. Those are the sort of factors that, in carrying out this Bill, my right hon. Friend and the Government will always have to weigh, and in doing that and in carrying out a policy based upon those factors, this Bill will, I believe, prove to be a real contribution to national security.

Mr. De la Bère

My right hon. Friend alluded to the necessity for the storage of food and of fertilisers, and said that in an emergency more home-grown foodstuffs would have to be produced. Would it not be better to have those foodstuffs grown before the emergency arose?

The Speaker

We cannot go into a debate on that point.

4.42 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Alexander

I am sure the House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade for a very clear and, however much he may disclaim being an expert, an expert exhibition of the proposals now before the House. It is true that in the course of his speech he exchanged a few light remarks with the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) and seemed anxious, after the experience of the House yesterday, to introduce at the earliest possible moment a lighter tone into the Debate. But however much he may have tried in that direction, I am sure the House must feel that this is just another of that succession of Parliamentary days which we have to face largely because of the policy, or lack of policy, of European nations in the last few years, a European policy in which we ourselves have been implicated and which some of us may feel could have been influenced into a very different channel from that in which we find ourselves travelling today. I am bound to say that, whereas there are people who have thought about these troubles, who may have been pressing the Government, not for months but for years past, to do something of this kind—those who have recognised the necessity for the maintenance of the power and influence of British commerce and finance in any conflict that may arise, but have been hesitant about taking emergency steps before an emergency really arose—perhaps the most significant thing to-day is that we are asked to approve the first stage of action taken by the Government, because not only the Government, but financial and commercial interests also, believe that at least the danger of an emergency has arisen.

That is the most serious side of the position that we face to-day. On the other hand, while I am necessarily very critical of the Government, and might well still be critical about future action to be taken, if it does not meet with our approval, I am bound to say that, while a good deal of agitation has been going on about the preparation of reserves of this kind, it is true that the Government have not been completely inactive. Discussions on this question have gone on for a very long time. The Minister has referred to the problem not merely of the actual purchase of reserves, but of the organisation which will be required to deal with any emergency arising either from shortage of supplies of necessary food and raw material from oversea, or from disclocation of existing supplies in this country. In that connection, I think it is true to say that there is at present a much better organisation—I was going to say skeleton organisation, but it is no longer a skeleton organisation—ready to begin to grapple with these problems if, unfortunately, the need should arise, than has yet been recognised by the critizens in general. I would not be fair if I did not say that the Food (Defence Plans) Department which, I gather, operates mostly under the aegis of the right hon. Gentleman has made very substantial progress, as I am aware from my own knowledge and experience under Sir Henry French in the preparation of plans.

I am bound to speak on a Bill of this kind largely from my own knowledge and experience, and these lead me to believe that this Bill is very necessary, and I hope that it will be passed. It is not merely an enabling Bill. I understand, subject to correction, that the Government have not yet been called upon to make any payment in respect of particular transactions but that, nevertheless, the action taken with regard to certain purchases and the acquisition of stocks, to which the President referred, needs indemnification because that action will ultimately involve a charge upon the public funds. While I, as a good House of Commons man, would on most occasions protest very strongly against the House being committed to an expenditure, on an act for which the House has given no authority, I am bound to say on this occasion, considering the state of affairs in which the Food (Defence Plans) Department had to act, I can see that there would have been much greater public injury by having a Resolution of the House in the first instance authorising specific action. Particularly it would have been a greater injury to trade and to the consumer—not in war time, but in current circumstances—than would have been justified.

The Opposition are usually anxious to find a point of profound House of Commons difference with the Government on a procedure of this kind, but in this case I see no other course than to give our approval to the action taken, which will, ultimately, involve some charge on the public funds. As to the actual separate transactions dealing with wheat, whale oil and the other commodity, I do not propose to say anything because the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a personal reference to me in this connection on a previous occasion. I would only say that those who are organised in the consumers' movement in this country, hating war as they do, anxious as they are to-see a League policy adopted, and hoping still against hope that the Government may yet adopt a League policy of a kind that will prevent war, by mobilising the peace nations in the world against the aggressors—they recognise that whatever Government is in office has a great responsibility for feeding and maintaining the life and strength of the people should war break out, and in regard to any essential stocks which are required for such a purpose, that organisation will always be willing to do what it can to-assist in the interests of the nation at large.

I wish to make a special reference to Clause 2, Sub-section (3). The right hon. Gentleman, no doubt, has taken the best advice available in commercial circles as to the policy on which he was interrupted just now by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis). I am sure he will agree that there is more to be said and more thinking to be done before a final policy is decided upon and that in respect of disposal of stocks, prior Parliamentary authority is essential. Judging from experience of the way in which tremendous losses were incurred by the State after the last War and what we have seen of the way in which certain uncontrolled profiteers made huge fortunes, I at least have some doubt as to the answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave to the hon. Member for Colchester. I can see that in regard to some commodities you may have certain market conditions and practice which require very delicate working day by day in cases where the market is affected by future prospects, extending over a number of months, and I can see that unless you could get rid of wild and unnecessary rumours, the consumer in the period of dissipation of stocks might be very much injured by violent fluctuations. I regard that part of the President's answer as being rightly based, but there are commodities regarding which the question of the holding or disposal of stocks must be carefully considered by those who are acting on behalf of the Government with a view to finding the cheapest way for the Government, and the safest way for the consumer to dispose of those stocks. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will tell us that what he has said in regard to this Sub-section of Clause 2 is not the last word on the matter, and that some further consideration will be given to it.

With regard to the Financial Clause my hon. Friends have asked me to draw attention to Sub-section (4) which provides: (4) The Treasury may out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom or the growing produce thereof make temporary advances to the fund, but any sum so advanced shall be repaid out of the fund to the Exchequer not later than the thirtieth day of September next following the end of the financial year in which the advance was made. There is here a House of Commons point. It may be argued that the fact that it is necessary to come to the House for a Supply Vote for the actual expenditure is a safeguard, but there is some nervousness on the part of certain of my hon. Friends, especially those who are more experienced than I am in dealing with the public accounts. They are anxious to know whether Parliament ought not to have a better guarantee as to the limit of expenditure in any financial year, instead of having to wait for the laying of the Supply Vote. That is the point for what it is worth, and if the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence replies, I hope he will tell us whether that has been considered, and what are the views of the Treasury.

I think it is unnecessary for me to venture any opinion upon the strategical case which was advanced by the right hon. Gentleman. In the old days I have discussed these matters in circles like the Committee of Imperial Defence, but as things may have altered as the result of changes in the alliances of Powers and in the balance of forces, in a region and contingencies which are likely to arise, I would not at this moment, and in respect of this Bill, desire to offer any detailed opinion. But there may be a serious danger to the Government, from the fact that they have had to bring in this Bill, that pressure will be brought to bear on them from all sorts of commercial quarters. I have noticed the tendency already at Question Time to raise questions about a large number of commodities. I have noticed that the agricultural industry itself, which is not altogether a pauper now from the point of view of funds received from the Exchequer, has used every opportunity of bringing pressure to bear as regards the laying of stocks of commodities which the British industry is capable of producing.

Mr. Hopkin

Hear, hear. Why not?

Mr. Alexander

I agree. All these matters have been raised, but whether the considerations put forward by the agricultural industry are necessarily right is a matter for further debate. When one remembers the experience of this country in the late War, even after the British agricultural industry had been harnessed to a very large measure of production and the extent to which this country is dependent upon supplies from oversea and dependent upon the Navy and the other defences, it is vastly important, and indeed essential, that any high expenditure required by the State for building up reserves in peacetime should be very selective expenditure calculated to deal with exactly the right kind of commodities. I am not going to trouble the House with a long series of quotations, but this Debate brought to my mind a book which I read many years ago. It is a more or less personal memoir by Sir Frank Coller, who was in charge of the Ministry of Food, and was subsequently at the Board of Trade. It was called "A State Trading Adventure." The right hon. Gentleman smiles, but the fact is that directly you come to a major emergency like the war then private enterprise breaks down.

Mr. Stanley

I only smiled because I was remembering what the right hon. Gentleman said about the losses incurred after the last War.

Mr. Alexander

I answer the right hon. Gentleman on that point by pointing to the title of the book. It was an adventure in State trading, and it was certainly not an experiment in State ownership and State control, and most of the losses were incurred because the Government wanted to maintain the principle of private profit all the way through. The point which I was going to quote from the book was that which dealt with oversea purchases: Mr. Churchill had stated in the House of Commons that the entry of America into the War placed for the first time the triumph of the allied cause beyond the reach of doubt; it certainly enabled the United States to give substantial though costly help in combating the difficulties of inter-allied supplies. In the autumn of 1917 it was estimated that our year's requirements in foodstuffs from the United States and Canada would exceed 10,000,000 tons and represent an expenditure, apart from freight charges, of approximately £250,000,000. That was in regard to urgently required overseas supplies from the United States and Canada alone. It just emphasises the fact that, with an enormous number, probably, of your citizens put upon entirely non-productive occupations in war time, with the strain of carrying on your home production, it is absolutely vital, if you are to win such a war, that you have provisions for your imports; or, if there is any temporary dislocation of those imports, either on the way here or by air raids after they have arrived, you should have a reserve of an adequate kind. I think that, on the whole, the Government's policy has been wisely chosen and well based. It might be that they would add to the provision they have made if the Agricultural Organisation Department could, by organisation, stimulate some essential food production, if that could be done without undue dislocation of our existing trade. But I am not at all sure that a widespread panic policy of stimulating British agriculture, ploughing everything up in advance, would not be one of the most dangerous ways of dealing with the situation from the point of view of preparing a food supply for war.

I do not wish to detain the House any longer, but, on the lines we have indicated, we shall listen to the rest of the Debate, and we hope, from the point of view of the fact that reserves are now required, the Board of Trade will not cease from pressing upon the Cabinet as a whole the desirability of returning to such a collective policy that we shall no longer have the growth of threats to our food supply. I cannot imagine how it is that a. Government obsessed with these responsibilities can continue a policy which allows, in the Spanish peninsula, the growth of new threats to our overseas food supply, and find itself almost impotent of ideas as to how to stem such threats. If those threats arise, we agree that provi- sion for the food necessary for the life of the people must be made.

5.4 P.m.

Mr. Owen Evans

I would like to join with my right hon. Friend in saying that we welcome this Bill and trust that the House will accept it. It is an indication, I think, that the Government are moving, perhaps slowly but, let us hope, surely, towards a strengthening of our defences on the home front. I would draw attention to one curious contradiction in the Bill, which I would like the Minister to explain. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum says that Clause 1 makes provision to give the board power to obtain information from traders concerning stocks of the commodities held by them and the output capacity of plant for manufacturing commodities. … If the right hon. Gentleman will look at Clause 1, he will see that there is no power given in the Clause itself to obtain information in regard to capacity. I draw attention to that because it is of the utmost importance not only that the information provided for in Clause 1 should be obtained but that, in order to measure the strength of the country in such circumstances, information as to the output capacity of the country should also be obtained. One has only to refer to one item mentioned in the Schedule—" Petroleum, and any product of petroleum "—to realise that it is extremely important that we should know what is the output of petroleum from the refineries. It is also important to know the capacity of the country to produce consumable products from that commodity. I suggest that in Committee the necessary additional words should be put in to make it quite clear that the board will have the power to get this information.

The Minister has anticipated the criticism that might be made that the Schedule is too restricted. He seems to draw a distinction not between one essential product and another, but from the point of view that there are not more essential products. There must be others, however, which are not included in the Schedule. If I understood him rightly, he argued that it was unnecessary, at this stage at any rate, to include these other essential products, because it might lead to traders placing undue reliance upon Government measures, and that the Gov- ernment expect traders or manufacturers of these commodities to take certain steps themselves. No doubt the Government have found out that traders are always willing to co-operate with the Government in this mater. But I was pleased to see that it might be not the last word of the Government, because the Minister indicated that they would take more extended powers if, through changed circumstances, it became necessary.

There are other commodities which, although they are not food, are very important raw materials, and are extremely essential to the carrying on of war. Take copper, for example. The consumption of copper in this country last year was something over 300,000 tons, and to the end of April this year it was 103,000 tons. That is at the rate of 25,000 tons a month. But the stocks of copper in this country have shown a considerable decrease, which has been somewhat alarming. In 1937 the known stocks in this country went down to 31,000 tons, and in April this year the stocks were only 32,000 tons. That is only just over one month's consumption. Similar considerations apply to lead. The consumption in 1937 in this country was about 365,000 tons— 1,000 tons a day. This year it is going at the rate of 332,000 tons, and the stocks of this country on 31st March were only 12,000 tons. These matters would be of extreme importance in the conduct of a war or in an emergency, because huge tonnage would be required for carrying these products into this country from abroad. Traders and manufacturers, as I am quite sure the Board of Trade will testify, are always prepared to give all assistance. They are expected to carry stocks, and the Minister hopes that these stocks will be increased. The stocks of the commodities mentioned in the Schedule are really financed by the Government, and it is, to say the least, not generous to expect traders in these other commodities to increase their own stocks while the Government are helping to finance the increase of those stocks mentioned in the Schedule.

I am very pleased with the provision regarding the liquidation of stock. What the procedure will be I do not know, but I happen to know that in respect of some commodities which were left over after the last War, the Government, in conjunction with those who had know- ledge in such matters, did sell those stocks not at a big loss, but pari passu with stocks held by traders, so as not to destroy the trade of the country. I suggest that some definite plans for liquidating these stocks should be made. The explanation by the Minister of the relative functions of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence in this matter are such as the House will welcome. The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence is the man more of ideas than of action. Let him just pass this injunction to the Government, that at any rate they should not be stampeded by any interest at all to purchase stocks unduly. After the War, I had occasion to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of this House —long before I became a Member of this House—when the Government were unduly stampeded into spending hundreds of thousands of pounds unnecessarily; and may I offer this advice to the Government —I am quite sure they are conscious of the importance of the matter—that, whatever method they adopt, they should employ to purchase these stocks men who know something about the job. Above all, it is extremely important not only that they know their job, but that they are men of integrity and honour and are not out to make profit for themselves. We remember the glaring instances which occurred during the last War when the Government lost hundreds of thousands of pounds which otherwise would have been saved. I support the Bill.

5.16 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn

I only wish to ask questions on two points in connection with Clause 2. One of these relates to Subsection (1). Perhaps those who are more expert than I follow the intention, but I find it rather difficult. Apparently, the intention is that there shall be grants or loans from His Majesty's Government to enable a trader to hold more of a commodity, X, than he otherwise would hold, but it does not seem clear from the Bill what arrangements there are to make sure that he continues to hold that excess, that additional amount of X. Presumably his ordinary holdings would go up and down, but it does not seem clear what machinery there is for maintaining that excess, that additional amount, as long as it is wanted.

The second point is that my right hon. Friend who explained the Bill to us very clearly, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) seemed to have slightly different interpretations of Sub-section (3) of Clause 2: and I should like to know which is the right one. No doubt it is true that the existence of reserves of this sort must in any case tend to depress the market, and, no doubt, it would be much worse if there were serious risks of secret and sudden unloadings. For all I have to say on the matter, being extremely inexpert, this Sub-section is the best way to try and avoid these dangers. It is clear that in practice the Sub-section cannot ever really be watertight whatever words are put in. The most we could ever get is a certainty that the Government would not risk unloading except in the situation where they felt sure they would have the support of a very large majority of this House. I do not think we can get anything more watertight than that. Any Government which feels sure that it would have the same measure of approval in this House, as this Government had when they made the purchase of whale oil and other things a short time ago, would in any case be able to drive a coach-and-four through the Sub-section.

Apart from that difficulty, the ambiguity which seems to be in the explanations of Sub-section (3) is this. I understood from the President of the Board of Trade that once the stocks had been accumulated the thing might be turned over by sales here and there of 5 per cent., 10 per cent. or 20 per cent., as the case might be, or it might be increased as need demanded, but in general it might not be liquidated or reduced to nothing. As I understood the President of the Board of Trade, he was treating the whole thing—all the things bought under the Schedule—as a global amount, but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough seemed rather to treat it as though the globality would be inside the sub-divisions. Once you have got so much worth of wheat you would have, in the long run, apart from small waves of turnover and so on, to keep that amount of wheat, and similarly with regard to the amount of whale oil or other commodities which might be defined as food or fodder by Orders: it is not quite clear from the Bill or from the speeches we have had hitherto which of these two interpretations is the intention and I should be grateful if that could be made clear.

5.20 p.m.

Sir A. Salter

I think it is significant that we are devoting the last two full days before the Recess to discussions of problems of civilian, or what is often called passive, defence. This reflects a growing recognition in this House that this side of our defence problem has been unduly neglected, and that in present circumstances we can get better value for each unit of either money or of effort in this sphere than in any other sphere of effort in regard to our external dangers. I say at once that I cordially welcome the action which was announced to us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I support this Bill now before us. I confess, too, that my speech will be substantially different not only in detail, but to some extent in tone, from what I had intended because of the information which we have received this afternoon from the President of the Board of Trade. Though, as I shall show, I consider that there is a good deal more information that he might reasonably give us, at any rate, he has given us a great deal more than we have ever had before.

I do not, however, propose to spend my time this afternoon in throwing bouquets to the Government—I think they are premature at present—because, in spite of the statement of the President of the Board of Trade, we do not really know what has yet been done, and we do not yet know even the general order or magnitude of what he intends to do. I must add—and I think it is obvious to the whole House—that since what has been done is rather the result of external stimulus than spontaneous initiative, we have no very considerable assurance that the powers which are now embodied in this Bill will be used as amply as we should desire them to be.

What is this Bill which is before us? It is a Bill that, within the sphere of the commodities defined, gives almost infinite powers, combined with almost infinitesimal indications of policy. We have powers, but neither promises nor policies nor plans. It is a very extraordinary Bill from the point of view of the customary privileges and responsibilities of this House. In the first place, it is an act of indemnity for what is admittedly illegal. I do not criticise the Government for that. The Bill is a very laudible Bill, but it is a Bill of indemnity for expenditure, which, at the time it was incurred, was illegal, in the same way as was the expenditure on the Suez Canal shares. As I say, I approve of it, but, surely, when an act of indemnity is asked for we are entitled, unless there is some particularly strong reason to the contrary, to ask what it is for which indemnity has been sought? The President of the Board of Trade said that the operations have been completed, and that it is not contemplated in the near future that any more money will be spent upon the three commodities of which stocks have been purchased. If that is so, and if, as I understand, a Supplementary Estimate is to be introduced next month, which will make it clear how much has been spent, surely, at the moment, when we are asked by Act of Parliament to give an indemnity for what is an illegal act, we may reasonably ask the amount of expenditure which has been so incurred.

Secondly, apart from the past, this Bill—I think rightly and necessarily, in view of the existing conditions of this problem—abrogates the normal privileges and responsibilities of this House in a very unusual degree. Within the sphere of the commodities concerned, the Government can do almost anything, or, unhappily, almost nothing. This is an enabling Bill. It does not require the Government to purchase anything or to spend any money. For all we know, they may spend hardly anything at all, or everything that they spend may be spent, let us say, on petroleum and not on food at all, or may make provision for a very short period indeed. They may, in doing that, spend the whole of the money by way of grants or loans to the trade, or they may acquire stocks of their own, and they may arrange for the disposal of the stocks in places where they would be very vulnerable and without the protection which a different form of storage would give. I am not suggesting that the powers should in any way be limited, but the amplitude of these powers does, I think, suggest that we have at least legitimate claim to ask for the clearest and fullest indications of policy that are practicable. As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, we have never asked for information as to the quantities of particular foodstuffs which it is proposed to purchase, or as to the particular places where it is proposed to store them, but we might reasonably ask for some indications of the general order of magnitude of the plan which the Government have in hand.

I was a little disturbed to hear that no more is to be purchased of the three particular commodities, because I remember that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that purchase he referred to it as a purchase sufficient in regard to these commodities to secure that we had stocks in this country for the first few months of an emergency. But even in normal circumstances we have enough wheat, for example, for some months. I sincerely trust that the purchases which have been made of these articles, and the purchases that are contemplated in regard to other articles, will very substantially increase the period during which we could endure in a situation in which a large proportion of our imports from abroad were interfered with. As to the Bill itself, I see very little requirement that we should have information as to what is being or has been done except a very long time after the event. Here I would like to ask a technical question of which I cannot discover the answer myself. Reading the introduction of the Bill, I understand that a Supplementary Estimate will be presented in due course, and I understand at present that that means next month.

Mr. Stanley

In July.

Sir A. Salter

When I look at the actual text of the Bill I see that, in the first instance, expenditure is to be financed by advances from the Consolidated Fund, and that these advances are to be repaid to the Exchequer by moneys provided by Parliament before the 30th September in the next following year after that in which the advances have been made. That in itself would suggest that we should be told, by means of voting money some time, let us say in 1939, in respect of expenditure that might have been incurred at this moment. We should, further, in due course, have an account presented, before the end of November next year, which would reach us some time in the year 1940. I understand from the speech of the President of the Board of Trade that, on the contrary, we shall know this year what has already been spent. I would ask him whether, when that Supplementary Estimate is presented, it will show clearly what has been spent on the three specific commodities which have already been purchased? If that is the intention, I suggest that it would be appropriate to inform us now of the total amount that has been spent, for which indemnity is sought.

I should like to refer to the financing of this undertaking. I infer from the wording of the Bill that when the money is repaid under the provisions there devised it comes out of the current revenue and is treated not as capital but as current expenditure. If that is so, I suggest that it is regrettable, because there is no part of the whole of the £400,000,000 which we are financing for our Defence programme on a loan basis which represents genuinely capital expenditure so fully and so completely as the initial provision of the food stocks and the store houses for them. This is not merely a theoretical point. It is a practical matter, because if this current expenditure is to be added as a provision in the Budget there will be very great pressure in this House to restrict the utilisation of the powers in the Bill. The cost of food storage which I recommended would only involve about £5,000,000 per annum, including any charge in respect of capital expenditure, but, of course, the initial expenditure would be very considerable. The first main question that I would ask is whether the right hon. Gentleman can give us, in whatever formula he chooses, some idea of the general order of magnitude of food storage provision that he is making and to what extent is it going to increase our capacity to endure in a period of emergency?

Another point to which I should like to refer is the allocation of responsibility between the Board of Trade and the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. I was greatly disappointed by the explanation of the effect of the present proposals by the President of the Board of Trade. I cannot understand why the right hon. Gentleman cannot assume as direct and as complete a responsibility for the provision of the food reserves that are necessary as, let us say, the First Lord of the Admiralty does for the provision of battleships. I agree that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence is concerned with co-ordination. If the Admiralty want more battleships than can be provided without impinging upon the necessary minimum supplies to other Ser- vices, there is a problem of co-ordination, but the first specific responsibility for providing the battleships rests with the Admiralty, represented by the First Lord.

I do not see why it follows, from any arguments used by the President of the Board of Trade, that he should not have precisely the same direct personal and Ministerial responsibility for providing to meet this national necessity of food, subject only to the general co-ordination for which the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence is responsible in regard to the programmes of the Defence Services. I make that point not only as a matter of principle but because I have never been able to discover as much enthusiasm as I should have wished to discover in the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence for providing food storage on what I should regard as an adequate scale. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. D. O. Evans) welcomed this responsibility because he said the Minister for the Coordination of Defence was a man of ideas rather than of action. It is precisely for that reason that I want to see a rather different allocation of responsibility.

The House will remember the very long period which elapsed before the establishment of the Food Defence Department. For more than a year afterwards we were trying to get a decision that the Government would even in principle decide to store food. We know how long it was before we got that decision, and we are bound to infer that that attitude of mind has not been replaced by enthusiasm on the part of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, in spite of the purchases that have taken place. Only yesterday the right hon. Gentleman, speaking at a luncheon, referred to food storage in these words: To some extent food storage may be a desirable thing, but over a long period food storage must be a matter of degree. That does not suggest that he contemplates with enthusiasm any very large expansion of that policy. He said in another passage which is reported in the "Times": It might be that other nations concerned thought that we were engaged in a game of innocent bluff. He would not say whether we were or not.

The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence (Sir Thomas Inskip)

That reference had nothing to do with food. It was a wholly different matter.

Sir A. Salter

Then I will drop that point, but from the context of the short report it did appear that it had relation to food. In regard to the question of food storage we are entitled to say that the Minister did not show any eagerness to act quickly. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Cardigan said, his experience and temperament fit him more for planning than for action, partly because he has many other functions.

Sir John Withers

It was extremely important that he did not appear to act quickly. The great point was to get the thing done without anybody knowing that it was being done. Therefore, he acted very properly in keeping it quiet.

Sir A. Salter

I entirely agree with the hon. Member. It was right not to indicate to us beforehand that he was going to act in this way, but inasmuch as there had been continuous agitation both in this House and outside for at least two years before the Food (Defence Plans) Department was created, I think it was a long time to wait from the creation of that Department, in December, 1936, to April, 1938, before any action was taken. During that time it was quite clear that the Government were not carefully and skilfully planning the action which was intended to be carried out. It was obvious that it was only very late in that long period that they came to the conviction that it was desirable to purchase these stores. I was hoping, therefore, that we should have had a specific and direct responsibility accepted by the President of the Board of Trade for securing that we had really adequate food reserves, and that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence would have confined himself to the normal duties of co-ordination. One would have thought that my right hon. learned and overweighted Friend would have been glad to come to some arrangement of that kind, which would indeed have been more in conformity with the allocation of functions that was announced when the Food (Defence Plans) Department was originally established.

I should like the President of the Board of Trade to give us a clear idea as to the magnitude of the food reserves which the Government have in mind, subject to the qualifications which I have made, as well as those which the right hon. Gentleman has made, as to what can be disclosed. I would ask him also whether, taking into full account what he said about the reasons for storing wheat in the silos of the ports, we cannot do something more to secure that a large proportion of our supplies are rendered immune from attack. Would it not be possible, for example, to arrange for inland storage, say, of flour, in the hands of a large number of bakers, who might add somewhat to the storage accommodation which they normally have? You would need to have the flour turned over relatively quickly, but you would be able to arrange for the storage of supplies of flour precisely where it might be required for consumption and where it would have the maximum immunity from attack.

Mr. Alexander

If it was only a question of increasing the supply held by the bakers for one or two weeks that might be a comparatively easy matter, but it would be a totally different matter if you had hundreds of these people making claims later for compensation because of the movements in the market.

Sir A. Salter

I fully agree that it would be difficult to do it and I do not suggest it as a substitute for wheat storage, but having regard to the difficulties of storing wheat otherwise than at the ports I think that some scheme of this kind might be considered. I certainly suggest that, in spite of the difficulties, we ought to see what can be done with a view of getting storage in these places. It is one of the most regrettable developments of recent years that there has been a tendency for corn mills inland to be scrapped and to be replaced by mills in dangerous proximity to the ports. I am extremely glad that the President of the Board of Trade answered by anticipation a question which I was going to press upon him, and that is the question of close co-ordination between distributing arrangements and storage accommodation on the one hand, and on the other hand the evacuation from the great centres because of air raids.

The criticisms that I have offered are not meant in any hostile sense but merely in order to stimulate the action which many hon. Members desire should be taken. I should like to advance a few constructive suggestions, and I return to the question of the general order of magnitude of food storage. I suggest it would be a reasonable aim to secure additional stocks beyond those originally in the country equivalent, if you take together wheat, flour, sugar and canned goods, to a year's wheat consumption. That does not mean a year's supply of wheat, but the equivalent in food value if we take all these commodities together. I should like to know whether the general scheme of the Government more or less approximates to that order of magnitude.

There is one small point as regards forage. I would suggest that we should concentrate a great deal more upon human cereals than upon animal cereals, for the reason that consumption of cereals by animals is much more modifiable in time of war. On looking at the figures I find that whereas in 1913 we imported 8,000,000 tons of cereals for human consumption and 3,000,000 tons for animal consumption, in 1917 the human consumption had only been reduced from eight to seven million tons, whereas the quantities for animal consumption had been reduced from 3,000,000 to 1,500,000 tons. In a war we may be in such straits that we should have to slaughter a considerable number of animals, in which case we should not want as much forage. At the same time, if we had a margin in human food we could always convert it quickly into forage. I am assuming, as the right hon. Gentleman assumes, that while our imports are reduced they are not eliminated and, therefore, if we have a little margin in human food and not enough forage, we could at once divert the shipping which brought in wheat to bringing in forage instead. Therefore, I suggest that we should only arrange a very limited storage of forage as compared with food for human consumption.

I suggest too that the right hon. Gentleman should not make much use of the power to arrange for increased stocks on the farms, which is covered by the Bill, since traders also include producers. An increase of stocks on the farms would be extremely difficult to arrange administratively both in peace and in war time. The experience of the last war showed that other forms of stocking would be much more convenient from the point of view of distribution, both in arrangements before and in distribution afterwards. Next, I should like to suggest that, in spite of what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the reasons for limiting the commodities to which the Bill might apply, he should consider some enlargement to other essential commodities, such as raw materials and pit props. I under- stand his reasons, but, of course, it is possible to adopt a procedure intermediate between the present one, which would mean a completely new Bill, and the procedure of an Order not requiring a Resolution of Parliament. It would be possible to have a second part of the Schedule in which the Government would have power to acquire other commodities beyond those at present specified, subject to the making of an Order which would allow of a discussion in this House. Here again I say, always remembering the fact ahat we are dealing with the danger of a diminished importing capacity, that an importing capacity used for one purpose can be converted into another. If, theerfore, you have stored some commodities which would otherwise have to be imported in time of war, as a consequence of that you would be able at any time to utilise the ships which would have been needed to bring in these commodities for the purpose of bringing in food. Some of these commodities store a great deal better than others. If you had pit props already stored, which otherwise would have to be brought in during the war, you could use the ships which would have been used for bringing in pit props for bringing in food.

I should like to ask the President if he will see that the fullest possible use is made of the scientific work regarding the preservation of food stores which is being done by an official body, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and by unofficial bodies. I know that the Food (Defence Plans) Department in their annual report say that they are consulted as occasion arises, but from the information which reaches me I very much doubt whether adequate use is being made of the very valuable scientific work which is at the disposal of the Government. Lastly, may I make this suggestion? Would the Government consider, in addition to the arrangements they are making themselves for storage through the trade or by the acquisition of stocks of their own, encouraging that part of the public, who can afford and are able to do so, to lay in limited extra stocks in their own houses? I believe this would be a very valuable procedure, though it could not be universal. I think there are many people who could keep a month's supply, and it would be a good thing for many more people, particularly in areas which might have to be evacuated quickly, to keep an iron ration for two or three days.

Lastly, I appeal to the President of the Board of Trade whether he will not put a great deal more drive into these preparations than has hitherto been shown. During 1936 and until these last purchases we have had a very great deal of planning of elaborate machinery for controlling food; but that is much easier to do than to get the food to control. I suggest that a great deal more drive is needed now, and I was hoping that the President would take a much more direct responsibility than I am sorry to say he is taking. I am sure that it will be more possible to get unity of all sections of the public in this sphere of passive defence than on any other sphere of the Government's policy. I suggest that if this can be done the visible spectacle of swift, competent and united action would be of great value as a deterrent against war and the stocks would be of great value if war should come.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. Parker

Whilst. I should like to congratulate the Government on the introduction of this Bill I should also like to rub in the fact that it has been brought in three years after the matter was first raised in this House during the debates on the question whether there should be a Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence or not. I know it is said that the Government have acted rapidly in making these particular purchases once they had made up their minds, but I think they should have taken action rather sooner than they did There is another reason for congratulating the Government, and that is, that for once they have been prepared to listen to the ideas put forward by hon. Members who have taken part in a Debate and to incorporate them in the Bill. I wish they were prepared to do that rather more often, when they had not a policy of their own. I think one may say that already the policy that has been adopted has had one good result. I think that in countries abroad such as Germany, it has had the effect of showing the people in authority that this country is preparing for all possible contingencies; and the fact that information exists in these countries that we are taking action is having a favourable effect and will, it is to be hoped, help to prevent a war.

I agree with the hon. Member for the Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) that the Government are taking wide powers in this Bill. I would like also to support him on the point that we ought to have a rather more detailed statement as to what the Government propose to do. In regard to the long-term policy we have had no information at all. I should like to raise a number of points in this connection beginning with the question of the storage of forage and fertilisers. How far are the Government going to use these powers to store forage and fertilisers? There is much talk in the report of the Food (Defence Plans) Department about an investigation and collection of information on the subject of the storage of forage, but there is no indication at all that they propose to do anything about it. I think we should be told something about the matter. In the last Debate I quoted figures showing the total tonnage of food produced by British agriculture in 1934. It was, 9,863,000 tons. I gave figures also of the imported raw materials used for feeding cattle, etc., which enabled that food to be produced in that year which amounted to 9,875,000 tons. The conclusion I drew from these figures was that in an emergency we should probably have to import foodstuffs rather than agricultural raw materials, of course, admitting the fact that foodstuffs would cost a great deal more than agricultural raw materials. These figures excited a great deal of controversy and a number of agriculturists wrote letters to the "Times," but they were unable to disprove my statement.

I should like to say that more recent figures support my case. Take, for example, the figures for potatoes which form one of the largest constituents in the tonnage of home produced foodstuffs. The output produced in this country in 1934 was 4,464,000 tons; in 1935, 3,765,000 tons; in 1936, 3,804,000 tons; and in 1937, 4,048,000 tons. There has been, therefore a considerable diminution in the total tonnage of food produced in this country. At the same time the Minister of Agriculture, in reply to a question on 15th March last, gave a table for the years 1934 to 1936 which showed that there had been a considerable increase in the proportion imported of the principal foodstuffs consumed in the country, so on both sides you have figures which further support the statement I have made. There has been a diminution in the quantity of food produced in this country and, on the other hand, an increase in the import of many foodstuffs.

Mr. Turton

Does the hon. Member suggest that the imports of potatoes have increased during this year?

Mr. Parker

No, I am referring to other foodstuffs. I think we ought to know not only what forage the Government propose to store, and what fertilisers, but we ought also to have some indication of the agricultural policy of the Government in this connection. The Ministry of Agriculture has not been brought into these discussions at all so far. In the last Debate, the Minister of Agriculture was quoted as having said in a recent speech "What fools we should all look if we built up an artificial system of food growing to guard against a war that may never happen." I think we ought to know whether the Minister of Agriculture still holds those views, or whether he has changed them. We ought to know the actual relations of the Minister of Agriculture with the Minister for the Coordination of Defence and with other Departments which work in connection with him. It might be extraordinarily important in a time of emergency.

I wish to ask a question about the places intended for storage. The Food Defence Plans Department states that it is proposed to use existing facilities as far as possible, and one assumes from the speech of the Minister that these will be in the safer parts of the country; but I think we ought to have some indication as to whether the Government propose to build storage plants, silos and so on, in places where they do not exist at the present time. The Government have taken wide powers, and I think they ought to tell us whether or not they propose to use them. For example, do they propose to build cold storage plants and warehouses at some of the Western ports, such as Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, or Workington? I think that precautions should be taken beforehand to meet any emergency that may arise, and that there should be accommodation at those ports which could be used in the event of war.

We have been given no indication as to whether the Minister of Transport has been brought into consultation in this matter. It is important that, if food is to be stored at some of the ports I have mentioned, there should be adequate communications between them and the industrial parts of the country. At Question Time yesterday, I asked whether any steps were being taken to provide an adequate first-class road from Falmouth to connect with the main road to the West of England. The reply of the Minister was that there are three roads in existence. If the Minister had been present now, I should have asked him whether he knew what those roads are like. The road from Falmouth connecting with the main road through Cornwall winds all the way round the inlets of the Fal, and goes through the narrow streets of Truro. It is essential that, if ports such as Falmouth or Milford Haven are to be used to store food, there should be first-class roads linking them up with the industrial parts of the country. In Germany they are building military roads; why not build some defence roads in this country? I think this is a question which should be gone into, and that the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence should consider the matter and see that the Ministry of Transport works in conjunction with the other Departments under his supervision.

What are the provisions for controlling the storage that is taking place? On page 5 of the Report of the Food Defence Plans Department, it is stated that the policy of the Department is to ensure that supplies of essential foodstuffs at controlled prices are available to meet the requirements of all types of consumers in all parts of the country in an emergency. The lesson which we learnt from our experience in the War is the essential need collecting information about prices and margins before the emergency arises if price control is to be in any way effective. Sir William Beveridge, who had a great deal of experience in this matter during the War, has written a book about his experiences, and he makes it plain that the rise in the cost of food during the War—

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