HC Deb 12 July 1939 vol 349 cc2320-7

6.42 p.m.

Colonel Baldwin-Webb

I beg to move, in page 4, line 28, at the end, to insert: Provided always that before making any payment to a Milk Marketing Board under this Sub-section the Minister shall satisfy himself that the board has obtained the agreement of such body or bodies as in his opinion are representative of Milk Producer Retailers in Great Britain as to the terms on which the milk shall be distributed. The object of the Amendment is to draw attention to the fact that producer-retailers who distribute not less than 20 per cent. of the milk produced are not represented on the Milk Marketing Board. I should like a statement from the Minister on that matter. Many of us inside and outside the House, fee) that these people should have representation.

6.43 p.m.

Major Procter

There was standing in my name an Amendment which has not been called, and therefore I take this opportunity of suing on behalf of the milk distributors and the producer-retailers. There is a very grave injustice being done in not making the producer-retailers and the distributors parties to the contract. Under these schemes for supplying cheap milk to public elementary and secondary schools and also to expectant and nursing mothers and children under five years of age, the Minister may, out of moneys provided by Parliament, pay any sum that he thinks fit, not exceeding the amount which in his opinion represents the loss incurred by the board; but there is nothing in the Bill that provides for any loss being made by the producer-retailers and distributors. I do not desire in any way to imperil the supply of cheap milk to school children and to expectant and nursing mothers, because this is one of the outstanding achievements of the Government in doing something practical to establish a. fine state of health in the country.

Surely this great achievement, which is a monument to the National Government, should be paid for by the Government itself instead of by the distributors and the producer-retailers. At the present moment they get 8d. per gallon. It took nearly two years to raise it by a penny from 7d. to 8d. What have they to do for that? They have to provide the bottles, put in half-a-pint of milk, put the tops on the bottles, clean the bottles, make good the wastage and then transport the milk to the various places where it is to be consumed, and they have to meet a loss on every bottle of milk which they distribute. The producer-retailers and distributors are prepared to do their part and to share part of the loss. What I am asking is that the Government instead of only consulting them should bring them in as a party to the agreement, instead of in this high-handed manner compelling them to distribute milk. It should be compulsory for the Board, in regard to this benevolent cheap milk scheme, to obtain their agreement instead of merely consulting them.

6.48 p.m.

Mr. Price

I hope the Minister will not accept the Amendment. The hon. and gallant Member who moved it referred to grievances of the producer-retailers. He said that they are not sufficiently represented in matters concerning milk production and distribution. The difficulty, of course, is to get an organisation which really represents them. In my own county the branch of the National Farmers' Union have a special committee of producer-retailers and also of wholesale producers, and the two committees work together most amicably. As far as the council is concerned, we have no trouble whatever. I do not think the grievances mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member are serious. Neither do I think the distributors have any serious grievance. I gather that the hon. and gallant Member for Accrington (Major Procter) was arguing that they are suffering from the competition of those schemes which supply milk to schools and to nursing mothers.

Major Procter

All I am asking is that they should be not only consulted but should be made parties to the agreement. Instead of coercing them, they should be made parties to the agreement in the same way as producers.

Mr. Price

I believe that they are consulted already and that they do work amicably in the schemes. After all, they must realise that without these cheap milk schemes they would not get such a large supply of milk, and if they have to take a smaller profit I do not think it will ruin them.

6.51 p.m.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

I cannot possibly accept the Amendment. I cannot follow the reasoning that the producer-retailer, or indeed any retailer, is suffering hardship because of the present situation. They are not forced to come into the scheme at all; it is quite voluntary on their part. My desire is to get these cheap milk schemes going as quickly as possible, and if we have to enter into agreements and consultations it would be a long time before we could get them into operation. As far as I can see, the Milk Marketing Board represents the producer-retailer. I am well aware of the controversy in regard to the representation on the Milk Marketing Board, but that is another story. I hope that no further obstacles will be placed in the way of getting these cheap milk schemes going, and I hope the Amendment will not be pressed.

6.52 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Beamish

I am not entirely satisfied with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am the last person to stand in the way of the promotion of these cheap milk schemes, but I feel it is necessary to support the principle of the Amendment, because it seems to me to be vital to hold the balance between the producer, the distributor and the consumer. I think that the producer is most certainly satisfied, and is represented in a remarkable way on the Milk Marketing Board. I have taken the trouble to look into the question of retailers in general, and from the information I have been able to acquire it seems clear that in the past they have been coerced into accepting a sum which has not covered the expenses of distribution. I think it is deplorable that something approaching the actual price that is paid to the producer has to be expended before you can distribute the milk to the consumer, and I would support anything if I thought it would bring down these costs. Be that as it may, a genuine and perfectly good case is put forward by the distributors that at the present time the Bill does not sufficiently safeguard the interests of the producer-retailer.

On the Second Reading Debate the right hon. Gentleman said that discussions were taking place and that he hoped agreement would be reached. I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, and I did not get a great deal of comfort out of it. I have a feeling that the distributor may be left out and will be in the same difficulty as he has been hitherto. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman when he said that the results amply justify any expenditure which is necessary to the operation of the scheme. I support that view; at the same time, I would like to enter my protest against leaving out of the Bill safeguards for the distributor. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do everything he can to safeguard those interests more than the Bill does at the present.

6.55 P.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I am pleased that the Minister has not seen fit to accept the Amendment. First of all, it demands that before any scheme can be applied the Minister must satisfy himself that the board representing the producers has secured the agreement of the distributors, in other words, the distributors of milk can hold up any scheme in any part of the country. Clearly, no Minister of Agriculture could allow the distributors of a commodity to have the power to hold up any one of these cheap milk schemes. The hon. and gallant Member for Accrington (Major Procter) wants them to have the power to make or break any of the schemes for distributing milk to elementary school children and expectant mothers.

Major Procter

That is not the intention. The intention of the Amendment is that distributors shall not be forced to accept an uneconomic price, and all I ask is that in this great benevolent work the producer-retailer shall not have to pay for it, but that it shall be paid for by the National Government.

Mr. Williams

The hon. and gallant Member must not forget that the Amendment demands that agreement must be obtained from the distributors before any scheme can apply. It is not necessarily an uneconomic service. The hon. and gallant Member who moved the Amendment and the hon. and gallant Member for Accrington have not taken any note of the fact that, largely due to the Milk Marketing Board and Government assistance, liquid milk sales have increased by 100,000,000 gallons. Parliament has helped the distributors to increase their business enormously. The hon. and gallant Member for Accrington has told us of the wonderful service which the distributors perform but he did not tell us that in 1913 the milk distributor was content with 6⅞d. per gallon, and that to-day the milk distributor is getting 11d. It is true they have to put it into bottles, but they are getting nearly double the price. In any case I am certain that the cheap milk scheme for school children which will be largely organised by local authorities, will be regarded by them as a desirable scheme which ought not to be held up by the distributors.

Rear-Admiral Beamish

May I ask whether the hon. Member agrees that a commercial firm whether it is the Cooperative Society or any other firm should distribute milk at an uneconomic rate? I say it is deplorable that it should cost so much; but the facts are obtainable.

Mr. Williams

I do not want any milk distributed at an uneconomic rate. I am not worried about the milk distributor. I am worried about the milk getting to the women and children who need it. If the ordinary distributors as part of their service are not anxious to join in this good health service, it will not be so great a problem for local authorities to provide the machinery for distribution where the ordinary distributor can remain outside. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in not accepting the Amendment on the Paper, whatever the intentions of the hon. Gentleman may be.

Colonel Baldwin-Webb

I should just like to say that the last thing which is intended is to impede the scheme which the hon. Member has in mind. We all hope that at some early date agreement may be reached.

7.0 p.m.

Sir Ernest Shepperson

I hope that we shall not have too much sympathy for the distributors. I have had a case brought to my notice where, after paying railway carriage, the man was getting 6d. per gallon and milk was being distributed at 2s. a gallon. Therefore, I hope we shall not have too much sympathy for the distributors, because they can look after themselves.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

7.1 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

Before this Clause passes I should like the right hon. Gentleman to provide some enlightenment as to when these schemes are likely to be put forward. So far, all we have had from the right hon. Gentleman is a statement that they are hoping that a scheme will start very shortly. What kind of a scheme is it likely to be? Will it apply to the whole country or is it a scheme that is to be recommended to every local authority in the country? Is it to be a standardised scheme or will it vary in different parts of England and Wales? So far, information has not been forthcoming. In view of the delay in England and Wales, largely due, I am afraid, to those distributors who have not been helpful in producing these schemes, we have no scheme in England, although for three months similar schemes have been in operation in Scotland. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any idea when a scheme or a number of schemes are likely to start in this country, and can he outline what kind of scheme he has in mind?

7.4 p.m.

Sir Joseph Lamb

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any indication when these payments are to be made? What period will elapse? It is not generally realised that the board has had to sustain a very considerable loss owing to delay in the payments they have received. Milk supply up to 31st May amounted to £1,100,000. They had to spend that money the whole of the time, and there has been a considerable loss to the board because they have really been financing the Government in the carrying out of these schemes. There has been an actual loss of nearly £4,000 to the board, and if the money they had expended had been invested at 2½ per cent. it would have realised £8,718.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. Hopkin

Would the Minister be so kind as to tell the Committee where he stands with the board regarding his powers under Section 2 (l, b)? In introducing the Milk Bill the Minister said he was then engaged in conversations with the Milk Board but he was not at that time able to say exactly how he was to exercise his powers. This is the most important matter for the cheap milk schemes, because it is very certain that at least 1,000 of these schemes will be started all over the country. It is reasonable to suppose that every large town will have its cheap milk scheme. Under the Bill as it stands at present it means that at least 1,000 separate accounts will have to be kept and it will, in my submission, be quite impossible to say how the board stands on those accounts, as to whether they are losing or are going to gain through them. The power has now been given to the Minister for him to stand between the board and the people who sell to it, so that he will say the amount which has to be paid.

I ventured to offer the Minister a suggestion which, if I may say so, was a very sound one. It was that, instead of all this enormous number of accounts, it would be far better and far cheaper for the Minister to say, "We will fix the price, say, at is. 2d.," or some other agreed price which he will fix with the board. It would be a most invidious distinction to cast upon the board to put them in the position of saying, "We can- not take part in any cheap milk scheme because we cannot afford to lose money on these milk schemes." It would be casting on the board a reflection which, I think, would be most unfair. It is for that reason that I ask the Minister how far he has gone with the board; has he been able to come to any agreement with them; and, if so, is he now able to give the Committee the terms of the agreement?

7.9 p.m.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

I said in my Second Reading speech that I hoped that while this Bill was still before the House I should be able to give the information required. I do not think I was over-optimistic, but to-day I am afraid I cannot give the information for which the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hop-kin) has asked. The negotiations are very far advanced, and I still hope that while the Bill is still before the House I shall be able to give some information.

Mr. T. Williams

Negotiations between whom?

Sir R, Dorman-Smith

There are lots of people involved—the board, the Treasury and my Department. I do hope that I shall not now be pressed. We have just altered the form, and I think we shall be able to get agreement. I am optimistic about it. The scheme will be a general scheme. It will be recommended to the local authorities that the board will be prepared to sell at such-and-such a price and the local authorities will buy from the board. The reply to the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) is that the local authorities will probably pay the board monthly. We shall pay for the accounting period, which will be agreed between ourselves and the board. If the Committee will not press me on the actual terms I shall be obliged, and I hope that I shall be able to carry out my hope which I expressed on Second Reading.