HC Deb 07 March 1939 vol 344 cc2016-24

8. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £139,820, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of Overseas Trade, including grants-in-aid of the Imperial Institute and the Travel and Indus trial Development Association of Great Britain and Ireland."

First and Second Resolutions read a Second time.

Ordered, "That consideration of the First and Second Resolutions be postponed."—[Major Harvie Watt.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

8.9 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

There is an item for £300 for the Commission on Workmen's Compensation. We discussed this point in Committee and the Financial Secretary gave some indication what would happen on the report of that Commission. I would like to know whether he has anything further to say, because those who are interested in workmen's compensation are perturbed about what the Commission may do. Can we have an assurance that the question will be dealt with by an interim report of the Commission, because there are several important points which ought to be brought before the House before the final report is produced?

8.10 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Euan Wallace)

I am afraid that it is not possible for me to tell the House any more than I told the Committee. I did as I promised and conveyed immediately to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, on whose recommendation the Royal Commission was appointed, the views which had been expressed in the Committee. He gave me to understand that he took the same view that I ventured to express in the Committee, that it would be for the Commission, which is a very distinguished body, to decide whether they would issue an interim report or wait until they could deal with the whole question; and also that the situation would not be improved by attempting to impose on the Commission the duty of presenting an interim report. I can assure the House that the matter is very much in the mind of the Home Secretary and that the Commission are fully seized of what was said in the Committee.

8.12 p.m.

Mr. George Griffiths

Do we understand from the Financial Secretary that this Commission is favourably looking upon the request which we made when this matter was discussed last week? There is no doubt that the whole industrial world is perturbed about the length of time it takes when these Commissions are sitting. When they are appointed they hold out what I might term false hopes of redress in the immediate future, and they sit so long that the people who are affected and the people who are starving have their courage knocked out of them; their soul is knocked out of them, as we say in Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and I are not big noises in the country, but we want the Commission to feel that at least we know what we are talking about on the question of compensation. Before I came to the House I knew what it was to have very little compensation, and I am able to enter into the feeling of those men who have been taking these small amounts of compensation, some of them for 10 years. We are now asking the Commission to bring in an interim report so that we can have an increase in the amount of compensation. A report was in the Vote Office yesterday showing that 184,000 men in our industry were hurt last year——

The Chairman

The hon. Member must not go into the merits of the subject.

Mr. Griffiths

I am sorry I am offside again. I never have the ball but I run it out of play. I was trying to point out that the amount which these men are getting is insufficient and that we want an interim report so that the amount of compensation can be raised. We shall not leave the Financial Secretary quiet; we shall humbug him with questions and take every opportunity that comes our way to raise a discussion on this matter. We shall repeatedly raise it because we want to make him so uncomfortable that he will say, "Let us have an interim report and give these chaps a little more money."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agreed with the Committee in the said Resolution."

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Westwood

We are entitled to some explanation as to what action is being taken by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture for Scotland to guarantee that, so far as the provision of this additional money is concerned, those who are to get the lime will at least get lime instead of the fraudulent material being foisted on them at present. In the Committee I raised the matter. I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT of 23rd February: Mr. West wood: Is it not the fact that, as a result of investigations of the Inspector of Weights and Measures in Scotland, it has been admitted in answers in this House that fraudulent sales have been taking place, and that there is no genuine control at the present time in order to safeguard the farmer under the existing law? The Minister of Agriculture replied to me: I think that that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am merely dealing with English and Welsh farmers and distributors."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1939; col. 670, Vol. 344.] May I respectfully suggest that the same type of fraudulent sales are taking place in England as in Scotland? When this House is asked, as it is to-night, to provide over £150,000 for the purpose of helping to rehabilitate the land by the supply of lime, we are entitled at least to be assured that the Department will see that it is lime that is provided. I know that I should be out of order in suggesting new legislation, but I am entitled to ask what action the Department are taking under their existing powers to see that the lime contains 86 per cent. of calcium oxide. In the case of three samples of material being sold as lime of which I have had information, the deficiency of calcium oxide has been 41.16 per cent., 87.093 per cent., and 53.51 per cent. and in the case of another three samples, it has been 17.97 per cent., 18.53 per cent. and 35.88 per cent. respectively, as compared with the guarantee given to the farmer when that material was sold—and I am purposely using the word "material," because it was not lime.

I know a deputation met the Ministry of Agriculture on 26th October, 1938, and pointed out many of the difficulties resulting from the Act of 1936, under which powers are being used at present for the supply of this material alleged to be lime. I am entitled to raise this matter on behalf of not only this side, but the whole House, because both sides are desperately anxious to see that when the State provides money, that money is being used to provide the material which the farming community expect to get when they provide pound for pound for the reliming of agricultural land. I am not raising this in any hostile spirit, but in order to see that the Department are using their powers to the fullest possible extent, to see that money provided by the State is properly spent and that the farmers are not defrauded.

I have letters not only from inspectors of weights and measures in Scotland, but from inspectors of weights and measures in England, and I find that in Buckinghamshire, for instance, the same thing is going on as in Angus. There must be power for the Ministry of Agriculture to see that farmers are not defrauded, and that State money is well spent. We are entitled to get an explanation from the Minister as to what action is being taken, and if the action which can be taken cannot give the results that the House desires, we are entitled to ask for the setting up of a departmental committee —a step which I understand has, at least, been approved of by the Scottish Office. I have been informed that the Scottish Office were in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture for England on the advisability of setting up a departmental committee, so that if the present powers are not adequate a full investigation can be carried out by that committee with a view to getting improved regulations, or even new legislation, for the purpose of safeguarding the agricultural community and seeing that State money is well spent. I trust that we shall get a fuller explanation as to what action the Department are taking.

8.28 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Colonel Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith)

I absolutely appreciate the point that has been made. Two steps have been taken by the Land Fertility Committee itself. First, the farmers who have received the subsidy under the scheme have been reminded of the Fertilisers and Feeding Stuffs Act, 1936, and the rights they have under it, and secondly——

Mr. Westwood

I trust that the Minister is not seriously suggesting that that Act enables the farmers to take action? They can take action in the civil court only, if I understand the Act aright, and, as so many of them are actually indebted to the merchants who are supplying them, it is impossible for them, in many instances, to take action to defend their civil rights.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

But some would be able to do so, and those who could have been reminded. Secondly, the Land Fertility Committee have arranged for periodical visits by their inspectors. Just how far they have gone and what those inspections have in fact brought to light at this moment, I do not know, because they have just started—or at any rate, they have just been tightened up. I will get in touch with the chairman of the committee to find out what the results of the inspections have been, and whether he considers them effective. I will take full note of what has been said, and, if it is necessary, I will certainly lend my support to the proposal that the hon. Member makes.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

8.25 p.m.

Mr. T. Johnston

I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for a little information before this Vote is finally passed. It is a matter of very great difficulty to discover exactly which Minister is responsible for food, or which Minister is responsible for each section of the food supply. There are no fewer than six Ministers involved here, and I will endeavour to pin the Board of Trade down to responsibility for one-sixth part of the food defences of this country. I believe that the Parliamentary Secretary is aware that there is no desire on this side of the House to raise embarrassing questions which it would not be in the public interest to answer. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, I shall put no question of that nature, but we are disposed to ask what part of the services of the officers and officials whose salaries are being passed to-night on the Board of Trade Vote are given to ensuring that the nation shall have an adequate food supply in the case of an emergency. I believe that it is true that up to now they have confined their attention to providing for a very short emergency, and that thereafter what is called the normal course of supply and demand would operate, but we should like to have a public assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that, as far as his Department is concerned, he is quite satisfied with the reserves in food stocks which have been prepared not only for a week-end emergency but for a longer one. The nation is preparing against a knock-out blow militarily, and we are entitled to ask that there should be adequate precautions taken against a knock-out blow in the stomach. I shall be glad, therefore, if the Parliamentary Secretary would be good enough to give us an assurance on this point before this Vote is passed.

Mr. Markham

May I raise the question again of the Atlantic Ice Patrol. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I do not think that that matter arises on this Vote.

8.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Cross)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Stirling (Mr. Johnston) has finally hunted his quarry to its own home, because it is my Department which is responsible for food supplies in time of war. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is anxious not to ask questions, or to press for answers, which it would not be in the public interest to give, and I think he realises also that I am anxious on my side, as far as I can, to reassure him as to the situation. He asked whether we had an adequate food supply. The principles which govern the policy of His Majesty's Government in this matter were very fully described in the Debate on the Essential Commodities (Reserves) Bill last year. The right hon. Gentleman did not press me for details as to the present position, and, indeed, he knows that I could not give them, but I would say, with regard to our total supplies at any time, that the figures vary from season to season, very naturally, partly because of the quantities that are coming into the country, and partly because of the quantities of home-produced supplies we may have on hand at any one time. I have recently gone through these figures. My Department keep in touch with the trade organisations and they know pretty exactly from time to time the stocks of food in the country.

As regards the reserves which the Government have laid down under the Essential Commodities (Reserves) Act, the position is not that we wish to put ourselves in a position to withstand a siege—that has never been the policy of His Majesty's Government—but rather that we should be in a position to withstand any severe initial shock resulting perhaps in a severe diminution or dislocation of our supplies. The supplies that we have on hand, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, are adequate, and I am satisfied that they are adequate to tide us over a period of difficulty, but it would not be possible for me to attempt to define that period in terms of weeks or months.

Mr. Johnston

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to say whether that last answer of his applies especially to the category of fats—to bacon, lard and other essential fats? Can he say specifically that he has adequate stocks of those fats?

Mr. Cross

I do not carry in my mind at this moment what precisely are those stocks, but I was, as I have told the right hon. Gentleman, looking at the figures the other day. We are very much alive to the fact that fats are, as he clearly indicates, perhaps the most important of all the reserves it is necessary to accumulate, and I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that he requires, namely, that we have adequate supplies of fats to meet an emergency.

8.33 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood

I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary could inform the House, and, through the House, the country, that there will be an adequate supply of food for the unemployed, and the lowly-paid section of the community?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am afraid that that does not arise on this Vote.

Mr. Kirkwood

Surely, Sir, I am within my right in asking the Parliamentary Secretary, as he says his Department deals with food supply, whether there will be food that may be obtained by the lowly-paid workers and the unemployed in this country? Is not that permissible?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member should put his question in rather a different way if he wants to elucidate the position as to whether there is a sufficiency of supplies for that purpose. He cannot on this Vote raise any question as to how those supplies will be distributed as between one class and another.

Mr. Kirkwood

I have raised this question on every available opportunity when I have been in the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member has often succeeded in raising questions at times when perhaps it has not been strictly in order, but it is my duty to stop him doing so as far as I can.

Mr. Kirkwood

Am I not in order in putting the question to the Parliamentary Secretary now?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

No, not a question with regard to the unemployed; certainly not.

Mr. Kirkwood

Am I not in order in putting it in regard to the lowly-paid workers in this country?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Kirkwood

There is no getting away from the fact that, while there is food in this country, those who have the means to procure it will get it, but there is a section of the community who will be handicapped.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I see the hon. Member's point, and that is exactly why I say that it is not in order on this Vote.

Mr. Kirkwood

I shall have to bow to your Ruling.

Ordered, "That the postponed Resolutions be further considered To-morrow."—[Major Harvie Watt.]


Resolutions reported,