HC Deb 31 March 1939 vol 345 cc2352-63

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

11.14 a.m.

Mr. Lawson

I think the right hon. Gentleman might give us some explanation of this Clause which I understand is a new provision dealing with the meals of the soldiers. I gather that the general reason for it is that new arrangements have been made, which are very satisfactory to the soldier, who now gets tea and supper in addition to the meals that used to be provided.

I understand that that makes some difference in the arrangements that have to be made for billeting. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has looked closely at the charges that are to be made. The charge laid down in the Schedule for billeting is 10d. a night for the first soldier, and 8d. a night for each additional soldier. For breakfast, the charge is 8d.; for dinner, 11d.; and for tea, 3d. I wonder what kind of tea the soldier is to get for 3d. He is not going to get a mixed grill, say a sort of high tea. For supper, the charge is to be 5d. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to say what is the intention in respect to billeting arrangements of this kind, and to explain why the amending Clause is put in on this occasion.

11.17 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

The hon. Member has already explained why it is necessary to revise the prices to be paid. Soldiers are: now better fed, and provided with a meal extra. That is an alteration since the previous Schedule was drawn up. The hon. Gentleman will realise that we have raised the prices in all cases. The price previously paid for breakfast was 7d.; it is now 8d. The price for dinner has gone up, and tea has been added; it was not in the previous Schedule. Supper, of course, is an additional meal. Prices are based on what is conceived to be the approximate retail cost plus a margin; and the margin has been increased in every case. It is very difficult to lay down in an Act of Parliament a precise schedule. That is one of the difficulties of proceeding in this manner, but it is thought that the increased prices should be an adequate compensation to those who have the privilege of offering hospitality to soldiers in an emergency.

11.19 a.m.

Mr. T. Williams

The right hon. Gentleman referred to breakfast and dinner. Does he mean breakfast and lunch? "Dinner" is interpreted in different counties to mean different meals at different times of the day. I know that the right hon. Gentleman ought to be prepared to welcome all sorts of interjections to-day, and to give elaborate explanations. If the soldier is to be billeted in an ordinary house and given tea, I see that 3d. is allowed. If that is the ordinary afternoon tea—a cup of tea and a look at a piece of cake—no doubt that will be enough, but if it means tea as it is taken in Yorkshire, where it is regarded as the most important meal, perhaps, of the day —a high tea—I should like to know what the lady is going to provide for 3d. Much has been said recently about people not being able to cook, providing too much out of a tin can, and that sort of thing. Whether the tea is to come out of a tin can or a butcher's shop, it is still a mystery how it can be provided for this price.

11.21 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I do not know how advantageous it is to the Committee for one to delay as long as one can over the culinary proceedings of the Army. In the case of breakfast, we are adding one ounce of butter and one ounce of marmalade to what was previously in the Schedule. In the case of dinner we are adding two ounces of potatoes, eight ounces of other vegetables, and four ounces of pudding, t do not know how the housewives are going to calculate this precisely, but I am sure it will be done satisfactorily. From the old Schedule two ounces of meat and three ounces of bread are being subtracted, to compensate for the additional provisions I have described. I quite agree that the use of the word "dinner" creates a feeling of class-consciousness, and that what some people call dinner more respectable people are in the habit of calling lunch (HON MEMBERS: "Respectable!") —people who consider themselves more respectable. We still use the word "dinner" in the case of the Army to mean a substantial meal. For tea, which is an additional meal, we are providing for one pint of tea, two ounces of jam, and four ounces of bread; and for supper, we are adding four ounces of meat, which we are taking away, to some extent, from the dinner. From this meal two ounces of bread and two ounces of cheese are being subtracted, to compensate for the addition of the meat.

That, roughly, is the bill of fare to be provided for the soldier. It is on a more liberal scale than has prevailed before, and I think experience will show that those who receive the soldiers in their homes will treat them well. It has generally been found that when soldiers have been subjected to these sudden moves the population has been most hospitable and generous. I do not want to describe in fuller detail how the soldiers will eat these meals. I realise that in different parts of the country different habits prevail, and the soldier may have different articles of food according to whether he finds himself in Yorkshire or in Sussex, but on the whole I am sure he will be well treated.

11.25 a.m.

Mr. Bellenger

I feel that it is rather a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) is not here, as only he could do adequate justice to the scale of rations or feeding arrangements laid down in this Clause. I would like to put this point to the right hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that in many cases, probably, soldiers may be billeted in quite small houses, with perhaps one or two soldiers at the most in the house. I am wondering whether the housewife in such case will be adequately paid by the scale of prices laid down in the Schedule. I believe that the rations which the soldier gets now are adequate, but I am not quite sure whether he will be able to get the same type or quantity of food when he is billeted in private houses under the prices laid down in the Schedule. For instance, what is intended by the provision of supper? The right hon. Gentleman lays down the sum of 5d. for the payment of that meal, and it is proveded in Sub-section (1, d) that supper shall consist of a certain quantity of bread, one pint of tea with milk and sugar and four ounces of meat.

I am very conversant with the supper of a lot of people—and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that they are respectable people—but I believe that there is a large section of the community that has fish and chips for supper. I wonder what amount of fish and chips one would get for 5d.? I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can elucidate this point, but, if they are to get milk and bread in addition, is it possible for the ordinary housewife to provide a meal of this nature and substance for 5d.? I really do not think so.

What I wish to do is to provide proper feeding arrangements for the troops when they are in billets, but at the same time the Committee should not lose sight of the fact that we ought to recompense the civil population, who, under the Army law, are bound to provide these arrangements, in time of emergency. And I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has been liberal enough in the scale of prices which he has laid down in the Schedule for the provision of meals specified in this Clause.

11.29 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I appreciate the force of the point which has been put by the hon. Member for Bassettlaw (Mr. Bellenger). As I said before, it is extremely difficult to lay down exact prices in the Schedule, particularly when prices vary. It has been our desire to pay what is adequate and proper without, of course, rendering the soldier liable to any exploitation. The hon. Gentleman asks me a very intimate question as to how much fish and chips I could get for 5d. I can assure him that I could get more than I want.

Mr. Batey

Where does the right hon. Gentleman make his purchases?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

My purchases, unfortunately, are made vicariously and I cannot speak with authority on the subject. I wish that I could. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell the Committee exactly how much fish and chips you can get for 5d. I imagine that it is dependent to some extent on proximity to a coastal town. I understand that there is a certain amount of cheaper fish provided on occasions from the supplies in seaports; I am speaking subject, of course, to expert advice.

Mr. Lawson

May I, as an expert, tell the right hon. Gentleman that as a rule, the nearer you are to the sea, the less fish you get.

11.30 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir William Allen

It appears to me that tea will constitute a good deal of the ingredients of these meals in the day, probably at breakfast, the tea meal and again at supper time, and I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether he will use his apparently great influence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 25th April to drop the Tea Duty.

11.31 a.m.

Mr. Collindridge

My contribution to this discussion will be a very brief one, but I would like to suggest that on this side of the Committee, and, I believe, on the other side as well, there is an impression that these scales are not over-generous; in any event, if they are to be agreed to, we on this side hope that the Government will take whatever steps they can so that, at the time when these scales will more largely operate, that is, in days of emergency, there will be a control placed upon the raising of prices. That is really fundamental. The scales at the moment are not over-generous, but in time of emergency, or at least in time of war, there will be the likelihood that rising prices will have a great effect, and I hope that the Government will use all the influence they can to restrain prices.

The Chairman

Really the hon. Gentleman, in a gallant effort, has gone rather over the fence which is the boundary of what is legitimate in this Debate.

Mr. Collindridge

Thank you, Sir Dennis, for the indulgence you have shown to me.

11.32 a.m.

Mr. Ede

These Schedules represent a very considerable improvement for the serving soldier on what has been the practice hitherto, but I am sure that if any general billeting has to take place, the men will be received in the homes of the working classes of the country in the same way as they were in 1914. At that time I happened to be a billeting N.C.O. on No. 1 line of communications, and I never had any difficulty about securing accommodation for the men, or for securing that they should get the food laid down in the Schedule that then existed. I do not know that the housewife ever troubled about the Schedule. The men were taken into the home, and they had the same meals as the rest of the family. That is one reason why I regret to see brought into the Schedule the word "margarine" that is always pronounced in this House differently from what the housewife calls it. She always sounds the "g" soft, as in "gentleman."

I also regret with my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) is not here this morn- ing, because I am sure he would have been most eloquent on that point. In those families which the right hon. Gentleman may not regard as respectable, but which are very well conducted, and where the amount of income is not very high, I am sure that it would be regarded as lowering the standard of living to put margarine on the table for tea. I sincerely hope that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that, in very few cases in actual practice, where men are billeted on working class families, will margarine be served with the third meal of the day. I am sure that in nearly every case they will get butter. If the soldiers have the misfortune to be billeted in a large house and are expected to take their meals with the domestic servants, they may then be relegated to margarine, but I am quite sure that no working class housewife is going to ask the soldier to accept margarine with any meal of the day.

I think it is a very great advantage that the meat served during the day is spread out. So far as the soldiers who are billeted with working class families are concerned, I do not think the Schedule matters. The soldier will get at least what is in the Schedule, and in most cases he will get everything that is regarded in the family as being appropriate at each meal. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would reconsider the allowance of 3d. decided upon as the appropriate fee for the tea meal, because I do not think in many cases it will represent anything that will be adequate remuneration for the housewife. The improved bill of fare and the greater range will be a great advantage to the soldier and will make the task of billeting even easier than in the past.

11.36 a.m.

Mr Lawson

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has assured the right hon. Gentleman that we are not straining at a gnat in this matter. If, unfortunately, the need to billet the soldiers should occur there can be no doubt whatever, as my hon. Friend said, the men would be received warmly in the homes of this country, as my hon. Friend said, some of the best and pleasantest memories which the soldiers had of the last unfortunate War were those relating to the way in which they were received in the homes of the people, and the friendships they made up and down the country. I know one officer in this House, a born Cockney, who usually salutes me in what some hon. Members from down south regard as a strange dialect. It is the Northumbrian dialect. The officer can speak the dialect perfectly, and that is because he happened to be billeted with some Northumbrian miners. He never loses an opportunity of speaking warmly of that occasion and the memories he has of that time. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has put this point. We have not raised this matter to-day because of the particular prices fixed, but rather because we want to take the opportunity of saying that if the soldiers have to be billeted there can be no doubt whatever of the treatment they will receive and the reception that will be given to them in the homes of the people.

11.38 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara

There is a great change nowadays in the way in which the Army is fed compared with what was the position a few years ago. I can speak from experience of my own Territorial battalion. When they go to camp on their own and when they go at Easter to the Regular Army—this year they are going to the Irish Guards—I know how much they appreciate the food they receive and how they come away-admiring the food served to the soldiers at the present time. I am sure that it is a very great recruiting asset, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that has been done in this connection. There is only one further point to which I should like to direct his attention, and that is that there are times of emergency, or unusual times, when his Department might be a little more elastic in their scales and money allowances. Sometimes we receive orders to make a special move, orders to mobilise or to call up key men, and then we have to go through the interminable process of getting rations and money for the people who have been called up. It is not his Department that is at fault so much as the people with whom we are always striving, namely, the finance departments.

I am full of admiration for the normal scales, but if my right hon. Friend could arrange that in such times of emergency there should be more elasticity and prompter attention shown by the authorities, it would be very much appreciated by commanding officers and others who have to deal directly with the men. The food is excellent, but I should like my right hon. Friend to pay a little attention to some of the utensils, particularly where the Territorial soldiers are concerned. I will mention one matter only, and that is the kind of mug out of which the Territorials have to drink in camp. They are all respectable men who in their own homes are used to drinking out of a cup with a handle, and they would like to have the same type of utensils in the Army, instead of something that looks as if it had been thrown out of a Borstal institution.

11.42 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I appreciate the very generous words used by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) and the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). It is an undisputed fact that the soldier always has most pleasant recollections of his sojourn with private families under conditions of emergency, and many friendships are formed which make the Army better understood by the civilian population and vice versa. I was glad to hear from the hon. Member for South Shields that he thinks the Schedule-is an improvement. I share his abhorrence of the word "margarine," but there it is, and it keeps spreading itself into our discussions. I should be the first to welcome the day when some more popular substitute is found. The word "butter" does also come in, although it does not attract the same attention. In section 5 of the Schedule, while the precise list is given it is indicated that the provision should be substantially equivalent to what is here specified. I do not know whether or not margarine is substantially equivalent to butter, but I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields that most housewives will not hesitate to provide butter. Nobody knows the life of the soldier better than the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street, and I am glad that attention has been called to-day to the better conditions under which he lives and the better meals that are now provided for him. I will certainly inquire into the suggestions made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara). The point about the mug had not been brought to my notice before. I did not know there was any feeling of discomfort attached to temporary use of a mug in the place of a cup.

Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara

It is not so much a mug. The tea is dished up in an open pail more like a soup tureen than a mug.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I accept what my hon. and gallant Friend says, because he has intimate experience of this utensil, and I will see whether we can find some substitute for it. As regards the better provision of kitchen equipment, crockery and other facilities for the meals of the Regular and the Territorial soldier, I will see at once what improvements can be made; but under the aegis of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow (Sir I. Salmon) a vast expenditure is now being incurred to provide the soldier with something which will rival what is in use in the best modern kitchens. I was glad to hear the hon. and gallant Member's reference to the Irish Guards and to the advantages which the Territorials had received from association with them. The new experience which they are about to have will possibly suggest further improvements which I have no doubt will be communicated to me by the hon. and gallant Member in due course. I thank the Committee for the kindly words they have used about the soldier.

11.46 a.m.

Colonel Burton

I should like the Secretary of State for War to give us some assurance in connection with the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara), as to more elasticity in the amount of grant allowed when soldiers are billeted on civilians. I have lived in various parts of the world, but I have never had the opportunity of being billeted in England. During the crisis a number of men were billeted close to my home, but they had no food and no utensils, and the amount of food which they consumed cannot be met by the scales in the Schedule. I am certain that the Schedule is not adequate to meet the requirements of hungry soldiers, and I think there should be more elasticity both in kind and in cash in the case of billeting. I think it would go a long way to allay much of the dissatisfaction which at present exists.

11.47 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I am sorry that I omitted to answer that point. I think that in the last crisis a sum of 3s. per day—or was it 4s.?—was allowed to those who participated in that emergency, but, however adequate the sum may be, it does not, of course, prevent a soldier, whether a regular or a Territorial, from being hungry; that is one of his enduring characteristics. But I agree it is important that the allowance should not only be adequate but that it should be promptly paid. I readily admit that there were delays in the last crisis because we had no previous experience of dealing with a problem of that kind, but I will bear in mind what has been said on the matter.

Mr. Gallacher

In view of what has been said to-day of the soldier being filled with admiration for those upon whom he is billeted, and for the admiration for the soldier on the part of those upon whom he is billeted, may I ask whether there has ever been anything to justify the suggestion made by hon. Members opposite that the womenfolk of this country are ignorant of cooking?

11.49 a.m.

Lord Apsley

The point put by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara) is rather important. The question of providing adequate rations in case of a sudden mobilisation is certainly complicated. It is a question of issuing rations in time, and that is probably the reason why men in the last crisis were billeted without any food and at such short notice. I am wondering whether it is not possible for every unit to have in store an extra iron ration, not the ordinary ration which is turned over periodically, but an extra iron ration to be used in case of emergency, which consists of compressed meat tablets and Horlicks malted milk tablets such as were used during the War. They can be kept almost for ever. I can remember on manœuvres on one occasion on the South Coast, where the invaders were coming from the sea, that the sea got rather too severe for the rations, and when the men got inland they had nothing left at all and operations had to be brought to a standstill because the invaders were completely starving. If a few compressed meat tablets or Horlicks milk tablets had been issued they could have kept on. There is at first a little grumbling inside the "tummy," but you get accustomed to that, and men have actually kept going for several days doing full work on these compressed tablets, which, I think, should be used in case of emergency. I suggest that units should have issued to them this extra iron ration.

11.52 a.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I hesitate to give an authoritative answer on a matter which is the subject of fierce controversy, as to whether the British housewife is the best cook in the world. I can believe from the assertion of the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) that she is. I certainly have never made any charge that the British housewife cannot cook, although there may be room for improvement, as there is in every other branch of art and science. I do not know whether the Government are expected to make an official declaration on this subject, but I am sure that the British housewife generally keeps her family very well. There is another aspect of this matter which seems to be somewhat contradictory, and that is the point made by the hon. Member for Central Bristol (Lord Apsley) who wants more iron rations issued. He says that Horlicks malted milk and certain meat tablets have a fortifying quality, and that the human frame can exist upon them for a considerable time. Advertisements tell us this, and I do not doubt their veracity. There is, of course, an iron ration, and in war it has to be brought into greater use, but I will see whether in any further manœuvres the Army, which undertakes the almost superhuman task of invading this country, is not starved out, as we should expect an enemy to be in similar circumstances.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.