HC Deb 12 March 1941 vol 369 cc1382-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Dugdale.]

Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)

I desire to raise the question of the neglect of the Ministry of Agriculture to utilise fully kitchen waste for providing feeding-stuffs for pigs and poultry. Someone must initiate things, and one might reasonably suppose that the Ministry of Agriculture should take an interest in maintaining, as far as possible, the livestock, and that is the pigs and poultry, of this country; but I regret to say that the Ministry of Agriculture have not displayed any real interest in the matter, although the war has been going on for 18 months. I believe that the scheme for the collection of kitchen waste comes under the Ministry of Supply, but my remarks and my criticisms are not levelled against the Ministry of Supply, because the only drive, the only initiative, the only efforts have come from the Ministry of Supply. The Ministry of Agriculture fall back on their usual complacency, their love of laisser-faire, the desire to let everything go on, or else to say, "Let us find some obstacle and say the scheme is not any good" What did they do? They said this scheme might spread foot-and-mouth disease. Of course it might, if you utilise kitchen waste without having properly boiled and prepared it, but it is nothing like so dangerous as allowing raw swill to be fed to animals as is done now.

I know of another excuse which they will put forward. They will say that the concentrator plant and machinery are not yet available. When it is available then the Ministry of Agriculture will come in and give the scheme its blessing. It will be good of them to do so, but that is not showing initiative. Fanners are getting more and more exasperated with this absolutely defunct Ministry. Not only is it defunct in the sense that it does nothing, but it obstructs measures. I have had bitter complaints within the precincts of this House only to-day that the Ministry have not attempted to support this scheme. Indeed, I have a great deal of evidence here to show that they have done nothing at all to support the efforts of the Ministry of Supply to get the scheme going. It is a very serious state of affairs. The Minister of Agriculture goes all over the country and makes speeches to draw attention to the fact that feeding-stuffs are not only short but are going to get much shorter. That is so, but what steps is he taking to make a constructive effort to ensure that supplies which can be made available are made available?

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn"—[Major Dug-dale,]

Mr. De la Bère

In connection with increased supplies, it is well to bear in mind what the yield from kitchen waste may amount to. I am told by the Ministry of Supply that the output of kitchen waste would, possibly, be in the neighbourhood of 300,000 or 350,000 tons a year. I further learn that the amount which is being provided at the present time is in the neighbourhood of 100,000 tons. That means that only about one-third of the available supply is being collected and used for feeding pigs and poultry. That position is deplorable after 18 months, more especially as pigs and poultry are being killed off at an alarming rate now, as has been the case for many months. The position is bringing ruin to many small farmers and poultry keepers.

If my remarks to the Ministry have been rather direct they have, I think, been well deserved. The Ministry cannot possibly view with complacency the complete wiping out of the small men without making some effort to assist them. Other hon. Members will be able to speak on this matter with a great deal of knowledge. They may not direct themselves so much against the Ministry of Agriculture as I have done, but I think my contention will be borne out that the Ministry of Agriculture have not succeeded in putting anything forward. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies I should like to hear from him what steps the Ministry of Agriculture have taken from the beginning in connection with this matter; what steps they are taking now, and what co-ordination exists among the various Departments concerned? The Departments dealing with this matter are, I understand, the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Health and, last but by no means least in adding to the confusion, the War Office.

What a state of affairs. What confusion and chaos after 18 months. Let me cite an example of what took place between the War Office and the Ministry of Supply. Some time ago—I think it was on 22nd December—I wrote to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply and asked him for some information about National By-products. He wrote back a courteous letter, acknowledging my communication and so on. After about eight weeks I learned from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply that it was not at all certain whether this particular contract came under that Ministry or under the War Office. I then saw the Parliamentary Secretary to the War Office, only about a week ago. I said, "Look here, have you found out, after three months, whether National By-products comes under the Ministry of Supply or under the War Office?" I do not want to abuse any confidence which was given to me, although I could add a good deal. All I can say is that he did not know.

Nobody knows, not even after 18 months of war, when we are fighting as we have never had to fight before. No wonder nothing is done. These Departments are simply "passing the buck" one to the other. They write a little letter to the hon. Member saying that his letter will receive consideration. Then there is another chit written from one Ministry to the other. The whole situation is Gilbertian. It is tragic farce. In another sense, it is calculated to cause tears, because of the agony caused by the appalling ineptitude which is being exhibited. I hope that when we have a reply Ministers will, for once in their lives, forget words and deal with realities.

Mr. Hannah (Bilston)

I would support my hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère). It is popularly said in the United States that the most patriotic Englishmen never boast about English cooking. There is probably something in that saying. We are a wasteful nation in the kitchen. We have probably improved a good deal since Victorian times, but I doubt whether there is a country in the whole world where waste from the kitchen is larger than among ourselves. I feel very much that we should do our very utmost to use this waste for the feeding of stock. The importance of so doing cannot well be exaggerated. In all humility, I wish to support my hon. Friend in the protest which he has made.

Mr. Price (Forest of Dean)

I should like to add a word or two, because, in view of the shortage of feeding-stuffs, it is a matter of considerable importance that all producers should try to get whatever substitutes they possibly can. There is little doubt that household edibles, when mixed with bran or home-grown corn, provide a very useful food which will enable one to keep some poultry and pigs. At present, living on imported feeding-stuffs, they are a burden and almost a danger to the country. Anyone who can keep poultry and pigs by feeding them on home-grown feeding-stuffs is doing a national service, because there is then no burden placed on our imports or on our shipping.

I believe there is a great muddle between the different Departments. I do not think that the question of transport has been efficiently handled. A few days ago, in answer to a Question, there was published a list of local authorities which had done nothing in this matter. I suggest that in his reply the Parliamentary Secretary might indicate that something is being done about it, and that the heads of Departments are collaborating in order to see that something is done. In this connection, too, it might result in the assistance of many small people, ex-Service men, for instance, who for some years past have been living on the pro- duce of their small poultry farms. In view of the cutting of rations next month, they may have to give them up altogether. Here it might be possible to find a way by which they could be kept going in these difficult times. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can give us some assurance that something will be done.

Mr. Woolley (Spen Valley)

I should like to support the remarks that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère), although, perhaps, I would not go to quite the same extent in the excesses in which he indulged. One of the difficulties at the present moment is in the collection arrangements for waste food products. Only on Sunday last I was speaking with one of my constituents, who is a fairly large poultry and pig farmer, and he told me that, in spite of the reduction in feeding-stuffs which he obtains through the normal trade channels, he has been able to retain and feed 100 per cent. of his pre-war poultry and his pig stock; he has done that not without difficulty, because he experienced very considerable difficulty with the local authority. But he pressed and pressed hard—I think he also made some private collection arrangements of his own—and at this moment he is keeping and feeding between 4,000 and 5,000 head of poultry and about 100 head of pigs. That is a very considerable contribution to the food position, and I feel that if the problem of collecting waste food were sincerely tackled, a great deal of additional food could be obtained. The private collector, at the moment, is not encouraged sufficiently to save waste foodstuffs, because too little opportunity is given for passing them on to those who can utilise them. If the method of collection can be improved, I am sure that a very real contribution would be made to the solution of our food problem.

Miss Lloyd George (Anglesey)

I would like to say a few words as Chairman of the Committee of Women Members of Parliament appointed by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary when he was Minister of Supply. I am sure that no one will deny that the waste of one scrap of food cannot be justified at present, having regard to our shipping losses and to the drastic cutting-down of feeding-stuffs for livestock in this country. I can quite honestly say that my Committee—and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will bear me out—have consistently, constantly and persistently advocated the adoption of some very active policy in regard to this matter. It is perfectly obvious that the Ministry of Supply cannot proceed vigorously without the co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture. It is, in fact, not the primary responsibility of the Ministry of Supply; it is only a secondary responsibility for them. But it is certainly a primary responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry of Supply cannot proceed without the enthusiastic co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture, and we have not seen much of that enthusiasm up to date. At any rate, it is not my idea of enthusiasm.

It is obvious that the Ministry of Supply cannot issue an order for the compulsory collection of food by local authorities unless arrangements have been made for the processing and, above all, the disposal of that waste food. You cannot collect waste food and have it lying about in various parts of the country; every kind of complication might arise from it. It is therefore vital that there should be really whole-hearted co-operation between the two Departments. In July proposals were put forward for local authorities to be encouraged to instal concentrator plants, after the model of Tottenham, which has been such a conspicuous success, and for Treasury assistance to be given to local authorities. That policy was actively pursued by the Ministry of Supply, but, probably because local authorities are not prepared to face financial commitments at the moment, it has not succeeded, and it must now be recognised to have been a failure. It will have to be abandoned, and a new policy will have to be adopted. I believe that only 18 of the larger authorities put in plants, which means about 23 units in the whole country. It is therefore quite obvious that that policy has now exhausted its usefulness, and I believe that a new one must be sought and adopted without delay. When it is adopted, it must be carried out effectively.

We believe that only by putting this matter into the hands of a central authority can anything be achieved. That central authority should be charged both with the processing of the food and with its distribution, because that is a vital matter too. No policy which is going to be adopted by the Ministry of Supply can be successful without the cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. De la Bère

Which will never be forthcoming.

Miss Lloyd George

They have certainly not put their heart into this. They say that there is foot-and-mouth disease, and so they have to be careful. They have been investigating foot-and-mouth disease for years. I think that at this moment, of all moments, they might have at last come to a decision. If they think it is too dangerous to encourage swill, they should say so. At the moment they are adopting neither one policy nor the other. They are encouraging small pig-keepers to use raw swill, which I think is a more fruitful source of foot-and-mouth disease than the policy which we want them to adopt, that of processing swill. It seems that in regard to this question the attitude of the Minister of Agriculture is: He that is not with me is against me

Mr. R. C. Morrison (Tottenham, North)

It fell to my lot more than a year ago to initiate this subject into the House of Commons, and I have been concerned with it ever since. I endorse everything that has been said in this short, but extremely interesting, discussion. The Parliamentary Secretary, in a written answer to a Question the other day, pointed out that 608 local authorities of over 10,000 inhabitants have made no attempt yet to organise any collection. That is a most astounding thing, after nearly 18 months of war. I say this with some reluctance, because I have been in local government myself for a great part of my life; but if the local authorities have reasons why they are not doing this work, it is time that somebody else did it. I hope that there will be no further delay, having regard to the fact that three Government Departments—the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Agriculture—are involved; and I am sure that the Ministers will not deny that it has been necessary at each stage to bring other Government Departments into line. One does not expect to hear Ministerial decisions announced in a discussion such as this on the Adjournment, but I wish to impress upon the Ministers who are present that they should use such influence as they can to get rapid decisions without delay, because the position has become very serious.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

My hon. Friend who raised this matter can congratulate himself on the degree of interest which it has aroused; and the number of speakers who have taken part, all of them with special knowledge of the question, shows how vital this matter is considered by the House. My Department, in particular, who have charge of this responsibility, owe a great debt of gratitude to the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) and to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison). My hon. Friend has for many years been an authority on this matter, and has given a splendid lead in dealing with waste food. The hon. Lady and the Committee on which she has worked have been of the greatest possible service in developing new ideas, both upon this question and upon matters of general salvage as well.

I am bound to say that when my hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) gave notice yesterday that he intended to raise this matter on the Adjournment, I felt somewhat alarmed in view of the indignation with which he demanded a Debate, particularly in regard to my Department. But I seem to have got into the position of a man who is interposing his body between the assassin and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who is meant to be the victim. Naturally I am very pleased at the high compliments the hon. Member has paid to my Ministry, but I am afraid I cannot accept the strictures which he makes upon my colleagues. If it were possible to conceive a Ministry better conducted and organised than the Ministry of Supply, perhaps I should say it was the Ministry of Agriculture. Perhaps I might sum up the speech of my hon. Friend by saying what another famous character said of himself: I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove I would like to give the position as it now is and say a few words of indication as to how we want to improve it. We must not exaggerate in either direction. At the moment 393 local authorities, covering districts whose population together is over 23,000,000 persons, have schemes for the collection of waste food in operation. That is to say, that over half of the population of the country is dealt with by some scheme or other.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether these schemes cover the whole of towns or are they limited to a portion of towns and the scheme itself only applies, maybe, to one or two boroughs in a locality?

Mr. Macmillan

I was coming to that, and was going to say that there was this proviso, that in all cases the schemes do not cover the whole of the population. In addition 1,200 local authorities report to us the existence of private collecting schemes. We must not neglect the value of the private schemes. They are of great value both in towns and rural districts. Arrangements made to deal with material on the spot are often far more satisfactory than having to collect and carry it away. We are perhaps all aware of some such scheme making provision for farmers in the neighbourhood. Let me deal with it in another way. My hon. Friend the Member for Evesham is not quite accurate. The estimate of the peace-time collection from bins was 350,000 tons of organic matter collected through the collection of refuse. We have to make an allowance for the reduction through rationing and other reasons, and also for part of the refuse, such as orange peel and banana peel. The estimate of the amount of usable refuse of this kind is about 250,000 tons today. Of that, 110,000 tons are now being collected by local authorities—that is to say, that about half the total is now being collected and made serviceable for this purpose. It is true, of course, that there exist over 100,000 tons to go after, and we have to get as much as we can, having regard to the fact that as we get nearer to the maximum we shall reach some point where the cost of collection and the difficulties of transport and labour will not make it worth while. You will never get absolutely 100 per cent.

Mr. De la Bère

My figures were obtained from my hon. Friend's Department. No doubt they were figures for some little time back and he has had an opportunity of revising them.

Mr. Macmillan

I have given the figures and the amount of collection. There are also about 50,000 tons to 75,000 tons from private collection—from hotels and restaurants and such places in the country. In Westminster alone the collection from private sources amounts to 600 tons a month, quite apart from any local authority collections. The hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey truly said that there are difficulties in persuading councils to make use of the processing plants which are now being manufactured. At present two councils, of which Tottenham is one, have plants of their own and two others have them on order. Eighteen councils have agreed to take 23 plants, and we have 30 concentrators and five vertical boilers which we have ordered in anticipation of being able to place them. If there is any reluctance on the part of local authorities, I think it will be largely overcome by the fact that the Treasury is now prepared to guarantee a council to some extent against loss in the operation of these plants. At the same time there are difficulties of manufacture, but I think the hon. Lady is right in saying that if we are to get this further waste food, we must have a forward policy and a different policy.

The difficulties of local authorities are not due to mere reluctance. Many of them are overwhelmed with the many duties which have come upon them, not the least of which is due to enemy attack. They have manifold problems to deal with, with comparatively small staffs and overworked officials, but my right hon. Friend has already arranged to confer with the Ministers of Food and Agriculture with a view to developing a forward policy which I hope will, when announced, give satisfaction to the House. I could not go into details to-day, because I have not the time nor is it appropriate, but I think I might say that we are taking our cue from the recommendations from the Committee over which the hon. Lady presides. I do not think she will find that we shall go very far from those recommendations. There are many matters which affect food policy. There is the price policy and the system of controlled operation which affects several Departments. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend is very conscious of the importance of this question, and is anxious and determined to press forward towards a more satisfactory solution.

Mr. De la Bère

Even to go and talk to the Minister of Agriculture, and tell him that he has erred in the past and must mend his ways?

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.