HC Deb 23 July 1942 vol 382 cc286-94

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

Sir Waldron Smithers (Chislehurst)

I know of no task more difficult than to compress in the few minutes before the House rises the range of subjects on which one could speak for a long time. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food for being in his place to-day, and I would ask him if he would allow me to mention in general the principal points I wish to state and then write to him giving fuller details for his consideration.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Mabane) indicated assent.

Sir W. Smithers

In accordance with the notice which I gave on 8th July, I want to raise a few points about the distribution of food. Waste of food is, I think we will all agree, sabotage. When one thinks that a member of the public can be prosecuted for wasting a piece of bread or throwing away a tram ticket, we should make more stringent inquiries in this House as to the want of foresight and administration which results in the wastage of large quantities of food through the Ministry of Food's control. The other day we had a Debate about strawberry prices, and although I do not want to go over that ground again, I want to make one point. We complained then that the strawberry crops in the North-West Kent area had been pre-empted at a price of 7½d. a lb., which we contended, with the support of an official of the Ministry of Food, was below the cost of production. Since jam factors and processors, with the authority of the Ministry, have pre-empted the crop and taken the best, they have come round and said, "We do not want any more strawberries,"

Another point I want to raise is the question of the distribution of potatoes. I have here a letter from the chairman and managing director of one of the biggest companies in this country. He writes: The question you asked in the House with regard to the waste of potatoes interests me very much. I entirely agree with your remark that Ministry officials shall be subjected to the same treatment as is meted out to the public for wasting food. In the early days of the war, I was approached by a section of the Ministry of Food to report on a factory erected by the Government during the last war for the purpose of utilising surplus potatoes, and the result has been a lamentable and pathetic state of affairs. On the more immediate question, this very knowledgeable man, whose one object is to secure the saving of foodstuffs, said: I have repeatedly drawn the attention of the Ministry of Food to the surplus which we should have available in the Eastern Counties and elsewhere, and now we are faced with the waste to which you so rightly refer. The reason is "— I draw the attention of the House to these words— that men have been appointed who are lacking in knowledge of the task on which they are engaged, but who possess means of covering up their failures and satisfying the Ministry with reports which, in my opinion, constitute something approaching a scandal. One of the biggest and most expert potato factors in Great Britain—this, letter happens to come from Scotland—writes: Lower grade samples of the potatoes should be dealt with by the following methods: (a) encourage marketing and consumption early in the season, (b) reserve a substantial tonnage of inferior samples for a steady flow to the dehydration factories; (c) allot for stock feeding direct. That is the opinion of an expert. I do not know. I ask the Minister whether such people have been consulted and whether their advice has been taken in the distribution of the potato crop. He goes on to say: The effort to recover the position by forcing second-class samples on the markets and the consuming public rather late in the season has had very bad reactions. The loss of a large tonnage of best class potatoes as foodstuffs to the general public was great and serious, and the loss to the Treasury for compensation payments to growers must finally be very large and to a great extent unnecessary had planning been more wisely arranged. In the opinion of merchants, both town and country, most of these mistakes could have been avoided by closer and continual consultation with experienced representatives of the trade. Every effort possible should be made to avoid a recurrence of the disastrous circumstances in the 1942 crop. He goes on to say: The new crop distribution scheme of the Control has also been chaotic and wasteful. Proof of this and instances are being collected by the trade organisations, and protests lodged. I want now to say a few words about the plum crop. There will be a very big plum crop this year. My information comes from experienced people who are at the head of the war agricultural committee of one of the biggest counties. As far as they can judge—because the crop is not picked yet—when the requirements of the Ministry are satisfied for jam and pulping, with the plant that is available, they foresee that there may be a wastage of something like 40,000 tons of plums. I know two farmers, who are brothers, living next door to each other, and they are going to produce 600 to 700 tons of plums this year from two small farms. The obvious thing to do is to consult the experts and see that the surplus crop is made available to the public. I know that distribution is the difficulty, but I suggest it should be made known that the surplus above the requirements of the Ministry of Food can be distributed. People will then come in cars, and there are still some cars about, on bicycles and by train to obtain these extra supplies. Many housewives still have some sugar with which to make jam. I ask the Minister to consult people who know something about the crop before making a final decision.

I want to say a word about goose-berries. I have a letter from Yorkshire which not only deals with the gooseberry crop but with my general principle. That letter says:— Our growers here are feeling that the gooseberry price schedule was not fair. In fact, they say it is not worth while pricking our fingers to gather the fruit. There is something radically wrong with the price fixing methods of the Ministry of Food. It is high time the schedules drawn out carried a more sensible relation to the costs of production.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

Does the writer tell the hon. Member what the costs of production are?

Sir W. Smithers

Do give me a chance; I am speaking against time. No one denies the tremendous responsibilities of the Minister of Food. I know the size of the turnover. It makes it all the more requisite that the Minister of Food should consult and take the advice of experts. In the case of potatoes, some varieties can be stored and some cannot. Some varieties can be stored in bulk. A good deal of the potato supply comes by ship from the North to the South, and it is important to know which variety is suitable for travelling. I am told on the highest authority that, if the inexperienced officials of the Ministry of Food take over, not only the ware crop, but the seed crop for next year, next year's potato crop will be jeopardised. I wish the Minister of Food and his Ministry would be a little more sympathetic towards the loyal and devoted people who are trying to help. A few months ago I went to see the Minister of Food. I wanted to take with me the secretary of the local branch of the National Farmers' Union. The Minister refused to see him because of some chance sentence in a letter; he thought he had been rude to him.

Mr. Mabane

Has the hon. Member got the letter?

Sir W. Smithers

The Minister knows all about it.

Mr. Mabane

And so do I.

Sir W. Smithers

He refused to let me bring my experienced adviser with me.

Mr. Walkden

Was it Will Hay?

Sir W. Smithers

The other day we had a conference of 30 growers, representing, between 400 and 500 growers. I wanted the local Press to attend the meeting so that things could be sent over the country as rapidly as possible. I was told by the gentleman in charge, "Press here, no meeting." There were great delays in the issue of licences for the growers to retail food. I will give one instance. Only the other day a big farmer in my division told me his strawberry licence had not come through. He told me they were within two days of finishing. We were sitting in a car as it was raining, and a telegraph girl came along and handed him a telegram. It came from St. John's College, Oxford, and said, "Your licence posted to-day." In my division representations were made to me by several small growers, and I think this is a matter which should be raised in the House of Commons; it is a matter which I am going to fight with every legitimate means within my power. This is a letter from a small grower—a man and his wife—and it says: I applied in writing to St. John's College, Oxford, for a, licence on 22nd June and I have not had it yet. This is more serious: An official from the Food Office came round to our farm. I asked him what authority he had, and he showed me an official card. I did not notice his name. He thereupon proceeded to make me feel like a criminal by telling me that everything I said would be used as evidence against me, accusing me of being the cause of all the trouble. If a constituent of mine cannot come to her Member of Parliament without an official from the Ministry of Food saying that kind of thing, it is disgraceful. It goes on: I then had the riot Act read to me, which I said I did not want to hear, and I was told that that was my trouble. I would not listen any more as the children had come home from school, and they were more important than he was. The thing that really struck me was how very aggressive he was when dealing with me whereas when my husband came along he was exceedingly nice. That sort of thing ought to be stopped. I hope the Minister will before next year try to take a lesson from all the mistakes that have been made this year and fix prices earlier for the whole country, so as to ensure better distribution.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Mabane)

The hon. Member has ranged over a good deal of ground. I thought he might probably be introducing raspberries. I am glad he has not. But it is very difficult to cover the amount of ground in the very short time that I have. He says he will send particulars of the various points that he has raised, and certainly I shall be very glad to give him detailed replies. He spoke in general terms about wastage of food through control by the Ministry. Of course, there has always been a certain amount of food wastage—conditions of glut cannot be anticipated—and all that I would say is that in general control has resulted in food being much more economically used than if, apparently as he desires it, the distribution of food was left free for all. He referred again to strawberry prices, and again I am sorry to say he said that he had been informed by an official of this Department that that official agreed with his view. It is very difficult when officials are quoted in the House where they are not able to defend themselves. I will read the first sentence of a letter that we have had from that official as the result of the hon. Member's previous statement: I was astounded to receive your letter, as the quotations therein grossly misrepresent the conversation which took place between Sir Waldron Smithers and myself on the evening of 24th June, 1942. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member will not in future quote that official in support of what he says. He speaks, too, of the process of pre-emption. That is a very careful and necessary process. The reason why a crop is pre-empted is in order that a proper proportion may pass into the hands of the jam manufacturers, so that the fruit may be evenly distributed throughout the country.

Sir W. Smithers rose

Mr. Mabane

On the last occasion the hon. Member made 13 interruptions. He howled to high heaven when someone interrupted him, and I, too, must claim the indulgence that he claims of going on in the short time that I have at my disposal. Pre-emption is arranged as the result of conferences between the agents, the manufacturers and the representatives of the growers. The amount of the crop that is to be pre-empted and the persons on whom pre-emption notices are to be served are decided. There is every reason to suppose that in general the arrangements work extremely well. The hon. Member spoke of potatoes. People often forget that last year there was an unfortunate period when potatoes were in short supply. There were queues for them and in many cases potatoes were not available at all. This year the Department decided to avoid that difficulty and, therefore, laid in a reserve of long-keeping potatoes. We were informed that the new crop might be expected at a certain time, and not only did it become ready two or three weeks before the time of which we had been advised, but when it arrived it was extremely heavy. It is all very well to say that things would have been better if planning had been more wisely arranged, but if there had been no planning there would have been no potatoes. So far as I can understand the hon. Gentleman does not desire more planning, but less planning. He cannot have it both ways.

There is closest and continuous consultation with those who know the conditions of these crops. The hon. Gentleman spoke of Scottish seed potatoes and had an idea that the Department were to buy and transport them. The Department have taken the view, and I hope that he will agree, because it is his view, that that is not the case and that they will not take charge of Scottish seed potatoes. He spoke of plums and said that after the necessary amount of plums had been taken for jam manufacture, pulping and so on, there would be a wastage of 40,000 tons.

Sir W. Smithers

Unless you do something.

Mr. Mabane

He said there would be a wastage of plums. It is really absurd to suggest that these plums will be wasted. Of course they will not be wasted. They will be available for sale to the general public, and as the hon. Gentleman no doubt knows, arrangements have been made to allow additional sugar in order that jam may be made. We are very fortunate in having this large crop of plums and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is beyond the capacity of any Department to anticipate what will be the climatic or crop conditions before they arrive. I hope that nothing will occur to disappoint us in this large harvest of plums, but I have every reason to believe that if the harvest arrives as we hope the plums will be available for purchase by the general public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the refusal, as he put it, of the Minister to receive him in company with a local representative of the National Farmers' Union. The Department deals with the Union direct, and I think that the Union would take a poor view if every time they met the Department they found that the Department was dealing with a particular member as well. If the hon. Gentleman had had the letter with him in which he said there was an unfortunate sentence and I had read that sentence to the House, the House might have taken a different view of the refusal. I know there have been occasions in which the issue of licences has been somewhat tardy, but it is a difficult administrative matter. Thousands are issued for tomatoes and for other soft fruit crops. To give tomatoes as an instance, the number of application forms received was 6,034. The number of licences issued was 4,921, 185 applications were rejected, and the remainder have either been withdrawn or are under examination. Therefore, I do not think we have done too badly on that. I have no knowledge of the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred of a constituent of his being cross-examined by an official of the Department. I feel that it would be better if before stating a case like that in general terms an opportunity had been given to the Department by giving precise details of place, names and occasion to allow them to examine them, rather than to create prejudice by putting the matter in the way he has done on the Floor of the House and in such a way that I am unable to reply to charges the details of which I do not know.

Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)

Would my hon. Friend do everything in his power to speed up the issue of these licences? I am not complaining, but the time taken is the essence of the whole thing.

Mr. Mabane

I agree with my hon. Friend in that view. I am doing my best to accelerate the process and to arrange that licences are issued within 24 or 48 hours at the most.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.