HC Deb 10 June 1943 vol 390 cc897-907
Mr. Douglas (Battersea, North)

I wish to switch the discussion now over to the question of food supply and distribution. I think no apology is needed for doing that, because it is a matter of universal concern. It matters not where one goes, food is the subject of discussion and conversation, and that fact in itself indicates what is the effect of the successive restrictions which have been imposed upon the supply and distribution of food upon the minds of our people. I want to make it quite clear to start with that I am not——

Mr. Charleton (Leeds, South)

May I draw your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that there is not a Member on the other side of the House, including any Government Minister?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

took a seat on the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Douglas

I do not know whether the new recruit to the Government will be of help to the Parliamentary Secretary. I was about to point out that I do not raise any complaint with regard to the administration of rationing so far as it concerns staple foods of standardised quality, such as sugar, butter, margarine, and commodities of that kind where distribution can be made almost of a mechanical character. My complaint concerns favouritism and discrimination in regard to two groups of foodstuffs: first, those rationed foods which are not of a uniform quality, and in which therefore there is the opportunity of discrimination, and, secondly, those foodstuffs which are not rationed at all. An example of the first group which springs to mind is meat. There is a great deal of difference between one cut of meat and another. There is no discrimination as regards the 1s. 2d. per person, but the way in which it is supplied can cause a great deal of discontent. The examples that I am going to give are based upon observation and inquiry in my own constituency, which, I think, represents a fair cross-section of the population of this country. These are cases which come to my knowledge quite frequently, not just occasionally. I get complaints that when, for instance, pork is plentiful, some customers get pork week after week, while others are supplied with some of the kinds which are not so abundant. I am also told occasionally that steps are taken to secure this discrimination by passing tips to people employed in the shops—that between two ration books a packet of cigarettes is introduced, and other things of that kind.

Let me pass to some examples of discrimination in regard to unrationed goods. The question of fish has been raised very pointedly from time to time in this House, in questions to the Parliamentary Secretary. My constituents complain that they never see any of the better kinds of fish, such as plaice, halibut and salmon—and even working people like to have a change occasionally, even if it entails considerable expenditure. Fruit is another example. There is a scarcity of gooseberries, which ought to be coming on the market at present. The Parliamentary Secretary said yesterday, in reply to a Question that I put, that there were few on sale because picking had been deferred, and that it is not expected that any very large quantity will be available for distribution as fresh fruit since a substantial proportion of what in any case is a small crop will be reserved for jam-making."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th June, 1943; col. 720, Vol. 390.] I had exactly the same kind of reply when I raised this question a year ago. Many people think that, in the words of "Alice in Wonderland," it is a case of jam yesterday, jam to-morrow, but never jam to-day.

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

It is always jam, never soft fruit.

Mr. Douglas

Jam is not a substitute for fresh fruit, and one of the most serious deficiencies in our diet at present is that of all kinds of fresh fruit. In normal times it is possible to get fruit in some form or another at every season of the year, because it is imported from abroad. Therefore, the deprivation is felt all the more acutely. May I refer to the distribution of oranges, in which priority is supposed to be given for young children? I know of a woman with a young child, who went for oranges to a greengrocer whom she had patronised for years—and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will take note of that, because he has defended the practice of under-the-counter sales on the ground that they are a means by shopkeepers of securing that their regular customers are supplied. Here is the case of a regular customer who goes to a greengrocer to get oranges, and gets none. A few days afterwards her child is taken ill; she tells a neighbour, who has no children, and the neighbour gives her some oranges. The neighbour has got those oranges at the shop where the mother was refused. Here i. another case. One woman, who has three children, is given one pound of oranges; another woman, who has one child, is given three pounds of oranges. There can be no justification for that discrimination. Remember that these unfortunate people are paying about 6d. for each orange in order to get them for their children.

Frequently I hear of cases of people going to shops to buy goods, and the goods are there, but they are told, "You cannot have them; they have been ordered by telephone." I had a case recently of a woman who went to a shop to buy bacon, a rationed commodity. There was a queue for it. After waiting 40 minutes, she at last got to the head of the queue, and found that there was some bacon. She asked for her ration, and was told, "You cannot have any; this has been ordered by telephone." That sort of thing is causing enormous irritation. Other commodities in short supply are the subject of similar complaints. A few days ago a woman in my constituency went to a shop at which she has dealt for years, and at which she is a registered customer for meat. She went to a counter and asked for Bird's custard powder, and she was told deliberately, "We have not got any." She then went to another counter to get her meat, and, while waiting there, she saw another customer served with the very article that she had been told she could not be supplied with. When, after seeing this, she went over and asked for a tin, it was flung at her. These instances can be multiplied enormously.

When the Minister took certain kinds of tinned fruit off the points system recently, one lady, who had been buying tinned fruit for a long time past on points from a certain shop, went there and asked for some of this fruit which had been taken off points. She was refused, on the ground that she was not a registered customer. She was a registered customer at another shop which did not deal in that commodity, so that she could not get any at all. I think I am correct in saying that in many cases the device of refusing to serve customers with un-rationed articles is designed to compel the customer to register there for rationed goods, in the hope that he will be able to get unrationed goods there too. It is clear that there are a great many articles which are sold by shops of a specialised character which do not deal in registered goods at all. Therefore, if the shops which deal in registered goods try to force customers in this way it is extremely unfair on the others.

I would point out that the strain of all this upon the housewife is considerable. There are queues, not only for unrationed goods, but frequently for rationed goods as well, and people have to wait often for 20 minutes before they can be served. Part of the trouble, of course, is that the staffs of the shops are depleted and are not able to deal with the work as expeditiously as they did in normal times, while every transaction takes longer because of the necessity of producing the ration books, and, in the case of rationed goods, the quantity that can be obtained at one time is generally limited to one week's supply, so that people who normally would buy two or three weeks' supply at one time have to come more frequently. That creates in- creased difficulty in shopping, and adds to the time required by women to get the commodities they need. But, although it can be explained to some extent in that way, do not let us forget that there is in the aggregate an enormous waste of time and energy, which is taken out of the life of the housewife. While that is happening, the Minister is advising women to learn new and elaborate means of cooking things, which they have far less time than they normally have to put into operation.

The cumulative effect of the restriction upon the supply of goods during nearly four years now is beginning to make itself felt. There is, in spite of the fact that the death-rate has gone down, an increase in invalidity—an increase not so much in acute diseases as in sub-acute diseases. That is borne out by the experience of friendly societies, sick benefit societies and similar bodies, who all report that they have to deal with a much larger volume of sickness. Here again—and I ought' to be quite fair about this—there are several causes at work besides food. There are the black-out, the lack of fresh air, the long hours, and in many cases perhaps long distances to travel and similar things which all throw more strain upon the human organism. But all these factors are also responsible for the increase in invalidity. It shows all the more clearly that very serious consideration ought to be given to see whether it is not possible to make some improvement in the supply and variety of food in order to help to counteract the effects upon health of not only the lack of food but of the other disabilities to which people are being subjected.

When Mrs. Roosevelt was here some time ago she described the diet as being adequate but dull. She was here only for a very few days. If she had lived upon this diet as long as we have had to do, especially those who have not the benefit of being able to go to canteens in order to supplement their food supply, and the housewives particularly, who have to bear the brunt of this in the end, I think she would have gone further in her description of our diet. It is not only dull; it is extremely monotonous, and the monotony interferes with appetite, and lack of appetite interferes with digestion, and so the food does not do us as much good as it ought to do. The Prime Minis- ter and the War Cabinet are no doubt very greatly concerned about the activities upon the war fronts, but the home front also deserves some consideration. It is the basis in the end of everything that we are doing. There is no lack of resolution in our people. They are fully determined to see this matter through to the end no matter what it may cost. They are encouraged by the trend of events as exemplified in North Africa and elsewhere, but it is still true that the shortage of food throws a heavy burden upon many people, and if some relaxation could be obtained in the stringency, it would not only give encouragement but it might give us more strength and energy with which to deal with the jobs that we have all got to do.

The Prime Minister in his speech a few days ago said that the month of May had been one of the best for imports carried safely to these Islands since the end of 1941, and the Minister of Food has upon several occasions stated that his policy was not only to keep a reserve of foodstuffs but actually to increase it and build it up. I know that there are many factors which have to be taken into account, and some of these the general public, and even those of us who do not occupy positions of responsibility here, have not the data to assess, but I do with all seriousness suggest that it deserves consideration as to whether more shipping or some of the reserves of foodstuffs can now be made available to try and mitigate the food situation and give a little larger supply or more variety and so reduce the strain to which so many of our people are subjected.

Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)

I want to raise a question with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food which has not exactly a direct bearing on the subject which my hon. Friend has stressed of under-the-counter sales. What we grumble about in the North of England is not so much under-the-counter sales in regard to soft fruits and tomatoes as whether there are to be any under-the-counter sales at all. Therefore we are taking time by the forelock by raising this matter to-day, so that we may not have a repetition of what happened last season. There is great anxiety in the North. The food traders, consisting of suppliers with 800,000 people in their area, 75 wholesalers and 4,350 retailers have been meeting at Newcastle, and information has been passed on to Members of Parliament from the North to raise this question with the Ministry of Food. The position as I understand it is that they are now largely dependent upon the Ministry for supplies under an Order under which associations have been formed covering the main growing areas. It is to these associations that the Ministry directs that certain quantities should be supplied to areas where the need or the deficiency exists. These quantities should have regard to the nature or geographical situation of the area. Before the war we undoubtedly imported enormous quantities of soft fruits, tomatoes and that sort of thing from the Continent. As these supplies are all cut off now, we are dependent upon our home-grown supplies to the extent, it is estimated, of something like 95 per cent. I am not deprecating in any way the splendid work which the Ministry of Food has done. It has done a tremendous job of work, there is no question about that, but we heard on the wireless and saw in the Press last year that we were to get six or seven pounds of tomatoes per head.

Mr. Mabane

That was the notional figure, which was certainly given over the wireless before the season began, and it was not realised.

Mr. Taylor

These notional figures lead people up the garden. It probably would be just as well for the Ministry of Food not to be too optimistic. The Parliamentary Secretary seems to be of that sort of make-up, rather temperamental, and when he says things he becomes very optimistic. You will not get tomatoes on a vine by being optimistic. The giving of notional figures of six or seven lbs. on the wireless caused a considerable amount of disappointment when six or seven lbs. of tomatoes did not materialise. The general idea is that people in the South of England got more than six or seven lbs.

Mr. Mabane indicated dissent.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is the general opinion. The information from the Ministry is that the average was 4¼ lbs. per head for last year. If there was an average of 4¼ lbs., then somebody had been getting six lbs. If we could grow tomatoes out of doors to the extent that they can be grown in the Souths of England, I would grow them in my back garden. It is a plant that is easily grown and is prolific, and my hon. Friend beside me can grow any quantity, but we cannot grow them in the North of England like that. Traders in the North of England are anxious that we should be given a fair crack of the whip, but we do not think that we got it last year. The average last year in the North was 3.35 lbs. Therefore, if the average was worked out for the whole of the country, it is evident that a fairly large number of people got more than that per head.

We are seriously handicapped for transport, and unless we can be helped with transport on this occasion we shall be as badly off as we were last year. In the Newcastle district we used to get a very large quantity of our tomatoes from Norfolk; we took practically half the Norfolk crop of tomatoes before the war. Since the restriction on transport these deliveries have been stopped. I would like attention to be given to this matter, because it is a bit of a puzzle. Owing to the difficulties of transport, and to the fact that we are trying to make everything easier, we are not to have any more tomatoes from the Norfolk district, but we are to receive them from South of London, that is another couple of hundred miles away. Our retailers would like the supply of tomatoes to come along in a steady flow. We do not want to wait until the gluts come along, so that our average per head is raised. Wholesalers and retailers in the North of England would like to have them in a steady flow; 1,800,000 people in the North want the Ministry to understand that we are entirely dependent upon them for our supplies and that if our supplies are not forthcoming we shall raise this question again. I hope that included in the Parliamentary Secretary's crackling loquacity will be the statement that our people in the North will get an equitable share of the soft fruits and tomatoes that are produced this year.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor) has said about the North of England getting a fair share of the distribution of tomatoes. They should be treated no worse than the South in this respect and I hope the Minister will see that that is done. I listened with considerable interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Battersea (Mr. Douglas), who stated that there were no complaints about rationing because everybody was treated alike. With that I think we all can agree——

Mr. Douglas

I said with regard to rationed goods which were of uniform quality; I did not include all rationed goods.

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend's chief complaint was about favouritism and discrimination in unrationed foodstuffs. This brings me to the charge of under-the-counter practice, about which I want to take up the case of the trader. Under-the-counter trading has become a sort of byword, a gibe for B.B.C. clowns, but there is something to be said in its favour. Complaints have been made of absenteeism among women workers in factories. At a recent conference of the Engineering Union, women spoke bitterly about women war workers coming off worst in shopping. They said that women with leisure rummaged through the shops during the least busy hours, picking out the supplementary articles, and that when working women came along it was all scramble, scarcity and the bare rations. Here, surely, is a case for the fair-share idea in under-the-counter trade, so that regular customers may not be forgotten. After all, the trader has to bear in mind his regular customers; he has to think of the future, when the war is over. It would be easy, indeed, for assistants to sell everything on the basis of "First come, first served." It would relieve them of a considerable amount of worry and trouble in operating the fair-share scheme, and at the same time it would mean that women in war factories, offices and the like would get a fair share. Women with the necessary time to tour the shops every day get all the pickings, but when women take time off from factories to go shopping, their absenteeism means a decline in production and the war effort suffers.

Traders in different parts of the country have sought to overcome complaints about women in factories being unable to shop by extending their opening time for an hour. What has been the experience? In one town that I know the number of customers ranged from only one to five, so it was not a paying proposition. What traders are endeavouring to do by means of the fair-share scheme is to see that every customer has a fair share of the goods that are unrationed. My contention is that these cheap gibes about under-the-counter business make for bad feeling between customers and shop assistants. Women in factories hear them and wonder whether they are getting their fair share. Shop assistants are feeling keenly the accusations levelled against them that they are giving preferential treatment and being unfair. They have enough trouble with rationing, points and shortage of staffs, and a little sympathy and consideration would not come amiss. I hope this House will be generous in that respect.

Mr. Sexton (Barnard Castle)

I would like to emphasise what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor). Like him I come from the North. In war-time we need food not only for the guns, but for the makers of those guns. There would be no guns at all if there were no workers to manufacture them, and there would be an insufficient supply or weapons of poor quality if there was not an adequate and good supply of food. It is true that some staple foods have been rationed, such as meat. But man cannot live by meat alone. We are told that variety is the spice of life, but variety is also the spice of food. Although I am not a dietetics expert, I understand that fresh fruit and vegetables are essential to a fully healthy life. During the last three or four years we have been told about the good qualities of fresh vegetables, especially carrots, but even a donkey gets tired of carrots, and the workers themselves are getting tired and want something more palatable. The climate in the North of England is not very kind to fruit growers. The districts around where my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth lives were called various names—"distressed areas," "special areas" and sometimes, even, "areas of the forgotten men." Now they are becoming areas of forbidden fruit. Some of the absenteeism about which we have heard so much is due to the lowering of the vitality of the workers, owing to a shortage of fruit. Especially do I claim recognition for the men who work underground, who are denied much of the sunlight that ordinary workers above ground get. They are down in the bowels of the earth, seven, eight or nine hours a day, and I believe that fresh fruit would to a great extent counter the ill-effects of this shortage of sunlight. Before the war we relied almost entirely, in the North of England, on imported fruit. Now imports have been cut, and we have to rely on home-produced fruit, but there is less of it and, therefore, the problem of distribution——

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