HC Deb 06 December 1946 vol 431 cc649-53
The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

The Government consider that the House should be warned that recent events in the Americas may seriously affect the supply of certain foodstuffs to this country during the coming months. It is necessary to speak of these events, and their repercussions upon us, since the House, and the nation, have a right to know the reasons for the continued difficulties of our food supply. But in doing so, I wish at the outset to say that no criticism of any kind is implied or intended of the great trans-Atlantic exporting countries. I know they are fully conscious of the difficulties which may be experienced abroad as a result of their own domestic troubles.

The main events affecting our overseas supplies have been a series of labour disputes. Unfortunately, the largest of them is still in progress, namely, the strike in the soft coal industry in the United States. This strike, if continued, will profoundly disturb the entire American economy including the transportation system. A really protracted strike might in time affect the movement of supplies in Canada. Thus we are faced with the possibility of developments in North America which may have the gravest consequences for this country and for all other countries which must rely upon North American supplies.

What I have to tell the House, however, is that these events have already gravely impeded the flow of certain staple foodstuffs to this country. I have described the serious consequences to our stocks of wheat, which are today little more than half what they were this time last year. It is necessary for us to obtain the actual delivery to this country of additional supplies of wheat in the next three or four months, over and above those which we have already purchased. I have, therefore, asked the United States Government to sell us certain quantities of wheat and flour for shipment in the near future. I must tell the House that if the United States Government should find themselves unable to agree to our request, or if circumstances should develop which made it impossible for these quantities to be moved to the American seaboard for loading or ships in the first few months of the new year, then far from it being possible to de-ration bread, it would almost certainly be necessary to reduce the present ration. The United States Government are today making great efforts to ensure that the flow of grain for export will not in fact be impeded. They are fully alive to their great and serious responsibilities, for they know that the United States in this crop year have larger supplies of grain available for export than exist in any other country.

Another strike has affected our meat supplies. The great meat packing plants of the Argentine have been held up by a strike which lasted for seven weeks. That dispute, I am thankful to say, has just been settled. But we have lost nearly seven weeks' shipment of meat, a loss which it is almost impossible to make up completely. The most immediately threatened of our supplies is, however, bacon. Canadian supplies available for export are running below expectations. Supplies from Denmark are only rising slowly. We cannot hope to increase our own supplies till we can increase our imports of animal feedingstuffs. It may well not prove possible to maintain the present bacon ration. We should know definitely in the immediate future.

Altogether it is clear that a very difficult period lies immediately ahead of us. This is not because the real world food position has worsened. Indeed, at the risk of seeing our hopes blighted in the event, I would say that looking many months ahead a gleam of light on the food supply prospects of this country is discernible.

The Secretary of Agriculture of the United States drew attention in a public statement the other day to the large supplies of grain which would have accumulated for export at 30th June, 1947, in the United States. In so far as the United State Government can improve upon the very high export target which, despite their measures of internal decontrol they have set for themselves, not only will importing countries have been helped at a vital period but a United States carryover of potentially embarrassing dimensions will have been reduced. If, on the other hand, transport difficulties prevent the United States from exceeding their export target, there will remain large supplies of grain available for export at a later date. There is, therefore, some promise that the supply situation may ease. This encourages the substantial hope that one day, and perhaps it may be sooner rather than later, the United Kingdom, which is by far the greatest continuing market in the world for exportable surpluses of foodstuffs, may again be importing in full measure the supplies of which today we stand in such great need. When that time comes we shall not forget those exporting countries which, despite their present difficulties, have stood by us during the period of scarcity.

Mr. R. S. Hudson

I am sure the House will have heard and the country will read with very great concern the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just made. What I should like at this stage to do is to express the hope that in view of the seriousness of the situation the Minister will not fail to keep this House informed from time to time of any improvement that may take place.

Mr. Scollan

What hope has the right hon. Gentleman of getting any relief from the American Government in view of the very pronounced bias there against any Governmental dealing?

Mr. Strachey

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) we will, of course, keep the House very fully informed of any development. It was because of that that we judged it very necessary to make this statement. In reply to the hon. Gentleman for Western Renfrew (Mr. Scollan) I do not think that that really enters into this position. As far as grain is concerned, the United States Government still deal in it in a Government to Government sense, which is to say that they issue export licences. No one can export grain from the United States unless the United States Government give such licences. When they are given—and that is what we ask for—the grain is actually imported into this country by the grain trade acting as our agents so that the issue of Government trade does not arise one way or the other.

Mr. Clement Davies

While the country will be grateful that the Minister has made this statement as early as possible, might I ask him whether in case the strike or difficulties with regard to transport from the United States continue, the Government are looking round for alternative sources of supply from any other countries, such as the Argentine, so that we may have other sources of supply in case the position worsens?

Mr. Strachey

Yes, Sir. The grain from the United States is only the balance of our requirements. We are importing very large quantities from Canada, though that has been delayed but not diminished by transport difficulties. The Argentine crop will be available in the new year and we hope to purchase substantial quantities.

Mr. Ellis Smith

While I am fully confident that the Minister will deal with the peculiar problem in relation to other countries, may I ask if he can give an assurance that the available food supply of this country will be more fairly distributed and that there will be a greater importation of fruit with an assurance also that that will also be more fairly distributed than has been the case up to now?

Mr. Strachey

As to fruit, I should have thought we were receiving a very considerable increased importation, and I have every expectation that that increase will be maintained. We shall certainly attempt, as I think we are doing, to distribute it fairly.

Mr. Beechman

As the Minister has rightly warned us of the fear of increasing stringency, will the Government keep under constant and careful review our own shipping position so that our ships may be best used to carry supplies from those quarters most likely to be of assistance, such as the Dominions?

Mr. Strachey

Yes, Sir. Shipping is not a bottleneck in this case, but these transportation difficulties in America have on occasions held our ships for rather long periods in some of the ports. That unfortunately is out of our control.

Mr. James Callaghan

Does not the serious news the Minister has given us justify to the uttermost the courage and foresight of the Government in rationing bread?

Mr. A. Edward Davies

Will the Minister, in view of the difficulties in regard to meat from the Argentine which he has mentioned, be able to maintain the supplies at Christmas, including the slight extra ration?

Mr. Strachey

Yes, Sir. There has been no difficulty about that extra Christmas ration.

Mr. Driberg

Will my right hon. Friend continue to do all he can to encourage our own fishermen and see that the fish is fairly distributed throughout the country?

Mr. Strachey

Certainly, Sir. The catch of fish has very steadily been increasing and the high level today is very remarkable.