HC Deb 11 December 1946 vol 431 cc1297-306

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

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Glossop (Howdenshire)

I make no apology at this late hour for raising on the Adjournment the question of the lack of fried fish shops in rural areas. I think it is somewhat interesting that while so many of the supporters of the Government claimed at the last Election that they represented a certain section of the community—those with limited financial means—there were 38 Members on the opposite benches a minute and a half ago, whereas there are nine of them at present, and Members of the Opposition should be left to draw attention to the lack of fried fish shops in rural district council areas. On 20th November I put to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food a Question asking him how many applications for licences in rural district council areas had been made during the last 12 months, and how many of those licences had been granted. In reply, the right hon. Gentleman said that for the 12 months ending 15th October this year, for the country as a whole, 2,379 applications had been made, of which 1,163 had been granted. In a supplementary question I pointed out that I had not had an answer to my original Question, and that what I wanted to know was how many applications had been applied for in areas represented by rural district councils, and how many, in fact, had been granted.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Glossop

The Minister told me in reply to that supplementary question that his Ministry—in which I had the honour to be for four years, when we were indeed hard worked—only had the figures for the country as a whole, and had not, in fact, the figures for the rural district council areas. It was because of that answer that I gave notice that I would raise this question in the House again.

I do not wish to take up very much time, because I want to give the Minister ample time for reply. What I want to know is: How many applications have been received from the respective fish fryers in rural district council areas, and how many, in fact, have been accepted? I agree with the Minister, there is a very great shortage of fats. I have a horrible feeling that the longer this Government remain in office the shorter will grow the amount of fat available. The fact remains, that during the last 12 months 1,163 applications for fried fish shops have been granted. If the Minister is unable to tell the House how many of those have been granted in rural district council areas, I think that I should be right and fair in assuming that, once again, there is a definite bias by the present Government in favour of the people in the towns and the people in the urban areas as opposed to the people living in the countryside. Taking everything into account, I suggest the people who live in the countryside are entitled to exactly the same amenities as are provided for the people in the towns and urban areas.

I now wish to refer for one moment to a matter which, I think, has a relative bearing on this. Speaking on the Second Reading of the Civil Restaurants Bill, the Minister said, referring to private enterprise and catering—and I have notified the right hon. Gentleman in advance that I would refer to this: So far, on the whole, it has not provided, on anything like an adequate scale, for public eating out, for the industrial and, for that matter, the agricultural working class of this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1946; Vol. 430, c. 1802.] How can private enterprise provide eating out facilities in rural district areas unless the right hon. Gentleman and his Department are prepared to give the necessary facilities to private enterprise to provide those eating out facilities? The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary—and again I have notified the Minister that I would raise this—are aware of an application put in some months ago by a Mr. Beck of Seaton Ross, near York, for a fried fish licence, which had the support of the local rural district council Nevertheless, it was turned down by the Ministry. In the application he not only asked for a licence for his own village of Seaton Ross, but said that if the licence were granted he was prepared to run a van twice a week in order to serve nine other villages in the immediate vicinity. In other words there was a newcomer to the fried fish business—possibly anxious to gain financial remuneration; but, after all, there is nothing wrong in getting remuneration. He was prepared to develop and use it to provide, not only one village, but nine other villages, with a regular supply of fried fish each week. I apologise for bringing up what, after all, is just one individual case; but I suggest that that case from Seaton Ross in York is only one of many which other hon. Members here tonight could bring up of applications that have been turned down by the right hon. Gentleman.

I am aware that it may be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to make concessions tonight. There is such a thing as Government policy. The hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary—and again, for the benefit of the House, I have written to the right hon. Gentleman on this subject—wrote to me on 19th October, and she said: The policy of the Ministry is to issue licences for fried fish and chip businesses only in exceptional circumstances, where there is evidence that a refusal will cause a very high degree of public hardship. Well, I venture to suggest that there are several fried fish shops in both Dundee and West Fulham, and that it is a hardship that here, in the big rural area of Seaton Ross, with nine other villages round about, they should be deprived of a shop, the only shop we are asking for, while the constituencies of West Fulham and Dundee, undoubtedly, have many more than one fried fish shop each.

I am beginning to wonder—indeed, I am more than interested in this—whether under the Civic Restaurants Bill the right hon. Gentleman has not given a high priority to a civic restaurant at Seaton Ross. I have been in my constituency, and been on relatively friendly terms with the right hon. Gentleman, so, perhaps, I may get an invitation to take part in the opening of that civic restaurant. Quite seriously, I wonder whether the intention of the Minister, in refusing these reasonable applications, is that he is thinking that these are going to be highly suitable places for civic restaurants. I should like to suggest, in all seriousness, that this Government is so dazzled by the multicoloured forms which the Departments are printing, and which our constituents, unfortunately, are having to fill in, and that they are so mesmerized by their red prints of nationalisation, that they have little or no time to look ahead. They will have to face up to a very difficult crisis in 17 or 18 months' time.

The American Loan is going to run out. It is being spent on films and tobacco, and there will be a shortage of food. Again there will be, for the third time, a great appeal to the agricultural community in this country to produce more and yet more food. The agricultural community will be asked to produce more food than they produced between 1914 and 1918, and probably to produce even more than they did between 1939 and 1945. The House will know that you have only to ask the farmer and the farm man to produce, and you find that there are no more loyal citizens in this country than those two sections of the community. But you cannot produce bricks without straw and you cannot produce farm products without labour, and the labour situation is becoming, and will go on becoming, increasingly difficult.

We now have the policy, perhaps quite rightly, of month by month returning prisoners of war to Germany, and despite what some farmers may have said about P.O.W. labour, they have been extraordinarily helpful in the past, and therefore we shall find a shortage of labour. Unfortunately, in their wisdom the Government have repealed the Rural Workers (Housing) Act, and it is becoming extremely difficult for houses to be reconditioned and improved. Therefore I would suggest that the question to which the attention of the House and particularly of the Government should be directed is, where is the labour to come from on the land to harvest the crops in 1947 and, much more particularly, in 1948? I have lived all my life in a country district, and I doubt, with all respect, that there are many hon. Members of this House who know the minds and the views of the agricultural worker better than I do. They want, and rightly want if they are to stay on the land, the same amenities as are given in the towns. They want houses, they want electricity, they want gas, water and buses. I know the right hon. Gentleman is not responsible for any of those, but he is responsible for food, which is his particular job, and it is on that particular point that I am taking him up tonight.

If the restriction on more fish and chip shops in the countryside is necessary, why are licences being given in other parts of the country? Surely in the countryside, where there are no restaurants, either British or private enterprise, there is a very real need for the facilities which a fried fish shop can provide? We on this side of the House are often accused of representing a particular section of the community. I live seven miles from a town, and even before the war I never had a free delivery of fish from a fish shop. I am fortunate, I admit it; I can have a motor car and send someone seven miles for some fish, which is all very pleasant for me, but it is not very pleasant for the small tenant and the farm worker, who must walk half a mile to a bus, pay fivepence to get to the town, then—under the present Government—stand in a queue for some fish, queue again for the bus—another fivepence—and then walk back half a mile. That takes almost half a day, and therefore, if there should be any priority at all with regard to the distribution of fish, surely that priority should be given at the present time to the rural areas?

I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government will not get increased labour on the land, unless they give these facilities. I know the difficulties in the case of bricks, water and electricity, the shortage of iron and steel to provide water pipes and so on, for which the Government cannot fundamentally be blamed, but this is a case where there is a certain amount of fat available, and I suggest that priority should be given in rural areas for fried fish and chip shops. I am anxious to give the right hon. Gentleman time to reply, and perhaps I have not impressed him very much in the few moments available. Perhaps I may impress him by saying that, only 10 days ago, I was in my constituency—and in some constituencies the Government do come in for a certain amount of criticism—where a man in a pub said to me, "You may well find, when the General Election comes along, not only in the country districts but in the towns, chalked on the pavements and on the walls, 'Empty heads put them in, and empty tummies will turn them out.'"

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-Western)

I am sure that we are grateful to the hon. Member for Howdenshire (Mr. Glossop) for having taken this opportunity to bring before the House the needs of rural England so far as fried fish shops are concerned, but I cannot think that the House will be grateful for the third-class political propaganda speech which has taken up 15 minutes of the time. This is certainly a practical problem, and I hope that one day Members on the opposite side will be able to turn to the problems of rural England with a practical outlook, and with an effort to try to solve them. It is true that the conditions were bad while they were in office, and that their conversion to amenities for rural England has been but recent, and consequently, they are like young converts and are quite enthusiastic about the matter. The hon. Member spoke as if he was the greatest authority on this particular subject. I have given a great deal of my time in rural England, and I have come from my constituency, not 10 days ago, but this very day.

Mr. Glossop rose

Mr. Dye

I am not giving way, because I shall speak for only a few minutes. As far as my own experience is concerned, I have been the Chairman of the British Restaurant Committee for a rural district during the war, and since the war I have taken an interest in the feeding of my people—we have our British Restaurants, as well as our meat pies. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can see his way clear, in the next few months, or as early as possible, as supplies become available, to enable those who are desirous of serving villages with fried fish shops to provide these facilities. I realise that there is a shortage of fat, and that the people who serve rural England in this respect have done so for very little profit, because there are comparatively few customers. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that when he receives a request from a village, it may be for a population of only 200 or 300, such as in the case of a village in my constituency from which an application has recently been made, it will be only for a small shop which will not require as much fat as in the case of the larger centres.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend can be a little more generous in giving licences for fish shops in rural England. I ask him to remember that so often in the villages there has been a lack of amenities and services in this respect, but we hope that, as time goes on, the farmworker and his wife will be able to enjoy fish and chips, not on the one day when they go to the nearest market town, but two or three days a week, when the fish and chips can be fried in their own village. I ask my right hon. Friend to use what additional fats become available in the future to extend this facility to rural England.

10.21 p.m.

Brigadier Rayner (Totnes)

I would like to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Howdensbire (Mr. Glossop). When I was commanding First Army Signals in the war, we organised one of our lorries as a mobile food shop, and it was used on all exercises and manoeuvres up to D Day. It became far and away the most popular article of equipment that we possessed. It was instructive to see, on a cold and wet day, how morale went up when that vehicle was observed in the offing. I have been trying lately to apply that idea to the villages and towns around my own home in Devonshire, and to fit up a vehicle as a mobile fish and chips shop. I failed, but I am hoping that the Minister, when I write to him shortly to ask for his help with a few odd permits, will be sympathetic. The cowman has to spend seven days a week with cows, and the average agricultural worker has to work outside in all sorts of weather. He needs hot food when he can get it. The men working outside in all sorts of weather require hot food more than do people working in well warmed factories, and I think we should do something about it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Howdenshire that unless we do something to bring the agricultural worker more on a par with the town worker as regards the ordinary everyday comforts of life, we are likely in this country to go a bit hungry in due course.

10.23 p.m.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

The hon. Member for Howdenshire (Mr Glossop) raised this matter originally because I could not give him some figures for which he asked. I ask him to believe —he tells me that he has worked in the Ministry of Food—that that was not because of any unwillingness, but because it places a very considerable burden on the staff to ask them to try to get figures which happen sometimes, simply because of the administrative arrangements, to involve a great many hours of work. We have tried to satisfy the hon. Member, however, and I can give him, at any rate, a sample. The difficulty in this case is to differentiate the rural areas within the divisional food areas, but we have taken a sample of 64 rural areas, with a population of 500,000, and I can give the figures for those areas for the 12 months ended 15th October last. There were 40 licences for fried fish shops granted, 34 rejected, and seven revoked. If one applies those figures to the total figures in the area, that meant that there was a net increase of nine per cent. of fried fish shops in those rural areas, so that it would not be true to say, in spite of all the considerations which I shall give in a moment, that there are no new fried fish shops being opened in rural areas. Although there are not nearly as many as we should like—I join with every hon. Member in saying that—there are some.

I think the hon. Member for Howdenshire probably accepts, however reluctantly—and I accept with great reluctance—the limiting factor on the total number of fried fish shops, whether in urban areas or in rural areas, which can be opened, and that is simply fats. It is very sad because we have the fish and we have the chips and if only we had the fats we could go much further. The fats are the deadly limiting factor here. We use 50,000 tons a year of fats in this way, and we cannot go further than that until our fat supplies increase. If they do, we will very seriously consider the use of them in this way among the many other users who are clamorous for fats today. As to the ratio of new licences granted in rural areas to urban areas, I do not pretend to have the complete figures, but from the figures which we have been able to get, there is no evidence at all that the rural areas are doing badly. We do not exactly control the way in which the new licences are granted, because the majority of them have to be granted on priority applications—to applicants who had businesses before the war and who had to close them down because they went into the Forces, or for other war reasons. We have to give back their licences, and they may be in urban areas, so we cannot exactly channel the new applications granted to particular areas, whether urban or rural. The distribution of the new applicants who succeed in obtaining licences is not completely in our hands. So far as I can see, there is no reason to suppose that the rural areas are doing badly in this matter.

It is a very attractive idea that we should have mobile fried fish shops in rural areas. Once we have the fats, I think that we could always grant such licences. If we had the fats I do not see why there should be any question of licences at all. Do away with them, certainly. We shall do so when that is possible. But as long as there is short supply, we must give it to priority users, and there is a terribly small remaining margin which we can give for consumer needs. It is only in the most extreme cases of consumer need that we are able to give additional licences, because the priority users to whom we must give back their licences use up practically all the supplies we can spare.

With regard to the civic restaurants, I did not take the hon. Member's point very seriously. If it is taken seriously, I must point out at once that it shows a total ignorance of the Civic Restaurants Measure which is before the House, because he asked me whether I would establish a civic restaurant in some particular rural area. I have no powers under that Bill to establish a civic restaurant there or anywhere else. All the Bill does is to allow the local authority of that or any other area to establish a civic restaurant if it wishes to do so. I am afraid that no civic restaurant will necessarily or automatically get an allowance of fats. If a British Restaurant happens to have an existing allowance, it will probably be able to continue it. But there is no pledge on allocation. If hon. Members think that we shall hesitate in any way to give civic restaurants their equal allocations with other users of fats they are quite wrong. We shall not favour them, but we shall not put them one wit behind the commercial caterers in any of these respects.

I can assure the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) that we will certainly regard rural areas' needs in this, as in other foodstuffs, as of the utmost importance, and as supplies become available they will be fully shared. But I would not agree on balance that the rural areas are worse off for foodstuffs today. It is difficult to equate the advantages of the town, with its larger facilities for catering establishments, to the advantage of the rural area with facilities for growing food, keeping hens and the like. Far be it from me to strike that balance. The rural areas are quite convinced that they are worse off, and the urban areas are quite convinced that they are worse oft. Far be it for me to strike a balance between them.

It being half-past Ten o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.