§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Whitely.]
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Eden (Warwick and Leamington)
I should like to assure the House and the Government at the outset of the remarks I want to make, that we on this side of the House understand very well that this Debate raises issues of the gravest national and international consequence. It is, therefore, in no spirit of partisanship that we approach this question this afternoon. At the same time, we have certain questions to ask, we have certain criticisms to make, we have certain suggestions to put forward, and I think it my duty to voice those at the outset of the Debate, so that Ministers may have the fullest opportunity to reply. I do not think any Member, wherever he or she may sit in the House, will dispute that the two statements made last week by the Minister of Food and his colleague the Minister of Agriculture caused the gravest concern to hon. Members in all parts of the House, and outside in the country also. I am bound to say I think that concern was, in a considerable measure, the fault of the Government themselves. I want to tell them as clearly as I can, why I think so.
It does not seem to us that the Government took the proper steps to inform and 548 warn the House and the country of what was impending. On the contrary, until the Government statements were made last week—certainly for those of us who had no inside information, and I know it is difficult for the Government to understand that those who have not inside information do not always see things as the Government do, because I have been a member of a Government myself—sofar as I am concerned, and I think as far as hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned, the general trend of Government pronouncements, admittedly against a dark background, had seemed to us to be, on the whole, reassuring. Of course, we knew that the overall position was anxious and difficult, but I must remind the Government of their own recent statements, if only to explain to them why what they said came to us, and to others, as a shock. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food before he left for Washington made a statement which was quoted in "The Times." He said:During 1946 I shall continue to do my utmost to provide more variety in our diet. We can look forward to some improvements at any rate.On his return from Washington he certainly said nothing that I have seen to give any contrary impression. Moreover, the Prime Minister in a letter—if I may say so, an admirable letter in the circumstances—to Mr. Gollancz, which he may remember was written on the day after the Minister of Food returned from Washington, said this, on 25th January, less than three weeks ago:On the basis of what is practicable, however, there is little prospect of any substantial increase in the level of human consumption while world supplies are short, as they are now. This does not mean, however, that the Government are ready to undertake that in no circumstances will there be any general increase of rations. It may be found necessary to provide some variation of the present monotonous and unexciting diet in order to secure increased production at home, and thereby build up the export trade on which our future depends.Very sound, wise sentiments, but there is not the slightest indication in that statement that further important and substantial cuts of existing rations were at that time impending. I do not want to overdraw the picture, I only want to show the right hon. Gentleman how it struck us. I am suggesting that that statement by the right hon. Gentleman, while it certainly did not foretell any improvement, at the same time did not prepare 549 anybody for the reduction which came so shortly afterwards. So I would say to the Lord President of the Council, that I do not think there was any justification at all for the attack he was good enough to make upon us on this side of the House, at Peckham the other night, when he said that we ought to contribute constructive suggestions in these difficult times—I think I have got it right—" constructive suggestions to a solution of the food problem." How in the world are we supposed to do that, if Ministers do not take us into their confidence, or even take the trouble to tell us that there is an acute problem impending?
§ Mr. Eden
The hon. Gentleman is on that again. 1 should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman would have perceived that there is a difference between revealing a military agreement at the expense of your Ally, which would betray your Ally to the enemy, and telling the public what is happening about dried eggs.
§ Mr. Stokes
The right hon. Gentleman is misleading the House. He knows perfectly well that the treaties to which I referred and which he denied, were secret agreements which had nothing whatever to do with military arrangements. They were purely political, and he knows it
§ Mr. Eden
I am very sorry, I do not want to misrepresent the hon. Gentleman, I was merely taking the Question he asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday, which was about that. If he will look at his own Question on yesterday's Paper, he will see that it was about the Far Eastern agreement. If he does not mean that, all right, but then what does he mean? In any event, I say that an agreement of that kind is not comparable with telling the country what their domestic food provision is.
§ Mr. Eden
I am not a Minister of the Crown. The hon. Member has done his best to see to that, and he really must not complain.
Perhaps I may now go back to the food question. When the two right hon. Gentlemen made that statement, I consulted at once with Lord Woolton and one or two others of our colleagues, who have been closely concerned with this business for a very long period, and I found that none of them had any information at all of the situation which was about to develop. I do not want to embarrass the Government in any way, especially in view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but it is a fact that, from time to time, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are good enough to consult those of us who have had some experience of office in these war years, about the problems which are arising. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food that I hope he will take this as a friendly tip—if I were in his place, having such a predecessor as Lord Woolton, I would get a bit of advice on the quiet from him. At any rate, I simply say to the Leader of the House that I do not think it is right, or worthy of him, to complain that we do not make constructive suggestions, when he does not give us any information on which to base those suggestions. Despite that provocation, however, I promise not to go further down that road.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
That was not a speech of provocation at all, it was a consequence of provocation.
§ Mr. Eden
The right hon. Gentleman is a pretty good master of provocation. I leave him to settle with his own conscience whether he started it or not. I am not going any further along that way; on the contrary.
I want to put to the Government a number of questions which are, I think, judging from my letter bag, the kind of questions which the country is asking itself now. I also want to make certain suggestions of a constructive nature, which 1 hope the Government may be able to take to meet a situation which is gravely troubling us all. We must, none of us, underrate the seriousness of this position for the British people, especially for the women of this country. Our people have 551 endured six long years of rationing—and in that, let me add, they differ from the people of some countries in Europe, notably Germany, which, so far as my information goes, until the very hour of victory, lived very well on the spoils of the conquered territories. Now, at the end of this long time, our people have been called upon to make further sacrifices.
The first question I ask the right hon. Gentleman is Whether, in fact, the Government have paid the close and constant attention to the developing world food situation which that situation clearly demanded. Have Ministers, individually and collectively, made the decisions and taken all the steps that were necessary, and above all, did they take those steps soon enough? Are they now doing all that is humanly possible to alleviate the situation? Of course, we do not blame. the Government for crop failures in far-distant lands, we do not blame them for the bad weather that affects the whaling fleet, but we do say that it was the duty of the Government, as those disasters and difficulties became known, to take urgent steps to meet them, and to apprise this House and the general public of their implications upon the rations available for the British people.
The Minister of Food told the House last week, quite rightly, about crop failures in Australia, in the Argentine, and in North Africa. I would like him to tell us today how long he has known about those failures. Was it not months ago? He knew of them in fact before Christmas, by his own admission in this House in his statement last Tuesday. He then added the further news of crop failures in India and South Africa, which he said did not arrive until he got back from Washington. He said it was not until a few weeks ago that it was possible to assess fully the effect of all those disasters on the world food position. All right, we accept that, but was it really necessary to wait for precise knowledge of the full facts of all those calamities before any action could be put in train, or any information or warning issued to the country as a whole? Was it not apparent long since to the Government, with their information—so much greater than ours—that something of this nature was going to 552 arise, even if they could not give the exact figure?
Let us take the position of India—the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong. As I understand it, the failure of the South West monsoon in India in the late summer and autumn was followed in October by a disastrous cyclone in the Province of Madras; and then on top of that came a failure of the Christmas rains in Northern India. But long before that, it must have been apparent that serious shortages were inevitably going to arise in India. The major part of that damage was done by last autumn, and by November I am told, though I do not now whether it is right or not, it was known in India, in the grain trade, that disaster had overtaken the crops for this year—a disaster, it is quite true, whose magnitude could not finally be ascertained until the failure of the Christmas rains, but it must have been visible many weeks before that. Now I come to why we have, if you like, misunderstood the situation. On 10th December last a Question was asked about the position in India—I was in the House at the time—by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Bossom), who referred to the failure of these very rains about which we now hear so much. He asked about them, and he was told by the Under-Secretary of State for India that the Government of this country:sees no cause for apprehension of famine, whether in Bengal or elsewhere in India."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1946; Vol. 417, c. 26.]I simply cannot understand that answer, in relation to what has happened since.
Now about South Africa. South Africa is a grain-importing country, but I doubt whether her requirements today are large enough to make a difference to the total world demand. But I should like to know what those South African requirements are. For instance, there has been a widespread drought in that country, following the failure of the rains last year, and I should like to ask the Minister if he can tell us when it was that the Union Government's appreciation of the crop position foreshadowed a shortage. Again, I do not ask for exact figures, but for a reasonable estimate of the likely size of the deficit now impending there. We must see the overall position.
I turn to the various items of food that are affected. First, and most important, 553 of course, are food grains. On this subject I should like to ask the Government two questions. First, what steps have they taken to increase production at home; and, secondly, what steps have they taken to increase imports from overseas producing countries? About the position at home, surely, it must have been evident to the Government from what they have now told us, that these failures of grain crops throughout the world were piling up. That must have been evident to them months ago from what they now tell us, and even if full details of the position were not known until the beginning of the year, at any rate, it was apparent to the Government before Christmas, I think, that there must be a substantial deficit on the world's wheat account. There is no dispute on that. If that was so, surely it was then the duty of the Government to take all possible steps to increase at that time the production of food grains in this country. Did they do it? On Tuesday— I ask the House to note this—on Tuesday of last week the Minister of Agriculture said that he had that day despatched a letter to the county committees. Why on that day? Why not weeks before? We are now told that the storm had been gathering for months.
§ Mr. Eden
With all respect, he is very much interested today, too. I would advise the right hon. Gentleman to appear himself whenever he can. I am not making a complaint. I want to put these issues, and so long as they are replied to by somebody—and I must ask for some reply—I make no complaint.
I go back to the domestic food position, and what we are doing here. Why was action left so late? It is quite true that the Coalition Government decided early last year that compulsory directions would not be issued to farmers to sow wheat this season. I remember very well that decision being taken. That was at a time when, by general admission, the present world wheat shortage was not foreseen. I do not think there is any dispute on that. That was early last year. Yet, on 5th December—I ask the House to note that date, and how near 554 it is to the present time, when we are now told the storm clouds were gathering and that we ought to have seen them—on that date, the Minister of Agriculture told the farmers that it was not the intention of the Government to issue such compulsory directions. It is only now, at the last moment, now when it can only be done at great inconvenience, with considerable loss of efficiency, that he appeals to farmers to sow the maximum acreage of Spring wheat this year. And even now he has not issued directions, neither has he restored the acreage payment. We are entitled to ask the Government for some explanation of this strange state of affairs. If it was known by Christmas that the wheat shortage would be so serious this year, why did not the Minister of Agriculture then make his appeal to the farmers, and tell the country at the same time what the position was?
I come to the question of labour. It is only too well known that agricultural labour is sadly short. In answer to a Question of mine on Wednesday last week, the Prime Minister said that the Government had decided to defer the call-up—mark you, Mr. Speaker, it had been announced only in January after this cloud was gathering—of 8,000 agricultural workers until after the 1946 harvest. Why was that decision not taken weeks ago? I am bound to point out to the Government that on the very day before the Prime Minister made his statement announcing this deferment of the call-up, the Minister of Labour had given an entirely contradictory answer in this House. A few hours after the announcement of the position in this House, and after the public reaction, the Government's policy was changed. Surely, this shows not only a lack of foresight, but also a lack of coordination between Government Departments, and a lack of timely action.
I pass now to the question of imports. Are the Government satisfied that they have now explored every possible source of food grain imports? We all know that the most serious effect of the raising of the extraction rate, which the Government now, as I think, rightly propose in the circumstances—it might have been proposed long ago when this situation was arising; I am coming to that in a minute—isloss of feeding stuffs for pigs and poultry. What action are the Government taking 555 to find alternatives? May I here make a suggestion which may or may not be of value? What are they doing about maize which, I understand, will shortly be available in considerable quantities in South America, particularly in the Argentine? I know from previous discussions which we have had on this matter, that the difficulty in the past of obtaining that maize has been, in part, shortage of shipping for the long run to the Plate, and, in part, because the United States were unwilling to supply the Argentine with the fuel oil for the railways to enable the maize to be moved. I understand, however, that that problem was resolved some time ago, and my impression is that the particular problem of fuel was resolved as long ago as last May. There are, I understand, to be supplies available in about two months' time. Are the Government taking any steps to secure some portion of that valuable crop for this country, as a most useful substitute, and if they are not, will they tell us the reasons why that cannot be done?
Finally, on the question of wheat, I would say a word about consumption. Here, I would ask the Government why the steps which they are now taking were not taken long before. Many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the benches opposite remember very well that, during the war and during the height of the U-boat menace, Lord Woolton and his successor raised the rate of extraction always to safeguard against a dangerous fall in the levels of our stocks. In other words, that step was taken well in advance, and Lord Woolton always kept his picture a certain period ahead. I think that it is true to say that never, even at the worst period of the U-boat menace, did we allow our reserves of wheat and flour to fall below something in excess of three months' supply. That was because my noble friend, who is a real master of this subject, always budgeted three months in advance.
§ Mr. McAllister (Rutherglen)
I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman, in view of his laudatory references to Lord Woolton as a master of this subject of food, recollects that Lord Woolton persistently and continuously, throughout his term of office as Minister of Food, resisted the raising of the extraction rate of wheat, per 556 sistently defended a white bread policy and the introduction of synthetic vitamins. He even abandoned the synthetic plan which would have been of great value during the war and now to the nation. [Hon. Members: "Speech."] The public's objection to all wheat bread was entirely due to the fact that Lord Woolton would not stand by a decent bread nutrition policy.
§ Mr. Eden
I do not think that the hon Gentleman is correct in his statement. Certainly, the rate of extraction was raised during Lord Woolton's time. I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing this with Lord Woolton's known dislike of bread rationing. I have often heard him express his view on that. I am not trying to make out a case for Lord Woolton; I am merely pointing out that this practice was pursued of taking steps in advance of the time. I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman has not done that. I do not know. I am not a Member of the Government, but I say that the impression given to the public is that he has not done so. Not until we have come up against a crisis apparently has he taken the steps that Lord Woolton was careful to take in advance of the event. Of course, if the right hon. Gentleman has an explanation of that he will, no doubt, give it to us. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessors at the Ministry of Food always made it part of their policy to keep the public fully informed on the food situation and to ask for their co-operation at the earliest moment. Yet, it is only now, at this late date, that the public are given the facts about the wheat situation, and an appeal is made to them to save bread. Why could not they have been told before and that appeal made before? There have, it is true, been references—I want to be fair about this—to world shortages, but in statements which responsible Ministers made up to the last moment there was nothing whatever to warn the public of the imminence of this grave situation.
I want to say a word on the question of fats The cut in the fat ration from eight to seven ounces, I regard as one of the most serious features of this whole unhappy situation. It is a grave threat to our standard of living, and to the health of our already overstrained population. I do not want to refer to Lord Woolton again, in view of the intervention 557 made just now, but, perhaps, I may say that my colleagues of the late Government will remember the number of occasions on which we were advised of the capital importance of maintaining the level of this fat ration. I ask the Government what alternative they have in mind and what alternative sources they have examined.
May I tell the right hon. Gentleman— he will correct me if I am wrong—my impression of what the position was recently? When Lord Llewellin examined the oils and fats position in conjunction with the United States last spring in Washington, it was apparent then, that there would not be sufficient edible oils and fats available to us in this country to maintain the eight ounce ration rate through the winter, and the following summer until June, 1946. That became evident last spring. I was in Washington at the time and my Noble Friend told me about the position. What did we do? Lord Llewellin decided, with the approval of the Coalition Cabinet, that a cut had to be made, and that it would be made during the warm summer months; and so, in May, 1945—not a very happy date for us, the "Caretaker" Government, just before the General Election—Lord Llewellin cut the ration from eight ounces to seven. While I have no desire to introduce a purely party political note into this Debate, I think that I must observe that he thereby no doubt contributed in large measure to his own defeat in his own constituency. I ask hon. Gentlemen to ask themselves how many of them referred to cuts in the food ration in their election speeches.
§ Flight-Lieutenant Beswick (Uxbridge)
In view of the reference which the right hon. Gentleman has made, I would like to correct his impression. In the course of that election campaign, in which I, as it happened, opposed the noble Lord mentioned, not one mention of the food rationing system was made by me, and so far as I am aware. no vote was cast for me because of the food position.
§ Flight-Lieutenant Beswick
There were many other important factors at that. election besides the cut in food.
§ Mr. Eden
Whatever the consequences of the cut, the reason for it I would remind the House was to reduce the rations during the summer months in order that the ration might be restored to 8 0zs. in the winter days and to maintain the 8 0zs. until the end of June, 1946. The ration was restored and rightly restored, but now it is cut again to 7 0zs., and we have still some of the worst, and maybe some of the coldest and wettest months of the year ahead of us. The main reason that the Minister of Food gave for the cut in fat ration is the retention by the Government of India of a substantial quantity of ground nuts consequent on the failure of the crop in India. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman this. My impression was that at that time, to get over the later restoration, Lord Llewellin made a bargain with the Government of India to exchange a substantial tonnage of wheat for the ground nuts which India was to supply to us to maintain our fat ration. I want to know, if there was such an arrangement, what happened to it. Was the wheat not delivered, and if it was not delivered why not? I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman for an immediate reply, but I think if he makes an investigation in his Department, he will find that that is the position. I do ask the Government, most earnestly, to give the utmost thought to this problem of restoring the fat ration. No one can blame the Government, and no one seeks to blame them for a natural disaster, but it is our duty to demand from them the fullest possible account of the measures they have taken to find an alternative.
I wish to deal briefly now with the question of dried egg. The Minister of Food has explained that the reason for stopping the supply of dried egg was the shortage of dollars. It was a decision which, as he told us, was taken immediately after the ending of Lend-Lease; taken, in fact, in the Autumn of last year. Although this decision was taken many months ago, and although the Minister and the Cabinet presumably have known for some time that the supply of dried egg would cease in the first months of 1946, the right hon. Gentleman did nothing whatever to tell the public. Why did he conceal this information? Why was the public not told? Why were the housewives not given an opportunity of expressing their opinion to the Government 559 before they were presented with a fait accompli? We are told that the problem was shortage of dollars, and yet, at that time, we continued to spend dollars on American films and tobacco and are still doing so. The Government may tell us that the reason for the cut in dried egg is that fresh eggs are to be given—or perhaps I ought to say shell eggs. If that is so, should they not have explained that to the people long before this decision was taken? I shall be glad to hear, of course, the explanation, but I would say to the Government that this is a very small additional supply of shell egg. After all, if my arithmetic is correct, it is only 14 eggs extra per person per four months. If that is right, I must say it would never replace dried egg, and for those purposes for which dried egg is used it is quite inadequate. Moreover, are the Government still absolutely certain that they will be able to maintain the supply even of this small additional quantity of shell eggs? We would like to be reassured on this point, because, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so we have had one or two disappointments in the past.
I have put to the Government a number of questions. I want to make to them another appeal, to end all this secrecy.
§ Mr. Eden
I see I get support from the hon. Gentleman. I know how natural it is for all Government Departments to keep as much information as they possibly can to themselves. They think, "The more we tell, the more Questions our Minister is going to be asked in the House, and the more trouble we shall have. We are already overworked so let us keep it to ourselves as much as we can." It is a perfectly natural temptation, but it is also, especially in a subject of this kind, a very grave error, because the more you conceal, the more angry eventually the people are when they find out their position. I must remind the Government in that connection, to give one example, that the details of our stocks were last given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) in March while we were still at war with Germany and Japan Since then, the figures were not given until the other day, when they were 560 accompanied by the double shock presented to the House by the two Ministers. I know appeals were made by several Members in this House for more information, and surely it is clear that it would have been wise to give that information. We all admit there may be good reason or what seems to us good reason for secrecy sometimes in wartime, but there is absolutely no reason for secrecy here as far as I can see. May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am not at all impressed by his argument that he could not reveal the position of our stocks because he was trying to buy in a sellers' market? I think it is pretty clear that the sellers knew all about it. The only people who did not know were the people in this House and in this country. They were placed at a disadvantage, but I should like very much to see any evidence of any advantage the right hon. Gentleman obtained by that.
In conclusion I say this to the Government. I am afraid we are by no means at the end of our troubles in these matters. What I would urge the Government to do, is to tell the people the truth, and keep on telling them the truth. Above all I say, Do please try to warn them well in advance of what is coming. Our people have had many hardships to bear. The announcement last week of these further hardships reveals that unhappily far from our troubles being at an end, they are going to be increased. The least the Government can do, and the least the Government must do, is to take our people into their confidence so long as the responsibility rests with them. If they do so and keep the House informed— for they have not kept the House informed—1 can tell them with all sincerity we will do all we can, in a joint effort, to meet what we know is, if not a desperate, at least a very serious national need. We believe in and wish for nothing else but such an effort.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ The Minister of Food (Sir Benjamin Smith)
From the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman it is obvious that a good deal of the information which he has addressed to the House today has been culled from speeches I have made in this House. I welcome the opportunity which this Debate affords me of giving the House a detailed exposition of the serious food problems in this country and of the world I know of no fairer tribunal than the 561 House of Commons, and I am confident that the House will hear me and give me a full opportunity to state my case. I particularly welcome this Debate, as it affords me an opportunity to rebut the statement which the right hon. Gentleman the acting Leader of the Opposition has just made, namely, that this House has been left in the dark. If that were true, the House would have good cause for complaint, but, as I hope to show, that statement was not only untrue, but was unfair
The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that my predecessor was always careful to keep the public in his confidence on food matters. But I would remind the House that both the right hon. Gentleman and Lord Woolton frequently found it necessary to maintain a discreet silence, not only from the point of view of denying information to the enemy, but also of avoiding discussion when delicate negotiations regarding food supplies were in progress. The first of these causes, fortunately, no longer exists, and so far as this Government is concerned the second applies with even greater force than it did to my predecessor. For all varieties of food—and I repeat it to the right hon. Gentleman opposite—for all varieties of food, we are now on a sellers' market, and he knows, and any business man knows, that were I to reveal stocks, as I have been requested to do, it would afford a great opportunity to gentlemen to raise prices against this House. It is a sad commentary that such a thing could happen, in a world in which many countries are suffering from semi-starvation, a sad commentary on what has to be done on the altar of profit.
The difficulty during the terms of office of my predecessors was to find ships to carry the food. Moreover—and this is important—we were getting a substantial part of our food on Lend-Lease, and the dollar question did not arise. If it. was found necessary, in the past, to be discreet how much more must I be discreet now? I cannot undertake to conduct delicate negotiations, which are necessary to procure our national food supplies, in the full glare of publicity.
Here I think I might remind the House that this country has not the last word in the disposal of world food supplies. We are only one of many claimants. There is an international machine for planning the allocation of all the main foods among 562 the nations of the world, namely, the Combined Food Board, which was set up in 1942 by the Governments of this country, the United States of America and Canada. That Board has since been extended to include on its commodity committees, most of the main producing and consuming countries. It is the duty of this organisation to take stock of the total supply and requirement position for the foods with which hit deals, and to recommend to the Governments concerned the allocation between the various claimant countries. This country, as a party to the Combined Food Board, has to present its demands and make out its case in support of those demands. But the final recommendation as to each country's share, is made by the Board, and we as parties to it, must abide by its decision. It is either this system of planned distribution or a wild scramble for supplies, with prices soaring and no security of supply for every one.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to a number of occasions during recent months in which I, or other Members of the Government, have called the attention of the House to the food situation that was developing, particularly as regards wheat. I would like to refer to the Debate which took place in the House on 26th October last, on the Motion for the Adjournment, when attention was called to conditions in Europe. If Members read the Official Report of that Debate they will see that enough was said on that occasion by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself, to impress upon everyone the seriousness of the world situation. The Foreign Secretary spoke, as ever, frankly, of the serious conditions in Europe, and drew attention to the grave situation that would arise, unless action was taken by the great wheat producing countries to maximise their contribution for export. Among other things, my right hon. Friend said:Additional supplies, on a scale sufficient to bring any widespread relief, must be organised on an international basis, with the cooperation, in particular, of the exporting countries. We must look to them to make a much bigger contribution. For instance, I should like to see much less wheat being fed to livestock in North America, and more maize and other foodstuffs shipped from South America."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October, 1946; Vol. 414, c. 2380.]563 That was said for those who were here to hear, and can be read by those who have eyes to see. It is in the Official Report, and it was a warning. During that Debate the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) said he thought there was plenty of wheat in the world which could be used for relief to Europe.
§ Sir Arthur Salter (Oxford University)
In the context, it is quite clear that what I said was that on the information I had while I was in office, up to August, there seemed to be enough wheat for the essential needs of the world, if there was proper organisation of distribution. The right hon. Gentleman himself summed up by saying that if steps were taken to avoid waste, he hoped and believed that there was enough wheat to meet, in full, the essential needs of the world. I have been without access to official information since August, and that Debate was in October last. Can the right hon. Gentleman complain if, at the end of October, with his full official information, he con-. firmed precisely the opinion I had formed several months earlier?
§ Sir B. Smith
We are at no variance on this point, as I shall prove. I say, quite truthfully, that when the right hon. Gentleman spoke in that Debate it was on the basis that there was—and he now agrees—plenty of wheat in the world to meet the requirements. [Hon. Members: "Does the Minister agree? "] If you wait a little you will see whether I agreed. Of course I agreed at that date. I replied that I only wished I could have endorsed what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University had said, and I went on:I am at this moment particularly concerned with the world wheat position. The only hope of avoiding further serious hardship and famine conditions in certain parts of Europe this winter and next spring is by maintaining an adequate flow of wheat imports, and we must clearly devote all our efforts to securing this objective." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 2379-2447.]
§ Sir A. Salter rose—
§ Sir B. Smith
Let me continue. I went on to point out that until recently wheat was one of the few foods of which there was no shortage—and this is where I say there is no variance between the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford 564 University and myself—and that— [An HON. MEMBER: "Read on. It is the next line."] You are very brilliant, but if you have the decency to be quiet—
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
On a point of Order. May I call your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman said, "You are very brilliant "? Is he addressing the Chair, or the House?
§ Earl Winterton
Further to that point of Order, is it not in accord with the traditions of this House for over 200 years. that a Minister should address the Chair, and not hon. Gentlemen opposite?
§ Sir B. Smith
The situation had been completely changed by the exceptionally heavy demand arising from the liberation of Europe, coinciding with poor crops resulting from adverse weather conditions in many areas. I said:It is not yet possible to make a final assessment of the position, but it is clear that it will call for very careful and prudent management of world wheat supplies during the next nine months, and the utilisation of all stocks in excess of minimum requirements which must be carried over into the next season."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 2447-48.]I drew attention to the necessity for the maximum utilisation of home-grown bread grain, for direct human consumption, and stressed the importance of giving human consumption full priority over the feeding of animals. In the course of the same Debate I was pressed by hon. Members to make further reductions in our stocks or to reduce our own consumption in order to make more food available for other countries. I resisted that pressure. In so doing, I incurred the displeasure of a considerable number of hon.Members on both sides of the House. I pointed out that we had already gone as far as we could safely go in reducing our stocks, and firmly refused to make any further cuts in our rations.
What has happened since has, I think, fully confirmed the view I then expressed, that we could not risk any further reduction in our stocks. Moreover, the reactions of the public to my announcement on 5th February fully bears out the 565 view which I expressed last October, that the people of this country should not be asked to bear any further cuts in consumption, if it were possible to avoid it. Unfortunately, this has not been possible. The situation in Central Europe was again debated on 5th December last, on the Motion of the Archbishop of Canter bury, in another place. The Under-Secretary of State for War, referring to a statement made by the Bishop of Chichester to the effect that, whilst there were shortages of many commodities, there was no world shortage of wheat, said, "I could not allow that statement—"
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
Is it in Order, Mr. Speaker, for the right hon. Member to quote from a Debate in another place?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)
I think the Minister was not quoting but merely making a reference to the Debate.
§ Mr. Turton
Is the right hon. Gentleman in Order in quoting from a Ministerial statement in another place?
§ Sir B. Smith
The Under-Secretary said he could not allow that statement to pass without correction, because the plain fact was that the situation as to wheat was one of the most serious preoccupations of those who have to deal with food problems. On 7th December, I again referred to the difficult wheat situation in replying to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes)on the Motion for the Adjournment when he pressed for the depletion of our stocks in order that food might go to the relief of Europe. I said quite plainly that there was a world shortage of wheat. On 17th January, my right hon. Friend, the Foreign Secretary, in a speech at the General Assembly of U.N.O. said:There is one problem which is not confined to countries needing U.N.R.R.A.'s help but is common to nearly the whole world, namely, that of food. A common effort by all peoples is necessary to deal with this pending the return of good harvests.Finally, when I arrived at Southampton on 23rd January, I warned the Press that the situation regarding the world 566 shortage of wheat and rice was not promising, though I said as little as I could to them. Surely this in itself is a sufficient refutation of the statement by the acting Leader of the Opposition. [Hon. Members: "No."] Are hon. Members opposite so ill-informed that they are ignorant of what has been well known to anyone who cared to inquire? The general facts of the position have been well known for a long time. This is recognised, at least, by two weeklies that are not noted for their Labour sympathies, "The Economist" and "The Spectator." Both of these papers in their current issues emphasise that many warnings have been given.
What are the circumstances which led to the present position? [An Hon. Member: "Lack of planning."] If the House will bear with me, I will first deal with wheat. There are other problems such as rice, fats, etc., but all of them are accentuated by the fact that the great stand-by of the world, an abundant supply of wheat, is no longer available. I do not intend to repeat what I said to the House on 5th February. I will only remind the House of the outstanding fact that against world import requirements of more than 17,000,000 tons in the first six months of 1946, less, and I am afraid much less, than 12,000,000 tons will be available in the world. Many millions of people in Europe and the Far East will face hunger and starvation. 125,000,000 people in Europe will have to subsist on less than 2,000 calories a day and, in some areas, large numbers will receive as little as 1,000 calories per day.
I have never been under any illusion about the difficulties which were inevitable after the end of the war. My predecessors constantly warned the House and the public that food shortage would not only continue long after the war came to an end, but would be accentuated by the enormous demand which would arise from liberated countries. In 1943 the British Delegation to the Hot Springs Conference was responsible for getting on record resolutions recording the view that supplies of essential foodstuffs would be inadequate to meet the basic requirements for several years after the cessation of. hostilities. They urged all countries to utilise their agricultural resources to the full to bring about a rapid improvement 567 in food production by increasing their acreage under crops for direct human consumption.
But it was not until the results of the harvests of 1945 were known that it was possible to measure the deterioration in wheat supplies. In July, 1943, stocks in the four main exporting countries amounted to over 46,000,000 tons. From that time stocks fell rapidly because of the greatly increased demand for livestock products. This led to a heavy usage of wheat for feeding livestock in exporting countries. I remember, while in Washington, that, in one bite, 174,000,000 bushels of Canadian wheat were shipped to America for the purpose of feeding livestock. Even so, there were still more than 30,000,000 tons of wheat in the four main exporting countries on D-Day.
In the spring of 1945 the wheat situation was still thought to be satisfactory. The former Minister of Production and my predecessor in office went to Washington to discuss with the American and Canadian Governments the action to be taken to meet the great world shortage of many foods. As a result, drasic cuts had to be made in our rations, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Even then, however, the conclusion reached by the Canadian and United States Governments was that wheat supplies were assured. The only problem then was whether transport and port facilities would be available to handle the wheat. So secure did the supply position seem to the Coalition Government that they considered they would be justified in gradually changing over British agriculture from maximum production of human food crops to increased animal production.
They felt that we could afford some reduction in our wheat acreage. Therefore, the Coalition Government decided to reduce the acreage subsidy on wheat for the 1946 crop by£2 an acre. This decision was made in February, 1945, because farmers have to make plans in advance. There has been a great deal of criticism of this action, but, in my view, it was a reasonable decision having regard to the wheat situation as it then appeared.
Hon. Members opposite may suggest that this Government should have reversed that decision, but as I hope to show, the full gravity of the position was 568 not revealed until late in the autumn. It was too late then to affect the acreage of autumn sown wheat. As a further illustration of the optimistic estimate of cereal supplies, I would remind the House that last spring the former Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson), announced an ascending scale of rations for pigs and poultry. Again, I find no fault with the announcement, but I doubt whether it was a wise decision in the light of events. The right hon. Gentleman took a chance, and it did not materialise. As a result, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture announced on 5th February that we should find it impossible to fulfil the programme of rations increases which was then decided upon. It was not until the results of the 1945 world wheat harvest were known that a full measure of the deterioration of the world wheat situation could be taken.
One of the first things I did when I became Minister of Food was to make a survey of the world food position. It was a pretty gloomy picture. For the first time there was considerable danger of an actual shortage of wheat. It was clear that it was no longer a transport problem. The total stocks in the four main exporting countries had fallen from 46,000,000 tons in July, 1943, to 22,000,000 tons. Serious droughts had affected Australia, the Argentine, French North Africa and other countries. The European harvest, which before the war yielded 45,000,000 tons, fell to 23,000,000 tons. It was clear that the wheat budget could not be made to balance unless every effort was made in producing countries to see that as much wheat as possible was conserved for human consumption. As a result of that report, the Cabinet decided to press upon the Governments of the four main exporting countries the necessity of restricting the use of wheat for animal feeding stuffs and to allow their stocks—that is the minimum end of season stocks under the International Wheat Agreement—to be reduced to provide sufficient wheat for export to meet all the needs of the world. At the same time, through the Emergency Economic Committee for Europe, European Governments were warned of the expected wheat shortage and urged to take all practicable steps to make the fullest use of their own cereal crops for human rather than for animal feeding. It was felt that, if action 569 were taken on those lines, we should probably get through, although it was realised that our own stocks would have to be reduced to the minimum level consistent with safety. But the full seriousness of the position did not finally emerge until the middle of December.
§ Sir B. Smith
I am sorry I have not the date, but it was at the Emergency Economic Committee for Europe, I think in October or November. In the middle of December, I received the latest estimates from the Combined Food Board, which is the international body to which I have referred, as to the world supplies and requirements in wheat. Throughout the autumn and early winter months the demands of importing countries had been continually increasing. A new factor in the situation was the increasing demands of the Far Eastern countries for wheat because of the acute shortage of rice. There were immense demands from India, as a result of the failure of the rice crop in many areas through drought, and also the loss of a large quantity of cereals due to damage by tidal wave in Madras. I think the figure was 740,000 tons, a terrific figure, to which I will refer again. The figures which I received from the Combined Food Board showed a deficiency between supplies and requirements of anything between 5 million and 7 million tons.
It was at this point the Government decided that I should go to Washington to discuss the whole position with the American Government and see what measures could be taken to meet the world demands. It was clear that substantial sacrifices would have to be made by this country,but for obvious reasons, it was not desirable to make an official statement on the position until the conclusion of my negotiations. In dealing with wheat, care had to be taken to avoid undermining the confidence of holders of wheat and other cereals. I refer to those holding it for a rise in price because of famine conditions. In dealing with wheat, we had. to take care that we did not undermine confidence. In most countries cereals are grown by a multitude of comparatively small growers. Fears of a worldwide scarcity would have encouraged those peasant farmers to hold their grain. This would have made matters 570 worse. From the point of view of the consumers in this country, any announcement in advance of an impending shortage would clearly have invited a run upon our flour stocks. As a result of the examination which the United States Secretary of Agriculture and I made in Washington, it was clear that the world was short of a minimum 5,500,000 tons of wheat, or approximately one-third of the total requirements. Cuts had to be made in allocations all round. Having received the agreement of my colleagues, I accepted a cut in our allocation of about a quarter of a million tons. This necessitated an increase in the extraction rate, and a consequential reduction in the supply of animal feeding stuffs.
Since my return from Washington, the position has still further worsened. Even while discussions were in progress, information reached me of a serious state of affairs in India and South Africa. May I say, with regard to South Africa, that I have had to meet two Ministers from the South African Government? A very distressing experience it was. They assured me that, by the end of March, not one bushel of wheat would be in store in South Africa. Whether I did right or wrong, I diverted a ship at once to try to assist them in that situation. Their original demand on the Combined Food Board was about 50,000 tons. In the allocations made in Washington, they received 44,000 tons. It is since that date, owing to the drought, that their demand now upon the world for wheat is 323,000 tons for the full calendar year 1946, of which 225,000 tons is wanted up to the end of June, 1946. As I said, we had allocated 52,000 tons. I had sent this ship, for some easement of the present situation. May I say on maize, that the demand, which was about 220,000 tons to the end of May, 1946, owing to the drought is now 700,000 tons to October, 1946, to April 1947? The. tragedy of it, as Mr. Waterston told me, is that their next harvest looks like going also, because the drought is still with them and the ground is still too hard. "We cannot prepare for the next harvest," he said.
That is the sort of problem that is brought to me. A delegation arrived from India yesterday. I shall be seeing them shortly. A demand that Lord Wavell put to me, supported on the following day by Mr. Casey, was for 1,000,000 tons of wheat or rice this year 571 for India and Bengal. Today, that demand is 2,250,000 tons, and is rising. I cannot see where we can find wheat or other grains in substitution for rice which will even approximately meet those claims.
At the very moment when I was discussing this matter with my colleagues -in the Cabinet, a telegram was brought to me from Washington stating that the United States Government had overestimated their stocks of wheat by 61 million bushels, or 1,750,000 tons, by which they were short on the estimated stocks. It was arising out of that that the President determined, at the request of myself and Mr. Clinton Anderson, that he would increase their extraction rate from 72 per cent. to 80 per cent. Let us not be under any illusion. That fact will not give back the 1,750,000 tons. If all the economies are effective, the total saving we will get will be 1,200,000 tons.
Perhaps I might now revert to India. On second thoughts I will leave it, as I may have said enough about India— [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."]—to show the House that those demands are so excessive that it is practically impossible to meet them. I am not one to spread despair and despondency. I am not of that nature. I do not look that type. Nevertheless, in my position, I have to face facts, and the facts are as I have stated them to the House.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
May I ask that the Minister will not withhold from the House all the facts about India?
§ Sir B. Smith
I will do my best. I was trying to shorten a very long speech. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] Very good. I repeat, in the case of India, that it was from the middle of December onwards that we began to receive reports from various parts of that country of the partial failure, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite has said, of the monsoon. On 3rd January, while I was still at Washington, I received a cable about the partial failure of the monsoon in Bengal, which is the principal rice-exporting area.
§ Sir B. Smith
Producing, yes, and exporting, too. On 17th January, a further cable referred to a serious deterioration of 572 the food supply position because of the cyclone in Madras, Bombay, Mysore and other areas in Southern and Western India. On 25th January, we were informed that a conference had been called on 22nd January of representatives of the main surplus and deficit Provinces, at which it had been revealed that in Madras, owing to the continued drought—the rainfall in December being 83 per cent. below normal—the loss of rice and millet was estimated at more than 1,500,000 tons, while in Mysore, for similar reasons, the loss was estimated at more than 300,000 tons. Thus, an additional deterioration in the position of more than 1,000,000 tons was indicated, compared with estimates received in December for those two Provinces alone.
Immediately after I had reported to my colleagues on my return from Washington in the middle of January, the Prime Minister sent an urgent message to the President of the United States and to the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, appealing to them to take all possible steps to increase the quantity of food they could make available for export. There has been an immediate response. It must be borne in mind that the Dominions were already doing their very utmost to make food available, so that we had no right to expect any substantial additional supplies to be put at our disposal. Nevertheless, Canada has already decided to reduce her butter ration in order to divert milk to the production of cheese and milk powder for export, while the Government of Australia has promised to divert 125,000 tons of wheat from feeding livestock so that it may be exported, and they are looking to the possibility of making coarse grains also available. That is a proud record. On a mere call from the Mother Country they are willing to extend themselves, even at this moment, to the cutting of many of their own rations.
Since I spoke to the House on 5th February, we have had news that the Government of the United States have taken prompt action to meet the situation. President Truman has announced a nine-point programme. The flour extraction rate is to be increased to 80 per cent.; the use of wheat for the production of alcohol is to be discontinued; the use of other grains for that purpose is to be reduced; steps are to be taken to reduce the feeding of grain to livestock—which 573 will probably mean the premature slaughter of large numbers of livestock and poultry. Remember that every time we move in this matter, something goes down, and there is a shortage to be faced later on. A vigorous economy campaign is to be instituted, and various measures are to be taken to facilitate the rail movement and shipment of wheat and flour. Only the great exporting countries are in a position to make any substantial contribution to the solution of the wheat supply problem.
This action of the President will be of inestimable value. I am quite sure it is a fine reply to the Prime Minister, who was the first to initiate these telegrams in his effort to get the world alive to the seriousness of the situation. We must not try to deceive ourselves into thinking that this will solve all our difficulties. It is estimated that the measures taken by the United States will save 45,000,000 bushels, or 1,200,000 tons. But it must not be thought that this quantity will reduce the gap between supplies and requirements to which I have referred. These measures are necessary to enable the United States to make their contribution to the supplies required for export. If these measures were not taken, the situation would be just that much more serious. There are still doubtful factors in the situation, and many possibilities of further deterioration. It is only right to warn the House that, before we are through, we in this country may have to make still further sacrifices. We might have to raise our extraction rate still higher, or use coarse grains as diluents in our bread; I hope, however, that I shall be able to avoid that.
I now come to rice. It is not necessary for me to say that in all Eastern countries rice is interchangeable with wheat, for flour is acceptable by the Pacific Islands, which means wheat in exchange for rice. That fact is obvious, but quite a lot of people are not aware of it. It was always foreseen that a problem of The utmost gravity would arise if the rice consuming countries of the East were liberated before production in the rice exporting countries was restored. That is exactly the position which has arisen, because of the sudden collapse of Japan. During the Japanese occupation the great rice-producing areas of Burma, Siam, and French Indo-China tended to limit production to their own requirements. 574 They had no means of disposing of any surplus. Production therefore fell and liberation did not take place soon enough to increase the production from the 1945 crops. In other Eastern countries, such as China, Java, and the Philippines, production has fallen off as a result of war devastation. I have already referred to the misfortunes which have overtaken India through the failure of the monsoon. The magnitude of the problem will be appreciated when it is realised that in 1946, exports of less than 1,500,000 tons are expected from Burma, Siam and Indo-China, compared with an average pre-war export of about 6,000,000 tons. In Siam, where I understand there is 1,500,000 tons of rice, the problem is that of getting it out. The quantity available for export during 1946 for all sources, therefore, is, at most, 3,000,000 tons, whereas the world requirements are 6,000,000 tons, leaving a deficit of 3,000,000 tons.
We are doing what we can in countries to which we have access, such as Burma and Siam, to get maximum supplies ex ported. The main hope lies in Siam. After the cessation of hostilities I immediately despatched to Siam a special rice unit, composed of persons with an intimate knowledge of the pre-war rice trade. Unfortunately, the leader was killed shortly after his arrival in an aero plane accident. Their task was to take all possible steps to facilitate the procurement of rice, transport it to port, and arrange shipment to other countries. The main difficulty in Siam, however, is that the Siamese growers are loath to part with their rice, owing to the lack of confidence in their currency. They are holding on to it as a tangible asset Another problem is to give them sufficient incentive to sell their goods; they are not very willing to sell unless their is something to buy with their money. We are therefore giving Siam high priority in the supply of consumer goods such as agricultural tools, textiles and so forth. I now come to oils and fats—
§ Mr. Nicholson
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of rice, will he be good enough to give us the figures as to the allocation of the Siamese rice between various countries?
§ Sir B. Smith
We have not yet obtained the Siamese rice to allocate. I cannot 575 make any promises at the moment, because it is an operation of the Combined Food Board. It has to go from the exporting countries to the Combined Food Board who make their allocations in the light of world demands, of which I am ultimately notified.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Is it a fact or not, that 6o,ooo tons have been allocated to Cuba, which refuses to ration rice?
§ Sir B. Smith
I am not sure, but there is an allocation to Cuba. I do not want to be brought into a discussion which criticises another country, and I would beg the hon. Member not to press that point further.
I now turn to oils and fats. The grave food situation in India and the difficulty of importing sufficient cereals to meet their needs, naturally makes the Indian Government reluctant to part with ground nuts. During the past two years they have permitted the export of 500,000 tons, and last summer the prospects were such that we had every reason to suppose that we would get more this summer. In fact, on 15th December we were informed by the Government of India that the quantity would probably be 554,000 tons. This was subject to review during this month, February. On 31st January we heard from our agent in India that, owing to crop damage in Madras, the Madras Province were threatening to reduce the export quota; a week later the Government of India informed me of the serious damage to millet and rice to which I have already referred. In view of this, it would seem that we shall not get more than 300,000 tons of ground nuts, instead of 554,000 tons which had been provisionally promised and the 600,000 tons allocated by the Combined Food Board. This represents 130,000 tons less oil than the Combined Food Board expected.
It is a sad story which I have to tell the House, but we had a further misfortune. One of the first steps which the Government took at the end of the war in Europe was to send a whaling expedition to the Antarctic. As this was the first expedition since before the war, it was expected that, in the interval, the whales would have remained unmolested and that there would have been an exceptionally large catch. Unfortunately, the achievement falls short of expectations. In the first 576 place, owing to the inevitable delay in fitting out the expedition, many of the vessels arrived late on the fishing grounds. We are taking all possible steps to extend the whaling season, but this is regulated by an international convention. In practice the approach of winter darkness, and the freezing of the seas, will limit the possibility of any profitable extension. It is unfortunate that this expedition has met with the most atrocious weather. Finally, and contrary to all expectations, the yield of oil per whale has been far below average. I estimate that we are unlikely to get more than 100,000 tons of whale oil, as against our expectation of 135,000 tons.
As a result of all these circumstances, in 1946 we shall be short of our total oil supply by well over 100,000 tons. The cut of one ounce in the cooking fat ration will go some way to meet this position but not all the way. I shall endeavour to find means of replacing some of this deficiency this winter. I shall aim at getting more from American hogs, for example, for if hogs are to be killed in America owing to shortage of foodstuffs, there should be more lard. But I warn the House that it is another dollar proposition. There is a very real risk that we may have to make further cuts later in the year. I will do my best to avoid this also.
A friend of mine with prophetic foresight, when I left New York to come home, handed me a book and said, "Ben, I think this will amuse you on the way home." The title of the book was "The Egg and I." He was certainly prophetic. I promised the House that I would deal more fully in the course of this Debate with the question of dried eggs. Housewives rightly attach great importance to this commodity and the provision of these supplies, I think it will be agreed, has been one of the most welcome steps taken by my Department under food control. I suppose my Department has done more to popularise dried egg than any other body that exists in the country. It is perhaps not generally realised, however, that in the past by no means all have taken up their full entitlement. In last August when the entitlement was one packet for every four weeks, the offtake was only half of the entitlement.
In the early summer of last year it became doubtful whether the United 577 States would be able to maintain exports of dried egg to this country on the then existing levels. By the time the present Government took office, the stocks position and supplies in sight were such that 1 had to reduce the issue of one packet to every eight weeks. Immediately afterwards Lend-Lease came to an end—it is important to remember that—and, apart from the small quantity in the pipeline, shipments of dried egg ceased. Moreover, it was made clear that unless we gave firm orders for the whole of our 1946 requirements, many of the plants would be converted to other purposes, and, indeed some of them were. We had to make up our minds how much of our limited dollar resources we could afford to spend on this commodity. It was not an easy matter to settle. We did not know how much of the reduced ration would be taken up; we had good reason to expect a considerable increase in shell egg supplies in the spring; we had to spend our limited supplies of dollars to the best advantage, and dried egg is a very expensive food. The House will not expect me to quote the actual price per ton, but I would refer hon. Members to the reply of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a Question in this House on 7th February, when he pointed out that the quantity of dried egg which was imported in the last financial year, if it had to be paid for at the current American price, would cost£35,000,000. There are a good many foods which give us better value for our money. For example, at the price at which we used to buy American meat, we could obtain five tons of meat for every ton of dried egg.
Dried egg is also expensive to the Exchequer. It is being sold at present at the retail price of is. 3d. per packet. The actual retail value, if it were to be sold without loss, is 2s. 7d a packet. The total cost of the subsidy involved, if we were to continue importing at a rate sufficient to maintain the recent rate of distribution, is£16,000,000. Weighing up these factors I could not contemplate spending dollars to enable supplies to come here in anything like the quantities under Lend-Lease. Then, too, the egg position was such that I could not get any dried egg to arrive during the first four months of 1946, so I had to face a reduced issue or a gap in the issue. 578 Taking all these considerations into account, I decided to buy enough to continue issuing one packet every eight weeks when shell eggs were scarce, to have the gap when supplies of shell eggs were greatest in the Spring, and then to resume issues of dried egg. Under the plan I had in mind there would have been about the same number of eggs in one form or another as in 1945, but more of them would have been shell eggs. I regret the necessity for a temporary break in these allocations of dried egg, but I expect to be able to issue 40 shell eggs per ration book in the period February to May inclusive. During the same months last year the figure was 26. I think that answers my right hon. Friend's point. The dried egg taken up, during that period last year represented 18 eggs per head, making 44 altogether, so that there is very little change in quantity. It is four eggs, and not the figure of the right hon. Gentleman, and this year the whole of this quantity is in its natural condition.
It was never my intention to discontinue the issue of dried egg permanently. The Press notice which I issued made that clear. Let me read the last paragraph— I do not wish to weary the House with the body of the note:It is hoped, however, that satisfactory arrangements will be made later in the year which will enable the shell egg distribution to be supplemented once again with supplies of domestic pack dried eggs.That was not telling people that they were not likely to get it back. Unfortunately, I regret to say, many of the Press omitted to put in that paragraph; many of them omitted the last sentence. The question has been asked whether we could not use for ordinary civilian consumption some of the bulk supplies of dried egg which we hold for allocation to the bakery trade and caterers. The total quantity taken up by those caterers represents less than four allocations for domestic consumption. Of this, 75 per cent. is allocated to the bakery trade, and I should be very loath to reduce the issues to that trade. I do not think it would be good policy from the consumer's point of view. It would reduce substantially the quantity and quality of cakes and flour confectionery. So far as the small quantity issued to caterers is concerned, it amounts to less than one domestic allocation. Its withdrawal would have an adverse effect 579 on the quality of meals provided in catering establishments including the many industrial canteens throughout the country.
I have dealt now with those foods which have been most in the public eye during the past few days. I don't want to leave the impression that all is well. [Laughter.] I will come to that if hon. Members will wait a minute. It is not as bad as hon. Members opposite think. The world sugar position is precarious. It does not need me to tell the House why. There are greater demands coming from ex-enemy and liberated countries; demands are increasing almost every day. The beet sugar production in Europe in the season which has just finished is estimated to be 4,000,000 tons less than prewar. The production in the Philippines, which used to export 1,000,000 tons a year, is only a few thousand tons this year. There were reports of a stock of 1,000,000 tons of sugar in Java, but such stocks as there are are inaccessible under present conditions. The war is still going on there—or rather, there is trouble in that country. There have been disappointing crops in most of the Empire sugar producing countries. Meanwhile world requirements are constantly increasing. I was planning to increase the bacon ration as soon as possible but, owing to a fall in the expected supplies from Canada and Denmark—each of them, 40,000 tons for next year—and the United Kingdom, this is not possible. I will do all I can to maintain the ration as at present. Cheese and starch are causing me anxiety. Much depends on whether we get the Loan from the United States. That is by no means certain, but I must warn the House, especially hon. Members who were so vociferous in their opposition to its acceptance, that failure to get it will cause further difficulties. They should have little to grumble about.
So much for the bad side of the balance sheet. I would not like to leave the impression that there are no bright spots. Attention has already been drawn to some statements made recently by members of the Government—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington has called attention today to them—which may have encouraged the public to expect some improvement in the variety of their diet. The Prime Minister, 580 for example, on 25th January, in reply to the sponsors of the "Save Europe Now "campaign, said:It may be shown to be necessary to provide some variation in the present monotonous and unexciting diet in order to secure increased production at home and thereby build up our export trade.This is not inconsistent with the picture I painted, although it might appear so at first sight. We must distinguish between the staple foods which form the basis of our diet—wheat, sugar and fats, about which warnings have been repeatedly. given—and what I call extras, which provide variety. So far as these foods are concerned, there are favourable prospects. Improvements have been promised and delivered. Bananas have begun to come back, citrus fruit, oranges, lemons, and grapefruit have been made available in increasing quantities. I intend to take every opportunity to augment our supplies of vegetables and fruit by imports as far as this is consistent with undertakings to home producers, although the tight position of refrigerated tonnage is very difficult. If I could have another 10 refrigerator ships, I could make a good deal of change very quickly in this country, but, unfortunately, I have not got them. Table jellies are to be restored supplies of canned fruits are to be put on points, there have been improvements too in one or two of the basic foods. Milk supplies are decidedly better this winter than last. We have raised the entitlement to two and a half pints a week, a month earlier than last year. Fish supplies in 1946 will be back to, and even in excess of, prewar. Even the diminished fat ration includes three ounces of butter instead of two, which was the amount when I took office. There are more shell eggs and the potato position this year, I am glad to say, is quite satisfactory.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)
The right hon. Gentleman has just said that fish supplies will be better than they were in 1939. Is that really so?
§ Sir B. Smith
I am hoping so. [Hon. Members: "Is it?"] It is quite obvious I cannot say specifically that it will be so, but, judging from the number of ships and the number of trawlers coming back into the service, and the fact that I am taking imports of white fish wherever I can get them, I still feel optimistic.
§ Mr. Stewart
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the part of the fishing community which I represent has lost more than half the boats we had before the war, that we have never got the boats back, and that half the men are idle?
§ Sir David Robertson (Streatham)
Will the Minister say a word on this point in regard to the prophecy he has made? These ships are lying all round the coasts awaiting repair. Over 150 trawlers are awaiting repair. Is he not also aware that the demands are very much greater than they were in 1939 because of the appalling deficiency in other foods?
§ Sir B. Smith
Nevertheless, there are 200 trawlers now under repair and we are getting them out just as fast as we can. After all, we did not injure the trawlers or damage them; our job is to repair them and we have 200 under repair. It is our job to get them back into work.
I think I have said enough to the House on the general position in regard to food in this country and the world in general. I would like to thank the House and particularly the Opposition for the tolerance with which they have listened to me. It has been a long, gloomy, story and no doubt was very wearisome to many hon. Members, but the facts are what they are. This is not a time for developing a partisan spirit when the world is more or less hungry. This is a time when we should do, as we have done so often before in the country's interest, the best we can for our people, not forgetting our responsibilities to the world at large.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)
When we come to look back on these discussions, I am certain we shall regard this Debate as a turning point in the hitherto ecstatic career of this Government. Listening to the two opening speeches, especially the melancholy catalogue of the Minister of' Food, we realise that the Government's honeymoon is over. Now begin the drab details of domestic life. What with coal last week, and food this week, the start is unpromising It is all the more un-happy because the Government have not succeeded in telling the facts of domestic life to the parties concerned. We now know that Ministers have been aware for months of the impending world famine 582 and we must suppose that they could relate our own position to the storm which they saw gathering and we know that they have used these facts to explain to Europe why we could not make more contributions to their food problem.
On the other side of the Atlantic, our American friends tell us that when the British delegation presented the case for the dollar credit they gave the fullest details of our stocks and prospective supplies. But the House of Commons have never had these vital statistics. The people have never understood what was happening. Housewives do not read the HANSARD of another place nor do they read the "Economist." These things have to be explained to them in a modern manner.
§ Mr. Eccles
By not consulting this nation the Government have debased the coinage of democracy, and they are now reaping the results all over the country of not taking the people into their confidence. It is not very easy to know why the Government pursued this policy of secrecy towards our own people. No doubt the habit of saying only pleasant things to win votes is hard to break. On this side of the House we have watched with interest the endeavours of the right hon. Gentlemen to switch over from the popular fun and games of electioneering to the unpopular task of governing a country which is still in a state of emergency.
§ Mr. Eccles
This food Debate, and the crisis behind it, is one more proof that what the people of this country really wanted from their Government were first-aid repairs in a state of emergency, and not a revolutionary unheaval in their economic system. The British economy is now like a blitzed house. The roof is leaking, the door will not shut and the cupboards are bare. This is no time to start pulling down the main staircase or rebuilding the top storey. The people are crying out for first-aid repairs, for enough to eat, and for somewhere dry to live, but the Government have not heard those cries. They have got their priorities all wrong, and, as I hope to show the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is largely responsible for those 583 wrong priorities. The right hon. Gentleman has the unenviable task, through the power of the purse, of deciding a great many priorities. What is it he puts first in his list? We have listened to the right hon. Gentleman for six months, and it is hard to deny that he gives pride of place to banging the Box at the Second Reading of Socialist Bills. He prefers long-term excursions into Socialism to practical remedies for the troubles on the doorstep of every British family.
I ask the House to contrast this Socialist set of priorities with another very different set, one to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) put his name—food, work and homes. I know hon. Members opposite are in the habit of saying that my right hon. Friend is a splendid war leader but knows nothing of the domestic aims and needs of the British people.
§ 5.32 p.m.