HC Deb 23 May 1946 vol 423 cc539-48
Mr. Churchill (by Private Notice)

asked the Lord President of the Council whether he has any statement to make on his recent Mission to the Government of the United States and to His Majesty's Government in Canada in relation to the world food situation.

Mr. H. Morrison

Yes, Sir. I am glad to take this early opportunity of reporting to the House on my Mission to the United States and Canada.

In view of the gravity of the world food situation, the Government considered that special inter-Governmental talks at a high level were necessary through the United Kingdom, United States and Canadian Governments, that is, the three Governments to whom the Combined Food Board reports. On our initiative, the United States and Canadian Governments have now discussed with us, at a high level, the most urgent elements in the world food and agriculture problem with particular reference to wheat, and the measures which they and we are adopting to meet the menace.

There has been a temptation to say that a matter like agriculture is the exclusive concern of each nation, but the facts are demolishing this attitude. I told the President, and I told His Majesty's Government in Canada, that there was no aspect of British food and agriculture with any bearing on the prevention of famine which I was not willing to discuss with a view to their making criticisms and suggestions. I made it no less clear that I counted on them to take the same attitude. Both Governments showed themselves fully aware of this need for raising the fight against famine not only to the highest level of priority, but also to a plane above all petty considerations of national pride. I wanted to find out whether we were supposed to be dealing with famine on the basis of each nation contributing to the full extent of its ability, whatever inconveniences and even hardships might have to be faced in the process. I had the clearest assurances from both the United States and Canadian Governments that they were resolved to work with us on that footing.

In these circumstances my colleagues in the Government and I felt, as I am sure the House will feel, that Britain could neither stand aside, nor be asked to bear an unwarrantable burden or to make disproportionate sacrifices. I laid detailed evidence before the United States Government to show that we in Britain have, in proportion to our resources, given the world a lead in this matter. Our agricultural community is in all the circumstances doing wonders both in production and in loyal observance of measures for the maximum production of food from farms. The British consumer also has accepted more austerity for more years and has played the game better in the fair working of a fair rationing scheme than any other body of consumers. A summary of our various measures in this field was included in the announcement which was issued in Washington on the 17th May, and which will be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT for the convenience of hon. Members.

In a starving world we cannot defend to ourselves—quite apart from what other nations might think—any policy except aid to the utmost extent of our ability. That is and has been our policy, and I was very glad to find a deep conviction of this, not only in Canada, but in the United States. Our present and past sacrifices have hurt, but they have certainly given us a remarkable degree of moral leadership in this matter among the nations of the world.

The immediate occasion of my Mission to Washington was the emergence of some disturbing misunderstandings regarding responsibility for, and ability to supply, India—to meet whose urgent needs the Government are most anxious to do everything possible—and the British Zone of Germany. Shipments to these areas from the United States were falling to a very low level. We were confronted with seeing them starve, with all the political, economic and military consequences, or with trying to keep them alive by diversions from our own meagre resources, as we have already had to do, or with finding some basis on which the United States Government could accept responsibility for these areas to the same extent as for any other.

Clearly there was no tolerable alternative to the third of these courses, and it is that course which will now be followed. The United States Government have now felt able to associate themselves unreservedly with the task of supplying India and the British Zone of Germany to the full extent that available resources allow and they have instructed their representatives on the Combined Food Board accordingly. So far as Germany is concerned they have accepted the proposition that there should not be a starving or a more under-fed British zone in Germany side by side with an American zone which is getting assured food supplies, but that both zones shall work to the same standard of rationing and shall have the same degree of assurance that their supplies will not suddenly come to an end.

In order to secure this very valuable assistance to these two areas, it was essential to put the United States Government in a position to defend the United Kingdom programme without reservation, as being one which contained no element out of which relief for Germany and India could reasonably be expected. It was widely felt in the United States that since V.E. Day we had continued to maintain stocks at an unnecessarily high level, and that in view of the imminent world famine threat and the fact that most other nations claim to be getting along on no more than three or four weeks' supply, we should make some contribution, not from cutting our consumption but by economising the amount of wheat locked up in that long pipe-line which stretches from tie prairies, through the Great Lakes to the ports, mills, bakeries and finally stomachs in the United Kingdom.

I explained to the United States Government with the utmost force and in detail why we feel that the exceptional effort now being made by the British people to carry out their commitments for winning the peace cannot be assured without approximately the quantity of wheat which is now moving through the pipe-line. I did not feel that in spite of having gone so far earlier, the British people would wish to be represented as the only ones who were making no abatement of any sort in their current demands on the Combined Food Board, in view of the vast gap of nearly three-quarters of a million tons monthly between the screened demands for bread grains during the period from May to September and the world supplies in sight for the same period.

Therefore, with the authority of the Government, I most reluctantly agreed to reduce our import claims during the period up to September by 200,000 tons as an outright sacrifice without any condition of replacement. The House will appreciate that our forward import programme includes a certain amount of wheat and flour which is already owned by the Ministry of Food and is in transit here, a further quantity which is definitely earmarked for the United Kingdom but is not yet physically in our possession, and a residue which is claimed for our programme, but has neither been acquired nor has been earmarked by the Combined Food Board. It is from the last category that the cut of 200,000 tons has been made. We have not, in fact, given up a single ton which was either here or on the way here, or either owned by or allocated to the United Kingdom. What we have done is to reduce that part of our claims which was outstanding and not covered by supplies already acquired or earmarked.

This is, nevertheless, a most hazardous step to take, but the whole world food situation is hazardous, and moreover our own hazard as an importing country might well have been increased rather than diminished in the long run by assuming a rigidly negative attitude on this critical occasion. In such an emergency it seems not unreasonable that we might expect to make an economy of this limited proportion by emergency measures of the kind which had to be adopted in blitz conditions when the dangers to the United Nations on the food front were certainly no greater than they are now. I can make no promises of any sort: all I can say is that if further economies and sacrifices prove necessary it will not be for want of the utmost possible administrative ingenuity and effort to avoid them.

Regrettable as this cut in our import programme is, it forms, as I have shown, part of an agreement whose benefits promise to be substantial. The United States Government have, moreover, agreed that the criticism that has been run in America against the levels of United Kingdom stocks will now be regarded by the Administration as definitely and finally met by the sacrifice which we have made. Our decisions—which are, I am sure, right in themselves—depended for their adoption on the mutual confidence that there was no holding back in sacrifices on either side. It is very difficult and probably unprofitable to try to measure the efforts of one country against another, but I would say that the Americans are now most thoroughly aware of the importance of diverting food to Europe and are making diversions which, at least in some cases, are upsetting their own system of distribution and are instrumental in closing some of their flour mills.

What is even more important, they have now changed the price ratio in order that farmers may find it more profitable to sell grain as human food rather than to feed it to livestock. As the President said to me, "When something must be done we usually do it." We recall with admiration how magnificently the American people delivered the goods during the war, and it would really be most unfair to assume that these measures which are now being applied with so much energy throughout the United States will not in due course give the results which the United States Government are determined to achieve.

His Majesty's Government in Canada readily associated themselves with the general lines of the conclusions reached in Washington, at which in fact their own Ambassador had been present. A joint announcement to this effect was issued in Ottawa on 20th May and will be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Canada is, of course, not only a huge exporter of wheat and other foods, but is very export-minded. On grounds both of interest and of sentiment, she desires above all to export the utmost possible to the United Kingdom, while the nature of the Canadian administration and control over wheat makes the problem of ways and means less difficult than it is in the United States. I cannot speak too highly of the encouragement which we are receiving from Canada. Their cordiality and affection for this country and the spirit in which they are facing political difficulties in order to deliver the wheat are wonderful. I was particularly glad to meet Mr. James Gardiner, the Dominion Minister of Agriculture, and to be personally convinced that we are moving abreast in these matters.

In conclusion I would say that if my talks with the United States and Canadian Governments are any guide, we are now on the way to creating the same type of spirit and urgency about food for winning the peace which we created for resources for winning the war. It is becoming more and more obvious that the world must, by concerted measures and sacrifices, get on top of famine if famine is not very shortly to get on top of the world. In such a situation the world looks to all producing countries to do their utmost to implement all measures which, in their particular circumstances, are calculated to make available the greatest supply of bread grains. It looks to all receiving countries to see to it that the supplies are soundly distributed and to take vigorous steps to smash the black market. And only if both the producing and the receiving countries respond will the crisis be overcome and the world be able to turn to more constructive and congenial tasks.

I trust that the statement I have just made will have convinced the House as to the wisdom of the course the Government have taken, but if this is not the case the Government will be happy to discuss through the usual channels arrangements for a Debate on the subject next week.

Mr. Churchill: I should like to ask the Lord President whether he can give us any idea now of the precise amount in tonnage of American wheat which will be diverted to the British zone in Germany, or, at any rate, to India?

Mr. Morrison

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not press me on that point; it would not be convenient. These decisions are decisions of the Governments concerned, and are in the form of a decision to instruct their representatives on the Combined Food Board. The Combined Food Board has to decide, and, in the course of its discussions, will have to take into account the claims of many nations. I think that it would complicate the task of the Combined Food Board, and it might be embarrassing to our interests, if I were to divulge these figures, at this stage.

Mr. Churchill

No difficulty appears to attach to divulging the figure of 200,000 tons, which, we are to sacrifice. Naturally, we should like something more than this very vague statement, as to the results we are to achieve by this new sacrifice, and, as the right hon. Gentleman, I believe, has himself described it, "very great gamble." Can we have nothing more precise than the vague words which he has used?

Mr. Morrison

I can only say that the German figure will, of course, be a substantial one. It must be so. In the case of India, I will say this: The allotments which the United States and Canadian Governments have agreed to support will secure to India shipments in 1946 at a very much higher rate than in any previous year, despite the acute world shortage of all cereals. I do not think that I ought to go further than that, otherwise it will complicate the further discussion which must take place in connection with the work of the Combined Food Board.

Mr. Churchill

I will not press the right hon. Gentleman further, at the moment, but I must register the unsatisfactory position whereby very heavy and precise sacrifices are made by us, and we are given nothing but the rigmarole which the right hon. Gentleman was able to read out just now—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw" "Play the game "]— nothing but the rigmarole, which he was pleased to read out just now—I apply that to the particular phrase which he used in giving us a little more information—and if anyone can see any meaning in it, from beginning to end, I shall be most interested. It was given in that officialese which is not meant to give any information at all, but to provide a certain pabulum of words. We shall, naturally, not attempt to form any opinion on the statement which has just been made, at this moment. We should like to have a little time to consider it, and perhaps an announcement can be made on Monday, after discussions have taken place through the usual channels, as to whether a Debate should be arranged on the subject or not.

Mr. Morrison

Certainly discussions can go on through the usual channels and I hope we shall be able to say something on Monday. On the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman in his supplementary question, I can assure the House that the only reason I am backward in giving the specific information asked for is in the interests of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth and Empire. I have no other interests in that matter at all. As to the other observations made by the right hon. Gentleman, if I may say so, they were in accordance with the recent tendency of the right hon. Gentleman to make party politics out of matters where party politics are perhaps not altogether appropriate.

Mr. Churchill

I might feel some dismay at this censure if I valued the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman.

Sir Arthur Salter

Can the Minister say whether we may take it that immediately from now onwards the rations in the American and British zones in Germany will be the same and equally assured?

Mr. Morrison

I am not going to commit myself about "Immediately from now onwards."It would be for the two Governments to decide. We would proceed to make arrangements whereby the rations would be on equal principles in American and British occupied Germany, and the food situation treated on a similar principle, but it is quite clear that preparations and organisation have to be made to that end, and the commanders-in-chief in the two zones have been instructed to make the necessary arrangements. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman ought to try to tie me down to what is likely now and immediately.

Mr. Stokes

Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, I believe the majority of the House and of the people in the country would wish to congratulate the Lord President on the contribution which he has made towards the starving people of Europe—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] Arising out of that, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that the country is behind him in this, and whether he can now give some indication as to what further contributions could be made if, for instance, the people were asked to accept the rationing of bread?

Mr. Morrison

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] Why should I not be? With regard to the rationing of bread, I can only say that that would be a matter for answer by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food. [HON. MEMBERS "Where is he? "] It would not, I think, be appropriate for me to make any statement on that point.

Sir Ralph Glyn

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned other zones, and I should like to ask if France was brought into these discussions. Will the French zone be treated similarly to the other zones?

Mr. Morrison

I was speaking for the United Kingdom Government and for the United States Government, but it is understood that the French zone will be treated on similar principles.

Mr. Clement Davies

Might I ask the Leader of the House if we will have an opportunity of discussing this question early next week if possible? While I am speaking, might I say that I dissociate myself from the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition in regard to the Leader of the House? The right hon. Gentleman had a very difficult task, and it seems to me that he has performed his task exceedingly well.

Mr. Morrison

I am very much obliged to my hon. and learned Friend, and if I may say so, I prefer his spirit to that of the Leader of the Opposition. I am doubtful whether it will be possible to arrange a Debate for the early part of next week, but we will do the best we can if the Debate is desired. I am not sure, because it is a matter for consideration whether the Debate is generally desired, and whether it would be useful, but we shall be most happy to discuss the matter amicably through the usual channels.

Following are the announcements: