HC Deb 04 November 1946 vol 428 cc1170-84

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

9.23 p.m.

Mr. Garry Allighan (Gravesend)

I wish to direct the attention of the Minister of Food to certain aspects of biscuit supply which weigh very heavily upon many of my constituents. The matter is of concern also to hon. Members whose constituents may be employed in the biscuit industry. The Minister may, when he replies, say something in contradiction to what I say, but I think he will agree that the points division of the Ministry of Food is being driven almost crazy in attempting to face the avalanche of public demand for an increased supply of biscuits in order to give variety to the diet. This is especially the case now that bread is rationed, because it involves a fresh demand for biscuits.

Captain John Crowder (Finchley)

On a point of Order. Are we not to have the presence of the Minister of Food or his Parliamentary Secretary, for this Debate?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I imagine that a representative of tht Ministry will be here shortly.

Mr. Allighan

The Ministers concerned knew that the matter was to be raised. In my constituency people complain that they never see a biscuit. The matter is becoming serious for the housewife who is trying to provide some alternatives in the diet. The situation is such that if only two points were used by everyone who wanted to get biscuits, it would, I understand, involve 92,000,000 points for biscuits and that the biscuit industry would be unable to meet the demand. The situation has been worsened by the switch-over from war to peace, because 3,500,000 men and women from the Services, who were receiving supplies of biscuits from Service canteens and from N.A.A.F.I., are now back among the civilian population. This creates an increased demand for biscuits which cannot be supplied. Instead of the supply being increased, it has been reduced throughout the country. Now that we have the pleasure of the company of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, perhaps she will be able later on to give reasons for the present situation. I am sure she will have to admit that on the basis of expediency and of relevant values and priorities, there is a very serious and insistent claim for more biscuits being allowed to the general public.

For several reasons biscuits are unlike that noxious and mysterious concoction which masquerades under the fine British name of bread. Biscuits have certain advantages which are very necessary to the public welfare. They keep longer than bread and they retain their food values much longer. They are not subject to the mites and mildew that eat their way very quickly into the alleged bread if it is kept for any length of time. Biscuits are exceedingly portable, which is of great importance to the housewife in preparing the midday package for the husband or schoolchild. Nutrition is high in biscuits as it is low in bread. People in my constituency who work in neighbouring biscuit factories tell me that in the making of biscuits there are three essential elements—carbohydrates, proteins and fat—and that it is only in biscuits that these three are found in combination in that respect. Because of this, if for no other reason, biscuits are not the luxury that they appear to be regarded as by the Ministry of Food. Because of their high nutrition value and other qualities, biscuits have become a necessity in this country now that the British loaf has become a menace to British health—

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

That is the second time that the hon. Member has made this attack on the British loaf which most medical experts regard as very much better than in the past. Can the hon. Member give any reasons for this un- necessary attack on his own Minister, which seems to be quite unjustified?

Mr. Allighan

It is not an attack on the Minister nor on the great British loaf. As to the suggestion that medical evidence and medical experts are unanimous on this matter, I discovered long ago, as I am sure my hon. Friend has, that there is always a divergence of opinion between experts on any subject. I have discovered that there are as many experts on bread who say that bread is creating digestive troubles as experts who say that it is very good—

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that most of us agree with his definition of the British loaf?

Mr. Allighan

Apart from whether I get agreement or not whether the bread is as bad as I think it is and sometimes feel it is, or as good as the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) really believes it to be, the fact remains that so long as we are in the position where bread has to be rationed it is very necessary to have the variety in the diet which I maintain that biscuits would provide. The Minister will no doubt tell us the reasons why we cannot have more biscuits, but I hope she will be able to give some concessions. We realise now that biscuits have an effect on the workers so far as production is concerned. We learnt that last Friday when the Financial Secretary to the Treasury used these words: If I were asked why some people today may not be working as long hours as they might, I would say that one reason is that there is very little to buy in the shops … and that their diet, unfortunately, is not as varied as it might be."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st November 1946; Vol. 428, C. 1017.] I hope that the Minister will give some encouragement to the hope that the diet will be varied by making more biscuits available to the housewife.

The Minister, I understand, has made two concessions on this matter. One is that they are restoring certain of the cuts. The most serious cut in the raw material of biscuits, which has been cut and cut again, was in last May, when 27½ per cent. of flour was cut at the time when we were allowing 200,000 tons of white flour to go to Continental countries. Certain of these cuts have been restored but they do not equal the 27½ per cent. by any means, and it is only a temporary restoration to make a few more biscuits for the Christ- mas period, again indicating that the Minister's attitude towards biscuits is that biscuits are a luxury.

Then we may be told that the situation is being eased because the Ministry is to permit a wide importation of biscuits. I am not sure that is the best way of curing this particular ill because it might create another ill. That is one of the aspects of the case which gives concern to hon. Members who have constituents working in the biscuit industry, for the more this is developed along this line, the more risk there is of our own people being thrown out of employment. Therefore, I do not think the cure is necessarily to increase the imports so much as to increase the possibilities of our own home production. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies, I hope she will not pin all her hopes on to imports because, as I say, in the process we may cripple our own manufacturers, throw our own people out of work, and introduce very unfair competition to our home folk.

It may be argued that neither the public nor the Government are so anxious about where commodities come from as that they get to the people, but that may not be the wisest policy to adopt, for it might even upset the Government's own economic plan if there were such an unbalanced amount of imports that it induced unemployment in our own industries. The effect of this is that there are wholesale dismissals going on in the biscuit factories. I have heard of one manufacturer who, having invested over £80,000 capital expenditure in a factory at the Government's request to develop a biscuit industry in South Shields, has now had to dismiss a whole shift of 150 of his workpeople. So what we want, parallel with imports, is to increase the facilities by which our own people can produce the goods which the British public need. For those reasons, I submit that there is an urgent necessity for reviewing the basic situation to ascertain whether it is not possible now to increase the raw material supplies of our biscuit manufactures so that the housewife receives a diet which is both more varied and more nutritious.

9.33 p.m.

Colonel Wheatley (Dorset, Eastern)

I want to say a few words in order that the Parliamentary Secretary may realise that the complaint does not come only from Kent. This shortage of biscuits is being very severely felt as far away from Kent as Dorset, and I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Allighan) said; in fact, if there were more biscuits about I might say he has taken the biscuit over the complaint he has brought forward. I agree with him that, in spite of the remonstrance of his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale), biscuits are required as a complement to our bread—I will not say whether it is good or bad bread; all I say is that it is bread which will not keep. The housewives, especially in working class areas, have missed having biscuits to give to their children and to their men folk when they go out to work. I am told by troops returning from Malta that biscuits are plentiful there; in fact, when they came home and found themselves unable to get biscuits here, they said they could not understand why they were able to get any quantity of them in Malta.

The other evening the Parliamentary Secretary said in another Debate that she had great feelings of kindness, sympathy and humanity for human beings. I hope she will show the same feelings of consideration for the housewife and children and, by some means or other, help the biscuit industry. I agree with the hon. Member for Gravesend that we want our own home production, and not imported biscuits. I think everyone who has eaten foreign biscuits will agree that there are none like our own home product. I hope the hon. Lady will do everything in her power to arrange for the production of our own biscuits, and not to import them.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)

The point I want to raise is of minor degree, but it may have a bearing on the kind of reply the hon. Lady gives. I imagine we shall be told of the ratio cut in raw materials in relation to fat, flour and such other mixtures as are used in manufacturing biscuits. I suggest that something has happened to biscuits since bread rationing began, and it did not happen before. That something, in my opinion, is maldistribution of a kind which is unpardonable. It is rather strange, but true, that only certain firms or large shops seem able to get biscuits now. The normal small shop, or Co-operative store, where the average consumer makes his or her purchases, in the average town, cannot now get any biscuits whatever. They have disappeared, and Heaven knows why. Only the larger shops and certain stores receive the biscuits, which are now in short supply. Whereas cake used to go under the counter, shop keepers dare not now put them under the counter. We can get cakes where we could not get them all through the war years. The average citizen can get cakes, and the common people are now enjoying what they could not obtain before bread rationing.

If we look at this problem more deeply, we may find that it is related to those who administer it at the Ministry of Food and who represent the trade itself. I do not wish to attack individuals, but to suggest to the hon. Lady that those who actually direct production, or distribution, or allocating of materials, represent certain trade interests. It is a wellknown fact that in recent months there has been a change in what are known as the directive controls at the Ministry. I want the hon. Lady to look into the question, and give to us some information, either now or later on, as to what has actually happened; why is there this maldistribution all over the country? Whether it be Yorkshire, Dorset or Kent, it is the same story everywhere. I feel that if the hon. Lady has the answer only in figures, it will not be good enough. But if she can tell us about maldistribution, she will give an answer to the country, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Allighan) as well.

9.39 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I intervene both as a would-be consumer of biscuits, and as the representative of many other would-be consumers in the City of Edinburgh, which used to be the home of biscuits. I would like to support the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Allighan) and the other hon. Members who have spoken. There is a very considerable shortage of that wholesome food at the present time. But, quite apart from my interest as a potential consumer, it so happens that Edinburgh is one of the centres where a number of biscuit making firms are very much interested in the question of the import of biscuits from abroad. I am mystified as to where they are coming from, because I understood there was a serious shortage of food in most Continental countries. Perhaps the hon. Lady would enlighten us as to whether they are coming from any nations where there is any particular shortage of food.

As has been mentioned earlier in the Debate, we have sent flour to these countries. It seems rather odd that we should be sending flour abroad and that it should apparently be coming back to us in the form of biscuits. Perhaps the hon. Lady might take that matter a little further. I would suggest, as has already been suggested by the hon. Member for Gravesend, that it would be a good idea if the flour and other ingredients necessary for the manufacture of biscuits, instead of being sent overseas, were diverted to manufacturers in this country, in order that we might have our home-made biscuits, and give assistance to our home industry and more employment to our own people. I hope that in her reply the hon. Lady will make reference to these points.

9.41 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

I would merely like to ask my hon. Friend if she will answer these questions in her reply. One is, is there a scarcity or is it maldistribution? My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walkden) has said that the supply seems to go to the big firms. On the contrary, I was much surprised, when out with my caravan trailer on Saturday, to find, in a very remote village in the Firth of Clyde, a plentiful supply of biscuits. Not merely was there a good supply, but I was astonished to notice those very delicious sandwich cream biscuits, which I think most of us have forgotten about. How does such a delicious biscuit get into such a remote corner? As well as asking for her comments on distribution, I would like to urge the Parliamentary Secretary to give a larger supply, and not only that, but a larger supply of better quality biscuits, as I find that the biscuits are very dry and unattractive. I believe that the bakers promised that if they got more sugar they could produce a more attractive biscuit. I have been waiting for that more attractive biscuit coming along, and I wonder if they are really using their sugar supplies for biscuit making, or what has become of the supplies of sugar for this purpose.

9.43 p.m.

Major Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

It is a pity the hon. Lady the Member for Coat- bridge (Mrs. Mann) did not tell us which was the remote corner of England where these biscuits were to be found. They are certainly something which none of us have tasted for a long time and many hon. Members on both sides of the House might have found some excuse to go in a similar direction during the coming week-end. I am a little mystified about where the imported biscuits come from, and I hope that the hon. Lady will tell us. If my information is correct, the original arrangement made by the hon. Lady's Department with the biscuit manufacturers was that roughly 3,600 tons of biscuits would be imported into this country in one year, which by and large was about 60 per cent. of the imports of 1939. Subsequently, as I understand the position, the hon. Lady's Department found that they were unable to ask foreign biscuit importers to keep to that limit, and the field is now thrown open. When it is remembered that these foreign biscuit manufacturers can use first quality ingredients, such as 70 per cent. extraction flour, eggs, milk and butter, none of which are available to biscuit manufacturers in this country, I am sure she will appreciate that our home biscuit manufacturers are at a serious disadvantage. I hope she will assure the House that she will do something not only to put a few more biscuits on the market but also to ensure that as far as possible they come from our own manufacturers.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Hoy (Leith)

I do not wish to delay the proceedings but I think I ought to correct the impression given by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Windsor (Major Mott-Radclyffe) that the Firth of Clyde is in England. I also would like to know in which particular corner of Scotland all these biscuits are to be found. My mother is a small shopkeeper and she complains about the difficulties in the supply of biscuits, and their lack of variety. I am sure hon. Members wish to know where the supplies are going, and whether flour is being sent abroad. Surely, it would be better to use that flour for manufacturing biscuits at home. In my constituency there is a large firm of manufacturers, and we need all the employment it is possible for the Government to provide. If flour is available, I suggest to the Minister that it should be allocated to manufacturers in our own country who are quite capable of making all the biscuits we require.


Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)

In my constituency also there happens to be a large biscuit manufacturing concern, Since it was announced that this subject was to be discussed I have had correspondence from both manufacturers and operatives who are concerned in this matter. It has already been mentioned that if certain European countries are hard up for foodstuffs it is difficult to understand how they are able to manufacture biscuits for export to this country. That is a question I could not attempt to answer and I had to inform my constituents that I was not fully acquainted with the facts. Naturally, those who obtain their livelihood in the industry, and others who are interested, are rather concerned. Many of them are keenly anxious to return to their original job of making biscuits. The only reply I have been able to make to my correspondents is that at present we are not in a position to buy the raw materials necessary for the manufacture of this product. That may be true. I would point out that whilst those of us in normal health may not eat many biscuits, very often they prove quite appetising to invalids. I hope the Minister will give favourable consideration to the suggestion that the supply of raw materials should be increased. It seems rather odd to find biscuits being imported from countries where it is said that they are short of foodstuffs when we are in a position to make all the biscuits necessary to supply our own people. On the face of it, it wants some understanding, and I hope the hon. Lady will be able to give an answer that will satisfy the House, and, furthermore, those who are rather apprehensive at the present time because they are unable to return to their normal industry, that of manufacturing biscuits.

9.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

The last time I addressed the House, I had to defend an Order designed to reduce the rations of feeding stuffs to pigs and poultry. I am afraid that, tonight, I have to advance the same argument, in answering the hon. Gentleman who contends that biscuit manufacturers are not getting a square deal, namely, that the shortage of supplies makes economies inevitable. Of course, I endorse everything the hon. Gentleman said—

Colonel Wheatley

If the hon. Lady agrees with everything the hon. Gentleman said, does she include the remarks he made on bread?

Dr. Summerskill

No, on biscuits. I think everyone agrees that biscuits vary the diet, and I wish we could provide more. In regard to the hon. Gentleman's disparaging remarks about the British loaf, I would say that it is eminently superior to the loaf which the hon. Gentleman consumed before the war.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Is the hon. Lady aware that the presence of phytic acid in the offals of wheat destroys the vitamins in the wheat kernel?

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Lady is aware of that, and she is also aware of the fact that we are making an addition, in the form of calcium carbonate, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is an antidote. I should like to remind hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on this subject of the history of the biscuit industry during the war, in order that they may be reassured, that the biscuit manufacturers are having a square deal, having regard to the shortage of supplies. In August, 1943, we decided to control the production of biscuits, and production was regulated by what we called the "Target system," which I am sure hon. Members recall. This was, of course, designed to secure economies in manpower, ingredients and factory space. Under this system, each manufacturer was allocated a certain tonnage. The factory target also indicated whether production was for civilian consumption, Government contracts or Service canteens. Shortly after 1943, when this system was in operation, there was a demand by the Government for the Service type of biscuit at the rate of 140,000 tons per annum, out of a total of 266,000 tons, but this was the peak period, and, later, the Government demand gradually declined, so that, by the end of 1944 it was at the rate of 80,000 tons out of a target of 276,000 tons. I am told that the reason for this was that the Services in the Middle East had collected large stores of biscuits, and, after a time, found that there was no need to add to these stocks.

It will be seen, therefore, that biscuits for civilian consumption gradually increased as Government and other Service demands fell away. By November, 1945, when this system of control was terminated, the position was reached where civilian production was rated at 238,000 tons out of a total of 281,000 tons. The target system was removed when it was found no longer necessary to arrange for Service biscuits in large quantities, and, labour being more plentiful, the time had arrived to allow manufacturers to make the best use of available ingredients.

On the question of ingredients, I would remind the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Allighan) that the most essential ingredients of biscuits are flour, fats and sugar. Those articles are in very short supply today. The decision to give more freedom to the manufacturers enabled the gradual uptrend of civilian production to continue, with the result that, by May of this year, the output was at the rate of 240,000 tons, or about 80 per cent. of the prewar performance. It was at this stage —hon. Members will recall the Debates which took place in this House on food and agriculture—that, owing to the critical situation which had developed in the world, we decided that we must cut the supplies to the biscuit manufacturers to 25 per cent. We did, however, take all possible steps to minimise the severity of the cut by allowing manufacturers to use the ingredients in the way they thought would produce the largest output, with the result that, although we cut them by 25 per cent. so far as ingredients were concerned, the drop in production was approximately only 20 per cent.—of the rate of output current when the cut was imposed—and the present level for civilian consumption is equivalent to some 65 per cent. of the prewar figure.

Mr. Walkden

Of the total tonnage?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes. I think I gave the hon. Member the figure of about 250,000 tons, but I will give him the exact figure.

Mr. Walkden

Is not that equal to 4 ozs. per ration book per week for the whole country? If that is the figure which the hon. Lady gives to the House, where do the 4 ozs. go to?

Dr. Summerskill

I do not know what the figure is, but I will let the hon. Gentleman know.

Mr. Walkden

I can assure the hon. Lady that the figures are correct.

Dr. Summerskill

I think that the hon. Member for Gravesend said that he had a small factory in his constituency and that another hon. Member said he also had one in his. I want them to rest assured that we are constantly examining the position of the biscuit manufacturers. It was possible, only recently, to arrange for an increase of 12½ per cent. in the sugar allocation as from 13th October, and to allow manufacturers to use 10 per cent. more flour during the current licensing period, which ends on 4th January. This should have the effect of preventing further immediate discharges of labour to an appreciable extent, but it should be stressed, however, that supplies of flour are still precarious and, as my right hon. Friend has stated, there is a great shortage of oils and fats, which cannot be immediately overcome.

Ears Winterton (Horsham)

In the world generally?

Dr. Summerskill

In the world generally. I want to mention the question of imports.

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

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

Dr. Summerskill

The recently-announced decision to allow the importation of biscuits has been construed in certain quarters as one of the reasons why biscuit manufacturers in this country are encountering production and labour difficulties. The House will appreciate how entirely at variance with the facts is this construction of the problem, when I tell them that so far no biscuits have been imported into this country commercially. Therefore, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant), and I find it difficult to understand where he has obtained his information. Those are the facts. Of course, we shall fully consider every application which we may receive from countries abroad to import our biscuits, before we give an import licence. Actually, one import licence has been granted, but no action has been taken on it.

Major Mott-Radclyffe

Is the hon. Lady telling the House that, in fact, the restriction to 3,600 tons was never made because there was never any ceiling or limit put upon the importation of foreign biscuits, or any figure named?

Dr. Summerskill

I think the figure of 60 per cent. which has been quoted may have been right—I shall have to refresh my memory upon that—but at the moment we have taken no action at all. We are quite prepared to revise these amounts and, as I say, we have not imported any biscuits yet.

Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison

Would the hon. Lady say in respect of which country the import licence has been granted?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, Denmark. To believe that imports are in any way responsible for the present position in the biscuit industry is groundless, and this is borne out by the wide margin of unsatisfied demand. It is difficult to reconcile the contribution of one hon. Member who said that imports are spoiling the business of biscuit manufacturers and, on the other hand, to hear an hon. Member say that there is a shortage of biscuits in every part of the country.

On the question of distribution, 1 would remind the House that appetites vary in different parts of the country. It may be that a woman with points to spare will say, "I will use these for biscuits." In another area she might use them for tinned salmon, and in another area she will buy beans with them. I cannot say anything about the tastes of the village which was mentioned by one hon. Member, but it may be that in that particular area there was not a big demand for cream biscuits, when there may have been a big demand for a savoury on points. So far as possible, we try to distribute them equitably throughout the country. Having been at the Ministry of Food for a little over a year, my experience is that no Member, from whatever part of the country he comes, is satisfied that his constituency is being dealt with, so far as food is concerned, as fairly as any other. When we have Members going to Northern constituencies and speaking, they come back and say that they have had wonderful meals and that the shops are full of food. Members here from the North look at our shops and say that we are better off than the people in the North, and so on. Therefore, it is a little difficult to satisfy everybody. Before the war, imports amounted only to some 6,000 tons per annum, or just under 2 per cent. of the total consumption. It will, therefore, be recognised how small is the danger to be anticipated from this source, and I find it difficult to understand why hon. Members with special knowledge of the biscuit industry, as apparently the hon Member for Gravesend has, should fear this competition which might arise from imports, in view of the fact that we imported only 2 per cent. of our biscuits before the war. It is the intention of the Ministry to do all that can be done to assist manufacturers to surmount their difficulties, and directly supplies of ingredients are sufficient for the purpose their claims will be met.

Earl Winterton

No doubt the hon. Member who raised this question will correct me if I am wrong, but I understood him to say that there was grave danger of a reduction in employment in this industry. When the hon. Lady talks about giving supplies to surmount these difficulties, does that or does that not mean that in the near future if will be possible to make available to these manufacturers, who are in danger of having to close down part of their works. sufficient supplies to carry on?

Dr. Summerskill

I thought I had made it clear to the noble Lord that we were very short of flour, fats and sugar, and although as I came into the Chamber an hon. Lady told me that biscuits could be made with syrup and oatmeal, I think most people prefer biscuits made of the usual ingredients. I really cannot promise that we shall be in a position to give the manufacturers the supply of fats, sugar and flour that they need in the near future.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Is not the question of fats and sugar very much more important than the question of the supply of flour?

Dr. Summerskill

Fats and sugar are very important, but one also needs flour. As the hon. Gentleman knows, bread rationing is in operation in this country today, and therefore we cannot give an unlimited supply of flour to biscuit manufacturers. I am sorry that I am not in a position to tell the hon. Gentleman the proportion of flour to sugar and fats but I will let him know.

Mr. Smith

I think the hon. Lady misunderstood me. What I really meant to say was, is notit the fact that flour is the less scarce of the three ingredients in biscuits, and therefore can she tell the House she is giving every possible encouragement to the manufacture of biscuits which require less fat and less sugar?

Dr. Summerskill

I thought I had made that clear when I said we had relaxed all our restrictions and left it to manufacturers to use their ingredients as they thought fit; we do not specify how they should use them; if a manufacturer feels he has a recipe which perhaps needs less sugar and fat he is at liberty to use it. Finally, I do want to tell the House that the Ministry regret the shortage as much as hon. Members. We are very anxious to vary the diet of the people, and we know that biscuits can supply that variation. However, I am quite sure that when hon. Members have thought over this matter and realised the difficulties with which we are faced, they will appreciate that at this time we cannot promise manufacturers more ingredients than they have at the moment.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes past Ten O'Clock