HC Deb 10 October 1946 vol 427 cc478-86

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

This evening I wish to raise the question of an extra cheese ration for certain classes of workers. I am rather distressed that the hon. Member for Upton (Mr. A. Lewis) is not present, because I think perhaps he might be doing greater service to the community and to the country if he were not trying to organise hotel workers into unions to which they do not wish to go, but rather organising "cheese unions" to combat the cheeseparers—I refer to the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. On 24th June this year I addressed a letter to the hon. Lady in which I drew particular attention to the case of a constituent of mine who was a gas worker employed by the local gas company. I wrote to the hon. Lady as follows: He is a district foreman and has six other men working under him. He asks on behalf of the party whether they can be allowed an extra cheese ration. He states that he often eats nothing at mid-day but dry bread as there are no British restaurants near his work. He points out that men employed on water work near his gang get extra cheese, tea and sugar. On 5th July I received a reply from the hon. Lady through a Parliamentary Private Secretary saying: When deciding which categories of workers should be allowed extra cheese, we are guided by recommendations made to us by an advisory committee of the T.U.C. This committee take into account the conditions of work in an industry as a whole, and they have not recommended that extra cheese should be allowed to the workers employed in the gas industry. I am sorry to give these long quotations from letters, but they are very material to my argument. We have given special encouragement to employers to set up canteens where workers can obtain satisfactory meals, and whilst I appreciate that it would not be possible for this man and his colleagues to use a canteen at the company's works, it would, I suggest, be possible for the company to extend any canteen arrangements which are provided at the works to enable those of their workers employed in open country to have a packed cold meal supplied to them on the job. On 17th July I wrote a letter to the hon. Lady in which I said: I understand that in the case of this man and similar workers a canteen would be useless, as they go straight from their own homes to their jobs and do not go to the gas works first. I received a further reply from the hon. Lady which said: Surely, if a canteen is to be provided for gas stokers it would be possible for the company to arrange for packed meals to be sent to employees working elsewhere. For one reason or another the gas company have not even been able to provide a canteen for the gas stokers. Whether it is their fault or not, the men who are working as gas stokers in intense heat— I have been down to see them, and I know the heat in which they work, and I have see the arduous labour which they perform—do deserve extra rations for the arduous task they have to perform. But apart from the gas stokers there are those who lay the gas mains. Why does the hon. Lady resist the giving of an extra cheese ration to the gas main layers? After all, it is a little hard to suggest to the layer of the gas main, who leaves his home early in the morning, that the company should provide a sort of mobile canteen service to go all over the place to feed him.

There are many cases of workers who should be entitled to an extra cheese ration. Many workers, for one reason or another, are denied canteen facilities, and I feel that those workers merit the sympathetic consideration of the Minister. For example, I heard the other day of a gardener who works for an employer on the employer's estate. He is fortunate: he has a cottage; he has an agricultural worker's card because he is producing food. His cottage is within 100 yards of where he works. He gets an extra cheese ration, but the gravedigger—and I do not want anybody to laugh about the grave-digger, although his job may be less productive than that of the gardener—who works in a rural area, where the cemetery may be miles away from any restaurant or any canteen, gets no extra cheese ration at all. As I have tried to explain, the workers who lay water pipes or, indeed, men engaged on rural and county road work, get their extra cheese ration; but the workers engaged next door, almost alongside the water workers, those men engaged on laying gas mains, get no extra cheese ration whatsoever.

I should like to refer to a Question which was raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Perkin) on 31st July this year and the answer given to him about the gas main layers, which was as follows: The special cheese ration is allowed for employees of waterworks undertakings who are unable to take advantage of canteens or other catering facilities. Workers employed on the laying of gas mains are only intermittently and for comparatively short periods working on sites which are remote from all catering facilities and I regret that I should not feel justified in extending the grant of a special ration to them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st July, 1946; Vol. 426, c. 192] So, according to the Minister's ruling, these workers laying gas mains, for whom no catering facilities are available, however short or however long the period during which they may be working on the job, get no extra ration whatsoever, and have to rely upon dry bread. These men go out early in the morning and arrive home late in the evening. Unless they have sufficient points food to put between their bread they have to rely upon dry bread. As far as the inter- mittent nature of their work is concerned —and "intermittent" is the word used in the answer—it is interesting to see that hop-pickers, who only work for a very short period in the year on that particular job, get extra cheese. So too do scavengers—I am not quite sure what scavengers are, but they do—so do land drainage workers, so do Women's Land Army trainees. They all get an extra cheese ration, but the gas main layer does not. I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert) that men who work on canals do not get an extra cheese ration. Surely, those who work on canals cannot often be near a British restaurant in their work?

Again, when we are sadly in need of houses, especially in the rural areas, and when one would have thought that those engaged on building in the country districts would have been given every possible consideration, it is curious to find that workers engaged on building houses in the rural areas do not get an extra cheese ration. They again may be many miles from a restaurant or canteen, but they get no extra cheese ration. It seems curious, because the miners are to get extra meat. I am perfectly certain that many hon. Members opposite—if there were many hon. Members opposite—and hon. Members on this side who are interested in coal, have been down coal mines and have been to the canteens afterwards. The canteens at coal mines are magnificent—absolutely first class. You will get a better meal at a canteen in a coal mine than, in spite of the hon. Member for Upton, you will get at the Ritz or the Dorchester or anywhere else. [An HON. MEMBER: "Don't you believe it."] Yes, certainly, you will see there things which you will not get at the most expensive— I will not say the best—London hotel. It seems curious that these people should be given an extra meat ration when the various categories I have mentioned tonight do not get an extra cheese ration.

There is one other case I should mention of another constituent of mine about whom I wrote to the hon. Lady. This constituent was employed by his mother as head cowman. He worked on a small farm and lived some considerable distance from it. The permanent staff on this farm numbered three. He had to leave to get to his work at 6 o'clock in the morning. He had to take with him three packed meals, and that means a great deal, as the hon. Lady will know. He did not return until dark. He could not get the extra cheese ration, and I wrote to the hon. Lady and said that an agricultural worker was entitled to an extra. cheese ration, but this man, simply because he was employed by his mother, and in spite of the fact that he was doing just as much work as any other agricultural worker, was not entitled to the cheese ration. The hon. Lady wrote to me saying: The claims of farmers and their relatives to a special cheese ration have been: carefully considered, but as these people can usually arrange to return home for a mid-day meal we do not feel justified in giving them a special cheese ration. Why should this man, an ordinary agricultural labourer, who lives miles away from the farm where he works and is unable to get home for his midday meal, be treated differently from any other agricultural labourer? My constituent, very disillusioned and discouraged by the Minister's reply, wrote as follows: Obviously the Minister of Food takes a line of least resistance by taking my plea as a personal one. I gave my own case as merely typical of a great number. It seems a case of every man for himself with the possible aid of the black market, the sole alternative being to use up the ration of the remainder of the family while they go without. I would point out to the Minister of Food that the population of the country is made up of individuals— I underline the word "individual"— and they have failed in their duty so long as any appreciable number of these are being unfairly served. If it should be necessary for you to answer their letter, tell them from me. Thank you for nothing and convey my sincere hopes that they may eventually recover from the mess they have landed themselves and the country in. He states in a P.S.: Have you a good recipe for cheese making? I could possibly pinch some milk. The unfair restrictions which have been imposed on individuals and on many workers in many industries are leading to breaches in the law. We all know that if there are wholesale breaches in the law there must be something wrong with the law. If there are large-scale breaches of the law, then there must be something which is pretty unfair and unsound. I submit that by their regulations and restrictions the Ministry are causing hundreds of thousands of people to go into the black market, and causing hundreds of thousands of people to break the law. Surely it is possible for the Ministry of Food to treat these individual cases on their merits. Why should you take your orders from the T.U.C.? Why should you rely on a sub-committee of the T.U.C. to say who needs an extra cheese ration? Why should you not justify yourself and say that such and such a man deserves a cheese ration, and we will judge the case on its merits? Goodness knows you have enough bodies in the Ministry of Food who can judge these matters. Surely you have enough bodies in the regions and at headquarters? Surely you have enough people in the Ministry of Food?

Mr. Speaker

If I may interrupt the hon. Member—no people at all. The hon. Member said "You," and that means me.

Mr. Taylor

I am sorry, Sir; I got carried away by my enthusiasm. I mean that the Ministry of Food have sufficient bodies under their control to carry out cheese rationing on their own, so that they can decide on the merits of each individual case if necessary. There may be occasions when the individual does matter; he may not be a member of a class or group. He must be considered on his own. Tonight, I ask the Minister of Food to consider the special cases, particularly those I have mentioned—gasworkers, agricultural workers, agricultural housing workers, and last, but not least, grave diggers.

10.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summer-skill)

I welcome the opportunity which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr C. S- Taylor) has given me of explaining the principles which govern the policy which we pursue in granting this special cheese ration. The hon. Member has left me only nine minutes in which to reply, and I shall be unable to go into details of the grave diggers and other categories of workers he has mentioned. But if he will follow me carefully I think he will find that our approach to this question is practical and sensible, and one which in the end can be administered.

We realised, when we introduced the rationing of cheese in 1941, that there were certain categories of workers who always had to take a packed meal to work, and we decided that those workers whose employers were unable to provide them with a meal at their work, and workers who were unable to use ordinary canteen facilities or were unable to get a packed meal, must have an extra cheese ration. It was made clear at the beginning, however, that this ration was in no sense a supplementary ration given to any category of workers on account of the heavy nature of their work. I am glad that the hon. Member has not pleaded for an extra ration on those grounds. We have tried to avoid, so far as possible, any differential rationing. This extra ration has been, and is, a makeshift substitute for a meal May I deal first of all with procedure? The hon. Gentleman rather ridiculed the committee of the T.U.C. He asked why the Ministry themselves could not make their own decisions. Well, the T.U.C. represents organised workers, and the hon Gentleman himself mentioned many categories of workers. Does he say that he is more fitted to say what those workers need than the workers' representatives?

Mr. Taylor

I say that the workers are more fitted than the T.U.C.

Dr. Summerskill

The T.U.C. represents the workers. The workers are the T.U.C, and the Ministry, anxious to be democratic, invited the workers to examine conditions, such as the hon. Member has described. They invited men and women who felt they should be given this extra cheese ration to make their application to the T.U.C. and the T.U.C, through the Rationing and Prices Committee of the Joint Council, act in cooperation with the Ministry of Food in examining the applications. Every month or six weeks—whenever it is necessary—this committee meets the Ministry and goes very carefully into all the questions which have been raised by the hon. Member: where men work, how they work, what catering facilities are available, and so on, and they then advise the Ministry of Food. I do not believe that this House will say that the Ministry of Food should override the recommendations of the workers' representatives

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

If that is so, why is the country builder, who is doing work on rural buildings, regarded as quite distinct from the urban builder? Why is he not being allowed an extra ration?

Dr. Summerskill

There is one difficulty so far as builders are concerned. It is very necessary under this scheme that the Ministry of Food and the local committees who finally administer it should be able to identify the worker. So far a agricultural workers are concerned, as the hon. Member knows, they have a special insurance card and therefore it is easy to identify them. It is a little difficult to identify the building worker and this is one difficulty which we find is hard to overcome, but apart from that I can assure the hon. Member that their application is carefully considered.

In the five minutes which I have left to me I will try to explain why certain categories have never been given a special ration. In order to qualify, the hon. Gentleman is quite right when he says that the work must be continuous and not intermittent. We have had to decide that because it is very difficult to administer a scheme which is only operating for men or women working for a very short period.

Mr. Taylor

What about the hop pickers?

Dr. Summerskill

They come in a different category. The hop pickers are being bracketed with the harvest workers. They are getting extra food during a special period, and there again it is intermittent. There are borderline cases, but you must draw the line somewhere. On one side of that line, there are some people who are lucky and get the extra ration, and, on the other side, there are a few who are unlucky The hon. Member has quoted a few of the latter. We have had to maintain that borderline very strictly. It would be administratively impossible to introduce a system of examining individual applicants. The hon. Member asked why the Ministry of Food cannot examine every individual application. Such a suggestion is frivolous.

Mr. Taylor

I never said that. I said examine a group or class, and perhaps, if there are any, examine individual cases.

Dr. Surmnerskill

A group may be live people or four people. To examine each group would be quite impossible. You would have hundreds of men going to their local food offices to have their cases examined, and such an approach would be impossible, in these days, when local food offices are already overwhelmed with work. It is also necessary to maintain uniformity of treatment throughout the country. If we followed the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, and the Eastbourne Food Committee decided to grant this special cheese ration to a certain group, and a food committee in the North of England decided that a group doing the same work, under the same conditions, should not have it, then, of course, there would be difficulties between the workers.

Finally, I must remind the hon. Member of this very important fact: We are conscious, all the time, that the supply of cheese is very short. It must be remembered that the amount of cheese required to meet the special cheese ration is the equivalent of approximately five million ordinary consumer rations of cheese. It will be appreciated that the present system of the careful scrutiny of claims by the T.U.C. and the Ministry ensures that the demand for extra cheese can be controlled. If we widened the scope, this could only be done at the expense of ordinary domestic consumers. I feel—and I am sure the House will agree with me—that we must recognise that the ordinary domestic consumers have a right to their present rations, and we are trying to ensure that in exactly the same way as we are trying to ensure that every worker is treated equitably.

It being Hall past Ten o'Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.