HC Deb 03 April 1947 vol 435 cc2228-32
Mr. Walter Fletcher (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Food whether he is satisfied that the stocks of tea existing in this country, together with recent contracts with India and Ceylon, are sufficient to maintain the present tea ration?

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

Contracts with the growers in India and Ceylon are still in course of negotiation. As to stocks, there are difficulties, mainly due to a delay in shipments from Calcutta owing to a strike. It is too early to say whether or not, in view of these difficulties, the present level of distribution can be maintained during the summer months.

Mr. Fletcher

In view of the fact that the Minister has, on many occasions, refused, in the public interest, to give the size and distribution of stocks in this country, will he now state whether, in fact, we are going to see, in the case of tea, what we have seen in the case of other commodities—a reluctance on his part to take the public into his confidence in a matter which affects nearly every home in this country? Will he further state whether this doubt as to the tea ration being maintained at its present level does not arise from the action by the Ceylon and Indian Governments both in raising their prices, and, possibly, imposing export duties and other measures which will work against the interests of this country?

Mr. Strachey

Yes, Sir. Without wishing to criticise the actions of the Ceylon and Indian Governments, I should say that, certainly, those actions are unwelcome to us. We would have preferred to continue the system of bulk purchase, which was working extremely well. A difficulty arises now, owing to the action of the Ceylon and Indian Governments, in that this system may well have to be modified to a considerable degree.

Mr. R. S. Hudson

Has it not occurred to the right hon. Gentleman that the action of the Ceylon and Indian Governments may well he one effect of bulk buying?

Mr. Strachey

The answer to that question is in the negative. On the contrary, bulk buying was working extremely well and producing very good results for this country.

Mr. Hudson

Can the right hon. Gentleman say when he will be able to announce a decision whether or not the tea ration is going to be maintained? This is a matter of great importance to the British public.

Mr. Strachey

All I can say is that it is too early at the moment. It depends on whether the strike in Calcutta is settled. This is mainly governed by the actual rate of shipments at the moment.

Mr. Paget

Does the Minister feel that the present situation would have been improved if he had taken the advice of the party opposite and taken tea off the ration?

Mr. Strachey

That, of course, would have led to disaster.

Mr. Eden

This is a very grave matter. Could not the right hon. Gentleman really carry us a little further as to when he can tell the country what is the position? It is not a question whether it could or could not have been avoided, but, surely, it is most unfortunate, just before Easter, for the public to have news of one more cut?

Mr. Strachey

The right hon. Gentleman must not suggest that I have announced any such cut. I was asked whether I was satisfied that the present level of tea could be maintained during the summer. As our tea supplies, at the moment, from our major source, Calcutta, are not coming in owing to the strike, it would be most rash to say that we are sure that distribution could be maintained, and all I did was to say that I could make no decision. I repeat that it will depend on what happens in this dispute in Calcutta.

Mr. Eden

Has the right hon. Gentleman bought the tea, does he possess it, and is it only a question of the strike holding it up?

Mr. Strachey

The answer is, as I have said twice now, that the strike in Calcutta is the main and immediate matter. As I have stated, there are other longer-term issues of our contracts with the growers in India and Ceylon, and a change has been made there which may affect in either direction, as a matter of fact, the actual amount of tea which we will secure over the year as a whole.

Commander Galbraith

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how long the strike has been going on and what amount of tea has been held up?

Mr. Strachey

I cannot give the figures without notice.

Mr. Driberg

If it is necessary to cut the tea ration, will my right hon. Friend do all he can to make plans in advance to retain it at its present level for old people, who have few enough comforts, even with the considerably increased pension which the Labour Government have given them?

Mr. Strachey

I will take that into careful consideration.

Mr. W. Fletcher

When the Minister makes his statement, with which he seems to be pregnant at present, will he say how the very heavy increase in the price of tea will be handled, and whether it will be passed on to the consumer or hidden in a food subsidy? Will he state whether it is not much more important than the strike in Calcutta, which he seems to be using as a smoke screen?

Mr. Strachey

The strike in Calcutta is our immediate and pressing anxiety, but the action of the Indian and Ceylon Governments, in causing the system of bulk purchase to be modified, is also a very unwelcome development.

Mr. Walkden

As he gave us generous information last year about this purchase of tea, will the right hon. Gentleman be able, at a later date, to tell us whether, if the strike is settled at an early date, the purchase of tea in India and Ceylon will be sufficient to maintain the ration, say, during the forthcoming winter?

Mr. Strachey

I have said that the contracts with the growers in India and Ceylon are still under negotiation, and I certainly cannot give a report on them until they are completed.

Mr. Walkden

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us that information when he has it?

Lord John Hope

Does not the right hon. Gentleman owe it to the public to express these anxieties on his own initiative, rather than have them dragged out of him by the House?

Mr. Strachey

As a matter of fact, I have sounded a warning note on tea, which may have escaped the hon. Member's attention. I have done so, and I propose to do so on future occasions.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Why have tea stocks been allowed to run so low that a short-term strike in Calcutta could have such a marked effect?

Mr. Strachey

The strike in Calcutta is the short-term fact. The level of the purchases which we can make over the year will be governed, of course, by the contracts now under negotiation with the growers in India and Ceylon, principally, and we shall keep our stocks up to the maximum possible levels.