HC Deb 12 December 1947 vol 445 cc1418-28

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

3.55 P.m.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould (Hendon, North)

I feel impelled to bring up this matter today because I am so seriously concerned about the cuts in food impending in the New Year. Yesterday we had an announcement made by the Board of Trade about a very pleasant quantity of food offered to us. We know that some time in the summer there will be a good deal more food, but if the announcements which have been made about the food cuts for the worst three months in the year are carried out, I am afraid there will be a very bad position.

Rationing hitherto has worked extremely well, and I want to congratulate the Government on the equitable distribution of food in the face of almost insuperable difficulties since they came into power. We have had a very different position from the one we should have had if the Opposition had been in power. It is perfectly true, I am sure, that today the shops would have been full, but the people who would have been properly fed would have been the very few, and the masses of the people would have been unable to buy the essential foodstuffs that they have been able to get under this Government's administration all through these very grave times. We have not suffered since this Government came into power from the situation of full shops and empty stomachs. We have had fair distribution over the whole country all this time.

I want to make a very strong plea to the Government to use up the stocks we have, particularly of sugar and of bacon, in January and February, the very worst and blackest months in the year, the months when the vitality of the people is at its lowest, when illness is greatest, when mortality is highest, when in every way people are feeling particularly dreary. Moreover, in the coming year there will still be a shortage of fuel. Sugar, as the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food will agree, has heating and energising properties. The ration now is 8 oz. We have had that ration before, but we have never had that ration when we have also had a very serious rationing of potatoes. Potatoes contain carbohydrates, and the same heating and energising properties as sugar.

Therefore, if we cannot have anything like an adequate quantity of the one, it is all the more essential to distribute as large an amount as possible of the other. I realise that the rationing of potatoes is essential, but what with the low sugar ration and the low bacon ration, I cannot imagine what the position must be of the housewives whose children are not being fed at school. We have to realise that it is not yet possible to feed at school much more than 50 per cent, of the children of school age.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mrs. Ayrton Gould

Those children who are being fed at school are automatically getting nearly twice as much potatoes as those who have to be fed entirely at home. In these black months we have to con- sider, not only the harassed condition of the mothers and the poor vitality of the people, but the actual production position, and we shall not get full production it we have serious debility of the people. Calories in the cupboard cannot win the battle of production, and that, in fact, is what we are about to have. At the worst time of the year we shall have large stocks of sugar being hoarded, with more coming in, and with sufficient bacon to put us back to our two ounces a week, because as soon as the Canadian strike was over the bacon started to come in, and we now have a very considerable amount.

One of the things about production which has not, I think, been appreciated, is that, while it is possible to assess the loss of manpower hours due to illness or debility, what cannot be assessed is the loss of what I would describe as the manpower force due to debility and the mistakes made because people are below par. We women all know the stupid things we do in the home when we are below par; we drop a precious breakfast cup, and so on, which, while very irritating to us, and possibly upsetting the home, does no real harm outside. Yet precisely the same kind of mistake, due to the same cause, in the workshop or factory, may stop a machine for hours because it needs to be serviced, or some important and delicate part of the mechanism may be broken, putting the machine out of action for weeks, thus losing a relatively large amount of our production effort. The result will be that many more dollars will, of necessity, be lost through debility than can possibly be saved by storing so much food in these black months.

I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary has to answer this Debate, because I believe that in her heart she rather agrees with me, but she will have to put the Government case. I wish it were possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reply, because what I am really challenging are the announcements he made in his speech during the Debate on Economic Affairs, and has made since. The Chancellor is a magnificent planner of money and machinery; but, with the greatest respect, I do not think he is a good planner of human material, either physically or psychologically I do not think that he appreciates in the least what will happen in these black months if all the cuts announced are carried out with no relief.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary six specific questions about the situation. First, what will happen to the families who have to eat entirely at home when we have bad storms—which we have every year—and when there are periods with no fish at all in the shops? What will happen when, as we have been given to understand may happen, potato rationing breaks down because there is an even greater shortage of potatoes than we expected? Does my hon. Friend feel that the Ministry can maintain equitable distribution and fair rationing if there is a real shortage? Does not she agree that it is necessary if we are to have an equitable distribution of essential food, to have a sufficient supply of those foodstuffs? If there is not, the kind of black market which there is on the Continent is bound to spring up. Already, we have heard a great deal about the increase of the black market, and the seriousness of the present position. I also want to ask my hon. Friend if it is not a fact that there is enough food to be bought in soft currency countries to keep up our rations to the full? I know that negotiations are going on all over the world with a view to getting food at prices which we are prepared to pay, but what I would urge is that, in spite of the dollar shortage—indeed because of it—we must, if necessary, pay higher prices for it.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

Would the hon. Lady add this question, which is a friendly one, to those which she is now asking the Parliamentary Secretary? So far as I know there has been no comparison made, by way of medical examination, between the weight and general condition of those children who are receiving school meals and those who are not. Many in local government have called for these figures, but we have not been able to obtain them on a nation-wide basis. It would be interesting if she asked the Parliamentary Secretary a question on this point.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould

With great deference to the noble Lord, I suggest that he should put that point to the Minister of Education. I want, further, to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary this question: is it a fact that no more tobacco is coming into this country until our food position is stabilised? And why did we continue to import tobacco which is sold at 4s. an ounce, when difficulties were arising, instead of bacon which costs a penny an ounce? I know it was stated that tobacco was needed for the morale of the people, and that may be true. I like smoking myself, and I feel strongly about it, but where it is a question of tobacco against vital food, surely there can be no doubt at all as to which is the most needed?

I also want to ask my hon. Friend whether the steel—for which, I understand, money is being put aside to provide dollars for payment—which we need to import from America is actually available? Press reports suggest that the steel which we want cannot be obtained. I would like to know whether that is true or not. Finally, I want to urge on the Government that, for the sake of our export drive, and the spirits and health of our people, it is absolutely vital that rations should be increased for the whole population, and especially for young children, in the early months of the year. If cuts are essential later, even when we are getting food from other countries, let us have them in the summer months, when the weather is better and there are more eggs, milk, fruit, and vegetables, and people are better able to face those cuts. Before it is too late, the Government must realise that dollars must be earned, and cannot be saved out of the stomachs of the people.

4.10 p.m.

Miss Bacon (Leeds, North-East)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) initiated this Debate. We know how difficult it is to feed the people at this time. It is often argued by hon. Members on the other side, particularly upon public platforms, that Lord Woolton was able to feed bur people during the war much better than is done by the present Government. We need to emphasise the fact that during the war the position was much easier than it is now, because Lend-Lease was in operation. Today we have to pay for everything we get at very much inflated prices. We ought always to have that fact in the background of our minds when discussing food cuts.

I believe that no Government would impose food cuts unless the cuts were absolutely essential, but I agree with my hon. Friend that there are a few points of information, and a few assurances, upon which we should like some satisfaction. The chief of them is that the country is asking where we stand at the present time. Are there to be further food cuts during this winter? If so, what kind of cuts are they to be? We should like to know—it may be rather early to ask such a question—the probable effect of the trade agreement with Russia. Is there any hope of bread rationing coming to an end at an early date, and so off-setting the cuts which we have suffered in other directions?

I believe that the cut in bacon was felt most severely by our people. I happened to be in Toronto when the packing strike began. I realised what the strike would mean to our bacon supplies. I was very disappointed to find, after the packing strike had ceased, that we were maintaining our bacon ration at one ounce per head per week because of the dollar situation. Bacon should have been the last thing to be cut because of the shortage of dollars. The next few months will be very important. I believe that we have turned the corner in production. During the last few weeks there has seemed to be a new spirit. We have a greater production of coal than we have had for a long time. The same is true in many other industries. It is essential that the new spirit shall be carried on throughout the winter. We have to be careful not to lose dollars because of cutting down our export trade, while we try to save dollars through food cuts.

Our rationing system is the fairest in the world, but even here some people feel the food cuts much more keenly than others. We have done a great deal for children and for people in heavy industries. The noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Wintetton), who has just left his place, mentioned the feeding of children in schools. A few years before I became a Member of this House. I was teaching in a boys' school. A medical examination of those boys showed that 73 per cent. were suffering from malnutrition. I do not think one could go into any school now and find children suffering from starvation, except as the result of sheer neglect. That was in the so-called good old days before the war.

There is another class of people who feel the cuts very badly. I refer particularly to the old people, and to those old people who are living alone. I should like to see an extension of the schemes we have in some of our cities—and one has just begun in my own city of Leeds—of providing hot meals for old people at very cheap prices in order that they shall not unduly feel these new food cuts. I hope the Ministry of Food will encourage these cheap meals for old people, because I am quite sure that they are probably feeling the food cuts more than anyone else.

I believe that in the essentials the Government's food policy is right. We have controls, rationing and food subsidies. The food subsidies are a means of ensuring that people get their food at cheap prices. If we had no food subsidies, many people today, particularly the old people, would have further food cuts, because they could not afford to buy the food which is there. We all know there are worse forms of rationing than the ration-book system. I was in America a few weeks ago, and I saw what the lifting of controls meant there. Butter was 4s. to 5s. a lb., and meat 6s. to 8s. a lb. While I believe our food policy is right in its essentials, the country at the present time wants the fullest possible information and assurances on the details. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will answer some of the questions which my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon and I have put this afternoon.

4.18 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

I am sorry that we have not had more time for this very important subject. The impression has been given that we on this side are complacent about the food situation. That, of course, is not the case at all. We are just as concerned as anyone else, and we should be very concerned indeed if the food supplies were to drop lower than they are today. We have reason to be grateful for what the Minister of Food has achieved, and we realise that many of the factors involved are outside his control. I wish to ask a question which arises out of potato rationing, and that is in regard to the supply of vitamin C in our diet. I do not want to bring coals to Newcastle by talking medical terms to the Parliamentary Secretary, who knows quite well what a shortage of vitamin C means, and that it is a very dangerous thing, affecting the vitality of people and their powers to work. One of our safeguards against a shortage of vitamin C has been potatoes.

In this connection, we are very grateful for what the Parliamentary Secretary is doing as chairman of the Fruit and Vegetable Organisation, and I look with confidence to her bringing before this House some solution of the problem of the high prices of vegetables. It is really intolerable that at a time when we cannot get ample supplies of potatoes, sprouts should be 1s. a pound, and cauliflowers 2s. to 2S. 6d. each, while the humble savoy was being sold at fantastic luxury prices last winter. I wish to impress on my hon. Friend that the situation is very urgent, and that steps should be taken to get the maximum number of vegetables into the home at the most reasonable prices. It means that the whole system of supply and distribution needs overhauling.

4.20 p.m.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

In the short time which is available, I wish to ask only two questions. The first is in regard to sugar. We have all learned that the stocks the Government have built up are regarded as notional dollars. I want to know why extra sugar should not be made available on green ration books for children under five. I am getting a great many letters about that and, when the hon. Lady replies, I hope she will make it clear why extra sugar is not being made available.

I want to emphasise the point made by the noble Lord. It is idle to say that she cannot get these figures. She should try to get them. Many years ago we made investigations into the difference of weight between children who had a biscuit with their milk and children who had not. There was an enormous difference in the weights. So there must be a great difference between the weight of children who are getting a free midday meal at school and those who are not. The children who are not getting a free midday meal are suffering really serious deprivation. When children's allowances were inaugurated, it was suggested that part should be paid in money and part in kind. The reason why all children are not getting free meals today is because we are not able to give some children meals at school. It should be possible, and I hope the hon. Lady will press it, for every local education authority, even if they have not got canteens, to make some midday meal available to every child in school.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry) rose——

Mrs. L. Manning

Yes, even without canteens; even if it is only a packed lunch.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

The hon. Lady quite misunderstood me. I was merely going to express the hope that she would give the Minister a chance to reply.

Mrs. Manning

All right, I will do so. The last point I want to raise is to ask the hon. Lady what she is doing about asking local authorities to supply hot meals to housewives in their own homes.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid (Glasgow, Hillhead) rose——

4.23 p.m.

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

The right hon. and learned Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) I am sure will forgive me. I have been given only seven minutes in which to reply and, if he had spoken, I am afraid I should have been unable to reply at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) said in her opening remarks that she felt the rest of the world thought this country was rather complacent, that we were, in fact, enjoying a fairly high standard of living, and that we were not perhaps taking those active steps we might take in order to improve the dietary of the most vulnerable groups. I have been left with a feeling, after listening to my hon. lady Friends, that they are of the opinion that my Department is complacent, and that we are sitting back, unconscious of all those points raised this afternoon.

I want to assure them and the House that every step which has been taken in imposing cuts on the food supplies of this country has been taken after days, weeks and sometimes months of deliberation. I would remind my hon. Friends that it was in July of this year that the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the House and, in informing the House of the provisional import programme for 1947–8, said that it would be impossible to import all those things we had hoped for. It was on 6th August that the Prime Minister came to the House and announced that in the future it would be impossible to import food from dollar countries and that, in addition to the cuts in the import programme of £50 million already imposed, it was necessary to cut imports at the rate of £12 million a month.

Later on in October, my right hon. and learned Friend who was then Minister for Economic Affairs, came to this House and in a speech which was accepted by my hon. Friends behind me as a striking exposition of the case, explained that if this country was to meet its commitments it was necessary to impose a further cut of £66 million. I have not time to remind the hon. Ladies who have spoken of that speech, but I ask them to refer to it, and it will answer many of the questions which have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) said that it was essential, if we are to produce the necessary goods, to allow people to eat the food we have in store. But she cannot have it both ways. We cannot possibly meet our commitments, and at the same time eat food which is equivalent to dollars, but that is what she is asking should be done. She is entirely ignoring the case which was made by my right hon. and learned Friend when he was Minister for Economic Affairs in October when he explained the seriousness of the position.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid rose——

Dr. Summerskill

I am sorry, but I have only four minutes left in which to finish my reply.

All the sugar for 1948 has been bought, and this sugar is equivalent to dollars. I agree that the decision that we should store this sugar was hard. I agree also that it is unpopular, but a responsible Government have to take hard and unpopular decisions. We do not do these things in an irresponsible and frivolous way, but in order that our country shall survive, and in order to retain the respect of the trading world. We do it to maintain our international reputation, if for no other reason. The suggestion that we should now eat into our stocks might emanate from an imprudent housewife, who would allow the family to raid the larder at the beginning of the rationing period, and then not have enough at the end of the rationing period.

My right hon. Friend has explained that he has tried to eke out our supplies, and that is what I am telling my hon. Friends. We are trying to eke out supplies in the most prudent manner possible. We are doing it in the same way as my hon. Friends would do it, because they are prudent, responsible, women who would not go to the country and say, "Consume everything now," and not trouble about what is to happen at the end of the year.

I must remind my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon that bacon is in a different category from sugar and meat. This is not a question of stock piling at all. It is only practicable to hold a limited stock, and at the moment representatives from my Department are in Canada to discuss certain bacon contracts. My hon. Friend may also have forgotten that recently we were unable to arrive at certain decisions at which we would like to arrive with Denmark. The result is that we are not importing from Denmark now, and therefore again it is the prudent thing to limit the bacon ration rather than use up our limited stocks for the period during which negotiations are going on.

My final word, in the minute which is left to me, is to reassure the hon. Ladies who have spoken. They are worried, quite rightly, by the condition of what we call the vulnerable groups in the coming year. While shortages continue we have made special arrangements to safeguard the vulnerable groups of the population. We have given them extra rations. We have special surveys conducted every month so that any deterioration in their condition is brought to our notice immediately. We are in close cooperation with the Ministry of Health and through their standing committee on medical and nutritional problems, we are continuing to observe the conditions of the people of the country. So far as the schools are concerned medical inspectors are co-operating with us.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.