HC Deb 17 December 1947 vol 445 cc1826-36

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Dodds (Dartford)

The season of goodwill towards men is fast approaching, but, in considering the actions of the Minister of Food in respect of edible nuts. I must confess that I can find none of that desirable spirit. In fact, there are few things that have made me feel more angry than the stewardship of the Minister in respect of nuts. I am fully supported by the workers for the Labour and Cooperative movements in the Dartford constituency, and they have informed me that, if only the Minister could be made aware of the widespread anger and distrust so forcibly expressed in factory and office and among the housewives, he would be convinced that he had made a blunder of some magnitude. All of us wish to pay tribute to the Minister, and to the staff of the Ministry of Food, for the excellent work they have done in recent years, and it is because of this that we are so utterly amazed at the actions of the Minister in respect of edible nuts.

As I understand it, the Ministry of Food have been, with very rare exceptions, the sole importers of edible nuts. The Edible Nuts Executive Panel was set up at the request of the Ministry of Food, and the object of this body, as I understand it, was to handle the distribution of nuts to the public. It has been brought to my notice that at Christmas, 1944, there were 6,000 tons of nuts available for distribution, and the job of distributing them was given to this organisation at very short notice. I am informed that the job was done very satisfactorily, and, furthermore, that the prices were a lot lower than they are this season.

A maximum prices order, for both nut kernels and nuts in shell, existed from 1941 to 27th July this year. During 1946, and subsequently, the Ministry of Food have bought small parcels of nuts, and it was estimated that the nuts recently available amounted to no more than two ounces per head of the population. It seems to me that, for this reason, the Minister decided that the nuts should go to free auction. I would like to remind him that he seems to have overlooked the fact that in many of the poorer households throughout the length and breadth of the land, and particularly in the North of England and the Midlands, there is a custom which is very dear to the people, the hanging up of the children's stockings at Christmas. In connection with this custom, it is usual to put in an apple, an orange, some new pennies, and just a few nuts. The action of the Minister has robbed most of these households of the opportunity to follow that very popular and long-honoured custom.

I think it is very appropriate that I should bring this matter to the Minister's notice on a day when we have been discussing in this House the question of giving tens of thousands of pounds to one individual. It may be that many are not offended about this, but it is just as well to remember that there are people at the other end of the scale who would like to be considered in this particular matter. The stocks of nuts were released to free auction without control at any stage, and it is certainly not to the credit of the Minister that even higher prices were not realised. In fact, his motto in this particular case seems to have been, "The sky is the limit." Of course, to many Socialists, that is a matter of great surprise. For my part I hope that the commonsense of the people will be such that they will refuse to buy these nuts, and that the collaborators of the Minister, at least, will burn their fingers, and that this will serve as a very useful example for future years.

I understand that, for many months, the Edible Nuts Executive Panel have consistently urged that they should be given the job of distributing the nuts. A letter has come to me today in which it says that, in 1944, the fresh fruit trade was given the job of distributing nuts. I think that the following paragraph is important: With regard to the recent disposal of stocks, the Ministry did not consult the fresh fruit trade, although it is possible that it might be inferred from Answers to a recent Question that the trade was consulted. It it definitely stated that the national organisation of the fresh fruit trade was not at any time approached. In view of the prices at which they were purchased—from 9d. to 1s. 4d. a lb.—the Edible Nuts Executive Panel suggested that there should be a controlled price of 2s. 6d. a lb., but in the absence of a price control order it was felt that by their influence, plus the influence of the Press and radio, it would be possible to get nuts at 2s. 6d. per lb. No one denies that if they had been so distributed some would have gone to the black market, and some under the counter, but, as a representative of the Co-operative movement, I can claim that those which would have come to the movement would have been sold at the controlled price.

I believe the sales amounted to £1,750,000 and the maximum profit to £1,250,000. As we have heard, in answer to a Question in the House today, that profit was at the rate of 237 per cent. We feel that even if the Minister had no faith in the Panel, there is still no justification for the action he has taken. We feel that they could have been zoned. There could have been a compensation issue to other areas denied supplies, or they could have been given to children on the green ration books. They could also have been given at a date and time to be announced when it would have been a question of "first come, first served."

In this House recently a suggestion was made about increasing the price of petrol so that there would be a diminution of purchases, and it was said that if the price was 5s. or 6s. a gallon, there would be less petrol sold. There has been a suggestion also of a further increase in the price of tobacco. We have resisted that because it would have been rationing by price. Therefore, it makes it all the more difficult to understand the action which the Minister has taken in this particular Order. It has been suggested that there was no time to get a Price Control Order in operation. There has been plenty of time, I maintain, to have done so if it had been wanted. If that is true the Minister has certainly "missed the bus."

An unsatisfactory situation has now been created because there is a controlled price order for nut kernels but none for nuts in shells. Nuts in shells are two or three times the price of nut kernels, and when it is known that there are only one-third of the nuts available in shells, it shows what a ridiculous situation we are in. It is felt that when people abroad are taking careful note of the prices that are being paid, it will react against us if we can again buy nut kernels. Another unsatisfactory aspect is that the home variety of nuts has been affected. Cob nuts are being sold at 7s. a lb., which will have a further bad reaction on the situation. I want to make it clear that in making this protest, I do so, not only on behalf of the people of the Dartford constituency, but for the Co-operative movement and for the Co-operative Parliamentary group in this House. We wish to protest at the decision of the Minister, which has resulted in high prices both for imported and for the home variety of nuts, and which places them beyond the reach of consumers of average means.

We feel also that this action has exposed the Ministry of Food to a justifiable charge of profiteering, with the resultant loss of its moral right to criticise or condemn profiteering elsewhere. The action of the Minister is another example of rationing by price, and I make this protest because I believe it is contrary to the declared policy of the Labour movement. We sincerely hope that this will serve as a warning, and that the Minister of Food will not again copy one of the worst examples of private enterprise.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Norman Bower (Harrow, West)

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) has done well to draw attention to the high prices at which these edible nuts are now being retailed. One of the reasons which the Minister of Food gave for putting them up to auction was that the Edible Nuts Executive Panel had asked that they should be given the sole distribution of these nuts, to the exclusion of all newcomers into the trade. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if, when she replies, she can give any evidence in support of that assertion, because I am credibly informed that that is completely without any foundation at all and that, in fact, the trade said that of any further imports a definite tonnage should be set aside specifically for new importers who had recently entered the trade, and that so far as the actual distribution of these particular stocks were concerned they were never given any opportunity of seeing the Minister and discussing with him the method by which they should be distributed.

I do not think that hon. Lady, or anyone connected with the Ministry, will deny that the Edible Nuts Executive Panel is a thoroughly reputable organisation which has been responsible for distributing about £15 million worth of nuts very successfully in the past. That being the case, I submit that they should have been given the chance to put their scheme to which the hon. Member for Dartford has referred into operation before the Minister decided on a course which was certain to result, as it has resulted, in these nuts being retailed at grossly exorbitant prices which can only be paid by the wealthiest members of the community. What the Minister has done in this case is exactly what he and his hon. Friends have for many years been accusing private enterprise of doing, namely, cornering a commodity and selling it at monopoly prices and exploiting the consumers.

As the hon. Member has already said, the Parliamentary Secretary gave the most astounding figures at Question time today when she announced that the profit which the Ministry had made from these nuts was 237 per cent. I submit without the slightest fear of contradiction that if any private concern or organisation had made a profit of those dimensions, they would have been howled at by everybody and called profiteering thugs and every name under the sun. That only goes to show that all this Socialist talk about fair shares for all at reasonable prices is so much eyewash and balderdash. In fact, the whole of this episode has been a scandal and an outrage from start to finish.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Tiffany (Peterborough)

It is with regret that I support my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) in this matter of edible nuts, because in the past we have had so much confidence in the activities of the Ministry of Food. There is no doubt that the work of the Ministry of Food has been of great benefit to the people in this country. Therefore, when we find a situation such as this it stands out against all the good work that has been done in the past.

I understand that the Edible Nuts Executive Panel was set up under the direction of the Ministry of Food itself, for the purpose of ensuring an even distribution of nuts. I also understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has stated, that they were prepared to ensure that the nuts were distributed at a price of aproximately 2s. 6d. a lb. It is true that there would, perhaps, be one or two small discrepancies—there might be a little black market—but, in general, so far as possible, they gave a guarantee that they would have been prepared to ensure that the nuts were distributed at a retail price of 2s. 6d. a lb. I am rather worried by the fact that, having set up this machinery during the war, the Ministry of Food at the last moment refused to accept the machinery.

It seems rather a peculiar thing to me for the Ministry to operate. Furthermore, we have the situation which has already been mentioned, and which I should like to emphasise, that there is an order still in operation restricting and setting out the maximum prices with relation to shelled nuts, and yet, according to the Ministry, it was not possible to put in an Order restricting the prices with relation to nuts in shells. If it was considered necessary that the Order should continue for shelled nuts, surely the same argument would hold with relation to nuts which have not been shelled. I also want to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend on this question of profiteering.

We have always looked upon the Ministry of Food as defending the consumers of our country against profiteering, yet here we have the Ministry of Food itself willy nilly going into this very market of profiteering. I think it is very lamentable indeed, in view of the very high standard occupied by the Ministry in the past and the very high regard with which it is held by the huge majority of people in this country. There has been a lowering of that standard through the Ministry of Food selling these nuts by auction. I sincerely hope that the points brought forward by the hon. Member for Dartford will register upon the Ministry of Food and that we shall not have further actions of this type. I think they do discredit to the Ministry.

10.27 p.m.

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

I think from what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Tiffany) has just said about the high standing of the Ministry of Food in this country, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) must surely recognise that the circumstances with which we were faced when we had to dispose of these nuts were indeed exceptional. I find it very curious that they should come to this House and condemn us in this way without a fair hearing, in view of what has already been said. They know, as Co-operative Members, that our policy in the past has always been "no profit and no loss." In view of that, surely they must have realised that we did not overnight decide to change our policy, to enter into competition with private enterprise and endeavour deliberately to make a higher percentage of profit than private enterprise. Of course, we did not. We were faced with exceptional circumstances and I feel my hon. Friends on this side of the House should certainly have come and made fuller inquiries than they have done before publicly condemning my Department in this way.

The circumstances were indeed exceptional. We found ourselves holding a comparatively small stock of nuts which, if distributed equitably throughout the country, would amount to two ounces per head. We had to decide how we were to dispose of them. I do not want to weary the House with the details, but I should remind them of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer and later the Minister for Economic Affairs said to this House about decreasing imports. Hon. Members on this side of the House know full well that we had to cancel the import of nuts at very short notice. Therefore, the Ministry found they had a stock of 3,000-odd tons of nuts and had to decide how best to dispose of them. I admit that our purpose in holding them in the past was in order to ensure that private enterprise, when it came to sell nuts which would have been imported, would not have enjoyed too high profits, and to ease the shift to the trade. All those plans, of course, did not materialise because imports ceased, and we had to decide how best to dispose of the nuts.

We were faced with three choices—(1) to impose price control at all stages of sale; (2) to sell under a gentleman's agreement, through the Edible Nuts Executive Panel, with first hand distributors and wholesalers; and (3) to sell by public auction. The Government would have preferred to have distributed under price control, and I am very surprised that the hon. Member for Dartford, who knows something of Co-operative trading, dismissed so lightly the procedure which we would have to adopt if we had decided to price-control these nuts at every stage.

He knows the time it takes to discuss margins, to arrive at agreement with the trade, and he knows that during that period the nuts would have deteriorated. He knows about the sorting and bagging that would have been necessary, and, to take all that into consideration, would have meant that the people of this country, instead of eating nuts at Christmas, might have got them in January or February. The final factor is the reason we adopted what, in our opinion, was the best method. If these nuts had been distributed in January, the whole House would have said, "The Ministry of Food again—too late." They would have been justified. The people of this country do not want to get nuts at the end of January. They want them at Christmas over their fires. So we dismissed that.

The second method is that which the hon. Member for Dartford advocates. I was very surprised to hear that he is such a great friend of that monopoly, the Edible Nuts Executive Panel. My hon. Friend spoke in very praising terms of this Panel. They suggested that we should have what they call a "gentlemen's agreement." The gentlemen's agreement would have meant that the Edible Nuts Panel would have tried by exhortation to induce every link in the chain of distribution to sell the nuts at a particular price.

With due respect to the very fine retailers throughout the country, and with due respect to the Co-operative movement—and I think the Co-operative movement know full well that the Ministry of Food have always co-operated with them as they should do—hon. Members will agree with me that we could not, as a responsible Department, rely upon every little retailer at every corner throughout the country accepting a gentleman's agreement. You may exhort your wholesalers, you may talk to your first-hand distributors, but I do not think that you could rely on every retailer to sell those nuts at the price which had been laid down. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford reminded me that at Christmas, 1944, nuts were sold at a certain price. He should remember that then there were more nuts. We are talking now about two ounces of nuts per head.

Mr. Dodds

Six thousand tons.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Member knows that when there is a shortage of any commodity, the price will rise. Because of all these difficulties with which we were faced, we felt that we could not accept what the Edible Nuts Panel wanted—to adopt the gentlemen's agreement method. We have been on very pleasant terms with the Edible Nuts Executive Panel and we thank it for what it has done, but I must remind my hon. Friends that the Panel was formed in 1941 and consists of ten prewar importers and first-hand distributors' associations.

I must tell the House, after what has been said, that this panel was very anxious to have a closed shop. It was very anxious that new people should not come in, and, in fact, it asked my Department to see that later on people who had been concerned in dealing with nuts should more or less maintain that monopoly. My Department said that this must not be. If nuts were available, then everyone in the country wishing to deal in nuts should have the opportunity of getting them. I think that probably the Edible Nuts Executive Panel did not feel friendly disposed towards the Ministry because of this attitude, and perhaps that is why hon. Members have been briefed in this fashion.

Mr. Dodds

It is not in Order to make assertions of that nature. They did not brief me, and I would like to deny that statement here and now. If the hon. Lady has any evidence, she ought to mention it.

Dr. Summerskill

When my hon. Friend gets up with a sheaf of papers in his hand and quotes from them, and from the Edible Nuts Panel, I think it is fair for me to tell him why the Edible Nuts Panel has adopted this particular attitude. I am telling him what he should have known, and what he would have known if he had come and spoken to me for a moment or two behind Mr. Speaker's chair.

Mr. Dodds

I know all that the hon. Lady has told me, but I still feel the way I do, and so do the Co-operatives.

Dr. Summerskill

We had to look at this from every angle, and we decided that, in the circumstances, everybody who wished to do so could come to the auction and bid for the available nuts. We have no evidence that there was any cornering of supplies. We were told that all the buyers represented well-known firms. The buyers congratulated us on the fair way in which the auction was conducted. In my opinion, after careful reflection, I think that that was the best method in the circumstances.

Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)

May I say that we on this side of the House have been occasioned great pain by the public whipping of the delegates from the Co-operatives, who have been among the biggest buyers of these nuts. We are surprised that the Minister has fallen into the trap over nuts, in view of his unhappy experience with pineapples, which rocketed in price.

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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-two Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.