§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Harold Wilson)
Last week this House gave a Second Reading to a Bill which was designed to provide stable prices and assured markers for the British farmer, as a part of the Government's national policy for providing a new deal in the field of nutrition and food production for the people of this country. Today we are debating a Report which is designed to provide the international background against which our national policy and every other country's national policy will be set. Although our Debate is set against the work of the Food and Agriculture Organisation as a whole, I intend to deal particularly with the Report of the F.A.O. Preparatory Commission on World Food Proposals.
I want to make it quite clear at the outset that this Report does nothing or, at any rate, very little to deal with the present acute world food shortage. What it does aim at doing is to ensure that the shortage of food for the ordinary people of the world will come to an end as food production increases, and not continue for 25 years, as it did after the last war. As we have said in the Report, it may seem untimely and unreal to be dealing with the problem of potential food and agricultural surpluses at a time of acute world food shortage such as exists at present. At the same time, it is certainly a fact that on world markets, as in this country, one of the most important steps that can be taken to secure the increased production of food is to give the farmers and food producers a real assurance that their increased output will not lead to the same terrible collapse of prices which brought ruin and distress on agricultural communities the whole world over in the 1920's and 1930's. Anyone who has talked during the last few weeks with the farmers of the Middle West of Canada, or with representatives from Australia and other great food producing nations, will know that even today while the need is for still more food from the exporting nations, the one thing which is dominating the minds of producers in those areas is the fear of food surpluses, the fear that after the period of shortage comes to an end, they 1987 will not be able to find a market for the greatly increased production which the war and the postwar world shortage of food have brought into being.
The House will be aware that at the special meeting on urgent food problems, which met in Washington last May, the Director-General of F.A.O was asked to prepare and submit to the next annual conference proposals for dealing with the long-term problems concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of food and other agricultural products. Sir John Boyd Orr, as is well known, therefore submitted to the annual conference that met in Copenhagen last September, his proposals for a World Food Board, proposals, I know, which are well known to Members in all quarters of the House. Sir John started from the paradox, which has puzzled the minds of ordinary people all over the world, the two simple facts, first, that between the two wars farmers and farm workers were never able to find an adequate market for the food and agricultural raw materials they could produce from the soil, and, on the other hand, the fact that 1,000,000,000 people—half the human race—even in 1938, were living at a standard of life far too low to support a decent human existence, and a large proportion of the other 1,000,000.000 were, even so, not properly fed.
Today, with the greatly increased capacity of farmers and farm workers to produce—and, in the United States alone, the capacity to produce food is now some 40 per cent. above the prewar level, with considerably smaller farm manpower, and similar figures have been achieved in Canada and other parts of the world, not least in this country—with that position today, Sir John rightly felt that only on the basis of expanding world markets, expanding the mass consumption of the ordinary peoples of the world, could this problem be solved. He, therefore, called for what he described as a world food policy based on human needs, for international measures to develop the producing powers of the co-called backward nations, and for the creation of a World Food Board, an executive trading body with power to buy and to hold stocks of the more important food commodities, to provide a world famine reserve and, to quote his words: 1988to provide funds for financing the disposal of surplus agricultural products on special terms where the need for them is most urgent, and to cooperate with other international agencies in developing agricultural production, especially in the backward areas.Those were the Boyd Orr proposals. The Copenhagen conference, representing all the member nations of F.A.O., gave unanimous approval, while not to the details of the plan, at least to the objectives which Sir John Boyd Orr had suggested, namely, to quote him again:the development, organisation, production and utilisation of basic foods to provide diets on a health standard for the people of all countries; and, secondly, the stabilisation of food and agricultural prices at levels fair to producers and consumers alike.At the same time, the Copenhagen conference established the Preparatory Commission for the examination of the Boyd Orr proposals for attaining those objectives, and also to examine any alternative schemes which might be put forward.
I feel I should spend a few minutes on the position which the British delegation took up at the meetings of this Commission. In the first place, His Majesty's Government were determined—and we on this side of the House fought the 1945 Election on this programme—that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the progressive development of agricultural production and consuming power to the highest possible levels the whole world over. We felt that an attempt to confine the food producing power of the world to the narrow channels through which it had operated between the two wars would, in the circumstances of the postwar world, not only lead to another economic breakdown, but would, in our view, be totally unacceptable to the desires and consciences of the ordinary peoples of the world. We were, therefore uncompromisingly opposed to any system which employed as a means, or which would produce as a result, the destruction of basic foodstuffs such as went on between the two wars. We were equally opposed to any attempt to maintain excessive prices by the restriction of production and the maintenance of high cost producers, such as was organised by international producers' cartels and by commodity restriction schemes in the 1930s.
The expansion of consuming power which was required meant this. First, increasing and maintaining the purchasing power of the millions of industrial workers and consumers in industrial countries who, 1989 before the war, were prevented from making their needs effective because of the harsh rationing scales which were inflicted upon them by unemployment, low wages and social insecurity. This could only be brought about on the basis of national and international measures for full employment, for higher purchasing power, for better social security benefits, and for welfare food services such as those which were expanded in this country during the war, and which have been developed since the war by my right hon. Friend. Secondly, the consuming power of the hundreds of millions in backward areas, who were living below the minimum necessary for a decent human existence, could, the British Government felt, only be expanded by a technical revolution in their methods of food production, and by industrial development to increase their purchasing power on world markets. The key is production. There is no short cut. But saying there is no short cut does not mean that nothing can be done, and a large part of the work done by the British delegation, and by the Conference as a whole, was directed to this great programme of increasing agricultural and industrial output in areas, where, today, whole families are trying to live on their own produce, scratching a bare living—and sometimes not even that—from the infertile soil, with wooden ploughs and other pitifully inadequate implements. Thirdly, we attach the greatest importance to measures designed to bring much greater stability into the price of agricultural and other primary products.
I need not remind the House of the violent fluctuations in prices which occurred between the two wars, especially in the period 1928–32, and again, in a less marked way, in 1937–38, in spite of the growth of restriction schemes, quotas and all the panoply of restrictive measures which were introduced in the 1930s. To take one or two examples. The price of wheat fell by over 50 per cent. between 1928 and 1932, sugar and butter by over 40 per cent., cotton and wool by between 60 per cent. and 70 per cent., oils and fats by about 50 per cent. More production only meant lower prices, and the Canadian epitaph was becoming more and more widely true:Here lies the body of Farmer Pete,Who starved through growing too much wheat.1990 It is not for me to attempt now to analyse the causes of these fluctuations and violent collapses of price. Such an analysis would involve examination of the problems of capitalist boom and slump in a world of unplanned agriculture, of inadequate consuming power, and also of the effects of the very worst excesses of speculation. Whatever the causes, these devastating movements of price did bring untold ruin to farmers. They brought miserably low standards for farm workers; and, through the collapse of the farmers' ability to buy goods, they had a very serious effect on our export trade, and on industry generally. Unless measures are taken to prevent these things happening again there can be no assurance for farmers anywhere; and even the domestic system which we are establishing in the Agriculture Bill will be put very severely to the test if British agriculture ever again finds itself set against the background of a world depression such as we had in 1932, and such as we were slipping into again in 1937 and 1938 if the approach of war had not headed it off.
It was not only the fall in prices at a period of world depression which caused these problems for farmers, and brought insecurity to them. In every single year there were very wide movements of prices. Some hon. Members may not be aware that in the 10 years before the war the average fluctuation in the price of wheat within any single year was over 70 per cent. around the average for that year. And the same is true of other commodities. This state of affairs obviously meant nothing but insecurity for the farmer; it was of no advantage to the consumer, and, in fact, it benefited nobody hut the speculator. In many ways, the danger today is even greater than it was in the 1930's. Potential war output when the war-devastated areas get back into production, will be much greater than before the war. The steps taken by Governments in food-producing countries all over the world to provide guaranteed prices and assured markets—or in various other ways to support the prices received by producers—will create very serious problems which can be solved only by international planning.
There is hardly a Government today which has not introduced measures of this kind. In food-exporting countries, the prices received by producers are subsidised or guaranteed, while in the food- 1991 importing countries the prices paid by consumers are often equally shielded from world prices by subsidies and other measures. The British Government have certainly no intention of saying that these measures are wrong. Indeed, on both the prices received by our British producers and the prices paid by our Bitish consumers, we have reserved the fullest freedom of action for any measures which this House will approve, now or in the more distant future. But we would have regarded our work as unrealistic to a degree if we had not taken it as a fact that such measures are being applied in every country, and will probably continue to be applied. With such a high degree of Government interference in agriculture in every country—and in this respect no Government has gone further than the Government of the United States—and with producers' and consumers' prices likely to be so fully protected from the free workings of supply and demand, the only way to keep Governments in line with one another, and to prevent a mere scramble of national self-interest—with all the measures such as dumping, unnatural export subsidies, and restrictionist methods, which would have resulted—was to secure international agreements covering as wide a field as possible of agricultural production and distribution.
The British Government's approach to this problem was one of full support to the idea of buffer stocks, such as was suggested by Sir John Boyd Orr, as a means of stabilising agricultural prices. But we departed from Sir John Boyd Orr's proposals in two respects. In one sense we go wider Simply because we felt that the buffer stocks and other measures of commodity control could have a very important effect in helping to prevent trade depression, we did not see that this policy should be limited to food and agricultural products. Obviously, a number of other commodities, such as non-ferrous metals could usefully be brought into the picture. We felt strongly that any international agency set up to supervise international commodity arrangements should go wider than F.A.O., and should be associated with any international organisation that may be instituted for the promotion of full employment policies, and the expansion of world trade. While whatever agency is set up should include representatives of F.A.O., we feel it 1992 should be associated with the proposed commodity authority to be established under the International Trade Organisation.
One other departure from the Boyd Orr proposals was on the subject of the international buffer stocks authority, which he suggested. For many reasons, we should have liked to see an international authority established, an international authority holding buffer stocks of appropriate commodities, buying whenever the market price fell below a certain level, selling whenever it rose above whatever ceiling price had been fixed in the agreement. But we felt that a number of nations would not—and we and some others certainly could not—put up the dollars and other scarce currencies, which would be required in very great quantities as the initial capital for such a scheme, not to mention the quite considerable running costs of operating it. So, while leaving the door open for the establishment of full international buffer stock schemes for one or two appropriate commodities, the British delegation put forward a scheme which hon. Members will find described on pages 31 and 32 of the Report, and summarised in paragraph 11 of the summary—a scheme for internationally controlled but nationally held buffer stocks.
The agreements to be negotiated, commodity by commodity, will, in all appropriate cases, fix a maximum and a minimum price to rule for a period of years, and within this range the market price will be free to move, but not outside it. If the price falls to floor level, then, in accordance with the agreement, producing countries will begin to buy stock and to go on buying as long as the price remains at or below the floor level. This will go on, right up to the quantities fixed by international agreement for each of them to buy. Only when they have filled up their quota will the importing countries be called upon to buy for stock, and we proposed a provision that any country faced with serious balance-of-payments difficulties, should be exempted from this obligation. Obviously, by putting the whole subject of the management of buffer stocks on a national basis we are very greatly reducing the foreign exchange problems which are involved.
With this buffer stock scheme, and with all the other weapons, such as long-term 1993 contracts, which are required for stabilising prices, it should be possible to protect both the producer and the consumer, not only against the worst excesses of speculation, but, also, against fluctuations in price resulting from exceptionally good or exceptionally bad harvests. and from the worst effects of a trade slump. His Majesty's Government believe—and the Commission accepted our view fully on this matter—that only by international planning on such a scale, and by cooperation and very great courage in operating the plans drawn up, can these problems be dealt with.
Naturally, neither buffer stocks, nor long-term contracts, nor any other measures could protect the producer indefinitely, if excessive prices were fixed in the first instance.
§ Sir Arthur Salter (Oxford University)
As the hon. Gentleman is speaking of the purposes of the nationally held reserve stocks, may I ask whether the British Government contemplated, or do now contemplate, associating themselves with one other purpose not mentioned in the paper, namely, having a reserve of imported foodstuffs in this country as part of our security arrangements? Because I think that that would greatly assist the Government in dealing with the problem of finance, if we consider it in connection with the arrangements for protecting our imported supplies. We should get a degree of security through nationally held reserves of certain kinds of food, which would be of very great value.
§ Mr. Wilson
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a lot of consideration was given to the question of holding in peacetime far greater stocks for security purposes than were ever held before the war. A lot of thought was given to this subject during the war; and certainly, we were fully aware of it at Washington; and many delegations said that they would consider it desirable, for security and other reasons, to hold much bigger stocks than they had ever held before, subject to the limit of storage capacity being available.
I turn for a moment to the question of the basic price. We are providing equal representation of producers and consumers on the commodity councils which will consider all these agreements; and that should be one safeguard to prevent the price from being fixed too high. Certainly the British Government have no in- 1994 tention of going into agreements on the basis of excessive prices from the beginning of the agreement, and certainly there is no question of maintaining indefinitely some of the prices which are ruling on some world markets today. Then again, of course, we have provided additional provisions for securing a review of the price at the end of a given period.
One of Sir John Boyd Orr's proposals with which we had a great deal of sympathy—and I know a lot of my hon. Friends on this side of the House have approached this with a great deal of sympathy—but on which we had to have some degree of caution, was his suggestion that basic foodstuffs should be made available at special low prices to those in need of them, especially in the so-called backward areas, the differences to be made up by higher prices charged to the ordinary commercial importing countries. Obviously, we had to be extremely cautious about that, because it might mean, in practice, that Great Britain would be paying higher prices than she otherwise would pay, in order to finance the so-called concessional shipments to needy countries in other parts of the globe. However sympathetic we should wish to be to such a proposal, it is a plain fact that our own foreign exchange position would not enable us to be a party to an arrangement of that kind. We proposed that special arrangements should be made within the agreement, whereby the potential surpluses of exporting countries should be linked to needs in the importing areas, especially those of low nutritional standards, and that if special low prices were agreed, any loss on the transaction should be borne by the exporting countries themselves. But with that limitation, His Majesty's Government do attach very great importance to this proposal for linking potential surpluses with the needs of the underfed in many parts of the world. This, very briefly, represented the attitude of the British delegation and of the British Government to Sir John Boyd Orr's proposals, and we lost no time in telling the other nations at the Conference exactly how we stood, and how far we were prepared to go along those lines.
The Report now is available. I am extremely sorry that hon. Members have not had as much time to study it as they 1995 would have liked. That Report sets out in much more detail than I have given, a view which we, now having got the Report, are prepared to accept and to back wholeheartedly. The whole spirit of the Report is expressed in terms of an expanding world economy, of production related to human needs, and of that "marriage of health and agriculture"—I think that that phrase was invented by my noble Friend Lord Bruce, who was chairman of the Conference—which he, and Sir John Boyd Orr, and a few other rather lonely voices, were proclaiming as necessary 10, 15 or 20 years ago. I think it is a measure of the bankruptcy of economic statesmanship in those years, that those voices went almost unheard at a time when food was being destroyed and millions of people were starving.
The Report starts from the fact that when the present world food shortage comes to an end, there is a danger of surpluses of agricultural output, and, indeed, of industrial products in many countries, unless world trade can be greatly raised far above the stagnant levels of the inter-war period, and more particularly, unless the consuming power of the backward areas of Asia, Africa and other parts of the world can be made physical output, and great improvements in their standards of agriculture. The first four chapters of this Report deal, therefore, in some detail with the technical and financial problems involved. No one has a greater respect for F.A.O., or a greater belief in the work that F.A.O. can do in this field, especially in the undeveloped regions of the world, than I have, but I emphasise that the greatest efforts in this respect must come from the undeveloped countries themselves, from their own governments and peoples, and, in the case of dependent territories, from the governments of the countries responsible for them. What is being done under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act and by the various advisory technical services for agriculture in our Colonial territories we repeatedly stressed, and, of course, the big scheme for the development of ground-nut production in East Africa, of which details have just been announced by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, is one of the most important things ever done in this field.
1996 We provided, in our examination of the problem, for the fullest degree of assistance to areas in need of development, both from other countries and from F.A.O., in such matters as the exchange of information, agricultural missions, technicians, the supply of farm equipment and fertilisers, the development and financing of small scale and large scale agriculture and irrigation projects, assistance in research, plant breeding, soil science and the many other technical fields which have made possible so great an increase in agricultural output in the more advanced farming countries. In some areas, nothing less than great projects on the model and scale of the Tennessee Valley Authority will be adequate, and this will require very considerable international assistance in drawing up plans, in financing loans, in providing technicians, such as irrigation experts, and so on. Under Sir John Boyd Orr's leadership, F.A.O. has made very considerable progress in the last 18 months, but even now difficulties in obtaining the best possible staff and manning some of the more important divisions places a limit to what the F.A.O. can do in this field. The Commission went into this very thoroughly, and we satisfied ourselves that by the time assistance is required in the backward areas for agricultural development, F.A.O. will be in a position to give it. We repeal again that F.A.O. cannot go in and clear the forest, build the dams and till the fields; that has to be done by the development countries themselves, and the most that F.A.O. can do is to help those who help themselves.
Chapter 5 of the Report, which deals with the stability of prices and measures for stabilising prices, is probably the most important section of the Report from the point of view of this country, in relation not only to farm prices, but also to the stability of industrial employment. This chapter sets out, in addition to general considerations affecting the scale of prices, a series of measures, including buffer stocks, or "price stabilisation reserves" as the United States calls it, on the lines proposed by the British delegation. It also provides a full discussion of the part to be played by quotas, long-term contracts and other devices. I need not tell the House that on these matters different nations held very different views at the beginning of the Conference. We have 1997 given every one of them a part to play in stabilising prices, and have set out the safeguards required, especially those needed to protect importing countries from the potentially dangerous effects of restrictive quotas.
On the crucial subject of sales at special prices to needy countries, a positive and imaginative approach has been worked out. This scheme provides that such shipments would only be made when conditions of surplus existed, and when the ordinary commercial importing countries, such as Britain, were guaranteed all the supplies they required at the minimum price fixed under the agreement. Subject to that, needy countries who come along with a plan worked out for making low-priced shipments available to special groups of people in urgent need of them, such as the hungry, the old, the sick, children, expectant and nursing mothers and so on, with guarantees that the food supplies will not go into the black market, and that the lower prices will not merely mean lining the pockets of middlemen on the way, will be linked up with any exporting country faced with a potential surplus and ready to ship food at prices which the importing countries can pay. Certain exporting countries have shown very keen interest in this scheme as a means of relieving their own surpluses, and the United States, in particular, have said that they are prepared to maintain in being for a period of years some of their subsidised high cost production for such an arrangement.
This scheme does provide a means of bringing world production and world needs more closely into line than if we allowed prices to run riot. I think it would be wrong to suggest that it could, of itself, ever solve the problem of raising the standard of nutrition of people in the undeveloped areas, which is too big a problem to be solved except by a major revolution of agricultural output in those areas. It can, however, provide a useful addition to their food supplies during the period of time required for building up their own agricultural output, and will be specially valuable in seeing that food gets into the mouths of the people who need it most, at the same time preventing prices from slumping that otherwise might be the case. Hon. Members will have noted that, following the suggestion made 1998 by Sir John Boyd Orr, provision is made for establishing one further important thing, and that is a world famine reserve, held nationally by individual governments, capable of being rushed at a moment's notice to any area where a famine has developed, or looks likely to be in danger of developing.
Chapter 6 deals in some detail with the problem of individual commodities, and here the Commission has outlined a scheme very similar to the one suggested by the British delegation as the basis of any international agreement on wheat. This scheme contains all the arrangements for maximum and minimum prices, for buffer stocks, for the control of quota provisions, for special price shipments and so on. This scheme is now to be considered by a special conference of the International Wheat Council, which has been summoned for next month, and we hope that it will form the basis of an international wheat agreement which may come into effect in the near future. In this connection, the Commission's work might have some short-period as well as some long-period value, because the prospect of such an agreement, not only gives producers the assurance of the security they require for maximum present output, but also raises the possibility that as soon as agreement is reached, importing nations will be able to secure their supplies at the maximum price proposed under the agreement. This would mean a price considerably below that which is being paid by Britain and in certain markets for the wheat we are at present obtaining.
§ Mr. Warbey (Luton)
Can my hon. Friend say what countries are represented on the International Wheat Council?
§ Mr. Wilson
It would take a very long time to deal with that, and I think if my hon. Friend will put a Question down to my right hon. Friend, he will be informed. Broadly speaking, however, it does include a wider range than the number of countries present on the Commission. I should say that it included the big wheat producers and importing countries, including the Argentine, which although present at the Conference, did not play a very large part in it.
The last chapter, to which I was just coming, deals with the international organisation required for the purpose of making this Report effective. In addition 1999 to providing for closer working between the existing international agencies coming under the Economic and Social Council, proposals have been drawn up for tightening up the organisation of F.A.O. itself, and especially for making the annual conference of member nations more effective, in order to bring the whole field of world agricultural and nutritional products within the scope of a great international plan. It has been proposed that each nation shall submit to the annual conference details of all its programmes for production and consumption, import and export, of all the important food and agricultural products. It will then be possible to marry up the programmes of the individual nations and see that they are properly linked together. For instance, if one country were proposing to go in for an expansion of dairy produce involving perhaps a very heavy import of feeding stuffs, it would be necessary to see that the countries producing those feeding stuffs were planning to make such amounts available. Nutritional programmes for backward areas, arrangements for making surpluses available, and international plans for developing fertiliser and machinery production would all be dealt with at this same annual review of programmes. This proposal represents, for the first time, real international planning in the field of agricultural production and consumption programmes, on the part of every country which will be a party to the agreement.
The Report goes one step further. Many of the matters which require international cooperation in this field, are too urgent to be dealt with only at annual reviews. This is especially true of the management of the world famine reserve. It is also true of any changes in programme which may be required within any individual area. Therefore, the Commission has proposed the establishment of a World Food Council, as part of the F.A.O. machinery, and this will be representative of the 18 member nations, and will include representatives from other United Nations economic agencies. The functions of the World Food Council, which hon. Members will find set out on page 65 of the Report, will be to deal with all the matters falling within the field of world food and agricultural policy, including assistance to national Governments, the co-ordination of national agricultural programmes and 2000 so on, and any emergency action which might be required to deal with famine or any other urgent crisis.
This Report, which I have very briefly summarised, represents the unanimous agreement of the 16 nations represented on the Commission, and it is free from any individual reservations or disagreements. Yet it contains sufficient concrete proposals for providing a new deal in the world food and agricultural situation, and a real hope that when the present food crisis is over, we shall go forward to something very different from what we knew before the war. The Report now lies in the hands of the various governments who are members of F.A.O. for acceptance and action. I need not say, I think, that His Majesty's Government, after the part they have played in the discussions leading to this Report, fully accept it as a basis for world food planning in the future. Before I sit down I should like to deal with one remark which has been made about it. It has been said that in these proposals, the nations represented on the Commission have combined to draw the teeth out of the Boyd Orr scheme.
§ Mr. Wilson
I notice that one of my hon. Friends seems to agree. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have taken Boyd Orr's great conception and have produced from it a practical scheme which we believe will work. In fact, far from taking the teeth out of it, we have put teeth into it, strong teeth, and teeth fitted in such a way that they are not likely to try to bite off more than they can chew. In saying that, I am sure the whole House would like me to pay the highest possible tribute to Sir John, not only for his untiring work as Director-General of F.A.O., but more particularly for the world food proposals he made last September, proposals which I think caught the imagination of the entire world, and but for which we should certainly not have had this Report in front of us today. We should like to pay tribute also to the very patient and inspiring work of my noble Friend Lord Bruce, whose chairmanship of the Commission alone made it possible to bridge the very wide gap which sometimes existed between the various nations at this Conference.
2001 I think it is an encouraging fact about postwar planning in the economic field that, under the leadership of those two, the nations represented on the Commission have been able to agree on a Report which embodies so very faithfully the same proposals that they were proclaiming in the wilderness ten years ago. We on this side of the House, and I know this view will also be held by many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite—I know the right hon. Gentleman the former Minister of State will subscribe to it—believe that the development of international co-operation on such matters as food, vitally affecting the welfare and wellbeing of the ordinary peoples of the world, do provide a most useful sphere in which the infant, or at any rate the young, United Nations organisations can develop their strength. I think it was one of the greatest acts of statesmanship of the late President Roosevelt when he summoned the nations to the Hot Springs Conference—at which the British delegation was so ably led by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law)—that he did so, not after but before the conferences were held to draw up the international machinery in the political sphere. So, while international political problems of very great importance and difficulty are being discussed at the appropriate United Nations agencies, we think the cause of international co-operation and the progressive surrender of national sovereignty in this field, will be greatly advanced by the relatively unexciting, unglamorous but highly effective developments in the economic and social fields.
All I have said this afternoon has been related entirely to the long-term future, and has not dealt with the present acute world food shortage. I think we can say, however, that grave as the present situation is, and serious as the present shortage is, there are millions of people in this country and hundreds of millions in other countries who, under the plans of this Government and under the international arrangements such as are foreshadowed in this Report, have a far brighter prospect of adequate food supplies for themselves and their families in the years ahead than they ever had in the period between the two wars. If the people are going short of food today, it is because the food cannot be obtained. Before the war, millions of people in this country were going short because of a 2002 breakdown in the economic system which should have guaranteed to them enough of the food and other things they required and which could have been produced.
Even within my own small constituency, and this is true of many others throughout the country, thousands of families on the outskirts of Liverpool and in the Lancashire coal field were living on rations then far lower than those they are getting today, and this was so at a time when farmers and market gardeners within the very same Parliamentary Division could find no market for their produce, and when farm workers in that area were being asked to live on a standard of life which was quite simply a disgrace to our civilisation. At a time when food was being destroyed, not only in other parts of the world but in Britain as well, when shiploads of fruit were being dumped into the sea off the foreshore of Formby and Southport—I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) is not here—there were children in Liverpool a few miles away, who had never even tasted an orange.
What is true of one small area such as my Parliamentary Division, was, of course, true on a wider and much graver scale in the world as a whole. It is the economic policy of the Government, and the international system that we are trying to set up by the methods suggested in this report, which provide hope, and which are designed to make it impossible for such things ever to happen again.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Law (Kensington, South)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. H. Wilson) will not take it amiss if I say how much I enjoyed listening to his straightforward, lucid and brief speech. I congratulate him on it very warmly. It was lucid, but it was reasonably objective. There were only a few moments when the hon. Gentleman seemed to take out of his pocket the document, "The Nation's Food," and wave it, to the encouragement of Government supporters, who I am afraid at this moment are in need of a very great deal of encouragement. I think that if anyone, apart from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, can be expected in these dismal times to feel a song in his heart, I heard just at the moment when the hon. Gentleman was speaking, an echo of an old 2003 song of the deep South, "Carry me back to old Virginy." The hon. Gentleman did take me back to the Hot Springs Conference, to which he referred throughout his speech, and particularly at the end of it. But I must say that if the hon. Gentleman were to say to me now, "Do you understand why this matter is so terribly urgent that it had to be discussed today, that no time could be given for discussing other problems of perhaps greater urgency?" such as the Austin motor works, housing, or whatever it might be, I should be bound to reply, "No, the workings of a Socialist providence remain as inscrutable as ever." Indeed, the hon. Gentleman went out of his way to point out that this document, which he expounded so lucidly, had nothing, or very little, to do with the immediate emergency. Of course, there is nothing surprising in that, because most of the Measures which Ministers bring forward could be described in exactly the same way.
Perhaps I am a little unfair in saying that I found it difficult to think of a reason why this should be rushed on us at this time, because since coming to the House today, and since listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech, a possible—indeed, I think the certain—reason has crossed my mind. When I crossed through Westminster Hall this morning and went by that obstruction in the middle which I imagine is another of the matters, apart from food and agriculture, which falls within the purview of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, I observed, coming up in the silence and the darkness, a number of workmen wheeling a curious object shaped like a trestle on wheels, and I saw them shuffle on to it in a very furtive manner an object which looked remarkably like a coffin. After listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I feel that the main purpose of this Debate has beep for the Government to give a burial, decent, quiet and unpretentious, to the proposals made by Sir John Boyd Orr at Copenhagen. I do not think we need necessarily pity Sir John Boyd Orr too much, because I agree with the hon. Gentleman that his proposals, as stated, were not very workable, and after all, his coffin is fairly well lined. Still, I think that the ceremony in which we have been participating has been a funeral service, and the speech to which 2004 we have listened I think can be fairly compared—I am not trying to be unduly flattering—with Mark Anthony's oration in "Julius Caesar."
§ Mr. Wilson
Perhaps I should point out that I saw Sir John Boyd Orr recently, soon after this Report was issued, and he did not show much sign of being in that state to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. In fact, he expressed himself as being highly delighted with the Report, and as far as I could see, showed no sign whatever of being in the state which the right hon. Gentleman has described.
§ Mr. Law
I am extremely gratified that he finds what I would describe as his present horizontal position as comfortable as all that, but I think there is no doubt that this plan does end the executive World Food Board which Sir John Boyd Orr proposed at the Copenhagen Conference, and I think the hon. Gentleman has "done him very proud" this afternoon. I do not think he need have any misgivings about the funeral oration. What is left of the Copenhagen proposals? What is left, as it were, sticking out of the ground? I think that the really vital part of this document, as far as I have been able to find time to analyse it among other preoccupations, is in the proposals for the buffer stock. I would like to make two comments on those proposals. In the first place, in our view the principle of a buffer stock is a sound principle. It is essential, if we can do it, to iron out these violent fluctuations in the prices of primary commodities which characterised the years before the war. It is essential to do that in the interests of the farmers and the primary producers. It is essential, certainly, to do it in the interest of our own farmers. But one has always to remember that these violent fluctuations in the prices of primary products did no good either to the industrial consumers.
There is, therefore, no conflict between the farmers, the producers, and the industrial consumers. It is in the interests of all of us, as far as we can, to iron out those fluctuations. We are in favour of the principle of the buffer stock, but I must, I think, add the qualification that a buffer stock is an extremely difficult and complicated thing to work. I doubt whether there has ever been any really successful example of one. I do not say that dog- 2005 matically, but I doubt it. The path has a lot of pitfalls in it, and I hope that the Government will watch those pitfalls very closely. I would add the further qualification that I doubt whether any buffer stock system of ironing out fluctuations will necessarily do the whole trick, and I believe that the one thing that is necessary, as well as the buffer stock, is a return to private enterprise, private trading. We all talk about these violent fluctuations in the prices of commodities before the war. I wonder whether the Minister has ever considered what is happening under State trading now? I am told that the price of linseed oil, under bulk purchase, has suddenly jumped by £65 a ton. I do not think it did that kind of thing in the days when it was left in private hands. A sensible buffer stock policy is wanted, but so is a sensible policy of private trade.
On this proposal about buffer stocks, it seems to me that the form of buffer stocks proposed at Washington and in the White Paper is extremely dangerous, because it contains the vicious principle of a differential price. I gather from the hon Gentleman that he viewed this proposal with extreme caution, but that he felt, because of the provision in the White Paper, that the cost of subsidising the indigent consumer was to be borne by the producer country and not by the commercial consumer, and that it was therefore all right. I wish I could share his optimism. I do not believe that that safeguard is worth anything at all. I believe that the proposal, as it stands, is fraught with the greatest danger to the people of this country. I think that the proposal, as it stands, will tend inevitably to reduce the rations of the people of this country, not just in an emergency, but over the long term. I do not think that our people deserve that kind of thing. They deserve something better. I suggest to the Government that they ought to look at this proposal again, and that they ought to remember that their first duty is to put the interests of the consumers of this country first. The British consumer has had, and is having, an extremely difficult and harsh time. I believe that hon. Gentlemen opposite, at any rate, the Ministers, have not the least idea of what kind of time the consumers are having. One of the great difficulties of our system of government is that Ministers come along with all these controls, rationing and so on, and do not really experience it themselves. 2006 They do not realise from firsthand experience what it all means. I appeal to the Government to look very carefully at this proposal before they embrace it.
What does this proposal of a buffer stock with a differential price mean? As I understand it—the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—it means that a minimum and a maximum price is fixed by this new Wheat Council. This country is, of course, a member of the Wheat Council and, no doubt, we shall have our say in the fixing of the price; but who will the other members of the Wheat Council be? It seems to me that, inevitably, they will be the big producers whose main interest, of course, will be to keep the minimum price as high as possible. They will also be the indigent or applicant countries, whose main interest will be also to keep the minimum price as high as possible, so that the surplus that is available for their nutritional schemes will be larger than would otherwise be the case. We may find ourselves in the position of going to this Wheat Council and being in a minority against the combined common interests of the producer countries and the indigent countries, and finding a minimum price fixed far too high. The argument in the White Paper, as I understand it, and the argument that the Minister quotes, is that it really does not matter, because the burden of the special price to the needy applicant, the undernourished country, will not be borne by the ordinary commercial consumer. It is all very well. to say that, but I cannot for the life of me see how that principle is to be made effective. If I have 100 bushels of wheat and sell 50 bushels to Mr. A, at one dollar a bushel, and 50 bushels to Mr. B, at ten cents a bushel, surely it is evident that Mr. A is paying a price which is a good deal higher than the average price.
That is much the same kind of argument as the argument we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In answer to a Question the other day about how much of our dollar expenditure was against the American credit, and how much of it was out of our own pocket, the Chancellor said words to this effect: "If I have two dollars, one of which was lent to me, and one of which is my own, and I spend from my fund of two dollars, it is impossible for me to say which part of my expenditure comes 2007 from which particular dollar." The same principle, it seems to me, applies in this case. Under this differential price, the commercial consumer is bound to pay a price that may be higher, and may be very much higher, than the average. That is the real danger in the long term, as well as in the short term to the consumers in this country. We have to remember that in this country, we have a very special position. We are a great consumer country. There is no other country like us. I ask the Government to watch very carefully before they commit themselves further to an agreement which would mean, if it means anything, that it will bind us to pay a price higher than the average price, and to police ourselves in doing so. That is the extremely dangerous position that we may be falling into.
The hon. Gentleman was good enough to remind me that I had taken a part in the Hot Springs Conference, which was one of the milestones on this road. If he will allow me to say so, the general tenor of his speech suggested that this whole conception of food and agriculture, the raising of nutritional standards, the effort to help the producers and consumers alike by getting a stable level of prices, was an invention of the party opposite. It is worth while reminding him and the House that the resolutions of the Hot Springs Conference from which all these matters stem were approved, not by a Socialist Government, but by a Coalition Government, and that the three Ministers mainly concerned, the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Food, and myself while I was connected with the matter, were members of the Conservative Party. It is worth while reminding ourselves that the party opposite has, by no means, any monopoly in these matters.
§ Mrs. Manning
That is not exactly what was said. What was really said was that long before the Hot Springs Conference, members of this party were advocating exactly the same principle.
§ Mr. Law
The hon. Lady may possibly be right. It would only be another example of what, I fear, is a permanent and profound truth in the politics of this country, that the party opposite does a lot of talking, but it takes this party to get things done. We, just as much as the party opposite, have a desire to raise 2008 the standards of nutrition, and we have a desire to help the producer of raw materials, whether in this country or anywhere else. But I very much doubt whether these proposals, apart from the injury they do us, will do much to help under-nourished countries. The idea behind them seems to be that if you pump food in sufficient quantities into India, China, or Burma, or wherever it may be, the standard of life of those countries will, necessarily and inevitably, rise. Of course, that does not happen. In a Debate in another place recently the noble Lord who replied for the Government was very surprised when Lord Cherwell drew attention to the fact that the only effect of pumping food into those countries was not to raise the standard of life, but to increase the population, so that the standard of life remained exactly the same. That has been true in our experience, and is certainly true of Porto Rico.
Mr. Richard Adams (Balham and Tooting)
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Report stresses the need for encouraging industrial development, so that the populations of the under-nourisehd countries will be able to pay for their food?
§ Mr. Law
I cannot claim to have read every word of the Report, as it came to me at rather short notice, but I have done my best, and I was just coming to that point. The real way of advancing the standards of life in those under-nourished countries is not to pump food into them, but to give them technical development, to revolutionise, as I think the Minister said, their methods of agriculture and build up the whole thing gradually. My objection to the proposals is that they do not do that. The buffer stock proposal seems to be based on the conception that, if you make food available to any of those underdeveloped countries, their standards of life will automatically rise. I do not believe that will happen, and, therefore, I say that this proposal for a buffer stock, with the differential price, ought to be scrutinised very carefully before the Government undertake any further commitment in this connection. I believe it is extremely dangerous to the interests of our people, that it will tend to reduce still further our standards, and will do it without even fulfilling the object of raising the standards of the undernourished countries.
2009 I agree with the Minister, and the party opposite, that the conception of the marriage of nutrition and production is a very good one from the social, moral, and economic points of view. Unless we succeed in making that marriage, we shall find it difficult to get the expanding economy that we all want. All of us want to see an expanding world economy. I believe that the Food and Agriculture Organisatipn can do a great deal towards that, but I must say that I believe that if it is too ambitious, if it has too many teeth, there is a great danger that not only will the teeth fall out, but that the whole Organisation will be thrown into discredit.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Durbin (Edmonton)
I am very sorry to have to introduce a slightly discordant note into the Debate from this side of the House. But as I understand these schemes, there is a difficult point which has been touched on by the right hon. Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law) and about which we must press for some explanation. I read the statement made to the Press by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, and I have read the documents and listened to his able and lucid explanation today. Yet I feel that a little obscurity still cloaks the question of what precisely is to be the method by which these charitable sales to backward parts of the earth are to be financed. Here, I think we must look to the parentage of these various ideas. A great deal was said by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works about our debt in these matters to Sir John Boyd Orr. But I am sure he would agree with me that there is also a debt in this field, due to the late Lord Keynes, and that he himself was following Lord Keynes' analysis in referring to the fantastic fluctuation of the prices of primary materials that took place between the wars, and to the idea of buffer stocks, by which he hoped these wild price changes could be avoided.
There is, however, one essential difference between the original buffer stock proposals and those contained in this report. The buffer stock proposals were based on the idea that if you had maximum and minimum prices and a large stock, it would be possible to sell from that stock as the price approached the ceiling, while the stock could be built up 2010 as the price approaches the floor. All this was subject to the general condition that if the stock became sufficiently large and if there were a persistent surplus of output of any particular commodity, the bottom and floor price should be lowered. The purpose of the buffer stock schemes was to avoid the fluctuations primarily due to the trade cycle. For any longer time, the downward trends in the cost of food production were to be enjoyed by all consumers by lowering the minimum price. It seems to me that there is a great danger that this second and essential provision will disappear under these proposals for subsidised sales to poor peoples. Take wheat as an example. Before the war there was, broadly speaking, an adequate supply of starchy foods throughout the world. There was a permanent wheat surplus which was not required for nutritional purposes, since diets were deficient in quite different foods. Now we are sowing very large areas, and it is certain that in a few years there will be another permanent wheat surplus.
As I understand this scheme, there will come a point at which large withdrawals will be made from these accumulated buffer stocks and these will be sold to the relatively poor people at relatively low prices. Now it is not the producers but the consumers who are really paying the cost for if these stocks were not sold at lower prices the basic price of the commodity—wheat in the particular case I have mentioned—would decline throughout the world. It is this fall that is being sacrificed under this kind of scheme, if I understand the various statements which the Parliamentary Secretary has made.
I am sure that we, on this side of the House, welcome this broad, generous and far-sighted attempt to organise the food supplies of the world and to distribute them wisely and in orderly fashion. I think that most of us feel that it is perfectly proper to ask the richer countries of the world to make some contribution to raising the standards of nutrition of the poorer peoples. These are ideas which are natural to us, and we can subscribe to them without question. But I think this scheme is a curious way of bringing about that end. I think it odd that we should be asked to pay more for our wheat than is necessary or justified by the levels of cost in the exporting countries, while the producing countries 2011 distribute the wheat as though out of their own charity. I think that there are no hon. Members in this House, who are keener on good relations with our friends in the United States than I am, but I really do not see why we should pay for the Americans charity. I do not see why we should finance the generosity which they may feel towards the various groups of poorer people throughout the world.
I am all in favour of our playing our proper and full part in raising the standard of nutrition of the poorer peoples, but I do not like the scale of these contributions, their indefinite nature, or their anonymity. If we are to make an attempt to raise the standard of living of our poorer people—the black people of our own Empire—let us do it openly and fairly, bearing the full cost and accepting full responsibility. Our balance of payments in the years to come will not be so strong that we can afford to pay this hidden subsidy in the excessive prices which we may be called upon to pay for the basic foodstuffs which we import.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, Northern)
I do not think that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Durbin) really accepts the basic idea of Hot Springs or of this Commission. The hon. Member says that he does not see why the wheat producer of the United States should, before the war—if I understand him rightly—have got any more for his wheat than he was already getting.
§ Mr. Durbin
If the hon. Member will forgive me, there was no suggestion in the proposals for a buffer stock that the prices would be stabilised at the lowest level, but that the price should cover the full long period costs.
§ Mr. Roberts
As I understood the hon. Member's speech, he objected to the stabilisation of the price of wheat, in particular, by the method of buffer stocks, because it would maintain the price of wheat for the primary producer above what it would have been otherwise.
§ Mr. Roberts
Then I have misunderstood the hon. Member, and I am glad that I have, because I think that the fundamental thing about these new ideas—and they are new— 2012 which have arisen and become popular since Hot Springs is that we have to do two things simultaneously. We have to pay the minimum in price to the primary producer—the agricultural producer, who, if left to himself, always gets the worst end of the bargain with the well-organised industrial producer—and we have to encourage production of agricultural produce in order to meet the world need for more food. I think that the Minister of Food shook his head when the hon. Member said that there were sufficient cereals before the war. There were certainly sufficient cereals to meet the purchasing power available, but anyone who reads this Report will find that the figures show that on nutritional grounds there is still an enormous need for increased cereal production.
§ Sir A. Salter
In the long run it is possible to mechanise the human arm for production more than one can inflate the human stomach for consumption. That is the basic factor which makes one think that over a long period we may reduce considerably the cost of production.
§ Mr. Roberts
I am not sure that I understand that argument. I thought that the right hon. Member was going to say that it would be possible eventually to have over production of food because you cannot mechanise the human stomach, but he ended his remarks by saying, as I understood him—no, I am sorry I did not get his point clearly.
Is it wrong theoretically to get over production even on a basis of human need? We have a long way to go before we can reach that point. The figures given in this Report show that if we increase production by 90 per cent. by the year 1960, we shall still have only met the human need. The whole problem is whether we can step up not the human need only, but the actual effective demand for foodstuffs to meet that increased production. if it is possible to get it. Personally, I do not think that it is possible, but we should get whatever increased production we can. As I read this Report in the watches of a rather sleepness night I become increasingly enthusiastic about the possibilities outlined in it. It does not seem to me to be, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, a dull subject It seems to me to be a magnificent and fascinating subject that the Governments of the world may really 2013 settle down—instead of wrangling over political issues or shuddering under the possibilities of atomic war—to this fundamental problem of solving the balance between production and consumption in connection with this fundamental first need of humanity, namely, food. The economists know more in theory, but how can it be done? I believe that with good will it could be done. Whether the work that has been decided recently by the Commission can also be done is another question, to which I should like to come in a moment.
It seems to me that while this is a glorious opportunity of ending the state of things which happened between the wars, there is also the practical possibility that we may go in exactly the opposite direction and find ourselves, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, in an even worse position than we were after the last war. I heard the dismal item of news on the wireless that America is already dumping potatoes. There is the beginning, and we certainly can go either way if, out of the present farming conditions, production is increased till there is a glut and purchasing power falls and prices slump. In those circumstances we might be back to what was the situation in 1929 much faster this time than was the case after the last war. There is a terrible danger that that might happen.
I do not think that the proposals from the Opposition Front Bench hold out any greater hope of fighting that disastrous situation than anything the Parliamentary Secretary said, nor do I think that their record between the wars justifies very much more confidence in the Conservative Party. Sir John Boyd Orr's proposals are really different in a vital aspect from what has been recommended by the British Government and adopted. His proposals, as I understand them, were for a World Food Board with executive power and with money behind it. What, in fact, we have got out of these proposals is an advisory body which is going to meet twice a year instead of once a year, and keep the position constantly under review by ascertaining the facts of the world position and then giving advice to Governments about their individual supplies either in producing or consuming countries. It is not going to have control over buffer stocks. They may be a good thing or they may be a bad thing and they may be open to 2014 danger, but the World Food Council is only going to advise and will have no power. That is a position which is fraught with danger. It may be that not only the British Government, but the American Government did not want a greater international organisation. It may very well be that Sir John Boyd Orr is delighted that he has got so far, but that which he has got does not prove that the recommendations of this Report are enough to prevent the sort of conditions arising in the international food trade which happened after the last war.
The body of opinion which has been built up by the specialists to study this matter was expressed originally at Hot Springs and developed a good deal further. It has provided a way out which is new to all political parties in this country. It is not the free trade solution of the old Liberals, but it is a modern statement in that it is right that there should be more international trade, increasingly expansionist in policy, practised by Governments rather than a restrictionist policy. In that sense it has derived something from the party. It is not a Conservative policy in that it is not protectionist nor restrictionist. It does provide one Conservative principle; it provides for security in a new way for the home producer of this country. I do not think that what is recommended could be claimed as a Socialist policy which could be foreseen by Socialists, at any rate, before the war. It is not necessarily a policy of import boards, nor is it necessarily a policy of nationalisation which must be followed. It does help to foster great vistas of development in food production all over the world.
In those countries in the lower categories where the standard of food falls below what is needed for health, it is suggested that some 100 million people should be taken out of agriculture in those countries and put into industry. That is a man-size programme for an international organisation to tackle. I think it is probably the right one, but it will not be achieved unless one other thing is also done. This is emphasised by the Priority Commission, but it is not likely to be emphasised by the Conservative Party. I do not know whether it would even commend itself to the Labour Party. The suggestion is that that sort of policy will 2015 never have much force unless the international trading association is properly developed and effectively put into action, because while we may increase the production of agricultural food stocks through F.A.O., and while we may raise the standard of the efficiency of agriculturists all over the world by the advice and technical knowledge which F.A.O. can contribute, we will not raise the standard of living of the industrialists and of the displaced persons who are not any longer wanted unless the agricultural countries can be industrialised, and also, we can increase international trade in goods as well as in agricultural products.
That raises the question of whether, if the agricultural countries are industrialised, it is going to penalise our export trade. That is a very general belief, but I do not believe that the evidence available shows that it is correct. Some of our best customers are the most highly industrialised countries and the low standard countries are the worst customers of Britain. I do not want to take up time any longer, but I do think that we must look at the question of whether the machinery is adequate for the great purposes set out in the Commission's Report. It may be that in reply the Minister of Food will suggest to the House more reasons why the machinery is adequate. but if, in his heart of hearts, he believes that it is not adequate would it not be better to say so now and let us be warned of the fact? Perhaps, in the circumstances of international affairs as they are at the present time, the British Government could not have persuaded A.F.O. to agree to any more. If that is the case, then let us know. If the Americans did not want to go further, then let us know that.
When the American loan runs out the British Government will be feeling a good deal poorer than they do today, and will have to look much more closely at every penny and every dollar they spend on food. It may impose upon the British Government then a short sighted policy of buying on the very cheapest market, whether or not that drives our customers' purchasing power down and wrecks the international organisation which we are trying to set up. If it was purely on the question of capitalisation that the British Government decided not to support the full suggestions of Sir John Boyd Orr—although I am not in a position to say if 2016 that was the sole reason—we ought to be told. If this idea of international cooperation to raise the standard of living of the primary producers of the world, and of a grand interchange of agricultural products between countries, has been only a wartime fancy and a dream, I think we ought to know. I do not think myself that it need be a dream. I think it can be made practical, but I am not convinced that the organisation set up here can make it so.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)
I do not much like to intervene in this Debate because I have not had time to study the papers, and I should like to begin by registering a serious protest. I came to the House on Monday morning, asked for the summary of the Report and went into the "Noes" Lobby for five minutes to read it. I could see, however, that it was not a fair summary of the main document and that information had been left out of it which it was important to know. I returned to the Vote Office and asked for the main Report, but was told that they did not know when it would be ready. I had to go out of London yesterday and the result was that only last night was I able to study the full Report, when it at once became clear that the summary was quite inadequate. His Majesty's Ministers should not do these things. In my view we are sent to the House to make a good job of our work, and it is not possible to do so if such a Report comes into our hands only 48 hours before the Debate takes place.
This is a curious Paper because it appears to me to be a mixture of very fine ideals and extraordinarily low vested interests I do not know whether all life is not that same mixture, but it is disconcerting to find it in a Paper of this kind, so baldly stated in the different paragraphs. First of all there is the great aim of raising the nutritional standard of the whole world. We all subscribe to that and would like to find the most appropriate methods by which to achieve it. The Report starts off by saying that we should foster schemes of raising agricultural production in the backward territories, manifestly in order that the people there may feed better. It then goes on to say that in the more advanced agricultural countries there are to be surpluses. The voice of the producer is 2017 then heard. He comes along and says, "I must have somewhere where I can dump my surpluses," and so the Report says that the surpluses shall be dumped in the very same countries where, in the first section, it is proposed to increase agricultural production. I should like to know what sense that makes, and how the people in the countries that are being encouraged to grow more will in fact be stimulated when cheap food is coming in at the same time.
§ Mrs. Manning
Would the hon. Gentleman explain himself a little further because although, like him, I have had very little time in which to digest this Report, I was nevertheless under the impression that this was to be in the intervening period during which we-expected them to increase their production? The increase would not be effected immediately and the surpluses were to be sent in meanwhile.
§ Mr. Eccles
I hope that the hon. Lady is correct, but my reading of the Report is that the existing producers, to whom I will refer again later, knowing that agriculture had been very greatly expanded in wartime, were afraid of what might happen to their markets if at the same time Sir John Boyd Orr and his friends were expanding the production of food in backward countries. Accordingly, their political friends come along and say, "Let us have an international organisation with international money"—subscribed, in the first instance but, as I agree with the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Durbin), not entirely, by the producing countries—"so that we may dump this surplus food." I will come back to that point in a moment. The hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) said he had had a sleepless night. As a matter of fact I fell asleep reading the Report and then, I may honestly say, I dreamed I talked with the Minister who opened the Debate. After a little, I found I was using accents and phrases that seemed unusual, and he the same. I realised that we were both talking American and I was congratulating him on pleasing his constituents in Detroit with very large orders for agricultural machinery and then, later on, congratulating him again upon providing for the surpluses of his farming constituents in the Middle West. I woke up shivering and, luckily, an Englishman.
2018 What is the interest of the United Kingdom in this matter? We are poor and we must have foreign exchange; we are exporters of manufactures, and it is clear that we must sell them at competitive prices or we shall starve. All this has been admirably phrased in the White Paper on manpower—I forget the long title—that was published last week. Against that background what are the main objectives of the United Kingdom in regard to our own food supply? I believe them to be three, and I do not think that any hon. Member will contradict them. They are: firstly, to grow as much food as we can at home at reasonable prices in order to save foreign exchange. Every hon. Member used that argument in the Debate on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. Secondly, to import the balance of food that we do not grow at home as cheaply as we can, and not to pay more than world prices unless we obtain some special advantage in return. Thirdly, to see that primary producers the world over are not beggared by gluts and, in particular, to be in a position to take care of the primary producer in the British Commonwealth and Empire.
This paper, as I read it, gives no guarantee—and of course it cannot—to the British farmer, but it throws into strong relief the need for a guarantee in the home market. We did not get that guarantee in the Agriculture Bill, and, secondly, it makes objectives two and three unobtainable as I hope to show. Take first the production of food at home. It is very lucky for the Minister of Agriculture that this Report was not published before the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. It is quite likely that my hon. Friends would have divided against the Bill if they had had in their hands a Report which prophesied such enormous surpluses of main crops of the type indicated here—wheat, livestock products, dried milk, eggs and bacon. If there are gluts of eggs and bacon, there is a glut of feeding-stuffs somewhere. If we had known that the British Government were going to put their name to a Report forecasting these surpluses, we should have insisted on a guarantee of a proportion of the home market to be filled by the British farmer. This is not a matter of trying to put more money into the pockets of the British farmers.
2019 Our wartime experience shows that we raised the output of food in this country by 70 per cent. measured in calories, farming approximately the same acreage as before the war—the military took a good deal of land out of cultivation but other land was brought in—and with approximately the same labour force—if one is willing to equate one land girl and one prisoner of war as equal to one prewar farm worker. Of course, patriotism and the willingness of all the workers on the land was a great factor, but nobody would deny that the thing which really did it was the guarantee to take everything which the farmer produced, thus removing the gamble of the market from this very chancey industry. When we are told that quite soon there will be big surpluses in the world in some of the commodities mentioned here, we ought surely to have had a guarantee in relation to the home market accompanying the Agriculture Bill.
Secondly, we ought to import the balance of our food—that is the proportion for which the home farmer has not got a guarantee—as cheaply as we can. Here the Minister of Food agrees. On 11th December, he said in the House that it was his policy to buy food as cheaply as he could in the world market. However, that interest in securing the people's food cheaply is sacrificed by the proposals in this White Paper, as pointed out by the right hon. Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law) and also by the hon. Member for Edmonton in his very able speech. It comes about in this way. The exportable surplus of foodstuffs is to be divided into two categories. The first category is to be sold through the normal trade channels at prices which the well-to-do buyer is asked to fix in advance. The second, the surplus over and above that sold through trade channels, is to be dumped through this scheme for assisting the diets of people in the undernourished countries. I have every sympathy with assisting the diet of the worst fed people in the world, but it is not true to say that the price which we shall pay through the commercial channels will not be influenced by these overhanging surpluses which are dumped elsewhere.
I would refer the House to what the White Paper says on this, because it is 2020 ingenuous and not worthy of a British delegation to be taken in in this way:… the cost to the exporter of providing supplies at special prices must not be recovered by transferring any part of the burden to the price of commercial exports.The next paragraph reads:For a system of special disposal programmes to operate, an essential requirement is that the commercial market be effectively separated from the special price market.That sounds splendid, and it is a most desirable objective, but it cannot be done under the proposals in the White Paper. It is quite certain that if the Minister will ask any of his friends who make contracts for him in foreign countries he will find that a producer puts all his overheads on his main contract. That is the normal thing to do. If someone says that he will take 60 or 70 per cent. of the output, the producer tries to cover all his overheads on that contract so that these charges will be met at the end of the year whatever happens, and he can then sell any surplus as and where he can. The result is that the person who buys through the bulk contract in the long run loses, as we are losing on lead which is now being invoiced from Australia at about £70 per ton. The Australians are selling the surplus to their manufacturers round about £17 10s. per ton. That is what happens when one divides a market into a commercial section and a section which is to be dumped. We may well find in the long run that we have made a bad bargain over the prices we are paying for Canadian wheat.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
How can the hon. Gentleman argue simultaneously that the British farmer is in danger of being impoverished by a flood of imports at low prices, and that the United Kingdom is in danger of being injured by the high prices we have to pay here?
§ Mr. Eccles
That intervention shows that the hon. Gentleman knows nothing whatever about agricultural policy. What I said, and if he had listened he would have heard, was that the British farmer should have a reserved proportion of the home market. He should get a guarantee of price for all the various commodities in the First Schedule to the Agriculture Bill. After that arrangement has been made, we should import the rest of our food as cheaply as can be done.
§ Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)
Does the hon. Member suggest that the British farmer should be guaranteed for certain or most of his commodity prices which are above the economic world prices?
§ Mr. Eccles
It is very hard to answer that question, for this reason. What matters is not only the price the farmer gets, but the volume of supply which that price calls forth. That is the really important thing. One could have a high price one year and a low price the next, but if the average price had been guaranteed over the two years for all that the farmer produced, a larger production would have been called forth.
What is behind this business of dumping? If the House will look at page 35, paragraph 37, of the Report, they will find some remarks about wheat:In the case of wheat, for instance, the delegations of three exporting countries, the U.S.A. Canada and Australia, have stated that their farms are now equipped and organized to produce wheat efficiently at the current level of output. Some of these countries under their agricultural policies, may have to incur expense if they have to restrict plantings or divert land to other use.What does that mean in simple language? It means that the delegations of the producing countries said to the Conference, "During the war we have greatly expanded our agriculture to provide food to help people in the United Kingdom. Now, for political reasons, we do not intend or cannot restrict our production again. Will you, therefore, kindly agree to a system by which we can dump these surpluses?" Well, we did something in the war. We expanded greatly our aircraft industry, we expanded greatly our engineering industry. Are we to suppose that the United States Government will allow us to dump extra aircraft or extra engineering products all over the world through some international organisation?
§ Mr. Eccles
They need a great many engineering products. The fact is, however, that this Government give everything away with regard to what we buy and leave themselves completely unprotected with regard to what we sell.
§ Mr. Warbey
Does the hon. Gentleman deny that there is no conceivable surplus 2022 of food production in relation to actual human need through the world?
§ Mr. Eccles
I do not deny for a moment that there may well be surpluses. What I am saying is that the method by which the world deals with those surpluses should not be one whereby the people of the United Kingdom are asked to pay more than their share, and that is what will happen under these proposals.
§ Mr. Eccles
What I mean by a surplus is a volume of production which cannot be sold without some Government intervening and giving a subsidy, or arranging some non-commercial transaction for its disposal. The Minister, in introducing the Debate, said that our foreign exchange position does not permit us to subsidise cheap food going to other countries. I have dealt with that already, but I would draw the attention of the House to the kind of surpluses which are forecast. They are wheat, rice, dried vegetables, dried milk, eggs and pig meat. Does not the British housewife deserve to get some of these surpluses? If there are any about, we ought to give her as large a share of them as anybody else, but under the scheme here we are debarred from doing so.
§ The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)
I know the hon. Member has not had time to study the Report fully, but it is perfectly clear that if we like to put in a request for them, we are fully entitled to claim them at the special rates for surpluses.
§ Mr. Eccles
If His Majesty's Government are placing themselves at the head of the queue of distressed countries—well, all right—
§ Mr. Eccles
I accept that. I should be willing to see that happen, but I do not like the method by which we are to get our food at the average price. If it is true, as it says in this Report, that there will be a glut of eggs and pig meat, it means that somewhere in the world there will be a glut of feeding stuffs. What we want are the feeding stuffs here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We 2023 do not want dumped eggs and pig meat, and I do not think His Majesty's Government should put their name to a scheme under which apparently we are to get eggs and pig meat by charitable means, as the Minister has just said, through the special price arrangement. I want to see the feeding stuffs come here, and I want to see our own farmers produce the eggs and bacon.
My third point was that it was one of our objectives to see that primary producers are not beggared by a glut. Everything in the proposals regarding this point is weighted against the United Kingdom as the buyer and in favour of the producer. Paragraph 30 on page 46 says:Before the war, U.K. took 80 per cent. of total world meat exports. 80 per cent. of the butter entering into world trade, 53 per cent. of the heese and 80 per cent. of the eggs.Anybody reading that paragraph would imagine that we were in an extraordinarily strong position to bargain, since we were the main buyers of those foodstuffs but, turning to paragraph 35, we find a list of recommendations aimed at the United Kingdom, and clearly at nobody else, to make it difficult for us to get those foodstuffs which I have just read out, under contracts of the kind which might give special favour to some producers in the Empire. The first recommendation is:That contracts be negotiated within the framework of international trade policy and multilateral commodity arrangements;That is a pious expression which does not mean much. The second is:That there should be some limitation on the proportion of a producing country's exportable surplus that an importing country may contract;That means we could not make a bargain for the whole of the bananas from Jamaica or for the whole of the butter from, say, New Zealand, or wool from Australia—that is ruled out.
§ Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)
Is not that implicit in the terms of the American Loan Agreement? In fact, it is an undertaking we have given, and the hon. Member voted for the American Loan.
§ Mr. Eccles
At the end of my speech I will discuss multilateral trade and give the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) another chance to intervene. We are forbidden here to make a contract 2024 with any of our Colonies for the whole of any crop which they may produce; in other words, His Majesty's Government have put themselves in a position where they cannot extend the guaranteed market that we are giving our own farmers today to agricultural producers of commodities in tropical climes which we could not produce here. Recommendation (c) says:That when economic conditions have become more normal, the price at which products are sold under contracts having the same terms shall be the same to all countries, unless with the approval of the appropriate international authority price concessions are admitted in particular instances;If, therefore, we want to give a halfpenny more per lb. for anything we buy from any part of the Empire, we must go cap in hand to an international organisation to get their permission. Reservation (d) says:That importers shall not build up large stocks for the purpose of depressing prices;That is one of the most childish reservations I have ever heard. The Minister admitted that we have to hold much bigger stocks in this country. Has anybody ever heard of a stock that did not have an effect upon the current price of the article? Of course it does. I really believe Ministers have never done any trading in their lives. Finally, recommendation (e) says:That long-term contracts should include a clause providing that the terms and conditions shall be subject to review and adjustment at stated times.It does not say who is to review or adjust these contracts between ourselves and, say, Australia. Presumably that is also to be done by an international body. In my opinion, that will make very difficult the fixing up of sensible bargains to get certain tropical foodstuffs and raw materials, which we cannot grow or produce in this country.
I come to the general point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen. I am in favour of multilateral trade all round for the reasons I stated in the Debate on the American Loan. I would vote again for the Loan if it came up. I see no other way of expanding world trade sufficiently to allow us to earn a slice equal to a 75 per cent. increase in our prewar exports. I do not see a total volume of world trade large enough for us to be able to import what we need to maintain our standard of life, unless the whole of world trade is fertilised by 2025 American dollars, while we are in this difficult position. For this trade must be on an expansionist basis throughout the world. Are we going to apply Command Paper 6709—that is the commercial paper attached to the American Loan—to everything we sell from this country, divesting ourselves of all possible quota and tariff weapons in regard to what our manufacturers produce, and then at the same time apply this document. Command Paper 7031, to everything we buy? In other words, we are not to bargain with what we sell, but to be bargained against with everything we buy. That is not multilateral trading at all. It is the worst of both worlds.
I hope the House noted a very significant remark that fell from the Minister. He said, "What goes for food, will shortly go for raw materials." He cited non-ferrous metals. If not only food, but raw materials, are to be subject to restrictions and controls on our liberty to buy where we want, I do not see how the standard of life in this country can be maintained. We shall have to sell everything with no power to tie it up to what we want in return. Yet what we want to buy we must buy at more than the world price and subscribe to this most peculiar system of production divided into commercial supplies for us and surplus supplies for some backward country. It makes nonsense of commercial policy and after all commercial policy is half foreign policy. This House is always being asked to debate great principles of commercial trade at about two days' notice. We ought to give these things much more consideration.
§ Mr. Boothby
My hon. Friend has just delivered one of the most damaging attacks against every single condition underlying the American Loan to which I have ever listened, and I welcome his conversion.
§ Mr. Eccles
I welcome any crumb that falls from any quarter but I think my hon. Friend may find there are certain differences here from anything that was before the House at the time of the American Loan discussions. I regard this paper as a sell-out to the United States Government. I wish I had not to say it. It 2026 is not because I do not want to do everything possible to raise the nutritional standard of every under-nourished person in the world, of whatever race or colour, but to do it under an international system, whereby the United Kingdom in our poverty stricken condition is asked to pay far more than its share, is simply not right and we ought not to let this pass. I congratulate the Minister on earning a good post in the United States Administration. This is a system which provides the American farm bloc with an outlet they would not otherwise have. We are to pay full market price. I dislike more than I can say seeing His Majesty's Government welcome the Report of the Commission when we know the British delegation cannot have put British interests forward with that tenacity and understanding which we expect from any British Government.
§ 6.36 p.m.
Mr. Richard Adams (Balham and Tooting)
We have learned always to expect a capable and interesting speech from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles), if only because of his semiofficial position in the party opposite. I think that on this occasion he was somewhat insular and laissez-faire in what he had to say although he made some points with which I agree. I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works on a very sound and capable speech. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law) described it as a funeral oration, but I think the right hon. Gentleman substantiated that remark only in being more than funereal himself. We have not had a great deal of time to study this White Paper carefully; we can only make general observations on it and must wait until a later occasion to go into details. I think this document is remarkable in as much as in this present period of extreme world shortage it is able to lay down that what is the main problem of the F.A.O. in the future, is the need of increased consumption in order to take up increased production. One might very well have expected it to have announced the need for increased production, but, as the White Paper mentioned, in North America, as a result of the war, agricultural production has been stepped up by 30 per cent., as compared with 10 per cent. in the first world war.
2027 The White Paper also makes the remarkable statement that as late as 1937 half the people in the world were undernourished judged by a nutritional standard as laid down in the White Paper. It is perfectly apparent that the problem in the future will be how to extend consumption throughout the world to meet the potential production which has already been created as a result of the two great wars. Although some of us may have differing views on the differential prices to be charged for the supply to those in need of nutritional improvement, we must all agree that the problem does exist. I think the White Paper is remarkable, and will command the support of hon. Members on this side of the House, because it calls for that degree of planning and international cooperation we have long advocated, even though, as one hon. Member said, we were then voices crying in the wilderness.
The recommendations are also remarkable because they mark the end of the old laissez-faire economics. If we study the recommendations, we are bound to appreciate that the old laws of supply and demand under which either the supply and demand create the price, or, alternatively, the price fixes the supply coming forward, are old fashioned economics which are going by the board. Under the proposals of agreed stabilised prices laid down, we are in effect undertaking at an agreed price to take whatever supply is forthcoming, and to put that part of the supply we do not need for our immediate requirements on one side to act as buffer stocks for the future. Arrangements of that sort must inevitably interfere with the old-fashioned laws of supply and of demand. It is perfectly apparent, too, that under a system of Government quotas and Government subsidies the final selling price nowadays of essential foodstuffs bears no relation to their original purchase price. We shall have to re-write the economic laws in the future.
I wish now to turn to the position at home. The right hon. Member for South Kensington made one or two references to it, but I think he felt that he was skating on thin ice, and so he sheered off again. He said he thought that the Government were in need of support from the back-benchers, and he also tried to assure us that the consumer in this country, at 2028 the present, was having a very harsh time. It was because the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition hinted some days ago that the party opposite might like to take the opportunity of this Debate to expose the position at home that I took the trouble last night to look up some rather interesting figures in the Monthly Statistical Digest. I would like to run briefly through some of them, because they will show that, far from the consumer having, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, a harsh time, conditions are, in fact, equal and in some cases better than we were enjoying before the war. Take, first, the position as regards the meat supply. The general impression created by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite is that there is an extreme shortage of meat in this country. I agree with them that, owing to world shortage, there is not the supply of fresh meat which there was before the war. But if we take the figures of meat consumed in this country in the years 1934 to 1938, it will be found that the average weekly consumption of meat in the form of fresh meat, corned beef and canned meat, came to 41.83 thousand tons, whereas in 1946 the figures were 38.89 thousand tons.
If hon. Members opposite will take the trouble to work that out in terms of consumption per head of the population they will find that it comes to a difference of some two ounces less per head of the population per week. So much for the extreme meat shortage. When we examine the figures for fish, we find that we were actually consuming 1⅓ lb. extra per week per head of the population last year as compared with the prewar average. Thus, taking meat and fish together, the population of this country are actually consuming more than they did in the so-called years of prosperity before the war.
I will now refer to milk. Since, perhaps, some hon. Members opposite may not have studied the figures, they may be surprised to know that the liquid sales of milk in 1939 were 72 million gallons per month, whereas last year they were 108.9 million gallons per month. In other words, there was a 50 per cent. increase in the consumption of milk in this country last year as compared with the prosperous years before the war.
2029 Again, there is a great outcry from Members of the party opposite about the supply of fats. Let us have a look at that. It is true that there is not so much butter about as there was before the war, because of the well-known shortage of animals as a result of the war, but, if we take the figures for butter and margarine together for the years 1934–38, we find that the weekly consumption was 13.17 thousand tons, whereas in 1946 it was 10.85 thousand tons. If one takes the trouble to work it out on a per capita basis it means there was less than 2 oz. per week per person less last year than in the prosperous years before the war.
I was coming to lard; it is the next one on the list. The consumption of lard and cooking fats in the years 1934–38 was 3.77 thousand tons per week. Last year it was 3.37 thousand tons per week, which means a difference of less than one-third of an ounce per person per week last year compared with those exotic days before the war. In cheese there was a considerable increase in the consumption last year compared with that in the years 1934–38. We consumed more dried fruit last year than in the wonderful days before the war. The consumption figures for the years 1934–38 were 3.29 thousand tons per week, and last year 3.55 thousand tons per week.
We consumed potatoes last year at nearly twice the rate at which we consumed them before the war. I now turn to the figures for jam and marmalade, and since it was the practice of the party opposite to promise "Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today," I am sure they will be interested in these figures, if they can be interested in any improvements. The average weekly consumption in the years 1934–38 was 4.08 thousand tons per week, and in 1946 it was 5.48 thousand tons per week. In other words, this country last year was consuming every week nearly 1½ thousand tons of jam and marmalade in excess of what was available in the days before the war.
Let me refer finally to the difficult question of tea, about which there has been so much complaint from the other side of the House in an effort to stir up the housewife to revolt against the rationing system. The position as regards tea is very illuminating. 2030 The average weekly consumption in 1934–38 was 4.37 thousand tons per week, whereas in 1946 the weekly average was 3.96 thousand tons. In other words there were some 410 tons of tea less available each week last year than in the years before the war. Any hon. Member opposite who cares to work out those figures on a per capita basis will find that the difference is less than one-third of an ounce per person per week. The difference last year was only a few spoonfuls of tea per week as compared with those wonderful days before the war. But we consumed nearly 50 per cent. more cocoa and coffee last year than in the days before the war.
What do all these figures mean? I am not for one moment suggesting they mean that everyone in this country is getting more to eat than they did in the days before the war, but they certainly show, in the first place, that available supplies are spread more evenly than they were before the war. I would remind the House that there was a rationing system in vogue in this country in the days before the war. I would go further, and say that the Minister of Food could remove the apparent food shortage today by adopting the suggestion of the party opposite, and removing rationing and controls. We should then return to the prewar rationing system of the price structure. What use was it before the war to tell the housewife with four children to keep, and with her husband unemployed, that she could get all the meat she wanted? Today that man is in full employment, and his wife has enough money to buy their full ration of meat, which is some 8s. worth per week. Does anyone suggest that that same family was spending that amount on meat before the war? In fact, she was spending something less than that amount on the whole of her food purchases. Yet there was an apparent abundance of all foods in the shops.
One can go to any capital in Europe today and see the same sight that could be seen in this country in those prosperous days. There are full shops, crowded with luxuries and expensive foodstuffs. The reason for that is that only a few wealthy people have the money with which to buy them. The great mass of the ordinary working people simply have not the money 2031 with which to make their purchases. The position has been changed in this country by the fair rationing system which has spread available supplies fairly over the whole population. The second point that these figures indicate is that there has been an increase in purchasing power in the pockets of the great mass of the people.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)
Before the hon. Member leaves the first point, would he tell me this? I am trying to follow his argument. Is it his suggestion that before the war a skilled worker in work was only receiving two ounces of bacon? If that is not the suggestion, how much bacon does the hon. Gentleman think he was receiving?
What I say is that before the war in this country less than one-fifth of the population lived in comfort and had all they wanted to eat in order to lead a life of ease and luxury, while four-fifths of the population were living on a scarcely reasonably decent standard.
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands the point. I understood that he was trying to make the case that the great bulk of the population—I think I am almost echoing his words—before the war did not eat as much as they do now. I want him to answer this quite specifically. Is he saying that the worker in employment before the war had as little as two ounces of bacon or a comparable amount of meat?
I will go further, and say that the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) may well be unaware of the circumstances which existed before the war when the average working-class family seldom ate bacon.
The hon. Member ought to live with the masses of the people. He ought not to judge the manner of existence of the ordinary people of the country by that of his own rarefied existence.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman need not reply to that question. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) must not cross-examine as though he was dealing with a witness.
§ Mr. Speaker
Even so, on a Debate of this nature on the Adjournment, hon. Members make speeches and I deprecate unnecessary interruptions, which, after all, can be answered by other speeches, and not by cross-examination.
While I do not in the least mind this attempt at cross-examination by one who is obviously not very well briefed to conduct it, if we are to continue I would point out that the average working-class family before the war often had meals which consisted of fish and chips from the local fish shop, or bread with dripping or margarine on it, because there was very little else in the cupboard. I suggest that these figures show a rise in the standard of living. Whereas before the war a few hundred thousand people enjoyed a very high standard of living with plenty of food and drink, the great mass of the people lived at a standard which was not much above subsistence level. Now available supplies are shared equally amongst everybody. I am sorry to see the hon. Member for Oxford leave the Chamber. I hope his departure is not connected with his inability to continue his cross-examination.
It follows from what I have said that before the fair rationing system can be removed there is a need for a great increase over prewar imports. It will not be sufficient to import into this country the same volume of food that we imported in the years 1934 to 1938. Owing to the increased purchasing power of the people, that food will not be sufficient. Before the Minister of Food can, with safety, remove rationing, he will have to increase considerably the prewar imports. I am satisfied that, despite the efforts of hon. Members opposite to stir up the feelings 2033 of the housewives of the country—which are natural in view of the present state of shortage—the majority of the people are satisfied with the efforts which are being made by the Minister of Food on their behalf. Some hon. Members opposite have been cheap enough in the past to make the gibe that we are sharing out misery. All I would say, in conclusion, is that if there is misery and suffering to be shared at the end of a second world war, then at least we will see that the misery and suffering is shared fairly and equally amongst the whole population. We will see that there is only a little bit of misery and suffering to be borne by each one, rather than return to the prewar state of affairs where there was a great load of misery borne by the great mass of the people in order that a few wealthy individuals could live in ease and luxury at the expense of the rest.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Walter Fletcher (Bury)
May I start by. congratulating the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams) on a truly remarkable achievement. He persuaded his friends on his side of the House that a diet consisting, as far as I can see, of a réchauffé of statistics will be entirely satisfactory to the people of the country. Whether, after reading his speech, the people of the country will agree with his supporters, I do not know. Having performed that remarkable feat, he then turned his attention to the other task which he set himself. That was the simple one of "rewriting the laws of economics," which, as he said in an airy way, he was going to do. He has many gibes at hon. Members on this side of the House, alleging that they have not a firsthand knowledge of how the people live. Although I sit on this side of the House, I represent a working men's constituency in Lancashire, and I say straight to the hon. Member's face that I know just as much about how the people live as he knows.
Mr. R. Adams
In that case, may I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with his hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg)?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I believe the best service I can render to the House is to depart from the rather airy and high-flown way in which these documents have been considered and come down to something on 2034 a rather lower level. I have read this document, but I confess that I have not yet inwardly digested it. What I wish to say is based on first-hand experience, which I have acquired during the last six or seven weeks whilst on a trip to the Far East. I wish to discuss how international and inter. governmental food agreements really work, and where they break down. There is in the world at this moment one notable instance of a real food surplus. The House will remember that this document is designed to deal with surpluses of agricultural products and food as and when they arise in the future. Certainly the attempt to do so now in a time of shortages is most commendable. Let us see what has actually happened with a surplus and take the facts one by one, in the case of rice in Siam. On the admission of the Government there is, and has been for the last two years, a local surplus of something like 1,250,000 to 1,500,000 tons. I propose to go into this matter in some detail. I think my facts will prove to be fairly accurate, as I have checked them on the spot.
This surplus arises owing to the fact that during the Japanese occupation the peasant producer stored his rice, because the Japanese could or would not move it. He had no other alternative. The peculiarity of Siamese rice is that if it is not grown too near the rivers it can be stored without damage for three or four years. At the end of the war, therefore, there was a world shortage but a local surplus of one of the staple foods most needed throughout the whole of East Asia. [An HON. MEMBER: "In Siam."] No, it was surplus to the needs of Siam, and it was needed in Malaya, China and several other countries. What happened? These are the facts. As part of the peace treaty with a conquered people—and Siam had been one of our enemies—it was agreed that 1,200,000 tons would be delivered free as reparation. When one makes an agreement to take delivery of reparations of that sort, it can only be effective if one is going to maintain in the country concerned, the necessary force to see that the agreement is carried out. We did not do that. We had not sufficient forces to ensure the carrying out of this particular delivery which was due to us I am not blaming the Minister of Food for this. 2035 The villain of this peace at the beginning is not the Ministry of Food, but the Treasury or the Eastern Department of the Treasury, because they, for financial reasons, clung blindly to the idea that they would get that rice for nothing. Their local advisers and others on the spot told them that it was out of the question, and that they would not get this delivery, unless they were going to use methods of compulsion to do it, as we had done in other countries from which we obtained reparations. For the whole time, therefore, until the second phase began, 18 months later, we were living in a fools paradise, or, at any rate, a Socialist purgatory, which is possibly the next worst thing. The fact remains that the rice was not being delivered when it was badly needed.
At last, the obstinacy of the Treasury was overcome, and a tripartite international body was created to obtain this rice. During this time, many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House and myself were asking Questions about why we were not getting the rice. We were urged and impelled to do so by first-hand knowledge of the vital need for this rice throughout the whole area. I have been told by a whole galaxy of Governors-General, Governors and High Commissioners, who rotate at varying speeds in different directions in Malaya, that 75 per cent. of the trouble in that country arose from an insufficiency of rice, that there has been a four ounce ration, which anybody in the House well knows to be totally insufficient to a people who live almost entirely on it, and that they are now hoping to raise it to about 5¼ ounces. Naturally, there are strikes, because people will not and cannot work and carry out their functions under these conditions. Here, we have this big surplus 500 miles away—almost next door—and yet international agreements with the Great Powers involved, including America and ourselves, failed to get hold of that rice. Rice was shipped from Brazil to Malaya and "hi-jacked" on the way, by Ceylon.
Let us examine how the failure has arisen. Various answers have been given to Questions. One Minister says it was because there were not enough consumer goods available to give Siam. Another Minister said they had no hard currency, while another Minister stated that Siam had plenty of gold and plenty of dollars. 2036 There were varying excuses, but invariable failure to get the rice. Even after the arrival of the Tripartite Commission, and the signature of a new contract, which was announced with a great fanfare of trumpets, the rice still did not move. I asked a Question on 31st July last. The reply was that 39,000 tons had been shipped that month, that it was hoped the figures would improve, and that it was only fair that the new arrangements should have a run in order to see what happened. I let it run for four months, and then, in November, when I inquired again, the resulting figures showed over 20 per cent. reduction. Why? In the case of this Government agreement, there has been a shortfall of 700,000 tons out of 1,200,000 tons. Why has this particular document failed so miserably to do the work? I will tell the House why. It is because it is a Government-to-Government contract, which takes no notice at all of the possibility of the Government on the other side of the contract not only never intending that it should be carried out, but seeing to it that it would not be carried out. The trouble was that the holders of the rice—the wholesale merchants, the small holders, the small merchants and everybody concerned, but, chiefly, the small ones—would not deliver, because they were not being given something in exchange for their rice which they considered had any value whatsoever. In other words, the Siamese Government was going to keep the foreign exchange, which had real value, and was going to give the producer something which they—rightly—thought infinitely less valuable. And so our Government and the American Government, and all those charming people who knew such a great deal about handling these matters, went along calmly, hoping against hope and against the advice of their advisers on the spot, who had seen and told them the truth of the matter that they were not going to get the rice.
Government-to-Government contracts are full of danger. That is the lesson to be drawn from this failure. We have seen it happen in the case of grain. American farmers, only last year, found it preferable to feed their grain to hogs rather than humans because they were going to get more advantage out of it in spite of their Government's wishes. It is absolutely vital, that in any future plan that 2037 is foreshadowed here, the method of negotiation should be with the primary producer himself, and not with his Government or any intervening body. The Siamese Government were interested parties in this rice, and I have no hesitation in saying that, as in the case of other Eastern countries and Governments, there were people holding Government positions and having an interest in that rice, and in the price to be paid for it. I examined this question on the spot, and I found these people extremely anxious that the rice should not be delivered on the terms offered, because of the fear that they would not be getting something of real value for it or a proper price. If we are to succeed in any future negotiations, it is necessary that our representatives shall be able to convince the people that they are getting something of real value in the form of goods or hard currency.
Timidly, without that bold step which we expect from people who are willing to rewrite the laws of economics in their spare time, the Government, said a few months ago, "Let us put out a tiny experiment, and say that five per cent. of the rice"—I think that is the correct figure—"will be allowed to be sold at the open world market price"—or the "black market price," if hon. Members prefer it—"and against the receipt of foreign currency." It was like opening one turnstile to a Cup Final crowd. There was such a rush to get through that the Government representatives nearly got killed. Very soon, we shall hear that the Government have now made an arrangement with Siam, as in every other commodity there, that 50 per cent. of foreign exchange obtainable from the deal is going to be paid to the actual producer, and not to the Government which will only pass on its signature on a worthless piece of paper against it. All these egregious errors are being committed with the very grave consequence of holding up a rice surplus in a world where there is a shortage, and while we were being given the most optimistic statements here.
We were always told that it was an important matter to which the Government were devoting their attention; there is still this shortage of rice, and it is a very real one, and I would like to give the House and the Government fair warning that if the new increase of the ration to 5½ ozs. in Malaya, which is dependent upon deliveries from Siam and Burma, 2038 fails, there will be grave trouble in Malaya. I had the opportunity in Burma last week of checking up on the spot as to whether these deliveries are, in fact, going to be made, and are not only paper contracts as these were. If there is too close a sticking to some of these theories and a less quick action, the consequences are going to be disastrous.
I have brought these facts forward because it is most important to draw from them the lesson that high level international contracts, with the rubber stamp of F.A.O. on them, are, not necessarily, things that are going to work automatically. Unless those who are responsible have the necessary background of actual knowledge and determination, and see that the producer himself and not the Government—the settler Governments—is going to benefit, we shall meet disaster. The Minister of Food laughs.
§ Mr. Fletcher
All the same, he made an audible smile. I will ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he appreciates the humour of the position in regard to the five-year contract for copra and coconut oil which was recently signed with Ceylon. I have not the price with me, but I think it is £32 a ton. Ceylon has one of those splendid new local Asiatic Governments with a genius, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, behind it. He is a man who has spent his life being interested in commodities and, as far as commodities are concerned, we have to accept what he says with great weight, because, from every angle, he has a firsthand knowledge of commodities. He is the leading man behind the Government, and he made the contract for the Government.
What is the position today? Perhaps I am quite wrong, but I believe that the Ceylon Government have indicated that they think the price they are receiving under this five-year contract is not sufficiently good. They believe that the Minister is soon going to put up the price for copra and coconut oil in Malaya and other parts of the world, that this is an onerous contract, and that they are not going to be "in the money" as they would like to be. What do they do? They put an export duty of £16 a ton on the commodity. The Minister of Food has not been trammelled by the ordinary 2039 prudence of commerce, because, if the Government make a mistake, they do not have to pay for it themselves; they pass it on to the public. The Minister of Food, in his wisdom, has failed to put in a clause as to who is to pay that export duty. I would like to know who is going to pay it. The Minister knows perfectly well that it is only today that he is able to breath a sigh of relief in the matter of tea. He has been "sweating on the top line," and I think that that process, even with the cold snap that we are experiencing today, may be continued for some time to come.
India has made things very difficult about tea for this country. The complacency of the previous speaker about tea might be rather less if the Minister would tell us what is the position of tea stocks today. He has always said that it is "against public policy" to tell us. When we hear that argument, the normal translation is "It is too bad at the present moment for us to let it out of the bag. We are trying to put it right, and, when we have the statistics looking a little better, we may be forced to tell the public the hideous truth." It would be very interesting to hear, and it would upset the complacency of the hon. Gentleman if he knew how tea stocks had diminished, and how the Government of India are doing their utmost to see that we do not get it, except at much higher prices. No bulk purchases permitted, please. The Government of Ceylon raised the export duty on rubber because they thought they were not getting enough for their tea. They said, "We will get it back by charging more for our rubber when it is exported." So the well-nourished British housewife, revelling in the high diet which she enjoys at the present moment, as depicted by the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams), will be paying for the excess demanded by those interested in rubber in Ceylon. That is how agreements work when there are not people of equal normal standing on both sides carrying out the contract.
I wish to utter a word of real warning on this. I am a believer in working out and trying, as far as possible, better methods of international dealing. I have lived in the world of commodities all my life, and have known all the mistakes that have been made in the past. I would say 2040 that the easy remarks about speculation are not founded on a proper knowledge, but are merely, it would seem, from a knowledge gained at a Socialist summer school or by reading a Left wing journal on a Saturday evening. No real major moves have been caused by speculation. They have been accentuated by it, and I am in favour of speculation being modified. But the big moves have been caused by the law of supply and demand. Possibly, as an addendum to the "New Laws of Economics," the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting might, in a small paragraph at the end of his monograph, put in a few lines on how to guarantee the new laws of supply and demand, and turn Dame Nature into the back-room girl of the Socialist Party.
§ Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)
Does not the hon. Member agree that the cartels, in the East especially, did suppress the laws of supply and demand by continuing to produce only the amount of rubber which they wanted to produce?
§ Mr. Fletcher
The laws of supply and demand are not altered by any cartel whatever. I believe that the restrictions on rubber were utterly and entirely wrong, and I have said so. As the hon. Member has raised the question of rubber, let us see why there were fluctuations in it. The fluctuations were due to perfectly discernible and known causes, and not to speculation, as we have been told. The big rise in 1926 and 1927 was due to the discovery and general adoption of four-wheel brakes on motor-cars. They made it possible to drive motor cars safely at far greater speeds than ever before. It is a fact that, if a car is driven at 45 miles an hour, the rate of consumption of tyres goes up in a steep curve. The result was that within two years, the demand for rubber exceeded the supply. Therefore, the price went up greatly, with very bad results. But no amount of legislation, and no amount of Canute-like work of the F.A.O., would have made the slightest difference to that. That argument does not apply equally to articles supplied annually, but it does apply to articles which come to maturity very slowly.
I have, to some extent, touched upon the questions of tea and rice, but, overriding those questions must surely be one factor. There is an endeavour—and I am still in support of it—to try and even out the fluctuations, both for the sake of 2041 the consumer and of the producer of food and other world commodities. But my one fear is that the problem has not been tackled realistically. It smells far too much of the professorial oil, and far too much of schools of economics and theories. I would most sincerely beg all those responsible for this and future administrations not to be flown with the success of power just because, during the war, it was possible for Governments to make bulk contracts with great success.
Bulk contracts are successful only between a willing buyer and a willing seller. During the war, the willing seller was willing to sell for one main reason—because of the Navicert. If he was a neutral he could not sell his goods anywhere else and, therefore, his willingness was of a rather synthetic variety. One can see that in the case of the Argentine. The Navicert is not there now, and she is not going to sell to us unless she can help it. That will be found to be the great difficulty and danger in administering this admirable idea of attaining the target which is in everybody's house, in spite of the cheap gibes about what has happened between the wars. We have learned of something which is more likely to lead to good results. Instead of these "between the wars" gibes—I do not know if they go back to Agincourt or not—hon. Members on both sides of the House should try honestly to obtain a better state of affairs on the question of food. We shall not reach that State of affairs if Ministers do not realise that throughout the world many Governments do not think or act on the same lines as they themselves do. I do not believe that any Government is honest, and the present Government have given instances which have led us to think that they regard the public purse as more important than the public honour. The influence of the Treasury in many of these cases will not make them easier to work. The Minister of Food must have many stormy passages with the Treasury, and he is likely to have many more if he is not careful when his contracts are drawn up. I believe if there is not too much optimism on the point of how these contracts are to be administered and carried cut, good will result.
The lessons which I have tried to adduce from the instances which I have given should show that in the preparatory work, in the work of surveying world conditions 2042 as they are and as they are likely to be some years ahead, this organisation is a notable advance on anything there was before. But in the work of administration and in actually obtaining and distributing surpluses, or trying to ward off the effect of surpluses or shortages, this form of organisation is nearly always too slow. It is nearly always based on the good old principle of "too little and too late." It has been so in the case of rice, and it is likely to be so in the case of a great many other commodities. If we do not believe too implicitly in the five year contract being carried out absolutely to the letter when, during the interval, conditions have altered against one of the contracting parties, if we make certain there are enough people who are always willing to help and who have firsthand knowledge and live experience rather than civil servants and professors, I think the chances of this plan coming to real fruition will be very much greater. Meanwhile, if we could have an eleventh hour repentance on the part of the Minister of Food regarding Siamese rice, and a greater devotion to Burma's side of the picture—there is a difference in price between Burmese and Siamese rice which is already causing trouble—if he will ensure that the plan begins to work in a more realistic manner—I know his difficulties with other Governments—and will possibly be more ruthless in the matter, he will be doing a great service.
Until we have an assurance that a real surplus has been handled correctly, and until the Minister can show us that international agreements have handled one instance correctly, we shall believe there is too much wind and theory and not enough hard practice in what he is doing. I will conclude by saying that these criticisms are put forward in the spirit of drawing a practical conclusion from them; if this plan is to work we must learn from the mistakes and errors of the past.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Warbey (Luton)
I am sorry I cannot follow the hon. Member for Bury (Mr. W. Fletcher) in discussing Siamese rice, about which he knows a great deal more than I do, but I must say that I was astonished that he should regard the behaviour of an unwilling ex-enemy State as at all characteristic of the behaviour of the Governments of the countries participating in this conference. It is, surely, 2043 bordering on an insult to countries like Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and many others, to suggest that they are as lacking in competence in administration and international good will, and as having such low standards of administrative morality as existed in the case of the administration of Siam.
§ Mr. W. Fletcher
I was particularly careful not to mention any name. I did not wish to have fastened upon me in a most unfair way an imputation against Governments such as the Canadian Government. If the hon. Gentleman likes to make a comment, let him do so, but I did not mention a name, and it is not fair that he should try to twist what I said into another meaning.
§ Mr. Warbey
I would not suggest that the hon. Gentleman desired to make imputations against any Government.
§ Mr. Warbey
All I am suggesting is that to take the Government of Siam or of an ex-enemy country, whose standards of international behaviour are not, perhaps, on the highest level, as an example of the kind of thing we may expect from intergovernmental co-operation on the part of the Governments participating in this conference, is to get very far away from the realm of probability.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Might I point out that Siam was represented, and was one of the contracting parties in the Tripartite Agreement?
§ Mr. Warbey
What the hon. Gentleman is doing is to take the lowest common denominator as representative.
§ Mr. Warbey
I suggest that the majority of Governments who, moreover, are bound to play a strong and decisive part in any inter-governmental agreements, will be of a much higher standard, and their desires and intentions will be on a very much higher level. I can understand that the hon. Member should seek, as other hon. Members opposite have done, to belittle what it is possible to achieve in the sphere of international economic planning. They have been quite content to declare their devotion to the general principles of such things as the Hot Springs Conference which created the 2044 Food and Agriculture Organisation. So long as it was purely a matter of pious resolution and a statement of their praiseworthy general aim, in making arrangements for the collection and distribution of information and the exchange of views—so long as there was no danger that any practical plans might be evolved in order to do something in the international field, so long as there was no danger that the activities of the private trader in the free market might be interfered with, and no danger to the activities of the speculator who, undoubtedly, does benefit from very big swings in prices, even if he does not actually create them, of course hon. Members opposite can swear by the principles of Hot Springs and all the rest of it, as the right hon. Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law), the former Minister of State, did. But now, when we begin to move forward from Hot Springs—because, after all, what Hot Springs produced were only great aspirations—into the realm of practical plans for putting the general principles there agreed into operation, we find all kinds of cavilling, all kinds of belittling, and all kinds of cynicism coming from hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Law
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is really justified in saying that these proposals—leaving aside for the moment whether they are good or bad proposals—are in line with Hot Springs. They are not. If the hon. Member studies the resolution of Hot Springs he will see that these proposals have very little to do with Hot Springs. They are quite a different approach to the problem.
§ Mr. Warbey
Certainly they are a different approach, but the objectives of these proposals are precisely the objectives of the Hot Springs Conference, namely, to expand the production of food, to provide stable and rising standards of living for agricultural producers, and to ensure such a rise in the standard of living and productivity, and therefore of consumption, of the masses of the world's peoples as would ensure the marriage of potential production with potential consumption. Those were the objectives of Hot Springs. What these proposals seek to do is to find the means, to find the machinery of giving effect to those proposals. It is perfectly true to say that the machinery which Sir John Boyd Orr proposed in his World Food Board has not been achieved, and the 2045 right hon. Gentleman may have some justification in suggesting there is cause for lament that it has not been achieved. But I wonder whether that lament which he made was really quite so honest? I do not want to impute any dishonesty to him personally. But I wonder whether it really represented the view of his own party? Had we been able to come forward to the House, as I should have liked, and said, "Here are proposals for an executive food board endowed with financial power to make its decisions effective," I wonder whether the party opposite would then have been ready to accept them?
§ Mr. Warbey
I prefer to regard this not as a funeral service. I would say the proposals of Sir John Boyd Orr for a World Food Board, for an executive supranational authority, have been put into cold storage; they were in advance of the times. The fact is, many powerful nations in the world are not ready to make sufficient abandonment of national sovereignty to set up supranational economic organs. The fact is, too, that there are not yet sufficient means of international financing available to set up such a body, and to carry out many other proposals in this field. If we had, for example, the proposals of the late Lord Keynes for the creation of a world bank able to create credit through the use of an international currency, such as "banca," then we might have been able to develop means of international financing which would have made an executive world food board possible—and I believe we shall have to come to that. But since the political and economic realities do not enable us yet In advance so far, the problem with which the Government have been confronted is: How much of this could we get by other means?
I must say, I think the Government and the hon. Gentleman who led the British delegation are to be congratulated on what they achieved at the Washington Conference. The hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of 2046 Works has displayed a really remarkable versatility in being able to pass from his Department to a new field of this kind, and to be able to rescue from the threatened shipwreck—because a shipwreck was threatened, as we know, from very powerful quarters on the other side of the Atlantic—so much of the practical plans for international planning. I can well believe that when the question of sending a delegate to this Conference arose, perhaps the Prime Minister was told that there was a danger of possible opposition, and strong opposition, to proposals for international planning, whereupon he said: "Well, let us give them the works." And I am sure the works were given to them in no ineffective fashion. So, what emerges out of this, out of the very large measure of initiative which I believe has been displayed by our own delegation, is a series of plans, dependent for their implementation—and I emphasise this—on the action of individual Governments, but, nevertheless—assuming that implementation is made—with practical plans for solving very many of the problems which arise from the possibility of relative over-production of foodstuffs compared with the deficiency of effective demands.
I do not want to survey these proposals, because they already have been surveyed by the Parliamentary Secretary and others. However, I do want to call attention to one or two points where possible dangers may arise—dangers affecting the possibility of these very excellent plans achieving the objectives which they set out to achieve. I think it would be agreed that on the production side the key to the carrying out of these plans will rest, in the main, on the international commodity councils. I would like to ask one or two questions about the working of these bodies. First of all, the Parliamentary Secretary indicated that we were in favour of the establishment of a very wide range of international commodity councils, and that just for that reason, and because they could not, in our view, be related to food alone, they should come under the general control of the projected International Trade Organisation. It seems to me that here a possible danger arises for the whole future of these international commodity councils. Because I must say, I do not feel the confidence that may be felt in some quarters about the fate of this 2047 proposed International Trade Organisation. Quite frankly, I fear that a good deal of all these fine proposals for multilateral trading will go by the board as soon as the American slump begins. I am afraid that we may find that a good deal of the proposed I.T.O. may never see the light, or that it may have to be abandoned very shortly after it is created. If that happens, what is going to happen to these international commodity councils which are to be created under its umbrella?
My second point is this. What is to be the composition of these international commodity councils? Who are going to be represented on them? We have had some experience in the past of international commodity councils, and agreements, and so on, in which we found that those bodies were dominated by the big producing countries to the detriment, on the one hand, of the general body of consumers, and, on the other hand, of the small producing countries. Is that danger going to arise in the future? I interrupted the Minister to ask a question about the composition of the International Wheat Council. I see from an appendix to the Report that it is stated that there are 13 Governments represented on that Council; but I should like to know which they are. We had that during the war, as is mentioned in this appendix. There was an international wheat meeting at Washington at which five countries were represented. One of those countries was ourselves; but the other four countries were the four main wheat producers, Canada, the United States of America, the Argentine and Australia; and we do know that those big producers had a very great influence on what was done about the build-up of stocks during the war. We know, as is mentioned in this appendix, that in 1943 wheat stocks had been built up to the record level of 43 million tons, and yet today there is an acute shortage of wheat throughout the world—at any rate, in those areas which are dependent on the import of wheat. We know that those large stocks were allowed to fall to a catastrophically low level, and that may well have been because of the dominance of the big producing interests in this body. We ought to know whether that danger is likely to arise again.
Then, finally, I want to call attention to the problem, which is referred to in 2048 the White Paper, and which is really the key problem in this question, and that is the problem of endemic surplus. It is perfectly true we have here a series of proposals for dealing with seasonal and relative circumstances. We have a proposal for the famine reserves, for the price stabilisation, buffer stocks. But if, over a period of years, there is a continuing surplus of some commodity such as wheat, and all the famine reserve quotas are filled up, and all the price stabilisation reserves are filled up—and then if, after that, as seems very likely, still the surplus continues, because of the vast increase in potential output that has been achieved during the war, what then happens? How then do we marry the surplus with the need of the thousand million people in the world who are undernourished?
There are two proposals for dealing with that basic problem. The first is the special price sales, to which reference has been made. I do not want to deal with this in detail, except to say that I am not surprised that on the other side of the House a purely nationalistic view of this question should be taken, but that I am rather surprised that, on this side, there should be some hon. Members who cannot recognise that, when we are thinking about world food problems, about the terrible problem of the under-nourishment of half of the world's population, we cannot look at this problem from a purely national point of view. Nor can I understand those hon. Members who imagine that this country is going to be ridden with poverty indefinitely in the future, and who regard our present difficult international financial situation as permanent, and who have so little faith in the productive capacity of our country that they cannot look forward to a state of affairs in the coming years when our economic strength is restored. I do look forward to that; and I think, in terms of recovering economic strength, we ought to consider whether we should not be prepared to play our part in such international arrangements as will help to raise the terribly low standard of living which exists in India and China, and, nearer home, in the South-East of Europe, as well as in some parts of our country. Therefore, I think we ought to see—I know the Government will see—that these special price sales can be arranged in a way which will not do great injury to the prices we 2049 have to pay ourselves. But even that, I am afraid, will cover only a fraction of the world's need.
Finally, we are left with the problem, which the Report correctly states, of so expanding production in the backward areas as vastly to increase the productivity of the peoples of those areas, so that they will then have the means of credit by which they can purchase the possible surplus of food commodities, and fill their hungry mouths. That can be done only if the necessary international financial resources are available. My last question is, Are those international financial resources going to be available for the vast programmes of industrial and agricultural development which are necessary in the backward areas of the world? On that point, I am afraid, the Report does not give us any clear assurance. In fact, on page 24 of the Report, in paragraph 19 (b), we have this definite statement in relation to the discussion of the resources available to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The authors of the Report say:While it is true that there is no strain yet on the Bank's resources, it will be disappointing from the point of view of world expansion if very much larger resources do not become necessary in a few years' time.In a few years time. In other words, the resources available to the International Bank, even assuming that the International Bank is going to work as it was intended that it should work—and we have not yet seen any very great signs of that—but assuming that it does begin to work, the danger will arise that in a few years' time it will run out of funds, that its capital of 10,000 million dollars will be exhausted. It will still fill only a fraction of what this Report says to be necessary in order to raise the standard of living of the world's people. And then we shall be back—and this is the big problem of international economic planning—once again to the question of how we are going to find quite new methods of raising international capital, and of developing international credit, in order to draw out the potentialities of the world for the benefit of the world's people.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)
Unlike the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), I did not have a sleepless night reading this Report, and unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham 2050 (Mr. Eccles), I did not read it and put myself to sleep; instead, I read the speeches made in another place, on 22nd January, on the world food situation, and they gave me a better picture than I could have obtained from this document. It seems to me, listening to this Debate, that the idealism in this document is going to hit at the practical realities of life, and I think that we should have had a greater opportunity to digest what was in this Report before having this Debate. Both sides of the House will agree that there is no prospect of a surplus of food in the world at the moment, but I cannot understand how we are to work the ideal of passing surpluses to the backward nations of the world. It is estimated that to raise by 1,000 the number of calories in China and the Asiatic world would take £2,000 million worth of produce, and it will be many years before we shall be able to do that.
I see considerable difficulties in working this scheme, because I have recently been to one of these backward countries, Kenya, where the problem is to raise the standard of living of the natives. Among other things we have taught the natives that they must not reduce their population by warfare, with the result that the population has doubled in the last 25 years. Instead of leading a nomadic life, the native is now confined to one particular spot, with the result that soil erosion is going on to an alarming extent, and any surpluses of cereals in producing countries will have a tremendous market there, if that market can purchase them. The African native is not particularly fond of work, and whether the first thing to do is to feed him and then get more work out of him, or let him work first and then get more food is a problem which the idealist may find difficult to solve. I do not wish to speak from this point of view, but rather to deal with the home producer of this country. I quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham that if this document had come out before the Second Reading of the Agricultural Bill the criticism made from this side of the House might have been somewhat different. The only bright spot in the Report is that surpluses are to be worked off on some other country, which is all to the good as far as the home producer is concerned, but I want to know how the home producer will fare if the present Minister of Food is in command with his 2051 declared policy of buying in the cheapest market. That is why I view the Report with a certain amount of fears for the future.
I think that we are rushing this question of surpluses. We are living in an age of shortage, and these shortages will continue for some considerable time. If these shortages do not continue and there is a surplus in the world this country will still have to pay for these surpluses. The Government should stand by the Minister of Agriculture when he comes to negotiate prices with the agricultural representatives in February, and see that he encourages the home producer to produce everything possible. I wondered whether this document was being produced at this time to intimidate the farmers, so that when they come to negotiate in a few weeks' time they will not be prepared to stick out for fair prices for fear of the surpluses which are going to arise. At the present time we are living in a fool's paradise. The American Loan is running down, and in three years' time we shall have exhausted the supply of consumable goods we can obtain against it. What will happen at the end of that period? Shall we go on our bended knees to the United States with the prayer:Give us this day our daily bread"?Are we going to be in a position to pay the £35 million which is due from us in 1950, and if not, is it likely that the United States will be prepared to negotiate another loan with us? We have to face that position, and I suggest that the way to do it is to encourage the home producers and see that in the next two or three years output is raised to the largest extent. I do not think our American cousins will be very willing to give us another loan when they see what we are doing with the present loan. We are buying food with the loan, bringing it to this country and selling it at less than it costs on the other side. If I went to my banker and asked him to give me a credit for a commodity I wanted to sell in my shop, and having got the credit sold it at less than it cost, I am sure he would not be very willing to grant me any further loans.
§ Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)
Does the hon. Member wish the Minister of Food to step up prices so that the average worker cannot buy some of these commodities we are purchasing from abroad?
§ Mr. Baldwin
I do not want him to step up prices above a level which will give a fair return to the producers in this country. All we want is a fair and square deal. The representatives of the industrialists could not stand the blitz in the early 30's, and protected their workers and industries with a tariff. All we ask is that we shall have something comparable to that; we ask for that and for nothing more or less. If they could not stand the world blitz, why should we be expected to do so?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has a gap, which he is very anxious to fill, between imports and exports, and the President of the Board of Trade is endeavouring as far as he possibly can to fill that gap by stepping up the export trade by 75 per cent. I am of the opinion that that 75 per cent. will never be attained, and I think a better way of closing the gap would be to step up production in this country. During the war the farmers had increased their output by 70 per cent. with the help of casual and inexperienced labour. We could quite easily step up our production by a further 25 per cent. That would represent £150 million, and I think that would be much more easy to attain than the 75 per cent. increase in the export trade. I believe that at this time we are thinking too much about export trade. Some of our export trade in the past has not been very clever. Before the war we were exporting coal from the pit-head to Denmark at less than it was worth at the pit-head in order to bring back bacon and eggs. That is not very clever export trade, and I suggest that if we had the coal in this country, to give us electric light and power in the countryside, we would be able to find the bacon and eggs for the people here.
§ Mr. Baldwin
The difficulties under which we are labouring at the present time are, a shortage of skilled labour, a shortage of feeding stuffs, and a lack of confidence in the future. Our lack of confidence is intensified when we hear the Minister of Food say he is going to buy again in the cheapest world market he can find. Our confidence is rather shaken when we see in Part I of the Agriculture Bill that we are only going to be allowed to produce a certain amount, and that 2053 there are to be quantitative regulations. Therefore, when you ask us to increase production, we have a certain lack of confidence in our future. It has been said that the Agriculture Bill is the charter of the agricultural industry. It is nothing of the sort. It is an excellent Bill so far as its structure goes—I have nothing against it in that regard—but the important thing will be the price level, and the whole Bill will stand or fall by the negotiations which are to take place shortly to decide the price level for the farm commodities we have to produce. We have heard a lot in the Debate on the Bill about stabilisation. We can easily have stabilisation, but stabilisation at an unprofitable figure is not much good to us. All we ask for is stabilisation at a reasonable figure which will encourage us in our production.
One thing is very necessary in this price fixing, and that is that there should be cooperation between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture. I ask the Prime Minister, as captain of the team, to see that his team play as a team and not as individuals. I know the Chancellor of the Exchequer is borrowing money at a cheap rate with a song in his heart, but I have an idea that the food subsidy, which is gradually increasing, is giving him a pain in the neck. I am afraid that he rather influences the Minister of Agriculture when he goes to negotiate prices, because he realises that the increase of prices to the farmer means that he has to increase the subsidy to the consumer. I think that is a short sighted policy. If he would step up the prices to the home producer he would be helping to close the gap which is causing him such a headache at the present moment. Stimulate prices and we can produce; depress prices, and there will be a decrease in production, and more dollars will have to be spent to keep the country going.
There is another matter I want to mention on the subject of the food subsidies. I am still of the opinion, and I have been for the last twelve months, that the question has to be tackled sooner or later. It is entirely uneconomic to tax people—and by a very expensive method—to pay it back to them on their food. By the time the Budget comes out the cost of the subsidy will have risen to £400 million, which means that it was probably 2054 necessary to raise £500 million. I suggest that, if the Chancellor would use £150 million in directly assisting the lower income groups instead of helping them by this devious method, it would be far better for them and better for the Government. By doing so an army of unproductive labour would be released. There are thousands of people sending out Statutory Rules and Orders, there are thousands of people working out tax deductions on working men's wages, and if the Government did as I suggest, and stopped P.A.Y.E. on working men's wages—
§ Mr. Walkden
I do not want in any way to spoil the prepared speech of the hon. Member, but may I ask you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, has it not been obvious for many minutes now that the arguments that are being used either deal with the Budget or are in anticipation of the promotion of legislation, and is that really in Order?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)
It is perfectly in Order on the Motion for the Adjournment. I cannot control what the hon. Member wishes to say.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I think the argument I was putting forward was rather germane to the point, because a subsidy of £400 million shakes the confidence of the agricultural industry. They want to know how long that subsidy is to be kept there. Is it to be kept there until the Government can buy cheaply again all over the world, when we shall be thrown into the melting pot? Why is it being kept? Why not do the job in an economic way? The Government are fighting against the law of economics in dealing with these subsidies in the way they are now doing. However, if the hon. Gentleman thinks I am out of Order, I will go on to my next point.
Another trouble we have is shortage of labour. There again, I do ask the Government to deal with the housing problem in the rural districts. I know that they will say they are providing houses in the villages, and that is true. Houses are being erected in the villages, but in a village near to me, out of 16 houses that have been erected after a great struggle, only one has been given to an agricultural worker. Our prisoners of war are going, as they should go, for we do not want slave labour. We want our own skilled men to fight our own battles of production, and we ask the 2055 Government to take some steps to meet the coming shortage of skilled labour, which will be very acute in another year.
§ Mr. Warbey
Would the hon. Member say something about the kitchen stove? He seems to have left it out.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I do not quite understand his point. I would like to illustrate what I meant about price fixing. I do not know whether hon. Members realise the position of a farmer at the present time in regard to his wheat. The farmer is compelled to sell his wheat to the mills at a price which is less than what he has to pay for pig feedingstuffs. That is not the way to get wheat through the mills. If a more realistic attitude had been adopted last February, and if, instead of a niggardly rise of 1s. 9d. a cwt. in the price of wheat. a really worthwhile price had been given, another million tons of wheat would have been produced in this country. It could be produced. All we want is a proper price level. There has been agitation to relieve our shortage of labour by bringing in displaced persons. I do not want to see displaced persons brought to this country, because we have more people in this country than we can feed at the present time. What we want to do is to get misplaced persons into production. There are too many people who are not doing a productive job, and who ought to be brought into productive work.
There is another problem on which I appeal to the Government to be more realistic. I am referring to feedingstuffs. The farmers are not allowed to make use of their own feedingstuffs. Wheat and bailey are the main feedingstuffs, and the farmers are compelled to sell them. The result is that the Government have to buy the manufactured article abroad and bring it to this country. We want the Government to scour the markets of the world, and to encourage the production of feedingstuffs in this country so that we can bring our poultry houses and pig houses back into production. It would save the country an enormous sum in dollars if we could produce the manu- 2056 factured articles instead of buying them from abroad. This country is heading for trouble, and agriculture, if it is treated fairly, can help to pull the country out of that trouble. We do not ask for exorbitant prices; we ask for a reasonable level for our men and for ourselves. If agriculture is treated fairly, it can increase production in the course of time to the extent of £100 million or £200 million, and not only increase production and give the consumers of this country healthy food, but provide for the workers of this country a healthier and much better life than that which is lived by those who are crowded together in cities.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)
The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said that this country is heading for trouble and that agriculture can help to pull it out of that trouble. In the inter-war years, the Tory Party had plenty of opportunity to help agriculture and to save the country from the disastrous position into which it got.
§ Mr. Baldwin
May I assure the hon. Member that I am not here to defend what has been done in the past, but to face the present and the future? I do not want to rake over the dead ashes of the past.
§ Mr. Walkden
Tory policy never changes; it remains much the same for years and years; but as soon as we complain about it, hon. Gentlemen opposite put on sackcloth and ashes and say, "Don't blame us; it was the other fellow."
§ Brigadier Peto (Barnstaple)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it was the Tory Party that wished to bring in Imperial Preference in 1924, but that the Socialists, with the aid of the Liberal Party, kept Imperial Preference out until 1931?
§ Mr. Walkden
The Tory Party, with the aid of the Liberal Party, helped to push us out when we were trying to do something that was proper. The only thing I wish to say, in relation to the arguments that have been used by the hon. Member for Leominster, is that, if he will re-read his speech tomorrow and examine the points he made with regard to subsidies, he will realise why some of us were anxious to hear how he stood 2057 with regard to the farmers and the industrial workers, the countryside and the towns. As a Labour Party, we are concerned with welding together the interests of the town dwellers and the dwellers of the countryside. We want the countryside to benefit from legislation, from social reform and from all those improvements which have gone past their doors in years gone by. We want a decent wage for the men in the countryside. We want commodities in the shops to be sold at prices which the people in the countryside can afford to pay. That is why we are having this Debate today.
I confess that I have found it very difficult to absorb all that is contained in the report before us in the short space of time that has been available. I make no complaint, beyond saying that I think it would have been better if my right hon. Friend who is now acting as Leader of the House, when pressed to do so a day or two ago, had agreed to weld this Debate with another Debate to examine our own food problems at home, in addition to the problem dealt with in this Report. The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Warbey) suggested that there were some hon. Members on this side of the House who were inclined to be national in their outlook rather than international, as he would wish us to be. I think that over a period of 20 or 30 years or so in which I have been in the trade union and Labour movement, I have been as much international in outlook as any hon. Member on any side of the House. On the other hand, if I am accused of being national in outlook, I am not at all ashamed—rather am I proud of it—because I feel that, while we are endeavouring to deal with all the different problems that there are in the world which affect the homesteads, the comfort, the feeding and the happiness of millions of people, the job of the Minister of Food, who is to reply to this Debate, is to see that we in Britain are fed as well as possible. If my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food does not do his job in that respect, he deserves to be kicked out, and if he does not do his job some of us will see that he is kicked out, if we can help to get him out.
I suggest that, in examining the report before us, we apply the test that is applied to a patent. Is it practical in its application? Is it economic to produce, and if it is produced, will it work? The report makes an enormous number of recommen- 2058 dations, but with regard to the question that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Durbin), I have a shrewd suspicion that when we go shopping for wheat and other commodities which our agents and buyers will have to go after in the months and years that lie ahead, we shall not only be paying current prices for the goods which we buy, but, where they are the buffer depot reserve stocks, we shall also be paying an extra price for those stocks that we do not get. We can compare the situation with that in which there is a grocer in a village and a man living in the village who buys the normal commodities and necessities of life from that grocer week by week, and the grocer says, "I am putting into reserve a few ounces each week of the different commodities so that next year, if it should happen that we cannot get these commodities, I shall have built up my stock, I will have them in reserve, and I shall be able to look after you." I contend that if we, as ordinary consumers, were to be told that kind of thing by a grocer we should want to know from the grocer whether we were paying not only for the stocks that we were taking, but also for the stocks that he was putting into reserve. It is very important that we should know that kind of thing.
I feel that American farmers are having a very good time and must be very happy about these negotiations. I do not challenge the Parliamentary Secretary, who is very conversant with. conditions in the agricultural constituency of Ormskirk. I am certain that when he goes back to his constituency not many farmers will be rejoicing at the report. I do not see how they can. I do not see how the British farmer can possibly rejoice very much at what is contained in the report. We should have reserved this report until we had had further evidence from the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture in relation to our own production and our own plans for the immediate future, as well as in regard to the long-term policy.
§ Mrs. Manning
Is it not a fact that, in the years before the war, agricultural imports into this country undermined the position of our farmers?
§ Mr. Walkden
Yes, Sir, but it does not necessarily follow that it will be the same under a Socialist Government. I was a grocer before the First World War. What 2059 the hon. Lady has said may be true. We had stocks of goods on the shelves in our shops, and because of conditions that existed we kept those goods on the shelves instead of letting them go to the consumers. We had not then the policy of full employment such as we now envisage, and under which the productivity of the nation will be organised so as to create full employment for every man and woman. A comparison was made by the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams) of so many ounces of tea per head, more than existed before the war, and so many extra ounces of meat compared with our prewar consumption. It is very much a question of figures. I know that today's figures are accurate but I do not think the Minister of Food can really say what the actual consumption of meat was in Britain in an average year, say, 1937 or 1938, although the statistics are there. We are not compelled to accept everything that comes from the Government as a factual and accurate yard stick of the habits of our people before the war.
§ Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)
Surely, in the years before the war there were statistics of imports into this country which should enable the Departments to say how much meat and other foods were produced and consumed in this country.
§ Mr. Walkden
There were certainly statistics, but there were many facts which had no relation to those statistics. There were local statistics which were never returned at all. There was food which reached the grocers and the butchers in local markets which was never returned. There were hundreds of thousands of eggs which were never returned in any statistics, digest or record. Why should we not be frank about it and say that statistics are not accurate in relation to prewar consumption?
I wonder whether the Minister will be ready to give us fixed targets, showing his approach to the problem of the demobilisation of control. Take the question of tea. I believe we have stocks in the country amounting to fourteen-sixteenths of our prewar consumption. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he is going to regard tea as beyond the degree of risk so that he can demobilise tea control and rationing? It would be good if he could tell the country what the anticipa- 2060 tions are and what we may hope for. If he, through his buyers, were able to anticipate a seventeen-sixteenths position, he should tell us.
Take the comparison with coffee. I believe that we have 165 per cent. of stocks, compared with 100 per cent. prewar, in regard to coffee, so we do not need control and rationing of coffee. We control the price, that is all. If we are able to accumulate, purchase and acquire anywhere near seventeen-sixteenths in relation to tea, will not the Minister declare "That is my target. There will be no risk. I will now de-ration tea"? What is our outlook in regard to sugar? This subject is not approached on a basis of one year's calculation. I believe that the reports are very good. The country would like to know what the Minister has in mind as his target figure. Our consumption is better because the workers are able to buy and hoard more sugar than before the war. We ought to be told what the Minister has in mind, particularly having regard to the figure at which he will decontrol or demobilise sugar.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
The hon. Member has just said that the average wage earner is buying more sugar than before the war. Has he any statistics to prove that statement?
§ Mr. Walkden
Yes, Sir. I would say that the average wage-earner has more money to spend. The Tory Party do not understand this aspect of the matter. They have not the first idea. They were not the people who had to wait until father came home on Friday before they could go and buy one pennyworth of sweets. They were never the people who had to ask the grocer for a pound of sugar "on tick." Those were our economics. Our question is whether the Minister, when he is sending out his buyers and shopping for us in the markets of the world, expects that in six months from now we shall be able to get somewhere near the target at which we can demobilise the ration and control of tea, sugar and other commodities.
The Treasury bench do not seem at all happy about criticism on the question of subsidies. In the Coalition days we used to rejoice in criticism. I hope the Government will not be too sensitive about criticism. I am not too certain that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Food have been getting down 2061 to details about the use of the subsidy in relation to the cost of living. Last week, I asked the Minister of Food a Question about currants, raisins, sultanas, and dried fruit. Unfortunately, he gave me a written answer, so that there could be no supplementary questions or argument, and in that reply he said that we shall pay in subsidies for these fruits, £4,700,000 in the current year. I put another Question to my right hon. Friend about soft drinks, such as ginger pop, lemonade, and about ice cream sold by the cornet seller or in a milk bar; about confectionery, including the penny bun, sweets and chocolates. He told me that we are providing a subsidy of £2 million in the current year. We trade unionists thought that the whole idea of a subsidy was to peg down the cost of living to those items which had a definite bearing on the index figure of the cost of living, that might be, in some way, associated with that figure. I put it to my right hon. Friend: What on earth have ice cream, ginger pop, or any of the products which I have mentioned, to do with the index figure? We must face up to this matter.
There are certain commodities that are of paramount importance to us. The Minister decided to decontrol fruit and green vegetables a few days ago. By his action within the last two months he has put up the cost of living for the average working-class home in the country to the extent of £20 per annum. This has nothing to do with subsidy or the index figure, and housewives have to pay for the Department's mistake. This is criticism which I have been anxious to make, because my fellow trade unionists have been complaining, in recent months, about the index figure. Housewives say it is wrong that they should have to pay 1s. or more per lb. for Brussels sprouts, and 9d. for a swede that could be bought for a penny before the war. I ask my right hon. Friend to examine afresh this question of subsidies. We want to keep the 9d. loaf at 9d., and sugar at its proper price. We do not want to see it go up to 8d., 9d., or 10d. a lb. But what we are not disposed to do is to pay out of Treasury funds for commodities which should not carry any subsidy at all. If we did not disagree in this House it would be a very dull and uninteresting place; it is a sign of good health when one is able to put a point of view which is vastly different from the point of view of others on his own side.
2062 The housewife who spends her points on tinned fruit from America gets no subsidy. The housewife who buys apples, oranges, and bananas from abroad, or any commodity which is bought by the Minister, gets no share in the subsidy. The Minister, on the one hand, decontrols commodities and, on the other, subsidises them to the extent of £5 million, £10 million, or £15 million on foodstuffs that ought not to be subject to any subsidy at all.
§ Mr. Baldwin
May I ask the hon. Gentleman what he thinks the price of Brussels sprouts would be if he had to pick them in this weather?
§ Mr. Walkden
I quite realise that. The hon. Member is only giving the reply which the officials will give to the Minister of Food, and he will tell us from that Box when he comes to reply, if he cares to refer to it. I would point out that there was no snow a month ago, and I do not suppose that there will be snow a month from now, but I am pretty certain that Brussels sprouts will still be 8d. or 9d. a lb. I am sorry that a Member of the Tory Party should put forward the answers which officials of the Ministry of Food are accustomed to give.
My plea is on the main issue on which I have concentrated my remarks—the question of subsidies and the cost of living which are essentials which affect the workers' pay packet and the housewives' shopping basket. I believe that more economies have to be practised and that someone will have to get busy. The only person to do this is the Minister of Food, and I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will come along and say, "I am going to cut off your rations unless you make some adjustments along the lines which have been suggested."
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)
The hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walkden) has been rather vitriolic on the distribution side. I propose to limit my remarks and, therefore, I will not deal with the White Paper, except to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a very clear exposition of the position. We have not had an opportunity of digesting the White Paper, and I feel, therefore, that the Debate is somewhat unreal. The hon. Gentleman devoted 95 per cent. of his remarks to surpluses, and I think that 2063 the Minister of Food had a rather wistful expression throughout the greater part of the speech.
I say quite frankly that I am old-fashioned and not a very great believer in world planning. The only good planner in the Old Testament, apart from the Creator himself, was Joseph, who managed to plan quite well, but on the basis of the interpretation of a dream. We are unlikely to be able to make many of our future calculations on the same basis. I say quite frankly to the Government that I am not impressed with their planning at home, and I am not especially enamoured of the world planning of food. There are so many intangible, improbable and impractical factors which we cannot analyse, apart from the fact that we cannot depend on all the world planners playing the game. I think, however, that we should give an opportunity to the United Nations to see whether on the basis of food they are able to set an example to the world in the direction in which we hope the world is going—towards international brotherhood and goodwill.
I, therefore, do not apologise for witching, in the few minutes which I have left to me, from the world international organisation to some aspects of our home food problems. I think that hon. Members must have felt that they were debating in a very unreal atmosphere when the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams)—I do not see him present now—was trying to convince the House by a series of figures, that we in this country at the present time were better fed as a nation, when food is scarce and dear, than we were before the war, when it was plentiful and cheap.
I should like the hon. Gentleman to come down to my constituency and tell the women there or indeed in any constituency that they are better fed than before the war. I have no doubt that the great working classes of this country have a greater purchasing power and they are able to spend more money on food. We are very glad to know that, but if there is any maldistribution of food, and there is, it has changed from among the great mass of the workers to among the rentier class, many of whom are inadequately fed in this country today. There 2064 are thousands and thousands of them and I challenge the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food, if I may have his attention for a moment—
§ Sir H. Morris-Jones
I challenge him to deny that there are thousands of the rentier class who are grossly inadequately fed and they are unable to get enough sustenance which would enable them to keep in a proper state of nourishment and a reasonable state of health. I think that the Government will have to change their policy altogether with regard to the food position. The attitude of the Government has been—and I think we can well understand it—that the people in this country should produce as much as they can now to increase our export trade and balance our currency and then in two or three years time we will be able to give them sufficient nourishment and food, which would be a great transformation from what the position is today. I say the Government are working on the wrong lines. I do not think that they will get that production, and they will have to change their whole attitude to this food question by putting food first at the very top of their policy. That will be the first essential before production can be obtained. The Government may have to take some risk in that direction and indeed they may be taking a definite risk at a time when they are not able to afford it, but I say that the risk of trying to maintain the population of this country on the standard and level of nourishment which it has today in the hope that production in two or three years' time might right our difficulties is an infinitely greater risk than the proposal I am advocating. There is no use talking about calories. It is not calories the people want, it is food.
§ Sir H. Morris-Jones
I do not measure it; I look at the individual and I can see whether he is fed or not. We want greater quantities, better qualities and a greater variety of food. I am quite sure it is the experience of every Member of this House, whichever side he is on, that if he looks at the people of this country today—and we do not need to be doctors to tell us—he will see at a glance that the people are not nourished as they 2065 should be and they lack the stamina and reserve and buoyancy which are essential if they are to produce more. I do not charge the right hon. Gentleman about this because I am sure that he has immense difficulties, but I think that the peoples of the world as a whole should be told that this gallant nation, which held the fort at a time when all other nations were in the balance as it were, is the worst fed of all the victorious Allies today.
§ Mr. Strachey
That is totally untrue. I should be very loth to make any such statement to the world because it could be disproved in a second.
§ Sir H. Morris-Jones
I have travelled somewhat extensively in Europe, and although I have not been to the United States of America, that is a country all by itself and has a far superior standard than ours. Whatever the Minister proves by calorie figures, I am not convinced that the statement I have made is wrong. I think that it is the case. I am sorry in the circumstances that I cannot elaborate the remarks I have made, but I propose to give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) who, I understand, wishes to speak.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Mr. J. S. C. Reid (Hillhead)
We were told by the acting Leader of the House on Tuesday last that he would like this Debate to be about the work of the F.A.O. and the world food situation, but the hon. Gentleman who opened it said a good deal about the F.A.O. and very little about the world food situation. As the discussion has proceeded we have gone further away from the Report and nearer to reality, and I propose to devote a comparatively short time to the Report and the bulk of my remarks to matters of more real and urgent interest. I should like to reiterate the protest against this matter being brought up with only 48 hours available for the study of this enormous document. Since we have not heard from anyone else perhaps the Minister of Food will tell us what was the 2066 urgency about the Debate. I cannot help feeling that somebody must have gone to the acting Leader of the House and said, "Do not give them too long to study this document because they may find something in it which is awkward for us." I can think of no other reason why the Debate should have been so rushed.
I think I have read the document very thoroughly—in fact I have done little else since it appeared—and I am suffering from a good deal of mental indigestion in consequence. I should like just to give my immediate impressions. The first is that, as has been said already, the summary published before the document gives a very partial and misleading view, and that anybody who attempts to form conclusions, for or against, on that summary is acting very foolishly and should be forewarned to that effect. My second impression is that the document falls very definitely into two parts, the outlooks of which are quite different. There are the first four chapters and chapters five and six, and passing from the fourth to the fifth chapter reminds me of coming out of a super-heated palm house into the open air on a rather grey, chilly day. I think that that is not overstating the contrast between the two halves.
The first part aims at the ultimate doubling of the world food supply, an aim which no hon. Member would controvert as an ultimate objective. The second part, however, plans for avoiding embarrassment from surpluses as small as 10 per cent. or less above the prewar production. It is difficult to see how these two plans can co-exist at the same time. I do not think either part has very much direct relevance to the position of acute scarcity which faces this Government at present, and the hon. Gentleman said as much in his opening remarks. We at least believe it is the duty of all Governments, and particularly of this Government, at this time of crisis to put first things first, and we are rather surprised that the House should be asked to give a day to discuss at this time this rather remote prospect.
I will first deal with part one, the first four chapters of this document. The ideals, which are set out, are subscribed to by everybody, but the document makes it perfectly clear that the difficulties which stand in the way of their attainment are 2067 enormous. First of all, world stability must be achieved. Secondly, it is obvious that it is necessary to achieve a degree of efficiency in the government of what the Report calls the "nutritionally disadvantaged countries" which has seldom been reached even in the most advanced countries in the world. Whether such a degree of efficiency can be reached in these countries, time, and a good long time, will be required to show. Then we are told, truly, that agricultural expansion must be accompanied by great industrial expansion, and that industrial expansion requires very large-scale capital advances. We are told that a prerequisite of all that is the achievement of financial stability and good financial practices by the backward countries. We are then told, very truly—I will read the words at the top of page 6 of the Report:… it will be very difficult to develop means of international payment.So that this problem, like so many others, comes back at the end of the day to the state of international exchanges, and here again, as in so many other respects, we are likely to be held up by the question of balance of payments and the lack of dollars in this country. We are also told that we have to consider the whole economy of the world from every angle before we can reach useful conclusions on the question of agricultural production. Let us indulge in as much research and preparatory work as we can, but it is not reasonable to expect this House to express views on these very wide questions merely in the course of a comparatively small part of a one day Debate. Possibly some of the rather optimistic outlook of the Report is based on this sentence which I find in paragraph 9:As long as the war-expanded productive capacity is being used to restock and re-equip the world, all appears to be well.I wish all was well during that interval, or that all was likely to be well. I should have thought that our troubles would have come upon us long before the world is restocked and re-equipped, and I think this rather optimistic statement is at the base of a good deal of the outlook of this part of the Report.
Chapters five and six are much more realistic, and before approaching a consideration of these parts of the Report and seeing what relevance they have to the position in this country today or in the 2068 immediate future, it is necessary to devote some time at least to the question of what is the position in this country at this moment. How bad is it? It was a notable feature of the inter-war period—the period which hon. Gentlemen are so keen to call the grim period of Tory misrule—that there was an enormous improvement in the quality of the nation's diet during those years. It was not an improvement in the quality of the diet of the rich or well to do—the quality of their diet was already good before 1914—but during the inter-war period the consumption of high class foods like butter, cheese, and eggs rose by figures in the region of 50 per cent. There was no great increase in the number of calories. The consumption of wheat fell quite materially during that period; the consumption of potatoes did not increase. The change during that period was in the quality of the diet, and it was very large and affected all but the poorest. But what has happened since 1939? The change has not been so much a change of quantity, it has been a material change of quality.
Here I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question. In a reply on 23rd October last he told us that the original estimate of deficiency in quantity was 7 per cent., but that it had been scaled down to 3 per cent. I find, however, in a Press report of the last review of F.A.O. published on 24th December—of which copies are not yet available in this country for some reason—that the diet of Britain had fallen by 10 per cent. I wonder why the F.A.O. did not accept the right hon. Gentleman's figures? I would be interested to know first, whether the Press report was right in attributing the figure of 10 per cent. to F.A.O. and, secondly, if they were right, why F.A.O. did not accept the figures of the British Government? But, whether it is 10 per cent or 3 per cent. is not perhaps very material; what is material is the very serious decrease in the quality of our diet.
It is all very well for the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams) to come along with a lot of partial statistics. We always knew that statistics could be made to prove anything, and if we did not know it before we know it now. I prefer to deal with this matter on much broader lines. Broadly speaking, the nation's diet divides itself into two parts: the high class and protective 2069 foods, and what are sometimes called the "fillers." The "fillers" are broadly bread and potatoes. What has happened since 1939? There has been this overall fall of 3 per cent. or 10 per cent., or some intermediate figure, but there has been a great increase in the amount of the fillers and a great decrease of the amount of the better class foods.
I go to the same digest of statistics from which the hon. Gentleman quoted and I find that with regard to potatoes—perhaps the lowest grade food of all from the point of view of quality—there has been over 100 per cent. increase, from 58,000 tons a week to 125,000 a week. There has been a very considerable increase in regard to wheat, over 20 per cent. from 79,000 tons to 96,000 tons. So that you have an enormous increase in the fillers, and an enormous decrease in the high class goods. There is no other possible inference to be drawn from those figures, and if the right hon. Gentleman can draw another inference I shall be glad to hear it. I have quoted figures from the Governments official statistics, and if they are misleading by all means let us know. Incidentally, the figure of 96,000 tons of wheat a week is interesting, because we were told when bread rationing came in that there would be a very considerable saving. But 96,000 tons a week in December is very near the unrationed figure, and it is very interesting to find out how any saving from rationing has disappeared.
I have vouched my proposition that there has been a very serious reduction in the quality of the nation's diet and that is a very serious thing if it continues much longer. There is a certain lethargy in the population; a certain lack of effort. One need go no further than the White Paper for evidence of that. There is a lack of production drive. I do not think that is to be attributed, as to the larger part at least, to any deliberate slackness on the part of our people. I do not think it will be cured by any stream of exhortations and White Papers. I think the greatest factor in causing that lethargy, that lack of drive, and lack of production is our national diet. Not until the national diet is improved, are we likely to get that improved production drive which the Government very properly say is essential to the wellbeing of this country. The prewar output of our people, of all classes, was extremely high, both in quality and 2070 quantity. Without a return to that high quality and high quantity, this country cannot survive. The economy of this country is wholly artificial. We can only maintain half our population on our own products, and nothing short of exceptional productivity, exceptional quality and quantity of output by our people, can preserve our economy at all. It is true that in the old days this country consumed much more than the numerical proportion of the world's supplies which it might have been expected to have. But, we have justified over and over again the fact that we consumed more than our share. In every great emergency of the last 200 years this country has been called upon, not only to save itself by its exertions, but to save Europe by its example. If we had not been a well-fed nation, if we had not been a super competent nation, that job could not have been done.
Mr. R. Adams
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion that the three million unemployed were well fed?
§ Mr. Reid
I am suggesting there never were three million unemployed. I agree that there was a hard core of unemployment which might have reached half a million, but, broadly speaking, even including that hard core, the unemployed in this country were far better fed than the well fed people in most countries of the world. I believe that this nation has now to face greater trials, possibly, than it has ever had to face in its history; and that within the space of the next few years, it may almost be the next few months. Unless the diet of this country can be improved, and improved quickly, there is the greatest risk that this country will not pull through the trials which face it in the immediate future. Every hon. Member will agree that if this country goes down the prospects of world recovery will be immeasurably damaged.
Therefore, I say that it is neither selfish nor is it insular, nor is it shortsighted, to say that the first duty of this Government is to improve the national diet, and do it quickly, and that everything else ought to give way to that. What are the prospects of that being done? Time and again we have pressed the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food for the full facts, for a disclosure of the whole facts in an intelligible form, but we have had to dig the facts out of him piecemeal. Many of them he has refused to give us, others have been 2071 given by him in one form, by his Parliamentary Secretary in another form, and by other Members of the Government in still other forms. We do not know where we are.
Let us not blink the fact that there is a widespread feeling at the moment that this country has not got the food from outside sources of supply which it ought to have got. If that feeling is not well based the right hon. Gentleman has only himself to blame for not giving the country the full facts. For example, it is difficult to find out just how this International Emergency Food Committee works. We have tried to find out. At one time we are told that it allocates food, another time we are told that it has no executive functions. We have never been told on what principles it bases either its allocations or recommendations. We would very much like to know, because it appears, at first sight, that a number of the decisions which appear to have been reached somewhere are distinctly unfavourable to this country. If they are not, let us know the facts.
Let me take three commodities, and ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will give us rather better facts than we have had up to date. To take wheat first, we were told rather a strange thing on 25th November—that there was a gap, not between the export surplus and the world's needs, but between the export surplus and the importing countries demands. But importing countries' demands, are, or may be, very different from their needs. I would like to know why such an emphasis was put on their demands, and what steps have since been taken to find out their real needs, what the position really is, and how far the 10 million tons gap then mentioned is a reality. Then we were told on 6th December that there was a serious risk of a reduction of the present bread ration, and on 22nd January, Lord Henderson, in another place, said that that might yet be inescapable. Can the Minister tell us what is the latest position with regard to wheat? Can he tell us whether there is still a risk, or a serious risk, of the bread ration being reduced, or whether the danger point is passed? It is important that the country should know that.
I pass to the second of the commodities with which I wish to deal, namely, meat. 2072 There is rather a curious history here. The Parliamentary Secretary told us that we were within measurable distance of an increase. Then Lord Henderson told us, in another place, that we may have difficulty in maintaining our present ration; and when the Minister was called upon to arbitrate between these two views, he said he did not think Lord Henderson had suggested that the present ration was in danger. That was on 28th January. On 30th January in Washington, Mr. Henry Hardman, the head of the British Food Mission, repeated the recent warning of Lord Henderson that Britain faced this year further cuts in the bread and meat rations. Just where are we? Are we to accept the optimism of the Parliamentary Secretary, the pessimism of Lord Henderson, the nicely balanced attitude of the Minister, or the very frank pessimism of the Minister's representative in Washington? It is as well that we should know. Again, we are told by the Ministry about disappointing allocations of meat. I wonder how it comes about that so often there appear in the Press inspired statements from the right hon. Gentleman's Department that the United States Government have disappointed us. It does not seem to point to a very good liaison between the two Governments. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can tell us anything about that and what we may expect in the future.
The last commodity upon which I ask for information is feedingstuffs. It is obvious that if we are to return to a high class diet we can only do so by growing high class foods in this country. We can only do that by having an ample supply of feedingstuffs. Therefore, the main duty of the Government, one would think, would be to get every scrap of feedingstuffs into the country that it is possible to get. I do not know what the present position is. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary on one occasion that all supplies of animal feedingstuffs available to us under present I.E.F.C. procedure are being imported. That was in December. Then, in January, we were told that we are planning to purchase increased quantities of maize. Which is right? Is there a limit put on our importation of feedingstuffs by the International Food Committee, or is there not? If there is a limit, what is it? I think we are entitled to know. If there is a 2073 limit, on what principle is it fixed? Have we bought up to that limit, or have we not? If we have not, why not? It seems to me that all these questions arc relevant. They are questions which the Minister ought to have answered off his own bat without waiting to be pressed. They are questions which he ought to answer now.
Let me give one or two more particulars about feedingstuffs. Before the war we imported nearly five million tons of feedingstuffs each year. Inspection of the Trade and Navigation Accounts will show that it was nearly five million tons. Last year, it was under 250,000 tons, a one-twentieth part. Before the war we got at least one million tons from the United States; last year we got none. Why is that? Before the war we got ten times as much from the Argentine as we received last year. The United States had a crop of maize last year of 80 million tons, and yet we cannot get a scrap. What is the reason for that? We can get grapefruit from Texas, but we cannot get maize. It cannot be the question of dollars. Is it transport?
§ Mr. Strachey indicated assent.
§ Mr. Reid
Let us know what are the prospects. We do get quite a lot of other things from the United States—things which we would be much better without. [Interruption.] Well, when the Loan runs out, we shall regret that we wasted it on all these things. The Government should let us know, therefore, what the position is, whether there is any hope of it getting better and just what the bottleneck is.
There are one or two other matters which the right hon. Gentleman can tell us about—soap and edible fats, which Lord Henderson said he hoped he would not have to cut again. Can we have some information about that? Finally, on this question, I would draw attention to a remark which Lord Henderson made in another place during the Debate to which I have referred:The unfavourable outlook is further aggravated by the expected deterioration in the machinery of international food allocation as a consequence of the decontrol policy of the United States.Can the Minister explain that? Why should we get less food because of this policy of the United States? The transport facilities are not lessened. What is 2074 lessened? I can understand that bulk buying will not work, and I think the hon. Member for Bury (Mr. W. Fletcher) showed up bulk buying pretty badly today. I would say this to the right hon. Gentleman. If it be the case that recent developments mean that bulk buying is going to be less effective than it was at one time, then it is his duty to revert to other and well tried methods of buying. We have got to get the materials somehow, and if, by reason of ideological considerations, he refrains from returning to ordinary means of buying and thereby loses food for the people of this country, he and his Government are incurring a very heavy liability indeed, and a very heavy responsibility. I hope that we might have some information upon the prospects there.
I have left myself no time to deal with the second part of the Report. I hardly think that I need do so, looking back to the very effective way in which that task was performed by the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles). This Report deals with 12 major commodities. It says, very truly, that there is no common solution equally applicable to all, and it would be quite absurd to expect us or anyone else to reach a considered view on 12 schemes of this magnitude in such a short time. We shall have to study the matter and see what view we take. I think there is a great deal to be said for the view that, in present circumstances, international agreement is necessary, but I doubt very much whether durable international agreements of this complexity can be made in the absence of Russia and those countries which take their cue from Russia. I shall be especially interested to hear from the right hon. Gentleman whether he thinks these rather elaborate arrangements can usefully be made in the absence of one of the chief producers in the world. It would be useful to have the views of the right hon. Gentleman on that. I do not dissent from the view of the Report that international agreements must be made; it says that commodity arrangements should be motivated by genuinely multilateral considerations. I do not think we should allow our dislike of the phraseology to dim our appreciation of the sentiment, and I close by saying that my general view of this part of the Report is that this plan is designed for surpluses over a period when we can move comparatively 2075 slowly, because the machinery which it seeks to set up is slow-moving machinery.
It is designed for a period during which both the quality and the quantity of Government action and supervision can be relied upon. We know quite well that one of the effects of a sudden increase in the quantity of Government action is a very notorious decrease in its quality. I would say about these plans that, unless we are to have a corresponding decrease in the quality of Government action in other spheres, they can only go slowly. I will add nothing on the question of agreements for buying surplus at special prices to what was said by my right hon. Friend in opening the Debate for this side.
I wish to end by emphasising that the success of all these and corresponding agreements depends entirely or, at least, depends fundamentally, on solving the question of dollars, and, unless we can solve the question of dollars, all this is, as near as may be, waste paper. For that reason, I deplore the lighthearted way in which the Government are treating our dollar resources at the present moment. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who understands the seriousness of this matter, will redouble his efforts to have the expenditure of our dollars reduced to reasonable proportions.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)
We have had a very interesting Debate, and I hope that the House will bear with me if I go through, as fully as I am able, the speeches delivered on both sides of the House, because I think that the various points which I want to make will emerge in going through them, and, where I am able, reply to the various points and questions which have been addressed to me.
The right hon. Member for South Kensington (Mr. Law), who opened the Debate for the other side, began by contrasting bulk purchase and private trade, to the disadvantage of bulk purchase. He instanced recent increases. We have had to pay increased prices for commodities abroad. He also said that bulk purchase had failed to keep prices down, and implied that private purchase would have got the goods at a better price. Of course, it is always difficult to make hypothetical comparisons, but, surely, all that we can 2076 do is to compare what is happening in this country today, in this postwar period, with what happened after the last war. We are, to a considerable extent, but by no means to the extent that some hon. Members opposite seem to imply, using methods of bulk purchase, and many other methods, to maintain our price stabilisation policy. How have these methods which involve State intervention at many points, succeeded in keeping down vital foodstuff prices in this country, in keeping them stable, and prevented that tremendous inflationary pressure of boosting up food prices to consumers in this country, as happened after the last world war?
I believe that this comparison is always worth keeping in mind. I expect that the House knows it, but they may have forgotten it. Today, in spite of all our difficulties—and they are very great—and I do not say that we shall succeed in keeping prices necessarily to this particular level—the index figure stands at only 22 per cent. above the prewar level. If a wider range of foodstuffs than those included in the index figure are included, they are certainly 33⅓ per cent. above the prewar level. But how does that compare with the situation at the end of the last war, when the method favoured by hon. Members opposite was given its head? At the peak point after the last war, food prices went almost to treble the point at which they stood when that war started. [An HON. MEMBER: "When was that?"] I think it was at the end of 1921, but I will give the exact date afterwards. The index figure touched 291, actually. That is an indication of the degree to which we have been able to hold it down, so far at any rate. I do not say we shall be able to carry that through without some increase if inflationary pressure in the world continues indefinitely—we may have to give ground before it—but I do suggest that, so far, at any rate, it has been an immense achievement in stabilisation and of great benefit to the people of this country, as compared with simply letting the forces of the world market have full reign.
§ Mr. Eccles
The right hon. Gentleman's argument is interesting, but surely, the figure of a 22 per cent. rise is obtained after making allowances for the enormous subsidy policy initiated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish 2077 Universities (Sir J. Anderson). If the Minister wishes to make a comparison with the previous figure, he should take those vast subsidies into account.
§ Mr. Strachey
I was making a comparison, and was careful to say that it was not merely by bulk purchase but by all other methods. I now have the date for which I was asked. It was in December, 1920, that the figure was at its highest point. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Kensington went on to refer to a question which was raised by a number of other Members concerning the differential price arrangements which, in certain circumstances only, are suggested—nothing, of course, is settled or decided on—and endorsed by the signatories of this report. He said twice that he thought these differential price arrangements, by which a needy country with special nutritional problems might, in certain conditions, receive food at below the general world price, constituted a most dangerous proposition which might affect the rations of the British people. I submit that he is drawing very widely on his imagination. Whatever else they might affect, they could not affect the quantity of foodstuffs brought into this country, because those arrangements only work in conditions of extreme glut and surplus, when there is no question of a scarcity of food which is available for import into this country. It could be argued that they could affect the price—that is a different matter, of course, and I will come to that in a moment—which might mean that we should import our foodstuffs at a rather higher price than if those arrangements did not exist.
§ Mr. Strachey
If we were unable to pay for our food imports, clearly that would be so, but again in conditions of extreme surplus. That is a most remote hypothesis.
It is the question of price and not of quantity to which we must address ourselves. Let me say at once that I should regard proposals of this sort for a two-price system, as it has been called, as proposals which any British Government, and certainly this Government, would 2078 scrutinise most carefully and to which only if they were hedged round by the most careful provisions would the British Government subscribe. Therefore, what we are concerned with is whether these provisions in this Report are, in fact, adequately hedged round with safeguards for this country. If that is so, if the alternative to subscribing to these conditions would not be something far more advantageous to this country, then we. should subscribe.
I have already interjected a remark with regard to the speech of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles). Of course, these subsidy provisions for countries with special nutritional problems, or nutritional schemes, apply to us as well as to anyone else; we could claim benefit under them. It may be a somewhat remote hypothesis that we should do so. He stated that they were of no possible application to us. That is not so; no country is excluded from claiming benefit under them. But the real point is this. What our delegation was most careful to see—and I believe my hon. Friend is certainly to be congratulated on this, because I am sure he did not have an easy time in getting this provision into the document—was that the money for this differential price was to be paid by the exporters who have a surplus of which to dispose, and not in any degree or in any part by an importer. Of course, the whole problem does not arise until, not only has the price sunk to the floor price, as settled under the commodity agreement, but the reserve buffer stock granaries in the case of wheat, for instance, have been pulled up in both exporting and importing countries. If that has happened, and those conditions are satisfied, then the provision by which an exporting country, at its own expense, can make these specially cheap exports comes into force.
It might be said—and it is a perfectly well taken point—"Omitting all that, is not it still true that if no such arrangement was in force, if there was no possibility of the exporting country with this surplus on its hands using the cheap special price to a needy area, the buffer stocks might be overwhelmed, or the scheme broken or the price go lower?" On that hypothesis, Great Britain, or any other importing country, would get its food cheaper. As I understand the argument of several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Chippenham, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton 2079 (Mr. Durbin)—in a very able speech—and the right hon. Member for South Kensington, it was that such a provision as this tended to put a floor under the prices of these primary food products. Let us take wheat for the sake of argument. They argued that it tended to put a floor under the level at which, in conditions of great surplus, it would be sold. Let me say at once that that is perfectly true. If it is considered a terrible loss to this country that, conceivably, under these hypotheses there might be a situation in which we should import our wheat still cheaper than if this arrangement were in force, then that is true.
But what is the alternative? Is this really a disadvantage to this country? We have tried the other method. There is no doubt about that. And we ought to know what that means. Before the war, when that arrangement was in force, when the market was less free, and classically perfect in laissez faire, as the hon. Member for Edmonton would put it, and as hon. Members opposite would have desired it to be, wheat was imported into this country at 49 cents a bushel. What was the effect? We not only imported those bushels of wheat at 49 cents a bushel, but we imported two million unemployed along with them. That is the rub. It is possible to import the wheat too cheaply, to drive too hard a bargain on primary producers, succeeding only too well in ruining them and ruining the customers in the process. That seems to me the fundamental reason why it is by no means unwise—so long as these arrangements are scrutinised adequately, and adequate safeguards are put in—it is by no means unwise, though it may seem so at first sight, for importing countries, such as this, to subscribe.
But there is another and, to my mind, an even more important consideration here. What, in fact, would be likely to happen if we refused to have anything to do, even after most careful safeguards, with these arrangements, as the hon. Member for Edmonton, apparently, thought we should refrain from doing? What would be the real effect of that? Would it be that we should get this classically perfect world of laissez faire, in which all the great primary producing countries in the world, whenever they had surpluses, went on lowering prices, driving marginal producers out of action, 2080 forcing the price down, obeying perfectly the laws of supply and demand? Experience does not suggest that that is what would happen. Experience suggests, on the contrary, that what would happen is that the importers, the great importing interests such as ourselves, who refused to have anything to do with these schemes, would be excluded from great schemes of an exclusively restrictionist character, which would at once be adopted by all the great producers. That is what they did. That was how they met the situation when wheat fell to catastrophic levels. Instead of selling at charity prices, special cheap prices to needy consumers, they just ploughed the crop into the ground; they destroyed it; they burnt it in their locomotives; they did anything with it; and began very rapidly to put their heads together, to try to make a scheme in which importers had no voice whatever, and in which only great exporting countries were concerned, so that they could command the price.
I do suggest to the House that that is the real menace and the real risk which faces the great importing countries such as this; and that it is precisely by showing some willingness, given sufficient safeguards, to go into, or, at any rate, to consider schemes of this character, that the importing countries, such as ourselves—and we are the greatest importing country—can see that the schemes are not given a restrictionist character; that the floor price is brought down low enough—of course, it can be revised at stated intervals under commodity agreements come to under these schemes—that surpluses do not become unmanageable and, instead of being ploughed back into the ground, or burned, or destroyed in any other way, are used to feed human mouths in some parts of the world.
Before I leave the speech of the right hon. Member for South Kensington I want to refer to the passage in which he criticised the scheme so severely and so wrongly, as it seems to me, on this ground—telling us it was the most dangerous and, probably, the most disastrous scheme. He startled me by saying that, anyhow, we were committing a plagiarism, because he was the father of the scheme at the Hot Springs Conference.
§ Mr. Strachey
No. I do not think that is the only dangerous part. I think that there are other dangers. The point I am making is that the right hon. Gentleman, wisely in my opinion, when he held the responsibility of office, at Hot Springs also saw that a great importing country-like this could not be left out of the formulation of this scheme, but must come in to safeguard itself and play its part.
The hon. Member for Chippenham made a lucid and effective speech, as he always does, but I was a little bewildered. He said he had been to sleep reading the scheme, and that he had had bad dreams about it. I wondered whether these dreams were not still going on, because he began by telling us that the policy adumbrated in the Report was a most menacing one, and might lead to great surpluses coming into this country. He gave a list of the foodstuffs, including bacon, wheat and meat, which might come pouring in at terribly cheap prices, ruining British agriculture. I am utterly opposed to British agriculture being ruined, but my mouth did water a little about the prospect of these surpluses. He then turned round, and in the next breath used the same argument which the right hon. Gentleman had used, that the scheme in general, and the differential price arrangement, in particular, would mean that we had to pay unnecessarily high prices for these imports. If that were true, I should have thought it would have given an additional protection to British agriculture. He really cannot have it both ways.
§ Mr. Eccles
Evidently, I did not make myself clear. I took the greatest trouble to say that British agriculture would be ruined, because the right hon. Gentleman's colleague the Minister of Agriculture would not give us a guarantee of a proportion of the home market. I said that we wanted that guarantee in order that we might produce as much as possible 2082 here, and having got that guarantee, we ought to import the balance as cheaply as possible. There was no contradiction in my argument, but the Minister has, either deliberately or otherwise, twisted it round.
§ Mr. Strachey
The hon. Member will find that our policy is very much nearer to what he is now saying. He certainly used the argument, quite irrespective of what arrangements are made for—
§ Mr. Strachey
I think that it is within the recollection of the House, and, indeed, he was challenged by an hon. Member that the scheme would apparently lead to great surpluses of cheap food being brought into this country.
§ Mr. Strachey
The hon. Member says that I do not understand agriculture, but I suggest that he does not understand arithmetic, if he does not see the contradiction between these two points. The hon. Member was also asked by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Michison) to give a definition of the word "surplus." I do not recollect that he gave a reply, but I should like to give a definition of it. I would say that "surplus," in the sense in which we are dealing with it here, means, for the producer and the merchant, anything above the quantity which can be sold at a profit. I am not suggesting that the hon. Member would differ from that definition, but that brings me to the next point to which he objects, namely, if the surpluses rise to a point when they cannot be managed by our reserve stock provisions, we have agreed, instead of burning and destroying, as in the past, they shall be dumped at specially cheap prices to countries which are in special need of them.
I do not think that is an unreasonable distance for this country to have gone. Finally, he made great play with what he believed was the most dangerous condition we had to meet in regard to buying in bulk the products of countries which were willing to sell to us on those terms. As I understood it, he was no friend of bulk buying, so why he minded so much what he believed to be pledges restricting it I do not know. He read out, as a most 2083 formidable statement of a condition we had agreed to in this Report—it is in page 48, paragraph 35 (6):That there should be some limitation on the proportion of a producing country's exportable surplus that an importing country may contract.He did not, however, give us the opportunity of hearing the words at the beginning of that paragraph, which governed them, and those words are these—and this is all we have agreed to:The following conditions might be considered in helping to minimise discriminatory effects.It does not seem to me that my hon. Friend can be blamed—and he was most severely blamed by the hon. Member, for giving away British interests—in having gone so far as to say that that proposition might be considered. I am perfectly willing to pledge myself that that proposition, or almost any other proposition, might be considered; we would certainly consider that, and if we were given sufficient incentives, sufficient quid pro quo, we would consider it favourably, either that or anything else. We have not, however, gone any further than saying that we would look at that proposition in the setting of all the other propositions which would come up in the negotiations for an actual commodity agreement under this plan.
I want to pass on, though it takes me off the strict line of the F.A.O. Report, to the very interesting and important speech made by the hon. Member for Bury (Mr. W. Fletcher). He spoke in a somewhat controversial, not to say polemical manner, but I want to say, and perhaps I shall surprise my hon. Friends on this side of the House, that in those remarks which he addressed to the subject of Siam I found myself in very substantial agreement with him. But really, if he thinks that, by a simple fiat of His Majesty's Government, we can impose a particular method of procurement on Siam, which we believe and in the light of experience I have no doubt myself is the right one, then he exaggerates our powers. We have not the capacity to arrange matters in that distant part of the world with the same degree of control that we can arrange matters in this country. Nor do we have to think merely of Siam and the Siamese Government, for there are other very important Govern- 2084 ments, including that of the United States. In spite of this, I would say that these are the limiting factors which prevent us adopting what I think—and this is common ground—is the right solution. Namely, to give the merchants and producers, the people who are actually handling and growing the rice in Siam, acceptable incentives to sell. I think it is vitally important that ways and means shall be found of doing that.
§ Mr. W. Fletcher
I fear that the Minister has missed the chief point of my argument, which was that an internationally brought about tripartite agreement made by the United States, Siam and this country for £1,200,000 has so far produced a short-fall in deliveries of about £600,000. If this is the first example of international working, as foreshadowed in the F.A.O., it does not say much for its success.
§ Mr. Strachey
The hon. Member cannot seriously suggest that that has anything to do with F.A.O. or with the scheme. It is not even the pattern, nor is it by any means the only example, of international bulk buying. I need only mention the Canadian wheat agreements, the agreements with every one of our Dominions, and our agreements with Denmark. A certain percentage of their exportable surpluses come to us under those agreements. I agree with the hon. Member, who seems to be trying to pick a difference when really we are in agreement, that any policy, in the, frankly, primitive conditions of Siam, which does not give the people—not the Siamese Government, but the people who handle the rice—sufficient incentives is likely to fail. As the hon. Member knows, the Ministry's Director of Rice, Sir Harold Sanderson, an extremely able merchant in this business, is in Siam at present, and I have very little doubt that, although the complications are formidable and not under our control, if there is a way he will find a way of cutting through the very great difficulties and providing that incentive which, I entirely agree, is the only thing which will do the trick in Siam.
The hon. Member went on to speak of Ceylon, and again he was exceedingly critical. But again, what has happened—and there is no doubt about the facts with regard to tea, for example—cannot possibly be used as an argument against bulk buying. What has happened? The Government of Ceylon have 2085 wisely or not, in their own interest, thrown over bulk purchase. They say they will have no more of this international allocation and procurement under international allocation at fixed prices: they say they are going to sell their tea in the open market. What is the result? There is a very great rise in the price of tea. Surely, that is not an argument which shows that bulk buying is against the interest of this country. It is quite the reverse. I would say, with responsibility, that the Government of Ceylon, of course, have a perfect right to do this. Nobody challenges their right to do it—and the hon. Member's remarks applied to copra as well—but if they throw over the international bulk buying arrangements for those commodities which they have to sell, then naturally they cannot expect to enjoy the corresponding advantages of such arrangements in those commodities which they buy. This is no statement of menace or pressure on the Government of Ceylon. It is a statement of inevitable fact. They cannot have it both ways. They will find that if they wish to sell in the open market, then they must buy in the open market. If they wish to make new arrangements with us for what they sell to us, then we will have to make new arrangements with them for what we sell to them, because these are matters on which it is quite impossible for this country, in its present situation, to take anything but a realistic and reasonable view which protects the interests of the people of this country as well as the interests of Ceylon.
I have deait with some of the points that have arisen in the Debate as strictly directed to the Food and Agriculture report. The latter part of the Debate went more on to broader and more general questions of the food situation of the world in general and of this country in particular. The hon. Member for Denbigh (Sir H. Morris-Jones) challenged me to go to his constituency and tell the housewives there that they were happier than they were before the war. I will not do that, because, as was said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman who summed up for the Opposition, I have given the figures which show that the country as a whole per capita is consuming about 7 per cent. less. I cannot be responsible for the F.A.O. figure of 10 per cent. According to our figure, the 2086 consumption of the country as a whole per capita is 7 per cent. less than before the war. It would be quite wrong to say that we are consuming more but it would be equally wrong to suggest, as did the hon. Member, and as is constantly done, that we are consuming far less per capita than we were consuming before the war.
How is that 7 per cent. less distributed? There is within that slightly smaller total an immense redistribution. I would divide the people into thirds for our purpose. There is a third, which includes the rentiers, and the hon. Member himself, who no doubt is finding that his diet is very much reduced, by much more than 7 per cent. There is a middle third who are probably consuming about the same quantity. There is a final third, who before the war were the poorest third, and who are unquestionably, and on any test, consuming far more than they did before the war. We were told by the right hon. and learned Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) that this is only a question of fillers, just foodstuffs of the poorest and roughest sort. He said that the higher class of foodstuffs were all in enormously reduced supply, even for the poorer sections of the population. Is that true? It is true that some of the foodstuffs which are most important, such as eggs and bacon, are in bad supply but it is certain that some of the most important foodstuffs are being consumed in very appreciably greater quantities. Can we call milk just a filler? Milk last summer was being consumed in 147 per cent. higher quantity than it was before the war.
§ Mr. Strachey
Yes, but more cheese is imported. The amount of cheese consumed is almost exactly the same as before the war.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Elliot
Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that there has been 147 per cent. expansion in the production of milk in this country?
§ Mr. Strachey
No, but as the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said there has been 2087 a switch from cheese production to liquid consumption. Meanwhile, more cheese has been imported. Taking the poorer section of the community, in South Wales for example, three times as much milk is being consumed as before the war. These figures, I know, cause alarm and despondency among hon. Members opposite. They are the basic figures, whether they are known or not. They are not very widely known, unfortunately. The facts behind them are things which retain, beyond all argument, the solid support of the masses of the people.
Let me say, in my concluding words, that these are most important schemes. They are the schemes of the future. I would recall the words used by my hon. Friend in his speech. They are only schemes which will help those who will help themselves. We in this country and in this Government are determined in every possible way by our own actions to procure food for the people of this country. Today we publish a scheme for the large-scale production of ground nuts in East Africa. It cannot give us help immediately but it will do so. It is by those methods, which are not incompatible with the schemes that we shall win through.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.