HC Deb 06 March 1947 vol 434 cc815-24

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

12.12 a.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I apologise to the House for raising this subject at this early hour of the morning, but it is a matter of considerable importance to the farming industry. The matter to which I want to call the attention of the House is the shortage of feedingstuffs for the agricultural industry. This shortage is having a very serious effect on the live stock of this country. Some 12 or 15 months ago the farmers were encouraged to increase their livestock. They proceeded to do so, but cuts were then made in the feedingstuffs, and that stock had to be reduced until at the present time it stands at a very dangerous level. The effect of this cut in feedingstuffs is two fold. It is causing a very large amount of foreign exchange to be expended on the purchase of bacon, eggs, and poultry which should have been produced in this country, and it is having a hidden effect in that the fertility of the land of this country is being depleted because it is not getting back on to it the organic manure which is required.

It ought to be remembered that the farmers are being compelled to sell their feedingstuffs to the mills for human consumption instead of retaining them for consumption on the farm. That again is having a very serious effect, and I think I can rightly say that the land of this country is being mined at the present time, and not farmed. The question I want to ask is: Why have we this serious shortage of feedingstuffs in this country at the present time? We have asked numerous Questions of the Minister of Food as to the working of the International Emergency Food Council, and the answers we have had in reply have been vague and, in many cases, contradictory. I would like to quote some of the answers I have received. In a Debate on feedingstuffs the Parliamentary Secretary said that when we were being allocated feedingstuffs our available supplies were considered before the International Emergency Food Council made an allocation. In reply to a question the hon. Lady said the International Emergency Food Council allocated the grain and feedingstuffs. Replying to a Question on 28th November last: whether the Minister of Food is satisfied that Great Britain is given a fair allocation of feedingstuffs by the International Emergency Food Council?"— the Minister of Food said: I am satisfied that we are getting a fair share of oil cake, which is the only kind of animal feedingstuff allocated by the International Emergency Food Council."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1946; Vol. 430, c. 500.] There was a further Question on 25th November and the Minister made a long statement in which he blamed transport and the coal strike in America for the shortage of feedingstuffs, and then went on to say: The figure I have given is the world figure of the exportable surplus which is in the hands of the United States, the Argentine, Australia, Canada…. It is not in the hands of the International Emergency Food Council."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th November, 1947; Vol. 430, C. 1249.] Yet on another occasion the hon. Lady said that all supplies of feedingstuffs avail able to us under the present I.E.F.C. procedure were being imported, and further, that the I.E.F.C. were certainly responsible for the allocation of protein animal feedingstuffs but they had also designated the first grade for human food. I could go on giving numerous answers which have been given to Questions as to the activities of this body. But I think what I have given is sufficient to show the confusion which exists in the mind of the Minister of Food as to the function of this mysterious body. We have endeavoured to find out, and I hope the hon. Lady this morning will be able to tell us, exactly what this mysterious body does in the way of allocation. All that we have been told is that it is represented by 31 countries and that the F.A.O. and U.N.R.R.A. are also represented on this body. But we do not know when they meet, whether they meet, or what they do if they do meet. All that we do know is that the supplies of animal feedingstuffs have dropped down to the lowest stage of our industry for many long years, and while other countries seem to be able to get feedingstuffs, since they can send as poultry, bacon and eggs from all over the world, including some of the devastated parts of Europe, farmers in this country have empty hen and pig houses and are clamouring for something on which they want to rear their livestock.

I hope the hon. Lady will tell us how the allocation is done by the I.E.F.C. and when it is allocated, and if they have any powers of seeing that we get our share of the feedingstuffs of the world. It is interesting to give the prewar imports and compare them with what they are today. In 1936, we imported three million tons of maize and, in 1946, 120,000 tons. Of wheat, we imported in 1936, five million tons; in 1946, three and a quarter million tons; barley, in 1936, 400,000 tons, and in 1946, 109,000 tons. In view of these figures of prewar importations it seems that if any allocation is being made, based on prewar figures, something has gone wrong with the allocation. I want to ask the hon. Lady whether the Ministry of Food are satisfied with the working of the I.E.F.C.

May I assume that she is going to say that they are satisfied? Then I would like to know, if they are satisfied, that the allocations are being fairly given and why is it necessary for the Minister of Food to be in the United States and Canada at the present time? Either I.E.F.C. are not doing their job properly, or it should not be necessary for the Minister of Food to go searching the world for these extra supplies. There seems to be some reason why we are not getting these feedingstuffs and I am wondering whether one of the reasons is that the Ministry of Food are endeavouring to make contracts at underworld prices in those countries which produce this food. For instance, in another place, the Government spokesman the other day was congratulating the Government buyers on the fact that they were contracting for Argentine wheat at 35 cents a bushel less than world prices. Is that one of the reasons why we are not getting the wheat? Are we trying to buy this food at less than the world prices and, therefore, it is not coming forward? It is on the same basis that home growers of wheat and barley are compelled to sell their produce to the mills at less than world prices. The result of that has been that, for the season 1946, the acreage of wheat dropped by one million acres. In a figure of tons, it was probably a million tons. If the Minister of Food wants to get the feedingstuffs brought to this country to help the farmers to produce more food, the way to do it is to pay a reasonable price for them.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if she is satisfied with bulk buying. At one time, when I heard of the idea of bulk buying, I thought it was the right way of dealing with the purchase of feeding stuffs for this country, but, since I have seen the operation of it, I have changed my mind. It is one of those cases in which the theory is not borne out by practice. What has been the effect of bulk buying from the Argentine? It has driven the Argentine Government into hulk selling, and the result is that the Argentine Government are now taking the meat and the maize from their farmers at very low figures and making a million pounds in profit in selling it to the Ministry of Food. I have been in touch with two Argentine farmers recently, and they told me that the Government took the meat from them, and that, at the time they took it, the farmers did not know what price they were going to get. Yet, it was handed out to us at these fantastic prices. I have seen in an evening newspaper that the price of Argentine wheat is £34 a ton. Whether that is true or not, I do not know, but, if it is true, it is twice as much as the English farmer is, getting for growing wheat in this country. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reconsider whether, in view of the effect of bulk buying, the Ministry ought not to turn loose again the buyers who used to operate on the Baltic Exchange, who used to scour the markets of the world, so that we can get the feedingstuffs we want.

There is a very serious loss to the Chancellor in having to buy what I call manufactured articles like eggs, bacon and poultry, instead of purchasing feedingstuffs so that we can produce them in this country. I know it is not much good my pointing out to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he is losing exchange in these transactions, because he is squandering money on films, tobacco and pine apples, and a little bit more does not matter. I saw recently that we are to get 35 tons of strawberries from Italy, and I am sure that must rejoice the hearts of the agricultural labourers of this country, but I think the prize effort of the Chancellor was contained in his statement on the Danish Agreement a few days ago, in the course of, which he said that the United Kingdom would assist Denmark to purchase, over a long term, certain essential commodities, such as feeding-stuffs not otherwise obtainable. If the Chancellor is going out of his way to assist another country to buy feedingstuffs which we want in this country, it makes one think that the rest of the world will assume that we are in a mental institution. It seems to me that there is a little fight going on between the Minister and the President of the Board of Trade to fill the gap between imports and exports, and that the latter is importing all the things he possibly can, while the Chancellor is trying to build up an export trade in Denmark.

I think that the way in which the Ministry of Food is dealing with our feedingstuffs is hardly fair to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture is doing his best to build up our livestock in this country, but he is not getting co-operation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Food, and I ask the Government to co-operate as a team in endeavouring to build up the agricultural industry, instead of doing something which is a disadvantage to it. The Minister of Agriculture is, at the present time, trying to pass through this House a Bill which he claims to be the charter of the agricultural industry. But it will not have a very good passage, and it will not be accepted by the industry very favourably, unless the attitude of the Government changes towards the home producer. I can now understand why, on the Second Reading of the Bill, when the Minister was pressed whether the home producer was to have first place in his own market, no answer was given. The farmer must feel that the home producer is going to take second place, and that the producer of feedingstuffs abroad is to come first in the market. Therefore, I hope that the Ministry will change their attitude with regard to feedingstuffs, and will scour the markets of the world in an effort to get the necessary feedingstuffs into this country.

12.26 a.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Forest of Dean)

Although I do not share all the views expressed by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), especially in regard to what he said about bulk purchase, I am, nevertheless, very glad that he has raised this matter because, with a lot of what he said, I am in hearty agreement. To my mind, not only is the farming community concerned, but the whole country. Is is not only a question of raising pig meat and poultry produce in this country, important as that is; it is a question of exchange, and of conserving our dollar resources, which are running away far too quickly, as everybody knows. To my mind, this is one of those cases where an economy could be introduced by producing in this country larger quantities of pig meat and poultry produce, if we purchased more feedingstuffs.

The point of the hon. Member for Leominster is that, during the war, in order to increase our heads of pigs and poultry, we had to import eggs and bacon. The prime object then was to save tonnage. That problem does not arise today. We have got the tonnage. In those days we did not have to conserve exchange, because we had Lend-Lease. Now we have not. Now we have the Loan, and have got to do everything to save dollars. Therefore, the problem is not the same as it was during the war. We can afford to buy feedingstuffs, but we cannot afford to buy the more expensive agricultural produce which we can produce here. As the hon. Gentleman said, 18 months ago, after farmers had been encouraged to increase their heads of pigs and poultry, a cut was suddenly made in feedingstuffs, and everything had to be slaughtered once more. I do not know what the position is in regard to our purchase of feedingstuffs, but I hope that the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food will give us an explanation. I know that U.N.R.R.A. and other bodies are purchasing food for devastated countries, and that the demands are great. But we also know that the quantities available on the American Continent are large, and we think that we ought to have a bigger share than we are getting at the moment.

12.29 a.m.

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

I welcome this opportunity, even at this late hour, of clarifying the functions of the International Emergency Food Council, which, I recognise, have confused the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin). The House will recall that, during the war, with international trade and food so restricted, and transport so limited, the Combined Food Board was created for the purpose of allocating avail able surpluses of foodstuffs throughout the world. When the war ended, it was fully realised that the Combined Food Board was not representative, and it was necessary to set up an organisation which was more broadly based, and which was more effective in allocating the surplus food stuffs. Therefore, following the recommendation of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Emergency Food Council came into being, and, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it comprises 31 countries. Its primary function was with shortages and the necessity of co-ordinating the international movement of food supplies. It was realised that this could not be effected without co-operation and, therefore, each country which joined the I.E.F.C. undertook to accept the responsibility which membership involved, and to implement the findings of the I.E.F.C. This would mean that countries would have to limit the amount of their imports to that amount allocated by the Council. The hon. Gentleman charges me with having contradicted myself on many occasions, compares the answers which I have given to those given by my right hon. Friend, and indicates that these were not consistent. I must repudiate that, because both my right hon. Friend and I have given entirely consistent answers. Animal feedingstuff allocated by the I.E.F.C. is certainly oil cake. When the hon. Gentleman asked me about the cereals allocated, I said that maize was allocated, or rather that coarse grains were allocated by the I.E.F.C. The hon. Gentleman then claimed that my right hon. Friend had said that only oil cake was allocated by the I.E.F.C.

I must explain that, so far as maize is concerned, it was always regarded as an animal feedingstuff in the days before the war, in the days when there were surplus cereals. But when wheat became in short supply, it was decided that maize would have to take the place of wheat, and, therefore, I was perfectly correct when I said at that time that the I.E.F.C. were allocating maize. It was correct because they were, and are, filling the wheat gap with coarse grains.

The hon. Gentleman who raised this question asked me how allocations were determined. The aim of the I.E.F.C. is to give each participating country its share of available oil cakes, based on the datum period 1935 to 1937, and in arriving at these, imports of oilseed and home-grown supplies were taken into account. But, it must be remembered that after the period of allocation, the I.E.F.C. then considers shortfalls and longfalls, and I think this is what confuses the House. It is difficult to explain this complicated matter at Question time in answer to supplementary questions. I think the objections which hon. Members have to the operation of the I.E.F.C. is to the effect that the shortfalls and the longfalls are taken into account. By December, 1946, we had a longfall of 67,000 tons of oil cake, and we asked the I.E.F.C. to abolish the carry-over of the longfall, and this was agreed to. The quantity of oil cake refused by other countries was 238,200 tons. As the United Kingdom had underwritten the purchase agreement, this came to us as a windfall. The reason for that is, that the amount of protein animal food had been allocated to those countries based on their purchases for the period from 1935 to 1937. For one reason or another, and it is not for us to inquire why—though perhaps it was for financial reasons—those countries did not take up their allocation. In that case, we can enter the market, as we did; and far from the British farmer being prejudiced, this last year he has, in fact, benefited from this windfall in the shape of allocations which other countries have not taken up. Allocations for the present year are not complete as yet. but we are hoping to get 80,000 tons for the period January to June But the claims of other countries do not have to be in until 15th March, so it is difficult for us to finalise these figures and to say how much we shall receive. In the case of cereal foodstuffs, I have explained already that the position is entirely different. During the period of cereal shortage the I.E.F.C. decided that maize should be allocated as a human food. Therefore, as I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman, we were quite right when we explained that oil cake was the only food being allocated as an animal feedingstuff, and that maize was being allocated with cereals. I think that is what he found confusing.

Now, I want to explain the position of Denmark, because I think the hon. Gentleman has raised this on other occasions, and he has discussed the matter with me. I think the attitude he has taken towards this very friendly country is not perhaps the right one. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that in July, 1946, a contract was signed with Denmark, and a clause in that contract provided that, if either Government upon the request of the other felt that an alteration in the prices contained in the agreement was justified, because of conditions influencing Danish agricultural production, then the Agreement would be revised. The I.E.F.C. allocation of oil cake to Denmark for the second half of 1946 was 173,000 tons, of which the Danes took up only 70,000 tons. The price they paid for this cake was some £15 a ton above the price ruling when the contract was made. They said that this represented a substantial difference in the terms of the Agreement, and they asked us, therefore, to revise the terms of the Agreement. We had undertaken to do this. This claim was covered by the settlement under which butter prices were raised from 220s. to 242s. a owt. We agreed to facilitate the shipping of animal feedingstuffs to Denmark in order that she could produce more milk products for us. I would remind hon. Members that in this country we are consuming the whole of our milk supply, mostly in liquid form. If Denmark is prepared to produce milk and turn that into butter, then we are pre pared to import it. Therefore, it must be quite obvious to the hon. Member, as a practical farmer, that it is in our interests to direct these coarse grains to Denmark. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer undertook to help Denmark to import animal feedingstuffs.

Mr. Spence (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Central)

Can the hon. Lady say how much butter went from Denmark to Russia recently?

Dr. Summerskill

I cannot give the hon. Member that information without notice. Denmark is a sovereign State. We cannot dictate to Denmark and say, "You shall send butter only to us." We invite her to send it to us.

Mr. Spence

If we are giving feedingstuffs, surely, it should come back?

Dr. Summerskill

Certainly. We hope that this is the best way to persuade them to send us the butter. Finally, the hon. Member asked whether the Minister of Food approves of the operations of the I.E.F.C. The I.E.F.C. has not, of course, caused our shortages. It is a world shortage of animal feedingstuffs which handicaps livestock producers. It may be that they have not allocated according to the desires of many countries, but on the whole the I.E.F.C. have made an excellent contribution to this problem.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Eighteen Minutes to One o'Clock.