HC Deb 03 November 1947 vol 443 cc1494-504

11.28 p.m.

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

Mr. Royle (Salford, West)

Whenever this House sits late, it always seems that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food is on the Front Bench to reply to the Debate. While I apologise for talking at this time of the night, the subject I raise, that of inequality in the distribution of food, is, I feel, of importance. I have, in accordance with the usual custom of this House, to declare some personal interest in the question of food distribution, but when I have sat down the House will, I think, agree that that is not my incentive to mention the matter. It is in no sense of carping criticism, but in a genuine desire to assist that I refer to it.

The food rationing system of this country has been the envy and admiration of many visitors, who have paid great tribute to the system, but I feel that there is a grave danger of this excellent system breaking down. I am well aware that the biggest headache for my right hon. Friend the Minister has been to procure food. These efforts are going to be wasted through the fact that the food is not being distributed as equally as it might be. Therefore, I am impelled to take this opportunity tonight, because of inequalities, and in as short a time as possible I want to deal with four specific articles of food—rabbits, poultry, pigs and cattle. I believe large quantities of these animals and birds are finding their way into the black market and that that black market grows every day. We have to direct our food into the right channels and it is a bad thing that people today with money to spend can, if they desire, buy three lunches and three dinners every day in hotels and restaurants from supplies which are very much restricted.

In the rabbit trade, English rabbits have a fixed wholesale and retail price, yet it is rarely that one can be obtained at that price. I would say that in the main they are bringing twice the controlled figures. Millions are killed every autumn and every winter, and in addition there are at least a million frozen rabbits available in this country every month. Those sold at the legal prices go in the main to the large multiple firms who happened to be the importers and first-hand wholesalers in prewar days. Secondary wholesalers, who used to supply the retail traders, rarely see them. There are even ways in which the controlled price is defeated, by picking out the best and calling them tame rabbits, for which a higher price is obtained. I could take the Parliamentary Secretary to any large London terminus almost any day of the week and show her thousands of country rabbits which are going direct to the large multiple stores or to the hotels and restaurants. Rarely do they reach the average household where the need is great.

I come to the question of poultry. Our imports of poultry for the first nine months of 1946 were 100,588 hundredweights. For the same period in 1947 they were 387,610 hundredweights. The increase in the next six weeks will be substantial. Where is the poultry going to? What happens to it? I suggest that it is very largely to the hotels and restaurants that it goes. Very old fowls are being sold in several parts of the country for 30s. each and upwards. The shops that distributed them in prewar years and are anxious to sell at controlled prices cannot get them. There is a cure and I want to suggest it. Three classes of traders sold this commodity and also rabbits—butchers, fruiterers, and fishmongers. In the former case, rabbits and poultry should be distributed to them according to the number of registered customers and forgetting catering establishments. The need of catering establishments is least of all. I would distribute to the other two sections, who do not have registration, through the channels of the secondary wholesalers. The catering establishments would get more than their share even by that method. Large multiple stores are steadily increasing their registrations in rationed foods, because of their being able to supply rabbits and poultry, and that to the detriment of small traders and Co-operative societies, who were not prewar importers and who will not play in the black market.

I come to the pig trade. I call it the pig trade for want of a better word. It is the greatest racket of them all. The pig trade is a disgrace to the community. Much has been said recently in the Press about it. Almost everything that has been said about the price of this particular commodity is true. The bacon ration is reduced to one ounce and yet vast quantities are in the country and are being consumed by illegal methods and by evading the rationing system, sometimes with Ministry assistance, inadvertently, of course A great proportion of the pigs reared in this country never get to the consumer in a rationed sense. Every week at the present time large quantities of fat bacon pigs are being sold in the auctions as stores at colossal prices and getting into illegal markets. At Chelmsford the other day three wagon loads of pigs left for North Wales, Lancashire and Yorkshire and they had made a figure equivalent to 2s. 6d. per pound. At Leicester in a farm sale two pigs brought £30 each. The Ministry price would have been £14 18s. at the weight. At Market Harborough only eight pigs have gone to bacon factories since 27th August. Last year there were 60 in the period from 27th August to 27th October. I could go on and quote dozens and dozens of such instances. I would only add that hams are actually being sold to Blackpool hotels this very week at a price as much as 25s. a pound and legs at £15 each.

The proof of what is happening lies in the curers' returns which the Minister must have. I know one curer who in place of his usual 250 pigs for the week ending 18th October received only eight. Prices are quoted in the provincial papers which are two or three times the Ministry price for finished pigs. All this is added to by what I feel is the pernicious system of self-supplier and pig club. Thousands of pigs go through this system every week, instead of through the hands of the Ministry. I have not the time to develop that, but it requires real examination. I know that a licence to slaughter a pig for home consumption is often the cover-up for the slaughter of two or three. These people give up 52 one ounce bacon coupons for 400 pounds of pork or bacon in six months.

There are ways of preventing a great deal of this wastage, and I suggest that every pig should be tagged in its early days with a metal tag as we used to do with the Irish cattle, and an attempt should be made to keep track of it. Secondly, the weight of so-called store pigs should be limited in every auction. Thirdly, grading panels should have authority to decide whether pigs are fat or store, and this should apply to cattle as well. Fourthly, I would make self-suppliers sell an animal to the Ministry for every one they are allowed to slaughter for themselves. In the case of pig clubs, the Ministry should demand three for one which the pig club retains. The whole purpose of the self-supplier system is being defeated by the selfishness of people who are feeders at the present time.

I know at this moment of a North-West bacon factory which is holding 50 tons of bacon in stock, belonging to self-suppliers, or to pig clubs, who cannot take delivery of it because they have nowhere to store it, and pay very well for that privilege. Private householders are paying feeders to feed pigs for them, which they slaughter at the end of six months and then have a whole pig for a household of two or three people—while the housewife is queueing for her 1 oz. The same applies to cattle.

I had many things to which I wanted to draw attention, and am grateful to the House for the consideration shown. The matter is one of very grave importance. The rationing system in some ways, with regard to food, is breaking down. Letters to the Ministry appear not to have the desired effect. Questions in the House receive just the ordinary departmental replies, and no progress can be made by these. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give great attention to this matter; to bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food; and to see if some of us in the House of Commons who do know something about these things can be consulted so that we might offer suggestions for saving the Ministry from what I believe is a breakdown in the rationing system.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

The hon. Member has given interesting black market prices, and has mentioned rabbits in his speech, but he has not given the black market prices for rabbits. I would be interested to have them, if he can give them, because I have a good many rabbits on my land.

Mr. Royle

If the hon. Member is asking a serious question, I would honestly suggest that the black market price is about 16s. a couple.

Mr. Christopher Shawcross (Widnes)

I think the hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) has raised a very important subject. I want to deal with rather a different aspect of it. I apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary for doing so, because I have not given her any notice and had thought from the topic of the Debate that the rather broader aspect which I wish to raise would have been raised. It is the distribution of food in the industrial areas, particularly of Lancashire, which seems to inhabitants to be very unsatisfactory. It is based, apparently, on prewar figures and quotas, related to employment before the war, and these have not been sufficiently adjusted to developments which have taken place since.

I want to be brief and will give one example from my own constituency. The largest industrial town is Widnes, where the population has increased since 1939 from approximately 40,000, by 5,000, to about 45,000. It is said there—and although it cannot be proved, it is evident from the needs of the people and from observations which anyone can make—that there is not enough food there for 45,000 people to draw. It is clearly obvious in other places in Lancashire, such as Southport—which is a residential and holiday resort—that the quantity of food supplied, although no doubt based on prewar figures, is much too great.

I know there is a scheme which the Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt recall—I have had some correspondence about it—to supply certain towns and places in what were formerly called the depressed areas with extra food. I cannot remember its name, but it had some peculiar title like "prefabricated food" or "fabricated food." It is based on the percentage of unemployment existing in those places before the war, and some of them are well above it, and do not, therefore, come within the scheme at all. But the effect is that throughout Lancashire, and, I believe, other industrial districts, owing to the increase of employment to the full employment which exists now, and to the changes in employment in different industries, and movements of the population, there are many great industrial centres which, rightly or wrongly feel they are not being fairly treated. It cannot be proved by statistics. All that can be proved by statistics is that populations have increased, as in the case of Widnes, where the population has risen from 40,000 to 45,000. They appear to be getting no more food in proportion than was distributed there before the war for less population, whereas other places, with the same populations as they had before the war, are getting no less food.

I apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary for not having given her notice of this, but I thought my hon. Friend the Member for West Salford would raise the matter.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, will he say exactly what he means by "prefabricated food"?

Mr. Shawcross

I apologise for having got the incorrect phrase. It means an extra allocation of food to those districts which, before the war had a certain percentage of unemployment. They get, I suppose, tinned foods, cooked, preserved meats, and that kind of thing to supplement the quantity of food which they would otherwise get; the quantity which they would otherwise get being based on the prewar consumption in that area. I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate—

Mr. E. P. Smith

The hon. Gentleman means processed foods.

Mr. Shawcross

That is not what it is called, but it probably means that.

11.48 p.m.

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

I quite understand that the hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) feels very strongly on the matters he has raised tonight; and that, no doubt, with Christmas only a few weeks off he has felt prompted to raise the question of poultry, rabbits, pigs and cattle. I have every sympathy with those housewives he has mentioned who feel they would like a fair share of these particular commodities. I must, however, point out to the House that we are dealing here with things which are limited. The hon. Member for West Salford talked about hundreds and thousands of frozen rabbits that we were not taking up. I ask him to give me specific details. He says that the Ministry disregards these matters, and does not appear interested. Surely, he must know that every case of which we are given the details—which we must have, if we are to initiate some investigation—we do examine. If it is possible to acquire these things, we do so. I can assure him—

Mr. Royle

If the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive me—

Dr. Summerskill

I have been very patient.

Mr. Royle

I know. What I want now to say is that the hon. Lady has completely misunderstood me. I am not suggesting that there is something available which the Ministry can get. I am suggesting that there is all this stuff in the country. When I quoted figures of rabbits, I quoted from the "Monthly Digest" the number of frozen rabbits actually imported. My suggestion is that they are not being distributed properly.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Member must remember that there are 47 million people in this country. After we have tapped all sources we estimate that if the rabbits and poultry which we obtain were fairly divided in the country it would mean that each individual would get three pounds of poultry per year and two pounds of rabbit. Therefore, the hon. Member will agree with me that we have to think very carefully before we set up an expensive machine for the purpose of distributing the rabbits and poultry in this country. As the hon. Member knows, there have been efforts to exterminate rabbits because they have proved to be a pest. That has reduced the numbers in this country, and the severe weather early this year has meant that the rabbit popu- lation has dwindled. The same applies to poultry. The flocks are much smaller than they were, and now we are faced with a shortage of feedingstuffs, which means that it will be a long time before we get poultry back to the prewar numbers.

It was because poultry and rabbits were limited that we decided that the only way to distribute them was to allocate them from the ports, because at the ports we had got channels of distribution. Quite rightly, as the hon. Member has said, we asked the Association of Wholesale Distributors of Imported Poultry and Rabbits to undertake this business of distributing the birds and animals. They did, as the hon. Member well knows, distribute them from the eleven largest towns, as they did before the war, to retailers, who undertook to send them to their customers. We realise that this perhaps was not fair to those butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and so on who undertook this business and who only dealt in home-produced supplies. Therefore, quite recently we have revised our policy and we now allow them to help in the distribution. That, of course, is the importing side of the business.

On the home production side, if we do revise our policy, we have to consider whether we shall set up a machine which will take manpower, which will be expensive, and which will take a lot of time and in the end, perhaps, certainly not satisfy the people of the country. The hon. Member himself might then well come to the House and ask if we were spending a large sum to ensure that each person in the country got two pounds of rabbit a year. He must realise that the Ministry must consider these matters. He, I know, works hard in this particular field, and perhaps he is a little blinded to these other aspects. He knows perfectly well that as far as all sorts of other commodities are concerned, we have tried to allocate them fairly throughout the country, but we must take into account the cost of setting up the kind of machine for which he in effect is asking.

But I am prepared to look into the matter again, and I was a little disappointed when he suggested that his pleas were of little avail—that he had put down Questions and that the Ministry had turned a deaf ear to them. That is not so. If constructive suggestions are made, we are only too prepared to look at them, but very often in this House we get hon. Members at Question Time and on Adjournment Motions indulging in wild accusations. We invite them to give us a memorandum or constructive suggestions, and we never hear anything from them. I would ask the hon. Member to think about the matter. He is in the proud position of being the only butcher in the House. I recognise that he has real knowledge of this business, and we are only too ready to co-operate with him if he can put up a constructive suggestion which will be economical as well as efficient.

I am very pleased that he brought up the question of pigs, because it gives me an opportunity to explain the self-supplier pig scheme. That was initiated in order to encourage householders to make the maximum use of waste food for pig feeding. In return we must allow the householder to enjoy the meat which he helps to produce. The hon. Member for West Salford suggests that there is a great deal of black marketing of pigs, but I was very surprised to hear that he only raised the question of black marketing in the auctions. He must know very well that the self-supplier buys a pig at an auction or privately from a farmer. Our enforcement officers find that it is much easier to trace a pig that has been bought at an auction than from a private farmer, for this reason: when the pig is purchased under auction, under the Regulation of Movement of Swine Order licences must be obtained in order that the pig may be moved. That means that immediately a licence is obtained from the police we are informed, and we can trace the pig, but when the self-supplier goes to the farmer, the farmer can sell the pig direct, sometimes, I am sorry to say, he does not apply to us for a licence for slaughter, and slaughters illicitly.

Our enforcement officers are concentrating on these people today and they have been given instructions to devote a great deal of their time to try to trace this illicit slaughtering. I will give the hon. Gentleman some figures. He gave some very small figures of pigs which have been slaughtered in the bacon factories and he said that whereas only these few have been slaughtered in bacon factories, large numbers are being slaughtered illicitly and that people are being denied their bacon. I will give some figures. These are the figures for August and September: 6,641 pigs slaughtered under the self-supplier arrangement and 85,742 going into the bacon factories, compared with 7,711 and 146,179 during the same period in 1946. So that, I think, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's argument. [Interruption.]

We have half a minute only. That, I think, is the answer to the argument—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 22nd October.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Twelve o'clock.