HC Deb 24 November 1947 vol 444 cc1720-49

10.2 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Potatoes (Control of Supply) Order, 1947 (S.R. & O., 1947, No. 2402), dated 8th November 1947, a copy of which was presented on 13th November, be annulled. The Order to which I now desire to draw the attention of the House makes very severe cuts indeed in one of the staple foods of the people, and, before we are asked to accept this order, I think we ought to be told what its effect will be on the people's diet. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food the other day that, after this order, the total food available for the ordinary man or woman of every rationed or pointed kind, including bread and potatoes, will only be the equivalent of 1,600 calories a day. I want to ask the Minister what else he thinks will be available to the ordinary man and woman to make up for the cut in potatoes. By the ordinary man or woman, I mean people who do not have access either to canteens or restaurants. Those people are the majority of our fellow-countrymen, and, accordingly, it is of the utmost importance that we should know what their position is going to be if this order stands.

I ask the Minister to answer that question on the assumption—which I hope we can make for the moment, but which I could not put forward with any confidence—that there are no further cuts in our food supplies. Obviously, the figure of 1,600 calories must be very largely supplemented if conditions of life in this country are to be tolerable at all, and what is there available to make up for what we are losing under this order? The only two foods that are available in any quantity, and which are neither rationed nor pointed, appear to be fish and vegetables. From the returns of last year, it appears that the amount of fish available was well under 1 lb. per week per head of the population—not a very large amount—and it appears that the amount of vegetables available last year was, approximately, 2 lb. per head per week.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food if he can give us any information with regard to the position of vegetables as a possible makeweight for the loss of potatoes. Some hon. Members opposite have quite properly, if I may say so, drawn attention to the need for price control. I apprehend, Mr. Speaker, that it would be out of Order to go into this matter, but I would just remark in passing that, however important that may be, what is even more important is to ensure that the maximum possible quantities are available to those who need them. Accordingly, any consequential control in that field will have to bear in mind that over-riding consideration.

Mr. Speaker

If I might interrupt the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I think he is going a little wide to start with, because, in the memorandum, the Order is limited to a distribution scheme for potatoes, and we cannot discuss a distribution scheme for vegetables and other things under this order.

Mr. Reid

I have said everything I wanted to say about that. I thought, Sir, that you might, perhaps, take the view tonight as this is of such overwhelming importance to the people of this country, while one must not stray out of Order, one might be allowed casually to make remarks in passing which, on an order of less importance, would be inappropriate. I shall try not to trespass more than I can help in that manner.

I am sure it is a matter of common ground that this is one of the most important steps which the Minister has yet taken in the course of his administration, and, therefore, although one does not want to over-elaborate one's argument, it is rather essential that the country should understand just where we stand. What is the present position with regard to supplies of potatoes? We find from the White Paper which was issued on food consumption levels in the United Kingdom that, last year, the total amount of potatoes consumed was about 5.6 lbs. per head per week. That, I apprehend, includes not only the adults, but also the children who, of course, eat less than the average adult, as is shown by the Minister having allotted to them—I think quite properly—a smaller allowance than that which he allots to adults under this scheme.

Last year, we had the biggest crop of potatoes in our history, but it was only with difficulty that we got through at all. Again, I am not going into the question of what steps the Government took or failed to take at an early stage to produce the necessary potatoes this year although, I believe, that would, perhaps, be relevant from the point of view that lessons are to be drawn from what happened last winter with a view to making certain that something happens this year that will terminate potato rationing when the new crop comes on to the market. I think I might be allowed to say that there was no evidence of any very energetic steps being taken by the Government to provide in advance against the situation which has just arisen. This, Mr. Speaker, I think comes very close to the order. It was quite obvious by the early summer that this year there was a smaller acreage of potatoes, and there was a considerable risk at least that there would be a smaller yield per acre. I ask, what was the Minister doing when that became obvious? I ask that question, because this scheme in some ways might seem to be ill thought out and not to have been planned with any great deliberation, and as it was clear ever since bread rationing came into force that a potato rationing scheme might easily be required this year, and fairly obvious by the middle of the summer that it would be required this year, I want to ask the Minister what he was doing during that period to prepare for eventualities.

What happened to this crop? We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary on 12th November that the present crop available in Great Britain for all purposes amounted to 7.2 million tons, leaving 8 million tons in Northern Ireland. That may be a proper allowance. I do not know whether the Minister can perhaps get a few more from Northern Ireland, but obviously there is not a great deal of room for expansion there. Then we were told that of that 7.2 million tons there was not available for sale as food for civilian consumption in the United Kingdom 2.625 million tons—over 2½ million tons. I should have thought that that was a fairly large figure, and I see that the Minister himself is having second thoughts about that because I have noticed in today's Press that a Ministry spokesman states that it is now being considered whether the smaller potatoes, which under this scheme were not available for human consumption, might be roped in to eke out the inadequate ration. I do not know why it is only being considered now. I should have thought this was a very obvious point, and if there had been any mature consideration it might have been considered long ago. However, perhaps the Minister will now tell us what he is going to do about it.

According to the Minister's calculation, the figure left for consumption for human food in Great Britain during this year was rather over 4½ million tons. Yet we were told at the Ministry's Press conference on 9th November that there were now—I say "now" because he referred to the date 23rd November—only available 2¼ million tons for human consumption. That is to say, half the crop available for human consumption has already disappeared. I beg the Minister to elaborate this point when he replies, because it does seem to require a good deal of explanation why half the available crop has already disappeared and is now unobtainable. The Minister, at his Press conference on 7th October, is reported as having said: As the crop has not been lifted it is too early to say whether the crop will be as heavy as last year's. Of course, it was too early to give exact estimates, although a very exact estimate was given in the Statistical Digest published a fortnight later. However, everybody knew at that stage that the crop would be far short of last year's and very far short of requirements. The only question was how far short. Therefore, if the Minister's statement on 7th October is to be taken at its face value, it indicates considerable negligence on the part of his Ministry in not keeping in touch with those who know about agricultural estimates.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

Perhaps, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to intervene. I do not know on what report he is relying, but certainly I can tell him right away that I made no such statement that the crop might be as heavy as last year's. I entirely agree with him that that would have been an obvious fallacy. In October last I said nothing of the sort.

Mr. Reid

I do not think I said that. I read the right hon. Gentleman's words. We are under the difficulty, of course, that the Minister is accustomed to bringing out his information at Press conferences and I cannot get a full account of what he said. Nobody can. All one can do is pick up bits and pieces in various organs of the Press, which devote as much space as they can to what he says, but can give only a partial statement of what he says. No one can ever be sure whether his statements, reported in the Press, which are intended to be and are extremely important to the public, tell the whole story as the Minister intended it to be told. I wonder, in passing, whether he would consider putting full reports of his Press conferences in the Library, or making them available somehow, so that we can get a full and better account of what he has said than we get at present. What he is reported to have said was: It is too early to say whether the crop will be as heavy as last year's.

Mr. Strachey

indicated dissent.

Mr. Reid

If the right hon. Gentleman did not say that, then I pass from it, be cause I have no means of telling what he said except by reading what was reported in the Press. I tried to pick out what he said. I do not see all the newspapers every day after his Press conferences, but I try to pick out those bits which appear to me to be interesting and valuable; and if they do not tell the whole story, or if they are not accurate, I cannot help it. I do the best I can. At any rate, whatever the Minister said on 7th October, he was not doing anything. Two days later, on 9th October, the Foreign Secretary knew all about it. The Foreign Secretary said two days later—and now I quote from the "Daily Herald," which, I trust, provides an accurate quotation— 'We are considering how to distribute our available potatoes,' the Foreign Secretary told a meeting of the Wandsworth housewives yesterday. 'I do not know whether we shall have to ration, but I would rather do that than let one section of the community have them all.'

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Reid

Certainly—but it was a straight tip to everybody to buy up as much as he could before the rationing scheme was introduced, a tip which, if my information is correct, was very largely followed, because of the time which the right hon. Gentleman allowed to elapse after that before he took any action. Here is a point with which the right hon. Gentleman really must deal. That statement was made on 9th October. The order was not introduced until 8th November. For four weeks after this plain indication had been given everybody was free to buy up anything he liked. Why was that? 'Why was the order not introduced at an earlier date?

We have been told—and I accept it—that for practical reasons it is highly convenient to introduce these orders on a Saturday night., But four Saturdays passed after this information had been given, before any steps were taken. Why was that? Was the order not ready? Seeing that this was likely to happen, had the Minister not prepared against the day when he would have to make a decision? Not only had the Foreign Secretary said this, but the House will remember that a good long time before the Minister acted the present Chancellor of the Exchequer told us about the reduction of calories to 2,700. We were told later that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, he had in mind the effect of potato rationing. Yet even then there was no order. Perhaps the most charitable explanation is that the Minister was not ready. If he was not ready, it was gross negligence. If he was ready, what other ulterior motive induced him to withhold potato rationing? I think we ought to know.

I pass to the scheme itself. In this respect, I cannot do better than quote the Minister. Again, I regret that I have to quote a Press reference to what the Minister said at his conference, but I hope this one is accurate; perhaps he will tell me if it is not. The Minister is reported to have said: The scheme was not really a rationing scheme in the technical sense. It was an allocation scheme comparable with the milk scheme. I can see very clear differences between this and the milk scheme, as I am sure every hon. Member can, but I shall not elaborate that at the moment. The report goes on: We cannot have a full-dress rationing of potatoes because of the technical impossibility of doing that. Instead, the Government has decided to make it an offence for retailers to supply more than 3 lb. per ration book per week. People who grow their own potatoes will not have their ordinary ration taken away from them. It will be quite impracticable to do this, and we want to encourage allotment holders to grow more potatoes. I quite agree with that. Asked whether there was any guarantee that everyone would get his or her 3 lb. per week, Mr. Strachey replied: 'There is no entitlement, as there is in a ration scheme proper where you have coupons, but there will be sufficient potatoes in the market for that.' If we can be assured that that last sentence is correct, it does not matter, of course, what the technicalities of the scheme are. Indeed, we should be very happy that they should be as few as possible. However, I want to ask the Minister whether he is still satisfied that, until the new British earlies come on the market next year, there will be sufficient potatoes in the shops to enable every housewife to get her 3 lb. per week if she presents her book. I observe that on 19th November, in a Written Reply, the Minister said: It is not possible to introduce a scheme guaranteeing shopkeepers specific allocations of potatoes. We will, however, remedy local deficiencies by sending supplies to recognised wholesalers in the district."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1947; Vol. 444, c. 181.] Is the Minister still satisfied that he has enough supplies in reserve to ensure that, by means of this method which he has adopted, enough potatoes will be in the shops for housewives to get their 3 lbs. per week without finding too many green-grocers sold out before they come to one who has potatoes left? Under this scheme, there is naturally the risk that certain shops may be sold out. I hope the Minister can assure us that, in his view, these shops will be so few as not seriously to hamper the housewife in her pursuit of potatoes. The next claim made for rationing schemes is the claim of equality. The Minister has, quite properly, not made that claim in this case, because obviously both from the point of view of justice and of practical enforcement, it is essential for growers to be entitled to eat their own potatoes without restriction—nothing else could or should be imposed.

Then the Minister went on to deal with special classes of the community, and I should like to ask him to say a word about them. I take, first, the canteens, which are to get 12 oz. of potatoes per meal. Canteens, quite properly, get more of other foodstuffs than the ordinary person does, and, therefore, I assume that the Minister would not give them more potatoes in the present stringency than he considers absolutely necessary to provide a good, nourishing meal. I take it, therefore, that he considers 12 oz. of potatoes necessary to produce a good nourishing meal; otherwise, he would not have given them so much. That means that the ordinary person can have only four such meals per week, because four times 12 oz. is 3 lb. Is that the position? If it is not, I should like a word of explanation.

Then we come to the children. Again, quite properly, the Minister is allowing 8 oz. of potatoes per school meal. That is an extra 2½ lb. a week to each schoolchild who gets a meal. But can he make any provision for those numerous children who cannot get such meals, or for times when the others cannot get them? There must be a great number of children in this country—I do not have the figures at my finger tips—who cannot get benefit from this. Is there any possibility of these children getting some countervailing advantage? The Minister would not have given the 2½ lb. to the children who get the school meals unless it was necessary for their health. I agree that it is necessary, but what is to be done for the other children?

I have proceeded up to this point on the footing that the Minister is to maintain the 3 lb. allowance right up to the time when the new crop of British earlies comes on to the market in sufficient quantities to supply the public demand—at least to the extent of 3 lb. But such information as one can get begins to throw a certain amount of doubt about that. I am not going to express my own opinion; I am going to quote a sentence from an impartial and well-informed weekly, the "Economist" [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members do not agree, they can say what they like later. I ask the Minister whether he considers there is any foundation for this statement: Even at this present low level of rationing, supplies only just cover consumption, and the chances are the ration will have to be further reduced. I hope that that is not right. The House would welcome a statement from the Minister on his views on the question. I think I am on safe ground in saying that whatever be the chances of a reduction of the present ration, there is no hope that I can see of any increase. We are faced therefore with a shortage of nearly 50 per cent. of our requirements, because if the demand last year was 5.6 lb. per head per week, it was going up and if the potatoes had been available I have no doubt that we should have reached a consumption of 6 lb. this year. We are to get only half.

It would not be very relevant on this occasion to consider how that terrible situation has come about, and the extent to which it may be due to bad weather or to lack of foresight or negligence on the part of the Government. On a suitable occasion we shall certainly have something to say on the latter point, and we shall certainly have to maintain that the Government are to a very large extent, but not wholly, responsible for the position. Whoever is responsible and whatever the explanation, the damage has been done, and, as the shortage is so extreme, I agree that there is no way of coping with this situation apart from some form of rationing or restriction. I agree with that because of the extremity of the shortage. We have maintained from this side of the House and still maintain that where you have shortages of 5 to 10 per cent., rationing is not the right way of dealing with it. It can be better dealt with by other voluntary methods of restriction. But in this case the shortage is so much greater than any we have yet had to contemplate in any of our staple foods that different considerations apply, and therefore we agree that some measure of restriction is required.

The next question which would logically follow would be whether this scheme is the right scheme. The scheme has very obvious imperfections. The newspaper from which I quoted a moment ago set out some of these imperfections in considerable detail, but I am not going to quote that tonight, because I apprehend that no public service would be done by expatiating on the imperfections of this scheme. If the Ministry have not been able to produce a better scheme than this by this time, it is not very likely they can do it now. Therefore we have just got to put up with this scheme, whatever we may think about it.

The purpose of our raising this matter tonight is to get from the Minister something which I think the country is entitled to. I do not think the country can be expected to put up with this very serious situation unless it is given the fullest and frankest explanation of the situation. I ask the Minister, therefore, for a full and frank and realistic statement of the present position. For too long the Minister has marred many of his speeches by irrational optimism and for too Ions; his disclosures of information have been scrappy and incoherent. I trust that our putting down this Prayer will give him an opportunity tonight of taking a new and better line in his publicity. I do ask him to give us that statement as soon as he feels he can, in order that those who may follow me on both sides of the House may be able to put forward their suggestions in light of the full facts of the situation, and not merely in light of those bits here and there which I have tried to piece together as well as I could, but which still leave a good many points unelucidated.

To end on a practical note, because I have tried to be practical throughout—

Mr. Elwyn Jones (Plaistow)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give the House an indication of the distribution scheme which he has in mind?

Mr. Reid

I was just saying that I did not think it would be in the public interest to draw pointed attention to many of the deficiencies of this scheme. If you draw pointed attention in this House to the deficiencies in a scheme with which we must put up—because plainly the Minister is not able to take back this scheme, and give us another in a reasonable time, it has taken him so long to give us this one—it is not in the public interest to draw attention to loopholes. Less still, would it be in the public interest to do it in the roundabout way which the hon. Member suggests.

Mrs. Middleton (Plymouth; Sutton)

On a point of Order. I understand that this is a Prayer to annul the order. I now understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not want the order annulled. Where does the right hon. and learned Gentleman stand in relation to this order.

Mr. Speaker

A Prayer to annul is a peg on which one may hang an objection to the scheme. It is the normal way. In Committee we very often move to reduce a sum by £100 as a peg on which to hang an objection. This is a normal way, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in Order. He did indicate that we were going to talk all night with no decision. I hope that is not so.

Mr. Reid

I doubt whether the hon. Lady has been a very regular attender at the Prayers which take place at this time of night.

Mrs. Middleton

I think I can claim that I have been here when Prayers have been under discussion more often than the right hon. and learned Gentleman has.

Mr. Reid

I have certainly been here on a number of occasions when this procedure was used for the precise purpose for which we are using it tonight. If the hon. Lady has been here so often, I am surprised at her interjection.

I wish to ask three special questions. I have put a number of points to the right hon. Gentleman with which I hope he will deal. These three points stand out as most important, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will deal with them with special particularity. First, is the right hon. Gentleman reasonably confident that housewives will, while the allowance is maintained, be able to get their 3 lb. a week? I ask that because if he can give an answer, as I hope he can, in the affirmative, it will save a great many attempts to get round this scheme. If people can feel reasonably confident that the scheme will last out, there will be less temptation to try to get round it. Secondly—and this is not the same point—is the right hon. Gentleman reasonably confident that the allowance of 3 lb. can be maintained?

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

That is the same.

Mr. Reid

It is not the same point. It is possible under this scheme for the official allowance to remain at the 3 lb., and for people to go to the shops and find that they are sold out. Therefore, there are two points. Will the 3 lb. remain, and, while it remains, is the Minister certain the shops will not be sold out. They are quite separate points. Lastly—and I ask this with some hesitation—can the Minister give any indication of anything we can get to make up for the lost potatoes? He has a number of foods in store in large quantities—

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman would be out of Order if he indicated that. It would be going quite outside the Prayer.

Mr. Reid

If that is out of Order, perhaps it is in Order for the Minister to give a general indication whether there is anything pleasant to come or not. I do not think that would be going too far.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

Is it in Order for the right hon. Gentleman to anticipate Christmas in that way?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think I can, anyhow.

Mr. Reid

I must say that I am a little surprised at the spirit of levity with which a large number of hon. Members on the back benches opposite appear to contemplate this question.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

It is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech.

Mr. Reid

I do not think that their constituents would think that they were being very properly represented if they saw the way some Members on the opposite side are behaving tonight.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

I want to refer to two matters under this order. The first is whether the Minister could have known at an earlier date that there was going to be such an acute shortage, which might have meant a different order at an earlier date. The second is whether the system of control laid down under the order is going to work at all in its present form. I will make my position quite clear. I believe that the present order is unworkable, but that it is possible to make it workable. I believe the Minister, if he had shown foresight, could have seen months ago that an acute shortage was probable, and I do not know now if it is not too late.

Let us go back to the spring of this year and consider what the position then was. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates showed that bad weather and floods had brought about a fall in the potato acreage planted. The floods were worse in that very important potato-growing area of the Fenlands. On the Ministry's own estimate, this was bound to result in a fall in the crop of about 660,000 tons, on a normal yield. I would like to emphasise that word "normal." It should have been obvious to anyone who took any notice at all of the weather over the period April to September, or who took the elementary precaution of looking at the yield per acre of the early potato crop, that it would not be a normal yield but something much below it. As far back as June, it was quite obvious that our potato crop on a decreased acreage must be well below the average. I submit that it should not have been difficult at that date to foresee the danger of a heavy short-fall. We got on to July, and on the first day of that month, we had a Debate on food. The Minister had a great deal to say about the iniquities of the Opposition but neither he nor his Parliamentary Secretary had anything to say about potatoes, or of the likelihood of this order. In the concluding passages of his speech, the Minister used these words: I am perfectly sure that this country need have no doubt whatever of its ability to obtain an ample food supply in the coming years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1184.] I would probably be out of Order if I referred to the cuts in food which have taken place since that date, but the Minister even then should have seen the forthcoming shortage of potatoes. Did he not realise that the crop was maturing in a bone-dry soil.

Mr. Austin (Stretford)

On a point of Order. Your Ruling earlier, Mr. Speaker, will be within the recollection of the House, namely, that this order refers only to the distribution of potatoes. I would submit that ever since the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) has been speaking, his speech has referred to the crop of potatoes, and nothing else.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will leave that to me. I will try to watch the position as well as I can.

Mr. Baker White

In that Debate in July I was fortunate to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I did say something about potatoes. I said: …the Minister must face up to the real possibility of an acute shortage of potatoes in the autumn."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1185.] I did not have any of the inside special information which the Minister had from his officials all over the country. I come now to the scheme of control of supplies laid down in this order. I had to paint that picture first, because we must understand what the position was when the order was introduced. Paragraph 2 of the order imposes a statutory liability upon the potato retailer to serve anyone and everyone with potatoes, provided they present an unmarked ration book. It does not matter if they are regular customers, casual customers, or shop crawlers, as the trade calls those who come from outside districts, all must be served if potato supplies are available. That is laid down quite clearly under this order.

Under this order, at the same time, the retailer has no entitlement to supplies, although the retail trade is being called upon to shoulder the whole responsibility for consumer distribution. There is not a proper retailer allocation of potatoes under this order. The trade asked for that, but the Minister turned it down flat. I want to make it quite clear how the retailer stands in this matter, and I will quote the words of someone who is in a position to know, that is Mr. T. D. Matkin, the National Secretary of the Retail Fruit Trade Federation, the federation which is to handle potatoes through their federated retailers. He said: It is well that the retailers' position in the scheme should be fully understood. Let me repeat that he has no entitlement to supplies. Ministerial support takes the form of an authority to buy—a piece of paper which will be valid from 14th December, 1947. But with the paper in his possession there is no guarantee that he can get supplies even from his regular dealer. Ministerial aid is restricted apparently to assisting any trader who finds difficulty in proving that he is a bona fide trader—his Food Office or Area Potato Supervisor will help him. I hope the Minister will deal with that point which is raised by the National Secretary of the Federation. I put this question to the Minister—he has on similar orders recognised the need for proper entitlement by the retailer, as is the case with oranges, bananas, tomatoes, and some imported fruits, and these allocation schemes are operating well. Why does he, under this order, refuse the entitlement asked for in the case of potatoes? I venture to suggest that there is still time to put that right, because I believe that in the absence of the machinery that gives the retailer his fair share the scheme is foredoomed to failure.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

I want to submit at the outset that the proper basis for an allocation or ration scheme for potatoes ought to be in subdivisions of one stone. I make that submission because retailers' maximum prices for potatoes are fixed by the Ministry on a basis of 7 lb. and because the housewife is used to buying her potatoes in stones, half stones and quarter stones, and not on the basis of 3 lb. [An HON. MEMBER: "5 lb."] I want to ask how the unfortunate shopkeeper is to fix prices with an allocation of 3 lb. on a basis of controlled retail prices of, for example, 7 lb. of Golden Wonder at 10d. or 7 lb. of Kerr's Pinks, at 9d. Every endeavour, I submit, should have been made to have secured an allocation, not at 3 lb. but at 3½ lb. per head of the population.

Everyone knew that the yield of potatoes was going to be very much down this year. The Minister himeslf, speaking in the House on 10th November last referred to the 1946 crop, which as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) has reminded the House, was a record one. The Minister said that the crop was short unquestionably, and we were just able to make it last without imposing a rationing scheme. Then, in the same Debate, he went on to say that it was clear as the very hot summer went on that there was danger of a short crop this year. We began, he said, to take steps to restrict the off-take, and so consumption of potatoes, as early as 10th August. The same night that he made this statement, the Prime Minister at the Mansion House—the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food had left in order to come to the House to participate in the Debate—had said he was impressed by the fact that we had nearly three million tons of potatoes more than we had in 1939. There is nothing inconsistent really in this statement, but it hardly lay in the mouth of the Prime Minister to make a statement of that kind when the Minister was saying in this House, as he did later in the same speech, that the crop year of 1947 had been characterised by the lowest yield since 1931.

I think it is a great pity that the House of Commons was not sitting in September and that we were not able in September to advise the Minister about the serious impending shortage of potatoes. Everyone who grows potatoes knew in August that it was going to be an appallingly short crop; certainly by the beginning of September we were very alarmed at the position. I submit that the Minister should have seen the red light in time to have made an allocation of 3½ lb. a head, and I suggest that this might have been done with effect from the 1st September.

I want, if I may, quite briefly to give the House the basis of my calculations. We know that the consumption, including consumption by the Services and for export and so on, for the month of July was 512,000 tons and for the month of August it was 408,000 tons, so that by the end of August we had consumed, out of the 1947 crop—that which we are going to eat this year—920,000 tons. That left us 43 weeks. I want to say here that my figures are necessarily rough because they are balancing the half ration to the holders of green ration books against the double ration for heavy workers and expectant mothers, and I have no means of knowing how many expectant mothers there will be during the year, and therefore I cannot make an exact calculation, but on the assumption that those two roughly balance themselves an allocation of 3½ lb. per head of the population for 43 weeks gives 3,722,000 tons. The Minister's own figures for seeds, chats, and potato powder, comes to 1,722,000 tons; the Minister's figure for shrinkage, waste and consumption on the farms comes to 790,000 tons; five-sixths of the Minister's figure for Army export and Service requirements—five-sixths because already two months of these requirements have been consumed in July and August—comes to 94,000 tons, a total of 2,606,000 tons, which together with the figures for July and August which the Minister then knew, and the estimated consumption of 43 weeks at 3½ lb. per head of population comes to 7,248,000 tons. On that figure he could have made his allocation from the 1st of September at 3½ lb. per head.

There is another aspect of this matter to which I want to refer quite briefly and that is to what I believe are hidden reserves. It is clear from the official figures that by 23rd November of this year 2,281,000 tons of the 4,400,000 tons will have been consumed, which leaves only 2,172,000 tons plus 80,000 tons we are going to get from Northern Ireland for consumption in the next 7½ months. These figures are quite astonishing. They mean, if they are to be relied upon, that during the past four and a half months we have consumed more than we have left for the remaining 7½ months of the year. I do not think these figures can be relied upon because there are pretty large hidden reserves. When the Foreign Secretary on 10th October ventured to give away Cabinet Secrets by saying there was great debate as to whether there should be potato rationing or not, all the housewives got alarmed and many of them put away bags of potatoes and started storing them against the days when supplies would be short.

But there is another aspect of this hidden reserve to which I want to draw the Minister's attention. I believe there is a substantial reserve in small farms up and down the country, and I do not think it should be difficult for the Minister to compute the size of that reserve. I do not know the figures for England and Wales, but I do know in Scotland before the war there were 14,000 potato growers registered as such with the Potato Board. These figures could be checked perfectly well against the last season's acreage payments, and I believe it would be found that the figures of potato growers for last year were substantially in excess of the prewar figures, and that excess is mostly small men who did not grow before the war, and whose contribution has no real effect on the total amount for consumption in the country. I believe that the registered growers before the war were the people upon whom we relied for the potatoes going into the shops, and that the smaller men have in fact been receiving a subsidy to eat their own potatoes. These small scattered stocks were not worth netting when the supplies were adequate, but I believe they would be worth tracking down and drawing in now. I believe that now is the time to secure these hidden reserves for the legitimate market, and if the Minister cannot secure them the black market will.

11.1 p.m.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

We understood that our purpose tonight was to resist on this side of the House a motion to annul this order, but we have heard from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) that that is not really his intention. We cannot but feel that the Opposition tonight is, in the words of the poet: Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike. That is a position which I am not surprised to see them take up, for, of course, much as I am sure they might like to represent themselves as standing in the position of telling the country that they were against potato rationing, they do realise that, and their retreat tonight shows it—[AN HON. MEMBER: "Retreat from what?"]—From their Motion to annul the order, of course.

Mr. Dray son (Skipton)

Can the Minister suggest any other way in which we can discuss this particular order?

Mr. Strachey

It is not my business to make suggestions to the Opposition as to how they should conduct their business, but they have not in form proposed the annulment of this order and the abolition of potato rationing today because they realise that if they did so they would open themselves to the very serious charge of exposing the country to the exhaustion of its potato supplies, which would indeed be the most reckless thing we could do today. So we come back to the position they have put to us on several occasions in this House already: that potato rationing-is (a) wrong; (b) brought in too late; (c) the scale of allocation is too high; (d) that it is too small. All these charges have been made [Interruption.] Did I hear a member of the Opposition ask me to think clearly? They have made four contradictory statements, one on top of the other. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who moved this Prayer asked for figures, which was a perfectly legiti- mate thing to ask for and which I will give him; but I must warn him that these figures which I shall give him are not exactly the same as those which have been in his possession up to now. We know the acreage, but we have to work on estimates of crop yields which are furnished to me by the Minister of Agriculture, and he cannot give exact figures of crop yield at this date. It will be some weeks before we will have an actual census of the stock of potatoes available, and then we shall be able to have considerably harder figures.

The latest estimates of crop yield I can-give to the House this evening are unfortunately less favourable than the ones which we had some weeks ago. The figures are fairly complicated, but I will give the salient ones. It is estimated that, out of this year's crop, there is available for consumption in Great Britain some 6,811,000 tons of potatoes—that is the total available altogether for consumption, and I use the word to mean for seed and other purposes. Of that amount, no less than 1,193,000 tons must be preserved for seed. Ten thousand tons, a very small quantity, have to be preserved for seed export to special areas to which we have to keep up these exports. This is an enormous reduction which we have made in these exports, for, if anybody thinks we are exporting an unnecessary amount, I would point out that two years ago our seed exports of potatoes were no less than 148,000 tons. The House will see that we have cut this figure considerably. The small potatoes unusable for human consumption are estimated at 463,000 tons, which shows again that very great efforts are being made to bring into human consumption the very maximum number of such potatoes as are available. Then we must make our normal allowances for shrinkage and wastage, including use on farms. This is estimated at 722,000 tons. In addition, there are exports of ware potatoes for human consumption, which are down to 10,000 tons and almost exclusively for the Services abroad, and 30,000 tons required for priority processing into processed potato foods. All that makes a total of 2,428,000 tons, leaving available for human consumption 4,383,000 tons. Of this we have consumed 2,281,000 tons, leaving in our hands today 2,102,000 tons. These are our latest figures. They differ from the ones that have been before the House previously because the estimates are different; but they are the latest estimates -which the Ministry of Agriculture can furnish to us. This is the reason—and this has been before the House on a previous occasion—for the necessity of this order. I do not doubt but that everyone on this side of the House realises the very great gravity of this order, and of the painful necessity of enforcing it because, unquestionably, the occurrence of this very light crop of potatoes this year is a very great disaster for this country, and no one on this side of the House wishes to deny that.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman who moved the annulment of this order asked me what the effect would be on calories. I think I have given this to the House before, but I will repeat it. The actual reduction is 70 calories per person per day. It seems a small figure, but I think, to be perfectly frank, that it underestimates the effect. Although the calorie content is small, potatoes are a very important filling food and psychologically, if not physiologically, I would agree the loss of calories, though small in proportion, underestimates the seriousness of the loss of that quantity of potatoes in the diet. The right hon. and learned Gentleman accused me of not disclosing information sufficiently, and then promptly passed to attack my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for disclosing too much information. I do not think any great harm was done by that statement. Nor was my right hon. Friend the only Member of the Government to draw attention to the seriousness of the potato situation. That was a quite inevitable thing to do. Before the actual scheme could be introduced, the trade had to be consulted. That is perfectly right and proper, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman and hon. Members opposite would be the first hon. Members opposite would be the first to object—and rightly—if we had not consulted the trade. It had to be done on a large scale, and any idea of a possibility that such a scheme could be kept secret was, of course, quite impossible.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me a series of questions in which, I think, he did make clear the distinction he had in mind between firstly, whether sufficient potatoes would be available to meet the present allowance, and, secondly, whether the present allowance would be maintained to the end of the potato year. To the first question he asked, I can answer "Yes." We shall make sufficient potatoes available through the chain of distribution to meet the allowance. I am perfectly well able to give that assurance. To the second question, I would say that as figures are altering—and are bound to alter from week to week—on the estimate of the yield, it is impossible to say what will be the final availability of potatoes, and, therefore, the final amount of distribution which can be given over the potato year—at any rate until we can take the actual census of the stock in hand. While we are still dealing with yields it is impossible to give a definite statement of the amount of stock which we have available, and I should be deceiving the House if I said we could give that.

I must warn the House that, as the figures I have given show, the latest estimate of yield has been worse, rather than better, than the previous estimates. The availability through the year—in the spring—will, of course, be affected by the import of new potatoes and whether we are able to obtain imports of old main-crop potatoes from other countries. There is a possibility of some from Poland, for example, at the moment. A small purchase has been made in South Africa. We are, of course, making every attempt to import the maximum quantity we can.

Another figure quoted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman was that in which he contrasted last year's use of potatoes by the population of 5.6 lb. per head contrasted with the present usage of 3 lbs., suggesting that that meant consumption had been cut by half. The position is not quite as bad. That figure of 5.6 lb. contrasts not with the 3 lb. allowance to the domestic consumer, but with the overall allowance which, allowing for use in canteens, is 3.25 or 3¼lb., which is what the present allowance works out at.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

May I ask one question? The Minister mentioned the yield. Surely he does not suggest the estimate of yield can vary much? Does he not mean that the estimate of wastage of the crop varies? After all, the crop has been in for some time now.

Mr. Strachey

No, the Ministry of Agriculture have just made a revision of their estimates, and they are of yield.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

The Minister said they would vary in future from week to week—that it was not yet a final figure.

Mr. Strachey

We are still working on estimates of yield, simply taking the acreage and adding up the average yield. Until the potatoes are in our hands we cannot make an estimate of the actual tonnage available. That is the difference. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) alleged—and this is a point I should like definitely to correct—that the retailer is being put in an unfair position by having the obligation to provide his customers each with the stipulated allowance, while the wholesaler is put under no obligation to supply the retailer. That is not so. There is simply the statutory prohibition on the retailer not to supply more than 3 lb. a week to each customer; but he is not put under an obligation, and consequently there is no entitlement to the customer; just as there is no obligation on the wholesaler to supply that particular retailer with a particular entitlement of potatoes. Otherwise, I would agree that the retailer would have been put in an unfair position.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) suggested that the Prime Minister and myself—although he did say later that we were not in contradiction—were somehow wrong in stating on the same occasion the earlier estimates, which I gave and which I have given again tonight, and the Prime Minister's statement that we have 3,000,000 tons of potatoes more this year than we had in a typical pre-war year. That is a simple statement of fact. It is, I think, an important statement to notice, because it does show that all these accusations which are made—but never pressed, because they cannot be pressed—of some laxity on the part of the Government in seeing that the maximum potato crop was grown are unfounded. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, surely, must be congratulated that, as hon. Members have said repeatedly tonight, in spite of a disastrously adverse potato year, in spite of the fact that we have had one of the lowest yields there has ever been, in spite of the fact that the acreage which could be planted was cut down by the frost and floods of last spring, in spite of all these adverse factors, coming one on top of another, he was able to produce 3,000,000 more tons of potatoes than before the war. That is a simple statement of fact.

It does not mean that enough was produced. We realise that. It does mean that for this year the most strenuous efforts must be made—in my opinion, and in the opinion, I know, of all my colleagues—to produce a far greater supply. It is not the case that last year's—the 1946—crop was a particularly good one. The yield was only about average. It was very near the statistical average of the last 10 years, as a matter of fact; but the crop was large, and we had a fairly ample supply. I think we should make the very greatest efforts. I appeal, as I know my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture does, to the whole farming community and to the agricultural workers of the country to plant the very maximum acreage this year, so that whatever the yield is next year we shall have a crop which will supply the country.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)

And an appeal to the allotment holders.

Mr. Strachey

Yes, and the allotment holders. I am grateful for the reminder. They can rely on us. We shall supply the necessary seed. We shall not in any circumstances yield to the temptation to use for consumption potatoes which can be planted and used for seed, even if they would ease the position. That would be a suicidally short-sighted policy. Seed will therefore be available. Even if the yield of potatoes is high next year and there is a surplus over and above human consumption which can be used for stock food, there will be no financial risk to the grower. We shall buy the potatoes, whatever quantity is produced. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will assure the agricultural community of that. We shall take the most strenuous steps to see that a really ample supply of potatoes is available next year.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

Before the Minister sits down, will he deal with the suggestion I made that, seeing how badly things were going, on or about 1st September he might have imposed an allocation of 3½ lbs. per head?

Mr. Strachey

That is a point which has been made several times—that rationing was too late. The short answer is this—and I think the hon. Member recognises it from the date he mentioned—that in the earlier part of the potato year rationing is quite impossible because it would be rationing potatoes that do not keep and it would result in almost pure waste. As the year goes on, that factor diminishes, though it does not disappear. The other factor is the almost insuperable difficulty of rationing or allocating, which is a more scientific term. This is not a true rationing scheme, but a scheme of controlling the supply to the consumer of such potatoes as come into Ministry hands and we are satisfied that the scheme was introduced at the earliest practicable moment. Of course, if that had not been so, it is perfectly true it would have been better to do it earlier, but that was impracticable for these two main reasons.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

Would the Minister deal with one point? Why is it impossible to force on wholesalers an obligation to the retailers, knowing how badly wholesalers have behaved in the past in many of the markets; and is my right hon. Friend not committed already to deal with this matter?

Mr. Strachey

To do that would mean recasting the whole scheme of allocation and tying the consumer to a particular shop. This would be a lot to do, but it is possible, though difficult, to do it administratively, and I do not rule it out as a possible eventuality.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. York (Ripon)

These food crises always follow the same plan. First of all, we have the Minister saying that there is going to be no shortage; then we have the Minister letting out the fact that there is a shortage, which is then denied, and then the Minister is sacked. There is a slight difference here—the Minister, we know, is going to be sacked later on. Perhaps that accounts for the right hon. Gentleman's reply tonight, which shows he is not his usual confident self. I consider that my right hon. and learned Friend let the Government off far too lightly with the responsibility, which I believe is almost wholly on their shoulders, for the present state of potato supply. As my hon. Friend said, the farmers knew perfectly well at the end of August there was a very great shortage in supplies. We all knew that the yield was exceptionally low and the Government knew that the acreage was also very low. So it was almost inevitable that the crisis must occur within a space of a few months from the date the potatoes commenced to come in.

This, to me, is a typical example of the workings of Socialism, a typical example of trying to control all sides and ends of production and distribution in this country. No better example is required than the muddle which the Government have made over the whole business of producing potatoes in this country. Let me examine for one moment the Government's action in this matter. I maintain that their whole policy towards the potato production of this country is one of the causes of the present crisis. I cannot go too deeply into the matter—[Interruption]—but I will go very much more deeply into it if there are any more interruptions like that—[AN HON. MEMBER: "You cannot blackmail us."]—I cannot blackmail hon. Members, but I can keep them up all night. I have just come back from a by-election at which I have been holding the fort, so I can talk for a considerable time. By-elections are good practice for that.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Member so far has dealt mainly with the question of production. This order, surely, deals with distribution. Can the hon. Member be kept within the terms of the Motion?

Mr. York

Is it not necessary to examine production before one comes to distribution? I was going on to examine production briefly, as I have said and I still maintain that the way the Government have handled the price structure is one of the main causes of the shortage today. If hon. Members opposite would only cast their minds back to the February-price review of this year, they would see that no encouragement was given to increased production, and that, in fact, there had been potential discouragement in respect of the 1948 crop. When the new prices were brought out in April, an increase of only 9s. a ton was put forward.

Dr. Morgan

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I suggest to you that the hon. Member is out of Order?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. Member must leave that matter to me.

Mr. York

When the crisis prices were brought forward in April, there was only a 9s. rise. If the House would only realise that the cost of growing an acre of potatoes is £40 or more, they would realise that with an average of seven tons an acre—

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. For the guidance of future speakers, can I be informed whether it is in Order on this Prayer to speak on production?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I certainly think the question of why the shortage has arisen is not very relevant. Certainly, it cannot be gone into in detail.

Mr. York

I was trying to pass over this matter hurriedly, but I have to take it into account in my argument to develop the point I am going to make. The interruptions which I am receiving make it extremely difficult for me; and, if I may say so with respect, for you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to follow the argument I am pursuing. If the House will let me go on with the argument, I might make it clear that I am not transgressing the Rules of Order. I am only making the point that the prices given for the acreage this year, the prices offered for production, were not adequate.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is now transgressing my Ruling. I said that the reasons why the shortage had arisen were not very relevant. The hon. Member, as I understand it, is suggesting that because the prices were not put at some figure or other in April, that was the reason for the shortage. If so, that is a detail not relevant to the present Order.

Mr. York

I am sorry. I will leave that point and I will now go on to a further point which really does have some relevance, if I can keep it within that rather narrow Ruling. Unless we get the basis upon which potatoes are produced somehow or other into the minds of the Government, we are not going to get potatoes this year, next year, or ever. It is essential that the Government should realise something about the economics of potato production. Hon. Members opposite seem anxious to interrupt me, although they do not embarrass me, but they must realise that unless they get the production they will not even get the 3 lb. of the present ration. I was going to point out that the troubles of the present are a clear indication of the troubles which may come upon us in the future, and unless—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The present order has nothing whatever to do with the future.

Mr. York

I will leave it, but I do make some suggestions to the Minister. It has been suggested that the question of riddling was one of some importance. I think it is and I am sorry that the Minister did not deal with it in the course of his reply. It may be that he is unaware that potatoes which go through the riddle are used mainly for stock feeding. A quantity may be used for consumption on the farm, but there must be in that quantity, put at half a million or one million tons, some proportion which the Minister could draw off from the farm, and I am surprised that even at this late hour of potato rationing, after an order has come into effect, the Government have never thought of what to do with this problem. The Government ought to be able to get advice from the Ministry of Agriculture as to what is the minimum amount of chats required on the farm and they ought to be able to make an estimate of what is the normal chat wastage away from human consumption.

In addition to chats, there is a considerable quantity kept on the farms for stock feeding. If the Minister takes no action, then the whole of that supply will go to stock feeding, but if an incentive were offered—and it would have to be a pretty big incentive—to draw that away from stock feeding, there would be a considerable potential increase in the amount of potatoes available. Let it be remembered that there is also the question of guarding the potato supplies. There are difficulties about supplies in the future. In my constituency, in September, as soon as the potatoes were put into pies, thieving started on them. Potato pies up and down the country are unprotected and unless some steps are taken there is going to be wholesale thieving. I ask the Minister what steps he is taking to safeguard wholesale supplies if we get another period of severe frost. Under the present very narrow margin of stocks, it is going to be extremely easy for the wholesale markets to run out of supplies altogether, and if there is a period of frost it will be practically impossible to take the potatoes out of the pies. It is very necessary for the Minister to assure us in some way or other how the stock is to be maintained.

The last point I should like to bring to the Minister's notice is that he must make it clear to the country that if the people are to endure the great hardship which this order puts upon them, a similar situation will not arise next year. We have had so much mismanagement of affairs and so many crises in the past that we are getting a little nervous about almost every feature of our national life. Not only do we want the Minister of Food to get up in this House and say it, not only do we want a new Minister of Food, but we want the whole Government to make it clear, both to the farming community and to the consumers, that they are taking and have taken measures that will ensure that the same muddles and the same inefficiencies are not repeated.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

The Minister of Food tonight has made a most serious announcement on behalf of the Government. I do not wish by any rash words to bring party feeling into this matter, but I think anybody reading behind the Minister's announcement, which it is possible for us back benchers to do even without the knowledge which the Minister has, will realise that it is perfectly clear it will not be possible for the present ration of 3 lbs. and the consequential allowances defined in this order to be continued until the next crop of potatoes is available. The Minister very rightly and very properly stated that he was working from time to time on estimates which, of course, get more and more accurate as time progresses. Therefore, the question for him to decide is "When can I make the first estimate on which I can place any reliance at all?" I believe that the real time for making that estimate was when, having regard to the fact that the national average was about 7 tons to the acre, he knew he had not got an adequate acreage ploughed.

The second question I wish to put to him is how long is this ration to endure? We are entitled to hear from the Government how long this present ration is going to last in terms of this crop. Is it only to last, for example, in terms of the 1947 crop, and the rationing not continue with the introduction of the new potatoes of 1948? It may be so, but if that is so, I ask the Minister to answer this question —how is it that it will be possible to ration the new crop in 1948, whereas he said that because of its non-keeping properties it would be impossible to ration the crop of 1947. Thirdly, I would just say this to the Minister—I believe that in the very difficult position in which we are we might be able, as the hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) said, to reduce the amount of chats potatoes and use some of the smaller potatoes for seed. One thing that is essential at all costs is that the Minister must recognise that we must ensure seed for next year's harvest and for that we must do everything we can, and make whatever sacrifices—

Mr. Speaker

Next year's harvest has nothing to do with this order.

Mr. Butcher

I am much obliged to you, Sir. I will leave that point immediately, hoping I may follow the Minister on that matter on another occasion. I would say that we are in a very difficult position. The ration that has been imposed on the people is a smaller one than would have been necessary if more foresight had been shown earlier; and if the ration which the people are receiving now is smaller than that which I believe they will receive in February and March next year they will know who to blame for the mistakes.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Whiteley)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, " That the Question be now put."

Question put, "That the Question be now put."

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Pearson and Mr. Richard Adams were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Members being willing to act as Tellers or the Noes, Mr. Speaker declared that the Ayes had it.

Question, That the Potatoes (Control of Supply) Order, 1947 (S.R. & O., 1947, No. 2402), dated 8th November, 1947, a copy of which was presented on 13th November, be annulled, put accordingly, and negatived.