HC Deb 20 January 1948 vol 446 cc167-76

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

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I make no excuse for detaining the House at this late hour in order to call attention to what I consider to be the scandalous refusal of the Ministry of Food to recognise the claims of farm workers to an extra meat ration. I do not know whether this country fully realises that these men, who work longer hours than those in any other industry, in all weathers, have a lower standard of living than any other industrial worker. I think it is about time the Government, instead of offering excuses why these men cannot get this extra ration, should say that they are prepared to admit the claim and see that they have it.

I raised this matter on the Adjournment last April. Many reasons were given at the time why they should not have this extra ration. Questions have been asked repeatedly from both sides of the House. Excuses have been given every time. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary has decided to start the New Year in a more reasonable frame of mind. Many excuses have been made, but there has been no substance in them, and I hope that tonight those old excuses and those old reasons will be forgotten. If the Parliamentary Secretary is not prepared to meet their claim, I shall be interested to see what fresh excuses she has why this should not be done.

I hope the Hon. Lady will not bring forward as an excuse the extra bread and cheese which these men are entitled to get. That has been said so often that the Minister of Food is now known among the farm workers, not as the Minister of Food, but as the minister of bread and cheese. I wonder how the Minister of Food or any Member of this House would like to do the work these men do and have to live on bread and cheese for five days out of seven, because that is what these men are doing at the present time. The farm worker gets a joint at the end of the week and has his meal off it on Sunday. He has a little left over for the Monday, and for the rest of the week he has bread and cheese, or jam. How can we expect that increased food production for which the Minister of Agriculture is clamouring unless we feed properly the men who produce the food?

I know it will be said that the farm worker gets extra rations for seasonal work. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell me when the farm worker is not doing seasonal work. When does it stop? Sundays or weekdays, winter or summer, his work is always seasonal. If all he is going to get for this seasonal work is a little bit of extra bread and cheese and jam and tea, how can we expect him to do this work? The ration we give is not a direct ration to the men. They have to rely on it from their employers. It is a nuisance to the employer and his wife to have to allocate the extra rations when they are drawn. I see no reason whatsoever why the extra rations should not be issued direct to the men personally or to their women folk. I can see no administrative difficulty. These workers can get the extra cheese ration now [...]y production of their unemployment card and I cannot see why the same procedure should not be followed so that the extra seasonal ration can be drawn personally instead of in bulk by their employers.

I hope we shall not hear again tonight the charge that the farmers have been non-co-operative in drawing these rations. I refuse to believe it. If that is put for- ward again as a statement of fact, I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary to give me actual facts, and I will investigate them to see if they are true or not. Statements are often made, but they are not properly investigated, and I am not going to believe that there is any decent employer of labour who refuses to draw these rations and issue them to his men. Let us carry our minds back to last winter, during those two months of snow, floods, frost and wind. When most of us were sleeping comfortably in our beds, these men were up on the hills looking after their stock so that we might have some meat. Yet all they get is this extra bit of bread and cheese.

I may be told that the farm workers can have the benefit of a canteen. If that is again put forward, then the Ministry of Food have not the least idea of the practical situation on the farms. Except in a very few cases, where there are big numbers of men engaged on the farm, a canteen is practically impossible. Many of the farms have a labour force of two or three men. They may be employed on two or three different parts of the farm. Is it really suggested that a canteen can be worked to give those men their food in two or three different places during the dinner hour? It is absolutely absurd.

The Minister of Food has on many occasions said that the present rationing system is "fair shares for all." I would like to use an unparliamentary expression, but all I can say is that it is absolute rubbish. It is not fair shares for all when people who live in the towns, and hon. Members of this House, can get two or three meat meals a day if they want to do so. Girls and clerks doing sedentary jobs in offices, some working less than 40 hours a week, can go to a British Restaurant or a cafeteria. A farm worker has not these benefits. He has to make do with what he can get, so it is clear that the statement that the present rationing system is fair shares for all is not true. It is stated that the meat pie scheme helps to fill the gap. The meat pie scheme is a failure to a very large extent, so far as I can see. If there is meat available for the meat pie scheme, I suggest that it should be saved and given as a direct ration to the men instead of those who are in a position to get the meat pies having the full benefit of it.

To give the men an extra pound of meat a week, I believe, entails something like 20,000 tons of meat a year and it would cost something like £2,000,000. Is it suggested that the meat ration allocated for the canteens, hotels, restaurants, and meat pies cannot be cut down to the extent of 20,000 tons a year, and if it is a question of money would it not be better that we should save £2,000,000 by reducing the purchases of lipstick and chewing gum, and let that money be expended on meat for the men, so that they could do their job? The Parliamentary Secretary, in the last Debate, called attention to the fact that a calf could be killed every three months for the men. I do not think that it is in the interest of the food of this country that a calf should be killed. I do not know what they do with the calf when they kill it. I do not see any practical help in a suggestion of that sort. Again, it is said that the men can keep a. pig. If they live in a 6s. a week cottage, they might have the right to keep a pig, but if they live in a council house herded together in blocks, or in villages, they cannot keep a pig; and those who keep a pig have to give back something for it. That is not a very practical suggestion.

I want to call attention also to the fact that the workers' wives have not got the same shopping facilities as those women who live in towns or in the suburbs of towns. They cannot run to the butcher's shop every morning and get a few odd scraps to help out the week's supplies. They have no fish shops and they cannot go to a fish-and-chips shop in the evening. They have no means of getting a little bit of extra rations. I claim on their behalf that if the Ministry are not prepared to meet their just claims, then the Ministry ought to feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

If these men were of the sort who would be prepared to hold this country up to ransom, and were organised to that extent, and had the will to do it and said that they would "down tools" next Friday unless their claims were recognised, this would be handed over to them. But they are not men of that sort. They are the one section in this country who have done their job without grumbling. They have not asked for decreased hours of work. They have had increased wages, it is true. They have kept on cheerfully with their job, with practically no absenteeism, as they did during the war. Therefore, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to recognise the claims of these people and give them the extra ration they are entitled to receive.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South Western)

I cannot help feeling that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) has given the whole case away in his last few sentences, when he asserted that the farm workers of this country have shown such cheerfulness throughout the war and right up to the present time. They would certainly not have been able to do that if they had not been sufficiently fed. Therefore the hon. Member for Leominster is not reflecting the kind of feeling he says exists amongst farm workers when he keeps saying they are "so cheerful." I think we want to look at this matter more realistically. It is an easy matter for any hon. Member to come to the House and ask for something more for a section of the community. Every hon. Member can do that. When there are shortages every hon. Member can ask for a bit more without in any way explaining where that little more is coming from.

Mr. Baldwin

Where did the miners get their ration.

Mr. Dye

It is just as easy to try and set one section of the community against another and say "These are miners" or "These are agricultural workers." The agricultural workers are very cheerfully increasing production in agriculture, as and when weather permits, and although there may be gloomy prophets, as there always have been, yet looking round the countryside—at least that part of it in which I have been in recent months—I have noticed how men are still working cheerfully. I quite agree that the thing which most farm workers feel, among all the shortages, is the shortage of meat, because what they liked to take into the fields is a piece of meat to eat with their bread when they are working. If, then, there is a shortage of meat and the Government make provision for additional meat of which the localities do not take advantage, it seems to me that there is something wrong with those who have, or profess to have, the interest of their constituents at heart.

Before I came to this House I was, for a number of years, chairman of a rural district council's British Restaurants and meat pies committee, which endeavoured to supply the needs of the whole rural community—not just the farm workers, but through canteens in the villages to enable men, women, and children to purchase extra food, such as meat pies, cakes, biscuits and other things. This service has been functioning now for six years. One discovery we have made is that when there is extra food about, as at Christmas, we can close down; for no one then wants to buy what we supply. In periods of seasonal activity, for which extra rations are available on the farms, our sales at the British Restaurants, and of meat pies, go down, indicating to me, at any rate, that with the additional food supplied from our restaurants and from our vans, which go round the area, that the people are getting enough. In that rural district I have not had half a dozen complaints about shortage of food throughout the time I have been a Member of this House.

But there are other districts in my Division where such facilities are not available, and whence I get some complaints. As far as I see it, the case is that certain localities are not making use of the facilities offered by the Ministry of Food—that they did not do so during the war, and are not doing so at present. If the district councils will now use their powers in the best way, whether by providing meat pies or a general British restaurants scheme, not necessarily providing hot meals at a sit-down table, but the type of stuff people can buy and take away without surrendering points or B.U.s or anything else within the scheme of the Ministry of Food, they can give satisfaction.

I would welcome any general scheme for an increase in the meat or cheese rations not only for farm workers, but for others who work on the farms regularly, but who are not classified as farm workers. For instance, in Norfolk we get a large number of rabbits which have to be killed if they are not to do a great deal of damage. If the man who is engaged in killing rabbits is employed by the farmer regularly, he can get the extra cheese ration. If, on the other hand, the farmer puts the job of killing the rabbits out to a contractor, the contractor's man who kills the rabbits on the farm is not allowed the extra rations which the farm workers get. There are cases like that which I think the Ministry of Food could look into with a view to sharing out equally among rural workers such extra food as is available.

11.9 p.m.

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

I think the House will agree that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye), who I think has a practical experience of farming equal to that of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) who raised this matter to-night, has answered many of the questions raised by the hon. Member opposite. This question has been raised before and on other occasions I think the hon. Member for Leominster has presented his case in a reasonable manner; but I must confess that tonight I was very surprised to hear him say that in his opinion the agricultural worker had a lower standard of living than any industrial worker. I want to say that, in my opinion, that is a gross exaggeration.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

It is perfectly true.

Dr. Summerskill

As we have heard tonight from the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, there is absolutely no basis for it. The hon. Member knows full well that my Department has to recognise certain principles in distributing the available food, and we have as far as possible tried to distribute it fairly. When a category of workers comes along and demands extra rations, we have to consider it carefully, in the light of prevailing circumstances. We have to consider the question of accessibility to a canteen. It is not the amount of sweat that is lost or the energy used in a particular job that necessarily determines the supplementary rations given to any category of workers. It is the accessibility to a canteen. If to-night I said that the agricultural workers should be given this extra ration, then the steel workers might well come along and the men engaged in timber production. As the hon. Member knows, there are people felling timber who might well ask for the same concession.

But the hon. Member must see the whole picture in its proper perspective. He must, as a responsible member of the community, take into consideration other factors—there is the question of supply, which has been mentioned by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Food on numbers of occasions. The hon. Member said that if we gave this extra ration of meat to the agricultural workers it would only mean 20,000 tons of meat a year. Actually, it would mean 25,000 tons. Let us see what would be the repercussion on the ordinary domestic consumer. At the moment the ration of meat is equivalent to 1s. worth. It may be that during this year we shall have to issue 2d. worth of canned corned meat for part of the year. If the meat ration for agricultural workers were doubled, which would mean 25,000 tons, the result would be that the civilian ration would have to contain 2d. worth of canned corned meat for an extra six weeks.

Mr. Baldwin

I did not suggest that civilian rations should be cut; but walk up the streets of London tonight and see people guzzling meat that the farm workers might have.

Dr. Summerskill

I am surprised that the hon. Member does not express the same concern for the wife of the urban worker and appreciate her difficulties as much as those of the wife of the agricultural worker. My Department has to consider every category. Surely the representatives of the workers are the right people to decide this issue.

Mr. Baldwin

Not at all.

Dr. Summerskill

Certainly. They have done the work, most of them. Most of the representatives have served in the particular capacity which they represent in the Trades Union Congress. The hon. Member cannot persuade me that he has been an agricultural labourer for a long period.

We therefore invited the Trades Union Congress to advise us on these matters, because we felt that these people were competent to judge. An advisory committee of the Trades Union Congress considers every application. I am very pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman tonight that only last month, in December, they considered the whole question of supplementary rations for farm workers, for iron and steel workers, and for ironstone miners, who were asking for extra meat rations; and they de- cided not to recommend these claims, because they knew full well that if they were recognised, then there would be a multiplicity of claims, the rejection of which would cause industrial unrest. The Trades Union Congress, I think hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree, is a responsible body and recognises that if all these claims were accepted—as, indeed, they would have to be if we granted this one—there would be a serious cut in the rations for the rest of the community.

I want to remind the House of the advantages which the agricultural worker enjoys. The hon. Member for Leominster "pooh-poohed" the cheese ration. He seems to forget that, from the nutritional point of view, cheese is equal to meat. The agricultural worker gets an extra weekly allowance of 10 ozs. of cheese, six extra bread units to go with the cheese and six bread units as a manual worker. Hr also gets the seasonal allowances and the pies.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

He does not get hot meals in industrial canteens.

Dr. Summerskill

I am coming to that, if only the hon. Member will be a little quiet. We have not come here to listen to him, but we have come to consider something serious. Now I come to the hot meals. The hon. Member for Leominster suggested that very few agricultural workers keep pigs and then made the most amazing statement that the food which we allocate for pig feeding does not feed a pig. There was another exaggeration made tonight, which many farmers here find it difficult to understand. I should like to tell him that last year we issued licences to slaughter pigs to 114,000 households of agricultural workers. This means that, these workers get extra meat and bacon and the hot meals that the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) has been demanding. Further than that, there are other advantages. Recently we have had to introduce potato rationing, but so far as the agricultural worker is concerned, he is permitted to get potatoes from farmers free of the ration. Then I would remind the House that he has his allotment where he can grow his own vegetables. He also can keep chickens.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Is that held against him?

Dr. Summerskill

I do not hold it against him. I wish we could all have allotments.

Mr. Granville

Where does he get his hot meals?

Dr. Summerskill

If one cooks bacon it becomes hot. The agricultural worker can keep chickens, which means he gets chickens and eggs. In view of these circumstances I think I am right in saying that it was a gross exaggeration for the hon. Member for Leominster to say that the agricultural labourer has a lower standard of living than any industrial worker. In these circumstances I feel we cannot possibly grant this concession.

11.19 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Dunean

It is a deplorable speech to which we have listened from the hon. Lady. She has obviously no knowledge of the conditions of the farm worker. There is no question about that. She could not have said those things if she had. The fact is that the farm worker today, in Scotland and England, is on a lower standard of living than the great majority of industrial workers. There is no getting away from that. As the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) has pointed out, the hon. Lady has made no attempt to mention the question of hot meals, and the canteens that the industrial workers have provided for them. All she says is, "Bacon, if you cook it, becomes hot." We could have said that on this side of the House.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman did not appear to know that.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.