HC Deb 24 September 1948 vol 456 cc1328-38

3.55 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

Although the subject which I wish to raise, the shortage of points goods, may sound a little critical and unfriendly, I want to begin by assuring the hon. Lady that I have not come here this afternoon to take up her time and the time of the House by throwing out irresponsible and unco-ordinated complaints about the shortage of this and that. I fully appreciate the difficulties under which her Ministry is working, and I believe, in view of the world problems with which it has had to deal, that the Ministry has done an efficient and imaginative job on behalf of the consuming public of Great Britain. It is on the content of those difficulties that I wish to speak. In return I do ask the hon. Lady not to ride away from my questions and my case on a mournful reiteration of the refrain of "no dollars." After all, Marshall Aid is now a reality. Dollar goods are coming in, either as a result of direct shipment or offshore purchases, and the House is entitled to examine the position and see what the effect will be on our standard of life and how those dollars should be spent.

Last Autumn when the dollar crisis broke, we all of us frankly expected a belt-tightening period during the winter months. I, personally, thought we should be up against a food stringency very much worse than we had had at any time before. But thanks to the Argentine Agreement and Canadian generosity, and presumably thanks also to the stocks of points goods held in this country, last Winter we did not do so badly at all, and our supply of points goods was reasonably fair. Unsweetened evaporated milk, for example, that great standby of every housewife, was still to be obtained at two points a tin and there was no great shortage of dried eggs, baked beans or other protein goods which are invaluable to the woman who has to plan savoury and nourishing meals for her men folk.

But it was during the summer months that our points crisis really broke. We have had a lot of questions in this House during the past week about the shortages of points goods in rural areas, but I can assure the hon. Lady that this situation was pretty general throughout the country. It was not only in rural districts that the housewife found at the end of her points period that she had very great difficulty in disposing of her points at all because she could not get in the shop the things she wanted to buy. I personally more than once, on those last fatal hours of the last day of a points period, have been driven to accept tapioca and treacle when I had not even enough milk to make a pudding. The alternative would have been a tin of imported grapefruit marmalade—very attractive no doubt, but hardly a substantial meal for a hungry man when he comes home from work.

We did not worry even then, because we knew that there would have to be a time-lag before Marshall Aid could make itself felt in our larders. We know perfectly well that the protein goods—and it is to them that I refer particularly—the baked beans, canned fish and canned meats, and so on—largely come from the United States, Canada and the Argentine and need dollars to buy them. Therefore, we knew that it would be some time before they would reappear in the shops.

What I want to get clear this afternoon, and what I want to take up particularly with the hon. Lady, is the question of what is the effect now on our diet of Marshall Aid shipments. I am very strongly under the impression, both from my personal experience as a shopper and from studying the Trade and Navigation Returns, that this Winter we shall be more short of protein foods than we were last Winter when the dollar crisis was supposed to be upon us in all its full effect. I ask the hon. Lady whether I am correct in that assumption? It is true that the complete famine of protein goods has now been checked to some extent. For example, we can now get the unsweetened evaporated milk once again in the shops but the points price of that milk has doubled. We have to pay four points instead of two. My experience is that baked beans are still in very short supply, canned salmon is totally unobtainable and, as for canned meats it takes a prince's ransom in points to buy a tin even if one is lucky enough to find one.

I was shopping the other day and when the shopkeeper offered me a comparatively small tin of pork ham, or something of the sort of the spam variety, I felt like Christopher Columbus discovering America. But I had rather a shock when I discovered that out of my personal monthly allocation of 24 points that comparatively small tin would cost me 27. As there are only two points books in my family, I leave it to the hon. Lady's generous and vivid imagination to imagine the state of our diet for the rest of the month.

I do not want merely to argue personally about this matter, and I have gone to some trouble to try to examine import figures from the Trade and Navigation Returns. I want the hon. Lady to correct me if I am wrong when I say that they seem to show two things. They appear to show not only that our imports of these protein points goods during the first eight months of 1948 were considerably less than they were in the first eight months of 1947 but—and this is the significant thing—that the imports for last month, August, 1948, are only a fraction of the import figures for August, 1947. That appears to me to demonstrate that Marshall Aid means to this country that there will be no restoration over a large section of our food front of our predollar-crisis level of consumption. This is a serious point which we shall feel more sharply as the Winter advances.

Let me give the hon. Lady one or two examples. If we take tinned meats, for instance, on which housewives count so much as a supplementation of their meat ration—tinned beef in various forms, ox tongue, corned beef and so on—we find that the imports of these commodities for the first eight months of this year were less than one-third of the imports for the corresponding period of last year. What is more, the latest monthly rate, that for August this year, is lower than the monthly rate for the first eight months of the year. In other words, the import rate is actually going down.

It being Four o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

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

Mrs. Castle

De imports of this tinned meat from the Argentine, who have always been our biggest suppliers, were in August this year only one-seventh of what they were for the corresponding month last year. Marshall Aid, therefore, has not helped in restoring the purchases from that source. If we take dried beans of various kinds—haricot, butter, and so on—we find, once again, that during the first eight months of this year we imported less than one-sixth of what we imported in the corresponding period last year. As far as I can make out, there is still none coming from the United States, Canada, or the Argentine, from where the bulk came last year. The August rate of import is half what it was for the corresponding period last year.

Dried eggs, again, show a shrinking import rate. During the first eight months of this year we imported less than one-quarter of what we did in the corresponding period of 1947. Even the supplies from Australia, a non-dollar area, have been reduced this year, and I would ask the hon. Lady the reason for that. The monthly rate for August, 1948, is one-eighth of the monthly rate for August, 1947. There, again, we have a picture of a continuing drop in the rate of imports. Far from Marshall Aid gradually building up our supplies, our imports seem to be shrinking. Therefore, the prospect for the future is not very rosy.

With regard to canned salmon, as far as I can make out, we imported none at all in June or August this year, and only 14 cwt. in July. Does the hon. Lady tell the House that it is not the intention of the Ministry of Food to import any more canned salmon at all, or can she give us some idea when the imports will be resumed? I am putting these facts before the House because we have yet to appreciate in our own homes and in our constituencies just what the cumulative effect of these shortages is going to be.

Here I wish to pay a tribute to the Ministry of Food for the steps they have taken, where possible, to increase imports of other foods which are very useful to us. As far as I can make out, we imported 10 times as many sardines in the first eight months of this year as in the corresponding period last year, and the monthly rate is much higher. I find sardines one of the most elusive fishes of all, and I would ask the hon. Lady to tell us where this larger supply has disappeared to, because none of these sardines have found their way into my grocer's shop.

With regard to olive oil, I want to thank the hon. Lady for the increase in imports, which have helped enormously, but I want to ask her, in view of the high cost, whether it would be possible to import more of the other vegetable oils, most of which are cheaper to buy. In the matter of currants, we are now importing twice as many as in the first eight months of last year, and actually more than before the war. They will be very helpful for Christmas. Then again, the Ministry have treated us very generously with regard to oranges, and our supplies are actually higher than they were prewar. In view of the fact that our largest supplier is Palestine, I would like to know whether the hon. Lady can tell' us what the prospects are likely to be of continuing these imports.

I am far from saying that the Ministry have been sitting down on the job, I think they have tried to supplement this shortage of protein goods in as many ways as they can. Nor am I even blaming the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I do think the country should be aware of this simple fact. I think it comes as a surprise to many of us that Marshall Aid, far from giving us a rise in our standard of living—which no one expected, of course—apparently is going to stabilise it, not at the 1947 level, but at a new level which is even lower than that which obtained immediately before the dollar crisis hit this country. Apparently all it has done is to maintain us at a dollar crisis level. That was the situation before the rearmament programme was announced in this House—a programme which will divert further production from exports and reduce our resources and, therefore, will make our purchasing problem still more difficult. We can, therefore, assume that rearmament will mean even greater stringencies. I wonder whether the United States of America realise that the level at which Marshall Aid has stabilised our consumption in this country is one which involves us in continuing hardship of an even greater degree.

Finally, I should like the hon. Lady to ask the Minister of Food at the beginning of next Session to make an early and full statement to the House on the whole of the food situation prospects in the coming winter months. Will he come to us and say quite frankly what food imports he intends to make, and whether he can give us some hope that the recovery of Europe in the near future will enable the shortages of foods from dollar areas to be balanced by increased supplies from elsewhere.

4.8 p.m.

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

I welcome the opportunity which has been given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) of explaining to the House why it has been difficult for housewives to obtain the points foods which they would have liked during the last few months. I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. I know, as is known by all women who have to feed a family, that at times it has been difficult to obtain the particular food that we would like, but I must remind her that while there is a wide variety of the commodities which are pointed, there are not enough to guarantee a ration of each one for every family.

I hope during the coming months the position may be a little easier. I can only say "a little easier," because we are now about to change our method of distribution. For the first time we are allocating the most popular pointed foods—I think I am right in so describing them; I refer to canned meat, canned fish, canned fruit and canned milk—on the basis of registrations. Furthermore, of course, we try to equate supply with demand. The hon. Lady has just mentioned the points value of canned meat. The reason why the points value of certain foods goes up at the end of a period is because there has been a run on those foods, and we increase the points in order to persuade people to take something else which is in greater supply. The hon. Lady is quite right when she says that the pointage of canned tongues and briskets is very high. It is as high as 48 points a lb. for some of the qualities, but the average number of points needed for a lb. is about 24. Yet demand is still in excess of supply. However, I would remind her that altering points values and adjusting our methods of distribution will not solve the problem.

My hon. Friend said that she hoped I would not talk about dollars. I forget what her expression was. I think it was that she hoped I would not "moan about dollars." Surely her memory is fresh enough to remember last week's Debate? Because this is a speech which should have been made last week.

Mrs. Castle

That is not my fault.

Dr. Summerskill

I know she admires the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is what he said last week, when the whole House applauded him, when the hon. Member on the Opposition side who followed the Chancellor said it was a magnificent achievement and our hon. Friends on this side of the House cheered. He said: The reduction in imports has entailed some sacrifice to the people of this country, who have forgone desirable goods, particuarly those types of foodstuffs from the Western Hemisphere which provide variety in the diet; but they have the satisfaction of knowing that by their action they have contributed largely towards the solution of our dollar problem and what perhaps is more important, have strengthened the position of sterling in the world."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th September. 1948; Vol. 456, c. 254.] In other words, I must say to my hon. Friend that one cannot have one's cake and eat it. We cannot on the one hand settle the difficulties of our overseas payments and at the same time enjoy those foods which come from dollar sources.

She is quite right when she quotes some of the figures in the Trade and Navigation Returns, although the Trade and Navigation Returns are not always a sure guide to hon. Members. She has not mentioned sugar. For instance, the Trade and Navigation Returns, so far as sugar is concerned, would indicate to the uninitiated that we have colossal stocks in this country. Of course, that is not the correct interpretation of the Returns. In fact we have sugar belonging to other people which we have brought to this country to refine. To say we could call upon those stocks would be quite wrong. It would be like saying, if one took in the washing of somebody else, that that washing was one's own, whereas it is the customer's.

However, the figures the hon. Lady has quoted are, in the main, correct. The fact is that foods she has mentioned, which have come from dollar countries in the past, have not been imported since August, 1947. I must emphasise the point of the Chancellor's speech. I am sure she will agree with me—and she is second to none in her admiration of my right hon. and learned Friend—that in the light of that speech we cannot expect to go into the shops and find the shelves crowded with dollar foods or the goods she would like to have in her home.

I have made some notes of the different items of food which are in most popular demand, because I have no desire to run away from the details of this question. So far as canned meats are concerned, before the dollar cuts supplies were running at about 13,000 tons per four-week period. They are now down to 4,000 tons. I cannot hold out any hope that those particular meats—popular meats—will be increased shortly. However, of course, all the time we are examining the possibilities of getting foods from soft currency areas in order to replace the dollar foods.

I agree with the hon. Lady that canned salmon is a very popular fish in this country. The decline in supplies of canned fish is the result of dollar cuts, although it is not so serious as that in the case of meats, for we now have 2,000 tons per period, as compared with 3,000 tons before the cuts were imposed.

Mrs. Castle

Does that mean that there is some canned salmon available?

Dr. Summerskill

The canned salmon which people have been getting recently is from stocks. Now we are trying to find canned fish in other countries which will replace canned salmon. I mention a fish to the House which, in the past, has provoked a certain amount of amusement—snoek. It is an example of the efforts which my Ministry makes to replace canned salmon from Canada by another canned fish from another country. Unfortunately, snoek had an unpleasant name, and the first cargo gave it an unpleasant reputation, but it has lived all that down, and snoek, I am pleased to say, is now a very popular food in this country, and housewives are demanding it. I am hoping that we shall be able to maintain supplies. I would remind the House that it is highly nutritious, and it can very well replace canned salmon.

The hon. Lady did not mention pilchards. Pilchards are popular, and in the past we have obtained them from California. Unfortunately our imports of pilchards have had to stop, and we are now trying to make a deal with South Africa in order to replace the Californian supplies. I was asked about sardines. Portugal is the main source of supply of sardines, and, as a result of the recent agreement, we hope to maintain supplies. throughout 1949.

Christmas is approaching, and I know that most of our women constituents are anxious to know whether they are to get fruit for their Christmas pudding. The House must realise that 30 per cent. of the dried fruits came from the United States. The loss of those supplies deprives us completely of prunes and apricots, although we may be able to get a few prunes from Chile. We are now looking to Turkey and Greece for our supplies of raisins and sultanas. There has been a better crop in Turkey this year, but supplies may be short in Greece. I am pleased to say that we think that in 1949 there will be a slight over-all improvement. I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to know the amount which is to be issued in October. No dried fruits have been issued for the last 12 weeks, and that is why women have found it difficult to get dried fruits during the summer months, but an extra large release of 22,000 tons is being made for Christmas. I think that it will be actually released on 10th October.

Another popular food in Britain is rice pudding. I remember that a Whip on these benches told me yesterday that it is his favourite food.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Is that what Whips live on?

Dr. Summerskill

He was very shocked to think that, although we had hoped to distribute more rice, we were now having to reverse our policy. I feel that all those hon. Members who do not feel friendlily disposed towards the Minister of Food will at least accept the explanation that we are not responsible for the political upset in Burma. During the first six months of this year, rice was coming in very well, but, unfortunately, during the last few months, the shipments have been reduced, and we have had to hold up stocks in Britain instead of distributing them. We shall hold them up until we know what the position will be.

There are alternatives to rice—sago, tapioca and farina. The hon. Lady has not mentioned those things, which I think that she will agree, from a nutritional point of view, provide an adequate alternative variety, and I have not heard that they are in short supply. I tremble a little when I see my hon. Friends on these benches, who are such good cooks, looking at me and preparing to jump up at any moment to contradict me. I am, therefore, glad that the hon. Lady appears to agree.

I will now mention pulses which cover beans, peas and so on. The most acute shortage is lentils, but the House will remember that lentils were in the past imported from India. None have come into this country during the last six or seven years, and I think that no hon. Member will regret the reason. Lentils have not come into this country from India because the standard of living of the Indians has improved. My hon. Friend mentioned dried beans, and I presume she means white beans. These come mainly from dollar sources, and canners now have a priority claim on the small amounts we have in the country. We got most of our canned fruits in the past from America, and now we have to rely on South Africa and Australia. Canned tomatoes are a seasonal food, and we are releasing about 4,000 tons of them in October.

There is no change in the supply position of canned peas, and I do not remember having a complaint on that score. Present releases of canned beans, amounting to 3,000 tons per period, are about half the rate before dollar cuts affected our imports of white beans. An hon. Member said the night before last, that spaghetti on toast was very good, and he was jeered at, but the fact is that a lot of housewives are pleased to get canned spaghetti. Supplies are good, and are nearly double what they were a year ago.

I know my hon. Friend is always interested in milk, because she is anxious that our old aged pensioners should have their diet supplemented. Our policy is to step up releases of canned milk in the winter when there is a shortage of fresh milk. Between October and March we shall be releasing about 10,000 tons per period, compared with 6,000 tons during the earlier part of the year. These figures, however—because I do not want to deceive the House—represent only 60 per cent. of the releases before the dollar cuts. My hon. Friend also mentioned dried eggs. I remember that the first crisis I faced at the Ministry was about dried eggs. Housewives made it very clear that they were very fond of them. Releases of dried eggs will be increased from 250 tons to 1,000 tons per period from 10th October, with a special issue of 2,000 tons in December. After that I cannot say what the position will be.

On Monday, the hon. Member for Eve-sham (Mr. De la Bère) asked that all biscuits produced in this country should be consumed at home and not exported. I will not go through all the arguments, but we are exporting what can only be regarded as a token quantity. Our exports are equivalent to 8 per cent. of our home consumption. The shortage during the last few months has been because other foods have been scarce, and housewives have perhaps been going round the shops wondering how to spend their points. Supplies are rather better than last year; 17,500 tons per period are being distributed, compared with 16,000 tons last year. Members sometimes ask me how biscuits are distributed. Distribution is left to the manufacturers. On the whole their methods are very fair and acceptable, because there are so many biscuit factories in the country.

I hope I have been able to explain to my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Food are trying to do the best they can, having regard to the fact that our supplies are so limited. I have not tried to minimise our difficulties, but I think the hon. Lady will agree with me that the outlook is not so very gloomy. I can assure her that we are trying to find foods which we think will be substitutes for some of those I have mentioned. We are trying all over the world. We have our agents in every country in the world. When they tell us that there is a food available which we can afford, we immediately buy it. However, I have to remind her of the Chancellor's speech. We have to recognise that the end of our difficulties has not come yet. We still have to make sacrifices. I want to pay a tribute to housewives who continue to do. Sometimes, of course, they grumble, but on the whole they are very fine women.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-six Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Monday, 25th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.