HC Deb 08 February 1949 vol 461 cc275-98

7.4 p.m.

Mr. Osborne (Louth)

I wish tonight to draw the attention of the House to the handling of potatoes purchased by the Ministry of Food during the past 12 months. First, let me apologise to you, Sir, and to the House for my poor voice, due to my having a bad throat; I hope that I shall be able to make myself readily understood. I have given the Parliamentary Secretary adequate notice of the three main points that I wish to discuss. In my opinion, the handling of the potato trade by the Ministry of Food during the past 12 months has been one of miscalculation and muddle almost beyond belief.

I want, if I can, to prove those statements by making four different points: I believe that the purchases made last spring were unwise; that the prices we paid were too high; that the quantities we purchased were unjustifiable; and that the administration in respect of them was absolutely incompetent. I shall support those statements by evidence from my own constituency, largely from what I saw myself, and from information gathered in the Grimsby and Immingham Docks, and also in the North Lincolnshire potato fields—though I believe that ample evidence could be obtained from other parts of the country to support what I am saying.

About the middle of May last year it was quite clear, at least in North Lincolnshire, that we should have a huge crop of new potatoes. The Minister of Agriculture had specially asked the English farmers to produce a bigger crop this year than in the previous year, owing, of course, to the damage that had been done by the bad weather during the previous year. The farmers, as always, responded, and it was obvious to anyone who knew the slightest thing about it that we should have a wonderful potato harvest. At that time, just before the new crop was ready to be gathered, the Grimsby Docks were choked—and I use that word advisedly—with old potatoes which the Ministry was importing from Holland, Denmark and Poland. There was at one time, on Grimsby Docks alone, over 6,000 tons of old potatoes that had been so imported. I myself went into the heart of my constituency to Ludford aerodrome, and there saw what looked to me to be tens of thousands of bags of potatoes that had been imported, then brought by rail from Grimsby to Market Rasen, and then taken by road transport from Market Rasen to Ludford and stored there. Yet all round this huge hangar there were fields full of new potatoes ready to be gathered.

It seems monstrously unwise to be importing these old potatoes from the Continent when there was such a good English crop ready to be gathered. I hold—and I hope I shall be able to substantiate it—that the Ministry of Food were wrong in their calculation that those imports would be necessary. Of course, the Minister will probably say that this was a form of insurance; that something like this had to be done. My comment, before that alibi is put up, is that it was over-insurance; and it was unnecessary insurance, as is proved by the facts.

Of the incompetent handling of these imports I should like to give three specific examples. On 19th May a small ship called the s.s. "Thyra" came into Grimsby Docks from Denmark with 1,000 tons of potatoes aboard, but the docks were so full of potatoes that there was no more available storage space. The ship had to be turned round and sent over to Germany. Even the hatches were never moved; the boat was just turned round and sent across to Bremen. What the potatoes were like when they got there, goodness knows. The important thing is that surely the Ministry of Food knew before that boat sailed from Denmark that the port of Grimsby was already choked with potatoes and that there was no further storage space; surely they could have wirelessed across to Denmark and told them "Take these potatoes straight into Bremen," instead of first bringing them across to Grimsby and then turning the boat round and having them taken back almost to the point whence they had started.

On 24th May another boat, the s.s. "Ardgryfe," was sent to Grimsby by the Ministry of Food, and it there loaded 800 tons of these surplus old potatoes from the docks to take them to Hamburg. Only those who saw the potatoes could believe the rotten state they were in: they were dripping with moisture; they had been left so long that they were sprouting, and the sprouts were as much as five inches long. In order to be able to get them aboard, the dockers had to use forks to separate the various bags. What was the state of the potatoes when they got to Hamburg I do not know. Two days later two other vessels were sent to the Port of Grimsby, on Ministry of Food instructions, to take some of these potatoes away, we suppose, to the Continent, and, after waiting in the port for a day or two, they were sent away empty. Confusion there was, but whose was the fault I do not know. This substantiates that what happened in my constituency was gross mismanagement and mishandling.

On 1st June a Polish vessel named the "Lydia" came into the port with another 1,700 tons of potatoes. It was more than a case of coals to Newcastle. I do not know how to express it. I do not know why somebody in the Ministry did not say, "We already have enough. We do not know what to do with them. Please take them somewhere else." Somebody mishandled this job very badly and it ought to be looked into.

As regards the price paid by the Ministry, it is believed in the trade that, allowing for the transport and warehousing, as much as £26 a ton was paid for these Polish potatoes. Only a few months earlier there had been appeals in the British Press for funds to feed people in starving Europe, and Poland was one of the countries supposed to be on the verge of starvation. At least, they knew when the potatoes were over, and they were ready to be rid of them. For what they were ready to be rid of we were prepared to pay up to £26 a ton. Constituents of mine at the same time had potatoes which they were willing to sell at £4 a ton. It does not seem good planning to purchase potatoes from abroad at £26 a ton when they are available at home at £4 a ton.

I ask the right hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food to think of the position from the shipping angle. Here we had small ships in and out of the port, making useless journeys at a time when shipping, especially small shipping, was very scarce and very valuable. I am told by some of my friends that for a short period the imports of butter and cheese were actually held up because these potatoes were doing these useless journeys backwards and forwards across the North Sea. There were some hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of these potatoes in this one port. How many there were in ports all round the country I do not know. These potatoes were left to rot. A certain quantity was sold at a lower price, but the residue was so had that the potatoes could not even be given away.

I should like to ask the right hon. Lady to confirm that the Ministry of Food had to pay outside contractors to take this refuse away. I know for a fact that though the dock workers belong to a very powerful union and are very jealous of who should come and work at these docks, they refused to handle the potatoes because they smelt so badly, and outside contractors had to be brought in to remove this refuse, which cost £26 a ton. If that is not scandalous I should like to know what is. Furthermore, I am informed—I should like this to be confirmed—that the potato merchants who were in touch with the farmers, gave the Ministry the advice to end potato rationing some weeks, if not a month, before it was actually ended. If potato rationing had been ended a fortnight or a month earlier, then the waste would not have taken place. This was happening while people here were being rationed and could not get the amount of potatoes they wanted. It seems to me to be a most extraordinary state of affairs.

Lest the right hon. Lady should think that I am exaggerating, I want to quote some replies which she herself has given me in the past few months. On 22nd September I asked in the House what was the cost of the potatoes that had been imported, and she told me that, allowing for all costs, it was £18 14s. 6d. a ton. At the same time the House was informed that something like 2,500 tons of those potatoes were sold to the farmers at about £10 a ton. We hear a great deal about Socialist planning, and how much more clever the Socialists are in running business than are the old-fashioned Tories, who believe in the bankruptcy court and in profit motive; I cannot see how it can be called good planning to purchase potatoes at £18 14s. 6d. a ton and sell many thousands of them at £10 a ton. Furthermore, the right hon. Lady admitted that 3,500 tons of these potatoes were actually sold at less than £3 a ton.

That is the sort of business which ultimately gets the ordinary individual into the bankruptcy court. The only trouble from the national point of view is that it cannot get the Ministry of Food there. This was reminiscent to my constituents of happenings with coal in the same port 12 months earlier. It was admitted in 1947 that we had been importing inferior American coal at an average price of 95s. a ton, and from the same port we were exporting good English coal at 55s. a ton. That is the new form of doing business and that is the way to national poverty. If this is Socialist planning, first in coal and now in potatoes, no wonder we are going hungry, and having to go cap in hand to our good friends across the Atlantic to help us.

The second point I want to make is that, despite this experience, in the spring the Ministry of Food went to Eire and purchased another 50,000 tons of potatoes. Later they discovered that they would not require them, and they said to the Irish farmer, who is now no longer a British citizen, "If you take the potatoes back we will give you £6 a ton." We recognised how bad was the bargain and we paid an extra £6 a ton to get out of our mistake. Again, if that is planning it would be a good thing for the nation if we ceased to plan. The "Daily Mail" of 3rd January published this from its correspondent: This contract, part of the Anglo-Eire Agreement, was made because the Ministry expected a shortage of potatoes in Britain this winter. How on earth could the Ministry expect a shortage of potatoes when the Ministry of Agriculture had asked the farmers to do their utmost to supply the country with an enormous crop? The farmers have never let the nation down. If the Ministry anticipated a shortage they could only believe that the Ministry of Agriculture would not be able to get their job done properly. It is scandalous that this second contract was entered into. The "Daily Mail" correspondent went on to say: This miscalculation is the result of bulk buying, and it looks as if the Ministry of Food is going to lose a packet. Unfortunately, it is not the Ministry of Food which is going to lose a packet, but the taxpayers of this country. We shall never get taxation down while the taxpayers' money is thrown away in such a ridiculous manner.

Having brought these facts forward, I should like to remind the right hon. Lady of another piece of information she gave to me in this House on 19th January of this year, when I asked how many tons of potatoes we had over our normal requirements. This extraordinary answer was given by the right hon. Lady herself on 19th January. She said that there were 275,000 tons of good English potatoes that were surplus not only for human consumption but as cattle feed. Yet she had been over to Ireland and had bought 50,000 tons—or her Department had done so. I do not blame the right hon. Lady herself. Her Department did not believe that the Ministry of Agriculture could do its work.

We do not know what to do with these 275,000 tons of potatoes. The Ministry of Food, in their quandary, are having to send them to the factories to be made into powder for cattle food. What is this costing us? It is costing us, on the admission of the right hon. Lady, £9 per ton, and the loss on this transaction is £2,500,000. Is that good Socialist planning? Is the right hon. Lady proud of it? The sooner we get rid of that sort of planning the better. It is an example of muddle that is almost unbelievable.

My third point is that all this muddle is being conducted for the nation by a Potato and Carrot Division. The President of the Board of Trade said a few minutes ago that not one official more than is absolutely necessary to carry out essential work should be retained. The right hon. Lady told me, in answer to a Question on 20th September last year, that the Potato and Carrot Division had no fewer than 72 offices in the country employing about 1,600 people at an annual wage of about £500,000. They are occupying houses that are badly needed for the homeless. I know one not far from where I live. The house used to provide accommodation for quite a large family and it could be better occupied than it is today by the Potato and Carrot Division. That department is not only futile and doing its work badly, but is a waste of public money.

Hon. Members opposite have always said that it is their policy to retain controls only until such time as supply catches up with demand. They have always protested that they do not wish to retain controls for control's sake. They say that once supply has caught up with demand, they will abolish control. Here, in potatoes and carrots, supply has not only caught up with demand but has overwhelmed it. If ever there was a case for abolishing any department and its control, here it is. What is the Government's policy about this matter? Are they going to stick to what we always say, or to love controls for the sake of control?

My fourth point is one upon which I did not give the right hon. Lady notice. I beg her pardon for not doing so. A year ago the Ministry of Agriculture asked the farmers to grow more onions. One of the young, intelligent and progressive farmers in North Lincolnshire has grown 1,000 tons at the specific request and urging of the Ministry of Agriculture. He has been able to sell only 400 tons and he has just had to throw 600 tons on the foreshore of Lincolnshire, and wait for them to be washed into the sea. In the same area, French onion sellers go round offering French onions to the people who would otherwise have bought onions that were grown in their own country. Surely the right hon. Lady cannot claim this to be good planning. If planning is to be of any use at all to us, it must be good planning. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would not wish to retain bad planning. If any further evidence is required on this point, I would advise the right hon. Lady to look at the back page of "The Times" today, which shows a picture of leeks being ploughed in because there is no market for them. There has been no liaison between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of food, or if there has been a liaison it has not been good.

Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the Ministry are responsible for the leeks? Is not the private individual farmer responsible because he has grown stuff for which there has been no sale?

Mr. Osborne

I am glad to have had that question from the hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that this was done at the specific request of the Ministry of Agriculture and that the farmers have gone out of their way to produce the leeks. Now other departments say to him: "What fools you were to do it." The Government do not know how to plan properly. How do they expect us as a nation to recover as quickly as we ought to? The evidence from my constituency could be multiplied all over the country. It shows an indescribable lack of planning, and it shows incompetence and muddle.

When I asked some of my constituents for some of these facts they were very chary of giving them to me. They said: "We are largely in the hands of the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture these days. If we give you too much information you will get up in the House of Commons, and we shall get the backwash of it." I am putting that point to the right hon. Lady. I know it is not her desire, but her officials can take the "mike" out of those people. That is the industrial Gestapo of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) spoke in 1945. It is a menace. It seems to me that the Ministry of Food, while they may have certain major functions to perform for many years to come, should shed as quickly as possible that which is not necessary. They should cut their activities down as speedily as possible. I claim that the Potato and Carrot Division has long outlived its usefulness.

I finish on this note. Hon. Members opposite often say to us: "As Conservatives you are always talking about ending controls. What control would you take off?" That is the challenge that is used at elections. It will be used in the next two by-elections. My answer is I would start here. This is the one I would start with: I would end the Potato and Carrot Division, which is costing us 1,600 workers and a half a million pounds in wages. It is occupying houses that the homeless ought to have and it is doing its job badly. If we handed the job over to a private trader, it would be done much better, to the great benefit of the nation.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)

One would think, from the remarks of the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne), that only the Labour Government had been concerned with controls. I would remind him that before the war the Potato Marketing Board exercised controls upon the farmer under a Conservative Government. The control was so stringent that if the farmer grew more acreage than a certain basic acreage which was fixed by the Marketing Board, he was fined £10 per acre. If a farmer had plenty of land on which he wished to grow potatoes for the people, he was limited by the controls, the rigorous and totalitarian controls placed upon him by a Conservative Government. Not only was he punished, but he had to pay a heavy fine. That was under a Conservative Government.

One would also think, from what the hon. Member has been saying, that it is only under a Labour Government that a farmer or the people sustained losses on potatoes. There have been losses on potato growing ever since the farmers of this country began to grow potatoes. There have been fluctuations. What used to take place in agricultural practice was that farmers of this country had to speculate, to gamble. They laid down an acreage of potatoes. Sometimes it was too large or we had an exceptionally good season and a record crop. When that crop was marketed, the price was so low that it did not pay the farmers for what they had done, and the following year they cut down their acreage tremendously. Then, when there was a smaller acreage, there was a bad growing season, with the result that the market ran short of potatoes.

That has been our experience all through the years. No one can plan for Nature. We can lay down 1,400,000 acres of potatoes one year, and the farmer will not receive what in another year he will get from a million acres. The Ministry of Food have been perfectly right in trying to plan in order to safeguard potato supplies for the people. What would the hon. Member have said if, after the Ministry of Food had bought those potatoes in Eire, we had had a bad crop in this country in spite of our acreage? In that event those potatoes would have been most useful. The only reason the hon. Member has been able on this occasion to bring up this matter against the Government is because we have had an excellent crop and a tremendous acreage. Because the two have coincided, he has been able to make a charge of wastage.

Mr. Osborne

The hon. Member must realise that the enormous acreage of which he speaks was known a year previously. It was planted at the specific request of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Kenyon

The enormous acreage was certainly known in advance, but the hon. Member, who comes from an agricultural area, must agree that the enormous crop was not known in advance. It is the crop that make the difference, not the acreage. When the hon. Member talks in this way about the big mistake which the Ministry of Food have made, he is simply "talking through his hat." The Ministry have been planning, and if they have had a loss that is only what used to occur before planning took place. Who bore the loss in those days? It was the farmer, because he had a good crop and a good acreage and could not sell his potatoes, or had to sell them at any price. The shopkeeper also bore the loss. The difference is simply that with bulk buying the loss falls upon the Government instead of, as with private buying and private trading and no planning, the loss being spread over a large number of farmers and shopkeepers.

Another factor which we have to take into account in this matter of planning by the Ministry of Food is that owing to the shortage of feedingstuffs a tremendous tonnage of potatoes is being used today by farmers for dairy cattle, pigs and poultry, to a far greater extent than was ever the case in the past. Further, when the Minister of Agriculture appealed to farmers to grow more potatoes he also appealed to them to increase tremendously the pig stocks of this country, knowing full well that if they did so they would have to use a huge tonnage of potatoes, as in these days potatoes form the greater proportion of the pig food.

The result is that the Ministry of Food have to plan not only for the people but also for the tremendous tonnage of potatoes used by the pig men and dairymen. One of the reasons for this shortage of potatoes a year ago, as the hon. Member well knows, was the tremendous tonnage of potatoes used by farmers for their cattle. Everyone knows that in planning with nature one can never be certain, no matter what one does. Therefore, in order to guarantee, potatoes for the people, it is best to err on the top side—[Interruption.] We guaranteed the acreage, but as I keep repeating, we cannot guarantee the crop, as the hon. Member knows full well. In the light of the experience of the previous year, the Minister was perfectly right in making the purchases he did in order to safeguard potato supplies for the people.

I hope that the Minister will deal with some of the things which have been said. When the hon. Member for Louth gets up to speak, he always does his utmost to bring discredit upon the Minister. When he makes charges that the Ministry will make the farmers, I think he used the phrase "feel the backwash," because they gave him information, it is a descent to something which ought not to be uttered in this House. It is a reflection upon the Ministry which should certainly be answered. We are used to hearing these things from the hon. Member, but sometimes they go too far. Here is a case in which a reflection has been made upon officials of the Ministry which should certainly be withdrawn. I hope that the Ministry will go forward with the planning which they are doing. They are safeguarding not only the food of the people but the food of the animals, which is something which hon. Members opposite always fail to recognise in the speeches they make.

7.38 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

It has been suggested that the right hon. Gentleman should be aware of the enormous crop available this year. I will give way for a moment if the hon. Member can tell me what is the estimated average yield this year. So far as I know, those figures have not yet been published anywhere and, at the moment it is purely a matter of guesswork, in which the hon. Member's guess is as good as mine, and no better. The hon. Member was right in showing considerable sympathy for the right hon. Lady. Since she has occupied her position at the Ministry of Food I have always felt that she has had a most difficult task. No one has been more patient in her attendances at the House to reply to matters raised upon the Adjournment, attendances which must now be running well into three figures. The right hon. Lady must ask herself, "Why should I, of all persons, have to be here night after night when other Parliamentary Secretaries can go home?"

Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

Hungry children.

Mr. Butcher

The hon. Gentleman suggests hungry children. That is the main complaint against the Minister of Food; and, indeed, the reason why the Parliamentary Secretary has to answer so many Adjournment Motions is because of the sheer incompetence of the Minister with whom she is associated. Some time ago I raised in this House the question of potatoes, and I suggested that the potato ration had been removed too late. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) also suggested that it was removed too late. I ask myself why the right hon. Lady should be required to answer, on Adjournment Motions, questions about potatoes. Why is it that Lincolnshire Members, from that area where so many potatoes are planted and harvested, have had to raise this question?

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

It is because the Opposition want to curry a little popularity by probing these things.

Mr. Butcher

The idea would not cross my mind. To the hon. Gentleman, who in other quarters, I call my hon. Friend, I say that the Opposition are free to direct their attack at the weakest link in the Government. Certainly that is legitimate political strategy. Here we have an incompetent Minister, and the Opposition are doing right in directing their attack upon him.

What is the position with regard to potatoes? I propose to ask the right hon. Lady certain questions. What is the ascertained loss at the moment on the operations of the Potato and Carrot Division of the Ministry of Food for this season—let alone the last season? This branch of the right hon. Lady's Ministry is going to be one of the most extravagant that this country has ever seen. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth put forward a case concerning the importation of potatoes into this country, with chapter and verse, ships and tonnage, which I thought was almost unanswerable. The right hon. Lady may say that that was a form of insurance. Of course, one can insure against road accidents by stopping in bed all the days of one's life. Over-insurance is as stupid and improvident as under-insurance. There is a medium way in all these things.

There is no doubt at all that the Ministry of Food panicked. The rationing of potatoes came to the people of this country as such a shock, that the Minister knew that he was absolutely certain to lose his job if there was ever again a shortage of potatoes while he held office. As a result, he went buying potatoes all over the place. He persuaded the Minister of Agriculture to get the largest acreage planted that could possibly be done, and the farmers nobly responded. Now there are too many potatoes and they are being converted into feeding-stuffs. It is a very good thing that that is being done. I have a factory in my own constituency, but this is no new thing; it was happening before the war. If hon. Members opposite are claiming credit for that, I would remind them that that factory was not erected during the lifetime of this Government.

Mr. Scollan

The hon Gentleman said that that was happening before the war. Is he aware that many people in this country could not buy sufficient potatoes, while at the same time they were being fed to pigs because they could not be sold?

Mr. Butcher

All I would say is that the vast majority of working people in this country were working for rates of wages which had been settled by their trade unions in negotiation with their employers. Is the hon. Gentleman asking me to believe that the representatives of Labour were in such a position that they could not secure a wage for the workers which would enable potatoes to be purchased? It is complete nonsense.

Mr. Scollan

The hon. Gentleman has forgotten that there were 2,500,000 unemployed in the pre-war days, due to the stupidity of the Government which then ruled this country.

Mr. Butcher

If the hon. Gentleman wants figures of the number of unemployed, I shall be happy to quote the figures for 1932.

Mr. Fernyhough

Under a National Government.

Mr. Butcher

It was the period immediately following the fall of the Labour Government in 1931. To suggest that people in this country had not the money to purchase potatoes is perfectly ridiculous. I advise hon. Gentlemen opposite to "ask their dads" when they get home. Is any hon. Gentleman opposite prepared to stand in front of an audience of housewives and say, "Ladies, you may have forgotten that there was a period in your lives when you were unable to purchase potatoes"? Anybody who did so would be laughed at.

Mr. Kenyon

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the housewife is completely ignorant of the industrial conditions of the country at that time?

Mr. Butcher

That question is addressed to me; nobody will publicly plead ignorance; nor, indeed, would anybody admit it for a moment. I suggest that hon. Members opposite are trying to rely on party points because they dislike the bundle of facts which were carefully documented by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth.

My hon. Friend raised a point which merits very careful consideration, namely, has the Potato Division of the Ministry of Food outlived its usefulness? I think that to a very large extent it could very well be wound up. It was created as part of the wartime Ministry of Food, at a time when we were unable to know whether it would be possible for ships arriving at these shores to be used for the transport of grain and potatoes. I do not believe that the elaborate mechanism now in force is in any way necessary. The real cause of all this muddle which is constantly taking place in regard to foodstuffs is the lack of liaison between the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture.

I said a little while ago that I thought that the Minister of Food was certainly the most incompetent Minister in the Government and the weakest link in a thin and slender chain. But I have a great respect for the Minister of Agriculture. He is a good man struggling against adversity, the adversity on the whole being his Cabinet colleagues. I believe the farmers of this country would do well if, in the Cabinet counsels, the voice of the Minister of Agriculture were to prevail and not the voice of the Minister of Food.

As an example, I would refer to the subject of onions which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Lough. The mishandling by the Ministry of onions is a tragedy. Ordinary people, smallholders in my constituency occupying half an acre or one acre, have planted their onion beds. They have been weeded by the men when they have finished their ordinary work as tractor drivers. They have been harvested by the men's wives. They have been dried to the best of the skill and ability of these men, and now they are rotting, because the shops in this country are glutted with imported onions at a time when this Government brags of its capacity to plan. Planning might be a good thing, but if we are to plan, for goodness sake let us have competent planners. I specifically exempt the right hon. Lady from my criticism; all my sympathies are with her because she is a far more competent Parliamentarian than her chief, which is why she is here tonight and he is somewhere else—

Mr. Osborne

That is not saying a lot.

Mr. Butcher

—but the Minister of Food is the most incompetent Minister in a pretty poor Administration.

7.50 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Hanley)

I rise only because of what the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) has just said. An interesting experiment testing this complaint was carried out in 1936 at Bishop Auckland. There was a local glut of potatoes, and it was recognised that many unemployed in the area were living on a very poor diet. The local authority had the potatoes brought to centres and offered them at a cheap rate if people cared to come and take them away. The price was 4d. or 5d. a stone. The result was that the consumption of potatoes in that area at once doubled. That effectively answers the hon. Member.

I felt that the hon. Member spoke with some partisanship. One does not blame him, for he was being somewhat heckled. However, it struck me that his argument was rather like one which was accepted in pre-war days, when a glut of anything was always looked upon as a threat to the country. When we had a lot of food it seemed that people were unable to get as much as they got when a moderate amount was available. I remember seeing in that great Sunday newspaper, the "Observer," in September, 1939, just about the time when war broke out, the caption: Holland's magnificent harvest. Blow to world recovery. That was the way we thought. There was a little of that in the hon. Gentleman's attitude, a suggestion that we had no right to plan for plenty, because if we had a little too much, as a result of the soil being fertile and fruitful and nature being grateful for our care, we had done something reprehensible.

Mr. Osborne

What about the farmer I mentioned who produced 1,000 tons of onions at great toil and cost and has had to throw 600 tons on the foreshore as waste?

Dr. Stross

I believe that the way to handle a glut of that kind would be to allow prices to fall, and the crop would then be absorbed, hut that would not be very popular with the farmers as a class. None the less that ought to be very carefully considered. Freedom of enterprise which allows prices to fall will always meet with my approval. Freedom of enterprise which takes advantage of scarcity so that people cannot get food at all unless they have a high income does not meet with the approval of anyone on this side of the House.

In the years before the war many of the miners in my constituency and in North Staffordshire as a whole had only two or three days work a week. In those days I knew that well because I was the medical adviser of their organisation. It was not at all unusual to find a magni- ficent craftsman bringing home 29s. or 30s. a week. When he had paid his rent and cared for his wife and children, there was practically nothing left. It was considered that the very cheapest diet in the world on which one could live and retain health was three pounds of bread a day, four ounces of cabbage or one orange or two small tomatoes, a teaspoon of cod liver oil and four ounces of the cheapest cheese—that which is often referred to as "mouse-trap" cheese. That gave a man the energy and heat with which he could do his daily work. It amounted to approximately 3,000 calories, which is roughly what we average today, and a good deal less than the miner gets today. It contained vitamins and mineral salts in sufficient quantity to stave off premature old age and disease. That diet cost over 5s. per head a week and many of the men had far less than 4s. a week for food alone, if they were working on half time or had many children. There have indeed been people who could not afford potatoes.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

When the hon. Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) remarked about the freedom of prices to fall, he must have been particularising and not generalising, because the House as a whole agrees with the principle of guaranteed markets over a period of time subject to annual price reviews. Without this, the farmer would not have stability. I want to take this opportunity of saying how much I agree with the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) on the difference which he has noted between the attitude of the Minister of Food and that of the Parliamentary Secretary.

I sincerely trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to reply to my very short point. It relates to the removal of the potato crop. The Ministry of Food guaranteed to take the total production of potatoes at a price. It is true that there is a very large crop, and they are willing to remove any crop which appears at any time to be deteriorating in value. I have called on the Parliamentary Secretary in order to overcome some difficulties in my division and she has certainly given consideration to the points I made at that time. However, I am concerned about the situation which arises when it is necessary for a crop to be removed, not because it is deteriorating but because it is, taking up space necessary for the production of further food.

In Cornwall and the West of England generally the time has come when it is vitally necessary to remove part of the potato crops so that other foodstuffs can be grown. In the last fortnight I have had a letter from the Ministry saying that they can do nothing in a certain case. This is an extremely serious matter. It is absolutely vital that certain potato crops in Cornwall should be cleared. I hope that the right hon. Lady will see fit to give an assurance that she will once more look into this matter and make every possible endeavour to remove crops so that the farmers can proceed with the further food production which is so urgently needed.

7.59 p.m.

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

It is the first time that I have heard the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) apologise for his voice and the fact that it would not reach me on this Bench. I can assure him that I bear him no malice because he raised this subject tonight, and if he would like some medical advice afterwards, I am quite prepared to give it to him.

I do not deny the fact that all the potatoes brought into and produced in this country last year were not used for human consumption. Hon. Gentlemen opposite, in concentrating on the details of our transactions, have failed to look at the whole picture. The picture was very fairly put by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) who is a practical farmer. The hon. Member for Louth is not a farmer but the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) is. I wonder what hon. Members opposite who are farmers would have done had they been in the position in which the Ministry found itself at the end of 1947? It will be remembered that bread was rationed, that in November. 1947, we had to ration potatoes, and we had the responsibility of feeding 50 million people. Both bread and potatoes are staple foods and are interchangeable and so, in December, when we were reviewing our potato policy, the action we took was in the light of these facts and in view of the uncertainty as to whether we could take bread off rationing in the near future.

I emphasise that it was during December that we gave the matter our careful consideration, because at that time the hon. Gentleman must remember, directions for cropping had not been given. We knew we should like 1,400,000 acres, but directions had not been given. The yield was totally unpredictable. Everybody on both sides of the House tonight has agreed that the potato crop is a variable one. Hon. Gentlemen opposite would have helped tonight if they could have told us how we can control that lady Nature.

Mr. Osborne

She will not be planned.

Dr. Summerskill

That is the difficulty. It is Nature who has the final word. As I was waiting for this Adjournment tonight, I was having a word with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply who is a great potato producer. Apparently he produces 18 varieties and he told me that he won 40 first prizes last year. He thinks he knows more about potatoes than anybody in the country, and he said that it is absolutely impossible to anticipate the potato yield.

There we were in December, 1947, bread and potatoes rationed, the cropping directions not given, ignorant of what the yield would be, and quite incapable of anticipating the weather, yet knowing that we had 50 million people to feed. What would hon. Gentlemen have done? They would have looked round and said, "Even if we eventually have surplus potatoes, we must now get some from somewhere. We must not gamble, it is too risky." So with that in mind, we looked across the Channel and imported potatoes because, apart altogether from the general position, we felt there might be a gap between the old and the new crop when we could not maintain the three lb. ration.

I have mentioned this before, but hon. Gentlemen opposite know enough about my Ministry to realise that we are advised by the same experts on potatoes as advised the Coalition Government.

Mr. Osborne

Conditions are different.

Dr. Summerskill

Stomachs are still the same size—

Mr. Osborne

I doubt that.

Dr. Summerskill

—and the political colour of a Government makes no difference to appetites. We took the best advice we could, and because we were told that there might be a chance that we would not be able to bridge the gap between the old and the new crop and maintain the three lb. ration and because bread was rationed, we decided to import. We bought potatoes from Denmark. Poland and Sweden. Many of them came to Grimsby and Immingham.

I have made inquiries about the allegation of potatoes being in such a rotten condition that men were unwilling to handle them. I do not say that the hon. Gentleman is guilty of an inaccuracy, but I did get in touch with the Transport and General Workers Union because these men are well organised and I thought they might have complained to their officials. I could not trace any complaint. It may be that an individual man expressed his displeasure at having to do that job. I am told that the smell is extremely horrible, and no doubt none of us in the House would like to do the job. I looked up the figures and found that in those two ports the percentage of potatoes which deteriorated to such an extent as to be unsaleable was 2.9 per cent.

Mr. Osborne

What was the weight?

Dr. Summerskill

I have not got those figures here.

Mr. Osborne

That is important.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman can work that out quite easily. It was 2.9 per cent. of the potatoes stored at Grimsby and Immingham, which amounted to 11,232 tons.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Polish potatoes. It happened that the Polish potatoes were better keepers than the Danish and the others. The potatoes from Germany, Holland, Denmark and Poland were delivered for the most part in April and May. This is where Nature stepped in. Last year we had a warm, delightful, early spring, and the early potatoes came along in the first week in June. Not only that, but the warm weather caused the old potatoes to deteriorate quickly. We could do nothing in those circumstances, and the hon. Gentleman cannot blame the Ministry for that. Immediately we considered how best to dispose of these potatoes. Rationing was removed on 30th April. I think it was the hon. Member for Holland with Boston who said he advised that rationing should end sooner.

Mr. Osborne

No, I advised that.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman must realise that in the light of the two staple foods being rationed at the same time, we had to consider carefully the date of derationing.

Mr. Osborne

But it was an extraordinarily warm spring and it was obvious, even to Ministry of Food officials, that the early potatoes would be good and plentiful and would be here early. Surely that was taken into consideration?

Dr. Summerskill

We derationed at the end of April and the new potatoes did not come along until the first week in June. Then arrangements were made immediately to send 43,000 tons of old potatoes to Germany; 20,000 tons at least were sent direct from the exporting countries, and another 24,000 tons were sold for stock feeding here. The hon. Gentleman asked me why we did not divert all these potatoes immediately. We tried to divert as many as possible, but it is not always easy to divert a cargo from a certain point.

The hon. Gentleman who accused my Department of gross negligence should make a note of the following figures. The total quantity thus disposed of represents about four days' supply of potatoes, or less than 1 per cent. of the total annual supply. The average disposals for stock feed and factory use in the period 1940–41 and 1946–47 were 279,000 tons, or 3.5 per cent. of the annual total supply in that period; which bears out what my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley said, that in the past there was always a waste of potatoes and during the years of the Coalition Government 3.5 per cent. were disposed of as against 1 per cent. last year. The hon. Gentleman asked why these shipments were coming in rather late and why we did not again divert them. As I have already explained, these arrangements were made in December, January and February. The last shipment arrived, on 7th June.

So far as the purchase of potatoes from Eire was concerned, I agree that if we had only recently entered into that negotiation it would have been stupid; but the negotiations with Eire took place in December, 1947. At that critical period it would have been quite wrong for us to gamble with the people's food. Had we done so, hon. Gentlemen opposite would have been quite right to charge us with negligence. It was in that December, 1947, that we looked towards Eire. Representatives from my Department went to Eire and asked whether they could supply us with potatoes in 1948 and 1949. It was then that the contract for 50,000 tons was made.

Mr. Butcher

Does the right hon. Lady mean to say that before it was known what acreage would be planted, and what would be the response to the appeal of the Minister of Agriculture, she was making contracts in advance for delivery in 1948 and 1949?

Dr. Summerskill

In December, 1947, as I have tried to explain, things were very difficult. We could not with any certainty gauge how many potatoes we might get from the Continent. Suppose we had had a very bad season. When I first came to the Ministry of Food I felt that if there was one commodity on which we could always rely it was potatoes. The whole House, in fact, was surprised when we had to ration them. Again, it was because of the bad season.

Suppose there had been another bad season in 1948 or that the negotiations with the Continent had fallen through, and that those countries had been unable to sell to us because of having to feed their own people first. It was because we had all this in mind that we thought it wise to go to our neighbour Eire and say, "Can you undertake to send us these potatoes?" We have had to dispose of them and the hon. Member for Louth is quite correct. We have sent 30,000 tons to the factories in Eire to be made into alchohol.

The question of yield has been raised. The yield, of course, matters more than does the acreage. In 1948 the average yield per acre in Great Britain was 7.9 tons, compared with an average yield of 7.1 tons for the preceding 10 years. The corresponding figure for 1947 was 5.9 tons. Had the 1948 yield remained at that figure we should have been fully justified in making these contracts. Even so, we might still have been short. It is in the light of these facts that I feel that the House must agree that the Ministry entered into these negotiations fully alive to the fact that we might have potatoes on our hands, but determined to go ahead because, as hon. Gentlemen have rightly mentioned, we regarded this policy as an insurance. We have paid a very high rate for it, but it was necessary to do so because we were insuring against hunger.

Mr. Scollan

Very cheaply.

Dr. Summerskill

So far as the future of the Potatoes and Carrots Division is concerned, it is necessary for this Division to operate as long as the guarantee for potatoes and carrots continues. The hon. Member for Louth is correct when he mentions that a number of the personnel—about 400 I think—do certain work for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Osborne


Dr. Summerskill

Yes, 300. Another 150 are engaged on work which is paid for, I believe, on a Vote other than that of the Ministry of Food. The hon. Gentleman will be gratified to learn that we are considering what the future of this Division should be. We are taking into consideration all the work they have done and might be called upon to do and whether it should be reorganised. I cannot say more at present.

Mr. Osborne

Cannot the hon. Lady give an undertaking that it will not merely he reorganised but that it will be closed down and that that labour will be used in productive industry, for which the Economic Secretary is continually crying out? Why cannot we be assured that it will be abolished altogether?

Dr. Summerskill

I must remind the hon. Gentleman of the nature of the work. He will remember that a guarantee was given for carrots, that at the beginning of the war there was a shortage of foods—liver and so on—which provide vitamin A and that it was necessary to produce more carrots. It we give a guarantee to farmers, the administrative work must be carried on by some division in my Department. We cannot close down a division and leave farmers high and dry. We must decide first what our policy is to be as far as these guarantees are concerned. I merely wanted to assure the hon. Gentleman tonight that we are considering these things.

I hope I have explained to the House that the action we took—although, perhaps, a little difficult to understand as I have explained it—was, after all in the interests of the whole nation.

Mr. D. Marshall

Is there any hope that the hon. Lady will give me any reply to the points I addressed to her?

Dr. Summerskill

We are doing what we can. The hon. Gentleman knows we have undertaken that if potatoes deteriorate we are prepared to remove them. But those about which he is talking are in fairly good condition. That is why we have not been able to move them as much as we should have liked to have done.

Mr. Osborne

May I ask the hon. Lady a further question? Has she nothing to say about the acute onion position? This matter affects many farmers in my constituency. Can she hold out any hope for them about what action will he taken?

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman. I know, has been away on important business, but this question has been raised in the House time after time and my right hon. Friend has explained the position. It just happens that we did make a contract to import onions. We asked the exporters to delay sending them here until about the end of December hut it was quite impossible, of course, to cancel the whole contract. Again, Nature intervened and the yield of onions was bigger. I think, than many people had seen in their lifetime. That is why many farmers. I am afraid, have been left with onions on their hands.