HC Deb 20 January 1949 vol 460 cc428-36

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

I wish to raise a matter which affects the town which I have the honour to represent. In this year of grace, 1949, Oldham will celebrate the centenary of its inception as a borough, and in doing so the whole of Oldham—men of all creeds, parties and classes—will unite together in a series of celebrations which I believe will be unparalleled in the history of the town. Oldham has the right to claim the indulgence of this House, not only because of its long representation in this House, going back to long before it became a borough, or because Cobbett was its first Member, but because it can claim to have made a unique contribution to our prosperity. In its long history men of Oldham fought in the Armada; troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie were at Oldham; men of Oldham fought with courage at Waterloo and Peterloo. The Oldham inquest on Peterloo is a matter of history.

On this occasion Oldham will, as I have said, look back on the last hundred years of its history, during which it has faced the vicissitudes of industrial life with indomitable fortitude and courage, and with hope and confidence for the future. During these celebrations it is natural, right and eminently proper that there should be a desire to pay some special tribute to the old people of the town who have contributed to its prosperity by long years of industry and often by long years of privation.

I wish to correct any misapprehension, if there be any, about the way I put a Question yesterday. I had approached the right hon. Lady on this matter before, and I apologised for raising it again at short notice. In doing so, I suffer more than she does. I have had no opportunity of refreshing myself with papers which I hope she has now had an opportunity to look at. She always receives me with courtesy, as she did on this occasion, but I have not yet obtained the result which I hope to obtain in the course of the evening.

A request was made, a modest one, it might even appear to be a trifling one, but it is one of fundamental principle and of fundamental importance, and it is right that the House should spend a few minutes dealing with the matter. We are not asking for anything extra for the aged people. The town is organising on an unprecedented scale what Lancashire calls a "high tea," though I must say that what Lancashire used to call a "high tea" is not what it is able to call a "high tea" today.

I do not want to utter one word of controversy, but I have to say this because it is a matter of comment in Oldham. Many people read in the papers about turtles being brought by air for the Lord Mayor's banquet and being fed on champagne and oysters to produce the appropriate flavour for soup. I admit that the Ministry of Food had nothing to do with that. It is one more manifestation of the individualism of private enterprise. Many read of it with disgust, and none wants to read of it again.

We have several thousand old age pensioners who will, we hope, be present on this occasion. There may be more, but we realise that some will be prevented from attending by infirmity and sickness. If we were able to engage caterers, rations would, of course, be available. Because this is an effort to be conducted by the town itself, not by any party, but by the borough under the auspices of the Mayor and Corporation, because of a technicality, rations are not obtainable. It is to deal with that technicality that I am raising his matter tonight. If it were a meeting of Elks or a meeting of Buffalos, or a meeting of any of the many organisations that properly meet together from time to time to engage in festivities, they would hire a caterer and they would get rations. All we are asking tonight is that arrangements should be made for these old people to have a little meat, no more than they would be entitled to, on this one occasion in a hundred years so that we shall not have to abandon this historic event because of a mere comma or semicolon in a Regulation of the Ministry of Food. If there be such a comma or semicolon, we could take it out in ten minutes and put the matter right.

I hope my right hon. Friend will not say that our rules and regulations must be observed. Most of our greatest successes have been achieved by people who sometimes had sense enough to know that there are times when rules can conveniently and properly be ignored. After all, if Nelson had not ignored rules he would have lost his great battle, and we might not have been here discussing this matter tonight. It is not beyond the bounds of ingenuity and ability to devise a method to prevent this important function from being abandoned. I would be content not to receive meat; indeed, I personally would prefer ox tongue to corned beef if it be a matter of rations, but I do ask the right hon. Lady to say tonight that she thinks this application is an exceptional one and will regard it with sympathy and understanding. I ask her to see that we do not have to abandon this historic and important event in Oldham, upon which the town is embarking with such a sense of municipal feeling and with so real justification.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Delargy (Manchester, Platting)

I strongly support the innocent and very sensible request of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale). After all, the centenary of the historic borough of Oldham occurs, as the more perceptive Members will readily observe, only once in a hundred years, and therefore the danger of establishing a precedent is somewhat remote. I know very well that the Minister could produce arguments against this request, arguments precise, pedantic, logical and dull, as dull as the menu in a London restaurant. But we are not asking for logic and regulations tonight. We are asking for a generous gesture, a warm hearted gesture in the midst of cold officialdom.

The granting of this request will not decrease our meat stocks. It will not require very lengthy negotiations or even require the permission of Senor Miranda But it will give pleasure to a group of aged people who are celebrating a great achievement of their town. In other words, it will encourage them in their civic pride. The pride and love of one's own town or village or parish is something to be encouraged. For those reasons therefore which I am certain that the right hon. Lady will have found to be overwhelming and compelling, I hope that she will accede to the request made tonight by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham.

8.17 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I wish particularly to support the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) in the plea put forward on behalf of the old age pensioners of Oldham. I do so because the old age pensioners at the present moment, whatever may be said in this House or outside, are having a very lean time with the rations that they get. And surely the celebration of the centenary of Oldham is the day when the Ministry of Food should at least put a little bit of elastic into the regulations.

I have read the speeches made from time to time in the country by the right hon. Lady and when she has been questioned about her sympathies towards old people, she has always said she has every sympathy with the old folks. Here is an opportunity for the right hon. Lady and her Department to manifest that sympathy in a real and practical way. We have a saying in Lancashire that "sympathy without relief is like mustard without beef." We are asking for the beef, what little it is, to be conceded to these old folks. We are not asking her or her Department to perform the miracle of the five barley loaves and the two small fishes. But there is a possibility, and I know that in the right hon. Lady's Department they have the ingenuity and the wit and the business acumen to make this concession to the old folk.

In 1951 in this country there will be a magnificent festival. There will be no need for any person at that festival to make application to the Department of the right hon. Lady for rations. It will be conceded to them without any request at all. Surely when the hon. Member for Oldham and the Borough Council of Oldham and all the institutions that will participate in this great celebration so strongly desire it, the old folks are entitled to the concession which has been applied for.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

I know very little about the town of Oldham, but I am very eager to support this application. In fact, all I know about the town of Oldham may be summed up in the names of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) and Mr. Wilfred Mannion. Because Oldham has lost Wilfred Mannion, that seems to me all the better reason why they should have their old pensioners' tea. However, I am sure that kind of argument will not appeal to the Ministry of Food. They would prefer an argument more on the grounds of statistics. After my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham had approached me about this matter, and put the case as powerfully as he has done this evening, I went to the Library and looked up statistics which will appeal to the Ministry of Food. I have been discovering how many boroughs in this country would be celebrating their centenary, and how much meat would be involved if this proposal were carried out. I have not finished my researches, but I discovered that a great number of our cities and towns would not be involved if the Ministry were to say that they would at any rate relax their regulations in the case of centenary teas. It would not involve a great amount of meat.

Even if the idea were encouraged that every borough should ransack its history to discover exactly when it became a borough and to discover the famous men who had represented it throughout the years, would it not be a good thing? Would it not encourage municipal consciousness? I prophesy that there is not one hon. Member in this House tonight, except my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale), who knows when the centenary of his own borough is to be. If the Ministry of Food relax their regulations, I am sure that every hon. Member will look up the date early tomorrow morning. This will not involve a great amount of meat, and what a centenary it would be in Oldham.

Oldham is a famous city. It has had a wonderful reputation, from the time of William Cobbett to the present day. As far as I know, there is no monument to Cobbett in this country. He is one of the most famous men who ever fought for the people. Surely, the Ministry of Food ought to pay their tribute to William Cobbett who at a time of tremendous distress throughout the countryside, fought for the right of the British people to produce food from their own soil. He fought against the financiers and against all those hon. Gentlemen who sit on the opposite side of the House, who have scuttled from this Debate today. It is most significant that when my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham raised this question, there was only one representative of the Conservative Party present. I hope he will give the official view of his party.

On all these grounds, it would be a fine thing if it went out from the House of Commons tonight that owing to the appeal made in this most democratic of all Assemblies, it had been said that, whatever the regulations, the Ministry of Food were sending out a message to the country, "To hell with the regulations. We are not concerned about them; we are more concerned about what we believe to be the humane thing and what, after examination, we believe to be the practical thing." The Ministry ought to say that they will make this allowance, which will do honour to a great city, to those who have represented that city and to those who have taken the trouble to come along here and to fight for this cause tonight. I have the greatest admiration for the Ministry of Food. I regard the attacks made upon them as the most flagrant and frivolous propaganda. On these grounds, let them come forward and show what a really humane Ministry they are.

8.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summer-skill)

I have always looked upon the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) as a friend, but tonight I find that he comes along and presents a united front with Oldham, Platting and Ince. He asked me to say tonight, "To hell with the regulations." I do not think it would be parliamentary to reply to these suggestions. However, I want to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale). There is no need for him to tell me of the history of his great town. Perhaps he will remember that I contested the Division of Bury in 1934. On several occasions I was invited to Oldham by some of his constituents and there I partook of a high tea. I know full well what it means. A few minutes ago the hon. Member came into the Members Tea Room where I was taking one miserable cup of tea. From that he gathered that I did not know what he was talking about. I assure him that I am so bullied by hon. Members that I have only time for an ordinary cup of tea. Perhaps one day when I am up in Oldham he will invite me along for a high tea. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) asked me to use my ingenuity, wit and business acumen, and said that then this problem would be solved. Unfortunately, it is not wit that they are asking for: it is meat.

I thought it was significant tonight that not one woman Member intervened, although I see that there is a woman Member sitting on the back benches. Women are mindful of the fact that two days ago my Department had to cut the meat ration from 1s. to 10d. so far as carcase meat is concerned and we had to supplement that 10d. worth of carcase meat by 2d. worth of corned meat. That means a certain amount of hardship to every home in the country. I must remind the hon. Member for Oldham that this is not a question of my hard heart. It is a question of meat supplies.

Mr. Hale

I am sure the right hon. Lady has misunderstood the application which we are making, because this is all bilge. It has nothing to do with the matter. The position simply is that if we employ a caterer we shall get certain rations, but the caterer gets a profit which makes the venture prohibitive. We want permission to do exactly the same thing without the caterer. We do not ask for a farthing's worth more. This would not affect the meat situation because, if there were wealthy enough men in Oldham to pay the money for this occasion, we should get it by employing some one to do the catering. All we ask is for permission to do this without the intervention of the caterer.

Dr. Summerskill

Actually, the hon. Member is wrong. Caterers cannot supply meat for a tea.

Mr. Hale

This is a high tea, and a high tea is a dinner.

Dr. Summerskill

Under the regulations one is not allowed to supply meat for a tea meal. The reason why we have to allow caterers to cater for parties is that the Ministry must exercise some control over food. It would be wrong and irresponsible for my Department to say to any hon. Member who asks for meat for 8,000 people for a tea, "Yes, you can have it without any control whatever." That is why we use the caterers. It is for the purpose of exercising control.

Mr. Hale

The borough corporation are to control this tea.

Dr. Summerskill

I must ask the hon. Member to exercise a little patience.

I want hon. Members to realise what this means. We are invited tonight to supply meat for 8,000 people for a tea party. In this country today there are 7 million people who qualify for the old age pension. Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Ince, who is always a great friend of the old age pensioners, will agree with me when I say that it would be only fair for these 7 million people in different parts of the country, in their various organisations, if they heard of some concession tonight, to ask for a similar concession. It would be entirely wrong for me then to come to this House and to say to hon. Members who represent the constituencies of those old people that they could not enjoy the same concession enjoyed by the constituents of the hon. Member for Oldham. I hope that hon. Members will realise that, although I am observing the regulations, I am observing them in the interests of every Member in this House and in the interests of the old age pensioners.

Furthermore, we give old age pensioners certain extra foods on occasions when they want to have a particular party. For instance they are given certain allowances for golden weddings, but we never give them meat. I think that every one in this House would ask why, if we were to give meat for a centenary, should we not give these poor old people a little meat for their golden weddings. We give extras for christenings and for funerals and for certain other events. The hon. Member is asking for a concession which we have never made on other occasions. When he raised this matter with my right hon. Friend yesterday he said that he could get the meat from Australia. He asked my right hon. Friend whether he might get in touch with his friends in Australia and bring the meat to the old age pensioners in that way. He rather suggested that we were tied by red tape, because whereas he could get it from Australia——

Mr. Hale

Really, the right hon. Lady is misrepresenting me——

Dr. Summerskill

No, I must carry on with my speech. Then, the hon. Member put this supplementary question: In these circumstances, would my right hon. Friend give permission for application to be made abroad individually for meat to be sent for this occasion?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1949; Vol. 460, c. 163.]

Mr. Hale

Yes, in the circumstances disclosed in the answer given by the Minister.

Dr. Summerskill

I want to remind the hon. Member of what it would mean. We are at the moment contracting to take the exportable surplus of meat from Australia. It would only mean that we should be taking meat that would otherwise go towards the domestic rations of this country.

Mr. Hale

But the Minister allows the wealthy to have food parcels.

Dr. Summerskill

But the food parcels are limited to a certain amount, for precisely that reason—to prevent people sending to Australia and asking for meat for a thousand people. That is absolutely prohibited.

Therefore, I want the House to realise that we have to do this. I am sure that the hon. Member for Oldham will realise that this is not a pleasant thing for me to have to do. I am always having to say "No," but I look forward to the day when I can say "Yes." I find it extremely unpleasant to have to say "No" to the old age pensioners, but, in this case, if we made a concession, then it would be only right that hon. Members in every part of the House should be able to come to me and say "Well, you did for one hon. Member; I ask you to do it for others." I would not be able to refuse. I want to tell the House that, when the hon. Member wrote to me, we said that we certainly were not unsympathetic. We said that, although we could not give meat, we would give an allowance of tea, milk, sugar and margarine for 8,000 people. I can only suggest that this tea should be given and the meal supplemented with unrationed foods. Perhaps the borough could make arrangements to supply fish and potatoes——

Mr. Hale

What, cook 7,000 pieces of fish and serve them, hot or cold?

Dr. Summerskill

Now, the hon Member is talking about details of administration, and it is not for me to go into that. If that unrationed food were prepared, I am quite sure that the old age pensioners would have a successful party.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes to Nine o'Clock.