HC Deb 03 June 1949 vol 465 cc2528-42

3.4 p.m.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

I wish to call attention to certain aspects of de-rationing, and also to indicate to the Minister some of the rather deep fears which people in my constituency have with regard to possible future plans for rationing and de-rationing of foodstuffs. It is a source of considerable annoyance to me when any small group of vocal people attempt to tell me what the housewives in my division are thinking. It has always been my policy to keep in close touch with them, and to ascertain at first hand any opinions which they may wish to convey to me as their representative in this House, and particularly any opinions which they may have with regard to the distribution of food. During the last three or four weeks I have had unusual opportunities of contacting my constituents on their own doorsteps and of discussing with them matters concerned with food rationing.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

On a point of Order. May I draw attention to the fact that there is no representative of the Ministry of Food present?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

This Debate was due to commence at 3.15 p.m. No doubt the Minister has already been informed that it is now taking place.

Mr. Harrison

I have discussed this matter with many Members, and I think I can say with some assurance that there is grave concern felt about the situation by many people throughout the country. I asked the Minister a Question on 25th February regarding the de-rationing of sweets, drawing his attention in particular to the position in regard to chocolates. We were then informed that it was the intention of the Minister to de-ration all sweets. The reason I asked that question was because there was quite a lot of agitation going on in the Press to free sweets from all forms of rationing. This agitation and the agitation from the trade had the political support of a good many Members opposite, coming under that widely publicised slogan, "Set the people free." We were concerned lest the Minister would succumb to these blandishments without ensuring that adequate supplies were available for the free sale of sweets.

Since de-rationing took place, we are bound to admit that up to the present time it has been a failure. That failure is more evident today than it was three weeks ago, and there is no evidence of a more satisfactory distribution. I realise that in the time available it is impossible to make a full assessment of the position, but we are bound to say that there are no signs at the moment of any successful distribution of sweets without some form of rationing. Today we have shops closed, long queues and all those conditions which existed prior to the rationing of sweets which caused such irritation to the general public. There has been controversy in the newspapers about who is to blame for the shortage. Shopkeepers have been blaming the public for being greedy, and the public have been blaming the shopkeepers for favouring particular customers. The present system of distribution of sweets to retailers is, I believe, unsatisfactory. Better-class sweets are not on sale to the extent that they used to be, and it has been suggested to me by retailers that there is discrimination by wholesalers, who are sending out lower-quality sweets to some shops to an amount greater than they had before de-rationing.

I am sure every Member will agree that the position is gradually becoming more unsatisfactory. On 23rd May, the Minister, in reply to a Question, said he intended to make available fats, sugar and other ingredients to enable sweet manufacturers to put an additional 9,000 tons of sweets on the market. That statement has caused much concern to housewives in my constituency, and I think that concern is shared by many others. They feel that because of the lack of organised distribution the favoured customer—the person with plenty of time and money, who is able to do a good deal of shop-crawling—is obtaining advantages. It is felt that this additional allocation of fats and sugar ought to have been added to the rations permitted to the ordinary householder. I hope my right hon. Friend will take note that these complaints are not lightly put forward, but are the result of close investigations which other hon. Members and myself have made into this question.

I want to mention one or two specific complaints I have had about the present state of affairs. I have had a letter from a shopkeeper in my division who complains bitterly that he has received, since de-rationing, 30 per cent. fewer sweets than he received before de-rationing. Other shopkeepers in my division complain very strongly regarding the quality of the sweets they are receiving. As one shopkeeper put it, they are receiving "jujube babies now instead of chocolate bars. The supply of chocolate bars is gradually diminishing while the supply of "ju-jube babies"—a well-known form of sweets—seems to be increasing to the detriment of quality lines. I hope the Minister will give us some assurance on possible developments in this particularly unhappy position.

There are several other complaints which I should like to air on this occasion. It has been suggested to me that in the confectionery baking trade there seems to be an extravagant use of sugar at the present time. The quantity and kind of cakes which are being produced suggests to the ordinary consumer that these confectioners must have tons and tons of sugar. In other words, sugar must be in plentiful supply in their bakeries, otherwise they could not possibly use sugar so extravagantly on cakes. If an excessive amount is being allocated to the trade, there is available another quantity to be added to the pool that might make it possible to increase the ration of the ordinary householder.

My next complaint is in regard to points cheeses. I am informed that these seem to be distributed most unfairly between the shops. I note the complaint is in regard to the more expensive types of cheeses, but it seems to me that even in the direction of these added luxuries it ought to be the position that everybody should have a fair chance of obtaining them.

Another thing which has been worrying our people is future policy. We notice in the Press and elsewhere that the same technique is developing in certain trades in regard to de-rationing as existed just prior to the de-rationing of sweets. There seems to be trade and political pressure being put on the Minister to abandon the points goods scheme. That is a matter of some concern, because the people recognise that the abandonment of the present points goods system would most probably lead to the disappearance of delicacies like dried fruit, salmon and other savoury foods and would enable the big buyers and the hotels to acquire these delicacies at the expense of the public. I should like the Minister to say something on that particular matter.

I have here an extract from a Co-operative newspaper, in which we are told by the secretary of the C.W.S. Joint Parliamentary Committee that there is every likelihood in the autumn of the points rationing scheme ending. He goes on to say that for the distribution of dried fruits, canned milk, meat, fish, fruit and other things on the present points scheme, the shopkeepers and retailers will have to improvise some form of rationing as yet unspecified to take the place of the present scheme. We are concerned to think that in the near future some of the most attractive forms of tinned fruits and such like commodities will be subject in their distribution to a sort of irregular rationing system devised by the retailer.

Another question that is causing concern—I realise that I am asking many questions, but we shall be relieved if the Minister can answer a few of them—among our womenfolk is that of soap supplies. They are not slightly but deeply worried regarding the story of the possibility of the de-rationing of soap. That would be a major disaster to working-class households because the availability of the better class of washing soaps would immediately diminish very much. Still another question concerns the decontrol of poultry and rabbit prices. The position is unsatisfactory. There is an unsavoury development of black market activities. We are informed by the Minister that his officials have taken drastic steps. I suggest that he should consider very carefully before taking off price control.

I would refer again to the pressure groups who put their views to the Minister and press him to do something to free from control some commodity which is needed but is in short supply. The Minister announced with obvious satisfaction in connection with the de-rationing of sweets that he was able to liberate 400 people from his own staff and that the trade were able to liberate 1,100. There are certain factors to which I would call attention: the pressure groups for greater freedom of trade, and the inclination and eagerness of any Minister to keep his staff within reasonable proportions. Those factors are the most important in bringing my right hon. Friend to the point of making a decision in questions of de-rationing of foods.

There is another point which the Minister to some extent neglects. One criticism in which I am quite sincere, is that the Minister pays too much attention to the trade. I am so bold as to say that in most cases the trade are actuated completely by their own self-interest. Secondly, the desire of the Minister to cut down the rather large staff at the Ministry of Food also inclines him towards consideration of de-rationing. A further factor is that the very important requirements of the ordinary household are not considered sufficiently in view of the high pressure which comes from the other sources I have mentioned. I hope that the Minister will give us strong reassuring words, and that he will not be influenced by the slogan which emanated from the other side of the House about setting the people free.

3.27 p.m.

Mr. Swingler (Stafford)

I want to declare a considerable personal interest in this subject. As a father of four young children I want to know what is happening to the sweets. I am certainly subject to a very lively pressure group in my own home which is at the moment very energetically pressing for a fair share of the sweets and chocolates which are available. I am sure that all hon. Members present are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison) for having raised the subject. As another native of Long Eaton, Nottingham, I am very glad to be associated with him on this occasion.

I hope that we shall have a very definite assurance from the Minister of Food that he is not in any way falling for the philosophy of decontrol advocated earlier by the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling). These bonfires of controls and rationing restrictions are all very nice—we all want to get rid of irksome controls and reduce administrative manpower—but the test which hon. Members on this side of the House apply in approaching this question is whether by de-rationing or decontrolling the consumer will be able to buy and choose more freely, and at the same time we also ask ourselves which consumers will be able to buy and choose more freely in circumstances where shortages still remain. Some of the decontrolling which has recently been carried out has been based on the argument that supply and demand were more or less balanced at current prices. The reason is that some of the consumers have been more or less priced out of the market, and that owing to the increase in the cost of living, or the increases in some prices due to the abolition of price controls, it has been possible to do away with the controls or rationing because effective demand has been lessened. In fact we are going back to the old system of rationing by the price mechanism.

In the case of sweets there is undoubtedly an enormous pent-up demand and, at the same time, the purchasing power is available to express that demand, thanks to full employment and because of the decisions taken by housewives in making up their family budgets. As a result we have seen the goods disappearing from the shops and we have seen the best sweets and chocolates going under the counter. I know from my constituents that since de-rationing many have been worse off from the point of view of supplying their needs and those of their children than they were before.

One must make a protest this afternoon about the riot of spending by greedy customers with long purses that has gone on since de-rationing. I have seen it myself in London and other places, and it accounts for a great deal of the difficulties. Many months ago Lord Woolton told us of the joys envisaged when the young man would be free to buy his girl a box of chocolates. The question today is whether Lord Woolton's young man can find a box of chocolates although he is theoretically free to do so.

This is causing a tremendous amount of anxiety. Far from saving the housewife or mother from the worries of coupon clipping and so on, it has added further anxiety and has given the advantage to those who have the time to crawl from shop to shop and from queue to queue, or have various methods of influencing shopkeepers. Also, it is putting many shopkeepers in an extremely difficult position because it has imposed upon them the responsibility of trying to make some kind of fair share amongst customers in difficult circumstances, and when great pressure is put upon them to sell large quantities to well-placed customers.

At the same time stories are going round blaming the Minister for this situation, for not allocating much more sugar and fats to the manufacturers in order to produce an abundant supply of these goods to overcome the shortage. We in this House know that sugar and fats cost dollars, we know that this situation is bound up with the general economic position of the country, and that it is quite impossible for the Minister to produce at present an abundant supply in relation to the demand which exists. At the same time I think we ought to remind ourselves that we are not out of the wood. We have to look at this question of controls from the point of view that there is widespread unemployment in Western Europe, rising unemployment in the United States, and the likelihood of the contraction of export markets, with the possibility in the near future of having to take steps to cut imports which might affect the supply of confectionery.

Therefore I say to the Minister that having allocated more sugar and fats to the manufacturers in order to produce a better supply, and having appealed to citizens generally not to exploit the position, not to be greedy and take more than their share, he should give the de-rationing of sweets a fair trial.

So far we have had only a limited time to watch results, and I think we should allow more time to give the experiment a fair trial. But the Minister should not be afraid of facing up to the question of re-imposing rationing if the situation we have experienced since de-rationing continues for the next few months. To my mind that is what the majority of people want. The most successful part of this Government's policy is the policy of fair shares. We all know how easy it is to make propaganda out of coupons and so on, but hon. Members on this side know perfectly well that the stability of this country since the war, by comparison with other countries, is due largely to the policy of fair shares and to the maintenance of controls.

I implore the Minister not to experiment with the de-rationing of soap or anything else whilst the present situation continues. Whilst we should allow a little longer time for watching this experiment, we should not abandon the pursuit of a just distribution of scarce goods like sweets and chocolates according to minimum human needs in favour of a policy of satisfying the appetites of those who can afford to buy in pounds instead of ounces.

3.37 p.m.

Mr. Bramall (Bexley)

The House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison) for raising this question. I have been astonished in my constituency at the degree to which women in particular—not only of the Labour movement, but from all sections of the community—have added their voice to the ever-growing demand that there shall be no further de-rationing of goods until the supply position becomes very much more stable. The de-rationing of sweets was a justifiable experiment. It was also a valuable social and economic lesson. It has provided the public with something they could not otherwise have obtained without the far more expensive experiment of a Conservative Government. If lessons can be taught by these comparatively simple and harmless methods, it would be foolish to adopt more complicated and painful methods.

The lessons we have learned have been extremely instructive. The first is that nearly everybody in the community have deluded themselves to a greater or lesser degree into believing that people are much poorer than they really are. In the past I have had some connection with the manufacturing side of the confectionery industry. It is an exceptionally responsible industry and one on which my right hon. Friend places a great deal of reliance for support and advice. That industry was perfectly honest and sincere when they advised my right hon. Friend that, taking into consideration the consumption of confectionery before the war and the increases in price that have since taken place, it was justifiable to believe that the demand would have fallen to an extent compatible with the present available supply. But I think that they grossly under-estimated, as everybody has done, the amount of purchasing power still available in the community for small and comparatively simple luxuries of this nature.

The second lesson we have learned, or should have learned, from the de-rationing of confectionery is that, in order to make de-rationing possible, not only should supply and demand balance, but there must be a very great surplus to normal demand. There is the psychological effect of the disappearance of rationing which tends to make people rush to buy, even though they do not want the commodities, and to join a queue simply because they see a queue. There is also, in the case of soap and points goods, the desire to hoard. There would be a great danger if soap were de-rationed of a rush of housewives to store it, thereby greatly increasing the amount of buying as soon as rationing finished. Salutary lessons have been learned in the most unexpected quarters since de-rationing. Many housewives who, unfortunately, allowed themselves to be carried away by the propaganda of hon. Members opposite about the anti-social nature of rationing, have realised their mistake. I hope my right hon. Friend will now be satisfied with the results achieved in that respect and that we shall have a definite assurance from him that there will be no further de-rationing until supplies are well in advance of any demand likely to result in a free market.

Sir W. Darling

Did the view the hon. Member expresses apply to the de-rationing of bread? Does he think it was a mistake to de-ration bread?

Mr. Bramall

No, I do not, because in that case the supplies available were well in advance of the demand and also the elasticity of the demand for bread is smaller than it is for these other commodities.

3.42 p.m.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Strachey)

An important matter has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison) and I am grateful, as I can see the rest of the House are grateful. He spoke mainly on the subject of sweets and I will deal first with that and then go on to the other assurances for which my hon. Friend asked me. It is true that there was a good deal of pressure on the subject of the de-rationing of sweets. There was a great deal of agitation, but it was completely untrue that we were influenced by it.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

The party opposite were influenced by a by-election.

Mr. Strachey

No, certainly not. The de-rationing of sweets turned out to be an unpopular move, not a popular one. What we were influenced by was the very well reasoned and perfectly sincere case put up by the manufacturers. The agitation on the subject is rather interesting to look back to. I have one or two instances which might interest the House, Lord Woolton's remarks, for example, on 1st May, 1948. He was saying that the ration of sweets was "not worth the trouble and the administrative cost." From there we went on very strongly to the "Daily Express" which said on 25th August last: A cure for the cigarette shortage? Certainly, Easy, instant and painless. Take sweets off the ration. Again the "Sunday Express" on 6th February last: The simple and obvious thing is to forget this absurd artificial distinction between 'cheap' and 'dear.' Let Mr. Strachey take all the sweets off the ration. Finally the "Evening Standard" said on 2nd November last when I announced that partial de-rationing of sweets was in prospect: Never was a policy which was urged upon a Minister, and which the Minister rejected, more fully vindicated or more authoritatively justified.

Sir W. Darling

Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not regret having taken that step?

Mr. Strachey

I am coming to that. We were not influenced by these assertions but we were influenced by the sober calculations of the manufacturers of sweets who are very able men, firms like Cadbury's, Rowntree's and the like who keep very careful accounts and very good consumers surveys. They were able to produce what seemed to be, and I know they thought they were, figures which showed that at the level of ingredients which we could allow them and which we have now allowed them, they would be able to meet the demand at current prices. I am not in the least blaming them because the decision and the responsibility was mine, but I was strongly influenced by their calculations; above all, by the one which showed that the proportion of the national income which would be spent on sweets if between 4¾ ounces and 5 ounces a week were taken up per capita would be much higher than before the war. It is quite clear that, so far at least, a much higher proportion than that is still being spent on sweets because we are supplying over six ounces at the moment, and that does not satisfy the demand at current prices. So that calculation has gone wrong.

I think the reason is one which several of my hon. Friends have suggested, that the manufacturers and I did not sufficiently take into account the redistribution of income since the war, which has increased the effective demand for commodities like sweets, which are in great mass demand.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the manufacturers are blaming him for not supplying them with sufficient quantities?

Mr. Strachey

I will come to that point in a moment. I do not think that any responsible manufacturer has taken that line. I have seen it said more on behalf of the retailers. If it does prove to have been a miscalculation I think that was the root of it.

The question of more ingredients was very well dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for East Nottingham. We have gone a long way in supplying scarce ingredients to the sweets and confectionery trade. He was criticising me, and there is something in it, for having gone too far in that direction, because in the matter of sugar and fats we must surely give the domestic ration an overriding priority over any manufacturing needs. We cannot simply solve the sweet problem by pouring in unlimited quantities of sugar and fats because we should only do so to the detriment of the domestic ration. That is the simple answer to any manufacturer or trader who thinks that we can quite easily solve the present position by pouring in further ingredients. We cannot do it. We have gone a long way in providing ingredients.

I still think it is too early to come to a final conclusion on the matter. We must give it quite a little while longer, but I repeat the statement which I made to the House the other day, that if the present shop shortages go on indefinitely I am sure that the whole country, and I think the trade itself, will agree that by far the best thing to do is to reimpose rationing. We shall have no hesitation in doing that because our philosophy on these matters is very simple. We shall de-ration when we can meet demand at current prices, and if it is found that demand is well and persistently ahead of existing supplies at current prices I am quite sure that everyone prefers to receive a regular ration than rely on a sort of improvised rationing by the shopkeeper which can never work properly.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (Plaistow)

How long is this trial period to last, and are there any factors which my right hon. Friend thinks will make possible the restoration of equilibrium in this matter? I am sure he appreciates that the impatience of people is increasing on this matter.

Mr. Strachey

I would not like to state a date at this time. The removal of rationing is rather recent; it is only just five weeks since it took place, and we always anticipated a very heavy rush in the early weeks. Therefore, I think that it is too early yet to come to a conclusion. I would say quite frankly that there is no sign at present of that rush ending, and if it proves that effective demand is really at the current level, then, undoubtedly, the only thing to do is to reimpose rationing.

I agree with several of my hon. Friends who have spoken in this Debate in saying that if the de-rationing of sweets does prove to have been a mistake, it will have been a most instructive one. We, of course, chose this food for this experiment because it is by no means a staple foodstuff, and because no tragedies would occur if the demand were in excess of supply. We should certainly never dream of making such an experiment in the case of a staple food.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Nottingham spoke of sugar for cakes and sugar confectionery. I can assure him that that trade does not think it is getting too much. Actually, they have a fairly good case; they are between 50 and 60 per cent.—speaking from memory—of their pre-war usage, and I do not think they are one of the more favoured trades. However, I agree that whatever increase in the supplies of sugar we may be able to obtain from the sterling area should be used for increasing the domestic ration.

I am surprised to hear that my hon. Friend thinks that there are difficulties with regard to cheeses on points. Most cheeses have now come off points; only a few are left on, and I should have thought they were readily available. Perhaps my hon. Friend will give me any examples he has in mind. With regard to soap I can give him the most clear-cut assurances that we shall not de-ration soap until we are absolutely confident that the demand can be satisfied at the current price. I think that the next increment in supply which we get will simply be used to increase the ration. Some people think we shall be getting near to demand with one more "ration," as they call it; I think that we shall perhaps need two more "rations," but we shall not de-ration soap until it is obviously and clearly in full supply.

My hon. Friend also asked me about poultry. As soon as we can, we should like to remove price control in respect of poultry, because, frankly, the enforcement problem is always considerable there. Any control which cannot be enforced is a bad thing, and is apt to infect other controls. I think this is a matter which is tied up with the level of the meat ration. If only we can restore the meat ration to better levels, then, I think, a price de-control of poultry—but not necessarily of rabbits—would become possible.

Mr. Sparks

Can my right hon. Friend say where the rabbits are going at the present time? We very rarely see them in London.

Mr. Strachey

We attempt to enforce a price control on rabbits, but there, again it is one of the most difficult to enforce. The supply of rabbits is very high; actually the number of rabbits consumed in this country is extremely high, but, of course, the pressure on that supply again varies with the level of the meat ration.

Mr. Sparks

But does my right hon. Friend know where the rabbits are going—who is getting them? The ordinary people are not getting them; we do not see them in the shops these days.

Mr. Strachey

They are going into the shops, and they are going out again pretty quickly.

My hon. Friend also referred to the question of the cutting of staffs. We, of course, regard that as very important, and if we can get rid of these controls we regard it as useful to cut our staffs. But, in connection with that matter, let me say at once that we have no intention whatever of abolishing the points system until and unless all, or almost all, points commodities are in such good supply that they can satisfy demand. I think that the future of the points system is that of its recent past. We shall take one food after another off points as it comes more fully into supply. I do not think that we have taken any off so far which have not satisfied demand when they have been taken off the points system. There are one or two commodities, such as tinned salmon and tinned meat, which are very far from meeting supply. Certainly we could not possibly take them off at present.

Mr. Harrison

Dried fruit.

Mr. Strachey

Yes. Tinned salmon, dried fruit, canned fruit—so long as they are as short in supply as they are now, it is absolutely necessary to maintain the points system. We have not the slightest intention of doing anything else.

I should like to say a few words on the other side. It would be a mistake to suggest that de-rationing is not a great advantage when demand meets supply and it can be done. After all, we have de-rationed three important foods in the last 14 months—potatoes, bread and jam. In all these three cases we were satisfied that our supplies would meet demand, and they have met the demand. Whenever we get a foodstuff, even a staple foodstuff, into that position, then we shall de-ration it instantly, because it is an enormous benefit to everybody. There is no vested interest whatever in rationing. I would point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) that there was no question of reverting to a system of rationing by price, because these are all price controlled foodstuffs, and we have kept the price control on. In the case of these basic staple foods he is quite right when he says that it would be better to keep rationing for a little longer and to maintain the price control rather than let any avoidable increase in price take place. We have been able in these cases to satisfy demand at the current, and in most instances, subsidised price. Bread, of course, is quite heavily subsidised.

That is our philosophy. My hon. Friends who have expressed this anxiety have performed a public service. They can rest assured that we shall never de-ration or de-control these staple foodstuffs until we are convinced that we can satisfy the real demand which will arise.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stone)

Is not one of the reasons for the great run on sweets that they were de-rationed almost at the same time as the meat ration was cut? Was not a contributory cause of the shortage of sweets the fact that people have not got enough food?

Mr. Strachey

I should not have thought that the meat ration had a very close connection with sweets. I would not agree with the hon. Gentleman if he made his remark in the sense that people have not got enough calories. They have. The level of calorie intake is good, but if the hon. Member means that there is not enough of some of the most attractive and desirable foods, such as meat and fats, then of course I entirely agree with him. We all agree that it is extremely urgent and we are bending our very greatest efforts to produce more meat, fats, bacon and other highly desirable foods. If that is the hon. Member's point, I would agree with him. How much actual reference that has to sweets, it is difficult to say.