HC Deb 17 March 1949 vol 462 cc2292-9
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Food (Dr. Edith Summer-skill)

I must apologise to the House for my right hon. Friend's absence through illness.

I regret to have to announce that it will be necessary to reduce the meat ration from 27th March onwards to a level of 10d. a week of which 8d. worth will be carcase meat and the rest canned corned meat. This follows the action taken two months ago to reduce with effect from 23rd January the carcase meat ration from 1s. a week to 10d. a week, 2d. worth of canned corned meat being given to make up the 1s. ration. At the time a warning was given that unless meat shipments from the Argentine improved there would be no alternative but to cut the ration further.

The shipments have not improved, and the further reduction has become inevitable. The Andes Agreement signed in February, 1948, provided that the Argentine would supply 400,000 tons of frozen meat in the following twelve months. But during the last four months of 1948 we received only 51,500 tons of meat from the Argentine as against 130,000 tons which we had expected to get. In view of this position His Majesty's Ambassador was instructed to bring pressure on the Argentine Government at the highest level to speed up shipments. By then it was physically impossible for the balance to be shipped in time to fulfil the Agreement, but we received an assurance that 25,000 tons would be shipped in January, 30,000 tons in February and 30,000 tons in March. We actually received 27,300 tons in January, 19,000 tons in February and we expect to get only 23,000 tons in March. When the Andes year ended in February 108,000 tons (or over a quarter of the carcase meat in the Agreement) remained unshipped.

Because of the shortfall in supplies during tile latter part of 1948 we had to draw heavily on stocks to maintain the 1s. ration: we ended the year with 50,000 tons less meat in store than a year ago. In the first four months of the year we shall get 65,000 tons less meat from overseas than in the same period in 1948, and this at a time when home killed supplies are at a minimum. Our stocks are no longer adequate to make good this deficit even on the basis of a 10d. and not 1s. carcase ration: in fact if we tried to maintain the present ration even for a very short period our stocks would almost immediately fall below the minimum level at which nation wide distribution can be maintained and the ration honoured.

The canned corn meat position is broadly similar to that of carcase meat. The supplies which we received during 1948 were below expectations: we have run down our stocks substantially in order to keep up the ration, so that it is not possible to contemplate any increase of the present release of 2d. a week: we hope to secure increased supplies in 1949, but this also will depend on the outcome of Argentine negotiations.

Naturally the failure to send us by the due date the supplies contracted for under the Andes Agreement is a matter of great concern and disappointment to His Majesty's Government. As the House knows, negotiations are in progress with the Argentine Government at the present time for a fresh agreement on meat, and the future of the ration during the next year or so must inevitably depend upon the outcome of these negotiations. We have made it clear however that notwithstanding the serious consequences of a continued shortfall in supplies from the Argentine we are not prepared to pay unreasonable prices, to submit to unreasonable conditions of sale, or to pay dollars.

The general background is, of course, that there continues to be a world shortage of meat, caused partly by the reduction of herds due to the war and partly to the increased world demand arising from the growth of population and the improvement in living standards. In these circumstances, and particularly in view of the difficulties which we have been experiencing with the Argentine, we must clearly press on with the expansion of supplies from the United Kingdom itself under the Government's agricultural programme and with the longer-term development of additional sources of supply from overseas.

Captain Crookshank

While I am quite sure that the whole country will share the concern and disappointment of His Majesty s Government in this matter, may I ask, first, whether the right hon. Lady can say anything about the present negotiations with the Argentine? Secondly, can she say anything about the financial position with regard to the Andes Agreement? If my recollection serves me aright, we paid an enormous amount of money in advance of the date of receiving any meat. Have we paid up all that we undertook to pay without, as the right hon. Lady has just said, receiving something like a quarter of the contract?

Dr. Summerskill

The answer is that what we want from the Argentine is the meat and not the money. There was a penalty clause, under which it would be possible for the Argentine Government, as they offered, to repay us in sterling. We have made it quite clear that we should like shipments to continue. They are coming in gradually and there is still about a quarter to come.

Captain Crookshank

Does it mean that we have actually paid the Argentine in anticipation of the receipt of supplies?

Dr. Summerskill

We have only paid for the meat which has come in.

Mr. Boothby

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the home production of beef could be greatly stepped up quite quickly by a vigorous emergency policy, and will she consult with the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland to see that every possible step is now taken to increase beef production in this country?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, but the hon. Member must remember that it takes four years to produce the animal from the time of conception to the time when it is on the plate.

Mr. Royle

In view of the seriousness of my right hon. Friend's announcement, will she see that rationed meat which will now be used, will be of good quality and that the poor quality meat will be turned into manufactured meat, where it will be much more economical? Might I further ask her in view of the question put by the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) whether it would not now be a good plan to concentrate on the feeding of pigs with the feedingstuffs which are available during the next few months?

Dr. Summerskill

We try our best, as my hon. Friend knows, to distribute the meat in the best possible way. Of course we are encouraging the feeding of pigs.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

Is it not a fact that we have advanced to the Argentine the whole purchase price on the signing of the Andes Agreement Act, a sum of just over £100 million? May I ask whether the right hon. Lady would like to amend what she said? May I further ask what steps she has taken to get further consignments of meat from other markets, particularly European markets?

Dr. Summerskill

I must remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the details of the first question which he put to me do concern my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

But the right hon. Lady made a statement.

Dr. Summerskill

Certainly, and I stand by that statement. But the hon. and gallant Gentleman has asked me another question about the initial arrangements, and I think that it does concern the Chancellor. We are making every effort to get food from other countries. We are trying to get food from Europe, but so far as I can see the only country which proves promising at present is France. At the moment negotiations have been held up, because the veterinary surgeons wish to discuss questions of foot-and-mouth disease, and so on, with the French authorities.

Mr. Bramall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all the people of this country are solidly behind the Government in their policy of not being blackmailed by the Argentine?

Mr. Turton

In view of this evidence of the failure of State trading in regard to meat, will the Government now relax the regulations to enable private enterprise to repair the failure of the Minister to buy meat in the markets of the world?

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman is under a complete misapprehension. Is he not aware that the Argentine Government operates bulk selling? Does not he know that all the agricultural commodities in the Argentine go through the Argentine Institute for the Promotion of Trade?

Mr. Crawley

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether it is the case that there is surplus barley in the country and that the Minister of Agriculture has not been willing to issue this barley for pig food, because he is afraid he might not have enough to last to the end of the year if there was a bad harvest? In view of this serious situation, will she press the Minister of Agriculture to reconsider that decision, and issue some of the surplus barley now?

Dr. Summerskill

That is a question for my right hon. Friend.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

is not this very serious statement—which has been deliberately retarded until three hours after the declaration of the Sowerby poll—very clear evidence of the total failure of the Government trading policy in meat?

Mr. Austin

Will my right hon. Friend see that the country is made aware of the sneering and malicious approval with which the Opposition have greeted this reduction?

Mr. Gerald Williams

Will the Parliamentary Secretary now inform the House what are the stocks of corned beef in this country? The last time I asked the right hon. Lady she said it was not in the public interest to give this information. It seems to me now to be very much in the public interest.

Dr. Summerskill

Not at all. The hon. Gentleman heard what I said. We are negotiating with the Argentine for a new agreement, and this would not be the moment to disclose our stocks.

Mr. Edelman

In view of the eagerness of the French to export substantial quantities of carcase meat to Britain almost immediately, will my right hon. Friend conclude early arrangements with the Minister of Health, in order to make appropriate arrangements to allow for the conclusion of a settlement for the import of that meat?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, Sir. We are doing that.

Mr. Edgar Granville

Does the statement of the right hon. Lady mean that there will be no possible chance whatever of an increase in the ration of meat for agricultural workers? I appeal to the right hon. Lady to use her great powers of persuasion and to invite Eva over here for a general talk with her.

Mr. Ivor Thomas

Will the Government now re-examine the possibility of getting supplies of meat from the Colonies, which has hitherto been prevented by the fear of the Ministry of Agriculture of introducing disease into this country? Does not this statement, coming nearly four years after the end of the war against Germany, indicate the grossest mishandling of the nation's affairs?

Mr. Cecil Poole

In view of the fact that this country will be economically independent before so very long, will the right hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend remember the action of a country which plays politics with the food of the people of this country which did fight the Nazis, and not shelter them.

Sir Ian Fraser

On a point of Order. Would you, Mr. Speaker, accept a Motion for the Adjournment, in order to Debate this matter? In support of that, may I submit that we are bandying across the Floor of this House political and party arguments which are shameful in view of the nation's perilous position—[Interruption]—hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite must not read into what I have said that I take any particularly strong view about which side is engaging in those arguments. But it is a fact that we are devoting ourselves to recriminations from one side and the other, and what really matters is the situation so far as the public are concerned. Would you, Mr. Speaker, accept a Motion for the Adjournment so that we may provide ourselves with an opportunity now to Debate this matter in a cool and sensible way?

Mr. Speaker

The only way in which the hon. Member could do that would be to move the Adjournment on this, as a definite matter of urgent public importance.

Sir I. Fraser

May I move such a Motion?

Mr. Speaker

I am bound to say that the meat ration has gone up and down on other occasions. It is not a definite matter suddenly arising. We have been warned some time ahead, and I cannot accept a Motion of that kind.

Captain Crookshank

May I point out that, if we reach it in time, it may be within your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, that this matter could be discussed on the Supplementary Estimate of the Ministry of Food which covers the trading accounts of this year, including meat among other subjects. It may be possible to do that. At any rate we shall try, and so I give the right hon. Lady warning, in order that she shall not come unprepared.

Mr. Speaker

I was not quite sure what Estimates were down, but it could be taken there, I imagine, subject, of course, to the wish of the Committee. Therefore that does afford an opportunity to debate the matter. I think we had better get on. We have another matter to deal with.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I understood, Mr. Speaker, that when my hon. Friend the Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) raised his point of Order, you had already called upon me to put a supplementary question.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Lonsdale raised a point of Order. I had not called him.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I understood that you had called me to put a supplementary question when my hon. Friend raised his point of Order. As the right hon. Lady has announced a cut in the domestic ration, can she say whether proportionate adjustments are being made in the allocations to catering establishments or is the whole of the deficit to be carried by the domestic consumer?

Dr. Summerskill

It will be reflected in all catering establishments.