HC Deb 11 July 1950 vol 477 cc1304-16

11.32 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon. East)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 18th May 1950, entitled the Fats, Cheese and Tea (Rationing) Order, 1950 (S.1., 1950, No. 796), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, he annulled. In view of the fact that it is just after half past eleven I shall be very brief in moving this Motion. For those who are interested, since Statutory Instrument No.796 was laid, Order No.1071, amending this, has also been laid; but that only deals with varieties of cheese and, as my concern is solely with the tea part, I shall make no reference to No. 1071, which is consequential on this other which is now under consideration.

Under this Order, the tea ration is cut from two-and-a-half ounces to two ounces a week. This has caused a great deal of perturbation among the housewives; and, I might say, among builders who now drink tea, I think, with too great frequency—but that is merely in passing. The cut, I understand, is because there is not enough tea in stock. or being. imported.

I have looked up the Trade and Navigation Returns for the first five months of this year; I have not seen the June returns, although I saw them mentioned in the Press this morning; but during that period we imported 139 million lbs. of tea. If my arithmetic is right, the two ounce ration involves 300 million lbs. in a year that is, for the domestic ration, and if the ration is the same, we shall import tea equal to the domestic ration. But, as those who took part in the debate last Friday will know, a good deal is consumed outside the household; how much in restaurants, and so on, I do not know, although the total of 500 million lbs. put to me is, I think, an exaggeration.

It is the case that the present rate of importation is only just enough to meet the domestic ration. Therefore, the Minister of Food is compelled to propose this cut. I want to know why he is compelled to propose this cut, because if he had made better arrangements about the importation the cut would not have been necessary. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me why they have failed to arrange for the importation of more tea. It may, of course, be that the Dutch have been pushed out in Indonesia through the action of what I may call the "Insecurity" Council at Lake "Failure". The British and American Governments, at the right moment, had not forced the Dutch—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] Certainly; Java is a very important source of tea. If it had not been for the action of the British and American Governments in stopping the Dutch when they were clearing up Indonesia, far greater supplies of tea would now be available from that part of the world.

Apart from that, I understand negotiations in Ceylon have not been too successful and we do not appear to be getting enough from Assam. I am not a tea expert but a moderate consumer. However, the people of Britain are very perturbed about the cut in the tea ration. Is there a world shortage? I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us. I know that as the result of the Great War the whole of the American people acquired a new tea-drinking habit, and it may be that the people of the United States are drinking more tea. It may be that there is a slight increase in the European countries which, in the past, used to drink coffee but now drink tea. We are the largest tea consumers, I think. of the white countries in the world and I know of no real world shortage of tea. There is a shortage of tea in this country. Maybe there is a shortage of brains in the Ministry of Food, because it is a shortage of brains which has led to the short-age of money. [HON. MEMBERS: "No"] Yes, why not say it? The Parliamentary Secretary has to justify himself and we will find out whether my accusation is sound or unsound.

The largest consumers of tea per head of the population among the white people in the world are the inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Australia. If my information from the Press is right, tea rationing was completely abolished in Australia the other day. If the Australians suddenly decide they have all the tea they want without any rationing at all, it rather indicates there cannot be quite the shortage of tea in the world. There is in this country, I know. The amount that was in bonded warehouses on 30th May, I think it was, according to the Trade and Navigation Returns was one-and-a-half million lbs. There may be stocks of tea not in the bonded warehouses, but the only disclosure of stocks we have are the figures shown at the end of the Trade and Navigation Returns, where there is a table showing the quantities of goods in bonded warehouses. and the amount of tea is trifling.

Therefore, I assume there is a shortage of tea in this country and unless that can be corrected, it is obvious that the Ministry have to cut the ration. Why is there a shortage of stocks of tea in this country? Having regard to the matter I have already mentioned, that in the last ten days Australia, where they consume more tea per head of population than in any other country with a white population, has found it possible to abolish tea-rationing, I hope I shall get an answer.

11.39 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

I beg to second the Motion.

It is, of course, a matter of great concern to everybody that this tea ration, which means so much to the people of this country, should be reduced in these days when one was hoping that things might be getting better. It is a fact that in every respect in which they have got better it is where the Socialist Government has given up its Socialist principles. We should realise that Mincing Lane, where for five years in my very young days, I served in a very junior capacity among the tea-brokers, produced tea of the finest qualities and of qualities at varying prices in unlimited quantities for the people of this country.

In no country in the world was tea more in demand or was there a better choice of it or more reasonable prices for it or where tea was more "get-at-able" by all grades of the population. Yet, here to-day, we are reducing this miserable ration of 3 oz. to 2½ oz. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] It makes no difference, when it is being reduced, whether it is 3 oz., 2 oz. or one ounce. It is being reduced by a Government which professes to be looking after the interests of the people of this country.

Is it really not obvious that if in those days of peace, Mincing Lane could produce tea in those unlimited quantities at reasonable prices and with all those varying qualities, now, five years after the end of the war, if we were to have free enterprise in tea sales it should be possible to do very much the same thing, though perhaps not quite the same thing. I think that is not an unreasonable thing to suggest. It is perfectly obvious that the buying organisation of the Government has failed to produce tea for the people of this country in the required quantities at reasonable prices.

Would it not, therefore, be more reasonable to suggest that, instead of reducing the ration like this, the Government should go to the people who are experts in it and have been experts for generations, and say, "Can you take it over?" There is no genuine necessity for reducing the ration of tea as laid down in this Order. I ask the Minister when he comes to reply to tell us what are the reasons why he is not prepared to let the trade which understands this go in for tea as it used to, under all the due safeguards which the Government has in its hands and so produce the tea for the people which is so urgently wanted.

I think they should have that tea because it is purely a matter of an organisation which understands it obtaining it instead of an organisation which does not understand it.

11.43 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I support my hon. Friends in praying for the annulment of this Order. I do so on the form of the Order and not on the general grounds, though I may say, in passing, that I remember, many years ago, that the late Sir Charles Higham, when a Member of this House, persuaded the people of this country to drink more tea and conducted a very important advertising campaign across the Atlantic to persuade the United States people to drink more tea.

Now in those days we had an abundance of tea but something has happened in this changing world. Whether it be through the loss of our Dominions and Empire Dependencies, or whether it is through the mismanagement of our affairs under the Ministry of Food, none the less the people who once had more tea than they could consume are now persuaded to limit their consumption to 2 oz. instead of 2½ oz. That seems a deplorable position for a Government that was to usher in an age of plenty, and joy and happiness for the people.

I am more concerned, however, to attack the actual instrument itself because, as the Motion says, we are praying against the whole of this particular Statutory Instrument No. 796.

A few days ago I had occasion to address the Association of Certificated Grocers: they are the cogs in the distribution machine to whom this Statutory Order applies. I want to criticise the form in which these Statutory Orders are cast, and to which this is no exception. I defy a person of ordinary intelligence —and I challenge those persons of intelligence who are grocers—to say precisely if they make much of this Order, this Instrument to guide them in their important functions. It is full of obscurity. Some of the clauses to me, at any rate, are actually meaningless.

I would support that assertion by drawing the attention of the House to some of the items. In the front of the Order, on page 1, I cannot complain of the definition given to butter, except that it is simple to the extent of almost being silly. It says it means the substance usually known as butter. It does not strike me as being particularly clever, nor does it convey any valuable information to my friends the grocers. Having been told that butter means the substance usually known as butter, the Order proceeds, under headings (a), (b) and (c), to a description of cheese. This definition is "'cheese' means cheese of any variety or description." I suggest that these descriptions are either redundant, superfluous or silly. When we come to page 3, I notice an irregularity in the description. At the top of the page the paragraph reads: Any appropriate coupon in a Weekly Seaman's Ration Book… I do not think much of the educational standard at the Ministry of Food. It would be better phrased as "a seaman's weekly ration book."

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

It depends on how one spells it!

Sir W. Darling

It does not matter how it is speak whether "weekly" or "weakly." It is, in my opinion, misplaced in this Order.

The last of my illustrations is this. My friends the grocers—and I number many of them among my acquaintances—engaged in their complicated business of distribution under the Ministry of Food, have to be informed and know what cooking fats really mean. While butter and cheese are defined so simply that a child could understand them, I do think the definition of cooking fats raises a more practical difficulty. We are told they mean: …any fat or mixture of oils and fats… having a melting point which, when determined by the method specified in the Fourth Schedule to the Oils and Fats (No. 2) Order, 1949(c), is no less than 30 degrees centigrade… My friends the grocers are not greatly informed by such a statement, or helped much by such profound scientific processes being elaborated for their information.

I would also draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the fact that there are no fewer than 14 references to other Acts and Statutory Rules and Orders. He will find four or five other references at the bottom of page 1 to which the intelligent grocer, anxious to discharge his public duty, must refer and study. Throughout the Order there are references to other Acts of Parliament or Rules and Orders, and I am attacking generally the whole form of this legislation. I suggest that something simpler, more useful and more intelligible should be supplied for 3d. for the guidance of the grocers and the public.

If I wanted to clinch the argument I would turn to the Explanatory Note at the back. I thought, in my simplicity, that this was a note of explanation. That, doubtless, is the view which you would hold, Mr. Speaker. We should both be mistaken, and if you will read this Note you will see that my criticism is justified. It begins: This Note is not part of the Order, but is intended to indicate its general purport. So far, so good. What is the general purport to my friend the grocer? It says: This Order, which is to he construed as one with the Food Rationing (General Provisions) Order, 1950, re-enacts the Fats, Cheese and Tea (Rationing) Order, 1949, as amended, with alterations providing for the use of the new ration documents valid in respect of the rationing year beginning on 21st May, 1950. Here follow four lines which I need not read. I will recapitulate, and say that the lines I have read, plus the four lines I have not read, are described as an Explanatory Note. I am reminded that the Duke of Wellington was walking in civilian clothes in Hyde Park one Saturday morning, and was accosted by a Yorkshire gentleman, rather like the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), who said to him, "Good morning. Mr. Smith, I believe." The Duke replied, "If you believe that you will believe anything." If one believes that this is an Explanatory Note one indeed would believe anything.

I would further like to say that the division of the Order into Parts I, II, III, and IV seems odd and confused. Part I is said to deal with provisions relating to fats, cheese and tea. One would think that Part I would deal with fats, cheese and tea. Not so. The Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister have divided this opening part into three further parts: Part II is relating to fats, III relates to cheese, and IV relates to tea. Why all this elaborate setting forth of mutually controvertible observations and instructions? I am satisfied that the public are tired, and this House is tired, of Statutory Rules and Orders.

This is not an exceptional example. Anyone who is a curious collector of the literature of this unhappy year should make a collection of these documents. They constitute nothing less than a monument of futility, obscurity, irritation and annoyance, by which His Majesty's Government try and carry on a difficult, complicated, and, to my mind, unsuccessful administration. In supporting this Motion I go far beyond my hon. Friend. I want to have done with this kind of thing for good and all. I want a short, simple document—and I would help to compile it—for the guidance of grocers. If the hon. Member would do that he would do a public service.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

The House is always obliged to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) for the entertainment he gives us. I will certainly accept his invitation, and will have a word with him. This Order re-enacts earlier Orders, and I have every reason to believe it is well understood by grocers. They have not made any representations on the alleged ambiguity of the Order, so we may well consider them satisfied. The House is obliged to the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) and the hon. and gallant Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) because they give me an opportunity of explaining the position about our tea supplies. I thought the position was well understood in the country. The hon. Gentleman said, he is not an expert on tea—which he made abundantly clear—and the hon. and gallant Member for Perth and East Perthshire must have been in Mincing Lane a long time ago.

This Order reduces the ration from 2½ to 2 oz. a week. When the ration was increased in December it was on the expectation that we might be able to maintain the 273x00BD; oz. ration until midsummer, and we have been able to do that. What we tried to do was to give the consumer the benefit of such supplies as are available. We do not endeavour to maintain any more than what are prudent stocks. This is the broad position —and I will explain it with a figure or two in a minute.

The broad position is that tea supplies in the world are not sufficient to match the present demands for tea. That is due, on the supply side, as the hon. Member for Croydon, East, said, to the fact, at least in part, that Indonesia is producing only about half—perhaps, rather less than half—of the supplies of tea she produced before. That means that the world is short of tea. We hope that as soon as possible we shall be able to get increased supplies of tea from Indonesia. That is only one side of the picture. If we turn to the demand side, the world demand for tea has been running at unprecedentedly high levels. It is due to several factors. There has been increased consumption of tea in the United States, as, I believe, was referred to. The United States have made far bigger demands for tea supplies than they have hitherto.

Sir H. Williams

Is tea rationed in the United States?

Mr. Willey

No. Let me say at once that tea is only rationed in this country. I will come back to that in a moment. The shortage of coffee has accentuated the demand for tea, particularly in the United States; but, apart from the United States, tea consumption has increased in the Middle East and Far Eastern countries; in fact, the local consumption of tea in the tea producing areas has increased from 112 million lb. pre-war to 190 million lb. in 1949. Over and above that, the position is—I think we should realise this—that we were prejudiced regarding tea procurement by devaluation. It affected the position of tea in India and Ceylon.

Against that, what should we do? We should surely endeavour to buy all the tea we could at reasonable prices, though I am sure everyone would agree that two factors should govern our operations. I am sure everyone in the House will agree, particularly anyone who has got any experience of Mincing Lane, we should not do that by going on to the Colombo tea market. That would have sent prices rocketing beyond our reach. I do not think anyone can have any doubt at all about that, because the position regarding tea supplies in the world is that the demand by the United Kingdom for tea is so large-—it takes such a substantial part of the total supplies of tea in the world—that any such attempt to have obtained the tea would have not only sent up prices of marginal tea, but would have affected the whole of the tea requirements of this country.

What we did was to continue what we did before, working under this particular formula of large scale purchases, to offer an increased price, and we succeeded in persuading the Governments, and, in turn, the planters, to accept that moderate price increase. In that way we are getting a substantial part of the tea supplies of the world at a moderate increase in price, and we have avoided what happened in other countries to which reference has been made.

I will give figures to illustrate what I have been saying. It is no good comparing this country with other countries regardless of the demand we make upon world tea supplies. It is estimated that we shall call upon the tea producing countries for 415 million lbs. of tea. What is the demand of the United States? It is for 90 million lbs. Australia has been mentioned. The Australians are very big tea drinkers, but, of course, there are only 8,000,000 Australians. Australia and New Zealand's demand is only 65 million lbs. of tea. That demonstrates the important effect of the United Kingdom demands upon world supplies of tea.

Let us see what the effect has been at the retail price level, because that is the price level which affects the constituents of hon. Members in this House. In the United States the retail price is 11 s. 6d. a 1b. In Canada it is 6s. 10d. a lb. In Australia it is 6s. a lb., and carries a subsidy of 2s. 8d. To round off these figures, the average price of tea in this country is 4s. l¼d. a lb., carrying a subsidy of 9¼d. These are the comparable figures.

Against these figures, it is obvious that we had deliberately to make one choice or another. We could have bought tea at any price. That would inevitably have had one of two results—either to drive the price of tea beyond the pockets of the people with less money, or to have brought upon us a subsidy which would have been out of all comparison wth the other food subsidies. Or we could have said that the most reasonable course was to limit the consumption of tea to the pre-December, 1949 figure, and should press—

Sir H. Williams

I am interested in these prices. The United Kingdom price is 4s. l¼d., with 9¼d. subsidy, that makes 4s. 10½d. The Australian price is 6s., and the United States, 1ls. 6d. I presume that these people have all bought their tea on the same wholesale market. Can the Parliamentary Secretary explain why it is the Americans must pay more than twice as much as the wholesale price in a market internationally regulated?

Mr. Willey

The figures I give include the subsidy. I apologise for having mislead the hon. Gentleman. I gave the whole figures and indicated the subsidy, in order to get the average prices. I have given the figures all one way, so that they are comparable.

We have not bought tea on the tea markets. The Americans and Australians and Canadians have bought their tea on the tea markets. We have bought our tea through the formula, which has been explained several times in the House, of fixed prices with tenders being made by planters. I do not want to weary the House with figures, but these prices have been substantially below market prices ever since the markets opened in 1947. I do not try to avoid the conclusion that we might get more tea, at high prices, by going on the market. But we have to choose which course we are going to follow. I think we followed the reasonable and proper course.

I conclude by saying that, although I cannot go very far on this subject, in view of your Ruling, Sir, the question of the opening of Mincing Lane is closely related to this. We have to be in a position to have adequate stocks, to have a reasonable price level against which to operate. If we can ensure these things, then we can hope that we may be able to proceed with the London Tea Auction, as the Minister has already indicated. So far as the domestic consumer is concerned, she must agree, I am sure, that we have followed the course she, as a prudent housewife, would have us follow.

12.5 a.m.

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

I cannot say, for my part, that the Parliamentary Secretary's speech satisfied me that he had discharged the heavy task which must fall on a Minister of the Crown who, five years after the end of the war, has to stand at that Box and defend a reduction in an important part of the national diet.

We cannot but look at this matter against a background of other countries in which freedom to purchase is increasingly being given. It is a curious thing that a Minister should find himself standing there to justify a cut in British rations five years after the end of the war. I must say I should have thought rather more apology, rather more expression of regret, would have been fitting from a Minister who found himself in such a position.

The Parliamentary Secretary must face it. This reduction has come as a serious blow to a great many people. Many people found the old ration barely enough. This is a serious matter for them. It is not good enough for the representative of the Ministry that have imposed that hardship to come here tonight and say, "We have a wonderful system for purchasing tea and the only difficulty has been that it reduces the quantity we get."

Against that background it seems to me the Parliamentary Secretary must say a great deal if he is to meet the general irritation and indignation this step has caused. As he was speaking, it seems to me he touched on the difficulty. The system which he described with so much satisfaction is a system under which the demand of infinitely the biggest tea consumer in the world is concentrated through one buyer, the Ministry of Food. Is it surprising that when that buyer goes into the market he easily finds the price raised against him, and is not the price difficulty, which the Parliamentary Secretary admits is at the root of this matter, manifestly due to the system which he has used? I take it that he does not dispute the fact that tea is there to be bought. The only reason why he does not buy is because of its price. This is an extreme example of the folly of that system.

Here we have a demand for 415 million lbs. of tea against a demand for 90 million lbs. in America and 65 million lbs. in Australia— quote his own figures. It is obvious that if that is all worked through one buyer that buyer is going to be met by precisely the difficulty of a rise of price to which he refers. It does not follow that if that demand was supplied through a whole variety of buyers the variety of buyers could not get the increased supplies without the increased price which would undoubtedly meet the Ministry of Food. Out of his own mouth the Parliamentary Secretary has provided the most damning indictment of the system he and his Ministry have operated. I say to him this: if he and his Department cannot get at a fair price for the people of this country the same proportionate share of the tea supplies of the world that other systems bring to people of other countries, it is time he and his department got out and let somebody else have a try.

Sir H. Williams

It is now ten minutes past twelve, and as the Parliamentary Secretary has convinced me that Socialism means unequal shares for all, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave. withdrawn.