HC Deb 28 November 1950 vol 481 cc1077-113

10.11 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 11th October 1950, entitled the Meat (Rationing) (Amendment No. 4) Order, 1950 (S.1., 1950, No. 1660), a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th October 1950, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. We move this Prayer tonight because many of us feel that we should protest in the strongest possible terms against any reductions in the rations, whether they be reductions in the butter ration, the bacon ration, or, as in this case, the meat ration. We have now had five years of so-called peace, and we have had five years of Socialist planning. We all remember that in the General Election of 1945 we heard from the Socialist spokesmen that we had left behind the old scarcity economics of the capitalist world and that we were going on very quickly into an era of plenty for all. I want to examine for a few moments the position of the meat supplies—

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

When did the hon. Gentleman hear those terms, that we were "going on very quickly into an era of plenty for all."?

Mr. Taylor

I said the impression was given that the old scarcity economics of the capitalist regime were now left behind, and that we were going forward to an era in which there were going to be fair shares for all and plenty of everything.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East) rose

Mr. Taylor

The hon. and learned Member must restrain himself. He will have every opportunity to take part in this debate if he desires. I want to examine the position of the meat imports and home production for the first nine months of 1949 and the first nine months of this year. In 1949, between January and August, the home production of meat was 380,000 tons, and that included mutton, beef, veal and pork. We imported 495,000 tons, making a total of 875,500 tons of meat available in imports and home production. In 1950 we improved very considerably on that. We produced in this country over 455,000 tons and imported over 612,000 tons, making a total of 1,067,000 tons of meat in the first nine months of this year.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman also tell the House that during that period the distribution of meat in this country was fairer than ever before?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. and learned Member must allow me to give the facts first, then I shall develop my argument as I want to. I shall deal with the distribution of meat in due course.

Of the total imports of meat to this country, by far and away the biggest supplies came from the Argentine, but as a result of a disagreement between the British Government and the Argentine Government, Argentina said that they would not export any meat to this country after July of this year, which is the new contract year which continues until June, 1951. [Interruption.] Hon. Members seem very touchy tonight. Maybe it is the excitement of the debate on the Battersea fun fair. I hope they will allow me the opportunity to develop my case.

In spite of the fact that Argentina, the biggest exporter of meat to this country, said in July last that they would not send us further supplies of meat, in October the Minister of Food said: What we shall try to do is to hold the line. I think we shall succeed. If we can do that in present circumstances, I think when we know all the facts we may feel that we have not done too bad a job. The last thing I want to do is to embarrass the Government in any negotiations they are conducting with the Argentine Government today. Speaking for myself, I believe quite firmly that the British housewife would prefer to see the meat ration reduced by half rather than be blackmailed by the Argentine Government.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North) rose

Mr. Taylor

I am sorry, but I cannot give way just now. I shall try to prove that this attempt by Argentina to obtain excessive prices for her meat exports would never have occurred had it not have been for the present Government's policy of State trading. As I have said, Argentina ceased supplying this country last July. In previous years, certainly the year before, when the present Secretary of State for War was Minister of Food, the Minister paid such generous prices for meat in the Argentine that he drove all the other foreign buyers off the market.

Mr. Daines

Who were they?

Mr. Taylor

I am coming to them. For example, I understand that in 1949 Belgium contracted to buy 42,000 tons of meat from the Argentine. In September of that year, the Belgians cancelled their contract of 33,000 tons of meat, and we bought that meat at 25 per cent. higher prices than the contract prices which the Belgians had elected to cancel because they thought that they were too high. That is the miserable story of what happened when the present Secretary of State for War was Minister of Food.

We are the biggest buyers of meat from the Argentine, and it obviously makes a difference to the markets of the world what prices we pay for that meat. I do not believe that if private enterprise buyers had gone out buying their small parcels of meat there and elsewhere against other private buyers we should ever have been met with bulk selling by the Argentine Government. I believe that it is entirely due to the Government's policy of bulk buying that we are met with bulk selling from the Argentine. We see the whole flexibility of private enterprise in connection with the meat trade wiped out, and we are now faced with the present impasse.

Ever since we commenced bulk buying we have had a certain amount of trouble. We had trouble in 1949 when the meat ration fell to the all-time low level of 10d. as a result of failure of deliveries of meat from the Argentine. We had contracted to take 400,000 tons, but in February, 1949, 108,000 tons still remained unshipped from the Argentine 'to this country. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, said at that time that we had a guarantee from the Argentine Government that the meat would be delivered. I believe that if only we can get back to the days when private enterprise sent their buyers into the market we should be able to purchase meat, perhaps not the enormous bulk quantity which the Minister is in the habit of buying today, but meat in smaller quantities, and the overall total of the meat pur- chased would be as much if not greater than it is today.

We are not only suffering from lack of meat, we are making enemies throughout the world by this Government buying. On 23rd October this year the Argentine Ambassador was a guest at a butchers' dinner in London. He said: We have been accused of blackmail. Then he devoted 20 minutes of his speech in order to prove—and these are his words—that it is the sole responsibility of the British Government that no meat has been shipped to this country since July, and if the British people undergo any hardship in their ration or the trade suffers by this action it is not the Argentine Government who should be blamed. I am not saying whether he is right or wrong, but I am saying that this is indicative of the bad relations which can be created between Government and Government when State trading arrangements exist. The not only extends between the Argentine and this country; it has come nearer home. In Canada there has been trouble, and in December, 1949, Canada's Minister of Agriculture said: We do seem to be at or near a cross road where a plan based on Government to Government sales cannot be continued. Within the great British Commonwealth we look at New Zealand. In New Zealand the Federated Farmers Meat and Wool Council announced in February of this year that the Ministry of Food—[Interruption]. I wish hon. Members opposite would wait a little bit and give me a chance to finish my speech. They will have a chance to speak later. As I was saying, this body stated that the Ministry of Food did New Zealand a grave injustice by the defective storage and inefficient distribution of New Zealand meat. This Council said that it was no good blaming New Zealand for the quality of the meat, for the Ministry of Food distributed it and stored it in an inefficient manner.

The House must agree that the high prices which we have been paying for meat are being forced upon the Government because of their policy of bulk buying and because of the inefficient storage and distribution methods of the Ministry of Food. Looking back over the years, one must compare

Mr. Hector Hughes rose

Mr. Taylor

I am sorry I cannot give way. One must consider the amount of the meat ration since 1940. In 1940 when—

Mr. Hector Hughes rose

Mr. Taylor

As I have said before, the hon. and learned Gentleman can speak at a later time if he should happen to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I have already given way sufficiently during this very short speech.

Looking back over the years, in 1940, when our supplies were threatened by enemy shipping, our meat ration was 1s. 10d. a week. In 1941, when our ports were being bombed and U-boat warfare made our position pretty grim, our meat ration fell to 1s. 2d. and subsequently to Is. When the war ended we expected to see a vast improvement in our ration. What happened in 1946? The meat ration was 1s. 4d. In 1947 it went down as low as 1s. and in 1948–49 it varied between 10d. and 1s. 2d. One must remember that since 1949 the price of meat has gone up by 4d. a lb. so that 1s. 6d. ration today is equivalent to a 1s. 2d. meat ration before 1949. The Minister of Food tries to reduce the ration by bringing it to the same level as that at which it was in the darkest and grimmest days of the war. If hon. Members opposite are proud of that record, I certainly am not.

We often hear that the principle of fair shares for all is today being practised, and that people today are better able to buy meat than before the war. It is rather interesting to know from the United Nations Economic Survey of Europe that the consumption per head in the United Kingdom between the war years 1934–38 stood at the index figure of 60, whereas in the years 1948–49 the index figure was only 42. It does not look very much like as if we are eating as much meat per day per head as we were in the years before the war. I suggest that fair shares for all is perhaps being carried a little too far.

Mr. Hector Hughes

But the national health is better.

Mr. Taylor

I want to deal with the markets of the world which are available to us for the supplies of meat. I do not really see why our meat ration should be reduced. I have already dealt with Argentina, but I would point out that never be- fore in the history of meat importation has there been such a stoppage as there is at the present time because of Government negotiation. Australia has promised to do her best to develop her Northern Territory within the next 15 years for the supply of meat to this country, but that is going to take a long time. Mr. Menzies, when he was over here, said that if Australia were asked, he believed that Australia could do more in the immediate future. We are taking all New Zealand's surplus food.

What other countries are open to us? I understand that we were offered 15,000 tons of meat from Brazil. The Minister of Food laid down various conditions, such as that they must supply a guaranteed quantity, and as in any case he refused to pay the same price as promised to Argentina and Uruguay, the deal fell through. We missed these 15,000 tons from Brazil, which presumably went to some other country. We could have got 20,000 tons from France; but we did not get it. Why did we not get it? Can I have an answer from the Parliamentary Secretary tonight? Our imports from Denmark have been negligible.

Why do we not get more meat from Eire? Eire has been exporting meat to Sweden and, believe it or not, to the United States; and those countries are new customers. They have also sent meat to Belgium, Holland, West Germany and Switzerland. I suggest that much of this meat could have been obtained by this country had some effort been made to get it.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

At what price?

Mr. Taylor

If West Germany and Holland and Belgium—one ex-enemy country and two countries over-run by the enemy—are in a position to buy food and meat, we could have done a deal if our own meat buyers had been going out instead of the Government buying in bulk.

I admit that the amounts from the alternative sources which I have mentioned are perhaps small compared with the figures the Ministry of Food visualise in their programme of buying, but all these amounts add up. The cold storage accommodation of this country holds only about 200,000 tons, and then the British larder is full. Surely we could have stocked up by buying these small amounts. It is no wish of mine to embarrass the Government in their negotiations with Argentina, but the time has now come to do away with bulk purchasing and the bowler-hatted buyers of the Ministry of Food, and to hand back the job to the men who know their work and are able freely to negotiate terms between the private buyer and the private seller in the markets of the world.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)

I beg to second the Motion.

It is not difficult to anticipate the kind of reply that the Parliamentary Secretary will make. I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would bet he is almost certain to say something like this: "We increased the ration from 1s. 6d. to 1s. 7d. in order to find an outlet for the autumn glut of meat, when the home grown meat was coming off the grass. We do not put that meat in cold storage but send it straight out to the consumer. It was well understood—it was announced at the time—that we are giving you a 1s. 7d. ration so long as we can, but in a week or two it will come down to 1s. 6d. again.'Then he will go on to say, "How very foolish it is of the Opposition to take this line."

An Hon. Member

Come over to this side.

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

I am sure the House would be more interested in hearing what the hon. Member has to say.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I do not think it can be claimed that I ant ever backward in giving my own views in this House, but I am certain that the Parliamentary Secretary will say, "How foolish it is of Opposition Members to take this Prayer for annulment, because the logical effect of their carrying it would be to cause us to make further improvident drawings on our already depleted stocks of meat, which would be the reverse of good housekeeping." That is what he will say.

Mrs. Middleton (Plymouth, Sutton)

What will the hon. Member say?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I shall say that we have tabled this Prayer as a protest against a policy which has resulted in the people of this country having less meat at a time of the year when we ought all to be having more. I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will say almost exactly what I have suggested, but it is absolutely certain that the housewife will regard, and has already regarded, the reduction of the meat ration as another indication of the lamentable failure of the Government's policy of bulk buying.

Mrs. Middleton

It depends on the housewife.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

Before the war, private enterprise buyers, often living in the country with which they traded, persuaded the producers to grow the kind and quantity of meat which we in this country required and to produce an exportable surplus. We have to remember that an exportable surplus exists only in so far as one can get the grower in the foreign country to do without the meat himself, by giving sufficient inducement to him to export to us.

What is happening today? State trading organisation, using diplomats, commercial attaches and so on, is dealing with State selling organisations in the countries with whom we are trading, and in fixing the bargains they do not provide adequate incentives, or, if they provide them in the price, the exporting country does not pass them on to the producer the producer does not get adequate incentives to produce the kind of meat and the type of joint we want in this country. In place of the clockwork regularity of the pre-war arrivals of meat in this country—including the nutritious chilled beef which this Government of planners has planned off the consumer's plate—our supplies are now dependent on long-term, inflexible, and uncertain bargains between governments.

I had the honour of initiating in this House in, I think, March of this year, a short debate on our meat supplies. It was the first occasion that the Minister of Food had stood at the Despatch Box and answered officially for his policy in the Government of which he had lately become a member. In that, his first Ministerial speech on this subject, he said he was not going to allow this country to be blackmailed any more. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) has referred to the effect of the unfortunate use of that word. The negotiations which were then taking place between our commercial attaché at Buenos Aires were immediately and summarily broken off pending an explanation by His Majesty's Government of the use of the word "blackmail." The Argentine Government has not forgotten it, and Senor Hogan,the Ambassador to London, referred to it, as my hon. Friend said, only recently in London in a public speech. To what depth of folly have we descended when the maintenance of our people's rations may depend on unconsidered words let fall by an incautious Minister.

Everyone knows that there would not be the slighest need to reduce the ration if the Argentine shipments could be resumed again. Anyone who is able to read and who is able to pay a penny for a daily newspaper, knows the reason why these shipments have not been resumed. The reason is because no mutually satisfactory price can be agreed. In outline, the picture is clear enough. In the first year of the Anglo-Argentine five-year agreement, the year which ended on 30th June last, long before there was any talk of the devaluation of the British pound, and at a time when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer repeatedly said there would be no devaluation, the price per long ton f.o.b. which we were paying the Argentine under the contract, was £97 10s. That price held good under the agreement until 30th June, 1950, when the second year of the five-year agreement started at a price then to be agreed. When we devalued, the Argentine Government naturally asked for an increase of price of 40 per cent. to cover the extent of the devaluation.

Mr. Daines

Give it to him.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

Let the hon. Member tell the Minister to give it to them. The hon. Gentleman thinks they ought to be given that amount. I suggest he tells the Minister and see what he says.

Mr. Daines

I think the hon. Member misunderstood me. His hon. Friend below the Gangway was trying to pass him a message, and I said, "Give it to him."

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

When the devaluation took place, the Argentine Government under protest said, "We will continue to send meat to this country to the end of the first year of the contract ending 30th June, invoicing it at the old price of £97 10s. a ton pending an agreement as to the additional amount that should be given in respect of devaluation." Then, as no agreement had come about at the beginning of the second year, they said, "we will not send anything from 1st July onwards until we can get an agreement." We were offering only £90 a long ton f.o.b. I only get my information from the newspapers, and it is open to every hon. Member to see a newspaper. Just recently the Government increased that offer to £97 10s. f.o.b. a long ton, and the Argentine Government has refused it. That is the position we are in today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) that everyone on all sides of the House must want resumptions of meat supplies from the Argentine. [An HON. MEMBER: "At what price?"] No hon. Member would willingly do anything to prejudice, by his words or by his actions, the opportunity for that great source of supply to restart. The position is very serious, and consumers perhaps do not realise how serious it will be unless that source of supply can be started again.

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

Would the hon. Member say at what price?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

Of course I cannot say at what price—

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

That is the whole issue.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

—because I am not privy to the information, which is held only by the Minister of Food and by the Treasury. I cannot say—

Mr. F. Wiley

If the hon. Member is not privy to such information, does he think that he is really helping us in the present negotiations by giving such a tendentious account?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

If the account is tendentious, I can only say that it is the account which has been appearing freely in the daily Press, and I hope that the Minister will take this early opportunity of correcting it.

Whatever we may feel about the desire for restarting the shipments of meat—and we must all be aware of the need to do so—no good whatever can come from blinding ourselves to the fact that this Government are so hamstrung by their desire to peg the cost of living, by their policy of the food subsidies and of fixing those subsidies at a figure which they will in no circumstances exceed, that they make it extremely difficult to import any more food of any kind, because if they do so they inevitably increase the trading losses and, therefore, increase the amount of the subsidy.

Mrs. Middleton

Is it the argument of the hon. Member that it is not the policy of Members on the other side of the House to keep down the cost of food?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

My own policy would be gradually to reduce the level of the food subsidies, making at the same time compensatory payments to people on the lower income scales. I am informed that experts who have worked out the figures agree that for every £3 that is saved on the food subsidies, £1—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is dealing with food subsidies, but we are dealing with meat and not the general problem of food subsidies. The hon. Member is going a little beyond the scope of the Debate.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I quite agree, Sir, and I am sure you will agree that I did so only because I was asked a specific question.

The significance of the present position is this. In spite of a considerable increase in the home production of meat this year, it will be quite impossible for the Minister to maintain the 1s. 6d. ration. Indeed, it seems likely that if he accepts the advice of his experts, the ration ought to come down before Christmas. Certainly, unless he can get the Argentine shipments restarted, the weekly ration is bound to go down to something like 1s. 2d. a week very early in the New Year, and possibly sooner. This is an extremely serious position. It is not one that we on this side welcome, and it is not one that hon. Members opposite can possibly welcome.

Mr. Baker (Norfolk, South)

Is my hon. Friend advocating that we should buy Argentine meat at any price rather than develop alternative sources in the Empire and in Britain?

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I am very strong in my support of the Empire, and I am most anxious that sources of supply of meat should be developed, as they are being developed, in Queensland and in the northern territory of Australia and in other similar places, but unfortunately it will be at least four years before we can get a worthwhile supply of meat from those sources. There are no places in the world where we can quickly get sufficient meat to replace—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."]—the meat we can get from the Argentine. My answer on the price question is that I am not in a position to say what is a fair price, but I am warning the House—and I am sure hon. Members will find it is true—that if we cannot get a resumption of shipments from the Argentine very soon, the ration will inevitably go down to something like 1s. 2d.

If I may say so, one of the welcome things about the Minister of Food, who is not here tonight—I do not see why, on an important subject like this, though we are very pleased to see the Parliamentary Secretary—is that one finds him very readily approachable. Members who have gone to him, as many of us have, on deputations, or privately, have always found him ready to see us when we have come to speak about meat. He has, until the last few weeks, always had by him his trusted adviser, Sir Henry Turner, who has been in the very heart of the Ministry of Food for the last 11 years, latterly as Director of Meat and Livestock.

Mr. F. Willey

If the hon. Member was casting aspersions on those who purchase the meat for the Ministry of Food, was he including Sir Henry Turner?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I was not aware that I was casting any aspersions on him or on individuals, but I was castigating a system which I believe to be utterly wrong. Sir Henry Turner has left the Ministry. After leaving it—and he knew the Minister and the Ministry pretty well—he went to Smethwick and made a speech in which he said: The Government want to end private enterprise. They want to stifle the courage, honesty and the willingness to take risks that characterised the meat trade before the war. Here is a man who was the Minister's closest adviser. He was better placed than anyone else to measure the failure of Government policy, of which the introduction of this Order against which we are praying tonight, is one more indication. I am quite certain that we should do well, and the whole country would do well, to take to heart the concluding exhortation which Sir Henry made in the speech to which I refer. He said: Help to hasten the day when an honest trader can go into the world and buy for himself those goods he wants to satisfy his customers.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

I am anxious to know whether the peroration of the hon. Member for Angus, North (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) represents the policy of the Conservative Party if at any time it should become the Government of this country. The farming community are deeply interested in the subject. Is it the policy of those who are now opposing this Order that we should go back to the days when the private trader could go to all parts of the earth and buy cheap food and sell it here at a price well below the cost of production? If that is the policy, then let hon. Members opposite be quite clear about it.

In this country we as a people cannot live unless we can produce a large proportion of our own meat at home. During the years to which the hon. Member referred and since, among our finest herds of cattle in this country we have had frequent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, and in nearly every case the source of that disease was traced back to meat that came from the Argentine.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

And fowl pest.

Mr. Dye

As the hon. Member, who has apparently just wakened up, says, fowl pest has also recently been imported into this country as a result of an effort to buy cheap poultry from countries on the Continent.

Mr. Nabarro rose

Mr. Dye

If I may be allowed to develop my argument, I shall be prepared to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is now apparently very interested in this matter. We have seen some of our best cattle destroyed by a disease which has been imported from the Argentine, a country where the hon. Gentleman now wants any private trader—not the Government, nor under Government control—to buy any meat that is available, without any conditions as to whether it will again bring foot and mouth disease into this country—

Air Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

He did not say that at all.

Mr. Dye

—and also without regard to the price which they might pay for it. During the past two or three years His Majesty's Government have been following a policy of increasing the amount of meat that we produce at home, and the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that that has been so successful that we have had an increase of English meat in 1950, so that the Government have been able to say to the people in South America, "We cannot pay the price at which you are now holding us to ransom." It is the British farming community who have made that possible, and now the argument of the hon. Gentleman is that we should undo that by laying open our own cattle to the risk of infection and disease.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Is the hon. Gentleman now suggesting that the reason why the meat ration is being reduced is to prevent the Argentinian cattle spreading the infection of foot and mouth disease?

Mr. Dye

No, that is not my argument. My.argument is that if we are going to protect our own herds from disease being brought into the country, as has happened in the past, then there must be an element of control over the meat that does come into the country. We canno allow this danger of turning the traders free, as the hon. Gentleman says, to scour the world for meat which in the past has been such a great danger to the health of our herds.

What was the position of the farming community in the years the hon. Gentleman mentioned—between 1934 and 1938—when the imports of meat into this country from the Argentine were going up, and when those from the Commonwealth were going down? The arguments which the hon. Gentleman has advanced tonight were those put up previously by some members of the Conservative Party when they were in favour of developing trade with the Argentine, which was only carried out to the disadvantage of Australia. Therefore we have to ask ourselves whether we want a policy which is going to develop home production and protect that development from the infection of disease, and also develop production in the Commonwealth which can only be done on a long-term basis. Hon. Gentlemen should be most careful how they use arguments which have already been stated by people who are interested in forcing the Ministry of Food to pay higher prices to other countries. That is the basis of their argument tonight.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the insecurity and inflexibility of these longterm contracts. But how would the British people have been fed without them, when it is quite clear that those nations to which he referred, such as Holland, Belgium and other continental countries, have not had the advantage of a steady supply of meat at anything like the price the people of this country have had in the last four or five years?

I hope the Ministry of Food will have due regard to protecting our own cattle from possible infection. One of the reasons, I believe, why we did not jump at the chance of importing great quantities of pork from France was that the French could not give a guarantee that that pork was free from infection. It is of the utmost importance, not only in maintaining the ration, but for our ability to pay other countries, that we must have regard to controls such as are in this order. We may not like it when the ration is reduced, but let us face the fact that the principal reason for the increase, which has strengthened the bargaining power of the Ministry of Food, has been the great effort of the British farming community during the past year.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Spence (Aberdeenshire, West)

I follow the hon. Gentleman in the tribute he has paid to the farming community of this country, but when he goes into political history and tries to trace the record of the Conservative Party on meat production in the years 1934–38, I should like him to look at the voting record and see which party went into the "No" Lobby on every move to benefit British farming by subsidies or guarantees. It has also been said by the hon. Gentle- man that there is great danger in bringing in meat from the Argentine. In the 12 months to July we had brought in some 218,000 tons, and what we seek to bring home in this debate is that where a nation such as ours is dependent on a foreign country, apart from the Commonwealth, for nearly one-fifth of its meat—which is a proportion we hoped to receive but never attained—there is a great danger that the whole of that supply is subject to one contract at one price from one source. There is always the danger in Government-to-Government negotiations of friction and the possibility of a total stoppage such as we have today. Before the war, the meat was bought, as the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware, by nearly 200 firms scattered over South America.

Mr. F. Wiley

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House this. Does he imagine that if we had 200 firms buying meat today, it would affect the Argentine system of selling?

Mr. Spence

Had bulk buying not been set up and organised by the Government it would have broken down a long time ago.

I should like to make a realistic approach to this matter, and remind the House that the housewife thinks of two things in connection with the meat ration: one is the cash value, and the other is the edible percentage. When we have nearly 20 per cent. of ewe mutton the edible percentage is very low. I went this morning to ask for a ration of ewe mutton, to see what it was like. I have it here. The edible percentage of this particular meat is only 30 per cent.

Mr. Willey

Did the hon. and gallant Gentleman complain when he received that?

Mr. Spence

It was not a special cut. There was no complaint made. The conversation was roughly as follows: "Is it all as bad as this?" "No, some of it is worse." When we are dealing with the cash amount of the ration the House must consider the edible proportion of it. In former years, meat such as this would never have been sold over the counter. It would have been used solely for manufacturing purposes. This is delivered by the Ministry of Food as edible mutton.

Mr. Willey

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will assist me in this. If he will give me the fullest particulars I will make inquiries. Certainly, from this distance—and I say no more now—he has got meat which has the appearance of being manufacturing meat.

Mrs. Middleton

Does the hon. Member think the butcher saw him coming? Does he think the housewife—myself, for instance—would have accepted that?

Mr. Spence

The meat is issued to the butcher, and he has to make his ration go round. I have already said that approximately 20 per cent. of the meat is ewe mutton. When we are reducing the meat ration, as we are, can the Minister tell us anything about the supply of offal? Is it going up or down? Can he explain the answer he gave the House yesterday, when referring to the supply of pork? He said that the proportion of the Christmas meat ration—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is referring to offal. I understand that offal is not part of the meat ration, and therefore that point does not arise.

Mr. Spence

That is a consideration. I return to my original point, that while we remain with a large proportion of our ration dependent on importation from a foreign country—we must do so—it is dangerous for it to go through one channel. This cut in the ration has come upon us as a result of our method of dealing.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

The only point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence) that I wish to refer to is the record of the prewar Conservative Governments and the Government since 1945. I prefer to take as a test the fact that an agricultural labourer in Essex was getting 36s. 6d. a week in 1939 and is now getting £5 a week.

It is extremely interesting to note that when debates on meat are staged by the Opposition they invariably coincide with very delicate negotiations that are going on with the Argentine. I can remember the right hon. Member for Gains-borough (Captain Crookshank), on the discussion of the Estimates, probing the question of a payment in the Estimates to a length that must have been extremely embarrassing to our negotiators at that time. We are driven to the conclusion that the Opposition are far more concerned about making party propaganda than they are with assisting the Government to do the best they can for the people.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

On a point of order. Is it in order for an hon. Member to cast aspersions on myself and other hon. Members in this way? We are debating tonight an Order which was made by the Government and which had to be debated before tomorrow—otherwise we should have had no opportunity of doing so. Is it in order to say that we are deliberately raising the matter tonight to embarrass negotiations?

Mr. Speaker

It is not out of order, anyhow.

Mr. Daines

I am merely pointing out the obvious coincidence. I do not know why the hon. Member should be so touchy; he thoroughly enjoyed himself when he was talking.

I want seriously to raise another point. It is quite obvious, as the Parliamentary Secretary has already shown, that whatever hon. Members on the other side want—or their meat trading friends who are behind them want—the Argentine is so shaped, not only in terms of business management but in terms of the political set up, that unless there is a fundamental political change in the Argentine we cannot go back to the old free enterprise system. It is not only an economic but also a political question. What is the inference behind the Opposition's argument? They are claiming the right either to advise or interfere between the Argentine people and their Government and the system that they have desired, and I can well imagine that tomorrow the Peron Press will pick up that point and tell it to their people.

As a back bencher I can say what a lot of people cannot say. The plain fact is that the ordinary people of this country recognise, as I recognise, that there has been a constant process of blackmail by the Argentine Government against the people of this country and we have to stand up against it. At one stage of his speech the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) said that the people of this country are prepared to suffer even further diminution of their ration rather than give into blackmail. I believe that to be true. But his speech was not calculated to assist us. I listened very carefully to the hon. Member. If he would break off his conversation I want to address him again.

In one part of his speech the hon. Member complained that the Minister did not get supplies and referred to the supplies being obtained by defeated countries. What he did not point out was that they paid the prices we were not prepared to pay at that time. Then he challenged the Government because they had not secured meat in competition with Belgium. The fact is that the hon. Member, like all Tory propagandists, is prepared to say "Black," if it is required, or "White," if it is required, which is typical of their policy.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the great work going on in the development of farms, abattoirs and factories in Australia, in which all sides share a sense of pride. All of us look to the time when we are no longer dependent on Argentina and that dependency is replaced by supplies from our own Dominions and Commonwealth. We are all in agreement about that. But the hon. Gentleman did not point out, what he well knows to be the truth, that this scheme was made possible only by agreement between the two Governments on bulk supply and bulk purchase. The Australian Government and the Australian people would not look at the scheme for a single moment if it meant going back to the vagaries, the changes and chances, of the pre-war markets. When an hon. Member is making his points, he should give the whole case.

How the hon. Member who seconded the Motion squared up his speech tonight with the claim on the Tory placard about "Vote Conservative and fight the rise in the cost of living," when the whole of the policy he advocated visualised a rise in prices that was bound to eventuate from that policy I do not know.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I was really prevented by Mr. Speaker from developing that argument and saying exactly what I myself might do.

Mr. Daines

if you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker for saying so, I think you have allowed a pretty wide and broad discussion, and I do not think there was lack of opportunity for making the point. The plain fact is that this is the type of Prayer associated with the hon. Member for Eastbourne and his friends. Its primary purpose is not to deal with the subject matter but to make what party propaganda they can out of it. I want to tell the hon. Gentleman that while it has been the practice in the past—because suburban members have to catch their last trains at 11.35—to allow their arguments to pass without serious opposition from this side, these days are rapidly passing. If hon. Members opposite are prepared to scrap, we are prepared to stop and scrap, too.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Crouch (Dorset, North)

I am pleased to be able to support the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor). I am surprised that in this debate the emphasis has been laid on the meat we are getting from overseas. I propose to devote my time to the production of meat at home. I feel that had the Government paid more attention to the facts of life in 1945 before embarking on the Socialist honeymoon, today we would be getting an increased amount of mutton produced from our own soil and this Prayer would have been wholly unnecessary.

The position in 1939 was that we in this country were the largest mutton consumers in the world. Our consumption was some 28 lb. per head of the population as compared with 6.8 lb. in France, and 5.8 lb. in the United States. In 1939, we had in this country 25 per cent. of our livestock capital invested in sheep, and 10 per cent. of the sales of livestock were in mutton and wool. The policy we had from 1939 to 1945 was sound with regard to the production of sheep. We deliberately discouraged this production because it was considered right by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) that we should lower the large numbers of sheep we had in this country and use the land they occupied for the production of cereals.

To emphasise my point that the production was deliberately discouraged during the war years, I would remind the House that the price of wool in 1945 was only 103 compared with the pre-war price of 100, and the price of mutton 137 and of lamb 127. That policy, I believe, was sound and right during those years; but immediately after the war the policy should have been changed and, had my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport, the then Minister of Agriculture, remained in office, we should immediately have proceeded to develop the production of more livestock, both beef and mutton, in this country.

I would remind the House of what my right hon. Friend stated to the House on 5th December, 1944. He then said: It is contemplated that during the period of the four-year plan, ending in the summer of 1948, some change will be necessary in the character of our agricultural output to meet changing national requirements in the transition from war to peace. Broadly, the change will mean a gradual expansion of livestock and livestock products and a reduction from the high war-time levels of certain crops for direct human consumption. The Government have already announced their desire to encourage a substantial increase in milk production and a revival in the rearing of cattle and sheep for meat production."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1944; Vol. 406, c. 366–7.]

The number of sheep we had in this country in 1939 was some 26 millions; in 1945 that had fallen to 19½ millions and that was the right policy. But, in 1949 we still continued to let the figure fall and the figure then—a very low one—was only some 16 millions.

Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)

Does the hon. Member not recognise the effects of the disastrous winter of 1946–47 when two million sheep died?

Mr. Crouch

Yes, I admit that, but I would ask how many sheep died last spring as a result of the continued dry season.

Mr. Kenyon

In neither case was the Government to blame.

Mr. Crouch

Had the Government increased the price of wool by some 50 per cent. we should have doubled the number of sheep we have living in our land and the hard-pressed housewife would be getting four times the amount of English mutton she is getting at present. If wool prices had been increased—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is now discussing the price of wool. We are discussing the price of meat, and not wool.

Mr. Crouch

I am sorry, Sir, but my argument is that we should have increased the number of sheep kept in this country by some considerable amount, and in two years we should have doubled the weight of mutton above the figure we are having at the present time.

Instead of killing lambs in the summer and autumn of the year, they would have been kept through the winter and have been killed during the months of May, June and July at double the weight they would have been during the summer of the previous year. That would have been most advantageous to the farming community because, owing to the policy laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport, we had at these three peak summer months of the year large areas of succulent grass which could be consumed by a larger amount of sheep than we have at the present time.

If hon. Members opposite are concerned about and doubt my words as to the position about the consumption of this grass, I can do no better than quote the figures of sheep in my own county today as compared with ten years ago. They will find that answer given on 30th March by the Minister of Agriculture. We had in 1939, 150,000 sheep in Dorset. The Minister told me they have now fallen in 1949 to 46,000. There would have been a larger amount of sheep kept in our county bad there been greater encouragement given by the Government during the last five or six years.

I know that in 1947 a statement was made to encourage the farmers of this country to keep more sheep. The price of wool was raised to 159 per cent. above pre-war, mutton to 208 per cent. and lamb to 180 per cent., but it was too late. Had the policy of deliberate encouragement of sheep been pursued in 1945, instead of being left to this very late period, I am certain that a number of mutton chops would have been available—and not of the type my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Spence), produced. There would have been a very large number of first-quality mutton chops available to the British housewife at the present time.

I suggest to the Minister and to His Majesty's Government that they should adopt a policy which will deliberately encourage the production of sheep in this country so that we can raise our total flocks of sheep to the neighbourhood of 30,000,000 as compared with the 16,000,000 which is the latest available figure which I have been able to secure.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Harrison (Nottingham, East)

If I understand the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) correctly, he said that as a partial cure for our shortage of meat, we should increase the price by at least 50 per cent.

Mr. Crouch

I said raise the price of wool, and not the price of sheep. To substantiate that, according to the Press, at the Ministry of Supply's latest wool sale we sold Dorset Horn wool at 45 pence per lb. and it was re-sold for 145½ pence per lb.

Mr. Harrison

I assume from the suggestion the hon. Member made that if we increased the price of mutton or mutton produce or sheep produce—

Mr. Crouch

I said the price of wool.

Mr. Harrison

We are not discussing wool at the present time. Therefore, I must confine my remarks to meat. The moral of the hon. Gentleman's speech was that if we increased the price by as much as 50 per cent.—

Mr. Crouch

Of wool.

Mr. Harrison

—there is a possibility of making a considerable contribution to our meat supply.

Mr. Crouch

I did not suggest increasing the price of mutton or Iamb.

Mr. Harrison

The inference behind the whole of the hon. Member's speech was that my hon. Friend should consider that suggestion. We have all listened to the apparent humbug from the other side that we should reduce prices, but here we have a straightforward, unashamed proposal for increasing prices by 50 per cent.

This debate is concerned with the difficulties about meat supplies, which everybody on this side recognises. One of the contributory factors to those difficulties is that before the war people like myself, who lived in families like mine—and there are millions of them throughout the country—had their meat supply, in the main, in the form of sausages.

Air Commodore Harvey

Jolly good sausages, too.

Mr. Harrison

Good sausages, yes, but not as good as the beefsteaks of hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Turton

Would the hon. Member not admit that the best customers for British beefsteaks before the war were the Yorkshire and Durham miners?

Mr. Harrison

The best customers for any beefsteak at any time are the people who work hard. Unfortunately, the short time which miners had before the war prevented them from buying many beefsteaks at even their then price. People like myself had sausages, and we had them regularly. But things are not the same today. We can afford to buy a bit of meat occasionally, and we do not buy the sort of meat which was shown to us from the Front Bench opposite a few minutes ago; we can get better meat than that. The ordinary people throughout the land can afford to buy more meat now than they could before. That is a contributory factor towards the shortage.

The best way to cure the shortage, we are told, is to put up the price by 50 or 100 per cent., but that is not a policy which we on this side intend to adopt if we can possibly avoid it.

Mr. Nabarro All starve in misery together.

Mr. Harrison

Everybody agrees that the position regarding meat supplies is difficult. The Prayer, however, is consistent with the usual behaviour which we witness from the other side of the House, and it is not inconsistent with the attitude of hon. Members opposite ever since 1945. The position is difficult, and this is an opportunity for the Opposition to take advantage of those difficulties—

Mr. Crouch

Hon. Members opposite have had the chance of remedying them for several years.

Mr. Harrison

—for the purpose of whipping the Government. That is the only purpose behind the Motion.

I believe that the hon. Member for Angus, North (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley)—I notice that he is no longer present; probably be has gone home—has some trading experience, but the only thing which we could not get him to discuss tonight was the price of the meat. He talked about anything else, but would not admit that price entered into the picture. We have heard it said that a single buyer can go into a market and obtain meat at a certain price, but it is now suggested that we should send 40 buyers into the same market and that in doing so we should get the meat at the same price.

Yet the hon. Member has business experience. Do we not know better than that? Does he not know better than that? I suggest that he does. What the Prayer is designed to do is to persuade the Government to permit to some of the meat buyers, the liberty they had before the war in order to make excessive profits out of the urgent need that this country has to obtain Argentine meat.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

We have had some eloquence and gymnastics from the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Harrison). He gave a contorted version of a baron of beef. I do not think anyone—

Mr. Harrison

The hon. Member referred to me as a contortionist. Can he tell me of any contortion which I made in my arguments?

Mr. Fraser

Most of the arguments put forward by hon. Members opposite this evening appear to surround this subject with mumbo-jumbo on the grounds that it will lead to a failure of the negotiations now going on with the Argentine. Hon. Members opposite must not be so innocent as to believe that figures which are or are not available to this House of stocks of meat are entirely unavailable to the world meat trade and to the Argentine; and really, to think that by coming to this House and saying that the people of this country want more meat is something which will destroy our chances of success with the Argentine, is more than childish. Does the hon. Member seriously believe that the Government in the Argentine believe that this country does not want more meat?

Mr. Ungoed-Thomas

Does the hon. Member really suggest that the Argentine Government will not be encouraged by the existence of a pressure group in this House in their favour?

Mr. Fraser

It is not a matter of a pressure group that the people of this country are down to two-thirds of the meat they had before the war. Is it not natural that they should want more meat? Arguments of that sort just fall completely to the ground. One of the reasons my hon. Friend has moved this Prayer is that we can only move it tonight because tomorrow—unless it is prayed against—this Order becomes law. This is the fourth adjustment of the meat ration, and if it happens to coincide with the Argentine negotiations, that is purely fortuitous.

We believe that the country is short of meat: the people could do with more meat today, particularly those engaged in heavy industry. Do not tell me that it is impossible for a man earning or £8 a week to spend 1s. 6d. a week on the meat ration. We believe that our people need more meat and deserve more meat. We further believe that if the matter were properly organised that meat could be obtained. Our accusation against the Government is simply that the Government, after five years of experience, still arrogates to itself a position of being the nation's butcher. We know what happens to butchers down the streets today. People are rude to them: and we propose to be rude to the Government in exactly the same way. We believe it is absolutely unnecessary that the Government should have taken on this rôle of national butcher.

We believe that, on the whole, the Government's meat policy can be attacked on three main grounds. First, there is the question of bulk purchase. Hon. Members opposite say that the Government employ the best brains in the industry. I believe that is perfectly true. In the Argentine I have met some of the people working for the Ministry of Food. They stand very high in the industry, and did so pre-war, but there is just this difference: Before the war they were working for their own gain and profit. They had to make decisions which might have cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds, or might have gained them profits of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Today they are only automatic representatives of the Government carrying out the behests sent them from London. There is no variation and give and take of trade which has made this country produce the best race of traders, especially in international commodities, that has ever been seen.

Mr. Daines

What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that the same people, because they are now State servants, are not giving the same service with the same sense of integrity as they did formerly.

Mr. Fraser

I am not saying that. There is all the difference in the world between a free agent and a person who is a Government servant and is tied by decisions which are made not by him any longer but by a remote force in London. I am making no accusation. I said that they are extremely able people, but it is impossible to make a person, however able he may be, function inside a system which cannot function.

Mr. Woods (Droylsden)

The hon. Member is not taking into account the fact that whereas before the war these efficient buyers were dealing almost directly with the producers, now the situation is completely changed. He knows that as well as I do. The only agent they can deal with is the Argentine Government, and that Government is raising a considerable proportion of its revenue by buying cheaply from the producers and selling dearly on the world market.

Mr. Fraser

That is not true in the case of bulk purchase. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that this Argentine institution has been set up chiefly as an answer to our bulk purchasing.

The other argument about bulk purchase is very simple. We know full well that in the Argentine today great hardship is being caused to ex-workers of the British railways, but whenever negotiations begin Questions are immediately asked by hon. Members—quite honest, good and proper Questions about those railway workers. The same applies to matters concerning the Falkland Islands, and so on. But how is it possible to negotiate across a table when the whole time we have a political Sturm and Drang rushing backwards and forwards? We have seen in the New Zealand and Canadian Press the sort of thing that happens. We have seen the attacks on the Government for not seeing that the New Zealand meat was properly exhibited and stored. These matters can be seen by looking them up in the trade Press and in the reports of Questions asked in the House.

Another thing the Government have failed to do is to see that not merely is the right quantity obtainable but that the quality is up to the standard that we in this country deserve. A great deal of the meat which comes from South America is not of the best character. It is of the continental kind which used to go to the poorer European countries. We fully realise that this country and the whole world are faced with a shortage of meat, compared with before the war, but that shortage is not so acute that this country, if it was using efficient sources, efficient people, and an efficient system, would not be able to meet the present 1s. 7d. ration.

Further, once the eventual aim is reached of meeting this ration, there should be a supplementary ration, unsubsidised, for those who want it. I believe the miners, the foundry workers, and everyone engaged in heavy industry, and people able to afford it should be allowed to spend their money in their own way. It is ridiculous that the Government should impose certain standards of meat consumption on a people who have been one of the greatest meat eating nations in the world.

That ration could be met with the present subsidies and at the present prices. There are a great many areas where we could have gone and found that meat. Above all other sources, there is Eire which has exported meat to Spain, America and other parts of the world. We know that the Eireaan Minister of Agriculture went home amazed at the fact that we were not prepared to buy more cattle on the hoof and more killed in Ireland. What has happened to that promise of 100,000 tons from Uruguay? Not a ton, I believe, was delivered.

Yet we are buying canned meat at ridiculously high prices. I will not give a specific case because I do not want to hurt the negotiations. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) talked about the danger of foot and mouth disease. There is far too much foot and mouth round this place already. Too much of the money spent by Government Departments at present goes on canned meat when a higher price could have been paid in Europe. The same could be said of Brazil where we could have got the 200,000 tons needed to meet the ration. So there was Uruguay, Brazil, the southern states of Mexico, now free from foot and mouth disease above Tampico, and of course above all, Eire.

If the Government had foreseen these difficulties—which were forseeable by everyone in 1945—of a time of expanding trade, with the turn of trade against industrial nations, we could have done much more to see that the cattle were raised in this country. If the buyers and the trade had been allowed to operate from 1945 in these markets we could have met not only the 1s. 7d. ration, but could have carried out a scheme permitting people to buy more on a points system. It is no good building our hopes on the Northern Australian scheme nor the Bechuanaland cattle scheme because neither will bear fruit for 10, 15, or 20 years. What the people want is meat, and that is precisely what the Government are failing to give them.

11.50 p.m.

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

Whatever the merits of the different systems, I hope no one will subscribe to the notion that those directing these negotiations are less sensitive to the national interest than they were to those of private bodies. That simply is not the case.

Mr. Fraser

I hope I did not give that impression. I want to correct it if I did. What I did say was that under this system it was impossible for them to function in the same way because the pressure on the men had been removed to a central body in London, whose agent they became, and to whom they sacrificed their decision and power of action.

Mr. Willey

The scope and extent of the decision is immeasurably larger, and so is the responsibility of the official directing the negotiations.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) opened the Debate with a number of figures that were largely inaccurate, and a number of arguments that were entirely fallacious. He said that the last thing he wanted to do was to embarrass negotiations with Argentina. I hope that remains the wish and desire of the House. There has been a good deal of talk about bulk purchase. I think I can do no better than quote the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), who said, last year: If we were to confine the purchase of meat to competing private traders in present circumstances, the price could and would be forced up to calamitous heights. We should still get no more meat than the Argentine Government are now prepared to give us and they would get a lot more money, at the expense of the British public. This is a purely practical question and there is really no need for either side to turn it into an article of political faith. Some commodities are obviously best handled by private traders in comparatively free markets. Others—notably wheat, meat, and sugar—should as obviously he purchased at fixed prices through the medium of contracts extending over considerable periods. There is a good deal in that. Hon. Members of the Opposition must face this, because they have been saying a good deal recently about the cost of living. They have been talking about marginal supplies, but these very small marginal supplies are available at very high prices. It is open to them to argue that the purchase of meat for this country should be set free, but it is not open to them to argue, at the same time, that they are concerned with the cost of living.

This debate has a very limited scope On 17th September, as one hon. Member expected I might say, the meat ration was increased from 1s. 6d. to 1s. 7d., and it was announced at that time that the increase was not expected to be maintained more than a few weeks. In that forecast we have been absolutely right: The present Order, as from 15th October, restores what has been the stable ration to 1s. 6d. That has been the ration level for most of the year. If we compare the position with 1949, the average ration figures—making allowance for price changes—show that the ration has averaged 1s. 6½d., which compares favourably with 1s. 3¼d. the year before.

It has been our desire, so far as available supplies have allowed, to maintain the ration at 1s. 6d., but from August onwards the level of the meat ration was largely determined by the amount of home stock marketed. This has for some time presented a serious problem. Home-killed meat cannot be frozen as we have not the necessary facilities, and in any case it would deteriorate. So, the first thing we have sought to do has been to even out, as far as possible, the supplies of meat. There have been some price adjustments, but there is a limit to the extent that we can go. We have to pay some attention to the point of view of the National Farmers' Union. We cannot load the price against nature.

It will always be the case that as the grass goes off the cattle will be brought in. This is the problem, and we shall have to continue to discuss it with the agricultural departments and the farmers. We have also sought to contain and to conserve supplies coming in as much as possible, but by mid-September it was no longer possible to hold any further stock in the livestock pools we had set up and the only way to avoid embarrassing the farmers by restricting entries was to increase the meat ration, which we did on 17th September. But by mid-October the peak of home killings had been passed. They were no longer sufficient to support a 1s. 7d. ration, so we returned to the 1s. 6d. ration.

Hon. Members opposite who are talking about the Argentine should let the House know where they stand, because if that be the case—that home-killed stock would no longer support the 1s. 7d. ration—upon what grounds are they asking tonight that the 1s. 7d. ration should be continued? That is their case in opposing this Order. I can see no alternative to that conclusion. No one suggested tonight that the home-killed supplies are sufficient to continue to maintain a 1s. 7d. ration.

Mr. Crouch

I suggested that if—

Mr. Willey

I am not dealing with any hypothetical question, but with the facts that face the House at the moment. No one, in fact, has made that suggestion. When we review the progress made with home-killed stocks we should express some appreciation of those who have handled them in difficult circumstances and record at least some modest satisfaction at the amount that has come forward. The figures given by the hon. Member for Eastbourne were not correct. For the months January-October this year the amount of home-produced stock has been 758,400 tons, which is a substantial improvement on the 614,500 tons for the corresponding period last year.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

My figures are January to August, the last that were available.

Mr. Wiley

That may explain the discrepancy, but at the time those figures did not seem to accord with the figures I have just given to the House, even allowing for the difference. The figures of the hon. Gentleman about imports were certainly wrong.

In the case of New Zealand we take 98 per cent. of the total exportable surplus, which, today, is more meat than New Zealand supplied us with before the war. Where do hon. Members opposite stand on the question of bulk purchase? So far, no one has differentiated; they have attacked bulk purchase at large. What are we to say to the New Zealanders? They have made very creditable progress in improving their meat supplies since the end of the war, and they have the benefit of this bulk purchase contract under which we take 98 per cent. of their supplies.

Now for the case of Australia. It is a fact that Australia is supplying us with less meat today than she did before the war, but we are taking the whole of the exportable surplus. How can we take more than the whole? That is the position. In spite of taking the whole of Australia's exportable surplus we must do what we can to encourage her to increase her production, and we now are negotiating a 15-year contract. Notwithstanding the fall in Australian meat supplies, we are receiving more meat from the Commonwealth today than we were before the war.

We depend, and have always depended, on four main suppliers. I have dealt with two—the two major Commonwealth suppliers, New Zealand and Australia. The other two main suppliers are Uruguay and Argentina. In the case of Uruguay we are receiving more meat today than we did pre-war—that is, up to the suspension of shipments in the summer. In the case of Argentina, we are receiving less and, as has been said, shipments have been held up since July and negotiations are proceeding which no one wants to prejudice. But in the case of Argentina we have to recognise that local circumstances affect the amount of the exportable surplus. Hon. Members cannot come to the House and fairly complain on the ground of price and then come back and complain on the ground of quantity.

There has been some discussion of marginal supplies, a matter which has been raised in previous debates. The answer is simple. If the country depends upon four main suppliers, it is surely to these suppliers that we must look first. If we are to run this country on businesslike lines, we cannot allow small marginal suppliers, who would affect the overall position very little, to affect the prices we are paying to the main suppliers. When hon. Members talk about a little bit of meat here and a little bit of meat there they must realise that these bits of meat, bought at a very high price, would prejudice the whole position of this country with our four main suppliers.

There has been some talk about quality. Anyone with experience of the meat trade knows that this is not the time of year in which we get complaints about quality. The major part of the ration for the recent period has been home-killed meat and for that reason we have not had so many complaints as we have had hitherto. As for the hon. Member who showed a piece of meat to the House, if he will provide me with the meat after the debate I will see that proper investigations are made, and that, if necessary, proceedings are taken.

Mr. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

And report back to the House.

Mr. Willey

It is rather childish to produce and wave about a piece of meat about which we have received no complaint and about which no complaint has been made to the butcher. I think this is most unfair. The butchers have their own organisation and retail buying groups and they themselves control allocation. It is most unfair to the butcher and his colleagues to come to the House and complain in this way of unfair allocation.

I have no more to say. If there be a genuine desire to avoid embarrassing any negotiations which are now taking place with Argentina, then there can be no other course for the House to follow than to approve the reduction of the ration from 1s. 7d. to 1s. 6d.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

We have had a very disappointing reply from the Parliamentary Secretary. None of us wants to say anything during this debate—and we have been hampered by it—that will embarrass negotiations at present going on in Argentina. But we who represent our constituents, must complain of the attitude which the Parliamentary Secretary takes as regards the 1s. 6d. ration as a normal ration for the British citizen. After all, it was one of his own representatives at the Ministry of Food, Professor Fenelon, who said we were eating less meat than Denmark, Switzerland, France and Sweden, and that before the war we ate more than any country except Denmark. But now there are three other countries that are eating more than us.

Mr. Wiley

I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to be unfair, and if he complains that we are not eating sufficient meat, he really should say where we could get more supplies.

Mr. Turton

The Parliamentary Secretary has an aggravating habit of interrupting before he hears the answer. I will tell him. We on this side have always maintained that a greatly increased production of beef and mutton, to say nothing of pork and bacon, could have come from the farmers of this country. That has always been our contention, but what is the Parliamentary Secretary's answer? The hon. Gentleman says, "I am not dealing with a hypothetical question"; but the question is the failure of himself, and particularly of his predecessors at the Ministry of Food, to supply the producers in this country with the necessary feeding-stuffs. If the present Secretary of State for War had, when Minister of Food, made adequate supplies available to our farmers, there would not have been the necessity to reduce the ration as it was done on 15th October.

Mr. Harrison

Does the hon. Member discount completely the question of feedingstuffs being in such short supply?

Mr. Turton

I was going to talk of maize which went to Ireland when it should have come here, and of maize which we should have had but which went to other countries; and of linseed cake going to other countries rather than to Britain. That is the complaint we make as regards home production, and when the Parliamentary Secretary says the farmers cannot be induced to keep their bullocks longer, let him remember that his Ministry has failed to supply the farmers with the linseed cake they need for fattening in the yard. I do not want to turn this short debate on a Prayer into a long argument on meat production at home but we say that is the first charge we bring against the Government in this matter.

Secondly, after all the hopes they have held out of greater Empire production, the results of imports from the Empire this year have been very disappointing. From Australia we have had 13,000 tons less than in 1948. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] We heard complaints, I know, of weather conditions in Australia, but with the working of a proper Empire policy we should have had better imports from the Empire than we have had. Let me take up the challenge of the Parliamentary Secretary on this point.

We believe the right way of dealing with this question of trading in meat with the Empire would have been to give the producers an overall guarantee. That has always been the policy of hon. Members on this side. Having given that overall guarantee of markets, we believe there would be rcom for the private trader to follow up by buying the meat from the different parts of the Empire. We believe that to be in conformity with the recommendations made by the New Zealand Meat Council. We say, first the home producer, and then the Empire, and the balance from foreign countries.

We have had this diplomatic quarrel which has meant no meat since July from the Argentine. I cannot understand why that argument was used by the Parliamentary Secretary to apply to the imports from the Uruguay. We have no quarrel with Uruguay. Those who know South America know that this country has no greater friend than Uruguay. The "Financial Times" in July was telling us that Uruguay was willing to sell us 100,000 tons of meat, which is no small amount. Yet, there have been no imports from the Uruguay since July.

Finally, the Parliamentary Secretary gave no reply to the question why in these last few months meat has been going from the Irish Free State, or Eire, to Germany and the United States. Bullocks have been going to Belgium and Holland from Eire and not coming to this country. These are new markets. There has been a failure by the Government buyers to encourage the meat ration to come from our neighbours in Eire, and that has not been replied to at all.

What has struck me, looking at this position, is that whilst we had this great short-fall in imports of fresh meat, and a failure to maintain the ration, the Government have spent, during this year, £24,000,000 on 100,000 tons of tinned meats which are off the ration. That is, I believe, a very serious position that has developed in the meat rationing system. If we had spent that £24,000,000 on fresh meat it would have meant a very large increase in meat to the consumers of this country. That meat has come in tins off the ration not at any subsidised price, but at a very high price. In fact, the average price of these imports has been £240 a ton.

I do ask the Parliamentary Secretary to overhaul and think over the policy in that direction. I do not want to belabour this point because of certain negotiations going on. It is quite wrong for this Government to operate their present buying policy so that meat is shipped out of South America to Europe at a price maybe that is higher than we are offering to pay, and then comes back after being processed or canned to this country at a very high price off the ration, so that only those who are well enough able to afford it can buy it. That is what the Government's buying policy has led to. I believe they are making a very grave mistake.

It would be far better to adopt our line of giving guaranteed prices to farmers in this country and the Empire and be ready to pay a good price under that guarantee, and to leave the negotiations with foreign countries to private traders which will result, as the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye), said, in our getting plenty of cheap meat for the balance we cannot produce for ourselves here or in the Empire.

Mr. Willey

If I understand the hon. Gentleman aright, he is now advancing the argument that guaranteed prices should apply both to home-produced and Commonwealth-produced meat and that there should be a free market for the meat which comes in from South America. Surely, he would recognise that the price in the one case must react upon the price of the other? The two matters cannot he kept divorced.

Mr. Turton

What the Parliamentary Secretary does not realise is that this country is the biggest market for meat in the world. If we give the first place to our home farmers and to the Empire, there will be competition amongst the other producing countries to come to this market; they will want to get in. Therefore, we shall get cheaper meat as we did before the war.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Whiteley) rose in his place, and claimed to move," That the Question be now put."

Question, "That the Question be now put," put, and agreed to.

Question, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 11th October, 1950, entitled the Meat (Rationing) (Amendment No. 4) Order, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 1660), a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th October, 1950, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled, put accordingly, and negatived.