HC Deb 23 October 1950 vol 478 cc2643-57

11.3 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 6th September, 1950, entitled the Fats, Cheese and Tea (Rationing) (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 1482), a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th September, be annulled. I do not think I need take very long about this. On the other hand, I think it is worth while that we should consider it for a few minutes. The title is the "Fats, Cheese, and Tea (Rationing) (Amendment No. 3) Order," but there is nothing in this Order about cheese, and tea, because they have been already cut down under other orders. This Order purports to amend two earlier orders this year, No. 796 and No. 1,071. As a matter of fact, it does not amend Order 1,071 at all. That deals only with definitions of cheese. What it does really amend is the Schedule to Order No. 796 which was laid before Parliament on 19th May and came into operation on 21st May and, in effect, deals only with butter.

Under the Order which came into operation on 21st May, we were allowed 6 oz. of butter at each odd number of ration week and 4 oz. at each even number of ration week, so that on the average we were entitled to 10 oz. every fortnight, or an average of 5 oz. a week. Under the Order which was made on 7th September, and came into operation on 10th September, we were cut down to 4 oz. of butter a week. In other words, this Order cut down our butter ration by 20 per cent. I think any cuts in the fats ration are open to grave criticism if they can be avoided. I am certain the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill), who is an expert on matters of health, will bear me out when I say that one of the troubles of a great many people today is that they are eating too much of some kinds of food and not enough of others. There is a certain want of balance. Accordingly, any cut in the butter ration is a matter of grave anxiety to the general population.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food will no doubt say, "We have not got the butter. We have been into the figures and that is all we can spare." That is my criticism. I think that if the Ministry were abolished entirely, this kind of order would not be necessary, as in respect of a great many food commodities in the world today there is not a state of shortage but a glut. It is only maladministration, a failure to seize opportunities, which imposes on us this cut in the butter ration.

The rationing of butter is one of the things which irritates housewives most—with the possible exception of tea rationing—and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us really substantial reasons why his Department are forced into making this proposal. It is no use us voting against this Order tonight, because that will not produce any more butter, but we can protest against the incompetence which makes this Order necessary. That is the burden of my point. I shall not give an analysis of the imports and exports of commodities from various countries, as it is my firm belief that the main thing is to have the Ministry of Food out of the way, for it is a purely obstructive institution serving no useful purpose; then we should not find it necessary to restrict the people's consumption of butter.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

I beg to second the Motion.

I do so formally because there are two other Motions on the Order Paper, and because my hon. Friend has moved this one so excellently.

11.8 p.m.

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

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentlemen for the brevity with which they have moved and seconded this Prayer. In view of the facts obtainable, I am not at all surprised because there is very little they can say. First, let me make it quite clear that when the ration was increased from 4 oz. to 5 oz. on 23rd April, it was made plain by my right hon. Friend that the increase was only a temporary one. It was explained by him that the increase was possible because of the good production in Australia and New Zealand, and because the season in Europe had begun very well. Now, as we had anticipated, the normal seasonal decline dictates a return to the 4 oz. ration.

As I have been asked to give substantial reasons why the ration has been reduced, may I briefly state the position in this country and the world? In this country, at present, home production of butter is 12,000 tons, which is less than pre-war production, because we have given priority to the manufacture of cheese and baby foods. But this is not really of vital importance because, in fact, home production accounts for only 3 per cent. out of our total consumption. In fact, before the war it accounted for only 4 per cent.

Therefore, we have got to turn to the position affecting the import of butter. The three main supplies of butter to this country are from New Zealand, Denmark and Australia. We are dependent very largely upon the position obtaining in these countries. We are obtaining less than pre-war by way of imports. We are getting this year about 300,000 tons as against 340,000 tons pre-war. We are getting less butter from Holland and the Irish Republic for the reason that they have less available for export. Over and above that, there are certain countries—Sweden, Poland, the Baltic States and Russia—which are not at the moment exporting to us. So far as we are concerned—and this has nothing to do with the operations of the Ministry of Food—there is less butter available for export to this country.

What the Ministry of Food have done, and from which they claim credit, is to have encouraged the production of butter in these main producing countries. We have entered into long-term contracts with the Dominions, New Zealand and Australia to take the whole of their exportable surplus until 1955. In the case of Denmark, the other main supplier, we have undertaken to take 75 per cent. of their exportable surplus, or 115,000 lb., in any one year, which is the level of their pre-war exports to this country. We cannot persuade the Danes to export a larger proportion of their surplus to us, because the Danes very naturally want to preserve the other markets which they have for butter.

We can say that the effect of these long-term contracts has been to give a considerable measure of security to the producers and this has demonstrably increased production in those countries. So if the Ministry of Food have played any part, it has been in increasing production in the countries which supply us, and so has enabled us this year to increase the butter ration. If hon. Members think of the circumstances operating in the world today, they will realise what a stabilising effect these long-term contracts are. Butter to the housewife in this country is subsidised to the extent of 1s. 0d. a lb., but if we disregard that and take the retail price unsubsidised as 3s. 0d. a lb., this compares most favourably with the 4s. 0d. and 5s. 0d. a lb., and even more, obtaining in Europe. We can say that we are obtaining butter at reasonable prices, and that the effect of the contracts we have made is to increase the supplies so that, instead of the 140 ounces the consumer obtained for each ration book up to 21st October, 1949, this year the consumer has obtained 188 ounces.

Question put, and negatived.

11.14 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 18th October 1950, entitled the Bacon (Rationing) (Amendment No. 5) Order, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 1692), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th October, be annulled. I understand that it would be for the convenience of the House if we discussed together this Motion, and the Motion in the name of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), which deals with the Bacon (Control and Prices) (Amendment) Order. The object of the first Motion is to protest vigorously to the Minister of Food because the ration has now been reduced to 3 oz. The Minister of Food has played about so often with the bacon ration during the past few months it has become like a Stock Exchange security—one of the less reputable Stock Exchange securities. It varies up and down according to the gambles of the Minister of Food.

The history of bacon rationing since before the last election is rather interesting. Before the dissolution of the last Parliament, on 29th January, 1950, the public was given an increased ration of 5 oz. a week. That, of course, was at a time when various sops were being given to the public in view of what was going to come very shortly. It was not long after—in May, 1950, after the election—when the bacon ration was reduced to 4 oz. That was the Bacon (Rationing) (Amendment No. 2) Order. I do not know what happened to the Bacon (Rationing) (Amendment No. 1) Order; I cannot find any trace of it.

The Amendment No. 2 Order was introduced in Parliament in May. Certain hon. Friends of mine and I put down a Prayer against this reduction, but before we were able to move it in the House, up went the ration again, under Amendment No. 3 Order. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) put his name to that Prayer, but he evidently did not know that the ration had been increased, because he was left carrying the baby. He was present in the House when the Prayer should have been moved, but when my hon. Friends and myself did not move it, the hon. Member for Hornchurch got up and made a protest. On that occasion, Mr. Speaker said that the Order which it was sought to pray against was dead, and, therefore, could not be prayed against.

Next we come to Amendment No. 4 Order, presented to Parliament on 4th October, which reduced the ration by 1 oz. back to 4 oz. We decided that we would oppose that reduction in the bacon ration, but before we could do anything, another order appeared—Amendment No. 5 Order—which reduced the ration by another ounce. That was laid before Parliament on 19th October. While this Order which we are praying against tonight was laid before Parliament on the 19th, no copies were in the Vote Office on the 20th, and I was able to get my copy only this morning.

After five and a half years of so-called peace we have this miserable ration of 3 oz., and a bacon ration at 3 oz. is as low as ever it was during the war. In fact, it went down to 3 oz. only once during the war, and that was in May, 1945. Of course, at that time we were not getting supplies from Denmark, nor from other European countries, and those supplies which were coming from Canada were subject to the dangers of U-boats. I believe I am right in saying that the only country in which bacon is rationed at the present time is this country.

Last spring I visited Austria, a former enemy country. If anyone visits Austria he will find there that shops are full of bacon and ham at reasonable prices. If one goes to France—and I admit the prices there are higher—one can get a ham sandwich at the railway station buffets, which is more than one can get here. Although in the past we complained about the ham sandwiches, how nice it would be to get one at a railway station buffet today.

I must say one word about home-produced bacon. The pig producer has been suffering under considerable difficulties. Now the Ministry of Food has told milk factories that they have to produce a lot more cheese, and obviously there is going to be a lot of whey available, either for pig food or for waste. It would be much better to use it for pig food than to waste it.

I suggest that the question of bacon is bound up with the extraction rate of flour. I believe I am right in saying that the present rate is 80 per cent.; if there were a reduction by 2½ per cent. in the rate, 28,000 tons more of pig food would be available to this country, or so it is estimated by the School of Agriculture at the University of Cambridge. I suggest that not only would a reduction in the extraction rate make our bread more palatable, though it might not be as nutritious in the opinions of the experts, but we might have a few more pigs.

It is not only pig producers who are suffering. At the beginning of the war 60 or 70 bacon factories were closed down by agreement. Although the trade tried hard to get these bacon factories returned to them in 1947 and 1948, permission was given to re-open them only in October, 1949. Obviously after that permission had been given, they needed a great deal of reconditioning, new machinery, repairs and replacements.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of this question. He has introduced a number of matters which are irrelevant under the Order.

Mr. Taylor

With the greatest of respect, what I am trying to show is why the bacon ration should not have been reduced from five to four ounces, and subsequently from four to three ounces, and I am trying to give the Government reasons why it should not be necessary. Had action been taken at the proper time, it would not have been necessary. In all these matters which I have mentioned, I feel the Government should accept full responsibility.

A matter which I think is relevant is the import of bacon from foreign countries. I am informed that the imports of bacon from Canada during January and February this year were almost as great as the total shipments from Canada in 1949. If that is correct, I should like to know what have been the recent shipments from Canada. We do not know what is the present position, and we shall look forward to hearing it. The supplies from Denmark in the first three months of the year were three times those for the corresponding period in 1949. Can we also know what have been the shipments from Denmark for the past three months? Are we shipping on the same scale as for the first two months of the year? If not, why not?

As far as bacon is concerned, we have become the laughing-stock of Europe. After so many years after the war, and with all the benefits of a Socialist Government, we are the only country in the world with bacon rationing. I do not understand it. Wherever one goes, there seems to be plenty of pig meat. I do not believe that sufficient trouble has been taken to buy up small parcels of pig meat in Eire, Holland, Denmark and other pig-producing countries. I believe that if only a little more freedom had been given to private buyers, instead of the Ministry buying pig meat, we should have had a better deal.

Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

With French boiled ham at 10s. a lb?

Mr. Taylor

I am glad the hon. Member has said that. I wonder how much cutting down is due to the food subsidies. I wonder whether it is that the Ministry dare not give more bacon because the food subsidies are going up, and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to be on the tail of the Minister for allowing too much to go to our people. Perhaps the Minister is worried about the bogus cost-of-living figures. Perhaps he thinks that the figures are going to rise. For all these reasons, I believe the housewife has cause to be irritated by these cuts—twice in a month. The 5 oz. ration was meagre enough, but now we are back again to 3 oz. If producers had been given proper encouragement from the Government, we should not have had to suffer this ridiculous cut in the bacon ration today.

11.29 p.m.

Sir H. Williams

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) has stated the case with great force and lucidity. In a great many countries that have a Socialist Government they have abolished bacon rationing. I wish to raise a matter of procedure. Order No. 4 was numbered 1925, and a Prayer was put down against it on Thursday. By chance, notice was given the same day of another Order. It is not fair that Members should be put in this embarrassing position. It means that the Order was out of date when it appeared on the Order Paper, because the very day that Order was handed in, this Order was also handed in.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

For the second time.

Sir H. Williams

Yes, for the second time. So while they are tabling one order, they are busy preparing the next. They do not seem to have any mental stability in that Department.

Then I want to protest against the Stationery Office. The Order handed in on 4th October was numbered 1925 and the one handed in on the 19th October was numbered 1692. One would assume that there was some proper serial method of numbering these things according to the date on which they were prepared, and any normal human being would think that 1692 preceded 1925. It is the duty of the Stationery Office, under the Statutory Instruments Act, to number, print and publish these documents. From the point of view of convenience of hon. Members and traders, there ought to be some coherence about the numbering of these orders. The Stationery Office ought to do their job more intelligently, because it is obvious that any hon. Member or any trader may be gravely deceived by taking the numbering as indicating the date.

I want to bring that out because from time to time we have had to protest against these things. There was the famous occasion during the war when the Fire Brigade Orders were never laid on the Table at all, and the Home Secretary, now the Lord President, had to come in a white sheet and apologise to the House. This is the same kind of offence in a different way, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will pass on to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is concerned with the Stationery Office, that they ought to do their job more competently in future.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I understood from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) that he agreed to both Orders being discussed together.

Mr. Taylor

Yes, Sir, provided my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) is agreeable.

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

I agree to that.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I want to add only one or two words to What was said extremely well by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor). It is a complete confession of failure on the part of the Ministry of Food to reduce the bacon ration twice within a short time and I want to ask what justification there is for it. The home producer of bacon has been increasing his deliveries to the bacon factories throughout the summer. The 4th Tune returns for this year show that for pigs two months and under there was a 25 per cent. increase on the number in the previous year. Of course, the pigs going to the bacon factory in the succeeding three months will be coming from those pigs under two months in the last 4th June returns. That means there should be a 25 per cent. increase in home deliveries of bacon.

Looking at the import side, apart from the facts given by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, in July of this year the imports of bacon were a record for any of the years since the end of the war and our deliveries in July were exceptionally heavy. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary why he so staged his deliveries that he got this great increase in July instead of letting it be more graduated throughout the later months of the year? If he had been wise in his buying, as the private trader would have been wise, we would have had level deliveries of bacon from these countries throughout the summer months and the Autumn, and there would not have been this grave position at a time when the fresh meat ration is being cut the bacon ration being cut as well.

It is hard on the people of this country, who would prefer to have their bacon during the cold period of the year rather than during the Summer. The folly of the Ministry is that during the summer months they allowed the bacon ration to be reasonably good at 5 oz., and when the colder weather came they had to confess failure and to cut the ration to 3 oz. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take this Order back and consult with the Minister to see whether it is necessary to cut the ration.

Turning to the other part of the Order, it is not right to try to ration by price. At the same time as he cuts the bacon ration, he puts up the price, and so adds to the cost of living. I believe that never before has a Minister of Food provided such a concurrent succession of failures as cutting the ration of butter, bacon and fresh meat and putting up the price.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. F. Willey

I understand that it is the wish of the House that I should reply on this Motion and also on the Motion in the name of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) which deals with the Bacon (Control and Prices) (Amendment) Order together. On the first one, it is no good saying that we must not play about with the ration. I think the House has to make up its mind whether we should issue the bacon supplies we have in a fresh condition or whether we should store them. That is the simple issue. Our policy has been that when the supply permits we should avoid unnecessary accumulation and so avoid deterioration due to long storage, thus giving the housewife the benefit of fresh bacon. That is governed by the second consideration, that we have to maintain prudent stocks.

We have made this plain. We have discussed this with the trade and the trade has encouraged us. In fact, we agree that it is best, as our stocks rise, for the housewife to have the benefit of increased supplies. But if we do that we must have frequent adjustment of the ration if we are to maintain a stable stock throughout the year. When we increased the ration to 5 oz., we were holding unnecessarily high stocks.

Let me deal briefly with other points. Home production has been mentioned. As the hon. Member has said, it is much improved. The increased price and the quality premium, did result in an increased number of pigs going into the bacon factories. Whereas between the pre-war years, 1934 to 1938, the home production of bacon was 150,000 tons a year, this year we have reached 199,000 tons, an increase of one-third over the pre-war production of bacon; so that at any rate we have made a substantial contribution to the increased bacon supplies available this year.

The position regarding imports is that supplies must be uncertain because we are dependent upon the exportable surpluses of other countries. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) mentioned the war-time position. During the war we relied entirely upon dollar supplies. The only bacon imported into this country then was bacon from dollar countries. I do not think it is necessary for me to argue this evening the difficulties of obtaining bacon costing dollars. We have reduced to about one-tenth our supplies of bacon from dollar sources. The general position is that we can say that Denmark is on the way to supplying pre-war quantities, Holland is supplying about pre-war quantities, and Poland is supplying more than her pre-war quantity.

Canada has been mentioned. I have also mentioned the currency difficulties. But apart from these, the major difficulty regarding Canadian supplies is the heavy domestic demand. There is a considerable pressure of home demand for pig meat in Canada, which has made the export of bacon from that country not at all easy for the Canadian Government.

Sir H. Williams

Can the hon. Gentleman say how many ounces the Canadians have eaten this year?

Mr. Willey

No, not without notice, and that is not a question for me. I am dealing with the import of bacon into this country, and we have taken all the steps possible to give security to the producer by way of long-term contracts. We have undertaken, if the House needs reminding, to take 90 per cent. of the total exportable surplus from the Danes up to 1952, and in the case of Holland, we have an agreement lasting until 1952, whereby we take 25,000 to 30,000 tons this year and 35,000 tons in 1951, and 45,000 tons in 1952. That is a much larger total than the prewar exports to this country from Holland. We have long-term agreements to 1953 in the case of Poland and an agreement with the Irish Republic for the next few years.

Against this background, we Can say that we have taken every possible step to ensure that this country obtains the maximum supplies of bacon available in the world. We have already indicated that the ration would be subject to seasonal decline. Recently, and surely this does not need much explanation to make it plain, the situation has deteriorated, particularly in Europe, and the seasonal decline, which was to be expected in any case, was worse because of the un-settlement in world affairs.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman does not make himself clear. Have we exported from this country any pig-meat, or bacon, in any form?

Mr. Willey

Yes, we have exported 15 cwt. to the United States. This was of speciality ham, as a token export, to preserve that market. So the position regarding supply is that we have made substantial improvements in the supply of bacon to the housewife. I should like to give some comparative figures. First, the House must not forget that in January, 1949, the ration was one ounce a week, and from January to 21st October, whereas in 1949 the housewife had obtained 94 oz., by 21st October this year she had had 196 oz.—or rather more than double the amount of last year.

Mr. Taylor

What about the other four years?

Mr. Willey

I am dealing with last year, as compared with this. I was also asked to deal with the increase in the price of bacon. From what I have just said, it is quite clear that the subsidy on bacon must have increased this year, compared with last, because, if we consume more bacon, as we have, and bacon is a subsidised commodity, then the subsidy increased in amount. But that is not the sole reason, nor the principal reason, for the increase in the price of bacon.

We fixed the ceiling to the food subsidies at £410 million and we have made it plain again—it has been plain throughout the year—that whilst the ceiling to the subsidies was fixed, there would have to be constant adjustment of prices if prices of foodstuffs should increase. What has happened recently has been that we have had, as the House knows, the subsidies to assist the middle and inshore fishermen, the white fish subsidy. We have had increases on rail transport which became effective on 15th May. We have had higher transport costs since the increased Petrol Duty. We have also the increase on the flour subsidy following the increased extraction rate and the provision of whiter flour, and, as I have already indicated, we have had the increased public consumption during the year of such subsidised foodstuffs as bacon, eggs, and milk.

All this has occurred against the international background and the unsettlement of world affairs following the Korean incident, when the general trend of world prices regarding foodstuffs has run against us. Ac I have already stressed, it has been an important factor in this situation that we have had the bulk contracts—the fixed prices contracts—to hold the prices of the major foodstuffs affecting the housewives of this country.

It was plain that some adjustment of price had to take place. We had to consider the various subsidised foodstuffs to determine where the price increase should alight. We decided upon butter and bacon, but I had better only deal with bacon, as this Order deals only with it. Bacon is a heavily subsidised foodstuff. The average retail price now is 2s. 7d. a lb.; without the subsidy it would be 3s. 6½d. a lb. We felt that if price adjustment had to be made, it should be made where the gap between the real price and the subsidised price was widest. We also knew from previous experience, having increased previously the price of bacon, that the increase in the price of bacon had not affected to any real degree the off-take of bacon. The full ration was still taken up. We were advised from a nutritional point of view that any loss in consumption of bacon was less detrimental than it might be in other foodstuffs, such as milk. Again, bacon is largely an imported foodstuff.

For these reasons we decided that the effect of the increase in price, which I have mentioned, should be borne by, in turn, increasing the retail price of bacon. That has meant an extra cost to the housewife of about ½d. a week on each ration book. It has meant an increase in the cost-of-living index by .18 per cent. It has led to no noticeable reduction in the consumption of the ration. I agree that is a difficult thing to test at the moment in view of the reduction in the ration. But having reviewed the position generally and bearing in mind the maintenance of the subsidies at £410 million, I am sure that is why the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) was willing to allow me to give an explanation without making out the case himself. In view of these factors, we have taken the step any reasonable, prudent housewife would have us take. We have put the burden where it could best be borne and have maintained the subsidies at £410 million.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I must congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on the strange arguments that he has advanced to defend the policy of his Department. It is almost inconceivable that we could find the Korean war blamed for both the shortage of bacon and the increase in price. The fact is that we are witnessing the birth of a legend that the present Socialist Government, like its predecessors, has had responsibility without power.

We have learned also tonight a number of illuminating facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) deserves every congratulation not only for raising this issue but for the competent manner in which he did it. I hope he will allow me to say that I have rarely heard a complicated issue put more clearly than he put it, and never has the muddling and mismanagement of the Department been more clearly shown in a short speech than in the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend.

Among the interesting facts revealed by the Parliamentary Secretary is that we have seen more clearly than ever before that it is the food subsidies, with their inevitable fixed limit, that are largely responsible for the shortage of essential foodstuffs. We have also learned once more that the argument about the exportable surpluses from foreign countries, leaving out of account the price we are prepared to pay for them, are frequently called in aid by the Government to justify their own mismanagement. But the real point of my rising is to draw attention to the fact that the ration of bacon has been once more reduced, and the price has been increased, and although there are a number of Socialist Members in this House this evening, not a single one has risen to protest against this further hardship to the British housewife.

Question put, and negatived.

Motion made, and Question, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 30th August, 1950, entitled the Bacon (Control and Prices) (Amendment) Order, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 1460), a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st September, be annulled."—[Mr. Boyd-Carpenter.]

put, and negatived.

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