HC Deb 11 April 1951 vol 486 cc1037-43
Mr. Webb

With permission I should like to make a statement about the cheese ration.

An Order in Council will shortly be made to give effect to the prayer for the annulment of the amending order which had reduced the ration to 2 oz. a week. The House will, however, realise that the matter cannot be left there. Apart from home production, we can secure rationed varieties of cheese from only a limited number of sources: the Southern Dominions, the U.S.A. and Canada. We are already buying all the cheese available from the Southern Dominions and there is at present no means of accelerating arrivals from those countries. Indeed, there is a risk that arrivals may fall behind our estimates as the result of the strike in New Zealand. We have already distributed, in the increased ration that has been operating since January, the supplies we were able to buy in the U.S.A. at the end of last season. We hope to buy further supplies from North America next season; but at this time of year that Continent has no cheese for export.

I have, therefore, to inform the House that, taking the most hopeful view of probable arrivals for some time ahead and of current production at home, the supplies available will not serve to sustain a ration greater than 2 oz. To increase the ration to 3 oz. now would within the next month or so make a reduction to 1 oz. inescapable, and I would hope that the House will agree that the maintenance of the 2 oz. level is the wiser course.

I propose therefore to make a new order, in replacement of that which is being annulled by the will of the House, to re-establish the 2 oz. ration. The order will be laid before the House as soon as possible after the annulment of the existing order; and it will be so worded as to come into operation forthwith.

Captain Crookshank

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the House is to be called upon to reverse a decision accepted by the Government the other night, it is important that it should have the fullest possible information? May I, therefore, ask him these two questions? First, will he on this occasion, at any rate, change his practice and give us full information of the actual amount of cheese available in the country now and how much is in sight, so that we can assess the value of his argument by figures? Second, when he states that we are already buying all the cheese available in the Southern Dominions, does he mean all the cheese there or all the cheese available at a price which His Majesty's Government think they ought to pay? There may be a considerable difference between those two sets of figures.

Mr. Webb

In reply to the second part of that question, I can say at once that the answer is "all the cheese that is there." We undertake to take the whole of their exportable surplus and, in fact, do take it. In reply to the first part of the question, I think it would be quite improper publicly to reveal the figures of our stocks. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because it would not help us in present negotiations about prices. I am, however, prepared to give the responsible leaders of the Opposition, in confidence, all the facts about it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up the position as it exists today? Is it not a fact that under Section 5 of the Statutory Instruments Act it is not possible to bring proceedings under an Order as from the time the House passes a Motion requesting the annulment? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore make it clear that any trader, wholesaler or retailer, who from today wishes to honour a 3 oz. ration can do so with impunity?

Mr. Webb

No, Sir. There are differing legal views about it. I have been in very close consultation with lawyers about the position. It is a very difficult position for traders. I am satisfied that the Order stands until it has been annulled and, therefore, I cannot make a statement of that sort to traders. Indeed, I hope that traders will act responsibly and maintain the ration at the present level.

Mr. H. Hynd

Pending the issue of a new order, would my right hon. Friend consider meeting the wishes of the House by bringing the more expensive types of cheese within the ration at controlled prices?

Mr. Webb

That would mean a further use of our food subsidies and I think we are spending as much on subsidising cheese as we can afford at the moment.

Sir Stanley Holmes

Having regard to the fact that the Deputy-Leader of the House accepted the decision of the House the other night, is the Minister of Food calling upon him to resign?

Mr. Webb

We are, in fact, accepting the decision of the House. The order will be annulled, but in view of the stock position it is my duty to inform the House of my responsibilities. That is the position. If we insist on imposing a 3 oz. ration it will not be possible to maintain the ration after about the end of the present month.

Sir Herbert Williams

On the constitutional issue, is it not a fact that when the right hon. Gentleman says he accepts the decision of the House there is no option? It is a constitutional obligation under the Statutory Instruments Act. Moreover, in respect of the last order which was annulled, just before the Recess, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the new order was made before it had been possible to call a Privy Council to annul the old order? Is he not also aware that under the Statutory Instruments Act the moment an annulment Resolution is passed, the order remains inoperative, despite the fact that a Privy Council has not been held for the purpose of dealing with the annulment?

Mr. Webb

I do not claim to be an authority on these matters. My job is to deal purely with the question of food. I am quite certain that the decision I have taken is one which the House, in its wisdom, ought to support.

Mr. McKibbin

Is the Minister aware that a short time ago I asked him a question about a firm in Belfast who were refused permission to import cheese from the Republic of Eire because it was being imported in 5 lb. boxes instead of 1 lb. packets and that the result is that all the cheese now goes to Germany?

Mr. Webb

If the hon. Gentleman would like to consult me about that particular problem we will see what can be done about it.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) has demonstrated the penalty of the Opposition's ebullient irresponsibility, since they were egged on by the Council of the Housewives' League to ask for the rescinding of cheese rationing? They assumed during the Prayer that they knew all the facts but they are now asking what are the real facts. They have put the country in a very difficult situation.

Sir John Mellor

Does the Minister agree that the relevant section of the Statutory Instruments Act states that from the date of the successful Prayer the order shall cease to have effect and that no further proceedings shall be taken thereunder? Will he therefore explain how he can possibly be in doubt about the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter)?

Mr. Webb

I want to make this clear. If, in this situation of misunderstanding, anybody has infringed the regulations, on my interpretation of them, no proceedings will be taken; nobody intends to take them. There is, in fact, some difference of interpretation on that point. On the advice I have been given I have taken the view I have expressed to the House.

Mr. Manuel

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Opposition are quite irresponsible in this matter? Will he make an announcement to the country asking responsible people to buy or sell on the 2 oz. ration and so make it certain that the weaker sections of the community do not have to go without cheese during certain periods?

Air Commodore Harvey

The right hon. Gentleman said he had taken all the available cheese from the Southern Dominions, but he did not say he had taken all the available cheese from Canada. Are there immediate supplies available from Canada? What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about obtaining cheese from the Empire?

Mr. Webb

This is not the season for obtaining cheese.

Air Commodore Harvey

Why did not the right hon. Gentleman get it during the season?

Mr. Webb

We did obtain it during the season and, while we did so, the cheese ration went up to 3 oz. That supply is now exhausted. There is now no cheese available in the North American Continent. At the moment a cheese-buying mission is about to visit Canada with a view to making arrangements for next season. This is the appropriate time of the year for that. There is no sense in having a mission go to Canada—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—just wait for the facts—to make arrangements for the purchase of cheese until we know approximately, in the light of their knowledge, what supplies are available or are likely to be available. This is the normal time of the year for that mission to proceed. It will proceed. Arrangements will be made and we shall again take all the cheese we can obtain from Canada.

Mr. Snow

When my right hon. Friend says that he will disclose confidential information to a responsible Member of the Opposition, does he realise that hon. Members on this side are anxious that he should make it clear to any such hon. Members opposite that there are importing trade associations whom this confidential information should not reach?

Sir Waldron Smithers

Is not the whole solution of this problem to stop bulk buying and to allow the traders, to have the knowledge of the trade, to do the buying? Then we shall get all the cheese we want.

Mrs. Jean Mann

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the lowering of the ration to 2 oz. will force housewives to purchase supplies which are not subsidised and which are not purchased in bulk? Instead of paying 1s. 2d. per lb. for a vital item of food for the table, she will now have to pay from 3s. 4d. to 5s. for non-bulk purchased cheese.

Mr. Duncan Sandys

In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman's Department must now be receiving a number of inquiries from retailers, will he say what guidance he is giving as to whether they are entitled or not entitled to sell the increased ration now?

Mr. Webb

I have already made that clear. That guidance was given to the responsible trade organisations yesterday morning.

Mr. Henry Strauss

For the information of hon. Members and the guidance of the Press, would the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Government think it better that the Opposition should put down Prayers upon which they divide or upon which they do not?

Sir Ian Fraser

May I revert to the exportable surplus? Did the right hon. Gentleman mean to indicate that there is no cheese that can be bought in the Southern Dominions or anywhere else at any price? He said that we were taking the whole of the exportable surplus, but does not any amount of export depend upon the price paid and upon what terms we are prepared to make?

Mr. Webb

That is quite true. We are taking the whole exportable surplus. Recently, under an arrangement with the New Zealand Government, we have undertaken to increase the price. The price now will be 7½ per cent. more than it was, and we shall then continue, at that new price, to take the exportable surplus.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We cannot go on discussing this indefinitely.

Miss Horsbrugh

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of his last supplementary answer, he means that he is going to pay more now for the cheese than he was paying last year, and, therefore, get more cheese? If he had been willing to pay that amount would he have got more cheese?

Mr. Webb

If we had been willing to pay more last year we should not have got more cheese. Costs have gone up since, and, in the light of the increased costs to the producer, largely arising out of the Korean war—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is a fact—they are entitled to have more money. Those are the facts. I should be glad to make clear to the House that no demand, came from the New Zealand Government or traders before the Korean war for increased prices. It has come only since increased costs have come—increased costs of feedingstuffs, and increases in other expenses in maintaining production. We have now agreed to pay more money.