HC Deb 26 January 1951 vol 483 cc446-54
The Minister of Food (Mr. Maurice Webb)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I desire to make a statement about the meat ration.

I have already told the House about the difficulties with Argentina, and that, while we are willing to negotiate with them on a reasonable basis, we feel that their present demands are not reasonable. In the circumstances, I regret to have to inform the House that the carcase meat ration will be reduced from 10d. to 8d. a week as from 4th February. The supplementary issue of 2d. worth of canned corned beef will continue, but the issue of manufacturing meat will be reduced by about one-third on the same date. In order to maintain the remuneration of butchers at a reasonable level, the present rebate of 2s. 3d. in the £ will be increased during the period of the reduced ration to 4s.

It is hazardous to speculate about future ration levels, but apart from the possibility of unforseeable disasters, such as losses of ships, this reduced ration is the lowest level to which the carcase meat ration is likely to be reduced at any time in the year as a result of the loss of supplies from Argentina. Even, therefore, if there is no resumption of imports from Argentina, any changes in the carcase meat ration from now on, should be in an upward direction.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am sure the whole House will be glad that the right hon. Gentleman has found an early opportunity of clearing up any uncertainty that might have survived from the rather incompetent way in which the debate ended last evening. Of course, the Opposition will want time to consider the consequences of his very grave statement, which will be received with the utmost distress on all sides of the House and in the country as a whole. The country cannot at this stage refrain from drawing the conclusion that this is in large part a consequence of the Government's policy of bulk buying. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] The Opposition must naturally reserve its rights after full consideration to decide what steps it desires to take.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Since diplomatic prestige-buying has scored such a brilliant success for the people of this country, ought not the transfer of Sir John Balfour to be replaced by that of some Minister of even greater stature, such as the right hon. Gentleman himself?

Mr. A. Edward Davies

Questions were asked last night about the necessity for controlling the prices of other commodities to make up for the deficiency in the meat supply, namely, in respect of rabbits and fish. Can the Minister tell us whether he has any proposals to make in that regard? My right hon. Friend also made reference last night to Sir Henry Turner and what he said about the price of £90 per ton being a waste of public money. My right hon. Friend will no doubt remember that there have been changes in the price level even since that date, and will adjust his arrangements accordingly.

Mr. Webb

In reply to the first supplementary question, if it were as easy as signing an Order to impose control on rabbits and fish that would have been done, but it is not as easy as that. It is a very complicated and delicate matter. I have been in touch with the trade about it, and I am advised that if I impose controls on rabbits it would take rabbits out of the ordinary market altogether. We cannot run the risk of that happening unless there is considerable evidence to show that prices would get completely out of hand. In the case of fish, the trade have assured me that now that they have more trawlers and that all restrictions on fishing have been taken off, in a week or two there should be more fish coming into the shops. I am waiting for the result of that operation, and it is in the light of that result that I shall decide whether controls are necessary.

Miss Irene Ward

Has the right hon. Gentleman any statement to make on the statement made by an authoritative New Zealander that controlled wholesale meat distribution in this country is in a state of chaos and that as a result thousands of tons of meat may be rotting in storage?

Mr. Webb

I had a look into that statement, and I think that it is quite wild and inaccurate and has no basis in fact at all.

Mr. John E. Haire

Has the right hon. Gentleman any suggestion for additional supplies of foodstuffs to compensate for this loss of meat supply, for example canned goods?

Mr. Webb

As I explained earlier, we are doing all that we can do to increase the supply of other foods. I hope before long to be able to make a further increase in the supply of bacon, but, of course, we are conditioned by the available supply.

Mr. Gammans

Leaving aside party politics altogether, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared, in view of the fact that the present system has brought the British people to a lower level of meat than any other country in Western Europe, to consider any alternative method of obtaining meat which may be put up to him by the meat trade?

Mr. Webb

As I explained last night, we have already started consultations with the trade and other expert interests to ascertain their views on the kind of system which they think could replace the existing system when that time comes along.

Mr. Eric Fletcher

Would the Minister, before closing his mind to the proposal to put a controlled price on rabbits, satisfy himself that if a fair controlled price were placed on rabbits, they would not disappear from the market?

Mr. Webb

My mind is not closed. Indeed we are preparing schemes for controls if they are needed; but representatives of the Co-operative movement came to me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] —they are interests with considerable experience—and said, "If you impose control on rabbits not a single member of the Co-operative Societies will have any rabbits at all." This weight of evidence I cannot dismiss lightly. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where will they go?"] They will go into the black market and to all sorts of other sources which we cannot control.

Mr. Bossom

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is the situation with regard to pork? Seeing that we have had a threat that we are now to have a shortage of coal as well as a shortage of meat, what alternative is he going to provide to overcome this possible detriment to the health of the nation?

Mr. Webb

The policy in agriculture in recent years has been to produce pigs for bacon and not for pork. It is intended this year to make certain price changes, which we hope will encourage and stimulate the production of more pork pigs and less bacon pigs.

Mr. H. Hynd

Will my right hon. Friend take a chance on rabbits going into the black market and impose immediate control, and will he deal severely with any case of black marketeering which may come to light?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

With regard to what the right hon. Gentleman said about adjusting prices for the production of pork, is this an official announcement of Government policy or foreshadowing what is going to happen in the February Price Review, and can he elaborate the statement, which is a very important one?

Mr. Webb

I cannot add to what I have already said.

Mr. Frederick Elwyn Jones

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the control of poultry prices, which, I understand, are already soaring at the present time?

Mr. Webb

Obviously we have considered all possibilities of control, but controls on perishable foods are a double-edged weapon. I do not want to discredit the idea of price control by applying it loosely and inadequately. In certain cases of commodities, where it is possible to measure the content and labour value in producing them, price control is a valuable instrument. In commodities like fish and rabbits, which have to be graded in all sorts of ways, price control can be a very awkward weapon to apply, and I do not think that we should apply it until we find that there is no other way to prevent a rise in prices.

Air Commodore Harvey

In view of the difficulty in issuing the minute ration of meat, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for rations to be drawn for an extended period, and will he say why meat has been exported from Ireland to North America. Is he satisfied that he is going to get meat from Ireland?

Mr. Webb

We are fully satisfied that we shall get every available ounce of meat from Ireland. I cannot say what they will do with their other reserves. They are a sovereign State, and they can do what they like, but we are taking all that they can send us. On the question of rations over an extended period. I will look into that.

Mr. Albert Evans

Will the Minister say how long he proposes to wait before he comes to a decision on the re-imposition of controlled prices on fish?

Mr. Webb

The trade assure me that in the first or second week of February there should be a sign of improved supplies. I want to wait until after that, when I shall be compelled to take action in the light of circumstances at the time, and that is what I propose to do.

Sir William Darling

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in these very difficult times, in order to help the housewife, consider extending the very valuable food notes issued to the Press indicating what alternatives the housewife may resort to in place of meat. I suggest that the House of Commons might well show an example in this matter. There is only one vegetarian dish on the current menu. There might be ten. I would suggest that the abundant supplies of Scottish oats might be brought to the notice of the public.

Mr. Leslie Hale

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that since the decontrol of prices, large proportions of the best offal are going to the hotels? Can he say what facilities exist to ensure that the housewife is getting her fair share of offal, and will he bear in mind the need for better quality fish? Salmon went up to 20s. per lb. yesterday. Halibut is twice the price that it was at the time of control. The experience of the House is that under controls, fish, rabbits and other things were cheap and available, and that in the absence of controls most of the prices have rocketed amazingly.

Mr. Drayson

Can the right hon. Gentleman give any more accurate information than he did last night on what will be the actual prices which housewives will have to pay for meat if he pays the price which the Argentine are now demanding? The Minister mentioned a price in the United States of 10s. per lb. Surely he will agree that that is misleading in view of the fact that wage levels are about 2½ times as high there as they are in this country.

Mr. Webb

It is impossible to state how much per lb. is involved. We have to consider the effects of paying more to the Argentine on our agreements with the Dominion suppliers. If we pay more to the Argentine, it is inevitable that we must pay more to New Zealand and Australian producers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?'] They would expect it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Fair shares for all."] When I leave the House I am about to meet the Prime Minister of New Zealand to discuss that very problem, and therefore it is impossible to say what the total result would be, but it would mean putting up the meat bill of this country by many millions of pounds, and we want to resist that if we can.

Mrs. Hill

Is the right hon. Gentleman importing from New Zealand all the meat which they can let us have, because I understand that is not the position?

Mr. Webb

I am afraid that the hon. Lady's understanding is wrong. We are taking all the meat that New Zealand will send to us. Unfortunately, because of one or two strikes and shipping difficulties, all the shipments which we chartered and expected to get have not in fact arrived. There is also the fact that the price of wool is holding back meat, and that the producers of mutton out there are finding it better to market wool than meat. We are ready to take every ounce of meat that they will send, and if they would send us more we should be very happy indeed to have it.

Mr. Edward Davies

My right hon. Friend has told us about difficulty in controlling the price of perishable commodities and said that what we may gain on the one side we may lose on the other. What we cannot understand, and what the public cannot understand, is why the prices of fish were controlled during the war with great success, but that price control cannot now be applied.

Mr. Webb

While there was adequate control, there was also a serious deterioration in quality, which is one of the things we have to consider. Secondly, it is not a simple matter to introduce controls. The system of controlling the price of fish involves the setting up of an elaborate machine. It requires an equalisation fund and a transport levy throughout the country, assessors of grades at every port the allocation of quotas. It is a most complicated and expensive piece of machinery. We are preparing that machinery and getting it ready, but we do not want to put it into operation unless we are convinced that it is absolutely essential to do so.

Mr. Gammans

In reference to what the right hon. Gentleman said about new suggestions coming from the butchers, does that mean that any schemes they put up must be within the ambit of bulk buying, or is he willing to consider the reversion to pre-war practice, if it can be shown that it will give us the meat?

Mr. Webb

We have asked every section of the trade, wholesalers, importers and retailers, to give us their ideas. The retailers want a system of deficiency payments, and we are going to consider that; but the farmers do not like it and have ideas of their own. All these ideas are being put forward, and we are considering them in relation to our study of the problem. In the light of that study, we shall make our decision and report to the House for it to consider and decide what is to be done.

Mr. Osborne

Since the real solution lies in getting Argentine meat into the country and the other suggestions are only palliatives, and since we are charging the Argentine four times as much for our coal as pre-war, will the right hon. Gentleman consider letting the Argentine have cheaper coal so that they will be able to keep down their prices of meat?

Mr. Webb

I have enough to worry about with meat. I do not want to worry about coal as well.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

Arising out of the optimistic view of the right hon. Gentleman in his original statement about the upward trend of the carcase ration, can he say how he hopes to implement this? Is it by increasing supplies from the Argentine or from home production? Upon what grounds did he make that statement?

Mr. Webb

The statement I made was based on the assumption that there will be no South American meat at all. In order to avoid speculation and undue anxiety, I was trying to give to the House a picture of what we regard as the bottom. The increases, if they come, will come when the flush period of production occurs in the Southern Dominions. That is about May, or perhaps a little earlier, and that is what we are looking to for our extra supplies, as well as an increase in supplies of home-killed meat.

Brigadier Thorp

The right hon. Gentleman has not told us what would be the price per lb. of meat if we take the price we have been paying for Argentine meat at £90 and agree to pay their price of £140. Would it be an increase of 10d. to ls. 7d. per lb.?

Mr. Webb

I said that I could not give an answer. Everything depends on the total extra amount we had to pay for all our meat, and until we know that I could not give an answer.

Mr. Spearman

Will the right hon. Gentleman not consider rearranging the method of buying meat, so as to give people who choose to spend their money on meat rather than on petrol and other things, an opportunity to buy it at a higher price?

Mr. Webb

That would mean the abandonment of the rationing system, and that we are not prepared to do.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

On the question of the schemes which the butchers have been invited to put up, does the right hon. Gentleman not recall that over a year ago the Select Committee on Estimates reported that the meat trade was almost unanimously in favour of decontrol, and had already, months before that, put up schemes for decontrol which were never accepted?

Mr. Bossom

In view of the really serious rabbit pest, cannot the Minister arrange for cartridges to be available more cheaply so that the rabbits can be killed and not gassed, and therefore fit for human consumption?

Mr. Speaker

I think that we should now get on with the Orders of the Day.