HC Deb 25 July 1951 vol 491 cc601-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Sparks.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Cooper-Key (Hastings)

I am very glad indeed to have the opportunity of bringing to the attention of the House some facts regarding the existing stocks of rationed foods. This is a matter of very considerable public importance. First I shall seek to indicate that supplies of some foods are greatly in excess of the ration. Second I intend to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food to increase the ration, anyhow during the holiday period, or to give reasons why such increases should be withheld. Finally I want to warn the Government against repeating those suspicious concessions which took place shortly before polling day in some elections before the last General Election and also in respect of the General Election itself. I think that this is specially timely in view of the latest inspired rumour of an October election.

The first of these rationed foods I shall deal with is sweets. Up to 16th July the sweet ration had been running at some 6 oz. per head per week. On this, ration stocks have been increasing in the shops and elsewhere, and at the present time the coupon redemption of the shop keepers is about 90 per cent. The story is this. The manufacturers went some weeks ago to the Minister and told him that there were ample stocks and ade- quate production available for a 7 oz. ration, even without any extra sugar allocation. Moreover, they said that it would be possible to increase even the 7 oz. ration to an 8 oz. ration, and within a month to abolish sweet rationing completely, as supplies would be likely to exceed demand.

I say that, confronted with these reassuring figures, the Ministry should have been delighted to increase the ration at once and to pass on the benefit to the consuming public. But instead of increasing the ration to 7 or 8 oz., what did the Minister do? He increased it by a miserable ½oz. a week.

The Minister's excuse for not increasing the ration to 7 oz., as he was advised to do by the manufacturing trade, is an interesting one and should be recorded. He said that housewives would be annoyed at an increase of the sweet ration whilst there was no increase of the domestic sugar ration; and he furthermore believed that housewives would think that sugar was being directed to the sweet manufacturers which otherwise should be going to them.

If the Minister really believe that, his duty was quite clear. He should have told the public the truth, which is that no extra sugar ration is going to sweet manufacturers. Meantime, the Minister has left the confectionery trade with the impression that he is more concerned with his public relations than with the public need, and I hope that in reply to this debate the Parliamentary Secretary will give the House the reason for not increasing this ration up to the available supplies. Perhaps he will also say when he expects that this commodity will be taken completely off the ration.

The next item with which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will deal is the sugar ration itself. I do not believe that the case for an immediate and substantial increase in the sugar ration is quite as strong as it is for an increase in the sweet ration. The truth of the matter, regarding both sugar and meat, is that there is plenty of sugar and plenty of meat in the world if we pay for it. For sugar we must pay in American currency, and if we have to buy a million tons of coal, as it looks as if we shall have to, then I am afraid that the housewife will have to go without any appreciable increase in the sugar ration. Nevertheless, the sugar stocks in bonded warehouses at 31st May of this year stood at 1½ million cwt. higher than in the corresponding period last year, which amounts to about a 15 per cent. increase.

I pass now to the tea ration. In the first six months of this year, imports of tea were 79 million 1b. higher than for the same period last year, the figures being 233 million 1b. against 154 million 1b. The Ministry of Food estimates that every ½oz. in the tea ration requires 100 million 1b. per year, or 50 million 1b. for a half year. But the increased exports are already sufficient to provide a ½ oz. increase in the ration until the end of the year, with 29 million 1b. to spare for reserves. The Minister recently stated that he would increase the ration when supplies justified it. Surely it is justified by those figures.

I wish the Minister, and also other hon. and right hon. Members opposite, would understand that the tea ration is a very vital matter. In my constituency, as well as in many others, it is important that old people and others should get adequate supplies of tea, and the present ration imposes a considerable hardship upon them. If it is possible to increase the ration, then I believe we should do so without any delay.

Next is the question of margarine. There is some mystery about this, which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to explain. Public demand for margarine is well below supply, and the manufacturers have asked for de-rationing. The stocks are there. Why is this commodity still on the ration?

Next is a question I brought up some time ago, and that is the meat ration. I wish I could point to an excessive supply in this, but that is not so. I am afraid that stocks of meat today are barely sufficient for four weeks' ration demands. I have said before that the meat ration is a national scandal and, moreover, there will be no adequate supplies for the housewives of this country until the present absurdities in the system are done away with.

There is a great deal in what has been suggested on several occasions to the Minister, namely, to let buyers be sent over to Ireland to buy meat in the open market, bring it to the shops here and sell it at the price which it will fetch. If that were done, I think that in a very short time there would be no shortage of meat, and it would be possible to do away entirely with meat rationing. Perhaps the Minister will reply to that point.

I have asked the Parliamentary Secretary a number of questions about tea, sweets, margarine and the sugar ration, and I hope that he will tell us whether he can increase these rations and, if not, why not. Finally, I hope that he can give an assurance that the rationing of these and other foods will not be used, as it was before the last election, to make concessions to a long suffering public with the object of attracting votes which otherwise might be withheld.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. John Arbuthnot (Kent, Dover)

We are extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) for initiating this debate. We are all vitally concerned with the shortage of the various commodities to which he has referred.

I should like to make special reference to the situation in the tea industry. My hon. Friend has drawn our attention to the fact that the amount of tea imported in the first six months of this year was 79 million 1b. more than it was in the same period of last year. I think it important that we should recognise that in making a comparison with last year we are not exactly comparing like with like. There was a very considerable shortage in the import of tea into this country last year because of the strikes on the railways of India and in the port of Calcutta, so that the quantity of tea available in this country was very much reduced compared with what it normally would have been.

Imports of tea into this country after the first six months of last year were increased in order to make up for the lack of exported tea from India in the first six months. Imports for the first six months of this year, on the other hand, have been more normal, so the reason for the relative increase this year as compared with last year has been chiefly due to the artificially low quantity last year owing to the strikes on the railways and in the docks of Calcutta.

I think it is very important that the hon. Gentleman should make sure that the tea ration in this country is maintained at a level figure and that there are stocks in hand to enable this to be done. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that for any government to release, immediately prior to an election, an amount of tea representing a larger ration than can be maintained, will produce disastrous results afterwards to the party concerned.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

The hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) mentioned the possibility of buying meat in Ireland for sale and consumption in this country outside the ration. He said if that were done we could very soon abolish the ration. I doubt whether he has studied the number of cattle that are available in Ireland. Certainly, if we had the whole of them, including what the Irish eat themselves and what is exported elsewhere, it would not make an appreciable difference to the size of the ration in this country.

I should like to put a point to the Parliamentary Secretary about the cattle which we slaughter in this country. There are leaving Norfolk every week some 6,000 or 7,000 pigs which are slaughtered in the Midlands. Unfortunately, everything goes with the pigs and the people who have reared them get none of the pies which are made from them, no pig's "frys" as we used to call it, and none of the offal. While there is still such a shortage of rationed meat, could not the farm workers in Norfolk who work long hours at the harvest—

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

And in Worcestershire.

Mr. Dye

—have some chance of pig offal from the animals which they helped to produce instead of the whole of it going to people in the Midlands. Would not that be wiser and better distribution? Those who feed the pigs and rear and produce them for the nation should have a fair share of the pork, sausages, pies and all the rest of it which come from those pigs and is not distributed in the ration. It is made available in the area where the pigs are slaughtered, which is well over 100 miles from where they are produced.

10.17 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) raised a number of subjects, and I will try to touch upon them all. Before I do so, I ought to point out that he advanced a false premise. He cannot say at the same time that we ought to increase rations and then go on to say that if we do he will regard that as politically suspect. What we are trying to do is to increase rations when supplies allow regardless of the political situation.

Mr. Cooper-Key

I am saying that the supplies are now available.

Mr. Willey

I thought the hon. Gentleman was talking about an October election. There is not much time between now and October.

We are only going to deal with rations on the basis of supplies. The position of our supplies of sweets is quite simple, and the hon. Member misquoted the manufacturers. I am sure it is doing them no good to bring on to the Floor of the House matters which are amicably discussed between the trade associations and the Ministry. As to the sweet ration, the manufacturers suggested an increase to 7 ounces. They did not suggest derationing. We decided, in the light of the available supplies, that it would be better to increase the ration to 6½ ounces, and that is what we have done.

At this time of the year the demand is low. There are many alternatives to sweets, and it is on that basis that the ration has been increased. As the hon. Gentleman very rightly pointed out, and I am glad he did so, this is based upon a seasonal falling off of demand, and is not based upon any increased allocation of sugar to the manufacturers. In fact, the manufacturers are still tied to an allocation based on a 4 ounce ration, and they have done extremely well in getting sweetened fats and other alternatives to sugar. We will see—it is far too early to say yet—what is the offtake on a 6½ ounce ration. In the light of that, we will determine what should be done in the next ration period.

Regarding sugar, I was glad to hear the hon. Member say, which is the fact. that there is no very real case to justify an increased ration on the supplies available to this country. He gave some figures but, of course, he will bear in mind that we have an increased ration this year compared with last year. I have dealt in a previous Adjournment debate with the question of sugar, and I refer the hon. Member to that debate. The circumstances have not changed. It is misleading to talk about there being plenty of sugar in the world. I re-emphasise what I emphasised in the previous debate: that in three months the price of Cuban sugar rose from 40s. per cwt. f.o.b. to 56s. a cwt. f.o.b., which illustrates that there is heavy pressure on the sugar supplies.

Regarding tea, of course, if it were possible we would increase the ration. We have always increased the ration of tea when supplies have allowed, but there is no immediate prospect of any increase in the tea ration. It is far too early to be certain about this. This is the time of year when arrivals of tea are at their lowest. It is a time of the year when we look to see how this year's crop in Northern India is coming along. Northern India is our major supplier and is the largest tea producing area upon which we depend, and it is too early yet to say what supplies of tea we will be fortunate enough to obtain this year.

The overall position about tea is, quite simply, this. We are obtaining from India, Pakistan, Ceylon and East Africa, substantially more tea than we were obtaining from those countries before the war. But, on the other hand, we are obtaining less tea from Indonesia, China, Formosa and Japan. No one has suggested how we should get increased supplies, particularly from Indonesia. As regards tea consumption, compared with pre-war, when we were on a 2 ½oz. ration we were above the pre-war figure. On a 2 oz. ration, we are below it. We will endeavour to get up to a 2½ oz. ration whenever we can, but it is too early yet to say what are the prospects this year.

When these suggestions are made, I presume that they are made with a full realisation of their implications. Tea could be derationed only if the price were set free. As in all these commodities, we can look for comparisons to countries where the supplies are on a free market. Tea is not a very good example, because we are the predominant tea-drinking country. If we look to a com- parable European country, we find that whereas our price of tea is 3s. 8d. per 1b., it is 12s. per 1b. in Switzerland. But that is not the sort of decontrol that we are prepared to work towards. We are determined to do what we can, and quite deliberately to ensure that where the demand is in excess of supply we ensure fair shares.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Will the hon. Gentleman say what the stocks are?

Mr. Willey

The hon. Member is rather naive, because he should know that for obvious, prudent, commercial reasons the one thing I am not prepared to do is to disclose our stocks.

Mention has been made of margarine. The position regarding oils and fats is, again, that the consumption in this country is far above what it was before the war. I emphasise that because it puts an additional strain upon the country, in that we have to take out of the world's supplies a much larger quantity of oils and fats than before the war. Particularly over the past few months, in view of the deterioration of the international situation, there have been real difficulties in obtaining the oils and fats we require. But we have been able to maintain current rations. The position about offtake is that the offtake of margarine and cooking fats—

Mr. Nabarro

What is an "offtake "? Does the hon. Gentleman mean consumption?

Mr. Willey

Yes, the consumption levels are much higher. I am surprised the hon. Member is so out of touch with business terminology.

The consumption levels this year are substantially higher than they were last year. If we take margarine last month, the offtake was 96 per cent. compared with 89 per cent. last year. In the case of cooking fats, it was 98 per cent. compared with 89 per cent. last year. Again I have to assume that the hon. Member knows these things and is logically arguing his case, in spite of the fact that the present margarine ration is practically entirely taken up by the housewife, his argument is that it should be set free, but it can only be set free in such circumstances by allowing prices to run free. Again we say, "No; while there is this demand from all housewives in the coun- try it is up to us to see that no one obtains larger supplies to the prejudice of others."

Margarine in this country is 1s. 2d. a lb. and in France 3s. 1½d. Lard in this country is 1s. 4d. per lb. and in France 3s. 11½d. It is only in terms of such prices that we could have the de-rationing which the hon. Member demands. This is really the political difference between us, whether it is proper to allow these supplies, upon which there is a heavy demand, to go to the housewife with the largest purse, or to hold the prices, which means that we must enforce rationing in order to ensure fair supplies. In regard to meat, the hon. Member again avoided—

Mr. Cooper-Key

I understand that the Treasury are the people who object because the more these commodities are consumed the more the Treasury have to find in subsidy.

Mr. Willey

No, that is quite a false argument because, as the House is aware, although there is a ceiling on food subsidies of £410 million, where it has been necessary my right hon. Friend has not failed to come to the House and announce a consequential price increase. What we have done continuously and consistently is to obtain all the supplies available.

I would say this about meat, as the hon. Member mentioned Ireland, that I need only repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) said. Indeed, if we doubled meat and livestock imports from Ireland—and as the House will be aware we have substantially increased these imports since 1948—if we doubled the present higher level of imports from Eire and Northern Ireland, it would amount to no more than a halfpenny on the ration.

I can only assume that the hon. Member is arguing that meat could be derationed if we had a halfpennyworth more available. He is arguing that with a halfpenny more on the supplies of meat we should set meat free and the price would have to determine who could afford to buy the meat. We say, "Not at all."

In 1949–50 we took up more than 90 per cent. of the available meat in the world markets. That is why the hon. Member turned to Ireland and suggested that we can get meat from Ireland and deration. He must face up to the political implications of what he is saying. The world supply of meat is short and the proper way to safeguard the domestic consumer of this country is to ration and at the same time to control prices so that the ration is a real one that all can afford to buy.

Mr. Cooper-Key

Will the hon. Gentleman not agree that world supplies of meat today are higher than ever they have been since 1938–39?

Mr. Willey

No, that is not so. In the case of our two main suppliers, Argentina and Australia, the domestic demand is higher than it was before the war, with the result that their exportable surplus is much less than pre-war. The hon. Gentleman has suggested no alternative markets except Ireland. I can only assume that he has done that because he knows the difficulty of increasing over a short term the supply of meat from Australia and Argentina.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.