§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 1st March, 1951, entitled the Imported Canned Fish (Amendment) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 345), a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be annulled.I offer no apology to the House for inviting hon. Members to consider this particular Statutory Instrument. It is an innocent little Order, but completely unintelligible, as is so often the case with these orders. But it does involve administrative decisions of great importance, as I think the Parliamentary Secretary will agree, and I think it very necessary that the exercise of these administrative functions by his Ministry should be examined by the House. This is the only opportunity and the only procedure whereby the House can obtain some information about the reasons for the policy which the Government are seeking to pursue.
Any hon. Member who has taken the trouble to look up the Order will see that it refers to two statutes and to a 1662 large number of other orders. I confess at once that I myself have not gone the whole of the paper-chase course. I only looked——
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)
As the hon. and learned Member is learned in the law, perhaps he would refer to the large number of orders, to which this Order refers.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I am not sure but that that is an invitation to me indefinitely to protract the proceedings of the House. It is true that the first paragraph of this Order refers to two statutes and to a very considerable number of statutory orders. I propose to refer to the two orders referred to in footnote (d) which, I think, are the two material orders. Those two Statutory Instruments are Nos. 584 and 1341, of 1950. The Parliamentary Secretary has invited me to refer to all these orders. I have looked at No. 1341 and that appears to me to have nothing whatever to do with this amending Order.
The one which has something to do with this amending Order is No. 584, of 1950. Paragraph 2 of that Order says:No person shall buy or sell any canned fish at a price exceeding the price applicable in accordance with the First and Second Schedules to this Order.Paragraph 3 refers to sales to a person who is both wholesaler and retailer. It says:For the purposes of this Order a sale to any person who carries on the business both as a wholesaler and as a retailer shall, if the buyer is buying for the purpose of his wholesale business, be deemed to be a sale to a wholesaler and if the buyer is buying for the purposes of his retail business, be deemed to be a sale to a retailer.In spite of the invitation of the Parliamentary Secretary, I do not think that it is necessary to refer to any other paragraphs in that order, but I will do so if he wishes. I think that those are the two relevant paragraphs though, of course, the First Schedule, Part 1, entry No. 5 is the one to which this amending Order particularly referred. The figures given in the First Schedule relate to a large number of commodities and a large variety of types of canned fish—in group I: salmon; and, in group 2: Fancy Chinook, Blueback, Red Spring and a number of other presumably edible forms of fish.
1663 In Order No. 584, there is a reference to brisling. It gives the description of the container which is"—"; the number of containers per case—100; and then the maximum prices are laid down as follow: On a sale by first hand distributor to a wholesaler the price is fixed at 82s. 5½d., that is for each case of 100 cans I presume. The Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt correct me if I am wrong. On a sale to a retailer the maximum price fixed is 86s. 5½d., and on a sale by retail the price is fixed at 1s. per container. That was the position under this Order of 1950 and it is that position which this present Order seeks to change as from 18th March.
In the new figures the number of containers per case remains constant. The description of containers remains constant, but the maximum prices are altered as follow: On a sale by first hand distributor to wholesaler, the price is reduced to 44s. 11½d. On a sale to a retailer the price is reduced from 86s. 5½d. to 48s. 11½d., and on a sale by retail the price is reduced per container from 1s. to 7½d. Those are the arithmetical facts with which the House has to deal on this new Order.
I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to be so good as to inform the House what are the Government's reasons for these changes. I think that probably he will agree with me that the Government purchase of brisling is the most melancholy chapter of the whole history of Government trading in canned fish. I think he will agree that when I make that statement I am making a pretty large statement.
The hon. Gentleman may not remember the occasion on 12th May, 1950, when I gave to the Minister of Food a tin of Dutch brisling and a tin of Norwegian brisling. They were solemnly conveyed to him across the Floor of the House. I got no thanks for either of them and I received no communication from him with regard to either. I doubt whether he did me the courtesy of eating them. Had he done so he would have realised what I was seeking to prove to him, that it was doubtful whether one could describe the Dutch brisling as edible substance. It was certainly something which was an insult to British consumers for the Ministry of Food to seek 1664 to foist upon them and it was very deficient when compared with the quality of the Norwegian product.
Although it is often gratifying to read one's own speeches, I will not read the whole of the speech I made to the House on 12th May. But in the course of it I said that if the Minister… contrasts the difference in quality between them he will realise that some of the purchases made by his Department, without any expert advice at all, are a disgrace to any business community."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 771.]That is the view I then expressed, and I claim that that is the view which this Order confirms. That is a matter we will explore as the evening wears on.
The facts are not at all easy to ascertain. Again I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to correct me if I am wrong or misrepresent anything which he has revealed to the House from time to time. As I understand it, for the 1949–50 season the Government or the Ministry of Food bought 162 million cans of canned fish. Of those 110 million cans were sold to distributors, leaving a balance of 52 million cans. Of those, 9,400,000 were re-exported, leaving a balance unsold of 42,600,000. That was canned fish of all types. What is interesting to know is what proportion of those figures were canned brisling.
The only figure upon which any light has been vouchsafed in that connection is the figure relating to re-exports, because we have been told by the Parliamentary Secretary that of the 9,400,000 cans re-exported, 9,004,000 cans were brisling and were re-exported to Norway. What we want to know is whether the exclusion of the Norwegian brisling from this amending Order is due to that transaction. I have been told—again, I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to contradict me if I am wrong—that the Norwegians took back their brisling at the price which they had been paid for it. I am told that the reason for that is that they have always taken a great pride in their products and in the quality of their "Skipper" sardines, that they were disgusted to find that their products were being classified in this country with some of the other semi-edible commodities which the Ministry procured for the British consumer, and that they asked to have their goods back and, in fact, took them back at the price which they had been paid.
1665 I want to know if that is so or not. Was there any loss to the taxpayer on that transaction? Who paid the delivery and transportation charges? Is it the purpose of this amending Order, excluding Norwegian brisling from price control, that their brisling should be able to come in by private import to this country and be sold at prices which interest all the parties concerned? If that is so, if those products are to come in in circumstances which can be described as fair competition, it is proper that we should understand that fact and be able to judge it upon that basis.
What we want to know is whether the purpose of exempting Norwegian brisling from this price control is so that private traders can, under the system which pertained before the war, import quantities of Norwegian brisling which consumers are prepared to pay. If that is the case, and if there are no strings to it, that is a matter which we shall be able to judge on its merits. It may be that there is a good deal to be said for it, but we want to know what is the policy which the Government are pursuing in this new departure of exempting Norwegian brisling from any form of price control. That is the first matter with which this Order deals.
The next matter, as described in the Explanatory Note, is that the Order reduces the maximum price of all other imported canned brisling. Why should the maximum price of all other imported canned brisling be reduced? What is the Ministry's reason for taking this action? As I said a few minutes ago, my information is that the balance of the 1949–50 imports unsold was 42,600,000 cans of canned fish. How much of that was brisling? I am told that in addition to that quantity described as unsold, there were also substantial numbers of these cans in the hands of the trade—in the hands either of first-hand importers or small retailers.
One would like to know the Ministry's estimate of that figure. Is it correct that the effect of this Order will be a 43½ per cent. cut in the price which the retailer can charge for the goods which he has bought? My mathematics are not very good but, working it out, it would seem that the cut from 1s. to 7½d. per can is something of the nature of the figure which I have mentioned.
1666 What is to happen to the stocks which at present are in the hands of the trade? No doubt hon. Members opposite will regard the first-hand distributor as a wicked middle man of some sort, but, in fact, he distributes for the Minister, so I am told, at a fee or remuneration of 1s. 6d. a case, which again, if my mathematics are right, is about one-fifth of a penny per can. [An HON. MEMBER:"Too much."] An hon. Member says "Too much." That may or may not be true, but the distributor is now going to find that the price which he can charge for the commodity which he has purchased is reduced by 4½d. a can.
His margin of profit, even if it is too much—one-fifth of a penny per can— will not go very far towards helping him meet that loss. What arrangements do the Ministry intend to make to protect the trade in this connection? It seems to me that if the Ministry of Food are purveying these commodities to traders and then causing Parliament suddenly to cut by 43 per cent. the price which can be charged, then certain people in the trade will suffer severe hardship. We have seen the same story over reductions in Purchase Tax.
This is another aspect of the interference by Parliament in the trading affairs of the individual, and before we support this Order we should know quite clearly whether it is true, as I have said, that the trader and the distributor will be affected; if so, to what extent he will be affected; and whether the Ministry propose to take any steps to help him over this matter. It seems to me quite monstrous to sell a commodity of this sort to a middle man and then cut by 43 per cent. the price he may charge for it when he sells it. One may be quite wrong in the premises one is putting before the House, but one is entitled to some information. Are the facts I have put forward correct and, if not, what is the truth?
So much for the position of the trade and those people who may be in possession of stocks which they have been so foolish as to buy from the Ministry. But I have been told that the second object here is to attempt to clear the Minister's unsaleable stocks. Earlier, I mentioned the figure of 42 million cans of fish which are unsold out of the quantity which the Minister bought. I am told that those 1667 stocks are quite unsaleable at the price of one shilling per can and that Government buying, in all its wisdom, has purchased great quantities of commodities which the British housewife, in her wisdom, is quite unprepared to buy at the price which the Minister is charging. I am told that in this unsaleable stock there are considerable quantities of Danish and Dutch brisling, and it was a tin of Dutch brisling which I invited the Minister to eat on 12th May last year.
So far as Denmark and Holland are concerned—and again I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to correct me if my figures are wrong—I am told that, of the 26 million cans imported in 1949–50—no fewer than 11 million cans are still unsold. Of those, four and a half million are Dutch brisling and six and a half million are Danish brisling. Before it passes this Order the House would like to know how much was paid for that Danish brisling, how much was paid for the Dutch brisling and how great will be the loss sustained as a result of reducing the price from one shilling to 7½d. per can. [An HON. MEMBER: "Stockpiling."] An hon. Member opposite says," stockpiling." But it is strange stockpiling of food to stockpile commodities which nobody will buy or, if they buy them—or even if they are given them, as was the Minister—which they are not prepared to eat.
I have no doubt that at the old price of one shilling a can the Minister was not overcharging—that one shilling was a fair charge. It would be interesting to know if it was not a fair charge, but, assuming that it was, what loss will the taxpayer suffer by reason of the price being reduced to 7½d. per can? If I am right in my figures, there are 11 million cans of this Danish and Dutch brisling unsold, and if there is to be a loss, as would appear, of 37s. 6d. per case it seems to me that the taxpayer will be involved in a loss of £200,000 on these 11 million unsold cans.
I think it is all the more important to try to elicit from the Minister how much is the loss which is wrapped up in this apparently simple little transaction. I suspect that a very substantial loss to the taxpayers is involved in this, and that this Order indicates another flagrant example of the cost of Government trading—that 1668 it is a ramp among the other examples we have been having in the case of groundnuts, eggs, and all the rest of it; and that in this Order, which the Government would have passed without the House really questioning it, is wrapped up another loss amounting at least to £200,000. That seems to me to be a very Substantial figure to lose in importing barely edible foodstuffs from Denmark and Holland.
I move this Motion very much in an interrogatory manner. It is a purely administrative action of the Government. They are cutting, in this way, the price which can be charged for these commodities. One wants to know exactly what will be the consequences of that cut, exactly what are the reasons for that cut, what loss is involved to the taxpayers, and the consequences to the consumers. If the Minister tries to suggest that this is a Government plan for reducing the cost of living, that will be a proposition which will require very careful examination indeed; and I do not think that even the Parliamentary Secretary will have the effrontery to put forward the proposition that this Order is made on the grounds that it is an attempt to cut the cost of living. He knows quite well that it is nothing of the kind, but that it is cutting the loss on Government trading. Let us be told, quite frankly, how much is that loss, and what will be the consequences; and that may very much determine the course of action which we shall take on this Prayer later tonight.
§ 9.57 p.m
§ Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)
I beg to second the Motion.
As my hon. and learned Friend has said, the moving of this Prayer should lead us to a report on the trading by the Government Department in this particular transaction. Government Departments make their reports—in the case of the Groundnut Scheme, or whatever it may be—so that the House can ask questions of the Minister concerned. In this case this is the only convenient way we have—and not a very convenient way at that, at this time of the day—of asking the Minister to give us a full report on how it is that his trading has got into what seems to be a mess. This matter may not be of the magnitude of the Groundnut Scheme; it may not have the 1669 romance of the scheme for eggs from the Gambia; but we may well unearth a fish which smells as badly as those other administrative schemes did.
I want, first, to ask one question of the Parliamentary Secretary, because it seems to be a question of principle to which we should have an answer. He mentioned various orders to which this Order refers, and I would, therefore, first of all refer the hon. Gentleman to Order No. 584 of 1950. In the schedule to that Order we see the prices which can be charged by the retailer and the wholesaler, and they are in the neighbourhood of 82s. and 86s. each. When we come to this Order we find that the reduction, particularly for the wholesaler, is in the neighbourhood of 50 per cent., which is a further 50 per cent., whereas the final figure of the price per can, which falls from 1s. to 7½d., is, as my hon. and learned Friend said, something like 42 per cent.
Various remarks have been made about the distributive policy of His Majesty's Government who, from time to time, have asked for reports on the distributive trades, and we should like to have an idea of the principle upon which they themselves have drawn up these percentages. One would have thought in the normal course of events that if there was to be a percentage drop it should be made throughout the whole of the distributive trade. Why is an additional burden being imposed upon the wholesaler and the retailer? It seems to me that we should have an explanation about this principle upon which the Government work.
I now turn to the figures quoted by my hon. and learned Friend of the apparent Government loss. We have to consider the whole question of canned fish, because that is incorporated in this Order. It is suggested—and if this suggestion is wrong the Parliamentary Secretary should refute it as soon as possible—that over the whole range the loss may be as much as £2 million. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the sum of £200,000 for brislings. We cannot, of course, get the full figures until we have the total given us, but if that statement on the loss of £2 million is incorrect it is alarming to think that it should go unchallenged by the Parliamentary Secretary, and I hope he will give some attention to that in reply.
1670 Then there is the question of the trader's loss on the stocks he holds in his shop. This is particularly interesting to those who have advocated, and are likely to advocate in the future, the reduction of Purchase Tax, because exactly the same problem will face the shopkeeper when he finds his stock-in-hand reduced. Before this debate concludes we ought to have some indication of the principle on which the Government are prepared to meet us. They can say that the shopkeeper can bear the loss.
We want to know whether that is their intention, because if it is I think it is an extremely hard one, and one which hon. Members on both sides should press for further information. Once this principle is accepted by the House passing this Order we shall have Chancellors of the Exchequer and Financial Secretaries coming to the House and saying, "The House approved this principle on brislings and we can now accept it for the wider principle of Purchase Tax." In raising this matter tonight, my hon. and learned friend should have the thanks of the House for putting a finger on something which may have very far-reaching consequences.
The next question, which particularly concerns my constituency in Sheffield, is that of tinplate. We are told that many millions of cans of this fish are being stored by His Majesty's Government, and that they are finding difficulty in selling these products. I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that many canners in this country are asking for tinplate in order to can the produce of farms and of the sea. Are we to be told that under 'this Government planning scheme this precious tinplate has been allowed to be used for this type of product when there were obviously better products for which it could be used?
I admit that some of these things come from abroad, and we should ask not the Parliamentary Secretary but the Minister of Supply whether tinplate went from this country to Norway or Holland for this purpose. But some of it may well have been canned in this country, and, if so, I ask whether the Ministry of Food are being careful to see that this tinplate, which is so precious, is being properly used, because I think hon. Members on both sides will want to 1671 hear from him that the tinplate is not being wasted.
My next question relates to the keeping of accounts. There has to be a difference between Norwegian brisling and other types of brisling. If we refer to the 1950 Order No. 584. article No. 5, which deals with the records, it states that every person who carries on an undertaking by way of trade or business——
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles Mac Andrew)
We are only allowed to discuss the amending Order.
§ Mr. Roberts
I would like your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The amending Order is amending the schedule set out in Order No. 584. That is the Imported Canned Fish (Maximum Prices) Order 1950. I feel that unless we can refer to the Order which this Order is amending, it is difficult to deal with this matter. The details which a shopkeeper has to perform when he is dealing with ordinary brisling and when he is dealing with Norwegian brisling are different under the Order. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear out what I am saying.
If, at present, a shopkeeper has Norwegian brisling and ordinary brisling, under the Order which is being amended he has to keep various accounts, and various duties are laid upon him under the original Order. By the amending Order, Norwegian brisling have been taken out of that category. The shopkeeper no longer has to conform with the original Order in keeping the various books which he had to keep hitherto.
§ Mr. F. Willey
This Order does two things. The short explanatory note explains what it does. It removes Norwegian brisling from price control, and alters the controlled price of other brisling. It does not do more than that.
§ Mr. Roberts
It removes Norwegian brisling from the original Order No. 584. Under that Order certain duties are placed upon the shopkeeper, and he is now told that he must perform one set of duties if he has ordinary brisling and other duties if he has Norwegian brisling.
§ Mr. Willey
The position with regard to brisling which remain controlled is the 1672 same as it was before. No change is made by the amending Order, and therefore I say with respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that as the only change is a change of price, the only matter that we can discuss is that change of price.
Mr. Speaker's Ruling is perfectly clear on the matter. On an amending Order no discussion is allowed of the Order amended.
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd
Surely the Order which we are discussing frees canned Norwegian brisling from price control. That is explained in the explanatory note as the effect of this Order. Surely it is open to the hon. Member to discuss in all its aspects the freeing of Norwegian brisling from price control.
I have made my point perfectly clear. I am not going to enter into a legal wrangle. On an amending Order no discussion is allowed of the Order amended.
§ Mr. Roberts
I will put my question on this Order. If a shopkeeper is selling Norwegian brisling, does he have to keep the records which he kept hitherto? That is the problem. The shopkeeper has to do certain things under a certain order. Norwegian brisling are now taken out of that Order, and one assumes he does not have to do the things which he did under the original Order.
I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary: Is it easy for the shopkeeper to distinguish a can of Norwegian brisling from a can of other brisling? If not, we put the shopkeeper in an extremely difficult position. He must keep meticulous records of one type of brisling— write down the names of the people to whom he sells it and keep records as to what he has done with it. For another kind of brisling which he could hand over the counter or keep under the counter he would have to keep no records. If by mistake he deals with ordinary brisling thinking it is Norwegian brisling, he is going to commit an offence. He can say, "I thought I was selling Norwegian brisling and I have not kept any accounts or records. I am sorry." But the inspector who comes along from the hon. Gentleman's Department says, "It was not Norwegian brisling; it was another kind of brisling, and, therefore, you will 1673 be prosecuted." I am quite sure that no hon. Member in the House wants to put any shopkeeper in the difficulty of distinguishing between Norwegian brisling and other brisling.
Mr. Cannichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
Did the hon. Member say "Quisling"?
§ Mr. Roberts
I am keeping to the narrow limits of this problem, and the question I am putting is, is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that the descriptive label on Norwegian brisling is sufficiently clear and obvious for the shopkeeper dealing with that kind of brisling to be able to say, "I can see that I need not keep records for this brisling, but for this other brisling I must keep records." That is a very pertinent question to ask.
The final question I have to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is: Why does he except Norwegian brisling only from this particular Order? There are other types of brisling, including Dutch and Danish brisling. Why choose Norwegian brisling for the light of his countenance to shine upon? It seems to me quite extraordinary. These other fish come out of the same sea. It may be that the amount of loss is different. I do not know, but I feel that we should have definite answers and be able to see what is the loss. I hope the House will probe deeply into what obviously is another administrative muddle.
§ Several Hon. Members rose——
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
On a point of order. Is it in order for the Parliamentary Secretary to speak at this early stage?
That is not a point of order. If I choose to call the hon. Gentleman, he is entitled to speak.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)
It may help the House if I intervene at once, because I think there is enough confusion without any more confusion being added to it. The hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) and 1674 the hon. Member for Heeley (Mr. P. Roberts) had better make up their minds. The hon. and learned Member for Wirral said that Danish brisling was in no way comparable with Norwegian brisling. The hon. Member for Heeley said we could not tell the difference.
§ Mr. Willey
He obviously does not know, because if he did, he would not ask me to tell the difference. The hon. and learned Member for Wirral said his mathematics were not very good. I accept that. Neither are his politics. I should have thought that his experience as a lawyer would have taught him to be rather cautious in this matter, and that if he asked interrogatories he should wait for the replies before he made any comments. However, in this case, he made the comments and then asked the questions. His comment was that this was a melancholy chapter, and that in the matter of canned fish all the Ministry of Food could show was a miserable story. But is it? These are the figures. In the financial year ending March, 1950, on sales of canned fish amounting to about £10 million the Ministry showed a profit of £820,000. I am going to deal with this thing in a moment. [Interruption.]
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)
On a point of order. Is it in order for hon. Members below the Bar to join in debate?
§ Mr. Willey rose——
§ Mr. McAdden (Southend, East)
On a point of order. In view of your Ruling that the debate must be restricted to what appears in the amended Order, is it in order to deal with canned fish generally?
The Minister, I understand, is dealing with something which arose before I came into the Chair.
§ Mr. Willey
In case we might lose the thread of the argument by reason of all the points of order, let me repeat that in the financial year ending in March, 1950, on the sales of canned fish, totalling about £10 million, there was a profit of £820,000.
§ Mr. Willey
I will give them. The hon. and learned Member allowed himself to be sufficiently incautious to hazard a guess. It is no use coming along on these occasions, praying and asking questions. The Opposition have every right to elicit this information by way of Questions but they come to pray to annul an Order. Through the mover of the Motion, they have expressed a point of view about the Order. Let them have the courage to divide and go into the Lobby to oppose a price decrease.
This is the position about brisling. It is not that we face a prospective loss of £200,000 but that if we carry this Order, enforce it, implement it, we shall have a modest profit on our dealings in brisling. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The Opposition have raised the matter. They wanted an explanation. They are getting it. It is no use their getting excited because they do not like the reply. They put down the Prayer so that I could give a reply. The position on canned fish therefore, is, broadly, that we made a substantial profit and on brisling, allowing for this price decrease, we shall make a modest profit. What do the Opposition want us to do? Make a large profit? They seemed to be rather excited when I revealed a substantial profit on canned fish generally. I should have thought they would be happy about it. To deal with some of the other questions——
§ Mr. Osborne (Louth)
Will the hon. Gentleman say what is the figure of the modest profit to which he has referred?
§ Mr. Willey
The hon. Member will remember that considerable concern was shown at one time about Algerian wine. The figures were eventually given when the stocks were disposed of. These figures will be given on that occasion. When I say that we shall have a modest profit, I say so on the basis of the Order against which the Opposition are praying. I am saying that if we dispose of our stocks at the price to which we have reduced the brisling, we shall make a modest profit. All we are concerned about tonight is whether we are taking a prudent step by way of the amending order. That is the basis of the surmise made by the hon. and learned Member for Wirral.
§ Mr. Willey
No, Sir. That is, in short, the position on the first major question which has arisen about the Order. Let us now consider the Order more broadly——
§ Mr. Willey
I mean the amending Order and not the original Order. We have stocks of brisling of which we wish to dispose, and we wish to dispose of them in a way which will assist both the consumer and the trade. That is exactly what we are doing. We do it prudently in the first instance by ensuring that we shall retain a modest profit on the transaction. So, first of all, we get the question which has been raised about the Norwegian brisling. We have disposed of all our stocks of Norwegian brisling——
§ Mr. Willey
We have disposed of the stocks and I do not know what the hon. Lady wants to suggest. Let us get this quite clear. Do the Opposition wish us to continue the bulk purchase of Norwegian brisling? If not, they should welcome the Order because it is a consequence of the fact that we have disposed of our entire stocks of Norwegian brisling.
Colonel Stoddari-Scott (Ripon)
Back to Norway.
§ Mr. Willey
I will deal with the question of Norway. It is the point I had reached in my argument. We sold back to Norway some of the brisling which we bought from Norway. We sold back that brisling to Norway at a higher price than that at which we bought it. It was a very good deal indeed. The cases were bought at 71s. f.o.b. and were sold back to Norway at 82s. 6d. f.o.b. The difference was sufficient to cover the cost of freight, landing and warehouse charges, the duty and to allow us some profit. Norway was anxious to buy back the brisling even at this price because the Norwegians can sell in a market in which we could not sell owing to the conditions of sale imposed on the brislings when sold to us.
But if we are dealing with the question of profit and loss, again we are on the right side of the line. Let us see what we are doing. We are saying to the housewife that we are reducing the retail price 1677 of brislings from 1s. to 7½. That is opposed by the Opposition. What do they want us to do? Do they want us to continue to sell them at Is? If they want us to do that, obviously they want to prejudice the housewife. But it is worse than that, because obviously they want to prejudice the trade, since the trade are anxious that we should dispose of our stocks at the earliest opportunity. They will probably be wanting to buy again in August—[An HON. MEMBER: "Not at this price."] I am talking about the import trade. I will deal with the traders. One must not imagine that all trade consists of retailers and wholesalers.
§ Mr. McAdden
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to put a question on Norwegian brislings? He said that he bought them at 71s. f.o.b. and sold them at 82s. 6d. Was that f.o.b. or was it not? If it was, what were the carriage charges involved on top of the 71s.?
§ Mr. Willey
The hon. Gentleman can look at the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow because I have dealt with all those matters.
§ Mr. Willey
Both prices were f.o.b., and I said when I gave them, that the increase in price was sufficient to cover the cost of freight, landing and warehouse charges, the duty and, over and above that, we were on the profit side. In moving this Prayer, the Opposition are opposing the reduction to the housewife from 1s. to 7½d. They are also endeavouring to prejudice the trade, because the trade are anxious that we should dispose of the stocks as quickly as we can, and so decontrol not only Norwegian brisling, as we have been able to do, but all brisling. We are trying to help them. The Opposition want to spike our guns and prejudice the trade.
Now think of the other side, the retail and wholesale trade. I suppose the Opposition would have been quite happy if we had altered our selling price to the wholesalers but not the retail price. We were not prepared to do that. I was asked a question about the margins. These are cash margins which remain unaltered. No one is prejudiced. The trade get the same cash margin unaltered by this Order. What we have tried to do, as any 1678 hon. Member who had taken pains to consult anyone in the trade would know full well, is to meet the trade.
§ Mr. Willey
Of course, hon. Members opposite do not like it. As far as that side of the trade is concerned, we have not made any allocation to them for about the last four months, and there has been a sharp run-down in the supplies to the trade. I can give a few figures to illustrate this. [An HON. MEMBER: What about stocks?] Of course stocks depend upon supplies. If I give the supplies, the hon Member can form his estimate of the stocks. On 1st January, 1950, we supplied approximately 93,000 cases or, to put it more simply, 974 tons. On 18th June, 40 weeks ago, we supplied 816 tons; 32 weeks ago we supplied 133 tons; 16 weeks ago we supplied 70 tons. In other words there has been a sharp run-down.
This is permissive buying by the trade; they are not obliged to buy. They buy, taking their own forward view of the market. We have endeavoured to meet them to see that they should not be holding stocks. What we cannot do, if we are to meet the trade generally and run down our stocks, is to say that we cannot have a price reduction while any single retailer or wholesaler is holding stocks. That would prejudice the other people in the trade. What we have done is to try to be as reasonable and helpful as we can.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)
I am given to understand that the retail stocks are six million tins.
§ Mr. Willey
The hon. Gentleman opposite had better not hazard any more guesses. In short, the purport of this Order is to free Norwegian brisling from control and to reduce the price of other brisling from 1s. to 7½d. It is open to the hon. Gentlemen opposite to oppose the de-control of Norwegian brisling if they feel so inclined and to say to the housewives, in spite of the explanation I have given, that they ought to pay 1s., and not 7½d., for brisling.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)
The Parliamentary Secretary (Mr. Willey) started off on the wrong foot. He accused the hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) of lacking 1679 courage in not proposing to divide the House, when he must have recalled, or ought to have recalled, that my hon. and learned Friend made it clear at the beginning of his speech that the purpose of the debate was interrogatory. We want to get answers to certain questions. That is not at all an unreasonable line for the Opposition to take in this Parliament. Had we not asked a great many questions, for example, about the Groundnuts Scheme, would the House ever have known, until a long time afterwards, of the frightful muddle that took place? Had we not asked yesterday——
§ Mr. John Lewis (Bolton, West)
A point of order. The hon. Gentleman has just informed the House that the purpose of this Prayer is to elicit information from His Majesty's Government. I would ask your Ruling on this point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Surely this is a misuse of the procedure of this House. The correct method of eliciting information is by Question and answer, and a Prayer addressed to His Majesty should not be used for this purpose.
§ Mr. Stewart
I was explaining to the Minister why we are asking questions. We have to ask questions, because the experience of this House has been such that we are filled with suspicion about everything. The less satisfying, the less open the Minister is, the more suspicious we become. Had we not asked further questions yesterday about the Gambia egg scheme, we would never have heard the disturbing news we got. We must ask the hon. Gentleman questions no matter how polite and courteous he may be, and we must ask him more questions because of his answer. He very cleverly avoided giving us any of the information we really wanted.
What we want to know is this: What is the real reason for this new Order? Why does the hon. Gentleman come along with this surprising action of reducing the price so substantially? As consumers we are all very pleased that it should be reduced, but the hon. Gentleman must not think that we are all so simple as to accept that as the reason. We cannot help having the suspicion that the price is being reduced because the 1680 stocks the Government hold are so large that, like other stocks of food they have bought, they might well be inclined to go bad through years of keeping. By pressure of circumstances they have had to reduce the price to persuade the trade to buy them.
He told us, when speaking of the distribution of brisling to the trade, that the amounts had fallen gradually. He explained that he meant the purchases of the trade: what the trade asked for. The trade is apparently asking him for less and less, which means that it has either too much on its shelves already, or, alternatively, cannot sell what it has. Therefore, for once the Minister, acting as a sound businessman, says "I must get rid of the stocks so I will lower the price." The House is entitled to know what are the stocks. He will have to tell us. What did he pay for the stocks? What are they worth now? He says he will make a modest profit: what is it? He must have made some estimate. We were told that the Government were going to plant two million acres of ground nuts [HON. MEMBERS: "Three million"], but they have only planted about one million. How can we believe hon. Gentlemen opposite?
What grounds has the hon. Gentleman for telling us that he is expecting to make a profit? Not that we disbelieve him, but we cannot accept a statement of that kind from the Government without proof. Where is the proof? What right has he to tell us he expects to make a profit? He did not produce one figure to prove it, and if there is no figure presented to the House it would be improper in view of our past experiences to accept the statement. I know that he will say, as the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies said yesterday, "When I made a statement about Gambia that was a statement given to me by the Overseas Development Corporation, and I am not responsible for it." The hon. Gentleman will say, "These are statements about making a modest profit which somebody else has given to me. I am not responsible."
Really, the Minister must be responsible. There is no intermediary. He is wholly responsible, and, therefore, we ought to have figures which can substantiate the statement that he is going to make a modest profit. When does the hon. 1681 Gentleman expect to make this modest profit? In six months or six years? How soon will he reduce the stocks at this price? Are we to be faced with the possibility, and the likelihood, that the stocks he now holds are stocks likely to becoming into the shops in the next two years? Is that what he means? If I am wrong he will have to tell us. Those are the doubts we have on this side of the House and I suggest the hon. Gentleman has to answer them. I have asked what the stocks are that he holds. What annual sales does he expect during the next two years, so we may know precisely what we want?
I think he should tell us whether he has consulted the trade of the country before he made the Order. For example, has he consulted the fishing industry? Some of my hon. Friends represent the fishermen who catch fish which are competitive to this foreign imported fish. I am only asking, because I come from a political stable which does not leap at any kind of protection for the sake of protection. I was brought up in the belief that there should be as much international trade in and out of the country as is possible. I still believe it, with this condition, that one should not deliberately destroy one's own home trade. That is fundamental. Did the hon. Gentleman, therefore, consult the fishing industry in all its sections? Is he satisfied in making the change that he is not going to do injury to our fishermen who catch this particular kind of fish?
Lastly, may I put this question to the Parliamentary Secretary? It was put by the hon. and learned Member for Wirral, but the hon. Gentleman made no reference whatever to it—and that was another thing that made me suspicious. It is an odd thing that herring fishermen in Scotland—I raised the matter in the House a week or two ago—are having the greatest difficulty in getting the necessary tinplate——
It is out of order to speak about herring or about Scottish fishermen, neither of which comes within the terms of the Order.
§ Mr. Stewart
I do not want to pursue that, but the Order deals with canned fish, and to can fish it is necessary to produce tinplate. This canned fish will compete with British canned fish, for which tinplate is required. I am only pointing out, 1682 as part of the effect of the Order upon local fishermen, in this country and in Scotland, that they cannot get the tin to can their fish. It seems odd that we should be bringing in foreign tinned fish in greater quantities. These are pertinent questions of tremendous importance to the men engaged in the industry, and I feel that we need a much fuller reply from the Government than we have had.
§ 10.42 p.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
May I, first, make it perfectly plain why I am intervening on this Prayer? It is because I happen to represent a constituency which has not only an important fishing port, but an important canning industry, which the Parliamentary Secretary visited a few days ago. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to invite me to accompany him. I regretted that I was unable to accept his very kind invitation, but we were grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming and seeing what a first-class canning factory we have in North Shields.
§ Miss Ward
I have made my point, so I will not pursue that subject.
I want to make it quite plain why I am intervening in this debate tonight. I am intervening in the interests of my fishermen, my canners, the people employed in my canning industry—[HON. MEMBERS: "' My canning industry'?"], In my canning industry, as I represent the constituency. They do me the honour of making their representations through me, and I am their spokesman in the House of Commons. I know that my constituents who are interested in this amending Order will want a very much fuller explanation from the hon. Gentleman than we have had this evening. That is why I rather regretted that the hon. Gentleman rose to speak at such a very early stage.
I want to follow with equal emphasis the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Stewart). I have had some dealings, on behalf of my constituency, with the Minister of Food on the question of these imported brislings, Norwegian or otherwise, and I have been waiting for many months to make a speech. Parliamentary Questions are all very well, but one is very limited in time 1683 on them, and since the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis), sitting behind the Parliamentary Secretary, and trying to prop up his failing spirits and keep up his courage, has risen to ask why we do not ask Questions on this subject, I must say for his benefit that I have asked a large number of Questions on the subject, but that they were very badly replied to by the Minister. I think that this Prayer is a heaven-sent opportunity for us to tell the Minister exactly what we think of the whole of this operation in our part of the world. I should like him to know what we think about imported Norwegian brisling.
§ Mr. F. Willey
The hon. Lady has referred to a visit which I very much enjoyed making to her constituency, but I think it should be made quite clear that, during that visit, no reference was made to imported brisling.
§ Miss Ward
On Tyneside we have a reputation for courtesy and good manners, and might I say to the hon. Gentleman that it would be highly embarrassing to him if he knew what the chairman of the home canning industry thought of his operations with regard to these Norwegian brisling. Because we are people who happen to be polite, and always welcome a visit from any Ministers because we have something to show them, the hon. Gentleman should not run away with the idea that imported brisling were not mentioned. He should not think that they are not in our minds, because the managing director of the canning industry which the Parliamentary Secretary visited is the chairman of the home canned fish industry and that gentleman is not very interested in regard to the operations of the Minister of Food in Norwegian and other imported brisling. But I do not want quite to demolish the hon. Gentleman, because I hope that he can do something for us in the future.
I want to put this specific point to him. Will he cast his mind back, not many months, and remember that the home canned fish industry was extremely angry at the amount of money spent on advertising imported foreign brisling? I would like to know from the hon. Gentleman whether this sale of imported foreign brisling, which, according to him, is now going to show a modest profit, is the 1684 result of the money spent on advertising this fish to the detriment of our home canned brisling. That is what I want to know, and there are many other people who would like to have the answer. It is a very important matter. On this modest profit, does the Minister put the cost of advertising this imported canned fish, or is that carried on the Central Office of Information Vote? What about the money spent on that advertising campaign?
§ Miss Ward
I am reminded that it was £10,000. After we had made protests in the House, that campaign rather tailed off but, of course, the Minister had a great deal to say about the housewife. The housewife in my part of the country is interested in keeping her man in employment; she does not want unemployment because of imported canned fish. I very well remember drawing the attention of the Minister to the fact that the home canning industry was very angry about the whole of this operation. I remember that the right hon. Gentleman, who, I think, has got a very pleasant personality when he does not lose his temper, and who is all right at play, made some really very unfortunate remarks about the trade at that time.
Although the Parliamentary Secretary says that he visited Tyneside he did not discuss the question of imported brislings with my people. Did the hon. Gentleman ever discuss this matter with the trade at all? If he has since discussed it with the trade I want to know why he did not discuss it with the trade at the time they wanted to discuss it with him. My opinion is that he only discussed it with the trade now because he thinks it is convenient to do so.
I quite appreciate that the hon. Gentleman dare not now go in for a fresh advertising campaign. Therefore he has this new idea of reducing the price, and that is the reason for the amending Order. He wants to reduce the price in the hope that he can clear the stocks. All this idea about reducing the price to the housewife is at the expense of the fishermen and our people who are employed in the home canning industry, and also at the expense of the taxpayer. All I can say is that I think he has perpetrated a fraud on the House of Commons and, as for getting 1685 up and saying, "Why do you not divide," if the hon. Gentleman came up to my part of the world he would understand how the fishing industry is supporting us.
What I want the hon. Gentleman to tell us, quite clearly, is this. Is it a new move to reduce stocks because the advertising campaign failed to achieve the result that was desired by his Department? Has he got the courage to answer that question directly and now, because, if so, I will give way to him. Come on. I will now finish all that I have to say. I am delighted that my party put down the Prayer to this amending Order, to give us a very great opportunity of striking a blow for our own industry, and I am looking forward to the hon. Gentleman's further explanation.
§ 10.53 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)
I will not entertain the House with such fluency as my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Miss Ward), but I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one very important question, if I may have his attention. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary what stocks remain and how much tin was exported from this country to Norway at a time when our canners were so gravely short, because that enters very materially into this problem. The Parliamentary Secretary asked us to consult the retailers about their transactions. I have consulted the fishermen about this kind of transaction and it may interest the Parliamentary Secretary to hear of a letter I received yesterday from a shell fisherman in West Cornwall about just one of these transactions. He wrote:I need hardly say that the fishermen of Coverack regard this as a heavy and bitter blow to their chance of being able to earn a living this year.That shows what the fishermen think of this kind of transaction, and I speak for the fishermen of West Cornwall in my division; so there is no doubt about that.
Would the Parliamentary Secretary give us more information as to how the retailers are to be recompensed for the losses they will incur, because he has not told us the amount of stocks of these brisling? He has not indicated what the losses of these retailers will be, if and when these fish are sold. With these few remarks I very much hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to 1686 elaborate a little more than what he has already told us.
§ 10.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Molson (The High Peak)
I want to refer to my own correspondence in connection with what my hon. Friend has just said. I have here a letter from British Fish Canners, Ltd., in which they say that the Ministry's decision on this matter will give a very severe blow to the fish canners in this country and to the hundreds of inshore sild fishermen all round our coast. This company had the worst financial year on record last year, a turnover of £500,000 being reduced to £250,000 and it was almost impossible to sell British brisling and sild during the whole of the year 1950.
The Parliamentary Secretary showed himself as an extremely adroit debater in the reply which he gave, but there are a few points I would like to put to him. Why does he take so much pride in having resold to Norway almost the whole of the purchase which his Department had previously made? Are we really to understand that the Ministry of Food, under the present dispensation, is trying to set up as dealers in food? Was it with the intention of selling back to Norway at a profit many months afterwards that they originally entered into this contract? Their purpose, presumably, was to try to obtain canned fish from abroad for the benefit of the British market. In fact, it was such a bad purchase that, despite their advertising campaign, they were unable to dispose of it.
The fact that there were large stocks overhanging the market had a most depressing effect upon the whole of the trade of this country—the canning trade, the wholesale trade, and the retail trade. It is hardly worthy of the spokesman for the Ministry of Food to be preening himself upon having sold back these stocks to the country from which they were bought and to be repeating tonight the information that was given by his right hon. Friend on a previous occasion, that the selling price did, in fact, cover the costs.
§ Mr. F. Willey
. I was, of course, replying to the suggestion that we made a loss on this transaction.
§ Mr. Molson
I quite appreciate that, and I did pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity as a debater. What we are really considering this evening is the capacity of his right hon. Friend as an administrator and for the Parliamentary Secretary now to be able to produce an adroit reply is hardly any justification for the complete failure of his right hon. Friend in his policy.
I want to ask a few questions about the Dutch and Danish poor quality sprats which are now overhanging the market. May I have the hon. Gentleman's attention? After all, he is paid to justify the policy of his right hon. Friend. How does it come about that, if a modest profit is to be made by selling these tins of Dutch and Danish brisling at 7½d., previously his Department were proposing to sell them at 1s. 0d.? Is it not a fact that they had proved to have a most pernicious effect upon the ordinary trade in this country and that the Government are, if not cutting their losses, at any rate proposing to sell them at what they think is the maximum this inferior fish will fetch?
I want to read what was said by Mr. Banks, in an interview with the "Yorkshire Post," which is a most remarkable indictment of the policy of the Ministry of Food:From January onwards last year sales became extremely difficult.Of course, the hon. Gentleman's figures showed that each time some of the stocks were sold to the trade difficulty was found in disposing of such inferior stocks in the British market. It would have been a bit more frank if the hon. Gentleman had explained that the number being disposed of was diminished——
§ Mr. F. Willey
What happened was a rather surprising falling away in demand for canned fish. In fact, the private trade has suffered very substantial losses in the past 12 months.
§ Mr. Molson
It is another case like the one we heard this afternoon, where the Government claim that the private retailers are falling into the same errors and difficulties that they themselves have fallen into, and it appears that an official of the Ministry of Food said he was extremely concerned at the effect that heavy stocks were having on the brisling, sild, and sardine canners in this country.
1688 When the Minister comes before the House with this Order it is only right and proper that the Opposition, especially those who represent the canning industry, should not allow the Government to get away with their present policy. It should be made perfectly plain that once more bulk purchasing by the Ministry of Food has completely failed of its intended purpose and that, having done harm to an indigenous industry, the Government are now having to dispose of their inferior purchases.
§ 11.4 p.m.
§ Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)
This has been a very unusual debate, particularly in view of the discussion—which I cannot anticipate—which is to take place tomorrow, when we intend to raise the question of the stockpiling of foods against an emergency. One would have thought that brislings, a form of canned fish of great nutritional value, might well have been one of the articles of food stocked.
I am interested to see how empty the House is getting on the benches opposite. I do not suppose there is any reason, except that they hope there will not be 40 Members on this side. The manoeuvre is useless. My hon. Friends are quite prepared to hear what I have to say on this important point.
I should have thought that canned fish, whether in oil or not, was one of the easiest of all foods to stock, yet we had it from the Minister during his speech that he was anxious to dispose of all the stock he could of this brisling, and he was patting the Government on the back because they had been so clever as to sell it back to the Norwegians at a higher price than they paid for it. That may be a slick commercial transaction—unlike many other transactions of the Government. There has been no such wonderful arrangement in relation to groundnuts or Gambian eggs. I am so much obliged to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) for staying. We have long been in the House together, and I am very flattered that he who succeeded me after an interval as Secretary for Mines should have thought my views on brisling worth listening to.
§ Mr. Grenfell (Gower)
I have listened with interest; I think the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's views are very fishy.
§ Captain Crookshank
That is exactly what they should be on this subject. I feel very complimented, because the hon. Gentleman is merely a herald of things to come. Before long there will be only one hon. Member of the party opposite sitting here, and all those benches will be filled with supporters of a future Government. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), with impish delight, is making faces behind the Chair—and has now disappeared.
I was saying that it seems to me strange, when tomorrow's debate will reveal the Government's intention to stockpile—that they should be doing all they can now to get rid of this valuable foodstuff. They are delighted because they have sold it at a profit to the Norwegians, and also apparently because, having taken off control, they think they will be able to get rid of it in this country. It seems to be a very short-sighted policy.
It is very confusing not to know whether one is addressing an audience of one or two, and the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Reid), who keeps flitting in with that gaiety for which he is so renowned, has rather taken me off the argument I was about to develop. It is strange that this foodstuff should be thought by the Government to be of no use for stockpiling. If the hon. Gentleman can explain that to me it will go a long way towards solving my difficulty whether or not to ask my hon. Friends to press this Motion to a division. The hon. Gentleman was saying that on the sale of brisling His Majesty's Government were making a modest profit.
On these trading accounts we, as representatives of the taxpayers—and I am glad that the hon. Member for Gower is still here because the Welsh are good taxpayers when they remember to pay their taxes—are happy if the Government will make modest profits. The trouble is that during the last three weeks we have not been talking about modest profits on Government account, but enormous losses —£36½ million on groundnuts, £850,000 on Gambian eggs. Here, we are anticipating what is a modest profit, and on that I think we can rejoice that at last the Ministry of Food have found something in the world on which they can make a modest profit. Oddly enough. Norwegian brisling is something which none of us would have suspected.
1690 The hon. Gentleman did not tell us what was a modest profit. From our previous experiences of losses which the Government have tried to denigrate, a modest profit might not be much more than 4½d. It would have been much more helpful if the hon. Gentleman had told us what it was. For some reason or other, at this stage in his argument, he brought in Algerian wine. How he got that through, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, in face of this Order, which we have to study with very great precision, I do not know. I see nothing about Algerian wine here. I see "Column 1—Description of Imported Canned Fish"; "Column 2—Description of container"; "Column 3—Number of containers per case"; "Column 4 —Maximum Prices"—and so on. I see that you have it in your hand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, so it is unnecessary for me to go through it further.
I see nothing about Algerian wine. However, the hon. Gentleman said that somehow or other—and it was very much somehow or other—the Government had made a profit on Algerian wine and, therefore, by an argument which to me' at any rate was completely impossible to follow, there might be a modest profit on brisling if, he said, we sell at the right price. That, again, is a question of argument. What is the right price? Now I hope he is not going to take Algerian wine very far as a model, because we know what happened there. The Government made a frightful disaster of that transaction——
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)
Order! I do not think we can go into the question of Algerian wine; certainly, not at this hour of the night.
§ Captain Crookshank
I quite agree, and that was why I said it was strange that I could not find anything about it in the Order. The only point I was making was that, whether or not the Government did make a profit on Algerian wine, they so handled that business that for years afterwards Algerian wine became the most unpopular drink in this country. I hope, therefore, that their handling of Norwegian brisling will not have the same result—that no one in this country will ever want to eat brisling again.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) has just come in though we are not on the Church 1691 Measure yet. I cannot do more than endorse what my hon. and learned Friend said, that we are filled with suspicion about everything the Government do. Of course we are; and if we had not been 13 months ago, after the General Election, we certainly are today. We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward), who made such a brilliant speech from the point of view of her constituency on Tyneside, complaining that the hon. Gentleman, who has been up there, had never discussed this matter with those with whom he obviously should have discussed it— namely, those interested in fishing and fish canning in that part of the country. Why he did not discuss it with them. I do not know, and he has not told us. But the fact remains that a large amount of public money was spent in advertising this commodity without any success.
It would be a pity if, as a result of this very brief discussion—and I understand it is to be very brief; it has not gone on very long, and I gather that it is not likely to go on very much longer—it is not made clear that the people in this country have no objection at all against Norwegian brisling. They have nothing but the most pleasant and affectionate feelings towards the Norwegians, who were our Allies and suffered terribly during the war and who depend on the sale of their brisling for a great deal of their trade balance. Let no one in Norway think that we are denigrating them. We are arguing against the handling of the problem by the Ministry of Food. We have argued time and time again that it is Government handling of these trade questions which has brought difficulty and trouble to this country. It has not helped the Norwegians. I cannot think they would be pleased, however much the hon. Gentleman preens himself on his success in selling back to them at 82s. 6d. what he bought at 71s. I do not think it would be a matter on which the Norwegians would congratulate themselves particularly.
It shows once more how difficult it is internationally for the Government to go into these matters. We buy a great quantity of these goods, we do not sell them, we do not sell them even after an advertising campaign, and people begin to say "These are Norwegian things and 1692 they are no good." Then we profit by the other side of the shortage. Not having enough for themselves, the Norwegians buy ours and either sell them or eat them. If they eat them, that is to their benefit. If they sell them, at enhanced prices, what a pyramid of misfortune is built up by the Government coming into this trade. The less the Government have to do with brisling, or anything else in the way of food, the better. But so long as they do have brislings in this country and have to stockpile against emergencies, I would ask the hon. Gentleman how it is they have overlooked the advantages which might accrue to us and to the nation, should an emergency occur—I see that I am addressing not only the hon. Member for Gower, but that the audience has been increased by the hon. Member for Islington, East—which is 100 per cent. increase.
I ask the spokesman for the Ministry of Food to reply to this question I formally put from here: Why is it he is so anxious to get rid at any price, as the result of this Order——
§ Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)
On a point of order. Could you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, give instructions that proper order is to be kept outside the Chamber?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Yes, certainly. I think that that should be the duty of the Serjeant at Arms, or whoever is responsible.
§ Captain Crookshank
Awaiting the result of your instruction, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I was saying that I had been mystified by this debate, as had been the hon. Gentleman. So I formally ask him, or the Leader of the House, or whoever is in charge, how it is that at this time of apparent crisis in our food stocks—and I do not want to pretend for a moment to anticipate what might be said tomorrow—when we are discussing the possible expansion of our food stocks, that this Order should be brought before us.
The only object of this Order is to free a particular kind of brisling from price control so that more can be sold in this country and thus dispose of the stocks. If the Government had kept the price control and had passed the large amount they bought through the distributive chain into the housewife's larder 1693 then, presumably, they would not have found it necessary to change the price level. That presupposes that as a result of this Order they hope to get rid of a great deal of Norwegian brisling which they have not sold to the Norwegians at a profit. If that is the purpose of this Order, and the Government want to do that and reduce the maximum price of certain kinds of imported brisling I ask why, in view of the known low stocks against an emergency and the value of canned brisling in an emergency, it is necessary to bring forward the Order?
Hon. Gentlemen will not deny that in times of emergency tinned fish, and especially brisling are one of the first things on which the people rely. Obviously, the troops may have to be fed, and indeed the civil population as well, on corned beef in that time of emergency, though until we know the result of Argentine negotiations we do not know whether there will be any for stockpiling or current consumption. A great quantity of this fish is now available in the country.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman knows quite well that he is running very near the line and that on occasions he has been going over it. I hope he will not continue in that strain.
§ Captain Crookshank
I may be running near the line because it is a dangerous situation, but I thought I was on the right side of the argument. I think I am entitled to say, on behalf of my hon. Friends, that we want to know why it is that at this time—and it is clear from an earlier debate that we ought to be thinking of.stockpiling—it should be right to accept the proposal of the Government to get rid of stocks as a result of taking off price control or reducing the maximum prices of all kinds of canned fish. We ought to have that information before we pass this Order. Every hon. Gentleman ought to ask himself whether it is right to do that at the very moment when we ought to have in our minds—we can amplify this tomorrow—the desirability of stocking more food in this country against an emergency.
That really is the question, and not the question about what the prices are; not the question as to whether we are to make a modest profit over this transaction— although nobody has told us what a 1694 "modest profit" is; not the question as to whether we made lis. 6d., or whatever it is, per case by sending the things back to the Norwegians—that is not the point. The point is whether we are justified in passing this Order tonight with regard to a large quantity of these canned fish, which we might put into storage but of which the Government appear to be anxious to get rid themselves.
The Leader of the House has now left the Chamber again, so I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, who has been courteous enough to answer the questions, whether he will be good enough to reply to that one, because on his answer to that question depends our attitude with regard to the Order.
§ Question put, "That the Question be now put."
§ The House proceeded to a Division:
Mr. Leunox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)
(seated and covered): On a point of order. Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman who moved the Prayer have the right to reply?
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, does the acceptance of the Closure prevent, or has the acceptance of the Closure ever hitherto prevented, an hon. Member from exercising his right to reply?
§ Mr. POPPLEWELL andMr. BOWDEN were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Members being willing to act as Tellers for the Noes,Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.
That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 1st March, 1951, entitled the Imported Canned Fish (Amendment) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 345), a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be annulled,
§ put accordingly, and negatived.