HC Deb 19 December 1952 vol 509 cc1867-73

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

Following the price increase in milk in December last, during the debate in February I argued that the price increase had affected the consumption of milk. This was denied by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. The February figures were not then available to us. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the consumption had risen in February in spite of the increase in price. He said: There is, in fact, this month"— February— a substantial increase in the consumption of milk,"—[OFFIC1AL REPORT, 26th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 1092.] These were false premises.

When the figures were published, however, we found that, if we allowed for the fact that this is Leap Year, the consumption had fallen in February as it had in the preceding months. The Parliamentary Secretary therefore had misled the House—and this is the important fact—was acting on false premises that consumption had not been affected.

When in July we were discussing milk again, following a further price increase, we on this side of the House argued that this price increase was affecting consumption. The Parliamentary Secretary then argued—dealing with figures which were not available to us, and I say at once arguing with some reservation—that in July the figures showed only a decrease of 3 per cent. Again the Parliamentary Secretary was on a false premise. When the figures were published we found the decrease in the consumption of liquid milk for July was 2,300,000 gallons and the percentage figure for the decrease was in fact six times the figure which the Parliamentary Secretary had given to the House.

We on this side of the House were really talking about the consumption of full price fresh milk, and in that case the consumption had dropped as the figures showed by 2.4 per cent. for that month. The position now is that the total decrease for the past 11 months. allowing for February having 29 days, has been 27,800,000 gallons. The Par- liamentary Secretary offsets against this six million gallons that went in cream.

I take the view that the Government take, that cream is counted for this purpose as fresh milk and not manufactured milk. The Parliamentary Secretary was again on a false premise, because the figures now show that for these 11 months the fall in consumption is in fact 2 per cent. It is 2 per cent. for October and preceding months when no question of cream arose. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that he cannot run away from this argument because at this moment discussions are being held with the dairymen and the Ministry has agreed for the purpose of arguing about distributors' margins that the decrease is 2 per cent.

According to "The Milk Industry," the official journal of the National Dairymen's Association, the Ministry have accepted a loss of throughput, as a result of the increased retail prices, which they now compute at 2 per cent. There has been an appreciable reduction of consumption. That is stated by the Ministry in their discussions with the distributors, and it is stated by the Ministry to be the result of increased prices, which is important because it means that this decrease will persist.

The question which we now have to resolve is whether this appreciable decrease in consumption which is admitted by the Ministry in their negotiations with the distributors is in fact significant. I argue that it is significant because it is continued, it is significant because it is aggravated, and it is significant because the Ministry now accept as a basis for discussion with the distributors that there will be a continuance of at least a fall of 2 per cent. It is significant, too, that this figure is now admitted to be due to the price increase. More than that, the decrease in itself is significant because it entirely reverses the trend of milk consumption in this country.

We had an increasing milk consumption until the end of 1951. This present decrease does not only mean that milk consumption this year will be less than in 1951: it means that it will also be less than in 1950, so the decrease is significant because it means that we have so far reversed the trend that now we are running a consumption level below even that of 1950.

On 8th December, the Parliamentary Secretary then raised a new argument. He said that the fall in milk consumption, which he then admitted, had been in the higher income groups. I do not believe that is so. However, I first want to deal with another category. Even when I was at the Ministry we were very worried about the consumption of milk in families. The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that he gave the figures in April that in the second half of 1951 single people in this country were drinking each week one pint of milk per head more than members of families with three children, and one and a half pints more than members of families with four children.

I believe that this gap has been further widened. It is my experience from such inquiries as I have made, and this reveals an important social and nutritional problem. I should like to know from the Parliamentary Secretary—because he has had a good deal of experience in this matter—what he proposes to do about it.

I now turn to the question whether the fall in consumption can be attributed to a fall in consumption of the higher income groups. It cannot on the figures which the Parliamentary Secretary has given to the House. It cannot arithmetically because these figures do not allow for a fall of 2 per cent. These figures cannot be related to the fall of 2 per cent. which is now admitted by the Minister as the fall in consumption. Moreover, we have to realise that the National Food Survey only became a general survey in 1950. It is far too early to use these figures, especially as they relate to income groups, at such short notice for comparative purposes. After all, the National Food Survey has only just published a few days ago its annual report for 1950. I would say that it is far too early to argue from those figures about this year.

Another factor I believe is that these figures are two-monthly figures. The Parliamentary Secretary gave them as quarterly figures. I believe that during the time I was at the Ministry we made these two-monthly figures, which means that it is difficult to argue from figures in respect of such a short period. Quite apart from this, there is a good deal of outside evidence, and the retail associations in particular have provided evidence, that there has been a considerable fall, greater than the 2 per cent., which is the average fall, in working-class districts. Co-operative societies and the like provide this evidence.

I have been anxious to raise this matter because it is now rumoured that the Minister is considering a further increase in the price of milk. In the light of the figures I have been able to reveal to the House, that would be a scandalous decision to take, and I hope that this debate will at any rate have some effect upon the Minister before he comes to that decision.

2.58 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)

As this is the season of good will towards all men, I do not want to upset the Christmas season for the Parliamentary Secretary. I will simply supply a few figures to indicate clearly to him that during Christmas, when he is in the quietness of, I hope, his own fireside, he will know that the writing is on the wall as regards his defence about the milk problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has given a very good survey and some indication of what is to come. My task in three minutes is to supply one or two details which will indicate to the Minister that next year, in February or March, he will have a very difficult time in dealing with any Adjournment debates about milk.

I have been able to get from several Co-operative societies up-to-date information about what is happening with regard to milk supplied to households. The downward swing since the beginning of October is remarkable. First, I take the Brighton society. In July this year, when milk was 6d. per pint, there was an average sale to households of 13.55 pints per week. On 1st September, with milk at 6½d. per pint, the figure became 13.51 pints. In the week ending 1st December, it had gone down to 12.91 pints. Taking the comparable weeks for 1951 and 1952, the weekly sales to households in the week ending 1st December last year were 13.37 pints, whereas in 1952 the figure was 12.91 pints, or a reduction of three per cent.

The London Co-operative Society has collected several hundred roundsmen together, and from their experience at the door they are unanimous in saying that women have been telling them that they cannot afford any more money for milk and must reduce the quantity accordingly. Let me give some specific figures from the South Surburban Co-operative Society, which is in London, for the last week in November in 1951 and 1952. Although they now have more members than last year, their sales of milk in the last week of November this year were 86,975 gallons, as against 89,839 gallons last year. So much have the numbers of new members increased that many rounds have had to be re-organised, but even despite this the decrease in milk sales is substantial.

I could give instances all over the country, particularly in the textile areas, where there has been a very big drop in sales, but I should like to quote the Birmingham Co-operative Society. In the last week of November, 1951, they sold 320,510 gallons of full-priced milk to 170,425 households. In the last week of November, 1952, however, sales had dropped to 319,379 gallons, or a decrease of 1,131 gallons, while the number of households had risen to 173,120. In other words, there was an addition of 2,695 new households, but a drop in sales of more than 1,000 gallons. The implications from the dairy managers, who get this information much more up-to-date than the National Food Survey, is that during the recent few weeks the decrease has been alarming.

The writing is certainly on the wall, and it will be proved before long that it is not good enough to say that the rising cost of living has not affected the poor people but that the decrease in sales applies to the higher income groups.

3.2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)

When the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) raised the subject of milk this afternoon, I wondered whether he was at last filled with the milk of human kindness and whether we would miss his customary acerbities.

Let us get to the facts. To take the first 11 months of this year, in comparison with the previous year there has been a fall of 1.6 per cent. in the total liquid sales of milk. To take, as the hon. Member suggested, and with good justification, the full price milk, the fall has been 1.9 per cent. in comparison with the first 11 months of last year. Oddly enough—I make this not as a debating point but as one of interest and importance—if we take the case of school milk, which, of course, was not increased in price, the first 11 months of this year show a reduction of 1 per cent. on the previous year. It is a mistake too readily to draw conclusions from that situation, but bearing in mind that the school population has increased it clearly raises—perhaps as a side-issue—an interesting problem worthy of consideration.

Why has this reduction taken place? Is it, as the hon. Member argues, because of the increase in price? In the first place, the reduction in school milk is not because of the increase of price. If we turn next to the National Food Survey to find where the reduction has taken place, looking at the four categories, the main reduction in consumption has been in the more prosperous categories A and B. The reduction in what, for convenience, I may call the two middle class groups, has been of about a quarter of a pint per head per week.

Much as we may feel discomfited that the statistical results do not coincide with our own set opinions, the fact remains that this reduction—2 per cent. overall—has taken place in the relatively prosperous groups. I think it reasonable to infer that whatever the reasons may be, they are not wholly or mainly reasons of cash. I am not presuming to assert what those reasons are, but I am resisting the argument that it is wholly or mainly a matter of cash.

I add one observation on the nutritional point which the hon. Member raised as one of great gravity. The 2 per cent. which has not been consumed as liquid milk this year has found its way into the human body in other forms, for milk not consumed as liquid milk goes for manufacture—for example, butter and cheese. There are more ways of taking milk than by swallowing it in liquid form.

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) gave on this occasion, as on a previous occasion, some rather startling figures. Being the time of good will, I shall not repeat an observation of a friend of mine who suggested that the Co-operative societies might have suffered in their sales through competition—

Mr. Dodds

They have more members this time.

Dr. Hill

Anticipating that we should have the comforting presence of the hon. Member, I have taken out some figures for a number of Co-operatives and find that they vary enormously. For the London Co-operative Society sales fell, in the case of the Willesden Branch by 0.25 per cent. in August to October—the last figures available for the purpose. At Ealing the figure was plus 0.8 per cent. and in the Manor Park Branch it was down 6.1 per cent. As we go down the list we find the oddest and most widely varied changes. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Woolwich Branch, had a fall of 1.2 per cent. while Mitcham had an increase of 1.6 per cent.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)


Dr. Hill

I have not the figure for the Deptford branch, but had I known that the hon. Member would be here I would have got that figure.

The significance of this is that it is misleading to infer a general proposition from isolated or single examples. The general position is a fall in the consumption of milk this year of 2 per cent.

Bearing in mind that that milk is still being used for nutritious purposes and that the consumption fall has been in the higher income groups, it is not justifiable to assert that there has been a serious or important fall in the consumption of milk. It is certainly untrue to assert that the reason for such fall as exists has been the economic reason of the higher price of milk.

I am in no way attempting to minimise the significance of a fall in the consumption of milk, but at the same time it should be borne in mind that we are consuming 60 per cent. more liquid milk than before the war. I think it right that we should always examine critically the consumption of milk and milk products as an important element in nutrition. But I do not for one moment accept the severe strictures or gloomy prognostications to which we have listened this afternoon.