HC Deb 21 February 1952 vol 496 cc521-7

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £5,240,000 be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for expenses of the Ministry of Food in connection with the procurement and maintenance of strategic reserves.

8.12 p.m.

Mr. F. Willey

May I pursue more properly on this Vote the point I raised on the earlier Vote? I wonder whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman can tell us what is the size, for effective purposes, of our strategic stockpile of food looking ahead perhaps for the next 12 months. In short, can he tell us whether he can translate into concrete terms what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said when he indicated that there would be a substantial raiding of our stockpile? I see that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman shakes his head, but that is the impression I got.

Major Lloyd George

The hon Gentleman is quite wrong in saying that my right hon. Friend said he was going to raid the stockpile. It was a slowing down of the process of building up.

Mr. Willey

We have an appropriation-in-aid in this Supplementary Estimate of £1,500,000 against £100,000 in the original Estimate and in view of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I think we need an explanation of that.

The Chairman

I am afraid that that is out of order.

Mr. Willey

I am obliged, Sir Charles. I hope to raise the matter on the appropriate occasion and, at any rate, I have given the right hon. and gallant Gentleman notice of what I intend to do. When he replies, I should like him explicitly to assure the Committee that there is no intention of reducing the size of the present stock balance and that there is no intention of using for the trading account, that is, for ordinary consumption, any of the food at present in our food stockpile.

Apart from that, I think the right hon. and gallant Gentleman should tell the Committee what steps have been taken to ensure good and proper storage of the foodstuffs in the stockpile. This was a matter which aroused considerable interest when we were discussing stockpiling last year. I have no great apprehensions on that ground. Apart from my own experience with the Ministry, I served on the Estimates Committee and I think I speak for all members of that Committee in saying that we were very impressed by the way in which the Department safeguarded our food stocks.

But there are hon. Members who were very disturbed about the depredations of the weevil in our food stocks. I believe some of them are present again tonight. [An HON. MEMBER: "The weevils?"] No, hon. Members; and I may be anticipating what they are about to say, but I think it would be helpful if the Minister assured us that these stocks are in a safe storage. Perhaps he will tell Members of the Committee, who naturally have some doubts about it in view of the cuts in capital investment, what steps are being taken now in the programme for providing proper accommodation for the food stocks we hold as a strategic stockpile.

In general, thanks to the past Government, we are in an overwhelmingly stronger position than we were when we went to war in 1939. We have a sounder agriculture and have a substantially larger food stockpile. It is because of that great advantage which we now enjoy that I think it would be foolish and tragic if the present Government, to overcome present difficulties, should take the fantastically foolish action of raiding these stockpiles.

Mr. H. Hynd

I should like to ask the Minister whether he can indicate how this extra sum of £8 million odd is to be spent, that is to say, whether he can describe the method by which the extra food is to be purchased. I was encouraged to hear him say a few minutes ago that he was pleased to announce the signature of two bulk purchase agreements. But the country was encouraged a few months ago to great expectations as to the possible economies in methods of purchasing food. The country was informed that methods of bulk purchase were to be dropped and business men sent to scour the world, presumably to spend less than the last Government spent by bulk purchase.

Mr. F. Harris

I think the hon. Member might be the first to admit that we have never sought anything else but long-term contracts with the Empire and the Commonwealth in order to get the production we need.

Mr. Hynd

That is the difficulty. Hon. Members opposite say one thing in Committee and in the House but at the Election they were saying something entirely different. I do not think there is any doubt at all that the country was led to believe that when the Minister bought in future he would abandon what they called the wasteful method of bulk purchase and would effect great economies by sending these business men to scour the world and obtain food from all over the place.

Mr. Harris


The Chairman

The policy of bulk purchase is not under review. The Committee are being asked to vote money and the only question before us is why they were asked for too little in the first instance.

Mr. Hynd

That is the whole point I am trying to raise. Sir Charles. You have put it much better than I could have done. I am asking why the Minister is asking for £8,294,000 at the present time. If we are now being asked to vote a huge sum like this, I suggest, with great respect, that I might be in order in asking how and where the money is to be spent. I will not pursue election promises, but the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) is probably trying to interrupt me because of his bad conscience about some of the election speeches.

Have we any guarantee that this, money is to be spent to the best advantage under the well-tried system of the last Government, or is some new method to be introduced? If there is to be a new method, will we have a reduced demand under this heading in future, or are we to continue with bulk purchase? I think that is a very pertinent question to ask when we are faced with voting a huge sum of this kind.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)

I should like to amplify what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland. North (Mr. F. Willey) about cold storage. This is a most important matter and I am very concerned that there should be an extension of cold storage accommodation in this country. During the autumn and early winter there is a very large supply of English meat. Later on, after Christmas, we get a tremendous shortage, and my concern is that there should be a greater uniformity of the meat ration. I am wondering whether the Minister can give any assurances that steps are being taken now to provide cold storage at the right time so that English meat can be frozen down in the autumn with a view to conserving it for the times of the year when meat is scarce. It has a very great influence on the question of stockpiling and reserves in time of need, and cold storage of this kind would be very valuable indeed to the country.

Major Lloyd George

I do not know that I can add a very great deal to what I have said. All I can say is that if the hon. Member wishes to be assured that the money is well spent, I can give him that assurance; but I can say no more than that it is being spent in order to build up our strategic reserves. I cannot go into details, but they are food reserves, obviously.

With regard to the question of the programme of storage, I hope that will be continued, only differing by a slight slowing down in relation to the slowing down of the stockpiling. I think the storage is pretty good. I have had only one complaint since I have been in the Ministry. It was a purely temporary thing and it was put right in quite a short time. We used our fairly extensive experience in the last war, and I think it can be regarded as perfectly satisfactory.

I am extremely sympathetic to the hon. Member's point of view about cold storage because I agree with him that, at a time of shortage in meat, it would be a very great advantage if we could utilise some of it, but our capacity is limited compared with that of other countries. If we could do that it would even out the period of the flush in the late summer. I am most sympathetic to the hon. Member's point of view and I will certainly look at it.

I do not think there is anything more I can usefully add to what I have said, and I hope the Committee will agree to this Vote.

Mr. F. Willey

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman will remember that I referred to a statement about raiding the stockpile. I want to call his attention to what the Chancellor said. I want to give him the opportunity, if necessary, of qualifying the impression he created when he made his interjection. The Chancellor said: We shall in some cases have to use stocks acquired for the stockpile in order to reduce the current level of imports. Later on he said: We fully recognise—and I am trying to set out the case to the House because we are all taking part in this housekeeping together—[Laughter]—or, if we are not, we should be—we fully recognise that any use of stocks for current purposes is a once-and-for-all operation. The impression I got from the Chancellor's statement was that there was an intention to save the purchase and importation of foodstuffs by using as a once-and-for-all operation some of the goods that had been already stockpiled in this country. I should like the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to repeat the assurance, if he means to give it, that this does not apply to foodstuffs, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when making his statement, was referring to other commodities than foodstuffs.

Major Lloyd George

I understood the Chancellor to say that he was not going to raid the stockpile for current requirements. Is not that what he said?

Mr. Willey

Just to make it clear, I will quote once more what the Chancellor said and then express the two possible interpretations of what he said; and then perhaps the right hon. and gallant Gentleman can help me. The Chancellor said: We shall in some cases have to use stocks acquired for the stockpile in order to reduce the current level of imports."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1952; Vol. 495, c. 47.] This could refer to stocks acquired but not delivered. It is open to that interpretation; but I assumed that if that had been the interpretation, the Chancellor would have been more explicit in making it clear that that was his intention. I, and I think many of my hon. Friends, got the impression that what he was saying was quite simply what this appears to say—that during the present period of difficulty commodities might be taken out of the stockpile to reduce the strain on current imports. That would be a once-for-all operation, and the stocks would be made up later.

Major Lloyd George

Perhaps I could use the word "rations" instead of "requirements." I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have not robbed, and I hope we shall not rob, any stockpiles for the current rations.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

I want to make a point which follows one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey). There is a figure of £6,640,000, which is the extra sum required for the purchase and storage of the extra food, and that assumes that a larger quantity is to be purchased. Yet, lower down, where we find the details, we see that there is a saving in the storage and handling of this food of £1,654,000, which is a very big sum indeed. It looks as though less rent is to be paid for accommodation and fewer ships are to be chartered for the purchase and storage of frozen meat.

Alternatively, it may relate to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North—that food has been purchased but has not yet arrived and that no provision is made in the Supplementary Estimate for the storage of that food. Of course, it may be that new methods of handling have been devised, although I doubt it. I cannot understand how such a large saving is to be secured in the storage of this food, and I think we are entitled to know how it is to be achieved. If it is through improved handling, it seems that some of us are to learn an interesting lesson, particularly those of us with experience in warehousing.

Mr. F. Harris

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hobson

Is the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) going to teach me a lesson? What he knows about this is very little indeed. I put the point in all seriousness and I think we are entitled to an explanation.

Major Lloyd George

I think I can give the hon. Gentleman a satisfactory explanation. I referred to the slowing up of stockpiling. This saving of £1,400,000 is explained by the slowing up in the process of building storage for the stockpile.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £5,240,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for expenses of the Ministry of Food in connection with the procurement and maintenance of strategic reserves.