HC Deb 26 November 1952 vol 508 cc432-9
5. Miss Burton

asked the Minister of Food if the Government have reached a decision upon the distribution of eggs.

9 and 10. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Food (1) what steps he is taking to reform and reorganise the distribution of shell eggs;

(2) what steps he is taking to reduce the administrative costs, including overheads, of approximately £1,300,000 per annum for the eggs division of his Department and the National Egg Distributors' Association Limited; and to what extent this will be reduced in 1953.

16. Mr. E. Fletcher

asked the Minister of Food whether it is his intention to de-ration eggs before next February.

22. Mr. Hurd

asked the Minister of Food if a decision on the egg control scheme has been reached.

24 and 25. Mr. J. T. Price

asked the Minister of Food (1) what decision he has reached regarding the continuation of egg rationing;

(2) if he has now made plans to ensure a more satisfactory distribution of all the available egg supply.

30. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

asked the Minister of Food what changes he proposes to make in the present system of distributing eggs.

Major Lloyd George

The Government have had under review the present arrangements for the distribution of eggs with particular attention to the maintenance of the principles of Part 1 of the Agriculture Act. 1947.

The system of allocation is not well suited to current conditions, and has come under severe criticism on the ground that eggs are escaping from control in quantities which make it impossible to secure equitable distribution of the whole supply. This unsatisfactory state of affairs can only be brought to an end and the consumer given access to all the eggs available by creating a market in eggs.

The Government have therefore decided that the allocation and price control of eggs shall cease next spring. As a consequence, the subsidy must be eliminated. Moreover, some increase in price is inevitable if more eggs are to find their way into the shops.

The working out of appropriate longterm arrangements for the orderly marketing of eggs must take some time, and it is necessary to proceed by stages. At the first stage, the Ministry of Food will continue to be the sole importer of eggs, and will also be responsible for carrying out the Government's obligation to home-producers under the Agriculture Act.

My agricultural colleagues and I will enter immediately upon discussions with the representatives of the National Farmers' Unions and other interests with a view to maintaining orderly marketing of eggs in this interim period and to the establishment as soon as possible of a settled arrangement (including scope for a Producers' Marketing Board) for the implementation of Part 1 of the Agriculture Act, 1947.

Miss Burton

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that, although he may save £22 million in subsidies, this means that the housewife will receive less than ever before? Does he also realise that the price will rise to such an extent that old age pensioners will not be able to obtain any eggs at all?

Why did he not try to work out a better system of distribution? Would he not agree that if he had wiped out the basic poultry feeding ration and given all the poultry feedingstuffs to each farmer in proportion to the number of eggs taken to egg packing stations this black market would have been defeated?

Major Lloyd George

I do not agree with the hon. Lady with regard to the price or with regard to eggs not being available. The fact of the matter is that at the moment the number of shell eggs available in this country is actually greater than the number before the war yet the number available in the shops is very much less. I am perfectly satisfied, after very careful investigation, that to continue a system of control which has broken down would not bring the eggs into the shops.

Mr. Webb

Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman realise that this deplorable decision will cause anxiety not only among housewives and consumers but among farmers and those engaged in the trade? Why has he failed to carry out effective measures to bring the black market to an end? Why has he failed to relate the supplies of very expensive dollar imports of maize and other feedingstuffs to the actual number of eggs we get from these producers? Is not that the obvious way of dealing with this matter? Why has the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not done that?

Why, at the same time, has the Minister not devised some plan for giving the invalids and children the extra priority supplies of eggs to which they are entitled under the present scheme?

Major Lloyd George

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's first question, in which he asked why I had not done something about the black market, he has much more experience than I have had in this matter. Why did he not do something? I am doing the only thing possible. The only way to kill a black market is to have a free market.

It is easy enough for the right hon. Gentleman to talk, but he should know that there are about 350,000 producers of eggs in this country, and he knows perfectly well from his own experience that he was quite unable to cope with that black market from his own Department. I, therefore, do not propose to continue a control that is quite ineffective.

Mr. Webb

What does the Minister propose to do about these priority classes of eggs and about maintaining guaranteed prices to egg producers? May I ask what his answer will be to the National Farmers' Union about the orderly market arrangements which they want? He has just discarded all that. Is he prepared to throw this open to a free market when eggs will be 8d., 10d., or even 1s., in the worst part of the year and ordinary householders will not be able to obtain eggs at all?

Major Lloyd George

Nobody on earth can deal with a plan on the basis that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting. He is exaggerating grossly. With regard to the National Farmers' Union, if he will do me the honour of reading my answer tomorrow he will see that negotiations are taking place on all these things as soon as this statement has been made.

With regard to priority classes, I have no doubt at all that during ordinary periods there will be no difficulty whatever in meeting the full requirements, and in cases where there are difficulties with shortages of supply I am going to enter into negotiations and discussions immediately on the matter.

Mr. Nabarro

While thanking my right hon. and gallant Friend for his welcome statement and the salutary steps that he is taking to restore freedom to the egg trade, may I ask him whether he is able at this juncture to give an assurance with regard to the reduction of the exorbitant charge of £1,300,000 per annum which has resulted from this bureaucracy in the shell eggs industry in the last few years?

Mr. Price

How long has it been a principle of government in this ancient democracy that, providing there are sufficient law breakers in the land, the law is abandoned? Is this not the most scandalous piece of class warfare that we have seen for a long time?

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman give a categorical assurance that the price of an egg will not go up to 10d. within the next 12 months, as I forecast last week when I put that figure to him?

Major Lloyd George

I certainly say that there is no reason why in ordinary times the price should be much up at all, and I should be very surprised indeed if they reached the figure which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has suggested.

Mr. Hurd

Can we take it that while any producer will be free to sell direct to the consumer the Government guaranteed price will continue to be paid through the packing stations on eggs that are going into the shops, and will the Minister also give an assurance that he will do his utmost to get more imported eggs available in the shops during next winter?

Major Lloyd George

The Government are responsible for the guarantee as laid down. As for imports, there is one thing with which I am satisfied. There is a much better indication from some of our suppliers, and I am satisfied that with a free market there will be much more coming in.

Mr. Willey

Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman realise that it is a bad precedent for the Government to be blackmailed by the black market? Does he not concede that the only grounds for de-rationing are adequate supplies?

Major Lloyd George

The difference between the hon. Gentleman and myself is that he believes in controls and I believe in supplies. He knows perfectly well that there is no alternative to what I have done.

Mr. Webb

On a point of order. Obviously this is a matter of very serious public importance and we cannot pursue it through Question and answer. Since neither the Leader of the House nor any senior representative of the Government Whips Office is present, may I ask the Minister of Food whether he is able to give an assurance now that we shall have an opportunity for a full debate on the whole of this question at the earliest possible moment?

Major Lloyd George

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot give such an assurance.

Mr. Shinwell

Mr. Speaker, are you aware that emerging from just behind your Chair is the Leader of the House? May we ask him the question?

Mr. Speaker

I was not aware of that, but what I am aware of is that we cannot debate this matter now.

Mr. Webb

Since the Leader of the House has arrived, may I ask him the question that I put to the Minister of Food?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman cannot ask a question on business arising out of these Questions on eggs. I understood from the Minister that these changes will take place some time in the spring. I have no doubt that an opportunity can be found to debate them.

11. Mr. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Food what is the time-span between shell eggs being laid and arriving in the hands of the consumers; and what steps he is taking to reduce the time-span and increase the freshness of shell eggs.

Major Lloyd George

On average, something between two and two and a half weeks. As regards the second part of the Question, I would refer my hon. Friend to the statement I made earlier.

Mr. Nabarro

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware that the statement which he has made today will undoubtedly lead within a measurable space of time to more, fresher and better eggs?

12 and 13. Mr. Dodds

asked the Minister of Food (1) to give reasons for the unsatisfactory egg allocations to the public, in view of the fact that the fowl population increased from 63,484,000 in June, 1951, to 64,538,000 in June, 1952;

(2) what is the explanation for 133 million fewer eggs having been received by packing stations during the first nine months of this year, as compared with a similar period in 1951, in view of an increase in the fowl population.

Major Lloyd George

The numbers of fowls quoted by the hon. Member are for England and Wales, but the reduction in the number of eggs is for the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom fowl population figures for June, 1951, and June, 1952, were 90,067,000 and 89,822,000, respectively, but in the same period the numbers of adult birds, which provide the eggs, fell by more than 2 million. Some reduction in the number of eggs was therefore, to be expected.

Mr. Dodds

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman not aware that the figures I have given were supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture in August, and as there has been a big increase in young birds which will be laying in October or November, should there not now be a big increase of eggs available to the public, and not less?

Major Lloyd George

I think the hon. Gentleman did not quite catch the first part of my answer. The figures he quoted were for England and Wales, whereas it is the United Kingdom figures that matter from our point of view. There is an actual drop in the United Kingdom figures, although there is an increase in the English and Welsh figures.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say what the packing stations referred to in Question No. 13 are going to do between now and the spring when the present moribund system of egg control comes to an end?

Major Lloyd George

We will carry on as before.

14. Mr. Dodds

asked the Minister of Food how many prosecutions have been instituted by his Department for black market egg offences since 1st June; and with what result.

Major Lloyd George

Between 1st June and 31st October, 1952, 170 persons were prosecuted for illegal transactions in eggs and 165 of these were convicted. Fines totalling £1,365 10s., with £260 costs, were imposed.

Mr. Dodds

In view of the colossal scale on which the black market is being carried on, do these figures in themselves not show that the Minister, by his inactivity, is largely responsible for the position which he has now got to face? Is it not a fact that there should be more enforcement officers and not less? His inactivity has led to this state of affairs which is impossible.

Major Lloyd George

I am satisfied that if the hon. Gentleman had his way there would be more enforcement officers than hens.

Mr. Assheton

Would my right hon. and gallant Friend agree that the number of eggs depends on the amount of food which the hens get, and not on the number of hens?

Mr. Hobson

Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that he could have avoided this black market by the rationing of feedingstuffs according to the number of eggs arriving at the packing stations? He promised to do so in March last year, and he also promised that he would have an inquiry and consult with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on this specific point.

Major Lloyd George

As a matter of fact, about 60 per cent. of home-produced eggs come from general farms. I have looked at this matter very carefully and am satisfied that this action would have only very small results, if any at all.

Mr. Dodds

In view of the unsatisfactory conspiracy, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter on the Adjournment.