HC Deb 21 January 1953 vol 510 cc367-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, to the officers and staff of the House for keeping them at this late hour, and I would not have done so had the subject matter that I wish to raise this evening not been one of supreme importance.

The reason why I am raising the question of the non-take-up of rations tonight is because for some weeks past many of my hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), and I have been trying to ascertain from the Minister to what extent there has been a failure on the part of people to take up their rations of food. By Question and answer it is difficult to get full details and to get from the Minister an indication of what is in his mind on this matter.

On 15th December last I asked a Question with regard to the latest figures of the non-take-up of the meat ration. I was amazed, as I am sure were many hundreds of thousands of other people, to learn from the Minister that for the month of November 2,318,000 meat rations had not been taken up. That, roughly, is an average of 580,000 2s. meat rations per week. I asked the Minister to give the cash value and the tonnage weight and he informed me that it was 1,000 tons in weight and £232,000 sterling.

The important thing I want the Minister to understand is that those were the latest official figures of the meat not claimed or not required by the butchers. In fact, he stated that this was the meat that had been refused by the butchers because they could not sell it. Every hon. Member in the House knows, and every housewife in the poorer areas of this country knows, that a large number of meat rations are being supplied in addition to the normal ration to those who are willing and able to pay more to take up more than their ration.

The astonishing thing is that this fall in the take-up of the meat ration only started when the effect of the Budget began to be felt, because it was round about August of last year that the non-take-up was gradually shown. In the six weeks prior to the August holiday, with the price of meat being raised by 4d. per lb., we found that with the increased ration and because of the price many ordinary working-class families were in the position of not being able to afford to take their rations.

Some of my hon. Friends have said that this has affected old-age pensioners. I assure the House that it is not old-age pensioners alone who cannot afford to take their rations. There are now many of the lower paid workers who cannot take their rations of meat, bacon and, in some instances, butter, and there are many thousands of dock workers—I represent a dock-working area, and perhaps the Minister knows that some 20,000 dock workers are unemployed—who, on £4 a week, find that it is impossible to take up their rations.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)


Mr. Lewis

The hon. Member differs, but the Minister has admitted that in August, 1,848,000 rations were unclaimed; and in September the figure had gone up to 2,101,000. This takes no account of the extras that some people are buying over and above their normal ration, which would, in fact, show a bigger deficit—

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Lewis

I am sorry, I cannot give way. I have a lot to say and I want to give the Minister an opportunity to reply.

The bacon position is even worse. What is really disgusting is the announcement made by the Minister that as from 25th January he is to allow uncooked gammon rashers to be sold off the ration. What will happen—what is, in fact, happening now—is that it will be only the well-to-do and the better-off sections of the community, and some of the luxury hotels, who will be able to buy up this better type of bacon, which is, I suggest, the only bacon that is worth having and is worth the money. Most of the cheaper bacon is so inferior, even at the high cost that the consumer has to pay, that many people are finding That it is not worth the money that they are asked to pay for it. Since the price went up from 4s. 1d. to 5s. 9d. per lb., last October, there are many thousands who now cannot afford to buy the gammon rasher. Many families cannot afford to take even what might be termed the cheaper cuts, which the average worker used to purchase and which have gone up by an average of 5d. per lb. The Minister himself has admitted that the non-take-up of bacon, so far as his official figures are concerned, was 10 per cent., or nearly 1,000 tons a week, which is the equivalent of 7 million ration books, for the period which I have quoted. That can only be explained away because of the cost.

When the Minister was asked to explain this in the House on 15th December, he said that the reason was that the lowest take-up of bacon is in the highest income group and the highest take-up is in the lower income group."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December, 1952; Vol. 509, c. 951.] I have never heard anything so ridiculous. If the Minister really believes that those who are getting more money are the ones who are not taking up their ration of bacon, he might suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that his right hon. Friend should advise employers generally to give everybody on increase in pay and put them all into the higher income group; and when everyone is in the higher income group we will not need to import so much bacon, and we can then cut down on our imports and save dollars. The Minister himself has said that it is the higher income groups which are in the position of taking up less bacon. But I have here bundles of letters and correspondence—some of which I have sent to the Minister—which disprove that statement.

I could read a whole host of letters from ordinary working-class housewives who tell me that they cannot afford to take up their rations, but there is not time to do that. There is the case of the housewife with three ration books who is very concerned about the rise in the cost of food. She does not draw all her bacon entitlement, nor fats, and she has had to cut down on milk. I could quote from many letters received from my own constituents and from other parts of the country as well.

I say, and I think that it has been proved, that the price of bacon is such that the lower income groups, and even those on medium levels, cannot afford it. Those people cannot afford 5s. 9d. a lb. for the gammon and 4s. 7d. for the back rashers. They have to have the 2s. a lb. stuff which the Ministry calls "tibbs." I wonder if the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary has seen any of that? I have taken the trouble to get some of that bacon, and if it is the sort of stuff which it is suggested should be purchased by the lower income groups, then no wonder it is not being taken up. It is nothing but fat. This is the ration being allowed to the lower income groups, while the gammon, which the Minister is going to deration, will go to those who can afford it.

Mr. H. Nicholls

What about the cost-of-living index?

Mr. Lewis

Perhaps the hon. Member would like to know that I have received from the catering trade employers—and they can hardly be called supporters of the Labour Party—a very interesting document. I do not know if the hon. Member has had a copy. If so, he will see that in the list for one year, from December to December, almost every type of food commodity, including the rationed goods, has risen in price from 5 to as much as 98 per cent.; and that has been while, throughout the world generally, food prices have been falling.

The point I make is that this Government fought the last election on the claim that they would bring prices down. That they would reduce the cost of living, and make more food available and make it available more cheaply. People cannot now afford to buy their bacon, or their meat, and many are not taking butter or cheese. It would appear, as one of my correspondents has said, that the Tories are trying to get back to the "good old days" of the inter-war period.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance that it is not the intention of the Government to ration by the purse rather than by the book or to make food so dear that the people cannot eat properly. If so, we shall go back to the days of the 'thirties when, as Lord Boyd Orr, who knows something of this subject, pointed out, over a third of our people were not receiving an adequate standard of food for their sustenance. If the Minister can give us an assurance that it is his intention to see that the people get not only their fair rations but at prices which they are able to afford, he will really have done something for the people of this country.

12.6 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) seems to be under the impression that if he states his case with sufficient vigour that vigour will be mistaken for veracity of fact. He has committed himself to a number of statements which are completely at variance with the statistics which have been compiled by consecutive Governments, whatever their party. He said that the majority of the population —the lower and medium income groups—are, as a result of this Government's action, less able to buy their rationed foods.

Let us examine what, in fact, happened last year in terms of the cost-of-living index. The retail prices index rose, during 1952, by 4.5 per cent. The index of wage rates rose by 5.5 per cent. National Assistance scales rose by 17 per cent., widows' pensions by 25 per cent., sickness benefit by 25 per cent., unemployment benefit by 25 per cent., industrial insurance benefit by 22 per cent., retirement pensions 25 per cent., family allowances 60 per cent., and those figures ignore the £228 million which, in a full year, is being returned to the pockets of the people by the modification of the incidence of Income Tax.

As the hon. Gentleman has been putting the matter on a party basis, may I point out that if he likes to compare what happened in 1952 with what happened in 1951, in the latter year the retail prices index, all items, rose by 11 per cent. and the index of wage rates rose by 9.5 per cent. Although it is convenient to ignore the statistics which his Government used, now that those statistics do not serve the political purposes of the hon. Member, the facts are on record. They show that last year there was not only a much smaller rise in the cost of living, but proportionately larger cash resources were available for all purposes than in the previous year. The Government's policy of seeing that people can afford to buy the things they need finds expression in these figures.

Let me now pass to some of the more particular points that the hon. Member raised. He raised the question of the deficit of take-up in the meat ration. He gave the figures as approximately 2⅓ million. I am glad that he, unlike some of his colleagues, had the honesty to state that that was a four-week period, and proceeded to divide it by four to get his figure of 580,000. That is more than his hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) did when he said the figure was 2 million.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

If the Minister will look at the OFFICIAL REPORT he will see that I expressly quoted the reply that the Minister gave; I expressly referred to the four-weekly period and made the division.

Dr. Hill

If the hon. Gentleman will consult the OFFICIAL REPORT and will read the debate on the Prayer in question he will find that the 2 million was quoted by him, and I had to draw his attention to the arithmetic. As for his right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill), in questioning the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday she asked: Is the Chancellor of the Exchequer aware that the Minister of Food admitted in November that more than 2 million meat rations had not been taken up by the poorest in the country…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th January, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 3.] Crystalline truth from the Opposition Front Bench! The truth is that on the hon. Member's figures, which he accurately stated, in the period in question the weekly deficit of take-up was 580,000, or 1.4 per cent. of the rationed meat issued in this country. If the hon. Member likes comparisons, the deficit in the take-up in that period was only the tiniest of a fraction larger than in the same period a year before, prior to any increase in the price of meat.

I want to deal particularly with the bacon story. The bacon ration falls from 5 oz. to 4 oz. as from the coming week-end, having been 5 oz. since March, 1952. At the same time, uncooked gammon passes from the ration to be available off the ration. The inference has been drawn that that step is a deep-laid, cunning device to serve the purposes of the wealthy. If that were true, this would be a permanent reduction of the ration. The reduction is for four weeks, and in the absence of some unexpected development the ration will be restored to 5 oz. on 22nd of February.

Gammon cooked and uncooked will stay off the ration. The hon. Member described gammon as if it were a perquisite of the rich. The plain truth is that the uncooked gammon was not being taken up sufficiently on the ration. People could get their ration in other forms of bacon which they preferred. Therefore, we took the commonsense step of putting uncooked, with cooked, gammon, off the ration.

The hon. Member stated his estimate of the deficit as, I think, 7 million rations. Let me give him the figures which will be given in answer to a Question he has put down. These are the weekly averages for the four-week period which ended on 27th December. The figure of rations not taken up in that period is 2,270,000, or 5 per cent. In the period before, it was between 10 and 11 per cent., and in the period before that, it was about 9½ per cent.

If one goes back to the period which ended on 26th January, 1952, under the old prices, one finds that the amount not taken up was 9 per cent. But as from 5th October, the date when the price of bacon except gammon went up by an average of 5d. per lb., 2,000 tons of boiled ham have been available and sold weekly—11,000,000 rations of boiled ham a week extra to the ration. If some people have preferred boiled ham to their ration of bacon, so be it. As one reviews the last 15 months, one finds the figures going up and down, usually between 90 and 100 per cent., regardless of price. The hon. Member must give up the attempt to attach the figures to the particular political argument which he wants to put at the moment.

I have already shown what the position is in the case of meat. In general, the take-up of other rationed articles—butter, cheese, sugar—approaches 100 per cent., as would be expected. I am not claiming any particular virtue for that. If one puts the ration down low enough, of course the take-up becomes 100 per cent. But when one begins to put the ration up, for example to 5 oz. in the case of bacon, and when boiled ham is freely available off the ration, of course the better consumer choice may result in a lower take-up of the ration.

When we examine the figures for cheese—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman mentioned cheese—we find the situation that the take-up in terms of deliveries—the form in which the hon. Member put his questions—was 3 per cent. below the full entitlement in the last period of last year, 2 per cent. below in the period before that, and 3½ per cent. below in the period before that. As a matter of fact, 20 per cent., or, to give the exact figure, 2,000 tons of the 12,600 tons issued weekly goes in the 12 oz. rations for special groups and a further 16 per cent. goes to catering establishments. This means that the deficit, such as it is—it is of the order of 1 or 2 per cent.—is not necessarily a deficit in the take-up of the ration by the individual.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that these figures are delivery figures. I admit his point that what is delivered to the shop is not necessarily distributed according to the ration documents of customers. That is why we have the National Food Survey, another set of figures which he is doing his best delicately and skilfully to dodge and the parentage of which he is anxious to deny.

The National Food Survey is only available to the third quarter of last year. In due course it will become available for the last quarter. Then I have no doubt the hon. Member will praise or curse it according to whether he finds the figures useful or not. But, as far as our information goes, based on family budgets, based on a system of ascertainment approved and used by his colleagues, in the case of bacon in the third quarter of last year the take-up was highest in the lowest income group. I am not pretending that that means that because one is poor one is better able to buy one's bacon ration. Has it not occurred to the hon. Member that there are other considerations at work, and that if one is hard up bacon is one of the most useful forms of utility food that can be used at several different meals? All I am saying is that the statistical facts show that the take-up is highest in the poorest group.

I draw no powerful inferences from that. All I am seeking to do is to resist the argument—which comes again and again—that because these figures do not serve the purpose of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues then they cannot be true. These figures express the statistical position.

Therefore, I would say to the hon. Member, when he is expounding the problem let him tell the whole truth. Let him tell the truth that is embodied in a cost-of-living index which last year rose less than the index of wage rates. Let him compare that with the last year of his own Government when the cost of living in terms of the retail price index rose nearly three times as much as in 1952 and at the same time rose more steeply than the index of wage rates.

Of course, we have many complex problems here. There are many reasons why people are not taking up at all times the same level of rations. I do not deny that there is a problem, but I do deny and resist this pretence, unrelated to the facts, which lies at the basis of the campaign conducted by the hon. Gentleman and his friends.

Mr. Lewis

Would the hon. Gentleman be willing to come into my division and speak with me to the dockers there on this particular subject?

Dr. Hill

If the hon. Member will extend to me any such invitation I will consider it on its merits in relation to other pressing and possibly not less important duties.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes past Twelve o'Clock, a.m.