§ 11.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Meat (Rationing) (Amendment No. 3) Order, 1953 (S.I., 1953, No. 1024), dated 30th June, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th June, be annulled.This is an amending Order which came into operation on 5th July. As the Explanatory Note says, it frees from rationing any surplus meat held by retailers out of their allocations after having satisfied the lawful requirements of their registered customers and establishments and certain manufacturers whom they are authorised to supply.
This Order follows the Rationing (Amendment No. 2) Order which increased the ration from 2s. to 2s. 4d. as from 14th June, 1953, and is part of a wide operation by the Ministry of Food. They suspended the surcharge on the butchers; in other words, they increased the profit margin of the butchers by 2d. in every £. They withdrew the fat allowances, they adjusted the wholesale pork prices, they said that allocations should include 5 per cent. of imported mutton, and that if the butchers refused to take any particular part of the meat allocated to them then the Ministry of Food would withhold supplies.
1413 In short, this Order is part of a fairly large-scale operation by the Ministry of Food, and it, together with the other steps I have mentioned, have led to a vigorous controversy. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary—I am glad to see that the Minister is joining us again tonight—will be anxious to make a statement about the situation which has arisen. Indeed, it has caused a very lively controversy in the Press. The "Sunday Express," for instance, said last Sunday:Major Lloyd George is behaving in a manner which brings the Tories everywhere into ridicule. The Government must remove Major Lloyd George to another post before the women voters have a chance to remove its majority. He would make an excellent Lord Privy Seal.Remembering the circumstances in which the Lord Privy Seal received that office, when the responsibility of the Ministry of Health was removed from him after he had bungled the business of charges, I cannot quarrel with the suggestion made by the "Sunday Express." If the advice were followed I do not think that the House would be any the worse off.
In particular, the butchers complain about the action taken as mailed fist tactics by the Ministry of Food. The obligation of the butchers is to carry out the directions of the Ministry of Food and, whatever their personal views may be, to behave in a responsible manner. I would not for a moment suggest that they are entitled to take the action that they have taken in some parts of the country and have threatened to take in others. I have had experience of meeting the butchers through their representative organisations and I have found them responsible people. I can only think that they must have been treated in a flat-footed sort of way.
By and large, the butchers are rather sympathetic to the Government. Why should they seek to embarrass the Government? They must have some real complaint. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us why the butchers are making this complaint, why they had not been properly consulted about this Order and why the Ministry have made a hash of it. However, I agree with the Minister that so long as rationing remains it is the butchers' responsibility to distribute the supplies fairly, and that whatever their complaint and however justified 1414 they may feel in having a complaint against the Minister they ought not to resort to this method of bringing it home to the people.
In their statement about this Order, the Ministry said that this arrangement was being made to meet the special and temporary conditions in the limited period when heavy supplies are available. I want to deal with the circumstances in which the Ministry think it right to resort to the action that is allowed under the Order. We cannot say that there is an abundance of meat or that there has been for any time. I know there is a story that we have never had so much meat as we have had this year—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—but that, as Lord Woolton would say, is untrue.
As apparently, some hon. Members seem to be misinformed I will give the figures briefly. These are the supplies of meat this year compared with those for 1950, which was a good post-war year, although far from providing adequate meat supplies: January, 1950, 35,700 tons; January, 1953, 30,200 tons; February, 1950, 36,900 tons; February, 1953, 31,700 tons; March, 1950, 36,600 tons; March, 1953, 31,200 tons; April, 1950, 35,600 tons; April, 1953, 30,400 tons; May, 1950, 36,700 tons; May, 1953, 34,300 tons. These are the latest figures. This is not a question of abundant meat supplies embarrassing the Ministry, but of there being exceptional supplies of unreasonable and unsatisfactory meat.
That is the problem. That is why the Minister is now known as the "Minister of Fat and Gristle." It is alleged that we are getting exceptional amount of fat pork from Eire. If the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us, I should like to know what he is doing about the price schedules to tackle this problem. There is Australian ewe mutton. We have a glut of stuff, too tough to eat and too old to be profitable to keep the sheep for wool. This is the position about Australian mutton.
We have imported this year, so far, 100 times as much Australian mutton as we did last year. I do not want to mislead hon. Members opposite, but this is 100 times more than last year because we imported practically no Australian mutton then. We imported practically 1415 no Australian mutton the year before. In fact, we imported last year, only one-fifth of the lamb from Australia than we are importing this year. From these facts, what is obvious? That we are getting ancient Australian ewe mutton. I have said this time after time in the House and it has been denied by the Minister. But, from these figures, is it not obvious that we are getting an exceptional amount of Australian mutton and that Australian mutton is exceptionally ancient?
It is necessary to establish this point because it has been disputed by the Minister and it is partly the cause of the trouble between him and the butchers, who have some experts on meat. I do not want to quote Conservative newspapers. I have looked through them and they could have provided many quotations, but I turn to the Liberal Press. The "News Chronicle," on Monday, said:Even the Zoo says 'No' to ewe mutton.The "Manchester Guardian," which is a very sober paper, has carried out scientific inquiries into the quality of ewe mutton. This is what they reported, on Monday:We tried roasting it, and the fat was so yellow when it emerged from the oven that we thought for a moment we'd been given horsemeat by mistake. But no horse could be as tough as this. The texture was stringy and the total effect was as if we had tried roasting a cricket boot. We cut inches of fat off the outside to start with but still the whole joint was shot through with layers of it. Total cost eight and six—and only enough for one meal for three people.I know it is said by the experts who advise the Ministry of Food that this is not the way one ought to treat ewe mutton.
The "Manchester Guardian," pursuing its inquiries today, takes it along other lines. It widens the scope of the inquiries and states:'Like any old leather it was, and even after two hours of steam roasting the cat wouldn't eat it,' said the cook. 'Since I've been in the trade I've never seen such shocking stuff,' said the wholesale buyer. 'People just aren't buying it,' said the butcher.Following their earlier experiments, they tried another experiment and report:By way of experiment a large quantity of this ewe meat was bought, put into a 1416 large pot, and boiled for a couple of hours. A thick layer of grease settled on the surface, for none had been removed from the joint, but beneath this the meat, admittedly a lot smaller, did not look at all bad. On removing it from the pot not only did a knife cut through it but, even though there was a total absence of taste, it was edible and nothing like so bad as butchers, books and meat buyers had led one to believe.I am told that this morning, the B.B.C, helpful as usual, said that one can make a palatable dish if one obtained ewe mutton and cooked it in wine, red or white. At any rate, I have the Parliamentary Secretary with me now—he probably has not tasted ewe mutton—but he must agree that he is misinformed, while the butchers and consumers are right that this is a poor quality Australian ewe mutton.
I want to go a little further in tracing its source because I want to know what the Ministry did about it. We cannot blame bulk purchase for this. This Government endorsed an agreement committing us for 15 years. They endorsed it, and the Parliamentary Secretary cannot get out of it by saying that this is bulk purchase. He cannot say that this would be changed if we could resort to private buying, because this agreement commits us for 15 years, and if we resort to private buying we are still bound to take all the Australian exportable surplus. Minimum prices are fixed under the agreement.
I want to know the circumstances surrounding the question of this mutton. This agreement provides that the prices for Australian mutton will be calculated to encourage the production of first-quality mutton, with an appropriate differential for lower grades. As for the lower grades, it says that regard must be had to the differentials which would obtain on a free market. The Minister knew well enough when he was negotiating this year that if he were taking the exportable surplus he was taking ancient ewe mutton. We should like to know what he paid for it. What business acumen has he shown? Or are the Australians thinking that they have done very well at the Ministry's expense?
I have described what must be commonly accepted to be the condition of this meat, which we could have known, by using a little common intelligence, at the time we were discussing the prices. 1417 On the prices we have agreed for this year, we have agreed to a 12½ per cent. increase for mutton from New Zealand—I am not complaining about that—and a 16.6 per cent. increase in the price of mutton from Australia. Why did we do that? I want to know these facts so that we know what course the Ministry ought to take about the sale of this ewe mutton to our consumers.
But this does not go to the root of the problem, because on this Australian ewe mutton the Ministry of Food are making about 200 per cent. profit. That is according to the figures given by the Australians of the price at which they are selling it. They complain that the Ministry are selling it to the domestic consumer at a price which on the face of it—according to their calculations— gives the Ministry this wide margin of profit. I am only asking for a little reasonableness and business acumen.
Surely, if that is the case, the only thing for the Ministry to do is to have a look at the price. What would any butcher do? He would, of course, look at the price. What I ask the Minister to do is this: to realise that this Order cannot solve his problems. The only way in which he can solve the problem is, as I have said time after time in the House, to alter the price and to realise that this meat must be sold cheaper.
I do not want to exaggerate the matter and I do not think the butchers do themselves any good by exaggerating it, and that is why I relied on the factual inquiry of the "Manchester Guardian," which is a sober newspaper. But we must realise that everyone knows that this is poor quality mutton. If the Minister is to sell it without difficulty, he must reduce the price.
I appreciate the Minister's dilemma well enough. I do not blame him. I blame the Treasury, and they should be represented here tonight. It is no good reducing the price of mutton and putting up the price of beef. If he does that he will increase the differential and make it more difficult for ordinary people to buy decent meat. What we must do is to say that these are exceptional circumstances; the Ministry have made an awful bloomer; they should not have bought this meat at this price; they should have got it at a knock-down price, and that, under the circumstances the subsidy will 1418 have to be allowed to run up a little to cover the price decrease on the mutton.
The Ministry have caused this reaction this week because they have tackled this matter in the wrong way. The only way to tackle it—and I hope we shall get agreement on this—is by reducing the price of this mutton, and doing so without affecting other prices. We should allow the subsidy to run up to cover the mistakes of the Ministry, and the subsidy will have to bear the loss.
This Order, obviously, cannot meet the difficulty. I think the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that he failed absolutely to answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee). The butcher gets 7 per cent. of free meat, but when will he decide that he has a surplus on the ration? If he is fair, he will do so only at the end of the week. Is there, then, late on Saturdays, to be a sale of the meat left over? That has not happened this week. Anybody can go to the butcher on Monday—if he is not a wage earner; wage earners are penalised—and get all the meat he wants, because the butcher is allowed a surplus, and from a business point of view he cannot wait until he knows what are the demands of his registered customers.
§ Mr. Willey
Apparently the hon. Gentleman does not know that wage earners buy their meat at the end of the week, after they have received their wages.
§ Mr. Ralph Assheton (Blackburn, West)
I can tell the hon. Member that in Blackburn, at any rate, people are not so "close" as that.
§ Mr. Willey
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is so out of touch with the people of Blackburn.
I do not want to be led into speaking too long. I only wish to say that it is quite clear—and I think the whole House is with me—[Laughter]. Yes, because it is quite clear that the Minister has made a mistake. He should not now try to remedy that mistake by making the situation worse by increasing the differential between ewe mutton and beef. He ought to sell this ewe mutton at a businesslike, 1419 commercial price, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to say that the subsidy should be allowed to increase to cover that deficiency.
§ 11.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)
I beg to second the Motion.
At this time of night I have some inhibition about keeping the House sitting. I shall try to be as brief as I can and not repeat the excellent arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has put forward. I hope it can be assumed that the Minister is glad to have this opportunity to make a statement about the difficulties of the meat situation at the present time.
The purpose of the Order against which we are praying tonight is admirable, in a general sense. It is to permit the retailers to do what they have not been able to do since 1940—to sell meat off the ration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear,"] Hon. Members opposite might wait a moment. That is a very fine aim, and every hon. Member on this side would welcome it, under certain circumstances. We are all very anxious for this to be done—when we reach the point where the supply of the right type of commodity meets the demand. Then it will be a good thing, but not until then. That state of affairs has not yet come about.
The Minister himself has told us from time to time, and as recently as 24th June this year, that before supply meets demand we need a further 400,000 tons of meat a year to meet the country's requirements. The partial derationing Order which has now come into being does not meet the situation. The partial derationing is now ordered not because we have enough meat of the right kind to give everybody all that they want, but to cover up the criticisms which the Minister is receiving from the trade and from the consumer. The result is that a system has now been evolved by the Minister which is neither fair shares for all nor free enterprise.
The butcher is expected to give the consumer a free choice, whilst the Minister is telling the butcher that he has to take what is given to him or do without his allocation of meat altogether. This savours of dictatorship. I should not have thought it was the kind of thing 1420 to come from a Government Department in an Order to responsible members of the trade. It is not only dictatorship to the trade but is dictatorship to the consumer as to what the Ministry think he should eat.
The ration is at present 2s. 4d. and an extra 2d. worth of meat is given to the butcher. In my view, that is a complete acknowledgement that the meat which the Ministry are giving the butcher to meet his allocation is not sufficient, largely because of the quality and the wasteful meat which is being given to him. I assert that the 2s. 4d. ration is only being maintained by the use of poor quality meat. Without that type of meat, of whatever grade it may be, this ration would certainly not be met and it would be a very low ration indeed for this time of year.
What are the items about which the trade and the public are complaining? I hope that I am voicing the opinions of both of them from this side of the House. As my hon. Friend has said, we are getting this New Zealand and Australian ewe mutton, ewe mutton which has reached the great-grandmother stage.
§ Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)
Can the hon. Member say what proportion of the ewe mutton we are getting from Australia and New Zealand?
§ Mr. Royle
The present figure is stated to be about 5 per cent.
It is not only the New Zealand and Australian ewe mutton that is being complained about. The trade and the public are also complaining about very poor Argentine lamb, which really ought to be called mutton. They are also complaining about the excessively fat pork, which ought to be in the bacon factories and not in the butchers' shops. If we add those items together we are not considering 5 per cent. of the total allocation but something like 25 per cent., to use the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's own figure.
§ Major Lloyd George
The total of imported mutton is 5 per cent. It is not all ewe mutton. It is ewe mutton and wether.
§ Mr. Royle
Within the items I have mentioned I am not far short in suggestion that 25 per cent. is taken up with types of meat which are completely unsuitable. I know something about selling meat over the counter. I know what the public has to face, and I do not take back a single word.
The Minister says that there was as large a percentage of frozen mutton sold in 1950, as there is now. That is true, but it was a very different kind of mutton then.
§ Mr. Royle
I agree. When it is a question of bulk purchase we believe in it We know what we are doing. We buy the right types.
We all remember how, after the outbreak of the war in Korea, stockpiling of raw materials led to high prices. That applied to wool, with the result that Australian and New Zealand producers found it more profitable to keep the animals for the extra wool. That explains why, last year, the amount of ewe mutton from Australia and New Zealand was very small, and the result is that we are now getting these very old sheep. It is fair to level the criticism at the Ministry of Food that we are getting that type of mutton and that the Australians and New Zealanders have, to some extent, "pulled a fast one." There was ewe mutton on the market before and during the war, and during the whole of the control period, but it was always sold very differently, and more cheaply, and it mainly went for manufacture.
My hon. Friend mentioned what the producers in New Zealand were saying. I have in my hand a quotation from a speech made by Mr. Sydney Reeves, chairman of the Meat and Wholesale 1422 Section of the Federated Farmers in Wellington, New Zealand. He said that the United Kingdom Government had bought New Zealand ewe mutton at 5½d. per lb. The price the butchers of England are charged by the Ministry of Food is 1s. 2¾d. The consumer pays a little more than that for it, so that we can assume that the policy of the Tory Government is not only to take the subsidy from the consumers, but exploit them as well. I assert that nothing so bad as this type of mutton ever reached the tables of our people before the war or in the post-war years.
Argentine lamb is not nearly as bad as the ewe mutton, but it is arriving in the shops in a shocking condition. The Government took nine months to sign the Argentine Agreement. Where are those with the "know how," of whom we heard so much? Where is this rich red Plate beef about which so much was said at the 1950 Election? The Government have failed to send to the Argentine the men they talked about to carry out the negotiations, and they have proved themselves to be very bad buyers. Their deliveries at this time are falling short.
On the subject of wasteful pork, I suggest that no butcher in the country is able to make it meet the ration. These fat pigs should have been sent to the bacon factories—
§ Mr. Royle
Some of us know where we would like to send the hon. Gentleman. I am trying to make a serious speech, which is, I think, of importance to the Ministry.
These fat pigs should have been sent to the bacon factories, and had that been done it would probably have been possible to clear bacon from the ration some time ago, and it would also have enabled bacon to be sold more cheaply because there would have been plenty of it. It would have been more honest to give a lower meat ration in qualities which are suitable rather than pretend to carry out a ridiculous promise which was made at the time of the Election.
I challenge the Minister to deny what I am saying now. So blatant were the promises of his party at the time of the Election that they were determined to 1423 show a faked increase at any cost, and what a cost. The lower paid workers cannot afford their ration and other people cannot eat it. The present 2s. 4d. is the equivalent of 1s. 11½d. in 1951, so that there is no improvement in quantity, and even that meat is useless for ordinary consumption. Hence this Order, which permits the sale of meat off the ration if a surplus exists.
Will the Minister tell us what is to happen under this arrangement? Has the butcher to sell his good meat from Tuesday to Friday and hold a mock auction on Saturday for the remainder, or has he to sell the good, bad and indifferent meat all the week, and, having served his registered customers with poor meat, sell his surplus good meat to people who can afford to buy it? My hon. Friend was perfectly right when he said that, in the main, the lower paid workers get their wages late in the week, and are the ones who will be at a disadvantage.
The organised meat trade is probably one of the most Tory-minded groups of people in the country. They have on the benches opposite four hon. Members who are honorary vice-presidents of the National Federation of Meat Traders. I am glad to see two present tonight; one is making a big noise from below the Gangway. He has held that position for many years and I am looking forward tonight to hearing what he has to say about the position and what one of his hon. Friends who is similarly placed has to say. I am not looking at the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro); the hon. Member to whom I refer knows and I hope he will take part tonight. One hon. Member who holds this exalted position brought into the House, and displayed, in 1951, a horrible example of frozen mutton. In butchers' terms that meat was angel's food compared with the meat which is being sold now.
I suppose that the hon. Members I have referred to have divided loyalties on this matter at the moment. The trade really believed they were in for a fine time when the Tory Government was elected. On the appearance of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food at their conference they sang:For he's a jolly good fellow.But I know that group of people. They have another song which they sing only 1424 at social functions and it ends with the words:… why was he born at all?That is the song the meat trade are singing about the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and the Parliamentary Secretary at this time. They are battered, they are bruised and they are bewildered. They are having to carry out a hybrid mongrel scheme that has been devised for them by the Minister—
§ Mr. Royle
While they and the Minister fight the poor consumer takes the count as the referee when two boxers go berserk. They are having poor meat at high prices and the consumer is suffering all the time. Tory Ministry meat breaks teeth at a time when the Tories have imposed a charge on dentures. The general public dare not gnash their teeth in wrath about the meat situation because they cannot afford new teeth.
The avowed intention of the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary is to kill their Ministry. If the aroma they are leaving in the nostrils of the consumer and the butcher is anything to go by, the Ministry are already in a very bad state. I am glad that my hon. Friends have an opportunity to express themselves on this matter and that the Minister has been given full opportunity of making a statement on what is a very serious situation.
§ 12.15 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)
I think it will be for the convenience of the House if I accept the suggestion that I should make a statement on the position in view of the many things which have been said over the past ten days. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was unusually objective in much of what he said, and I am grateful to him. But, naturally, towards the end of his speech, he slipped into his customary mis-use of statistics; I cannot imagine what happens to the hon. Gentleman when he sees statistics. In this case, he quoted figures for 1950, but he did not tell the House that that was the year when the Socialist Government dipped deep into stocks, with the result that early in 1951 the meat ration sank to the 1425 lowest level ever. On the question of bulk purchase, the hon. Gentleman said that the present Government signed the agreement with Australia; whereas, on reflection, he will recall that it was signed on behalf of his own Government by his right hon. Friend the Member for Brad ford, Central (Mr. Webb).
But I think it will serve the purpose of the House if I speak on the four main points raised—and I hope that hon. Members opposite will not accuse me of discourtesy if I make my statement in relation to the representations of the butchers themselves—by the butchers when they met my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister last Friday.
The first point was that the Ministry should withdraw its arbitrary instructions, as the butchers termed them. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North advised the butchers to support the Ministry, and in that he differed from his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle); although I imagine that it was then the voice of the butcher speaking, and not the voice of the hon. Member for Salford, West. The butchers claimed that they should have the right of refusal in respect of imported mutton. But, under a system of bulk purchase, and guaranteed prices to agriculture, the Minister is required to accept all home-killed meat, the exportable surplus of the southern Dominions, and that which arrives under agreement from South America.
This meat must come to him, and must be distributed by him. It comes in varying qualities and kinds, but under a system of bulk purchase, and control, and rationing, my right hon. and gallant Friend has no alternative whatever but to distribute what meat he receives, and distribute it as fairly as he can. I am making no party point whatever about this. It is his responsibility, placed on him, to see that the varying kinds and qualities are distributed in the same proportions to all the butchers of the country.
Of course this involves an interference with local preferences, and even with individual preferences, but it is the inevitable consequence of that system, whatever the merits or demerits of it may be. While this system lasts, there is no escape for a Minister—on whichever side of the 1426 House he may sit—who wishes to administer the scheme fairly. There is no escape from a distributive arrangement which requires each butcher to take the proportions of meat which are nationally applied, determined by the current supply.
This has obtained from the beginning of meat rationing, with one exception. Last November, it was possible, because of the conditions then existing, to relax this requirement for imported mutton only, allowing the butcher the option of taking imported mutton. It was thought at the time—and it proved right—that that optional system would take up the amount of imported mutton available. But, as the ration rose, so it became necessary to return to the common system which has obtained throughout, save for this one exception. Had we not returned to it, and had we continued the optional system, it would have meant that those butchers who were exercising their option to take the imported mutton would be required to take a disproportionately large amount.
Therefore, as from 5th July, we returned to the system which has obtained since the beginning, and that is what is described as an "ultimatum." I want to make it perfectly clear that when the relaxation—if I may so call it—was introduced in November last, it was plainly stated that it was for a time. Now that that relaxation has, in common fairness, had to go we hear such strong language as "ultimatum."
§ Dr. Hill
The hon. Gentleman for Salford, West used some other term to the same effect. We have heard it throughout the country during the past week and we have been told, for example, that the language employed was the language of an ultimatum. The language was plain English used by the Ministry, not to the butchers, but to its own officials operating the scheme; out of courtesy the butchers were sent a copy. But it was not language used to them.
The secretary of the butchers' Federation said that they had never seen an instruction like it. They have operated under such an instruction for 14 years, but now they say that they have never seen an instruction like it.
§ Dr. Hill
If the hon. Gentleman will wait a moment, I will come to his favourite subject.
The first point I want to make to the House—and I am grateful to the hon. Member who understands the obligations of the Minister under such a system—is that this is inevitably part of bulk purchase, control and rationing, and, secondly, that in this particular instance there has been no ultimatum, no new instructions and no bullying of the butchers, but that, in common fairness to butchers generally, there has been an end to a concession.
We are back to the common requirement that butchers all over the country shall take up, whether they like it or not, their fair proportions of the meat that is available. This is the result of the system of bulk purchase. While bulk purchase remains, it is clear from what we have heard over the past 10 days that it involves a serious limitation in both butcher and consumer choice. The only way out of such a difficulty is to end the system of bulk purchase. We are seeking to end this embarrassment as soon as we can by ending the whole system of bulk purchase, rationing and control.
Before developing that point further, I want to put a practical point. What would be the result of permitting butchers to decline the 5 per cent. of the total allocation which is mutton? The result would be that that mutton would go back into store and would come out again as a substantially higher proportion of a reduced meat ration at the end of the year.
We believe that it is not unreasonable that 5 per cent., rather more than 1d. of the ration of 2s. 4d., or, to take the ewe mutton figures, 3½ per cent. of the total, or 1d. of the 2s. 4d. ration, should be distributed now. We believe it wiser to do that now rather than leave it to accumulate to the end of the year. Pork cannot be stored for a long time so if it were not consumed now it would be wasted. It was the butchers who asked for more pork. The present percentage of pork in the total allocation is 7 per cent.
§ Dr. Hill
We had better avoid a technical discussion on the conversion of pork into bacon. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we have followed a bacon policy, and that we have in this country at present an adequate supply of bacon which has enabled us to distribute half the animal off the ration.
Let me proceed with my general argument. Some say, "If this can end only with rationing and control, why not do it now?" The butchers have been asking it. For example, Mr. Payne, of Clacton, has said, as published in the "Daily Express," that meat should be off the ration now. A meat trade representative, speaking to the same newspaper said:Probably the best course would be to deration.I notice that the President of Manchester Butchers' Association does not hold that view.
There are two real difficulties. The first is that we cannot yet be satisfied, nor is there any evidence to suggest to us, that there will be enough meat to permit derationing in the first six months of next year. I will not weary the House with what hon. Members know so well, that in the second six months of each year our grass-fed beasts go to slaughter. They know full well the comparison between the first six months and the second six months. My right hon. and gallant Friend is not prepared, unless he has evidence that there is an adequacy of meat, to undo the whole rationing system during a temporary period of adequacy, knowing of the probability that the next six months will not be one of such adequacy as to permit derationing.
We want to deration. My right hon. and gallant Friend has given many tokens of his determination to decontrol and deration wherever possible, but he is not going to do it unless he is fully satisfied that there is a sufficiency of meat throughout the whole year. Secondly—and this is a matter of profound importance to the whole House—everyone knows that the task that confronts the Government now is to devise a new system to satisfy the guarantees laid down in the Agriculture Act, 1947, and yet to provide a freedom which is consistent with those guarantees. That is a task of great complexity. Let no one who has 1429 any regard for the commitments which both parties have entered into in respect of the agricultural community, loosely cry "Deration now," because it can only be done by disregarding all those pledges. What is more, the butchers themselves have asked for nine months' notice of derationing and decontrol.
Let it be repeated that it is our objective to meet and solve these problems, and to bring bulk purchase, control and rationing to an end, and that we shall do it at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. Willey
We should get this clear. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is the intention of the present Government somehow or other to terminate their long-term bulk purchase contracts and agreements not only with Australia but with New Zealand?
§ Dr. Hill
I am telling the hon. Gentleman that it is our determination to bring bulk purchase, control, and rationing to an end at the earliest possible moment. I have used unambiguous words, and I repeat them for the sake of the hon. Gentleman. This is our difficulty, and let us face it. We are having to administer a system of rationing devised for scarcity during a temporary period of abundance. Our difficulty, despite all the theatrical expressions of the hon. Member for Salford, West, is one of abundance and we must bear it with fortitude.
Now I want to come to the question of ewe mutton. The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis), with his customary forthright frankness, gave the answer. It was Socialist ewe mutton. Perhaps pregnancy meant something different to a sheep when they were in office. Ewe mutton has been described as uneatable, it has been consigned to various places of various temperatures, and we are told that it is completely unsaleable. Mind you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that is not everyone's opinion. Let me quote from a letter sent to an hon. Friend of mine today, and which he passed on to me, from a firm of high repute in London which has many branches. I shall, no doubt, be asked the name of the firm and there is no reason why I should not give it. It is David Greig.
1430 The letter reads:In our opinion, far too much fuss is being created by the butchers over this meat. The mutton is not as bad as all that, and the amount is not more than a good butcher can handle. I think the trouble has arisen because all butchers have had far too easy a time and competition is now creeping back, thank goodness. We ourselves have taken the mutton, and were pleased to do so, and whatever the rest of the trade decide to do we ourselves will not take part in any action which is likely to embarrass the Ministry of Food. Of course, another part of the explanation is the housewife and the trade are now heartily sick of rationing.I will not pretend this is the best quality meat, because, it is not. At its worst, it is far from the best quality meat. But, to say that meat that is unfit is forced on the butchers is not true. The right hon. Member for Bradford, Central remembers the point in his day. There is an appeal by the butcher to the district meat agent and there is an appeal in the market. None of this is unfit for the ration, and much of it is excellent. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I have had any. Yes, I deliberately had some last Friday.
§ Dr. Hill
No. What has to be faced about this kind of meat is that it is more appropriate for the pot roast, for the Lancashire hot-pot, than it is for the week-end joint. One of the difficulties of these days of rationing and shortage is that inevitably people have come to think of their meat ration for use for the week-end roast. Let us get back to the days when some other forms of cheaper meat can be cooked over a longer time and which, with more art and skill, can be served for a mid-week meal. I made inquiries today and I find that ewe mutton is served upstairs in the Members' Dining Room, so that many hon. Members who are counterfeiting hostility over ewe mutton have tasted it time and time again.
There is a reduced demand for imported mutton, and one of the reasons is the campaign which has gone on over the past ten days. Of course, it sells less well now that a good supply of first-class meat is available—and that is the very crux of it; there is a growing supply of good meat available in the shops. There is a larger ration and, as a consequence, there is a falling demand for the cheaper meat of lower quality.
What is the remedy? I go some way with the hon. Member for Sunderland, 1431 North; if the poor quality meats are not selling well, the remedy is to lower the price. The hon. Member thinks it is possible to lower the price by increasing the meat subsidy, but he knows that that is inconsistent with the policy which has been adopted by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It comes about that such prices can, in fact, be lowered within the existing subsidy ceiling. At a time when we are hoping to work towards decontrol, and bearing in mind that a precursor of decontrol is the removal of consumer subsidy, it would be fantastic if we chose this moment to raise the subsidy.
§ Mr. Jack Jonesrose—
§ Dr. Hill
I cannot give way. I am going on with the point I am making. I want to announce certain price changes which are being made.
For some weeks we have been working on what the hon. Member for Sunderland, North will agree, I know, is the difficult task of altering the price schedule, and my right hon. and gallant Friend has now reached certain conclusions about what is possible. I will not give the full schedule details, which will be published tomorrow, but, as from 19th July, there is to be a reduction of 3d. a lb. for imported mutton and second quality home-killed mutton. When we bear in mind that the present price range is from 10d. to 2s., this means an average reduction of 20 per cent. in the price of imported mutton, and the new range will be between 7d. and 1s. 9d. For the summer months, the price of all qualities of pork will fall by 4d. a lb.
The compensating increases will be made in the price of first quality home-killed and chilled beef—not in the other qualities. The corresponding increase will be an average of 1¼d. a lb. Details of the distribution of the increases will be evident from the schedule published tomorrow. We believe that that is the commonsense way of dealing with the situation created by the abundance of meat.
I turn next to fat allowances. A great deal has been said on this subject. I notice that on 2nd July the London Meat Traders' Federation said that three things 1432 had upset the butchers. One was withdrawing the right to refuse imported mutton. I have dealt with that. Secondly, that the allowance given to butchers who trim the fat from over-fat meat is stopped and, thirdly, that the regrading panels are abolished.
The second statement is not true. What has happened in the case of fat pork is this. Whereas, in the past, there has been an ad hoc examination and often wrangling over the allowance to be made on each animal, the general principle which has now been adopted is that for animals over 140 lbs. there will be a reduction in the wholesale price, that reduction rising with rising weight. A different system has been adopted, costing the Ministry more, and thus amounting to an increased fat allowance for the butchers, although the method is different.
The third statement—that regrading panels have been abolished—is not true. Regrading panels are in existence today, although they do not now have to participate in wrangles about individual animals and carcases of pork, because they are covered by a simpler scheme which pays the butchers just as well.
§ Dr. Hill
That is true. They are experts on meat, appointed by the Ministry for the purpose. One of them is, in all cases, a butcher. The wrangles that have gone on in the case of individual animals have been bad enough, without putting the retail butchers in the invidious position of being on both sides of the fence for this purpose.
The amount of the mutton fat allowance is now ½d. instead of ¼d. a lb., and it applies not to a weight of 80 lb. but to 72 lb. A new instruction has been issued about the trimming of fat beef before allocation. In other words, we are doing our utmost to make it easier for the butchers to sell their meat. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North was very fair. He made reference to something in this offending circular which the butchers have not mentioned—the fact that surcharge has now disappeared, and that it is worth while to serve more meat.
1433 I want to refer to the position in Blackburn, which has concerned some hon. Members. What happened was that 60 pigs, of 120 lb. weight each, were rejected. They amounted to 4 per cent. of the allocation. Being of an average weight of 120 lb. each—an ideal weight—they fell below the 140 lb., so no fat allowance was made. I hope that nothing will be said to exacerbate the difficulty there. I hope that calmer counsels will prevail and that it will be realised that the fat allowance system which has been applied is a reasonable one.
The fourth point, which is more intimately related to this Order, is that the butchers object to the new arrangements under which excess meat can be sold to any customer, registered or unregistered. That was their strong point of protest to us. They object to this new freedom. They want to continue the old arrangement. They are a little frightened of the freedom, and say that unless the present registration system is kept intact malpractices will creep into the trade. I am using their own words.
My answer is that whenever, in the past, a temporary excess of a particular commodity has enabled it to be sold off the ration, it has been the custom of the party opposite to permit that excess to be sold to unregistered as well as to registered customers. They tried to limit it to registered customers in the case of eggs, for a few weeks, and the system broke down. It was intrinsically wrong.
My next point is more important. We know that this action will result in housewives going from shop to shop, and the butcher will no longer be able to distribute his meat with the old certainty and authority; we know that shopping will begin again, and we want these things to happen. I do not blame the butchers. I understand their reluctance, after so many years of control, to accept a change which puts the housewives in a stronger position—such a fear of freedom is not confined to butchers—but we want the breath of competitive freedom to return once more.
The argument has been used that the butcher will be unable to determine how much meat he has to sell off the ration, because he is only permitted to sell it off the ration after he has satisfied his own customers. I believe that to be a theoretical difficulty. His registered customers 1434 are his best customers. He tells us that he wants to serve only his registered customers and not other persons. We believe that the sensible butcher will see that his registered customers get their proper ration. Registered customers who do not get their proper ration, who find that it has been sold elsewhere, can switch their registration and go elsewhere.
We shall watch this position. Our present impression, however, is that the business judgment of the butcher will enable him to judge what he has available to sell off the ration after satisfying the needs of his regular customers.
§ Mr. Willeyrose—
§ Dr. Hill
I am sorry; I must hasten to finish.
The "Meat Trades Journal" last week had something to say about these changes, and I think I should quote what it said:Taken by and large, these are genuine efforts on the part of the Government to overcome the difficulties inherent under control in time of peace and should be some help, even though they do not get right to the heart of the matter … Under control you cannot possibly have flexible conditions; that being so, these latest efforts of the Ministry should be welcomed for what they are—signs of a genuine desire to help—even though the benefit may be comparatively small.That is the official organ of the trade, writing on Thursday last.
We are in a difficulty created not by scarcity, but by abundance. Whether we like it or not, we have to continue with rationing for a while longer, for the reasons I have given. We need the good will of butchers. We ask them to believe that the fair shares system of distribution is an essential part of the present arrangements. We ask them to accept that the ultimatum, so-called, was no more than a resumption of a practice which has applied almost throughout. We do not like it, but we have no choice. We hope soon to secure that greater abundance which is the only solution and which will lead to the disappearance of this whole and burdensome system of bulk purchase, control and rationing.
§ Mr. C. N. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)
Can my hon. Friend answer this point? If these arrangements are not to be brought into force until 1435 19th July, why has there to be this seemingly long delay in introducing the price differential?
§ Dr. Hill
My hon. Friend, who is familiar with the schedule, will know that copies have to be printed for display in every butcher's shop. There is an immense amount of work to be done. We shall do it in the shortest possible time. If it is any consolation to my hon. Friend, we shall do our best not to embarrass the trade. We shall not issue, for example, imported mutton for next week. We shall keep the issue of pork down to the minimum consistent with safety. We shall do our best to smooth the path, but we cannot get through all the printing and administrative steps to enable the reduction to take place before Sunday week.
§ 12.49 a.m.
§ Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)
We have listened, as usual, to a very forthright, able and glib speech which has been made in an effort to cover up what I consider to be one of the scandals of the age. The Parliamentary Secretary has told the House that it is the intention of the Ministry to finish with bulk purchase at the earliest possible moment. That statement comes within a very few months of the signing by the Minister, I understand, of a 15 years' bulk purchase agreement with Australia.
§ Dr. Hillrose—
§ Mr. Jones
I wanted to intervene during the Parliamentary Secretary's speech, but he would not allow me to do so. The same courtesy, therefore, can be extended to him. The hon. Gentleman can sit down and listen, as I had to do.
It is not the amount of meat that we are worrying about, but the quality of it which is being foisted on the people, particularly that section who can afford to buy only the cheapest cuts, and who, in many cases, cannot afford to take their ration at all. In Manchester last week and the week before meat was being given away by butchers. Many people rushed from the surrounding districts to get some of this gift meat, but when they tried to cook it they were so disgusted with the quality that some of them asked for their bus fares back. I can 1436 produce photographs of butchers' shops in Manchester where mutton chops were sold at a penny a chop.
The position has been reached where the butcher is compelled to take with a reasonable amount of good quality meat other meat which has already served a very useful purpose. I want to defend the poor ewe. It served a purpose in the last five years. It has been shorn four times in that wild scramble in Australia when wool prices went up 1800 per cent., and workpeople in this country had to pay unreasonable prices for cloth and suits. These beasts have now been slaughtered and it is about that type of meat that the complaints have been made. Am I being told by the Parliamentary Secretary that in these meat agreements there was no specification of the kind of meat to be received at the agreed price?
§ Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)
Can the hon. Gentleman say how many lambs have been produced by the ewes during these extra four years of life?
§ Mr. Jones
I suppose that if they are allowed to run wild nature takes her course, and probably each ewe would have three lambs. But we are not getting the lambs. It would not be so bad if we were. We are getting nothing like the same percentage of New Zealand lamb that we used to get. Instead, there is this high percentage of bad and unpalatable ewe mutton.
I defy anyone in the House, unless he is a bachelor and a vegetarian, to say truthfully that he is not spending more than he is legitimately entitled to on the meat ration. The reason for that is because the poorer sections of the community are no longer able to take up the ration at present prices. There is great force in the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North that the wage earners have to wait until Thursdays and Fridays for their meat, against Mrs. Hill living at the top of the hill who can, with her cheque book, buy on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays. It is a fact that those who have the most money can today get the best cuts of meat and I defy contradiction on that statement.
I have great respect for the personality of the Parliamentary Secretary, but I 1437 challenge him to go into any strange city tomorrow or any day next week and unobtrusively watch what is going on. If he does he will see what meat is in the baskets of the wives of the workers and in the baskets of those who can afford the best. We are now returning to the old days—the so-called good old days—when the scrag end of meat went to the poorer people and the sirloins and the rich meats went to the wealthy, the people with the cheque books, who do their buying by telephone. That is the state of affairs which we deplore. That is what the Tory Government want, and it is the poorer people who are at a disadvantage.
§ 12.58 a.m.
§ Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)
Both the butchers and the housewives would have been very much shocked at the frivolity hon. Gentlemen opposite displayed while my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) were presenting the case against this Order to the House. It was frivolity which contrasted sharply with the serious way in which they talked about the food situation at the last Election, and was in marked contrast to the vicious attacks which they used to make on Labour Ministers of Food for far less crimes than the Ministry has been displaying in the last few weeks. Indeed, if, in the days of the Labour Government, there had been such an administrative muddle and breakdown in meat supplies as has been the case in the past few weeks and is still likely until 19th July, then there would have been an enormous outcry in this House and in the Press by the Tory Party.
§ Mrs. Castle
I am suggesting that the Housewives' League would have been roasting ewe mutton on the doorstep of the Ministry of Food if this had taken place under a Labour Government. I am wondering whether all the members of the Housewives' League have emigrated to Australia.
1438 This frivolity of hon. Members opposite was in rather marked contrast to the solemnity of the Parliamentary Secretary when he lectured us about arguments that we had never put forward from this side of the House: about how impossible it would be to restore the right of butchers to reject meat; about how undesirable it would be to deration meat now. But that is not the burden of our argument here. Our argument is the simple one that the trouble we are in now is not due to the fact that there is an absolute abundance of meat, as the Parliamentary Secretary tried to pretend, but that there is merely an abundance at present prices.
There is over-supply at present prices not because we in this country are suddenly eating a great deal more meat than we did before the war, not because there is now such a choice that we have reached saturation point in demand. The Parliamentary Secretary knows perfectly well that in 1950, which was the best post-war year for the consumption of fresh and frozen meat, we were still only consuming per head per annum 75.5 lbs. compared with 91.4 lbs. in the pre-war years 1934–1938. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North showed in the figures he quoted tonight, we have not yet this year got back to the 1950 figure.
§ Mr. Willey
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that the difference estimated by him is within 1 per cent.—this is an optimistic estimate—1 per cent. according to the Ministry's publications of the 1950 actual figure?
§ Dr. Hill
I shall not attempt the mental arithmetic here and now, but I can tell the hon. Member that the supply this year on the new estimates, bearing in mind the further expected supplies from Australia, will be substantially in excess of the usual level since the war and in absolute excess of the best post-war year.
§ Mrs. Castle
But it could be substantially in excess of the usual level of post-war years and only slightly in excess of 1950, because we know that 1950 was an exceptionally good year. From the 1439 reply of the Parliamentary Secretary it is clear that the difference this year will not be great compared with 1950 but in 1950 consumption was only 75 lbs. per head compared with 91 lbs. in 1934 to 1938. When we are told that we now have abundance we get a wonderful revelation of Conservative food policy. It is the picture of the Conservative food policy which we always said to the electors it was the intention of this Government to introduce. What is abundance under this Government? Abundance is not an improvement on the pre-war situation. No, Tory abundance is merely that on a lower figure of supplies than pre-war they will so manipulate food prices that we cannot sell what we have. That is what has been happening. We have over-supply at the moment not because people are eating as much meat as they want, but because they are eating as much as they can afford to eat.
The reason is that all along the line there has been an increase in food prices, not only meat prices but of all the alternatives to meat. If the housewife wants a little fish or eggs or anything else she finds it all mounts up to a food bill which makes it totally impossible for the housewife to afford the meat available, even to afford the consumption she enjoyed before the war.
Therefore, it is quite true that very soon we shall be able to look forward to the prospect of derationing meat. This is an unfolding, very nicely, of the conspiracy against the housewife by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry. It is unfolding absolutely according to the predictions in the last Election of those on this side of the House. The scheme is so beautifully worked out. First the Ministry, by foisting on the housewife at a price level she cannot afford, and in excess of the value of the meat, an inferior quality of meat, creates this breakdown in distribution, the sort of breakdown we have in Blackburn this week. The reply of the Parliamentary Secretary on the situation in Blackburn is totally unsatisfactory. When the fat pork was delivered in Blackburn the butchers refused it on the advice of experts appointed by the Ministry itself to allocate meat to the butchers.
I am quoting from the "Daily Express", not a Socialist paper—[An HON. MEMBER: "Not yet."] It will be when 1440 it sees the anti-Empire policy of the Parliamentary Secretary, as he abandons guaranteed prices for meat to Australia and New Zealand.
§ Dr. Hill
The hon. Lady really must study the agreement which we have with Australia and New Zealand before she suggests that there is any intention of breaking arrangements which have been honourably entered into. Those agreements provide for the return, after consultation and at the appropriate time, to private trade.
§ Mrs. Castle
That is all very well, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he is keeping a pledge with the Commonwealth for the acceptance of the whole exportable surplus of meat which the Commonwealth can send, and for a guarantee of minimum prices, then he will not be in the position of freedom from bulk purchase he said he hoped to be. Either he is not going to solve this meat problem which he says is created by bulk purchase and long-term contracts, or he is abandoning the policy of Commonwealth support.
But let me return to this "Daily Express" statement. According to that, it was the experts appointed to allocate the meat to the butchers who rejected the fat pork. I understand that these experts are the agents of the Ministry; and this was not an unreasonable attitude on the part of the butchers because, according to the "Daily Express," the experts said, "What is the use of taking it when the housewives will not buy it?" The Parliamentary Secretary does not deny that, as a result of the action by the experts from his own Ministry, he then took away the whole meat ration for Blackburn for a week, nor that it is now stored in a mysterious place, nobody knows quite where.
It is not good enough for the housewives of Blackburn to be sacrificed to the administrative inefficiency of the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. and gallant Friend; and yet all that he tells us now is that he will solve the mess by some new price arrangement which is to operate on 19th July. Are we to have meatless days in Blackburn until 19th July?
I say quite solemnly and frankly that the Ministry of Food has deliberately created a situation in which it can foster 1441 a public demand for the end of rationing; an atmosphere in which it will seem that that demand will come from the housewives, encouraged by the butchers and the trade. Of course, if we are told that this trouble is all caused by an abundance of meat, if we are told that there is plenty of meat, the housewife says, "O.K., why cannot we have an end of rationing?" But the truth is that the abundance, if there is abundance, is because prices have been kept at an artificially high level; a situation created by the Minister first by reducing the subsidy and so sending up the price of meat generally to a new high level; and, secondly, by selling the imported meat at such huge profits to offset what small subsidies still remain. By this combination of facts, the Minister has sent up prices of meat and so maintained the price of the inferior cuts, that we have arrived at a situation where we are artificially over-supplied with meat.
The way in which the Parliamentary Secretary would deal with this situation is just the way which we anticipated, because it is, without doubt, part of the pattern. The housewives having refused to accept inferior meat at inflated prices, along comes the Ministry and says, "Ah, yes, now we will meet this situation by cutting the price of the inferior meat."
They say, "We will cut the price of ewe mutton and of fat pork," which, incidentally, is something which the Ministry have been asked to do for many weeks now. It has taken a very long time and a few butchers' strikes to get them to do something which ought to have been done from the beginning. This grotesque profit on inferior imported meat ought never to have been allowed. They say, "We will cut the price of this old ewe mutton and this fat pork which we have been trying to sell at an excessive price all along the line."
But, having been driven to do that, they then say, "Of course, we are really paying for the subsidy on home meat out of this profit. Therefore, if we have to forgo our inflated profit, the subsidy will have to be increased if we are to maintain the price of home produced meat at its present level." So along comes the Parliamentary Secretary and refuses to discuss the meat situation on its merits, on the grounds of the nutrition of this country, or on the needs of the 1442 housewives, of the children and of the hard working men and women.
After all, the hon. Gentleman is only the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. He is not concerned with nutrition under a Tory Government; he is concerned merely to be the creature of the Treasury. He tells us that the subsidy cannot be increased because it is contrary to the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But it is the duty of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food to fight the Chancellor on a matter which is undermining the consumption of good food by the people of this country.
The Parliamentary Secretary, the ex-"Radio Doctor," has forgotten the sort of cry he used to give us, "A little bit of what you fancy does you good." Instead, he has a new cry, "A little bit of what you fancy will cost you more." To compensate for this generous gesture of reducing his great profit on pork and ewe mutton he is going to increase the price of the decent home produced meat. Far from the housewives getting more red meat as a result of Conservative administration, they are getting less
§ Mrs. Castle
My hon. Friend is quite right when he says that as a result of the steady rise in the price of meat under this Tory Government the best prime cuts of meat have become the exclusive monopoly of the wealthy people. But this is obviously only the beginning of the process, because when, through raising the price of high quality meat, the demand for it falls off, the next logical step is the total abolition of the subsidy on meat. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Of course, because having made meat so costly at a time when we are eating less meat than before the war, the Minister can get rid of rationing altogether.
That is the pattern which is emerging from this whole sorry story. The Parliamentary Secretary is not concerned with administering the distribution of food efficiently. He does not believe that he ought to be in the Ministry at all, and in that we can all agree with him. He is not concerned with ensuring that the poor dupes who believed what he and 1443 his colleagues told them about getting a little more of the nice things of life, really get them. That story is only half told and the pattern is only half unfolded. It will unfold along the lines of Conservative policy based on derationing not as the result of abundance but of artificially created shortage. This will come very shortly, and the figures will show.
We have heard it said that the right way to get these matters settled is not for the butchers to have to go on strike and to defy the Ministry, although the Ministry have such little faith in itself that we cannot be surprised if people defy it. The situation that has arisen in many towns like Blackburn is intolerable and ought never to have been allowed to rise, and the hon. Gentleman's proposals tonight will not solve it on a satisfactory basis.
When the weavers, engineers and other workers of Blackburn realise that this situation will be solved by telling them that ewe mutton and fat pork will be cheaper, that at the other end of the scale the good red beef of old England is beyond their reach because it should be the prerogative of the person with the deepest purse, and that that is the pattern of the story that the Parliamentary Secretary is telling Blackburn, then in due course Blackburn will give its answer.
§ 1.18 a.m.
§ Mr. Ralph Assheton (Blackburn, West)
I do not propose to detain the House for more than a minute or two. I listened with great care to everything that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) said, and I think I detected that she was more interested in seeking to attack the Parliamentary Secretary than to bring to the notice of the House the very serious position that exists today in Blackburn. I excuse her for that, because I know that she has had great difficulties to face and that the word "Abingdon" must be engraved upon her heart.
§ Mrs. Castle
Is the right hon. Gentleman trying to suggest that it is possible to deal in this House with the very serious situation which has arisen in Blackburn without attacking the Ministry of Food—or does the right hon. Gentleman think it is the fault of the butchers?
§ Mr. Assheton
I am just going to try to do that very thing.
When I woke up this morning I read in my newspapers that a very serious situation had developed in my constituency. What had happened this week was that a percentage of the meat sent to Blackburn was rejected by the butchers; that was pork. The Parliamentary Secretary has told us that it was only 4 per cent. of the meat allocated to Blackburn. In Blackburn, we do not like pork in July. Hon. Members may think that is silly, but in the North of England people do not like to eat pork unless there is an "r" in the month. It is an old prejudice and the Parliamentary Secretary may think it is very foolish, but, none the less, that is the case. The butchers are indignant when they are given a considerable allocation of rather fat pork in July, but the serious thing is that when they rejected the 4 per cent. they were told that the 96 per cent. of other meat would be taken away from them.
That is a very alarming situation to face. I was very glad to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that the only solution to the difficulties is the complete ending of State purchase, controls, and food rationing. That is entirely a policy, with which I am in sympathy and for which I have pressed for a long time. I am only sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary was unable to tell us the date on which the Minister proposes to remove the meat ration altogether. I hope it will be much sooner than he thinks and I hope he will take some risk, if necessary, to remove it. I would rather do without meat for a week or two than to go on in this unsatisfactory situation.
What distressed me this morning was that I detected, after I read my newspapers, that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food, and the Parliamentary Secretary, who is much respected in Blackburn, are at loggerheads with some of my constituents. I find it most awkward when some of my friends feel like this. I know the butchers of Blackburn are excellent men and that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary are excellent men, and I believe that there must have been some misunderstanding. I do not believe that the butchers in Blackburn fully understand the position and, after hearing the Parliamentary Secretary tonight, I feel more 1445 certain of it still. Had the butchers of Blackburn had the opportunity of listening to him tonight and of conferring with him, this situation would not have arisen.
I have spoken to them on the telephone twice today, and there is great confusion. They do not understand the Minister's policy. They feel, quite honestly, that they have been roughly treated. I know the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary are the last two people on the Front Bench to treat the butchers of Blackburn roughly. Therefore, I am convinced again that there has been a misunderstanding. I hope that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will do what they can tomorrow to clear up this matter.
I daresay that whoever is negotiating on their behalf with the butchers, has not succeeded adequately in putting over the Government case. I daresay that the butchers have not been able to understand what has been told them. But one cannot let a town of 110,000 people go without meat because there is a difference of opinion and a difficulty between the Ministry in London and the butchers in Blackburn. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the only way to get over this difficulty was to get rid of State purchase, controls, and rationing. I hope, in the meantime, that he will smooth things over in Blackburn.
§ 1.24 a.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
The right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton), has given us an account of that old Lancashire theory of the supply of pork in the late spring and summer months which contain an "r." Unfortunately for the right hon. Gentleman, the policy of the Tory Party, as explained only last week with regard to the supply of pigs from the farms, will not have any reference to the months with an "r" or otherwise in them. When the farmer comes along with his pigs, asks for the guaranteed price, which the Tory Party in its promises at election times and in its statements in this House, has agreed to pay for the fat pig in any month of the year, the guaranteed price must be found.
§ Mr. Assheton
The pigs which arrived in Blackburn this week were frozen. They had not just been killed. They were not pigs sent in this week by the farmers to the market.
§ Mr. Hudson
Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman advanced a theory about the way pigs are dealt with in the summer months. I am telling him that according to the policy he has accepted, and it does not deal merely with frozen pigs, but with those the British farmer is now supplying for distribution as food up and down the country, the guaranteed price will have to be paid at any time.
That being so, the Minister of Food ought to be able to say what is to be the reaction on food policy of what the Government have promised to the farmers. The Parliamentary Secretary told us hardly anything about that point. He was driven to speak at length about bulk purchase and he dismissed that as entirely outside Tory policy, but he was unable to indicate what he is going to do about the 15-year agreement which is a counterpart of the policy adopted towards British farmers. It is a policy which is based and is understood to be based—
§ Mr. Hudson
While you were out of the Chair, Mr. Speaker, the Parliamentary Secretary dealt at length—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—well, he dealt very clearly with the question to which I am trying to reply equally clearly. Of course, I shall bow to your Ruling, Sir. I am merely informing you that I have remained here all night and listened to the arguments, and the arguments are there if I am allowed to deal with them.
I shall pass very quickly from the point, but I want to say this in reply to the Parliamentary Secretary: the Government are not free to disregard their commitments about the supply from the Dominions and from British farmers. They talk glibly about scrapping rationing—that has been said while you have been out, Mr. Speaker—and also about the necessity to get rid of price control and the subsidies. Subsidies and the policy towards the British farmers are intertwined and we cannot get rid of the one without dealing with the other.
I submit that the Government tonight have been found out in a hopeless situation about pork and ewe mutton. [Interruption.] Hon. Members appear to have got back to their flippant attitude. 1447 but that was not the attitude which they adopted when they were talking to the people about their great desire to provide them with good meat. They are not providing it. This is meat of a most unsatisfactory kind which does not conform to any good British standard, and if this standard of meat is allowed to continue it will break down the general policy of the Government both on food and on what they want to do for the British farmers and the Dominions.
When the Parliamentary Secretary began his speech he rather assumed that all of us on this side of the House were adopting the attitude which the butchers have adopted. My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) showed that he himself criticised the attitude of the butchers. The Co-operative movement—and I declare my interest as I am keenly concerned with the Co-operative movement—take the same attitude. They have announced this week that they realise that, under a system allocating meat to butchers, each must expect to take his share of good, bad and indifferent meat. What they say, and what I say now, is that the Government ought to have been prepared, at the time they announced their policy under this Order, to deal with the question of the reduction in price, instead of waiting until this late hour.
A fortnight is to pass before the altered price can become operative. The Minister tried to say that this was necessary because of all the printing that has to be done, and because the prices have to be put up in the butchers' premises, but he knew all about that at the time the Government brought in this Order, and if he had had any real understanding of the problem he must have known what would be the reaction. The Minister of Food ought to have foreseen this situation and not to have left it so that Blackburn will have to wait for a fortnight before it can be remedied.
The Government have to face the fact that the type of meat they now find it necessary to force on to the market is of such a character that they cannot expect to extract the prices they are trying to get from the butchers. There must be a reduction, and it must be made at once. When the Minister examines the total result of the policy he is pursuing I rather fancy that he will find it neces- 1448 sary to make an even greater reduction in the price of some of the meat than that which he foreshadowed. I support the Motion which my hon. Friends have put before the House.
§ Mr. Willey
I think everyone will feel that this debate has served a very useful purpose. The Ministry has been thoroughly exposed, to the sullen discomfiture of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The Parliamentary Secretary did well on a very poor wicket, and I do not think that his right hon. and gallant Friend should have immediately deserted him. The Parliamentary Secretary has accepted our case, that in order to sell poor quality mutton the price must be reduced. He said two other things—
§ Mr. Willey
I was merely indicating why I felt that, in the circumstances, we should withdraw this Motion. The other two factors mentioned were the question of the increased price of beef and the question of our long-term agreements with the Dominions. Both these matters are better dealt with on another occasion, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.