HC Deb 12 May 1953 vol 515 cc1184-208

10.1 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn, East)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Eggs Order, 1953, (S.I., 1953, No. 529), dated 24th March, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th March, be annulled. May I have your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, as to whether it would be in order to discuss this Prayer with the Prayer which follows that also stands in the name of my hon. Friends?

Mr. Speaker

I think, if the House agrees, it would be convenient for Members to take these two Prayers together, that is the one dealing with eggs and the one dealing with feedingstuffs.

Mrs. Castle

This morning in my "News Chronicle" I read a most mouthwatering recipe headed, "Take the yolks of five eggs." It was not even a recipe for a main dish for a hungry family of half a dozen people. It was merely a recipe for a super sauce which could be served with hot trout, cold salmon or anything that took one's fancy. We were also kindly advised in the same column what to do with the whites of eggs. We were informed that we could make meringues of them and serve with a fruit salad so obligingly made available by this Mrs. Beaton Government.

I frankly admit that this recipe made my mouth water, and I cut it out of the paper and filed it away, thinking as I did so that it would have to be a very rare, remarkable and noteworthy occasion, such as for example the defeat of the present Government, before I could feel entitled to try to afford such a dish. I also felt as I filed it away that the vast majority of my constituents would never be able to afford it at all.

This recipe is symbolic of a new era into which we are moving, an era in which there is a great appearance of well-being and plenty being created by Government policies. But it is also an era in which, in fact, the standards of nutrition of the masses of our people are on the decline. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food boasted in this House that freedom has brought goods into the shops in great quantities. That is a typical Tory remark. Under the Conservative Government of pre-war days there was always plenty in the shops, but what the Labour Government worked for and achieved was that we should not so much put food in the shops as put it in the larders.

On the contrary, what the Conservative Government of this post-war period has achieved is a drop in food consumption, which is clearly shown in the Economic Survey, because that Survey makes it clear that during the first year of Conservative rule the average consumption of calories in this country fell below 3,000 per day for the first time since 1949, and we also had a drop in the amount of oil, fats, sugar, eggs and dairy produce eaten by our people.

This fall in food consumption was directly due to increases in food prices under the Conservative Government and to the rise in the cost of living generally. The reason why we are praying against these two Orders tonight is because they carry still further the process of withdrawing food subsidies and removing price controls. The Feeding Stuffs (Prices) Order gives effect to price increases which have become necessary as a result of the withdrawal of a subsidy which operated last year and which ran to the tune of £18 million. It is the first link in a chain of decontrol which will reach its climax on 31st July, when all controls over the prices and distribution of feedingstuffs will be removed.

In the Annual Review of Farm Prices which the Government published last March it was stated that the removal of this subsidy, together with other increases, would cause an average rise in costs of about £2 10s. a ton. This higher price of feedingstuffs is one of the elements in the higher cost of production which has been allowed for in the Review, and it means that this year we shall have to pay £15½ million more to our farmers for the essential foods which we have to eat.

This increase in the price of food has still to be felt by the housewife. It is not yet reflected in the prices in the shops, and that is a very sorry prospect indeed. It will give a further upward push to the spiral of rising prices, and it is a poor consolation to the housewife, as she faces this prospect, to be told that the Government propose to cheapen the price of the refrigerators to keep the food in which she cannot afford to buy.

What will happen to the prices of feedingstuffs when all controls are removed on 31st July nobody on the Government side has been prepared to prophesy. All that the White Paper does is to admit frankly that it is impossible to predict the course of cereal and feedingstuffs prices after decontrol. What a fine way to plan the food policy of this country. It is another example of the way in which, under a weak Minister of Food, this Government are abandoning all attempts to safeguard the nutritional standards of this country, to protect the housewife, and to see that we have a healthy and adequately fed population to face the storms of life that lie ahead. Far from fighting the battle of the food of the people, the miserable Minister is spending all his time planning Departmental suicide, and the method he would appear to have chosen is an overdose of sleeping tablets which has obviously already started to take effect.

Higher prices for feedingstuffs will mean higher costs of production for eggs. and it is on the Eggs Order that I shall concentrate tonight. It is an Order in which is embodied the whole process of decontrol. If we study it we can get a picture of the way in which the Government are proposing to apply their new policy of freedom to agriculture. If we study this plan for eggs, we discover that the Government definition of freedom is a very curious one indeed.

The Parliamentary Secretary must have been a little surprised that we have chosen to pray against the Eggs Order, because the Conservative Party believe that they are sitting pretty on eggs. Indeed, they have planned this operation "egg emancipation" with very great care. They chose to free eggs from distribution controls on 26th March, which, as everyone knows, is at the beginning of the normal spring flush period of egg production at home. Last year, when controls and allocations were operating, home production exceeded 11 million dozen eggs per week for a period of four weeks in the spring flush and we are told that home production should be higher this year.

In addition, the Ministry have been buying quite a large quantity of eggs from abroad. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary in the House yesterday that since 26th March he has placed a contract for 65 million eggs from Poland, that he is negotiating for supplies from Australia, South Africa and the Irish Republic, and this is in addition to the earlier contract with Denmark. What the Government are doing is to float future policy on a temporary tide of eggs. The Minister is hoping by this process to be able to bemuse housewives by this appearance of abundance as though the greater output of eggs by our hens had come as a result of the stimulus of Tory Government, or incentives of "Mr. Butler's Budget," or something of that sort.

The freedom he is now selling to the housewives in the story which is being spread—"Look what freedom does for you. Now you can buy all the eggs you want. We have set the housewives free" —is a phoney freedom. It is a policy which is not directed towards helping the housewife at all but is directed towards helping the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the name of killing the black market in eggs, what the Government have done is to kill the egg subsidy. The purpose of this decontrol policy is, first and foremost, to save the Chancellor of the Exchequer £23 million in subsidies which went directly to cheapen the cost of living for the housewives.

What does the housewife get out of the decontrol policy? There is a temporary flush but even so—this fact is already beginning to seep into the consciousness of the housewife—at this flush period she is already paying more than she paid for subsidised eggs last year. The Parliamentary Secretary admitted in answer to a Question yesterday that although at Easter the price was below that of last year it had risen since. An hon. Friend of mine said that grade A eggs were fetching 5s. 3d. a dozen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) had hoped to be with us tonight. He has taken a keen interest in the egg situation and other problems. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary misses him greatly on this occasion but he decided that he would be better employed fighting the battle of the housewife in the Sunderland by-election. I have had a telegram from him regretting his inability to be present and pointing out that the price of eggs in Sunderland has risen to 5s. 6d. a dozen. I hope that the housewife in Sunderland will take the opportunity of exposing the fallacies of the Parliamentary Secretary.

What a prospect lies before the housewife. She may temporarily be bemused while she plays with her five yolks in her super sauce, but, if we have already reached a situation in which grade A eggs at the peak of the flush period are 5s. 6d. a dozen, what is the prospect for next winter when scarcity comes?

It is now beginning to be appreciated by the housewife that although decontrol at the moment may not be very dangerous because there is this temporary abundance, she will face the winter blasts of egg scarcity and higher prices shorn of the protection of the price controls which the Labour Government gave. The really scandalous thing about the policy outlined in this Order is that it gives the housewife freedom to be exploited while it gives complete protection to the producer and packer of eggs. The housewife is unprotected and the producer and the packer are protected.

What does this new policy of the Conservative Government imply? Producers will be expected still to send all their graded eggs to packing stations but they will be allowed to sell ungraded eggs to consumers at whatever price they can get. The Government are underwriting the packing stations who have to accept all eggs offered to them and are compelled to pay a minimum price which is to average throughout the year 4s. a dozen and which is never to fall below 3s. 6d. a dozen. These packing stations will be operating on behalf of the Ministry of Food which will carry any loss involved in disposing of the eggs which the packing stations will be compelled to accept. But the packer, if he wishes, may buy at higher than the minimum price. So that protection comes to the producer who never gets less than a certain figure, but if he wants to exploit the scarcity he may get a higher figure, and the sky is the limit.

In addition, to assist the packers, many of whom have had no previous experience in selling, the present machinery of the Ministry of Food is being retained for the time being. This includes a market intelligence network, a containers pool from which packing materials are supplied, and if a packer finds that he cannot dispose of his eggs he can offer them to the National Egg Marketing organisation who give him disposal instructions and fix a price with him for the service.

From the producer's point of view, these arrangements could hardly be improved because the Government are giving him a guaranteed market but they are setting no ceiling on his profits. The producer may sell to the consumer at any price he likes, but if he chooses to go to a packing station the packing station must accept his offer and must give him the guaranteed price. The packers are doing very well out of this. They literally cannot fail. They cannot be exposed to any of the cold blasts of competition or insecurity. They buy on their own account if they can make a profit out of it, and if they cannot make a profit they buy and sell on the Ministry's account and hand the baby back to the Ministry.

The only person who remains unprotected in this situation is the housewife. In an agricultural debate in this House on 2nd February, the Ministry of Agriculture, in seeking to justify these new decontrol policies, in good old Tory language said: …we shall enable the healthy wind of enterprise, initiative and freedom to sweep away the cobwebs of 12 years of control."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1597.] Well, the cobwebs will be gathering unchecked in the henhouses and in the packing stations. It is not the cobwebs which will be swept away. All that will be swept away is the protection for the housewives.

This freedom is to be strangely limited, because the freedom which is not being given to private enterprise, the field in which initiative and competition is not to be allowed, is in the import of eggs. The Ministry of Food will retain for itself complete control over the import of eggs and the sale of imported eggs. We know that is not due to currency considerations because freedom to import is given back in the case of cereals. Therefore there is some other reason.

The Ministry wants this control because it wishes to regulate the market against the housewife. This is how it will work. If the price of eggs looks like falling very low, if it appears that decontrol and abundance will bring down prices to an extent to which the housewife really could take the yolks of five eggs to make her sauce, the Ministry are in great danger of having to pay out sums of money through its Treasury guarantee of a minimum price to producers.

So the Ministry retain control over an important section of our egg consumption, because egg imports last year amounted to 25 per cent. of our total egg consumption. That control is left with the Ministry to enable them to do one of two things. Either it can restrict imports and therefore maintain price; reduce the competition and safeguard the producer in that way without the Treasury having to pay out large sums; or alternatively, the Ministry can control the price at which imported eggs are sold at such a level that the price of home-produced eggs does not fall too low.

I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary in all these contracts he was telling us about yesterday—65 million eggs from Poland; extensive quantities from Australia and South Africa and the Irish Republic—

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

And the Gambia?

Mrs. Castle

If the hon. Gentleman catches Mr. Speaker's eye he may have some intelligent contribution to make. I appreciate that I am asking a question which the hon. Gentleman does not want clearly stated or answered. I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he will guarantee to pass on to the housewife the eggs he is importing at the price he is paying for them. If he will not do that, will he tell us what is his policy for the sale of these imported eggs and at what price level? What kind of profit is he getting?

I suggest that the issue facing us because of this Order is a very simple one. We should tell the housewives of Sunderland, and of Britain as a whole, that as a result of Conservative policy they are subsidising the producer instead of being subsidised themselves. They will be subsidising the producer as taxpayers, when they have to foot the Treasury bill for giving the producer his guarantee. At the same time the housewife will be paying through the nose when the winter scarcity comes and there is no ceiling to the profit which the producers can make. Alternatively, if she is not subsidising the producer as a tax-payer, she will be subsidising him by paying a hidden tax on imported eggs which the Ministry of Food will be selling above the economic price.

I conclude on this note of warning and great seriousness. The last thing this country can afford is a drop in the nutritional standards of its people. It is no measure of the success of the Parliamentary Secretary or his Department to say that shops are full of eggs. What will be a measure of his success will be the figures of egg consumption in this country by the end of next year.

Housewives are paying 5s. 6d. a dozen for eggs at a peak period. What level will the price reach in the scarcity of next winter? Has the Parliamentary Secretary any idea? Will it be 8d. or 9d. or 10d. each? I prophesy that a price of 5½d. at a peak period must mean a price of 8d. or 9d. when winter scarcity sets in. In that case, the housewives of Britain will not be able to afford even the two or three or four eggs a week they used to get under the allocation scheme.

I ask the House to reject the two Orders which are part of the whole policy of this Government to make the price of the food of our people dearer and to create a phoney appearance of plenty.

10.26 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)


Colonel Malcolm Stoddart - Scott (Ripon)


Sir L. Plummer

I beg to second the Motion.

I must declare an interest—

Colonel Stoddart-Scott


Sir L. Plummer

—in that when it was quite clear that the Ministry intended to remove the general control of eggs and to decontrol the price, together with many other farmers I bought a lot of pullets, for quite clearly a new racket had begun. [Interruption.] The hon. and gallant Member for Ripon (Colonel Stoddart- Scott) has said "Gambia" 15 times in the last 30 seconds. If he has a contribution to make and if he can articulate another word, I will give way to him immediately—if he wants to add to the debate, and if he can add to the debate.

I decided that the thing to do was to go in for pullets, as clearly from now on we egg producers, provided the Government did not make an unholy mess of it, were going to make a pretty considerable profit out of the situation. Of course, our interest was not that of the housewife. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) said, the housewife is paying the subsidy out of her own pocket.

Both as producers and as consumers of eggs we have had sufficient experience since the control was removed to enable me to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give us the answers to some questions which I put to him and which are of considerable importance to the housewives of this country. First, is it not a fact that quite recently he has been unloading on the trade at a much higher price Polish eggs for which he paid 22s. 6d. a long hundred? In case the hon. Member for the Gambia does not know, a long hundred is 120 eggs, so that 22s. 6d. a long hundred is roughly 2¼d. each.

Is it not a fact that the Ministry has been unloading those eggs on the trade at something between 4d. and 4½d. each, according to the size of the egg? Was not that, in all the circumstances, outdoing the black market? Was it not really taking the housewife for a ride—the housewife who had been promised by the Ministry there was no reason at all why there should be any great profiteering in eggs or why the price of eggs should rise?

My second question is this. Will the Parliamentary Secretary not agree that these eggs were unloaded at this artificially high price—in relation to what the Poles were paid for them—in order to save the Government the cost of the guarantee on eggs; that is to say, they were released in sufficient quantities to maintain the price of eggs instead of in sufficient quantities to reduce the price of eggs to the housewife? Thirdly, was it not as a result of the fact that the eggs were sold at this price that, last week, the retailers of this country were left with a very considerable amount? My fourth question is: Did not the National Egg Marketing Organisation, the chairman of which is a member of the hon. Gentleman's Ministry, reduce the price this week by 3s. per long hundred as a result of this?

This is an illustration of the mess and muddle into which the Government have got themselves over the egg scheme. First of all, they tried so to raise the price of Polish eggs on the home market as to save the subsidy on eggs, and, finding that they had raised it too high, did, in fact, so organise the matter that the price of English eggs fell by 3s. per long hundred. The fact is that the Ministry has been saving the subsidy at the expense of the housewife, and so it will go on.

The proposition for the home market now is that the Minister will see to it that he does not have to come into the market and support the subsidy. That means that the English farmer and egg producer will get a price for their eggs which is higher than last year's price, that the Minister will be able to unload the eggs coming from abroad at a similar price, and that the housewife will find that once again eggs are outside her reach, or at least outside the reach of the working-class housewife.

On the question of feedingstuffs, what is the Minister going to do to help the poor farmer who was promised by this Government that, if he voted for them, they would see to it that he was released from the dreadful forms and controls which were making his life an absolute misery? We were told over and over again, in the House of Commons and in the newspapers, that the farmer was unable to go out into the fields to do his work on his land because he had to sit at a desk filling in forms, and had to supply snoopers and Government Departments with information which they did not need. Now, we have a different Government, and the task of the farmer has been made easier—how much easier I now propose to show to hon. Members.

The Feedingstuffs Order shows how to calculate the maximum price per hundredweight of feedingstuffs from now on. It is not a question of going to a dealer and saying, "How much is it per hundredweight?" Not a bit of it. This is what the poor farmer, who hitherto has been inhibited from doing his work, now has to do, and, remember, the poor farmer has no adding machine or abacus or any of those automatic aids to help him. This is what he has to do.

He first has to ascertain the basic price, plus the permitted additions per ton made by his supplier. Easy. Next, he has to deduct any charge per ton made by his supplier for credit. Then he has to deduct any charge made for handling. Not knowing this, he has to get out his tractor and go down to the town to find out how much is the charge per ton for handling. And if he is not satisfied he has to ask the supplier for an invoice, check to see how much it costs to handle the supplies and then take any charges which may have been made by his supplier for sales in small lots and for packing in quantities of less than one hundredweight. After this he adds in transport charges incurred over and above this made by the supplier. Then he has to convert all this to a one hundredweight figure and, to that figure, add 1s. 9d. per hundredweight lots.

He is supposed to be able to do all that and produce the food of this country. It is no wonder that for the first time since 1940 the farmers of this country are really worried. Not only are feeding-stuff prices to be raised against them, not only is there insecurity in the industry, but they are asked to make mathematical calculations which are seldom found outside the universities of this country. I hope the House will support my hon. Friend's Motion.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) has suggested that there has been no alleviation from form filling for the farmers. Does he not accept that form filling has been reduced by about a third?

Sir L. Plummer

I do not know that it has been reduced by one third; it has been reduced to one third. That was not my point. The forms that were hitherto being produced have now been reduced, to the great detriment of the Ministry, which is now short of vital statistics. If they had them, it would have prevented them making the ghastly errors they are making at the moment.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

After listening to the dissertation upon the alleged difficulties of the English farmer by the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) we can well understand how he succeeded in losing £40 million of the taxpayers' money in ground nuts schemes and the abortive attempt to produce eggs in Gambia. March 26th was an important day in the history of this nation—[An HON. MEMBER: "Which year?"] The hon. Member has clearly not read the Order. The date on which the Order we are discussing came into operation was 26th March, 1953. It was an important day because it saw the end of that abracadabra of bureaucracy, the Eggs Control, created by the late but not lamented Minister of Food the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb). He endeavoured to keep in being an unworkable system of rationing eggs. The reason it was unworkable could clearly be found in an examination of the statistics which the hon. Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), who moved this Motion, forgot to mention, that out of every 100 eggs produced in this country during the period of the late Socialist Government only 45 reached the packing stations.

Mr. Percy Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Because people who could afford them created a black market.

Mr. Nabarro

The hon. Member, who is eternally wrong in all matters, says it was because people who could afford to buy them snaffled them and created a black market. Is that so? In fact it was quite legal for any person with fewer than 25 hens to sell eggs to whom he chose without sending the eggs to the packing station. Nobody has ever succeeded in saying, with any degree of accuracy, how many out of the 55 per cent. of the eggs produced that did not reach the packing stations were accounted for by these small producers. I believe that a very large number were so accounted for. There was no control over them. Thus the rationing system was, in itself abortive, unworkable and the product of a diseased Socialist mind.

Mr. M. Follick (Loughborough)

Would the hon. Gentleman quote the source of the figure of 55 per cent. which he has just mentioned?

Mr. Nabarro

The hon. Gentleman has been in this House since 1945 but has not taken the trouble to follow the course of Parliamentary Questions on this delectable subject of shell eggs. Had he watched my activities in the matter he would have discerned the figure in the answers to Parliamentary Questions on shell eggs. [Interruption.] An hon. Gentleman opposite interrupts to say that he wishes he had a few shell eggs.

Mr. Shurmer

Rotten ones.

Mr. Nabarro

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that in the constituency that I represent the eggs were not thrown at me in the last Election but at the Socialist.

The second factor which the hon. Lady conveniently omitted to mention in dealing with shell eggs was how much it cost to attempt to ration them. Something of the order of £1,350,000 was spent in the last fiscal year on administration alone. Out of that figure, more than £1 million was the administrative cost of the Eggs Division of the Ministry of Food, and something of the order of £350,000 was the cost of the complementary organisation, the National Egg Distributors' Association, Ltd., which was responsible for certain operations at the packing stations and so on. Nearly £1½ million per annum was being spent in an effort to operate what was proving to be a totally abortive system.

Mrs. Castle

Would the hon. Gentleman give us any estimate of what will be the administrative cost of operating a guaranteed minimum price scheme? If it is administrative saving the hon. Gentleman is anxious for, why not have complete freedom for the price to touch bottom as well as top, and also take the control out of the hands of the Ministry of Food?

Mr. Nabarro

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making my case for me. In the wisdom of a Conservative Administration, one step will be taken at a time. This Order sweeps away a great deal of unnecessary control in the matter of shell eggs. I estimate that within a period of 12 to 15 months it should be possible to restore the completely free market that the hon. Lady espouses and so ardently yearns for. On this side of the House we are delighted that my right hon. and gallant Friend has taken this courageous step at such an early date in the history of this Parliament in freeing eggs as far as possible. If a measure of control remains, I feel confident that it will not remain for any great length of time.

Now one word on feedingstuffs. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman who referred to the farmers' difficulties in the matter of the revised arrangements for feedingstuffs has any real knowledge of the matter. He has not a farm in his constituency, and I doubt whether he has a blade of green grass. I can say from personal contact with scores of farmers in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and the Midlands counties, that there is nothing the farmers welcomed more than the announcement of the abolition of the feedingstuffs rationing system.

These farmers recognise that in the early days of a free market there may be a small increase in price. The increase in price today is about £2 to £2 10s. a ton; but that should not last long. That price increase will rapidly disappear; and with the added impetus of several hundred thousand tons of additional feedingstuffs grown in this country as a result of the ploughing up subsidy and the policy of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, not only will there be an abundance of feedingstuffs, a free market in feedingstuffs, and the end of the misery of controls created by the Party opposite, but in the passage of time there should be a much lower price. That will benefit not only the primary producer, but the housewife and consumers.

I have no doubt that any attempt to negative this Order will be defeated in the Lobbies tonight.

Mr. Shurmer


Mr. Nabarro

The hon. Member says "obviously." How many times in the last Parliament did he and his hon. Friends feel sleepy and go home and leave the Government, their Government, to be defeated? [HON. MEMBERS: "HOW many?"] Very many times. [Interruption.] Three or four times at least. We welcome these important Orders. We hope not only that there will not be any more Ministry of Food Orders 12 months from now, but that the Minister of Food and the Parliamentary Secretary will, metaphorically speaking, have cut their respective Ministerial throats.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

I do not propose to attempt to compete with the pyrotechnics of the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House where the housewife comes into this eggs Order. I have gone through the Order carefully, and I can find therein no advantage so far as the consumer is concerned. I can understand that, because as far as I am aware there was no consultation undertaken by the Ministry of Food with any of the organisations competent to advise it. Was that because of the chilly reception of the National Farmers' Union? There was no consultation with the representatives of the poultry industry, an industry having an annual egg and poultry meat output of about £142 million.

When one looks at the composition of the National Egg Marketing Committee, what does one find? Do we find any consumer interests represented on the Committee? Of course not. We find it dominated by distributive interests. There are 11 members concerned with distribution, and there are only five who are concerned with the interests of the producers. By way of parenthesis, I would say that I agree that a producer who does a job of work is entitled to a fair return for his work. There is no representative from the consumers, but there are 10 representatives from the Ministry. How can one expect an Order devised by the Ministry without any consultation with the representative consumer organisations to be of any benefit to the housewives?

Why not have a representative of the T.U.C. or, if the Parliamentary Secretary would find that awkward, why not recognise the principle of consumer representation by inviting the Housewives' League to send a representative? I do not mind the Minister of Food telling the nation that he is out to bring about a reduction in the price of eggs, but where is the evidence? It is certainly not in the Order.

Now we come to another aspect of this matter, which flows from the fact that this Committee is packed with distributive interests. I know the Parliamentary Secretary will not dissent from that statement, because the organisations from which representatives are selected are definitely of a distributive character, or are concerned with distributive interests. It is true that the Poultry Association have recently secured representation. That was a good thing, because they are people who can advise the Ministry upon the industry and the distribution of eggs and all that is involved, but why not go a step further and see that the consumer is directly represented on that Committee?

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to go into the question of costs of distribution. Why is it—as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) said—that in Sunderland this week eggs were being sold at 5s. 6d. a dozen? That compares with the price of 4s. 1d. which is charged to the producer. Where do the costs of distribution go? I cannot explain that, and I do not think the Ministry can explain it intelligently. I am also advised by the small retailers that out of every dozen eggs sold over the counter the total profit is 4d. a dozen. If that is so there is a case for the Ministry to see whether we cannot reduce the cost of distribution— the difference between the price paid to the producer and that charged to the consumer—as a means of bringing about a reduction in the price of eggs.

I hope that in his reply to the debate the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the two points I have raised, the appointment of a representative to the central committee to represent the consumer, and the question why the costs are so great for distribution in relation to what is paid to the producer and charged to the consumer.

10.55 p.m.

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

The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), in her exciting speech—

Mr. Follick


Dr. Hill

—in her, yes, exhilarating speech, raised serious issues, and I propose to deal with them seriously, although there is something about eggs and sausages that seems to arouse hilarity. In her examination of the topic there were two things the hon. Lady omitted, one completely, the other partly.

The first was that the scheme of egg allocation under which the Ministry, through its agents, purchased and distributed eggs right through the chain, had broken down.

Mr. J. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)


Dr. Hill

Because eggs were being sold from the farm to the consumer—

Mr. McGovern

On the black market?

Dr. Hill

Yes, the black market, so called—to a remarkable extent. Faced with the situation in which the scheme of allocation had clearly broken down because of the extensive black market, faced with criticisms in this House week after week by Members on both sides, my right hon. and gallant Friend decided he could no longer be responsible for a system of so-called allocation.

Mrs. Castle

The hon. Gentleman will remember that at the same time as Questions were being asked in this House proposals were put to the Minister of ways of dealing with the problem that were not taken up.

Dr. Hill

Yes, more enforcement was one. Another was a proposal put up by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb), not, I think, in the House, though it may have been, that feedingstuffs should be allocated in proportion to the numbers of eggs sent to the packing stations. That proposal was incomplete because it in no way dealt with the farmer who grew his own feedingstuffs. There can be no effective control over him by that method. That was one objection to the proposal, which was seriously examined.

My right hon. and gallant Friend decided that the way to deal with this growing black market was to initiate once more a free market in eggs. Criticism has been levelled against the time he chose to do it. I doubt whether any other Government of any other colour, having determined on this decontrol, would have done it at any time but that of the flush period.

Let us face it. The producer is now free to sell to the domestic consumer, and the domestic consumer is free to obtain all the eggs she can, and purchase directly from the producer. I think that is more consistent with human nature than the old system which broke down. After all, there is a fundamental difference between the two sides of the House. We believe in the free market. We believe that the old system, which sought to imitate the free market by the adjustment of prices throughout the year, so paying tribute to the method of the free market, failed because of its rigidity.

Having determined on the free market, then my right hon. and gallant Friend was called upon to implement the Agriculture Act, 1947, put forward by the Socialist Party and supported by both sides of the House of Commons. The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East said some really remarkable things. She wanted freedom to touch the bottom in this matter of market prices. Is she renouncing the whole structure of the guaranteed price for the farmers of this country? Is she speaking for the party opposite when she says that? The main substance of the second part of her attack was to deny the guarantee and the security which was given to the farming community of this country by the Act passed under a Socialist administration.

Mrs. Castle

Surely I made myself clear enough for the hon. Gentleman to realise that what I was saying was that it is wrong to give a producer the security of the floor if he is not going to accept also the check on the ceiling.

Dr. Hill

Having determined on a policy of a free market, the way to implement the Agriculture Act was to institute a floor price, which is, as the hon. Lady rightly said, an average price of 4s. throughout the year, varying from 3s. 6d. to 5s. according to the season. That policy of the floor price was absolutely necessary to give expression in the conditions of a free market to the undertakings which this House, as a whole, had given to the farming community.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)


Dr. Hill

I want to develop quite a considerable argument, and I know the House does not want to be kept too long.

Mr. Benn

In fairness, it was the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) who said that in a short time after this step had been taken of abolishing the ceiling the floor would be abolished, too.

Dr. Hill

My hon. Friend can look after himself, but I did not interpret his remarks as being an acquiescence with the view of the hon. Lady. If he did acquiesce, I dissent from the view, as, I hope, she will.

The hon. Lady referred to prices. She said, quite rightly, that in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) yesterday, I agreed that the current price was 5s. 3d. She made it 5s. 6d. I may tell her that the prices ruling today are between 5s. and 5s. 6d. in different parts of the country for the grade "A" eggs with correspondingly lower prices for grades "B" and "C" eggs. A year ago, with the subsidy in operation, the price was 5s. Today, without the subsidy, the price is between 5s. and 5s. 6d.—with this important difference—that the eggs are there in the shops. That is what my right hon. and gallant Friend sought to achieve, and that is what he has achieved. The answer to the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends is in a tour of the shops today where they will see the eggs displayed.

The hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) raised the question of previous consultation. The Government decided, faced with breakdown in the system of allocation, as it then obtained, that the system, having proved unworkable, should be brought to an end. That was a decision of principle for which the Government were responsible. Having reached that decision the Government immediately entered into consultation with all the representative groups and bodies on the new system which should be introduced. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the function of the advisory body is a technical function, marrying up supply and demand in different parts of the country. I am entirely with him that wherever possible there should be consumers on such bodies, but it would seem that this particular body is appropriately constituted for the work it does.

Mr. Moyle

All I wanted to convey was the rather weighty representation on the distributive side is calculated to destroy confidence, particularly when there is no consumer representative, and relating that to the cost of distribution.

Dr. Hill

On the question of costs, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the average cost of distribution amounts to between l0d. and 1s. per dozen eggs. Over the past years we have gained experience of distribution, packing and grading and other associated costs which come under the common heading. The level of distributive costs would from experience seem reasonable.

Turning to feedingstuffs, I would point out that there is nothing new in removing the subsidy from feedingstuffs, despite the references of the hon. Member for Blackburn, East to the wickedness of such a step. May I remind her that on 24th October, 1949, the present Leader of the Opposition, then the Prime Minister said: After the next Annual Review in February … we shall eliminate the Exchequer subsidy on animal feedingstuffs which is now running at an annual rate of £36 million. He went on to say: … there will be no increase on this account in the subsidies on ordinary food."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th October, 1949; Vol. 468, c. 1019–20.] Therefore there is ample precedent for the removal of subsidies on feedingstuffs, even though in that case the wrong moment was chosen. The costs of imported feedingstuffs were rising and the subsidy had to be re-imposed in 1951. But that removal of the feedingstuff subsidy, virtuous and necessary then, now becomes something which is undesirable and improper when it is related to the decontrol of the whole cereal and feedingstuffs industries.

For 14 years 22 trades, the grain trade and a host of others, have been, as it were, married to the Ministry of Food. For the most part those trades have acted as agents for the Ministry of Food, many of them remunerated on a cost-plus basis. We have had 14 years in which the skills of those industries have been lost. Indeed, we had achieved the position where we had to decide which way to go. There is a logical argument for the nationalising of these industries, but even the party opposite has not put forward such a proposal. On the other hand, if we were unwilling to do that, the right and proper course was to take the step towards freedom, which in fact has been taken.

The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), in his recital of the complications of the Order, might have said that that part was for merchants and not for fanners. He might have added that such an Order has been in operation nine years and that the whole of the Order with all that terminology will end on 31st July this year.

So, having determined that it was time to return these 22 trades to freedom, it became absolutely necessary as a preliminary to remove the subsidy. It is not sufficiently realised that whenever it is decided to make a journey into freedom it is necessary as a preliminary to remove the subsidy. In this case the subsidy is being removed with the result that the average increase in cost is £2 7s. 6d. a ton. The party opposite, when they decided in 1949 to remove the subsidy, did it at a time when the prices were raised by £4 12s. a ton on average. On this occasion, when the removal of subsidy is the first phase of the decontrol exercise, it is being done at a time when, as a result of falling prices, the increase is not about £6 a ton, as it would have been a year ago, but £2 7s. 6d. I believe that this preliminary step is part of a vast and important decontrol exercise, which is absolutely necessary if these industries are to regain their skill in the interest of the economic health of the country.

As for the vigour with which the Opposition has attacked these changes, may I remind them that it was in January this year that the White Paper was published intimating the Government's intention to remove the subsidy on feedingstuffs. It was on 24th March that the Order was laid. The 40 days is up tomorrow. In their vigorous onslaught on this change they have neglected all previous opportunities to bring the matter before the House and discuss it. They have waited until the changes have become effective, until the last night, in order that they might convince the people of the vigour with which they are fighting.

As a matter of fact, the egg example is a bit worse. It was on 26th November last that the Minister announced that eggs would be decontrolled in the spring. It was on 18th February that the details of the new arrangements were announced. It was on 25th March that the Order decontrolling the price of eggs was laid. That Order expires, not tomorrow, but the day after. The Opposition have taken no advantage of Parliamentary opportunities to debate the policy, challenge it, or discuss it. They wait until the job is done before bringing it to the notice of the House—in strange contrast to what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, Central (Mr. Webb) wrote on 2nd November when there was wind in the air of this decontrol. He said: "It must be resisted by the Labour Party with all its strength."

The plain truth is that the Opposition know that the decontrol of eggs has been widely applauded throughout the country. They know it is amply justified by the eggs in the shops, and they know too that the subject of decontrol of feeding-stuffs is one of profound importance to this country, and one they cannot decently challenge. Indeed I suspect the reason for the Prayers tonight is not so much the Sunderland by-election as an observation of the Leader of the House who drew attention last week to the fact that the Opposition's votes of censure were on procedural matters, and not on decisions to deration. They then ran round the corner with all possible speed to put down a Prayer.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

The Parliamentary Secretary appears to have enjoyed himself. We are always anxious to meet the convenience of the House and, other matters having occupied the House, it was desirable that we should test the feeling of the House on these-matters; we have chosen tonight to do so. I hope that is sufficient explanation on that point.

It was astonishing that the hon. Gentleman said not a word about the Ministry's continued trading in eggs, which was referred to by my hon. Friends, and the way in which apparently, as was suggested, the Treasury is to be protected and the price of eggs is to be maintained against the housewife by Government direct action. He did not make any comment on this, and therefore we may take it that that is accepted. The hon. Gentleman having failed to say a single word about it, I can only ask my hon. Friends to go into the Lobby in support of the Prayer so ably and exhilaratingly moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) and so completely unanswered by the hon. Gentleman.

Question put.

The House divided: Ayes, 131; Noes, 175.

Division No. 170.] AYES [11.16 p.m.
Acland, Sir Richard Gibson, C. W. McLeavy, F.
Allen, Arthur (Bosworth) Glanville, James MacMillan, M. K. (Western Isles)
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Greenwood, Anthony (Rossendale) MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling)
Anderson, Alexander (Motherwell) Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Arthur (Wakefield) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)
Awberry, S. S. Grenfell, Rt. Hon. D. H. Manuel, A. C.
Bacon, Miss Alice Grey, C. F. Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A.
Bartley, P. Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Mason, Roy
Bence, C. R. Hale, Leslie Mitchison, G. R.
Benn, Hon. Wedgwood Hall, John T. (Gateshead, W.) Monslow, W.
Benson, G. Hargreaves, A. Moody, A. S.
Bing, G. H. C. Hayman, F. H. Morley, R.
Blackburn, F. Herbison, Miss M. Moyle, A.
Blenkinsop, A. Holman, P. Mulley, F. W.
Boardman, H. Holmes, Horace (Hemsworth) Neal, Harold (Bolsover)
Bowles, F. G. Hoy, J. H. Orbach, M.
Burke, W. A. Hudson, James (Ealing, N.) Oswald, T.
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, S.) Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey) Paling, Rt. Hon. W. (Dearne Valley)
Carmichael, J. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Paling, Will T. (Dewsbury)
Castle, Mrs. B. A. Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Palmer, A. M. F.
Champion, A. J. Hynd, J. B. (Attercliffe) Pargiter, G. A.
Collick, P. H. Jeger, George (Goole) Parker, J.
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Jones, David (Hartlepool) Pearson, A.
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Jones, Jack (Rotherham) Plummer, Sir Leslie
Cullen, Mrs. A. Jones, T. W. (Merioneth) Popplewell, E.
Deer, G. Keenan, W. Porter, G.
Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C. Kenyon, C. Price, Joseph T. (Westhoughton)
Evans, Albert (Islington, S. W.) King, Dr. H. M. Price, Philips (Gloucestershire, W.)
Evans, Stanley (Wednesbury) Lee, Frederick (Newton) Proctor, W. T.
Fernyhough, E. Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock) Rankin, John
Fienburgh, W. Lever, Leslie (Ardwick) Reid, Thomas (Swindon)
Follick, M. MacColl, J. E. Rhodes, H.
Foot, M. M. McGhee, H. G. Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Forman, J. C. McGovern, J. Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon)
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) McInnes, J. Short, E. W.
Shurmer, P. L. E. Taylor, Rt. Hon. Robert (Morpeth) White, Henry (Derbyshire, N. E.)
Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill) Thomas, David (Aberdare) Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W.
Skeffington, A. M. Thomas, Ivor Owen (Wrekin) Williams, Ronald (Wigan)
Slater, Mrs. H. (Stoke-on-Trent) Thomson, George (Dundee, E.) Williams, W. R. (Droylsden)
Slater, J. (Durham, Sedgefield) Thornton, E. Winterbottom, Richard (Brightside)
Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.) Timmons, J. Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Sorensen, R. W. Wallace, H. W. Wyatt, W. L.
Sparks, J. A. Webb, Rt. Hon. M. (Bradford, C.)
Stewart, Michael (Fulham, E.) Weitzman, D. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Sylvester, G. O. West, D. G. Mr. Royle and
Taylor, John (West Lothian) Wheeldon. W. E. Mr. Kenneth Robinson.
Aitken, W. T. Graham, Sir Fergus Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Allan, R. A. (Paddington, S.) Grimston, Hon. John (St. Albans) Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian (Weston-super-Mare)
Alport, C. J. M. Grimston, Sir Robert (Westbury) Osborne, C.
Anstruther-Gray, Major W. J. Hall, John (Wycombe) Partridge, E.
Arbuthnot, John Harden, J. R. E. Peyton, J. W. W.
Ashton, H. (Chelmsford) Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye) Pickthorn, K. W. M.
Assheton, Rt. Hon. R. (Blackburn, W.) Hay, John Pilkington, Capt. R. A.
Astor, Hon. J. J. Heald, Sir Lionel Pitman, I. J.
Baker, P. A. D. Heath, Edward Powell, J. Enoch
Banks, Col. C. Higgs, J. M. C. Price, Henry (Lewisham, W.)
Barlow, Sir John Hill, Dr. Charles (Luton) Profumo. J. D.
Baxter, A. B. Hill, Mrs. E. (Wythenshawe) Raikes, Sir Victor
Beach, Maj. Hicks Hinchingbrooke, Viscount Redmayne, M.
Bennett, William (Woodside) Hirst, Geoffrey Rees-Davies, W. R.
Birch, Nigel Holland-Martin, C. J. Renton, D. L. M.
Bishop, F. P. Horobin, I. M. Roberts, Peter (Heeley)
Black, C. W. Horsbrugh, Rt. Hon. Florence Robinson, Roland (Blackpool, S.)
Bossom, A. C. Howard, Hon. Greville (St. Ives) Roper, Sir Harold
Boyle, Sir Edward Hudson, W. R. A. (Hull, N.) Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Braithwaite, Lt.-Cdr. G. (Bristol, N.W.) Hulbert, Wing. Cdr. N. J. Ryder, Capt. R. E. D.
Brooke, Henry (Hampstead) Hutchinson, Sir Geoffrey (Ilford, M.) Schofield, Lt.-Col. W.
Browne, Jack (Govan) Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) Scott, R. Donald
Buchan-Hepburn, Rt. Hon. P. G. T. Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Scott-Miller, Cmdr. R.
Bullard, D. G. Kaberry, D. Shepherd, William
Burden, F. F. A. Lambert, Hon. G. Simon, J. E. S. (Middlesbrough, W.)
Butcher, Sir Herbert Lancaster, Col. C. G. Soames, Capt. C.
Campbell, Sir David Law, Rt. Hon. R. K. Speir, R. M.
Carr, Robert Leather, E. H. C. Spens, Sir Patrick (Kensington, S.)
Cary, Sir Robert Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H. Stevens, G. P.
Channon, H. Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield) Stoddart-Scott, Col. M.
Clarke, Col. Ralph (East Grinstead) Lockwood, Lt.-Col. J. C. Strauss, Henry (Norwich, S.)
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmouth, W.) Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Stuart, Rt. Hon. James (Moray)
Colegate, W. A. McCallum, Major D. Studholme, H. G.
Conant, Maj. R. J. E. McCorquodale, Rt. Hon. M. S. Sutcliffe, Sir Harold
Craddock, Beresford (Spelthorne) Macdonald, Sir Peter Taylor, Charles (Eastbourne)
Cranborne, Viscount Mackeson, Brig. H. R. Taylor, William (Bradford, N.)
Crookshank, Capt. Rt. H. F. C. Mackie, J. H. (Galloway) Thomas, Rt. Hon. J. P. L. (Hereford)
Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E. Maclean, Fitzroy Thomas, Leslie (Canterbury)
Crouch, R. F. Macleod, Rt. Hon. Iain (Enfield, W.) Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)
Crowder, Petre (Ruislip—Northwood) MacLeod, John (Ross and Cromarty) Touche, Sir Gordon
Darling, Sir William (Edinburgh, S.) Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries) Turner, H. F. L.
Davidson, Viscountess Maitland, Comdr. J. F. W. (Horncastle) Turton, R. H.
Deedes, W. F. Markham, Major S. F. Tweedsmuir, Lady
Digby, S. Wingfield Marples, A. E. Vane, W. M. F.
Dodds-Parker, A. D. Maude, Angus Vaughan-Morgan, J. K.
Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. McA. Maydon, Lt.-Comdr. S. L. C. Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)
Donner, P. W. Medlicott, Brig. F. Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. Marylebone)
Doughty, C. J. A. Mellor, Sir John Walker-Smith, D. C.
Duncan, Capt. J. A. L. Molson, A. H. E. Ward, Hon. George (Worcester)
Finlay, Graeme Morrison, John (Salisbury) Ward, Miss I. (Tynemouth)
Fisher, Nigel Nabarro, G. D. N. Waterhouse, Capt. Rt. Hon. C.
Fleetwood-Hesketh, R. F. Nicholls, Harmar Wellwood, W.
Fletcher-Cooke, C. Nicolson, Nigel (Bournemouth, E.) Williams, Gerald (Tonbridge)
Fraser, Sir Ian (Morecambe & Lonsdale) Noble, Cmdr. A. H. P. Williams, Sir Herbert (Croydon, E.)
Galbraith, Rt. Hon. T. D. (Pollok) Nugent, G. R. H. Williams, R. Dudley (Exeter)
Garner-Evans, E. H. Nutting, Anthony Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
George, Rt. Hon. Maj. G. Lloyd Oakshott, H. D. Wood, Hon. R.
Gomme-Duncan, Col. A. O'Neill, Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.)
Gower, H. R. Ormsby-Gore, Hon. W. D. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mr. Drewe and Mr. Wills.

Question put, and agreed to.