HC Deb 01 August 1956 vol 557 cc1541-50

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

Earlier today my right hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he would consider the withdrawal of the Welfare Foods (Great Britain) Amendment Order, 1956, which reduces the amount of milk which can be provided in nursery schools. While making it clear that he was speaking without prejudice, the right hon. Gentleman indicated that he would review this matter. For that reason, I wish to take this opportunity of saying briefly why we think that the Government should withdraw the Order.

I should say at once that we are not complaining that this Order has been laid without notice. The Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate that on several occasions, in anticipation, I have complained of the actions which the Government intended to take. For some time the Government have said that they would do this, we have complained and our complaints have not been properly considered. We take this opportunity once more to impress on the Government how wrong their action will be.

We could, of course, have prayed against the Order, and if it is not withdrawn we shall do so in due course, but we have always endeavoured to meet the convenience of the House in putting down Prayers and at this time of the Session it is not easy, without inconvenience to the House, to debate a Prayer, particularly in view of the new procedure affecting Prayers. I should like the Government to reconsider the position and themselves to withdraw the Order. If the Order is not withdrawn we shall pray against it, but I hope that they will relieve us of this burden by themselves withdrawing the Order.

We are disturbed about the policy being pursued by the Government about milk. We were very disturbed the other night, when we were complaining of the increase in the retail price, to hear the hon. Member for Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) say that the present price of milk was too cheap. We know that these things are not said inadvertently, and that this was to prepare the ground for a further attempt to reduce the consumption of milk.

We think that this is very unfortunate. I am obliged to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for his attendance tonight, but I was very disturbed by what he said in that debate about prices. He indicated that prices charged should be proper prices, and I took the point that he appeared to mean that he was being critical of welfare foods generally. We all concede that they do not bear the proper price. We raised the point in the debate and I must say that we did not get a satisfactory reply.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)

The hon. Member will see in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate that I specifically excluded the welfare foods. I quoted them as foods on which we took into account the special considerations which flow from them. That is on the record.

Mr. Willey

I mentioned the matter to afford the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to clear it up, but that was the impression which he conveyed to the House. When I made that intervention, the retort of the Parliamentary Secretary was that both investment and consumers should play their part in bringing back stability. He did not say that the Government would not in any circumstances attempt to economise at the expense of welfare foods and the Order shows that the Government are prepared so to economise.

Let us see what the position is. In spite of all their pledges, in spite of all their undertakings, the Government have removed practically all the consumer subsidies—I see that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury agrees. Having done that—and those subsidies will shortly be entirely withdrawn—the Government begin to attack the welfare foods and that is very disturbing.

Let us consider in what manner the Government begin to attack welfare foods. They start economising in a very mean and petty way. I do not want to deal with the merits of the case, because if the Order is withdrawn we shall be satisfied. I do not want to say anything which might prejudice the Lord Privy Seal in his reconsideration of the matter, but I have expressed these views before and I repeat them. This is a mean and shabby economy.

It is a very small economy, because the number of children who go to nursery schools is very small. This is economising to the extent of one-third of a pint of milk a day for each of the children. Who are these children? By and large, they are the most unfortunately placed of all children. They are the children without fathers, the children of widows who are obliged to work, the children of mothers without husbands. To maintain the family, the mother has to work, and to be able to work she has to send the children to a nursery school.

It is not fitting that the Government should economise in this way, particularly when there is only a small saving. If the Government are prepared to make this economy, how much further are they prepared to go? I am obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health for being here, but I hope that she will not justify the Order and turn down our request.

I know that the reason the Order is dated 1st September is to cover the beginning of the new school year. I know the administrative argument for the date on which the Order is to come into effect, but I appeal to the hon. Lady to consider that this is such a shabby economy that it would be far better to allow it to be discussed by the House before it is implemented. It would be far better to face some administrative difficulty and ensure that there was a full debate before the Order is implemented, as we are making the charge that we are dissatisfied and disturbed at this first attack on the welfare foods.

I do not wish to say anything more about the merits of the Order because, as I have indicated, we will put down a Prayer against it if the Government persist in their present attitude, and if it is withdrawn we will be well satisfied. Least said; soonest mended. But in view of the case I have briefly made out, in view of the fact that this will be an economy made at the expense of people least able to bear it—people for whom we all ought to have some sympathy, and whom we cannot disregard merely upon grounds of administrative tidiness, I hope that the Government will think again. I know the arguments which can be raised about this being untidy, and that these poor children should not have any particular advantage, but these children are suffering every disadvantage by reason of the circumstances which are taking them to the nursery schools.

I hope that, as one of the last things this Government do before the Recess, they will, by withdrawing the Order, afford us the comfort of being assured that our fears are misplaced and that, in any case, whatever economies we are driven to, the Government will not make such mean, petty and shabby economies as this.

10.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has, in a way, taken over a matter which was raised by his right hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) with my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. He very fairly said that the Opposition were aware of these proposals because they had been mentioned in previous debates, and were the subject of an Oral Question and Answer on 16th July, when my right hon. Friend said that the Order would come into operation on 1st September. The hon. Member also raised other points which were rather wide of this Order, and I shall therefore limit myself to the question of the welfare foods and the reduction from two-thirds to one-third of a pint in the milk supplied each day to children in nursery schools.

He implied that we were going to cause some hardship to those children, and that that was unfair and would be harmful to the very limited number of children in those day nurseries. He did not go quite so far as to suggest—although he rather implied—that they would suffer a nutritional hardship. We cannot consider this question in isolation; we have to remember that every child under five years of age—about 3½ million in all—gets one pint of milk a day for 1½d. and, as my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said recently in debate, that is in no way altered by the reduction in the subsidy in respect of the general sale of milk.

Therefore, the pint of milk a day that is available at l½d.—that is, l0½d. a week—will be covered by the family allowance, and the family allowance could not be applied to anything better than buying milk for these children. They have that pint and in addition the very limited number of children in the day nurseries will have an extra one-third of a pint free. I noticed that the hon. Member was very careful not to state that there was any suggestion of these children being deprived of a proper and adequate nutritional diet. The pint which they get, and the additional one-third of a pint they will get in the nurseries, is a fully adequate supply for those children as a daily intake of milk.

I do not think that we should get this matter out of perspective. The fact that there may be widows who have to take jobs and put their children in day nurseries must be weighed against the fact that there are large families where the breadwinners do not have a tremendously large income but where milk has to be provided just the same. The Order applies to private and day nurseries, and the local authorities can make charges in these day nurseries which can be decreased or waived altogether in cases of hardship. If a local authority feels that there is a special need, because of malnutrition, it can augment the supply, but no one can suggest that the one and one-third pints which are provided are indaquate for any child in the under-five group who might be in a day nursery.

As the hon. Member said, the Order affects only a few children. There are 3½ million children under the age of five. Of that number only 22,000 are in local authority day nurseries and 7,000 of these are under 2 years old. There are 15,000 between 2 and 5. Approximately 9,000 to 10,000 children are in private day nurseries. To that extent the children are receiving an additional allowance of welfare milk compared with the rest of the children in the country. We do not believe that on nutritional grounds there is a strong case against the pint at home and the one-third of a pint to be supplied in the day nurseries. This is, moreover, in line with the policy of the Ministry of Education under which one-third of a pint is being supplied in schools.

I do not think that the hon. Member wishes to suggest that this will jeopardise the welfare of these children. If there are any extreme cases, the local authorities have means whereby they can be met. I think it fair to point out that when the two-thirds of a pint of milk was introduced in the day schools it was war-time and there was stringent rationing. The amount of other foods available was very limited. There was not so much of the other protein and body-building foods available as there is today. The need for milk for children had precedence over any other type of food. There were then less butter and fewer eggs available, while now all types of food are far more easily available than they were during the wartime and in the years immediately after the war. With the nursery two-thirds of a pint, with the wide diversity of bodybuilding foods available and the welfare pint of milk available at the cheap rate of l½d., we do not think it necessary to maintain the additional two-thirds of a pint for these children in the day nurseries. Therefore, on behalf of my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Health, I must decline to accept the pleadings of the hon. Member that this Order should be withdrawn.

Mr. Willey

The hon. Lady did not mention the Lord Privy Seal. I hope that when she consults him about this she will call his attention to the remarks which I have made as well as to her own remarks, so that he will be in no doubt about our views on the subject.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

With your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I should like to assure the hon. Member that I have been in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. The statements I have made tonight are within the knowledge of my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that he will note the remarks made by the hon. Member.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I am sure that my hon. Friends on this side of the House will have been dismayed at the answer given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). It is the final act of the petty meannesses which we have had from this Government during this Session.

I am amazed at the defence which the hon. Lady has attempted to put up for the withdrawal of the one-third pint of milk from the children in nursery schools. She mentioned that the milk was first brought into the schools during the war. I would remind her that, although that might have been done by the compulsory requirement of the Government, progressive authorities were encouraging the distribution of milk in schools long before the war. Medical officers of health, certainly in Bristol, were pressing strongly that milk should be provided in schools, and that it should be tuberculin tested, pasteurised milk. I remember the tremendous campaign that we conducted in Bristol to ensure a supply of pasteurised milk for the schools.

In this business the Government are being penny wise and pound foolish. No one will deny the pride of the nation is its children. Some of us can never remember the time when our children looked so fine and healthy as they do today. That may be due in large measure to other foods than milk, but I am certain, from the statistics that we have always had, that milk has played an especial part in the building up of the youth of the nation. To those who still regard the children as the nation's greatest asset, we say that it is against the interests of the nation that welfare foods should be withdrawn.

I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, though here, is saying nothing to us about this matter. I suppose it is at the instigation of that Ministry that this Order has been laid. It is a very retrograde step. I hope that representations will be made to the Minister of Education and to the Minister of Health. I notice that there are three signatories to the Order: the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and, most unfortunately, the Minister of Health. I should have thought that he would oppose it and try to get his colleagues in the Government either not to put the Order forward or to withdraw it.

This is the meanest of mean acts by a Government which promised, at two successive Elections, that they would not make any attack on the social services, and who, ever since, have been ruthlessly attacking them until those Services are practically non-existent.


Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

It might be as well for us all to remember that the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has said that he has never seen the children of this country looking so well as they do now—under a Conservative Government.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) that this is the meanest Order that has ever been before Parliament. To rob little children of a third of a pint of milk a day is absolutely ridiculous—coming on a day when Sir Bernard Docker has been turned down by his own company, the man who is responsible in the main for this petty act, because he forced the Chancellor to go in for a reduction of expenditure.

I would suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that if the Government want to look for economies they should look at their own benches, where there are right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who are drawing subsidies from that Ministry, and who are in the Surtax class. There, I suggest, is room for a great reduction in our national expenditure.

10.56 p.m.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon (Greenoock)

I am particularly disturbed that the Secretary of State for Scotland has given his support to this particular action of the Government. I have no wish to argue the case on general economic grounds. The Government are entitled to their own initial premise, or economic precondition, and, given the fact that they must economise—and they are looking for all kinds of economies—it is worth considering whether this particular one is a wise one.

In the context, speaking of Scotland, I say that it is most unwise. We have recently debated the Report of the Department of Health for Scotland, and in it there is a reference to the nutrition of ordinary people in Scotland, based on the ascertainable economic facts. It is clear that many of our people, particularly in the lower income groups, are not as well off as many other people in the population.

As my hon. Friend, the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Jean Mann) has ascertained by her inquiries into the recent national surveys, it appears that in at least six of the eight primary nutritional commodities which ordinary people consume they are below par. Many of these commodities are contained in milk, which is Nature's most wonderful food, particularly for growing children.

I would say that the Government have every right, in the context of their own economic arguments, to turn to any measure, provided they do so in the full knowledge of the consequences it will entail. What are the consequences? The consequences can only come on us in the years to come. The hon. Member who spoke about Britain's bonny babies is casting a great deal of praise on past Governments which have managed to sustain the welfare position in this country. After all, it is but twenty years since the then John Boyd Orr, a very well-known man of medicine, brought forward his most damning report, which showed that many people of this country, in 1935, were well below the natural diets which one would expect for people living a happy life.

Strangely enough, in the war we actually led people towards a better kind of diet than they ever had before. This and the subsequent planning and Acts of the Labour Government were the cause of the disappearance of rickets. When I was a medical student it was very difficult to find a case of rickets, to show us exactly what it meant in terms of twisted bones, and so on. Many of our colleagues from other countries, at international meetings, could tell us of cases in their own countries, where they did not have a sane food policy. The basis of that policy here has been the provision of free or cheap milk for children in all classes.

Surely we should encourage children in the early years of life to have not only ample but excess supplies of milk. Only in that way can we ensure that every child has a reasonable diet in this regard. I have no wish to reflect on the wickedness of the Government. Let people judge that for themselves. But I ask the Government one question: are they quite certain that they are not damaging the welfare of children by allowing this Order to go through? Is this not really a very immoderate and unnecessary imposition in our present economic trials? We all wish to share whatever economic burden may be cast upon us to bring our nation through a difficult time, but are children in nursery schools to pay for that obligation in later life through our failure to provide them with the necessary means to grow in strength of body and limb?

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)

I do not wish to detain the House for more than a moment or two, but I should like to support my hon. Friends in the Order now before the House—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

The Order is not before the House; this is the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Mr. Crouch

Milk is a very essential food for the young, but if any food is too cheap we do not appreciate it—[HON MEMBERS: "Oh."] No, it is not appreciated. I realise how much milk helps to build up children to become adequate adults and I think that by this Order we shall find that milk will be more appreciated than it has been in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.