HC Deb 26 November 1956 vol 561 cc165-86

10.0 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Bread (Amendment No. 2) Order, 1956 (S.I. 1956, No. 1181), dated 31st July, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd August, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. I hope that no one will doubt the importance of this subject by the relative unimportance of the hon. Member who is moving the Prayer.

As this Order is already in operation, we have the opportunity of examining it not only in relation to its principles but also in relation to experience of its effect. This Order is double-edged. The first thing it did was to mark the withdrawal of the remnant of the food subsidies at a cost of £24 million approximately to the consumers of bread in this country. Secondly, it ended the price control over bread.

I suppose the Government can take some consolation in declaring that it saved the country about £130,000 in administration, but we on these benches are more concerned about the effect on the consumers, and we consider that in withdrawing the bread subsidy and ending price control the Government have shown calculated indifference to the needs of the housewives and callous neglect of the poorest section of the community; and that they have ill served the cause they hoped to serve, that of price stability. To put it bluntly, we think that the Order is socially, morally and economically wrong.

I would remind the House that this is the last of three swipes that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite have had at the food subsidies since 1952. The cumulative effect has been to raise the price of the 28 oz. loaf from 6d. to at least 10d. and so add, by subsidy withdrawal alone, over £90 million to the British housewives' bread bill each year. That in itself should be a sobering thought for right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, who came to this House in 1951 declaring that they were dedicated to the task of reducing the cost of living. By deliberate policy they have raised the price of the most essential of our foodstuffs to an all-time high, they have deprived the housewives of protection against increased prices, and they have taken £90 million from the purses that they were going to mend. The Tory Party has proved to be the most inefficient and the most expensive purse repairer in history.

I have been wondering what kind of vindication we are to have from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight, for we have had opportunities of hearing him very often on this subject, so much so that we know all his themes. I have been wondering: is his case again to be that we must keep the country on an even keel? Or is his theme to be his other one, "What is all the fuss about? This is only 3d. per person per week." Best of all is the theme that he expounded last time, the riotous expenditure on sweets, drink and tobacco.

I got the impression from that speech we heard from him in March, I think it was, that the ordinary families, after their bread and spread meal, immediately pass round the port and light up cigars as a prelude to an orgy of brandy swilling and chocolate munching. It is a strange impression that the hon. Gentleman manages to convey.

The Chancellor, in his Budget Speech, did not even think that it was worth while making any justification of what he was doing, and, in a few words, said that his reason was the same as the one he gave in February, when he cut subsidies by £18 million, and when he said: Today, we are making a present of a few pennies on every loaf of bread, not only to Surtax payers, but to a great number of people who enjoy a standard of life which is by no means dependent on this small weekly present from the Chancellor of the Exchequer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 56.] These are the old familiar phrases heard so often in our battle over social subsidies, but in terms of realities what they really mean is that to catch the few we must penalise the many, to take a few pence from those who do not even notice the insignificant gift we must take millions from old-age pensioners, from people struggling on fixed incomes, and from the harassed housewives who have to cope with all the other things that have been brought about—increases in the price of tea, rates, rents and next, I suppose, prescriptions. There is a whole catalogue of the ilk that have been brought to the housewife by hon. Members opposite.

This argument about the iniquity of subsidising those who do not need it, whatever force it may have in other matters, and I do not think it has very much, certainly has no force and is quite irrelevant to the question of the bread subsidy. The facts about bread consumption are well enough known, but the Government either do not appreciate them or prefer to ignore them. The higher the family income the lower the consumption of bread, and therefore, the fewer the gift pence from the Chancellor. The lower the family income and the bigger the family the greater the consumption of bread and, therefore, the greater the benefit from food subsidies and the greater the need for food subsidies.

If hon. Members opposite do not like my words perhaps they will look at the Westminster Bank Review for this quarter, where there is an interesting article which I commend to the Chancellor and also to the Minister of Labour if he is worried about the price index, to which I will try not to refer. Here are the words: Consider the price of bread. To the single man or woman enjoying an average-or-better income, a difference of 2d. a loaf is almost invisible, below the threshold of economic perception. To the mother of a large, insatiable family eating two bread-and-spread meals a day with the odd doorstep in between, it is, even on an identical income, a very different matter; as it is also to the pensioner whose consumption, on a minimum income, includes a high proportion of the cheapest food. The recognised average consumption of bread is two loaves per person per week. If hon. Members opposite will consider their own experience they will know quite well that in their families that is not the consumption. But I can take hon. Members to a place in my constituency which numbers about 300 families—almost the same as the number of famines of hon. Members opposite—where I am sure more bread is eaten in a day than is eaten by their families in a fortnight.

I sometimes wonder whether, if he knew and had experience of what bread meant to ordinary families, the Chancellor would proceed with these policies. The community to which I referred is a community of railway workers, locomotive men, drivers and firemen, with their wives and families, all living together in this one area. The bane of the wives' existence is the making of sandwiches. Every day, every week, every month, every year—and I know what I am talking about, because my mother had to do this for forty-two years—hundreds of loaves are sliced up and packed for the men to take with them to work. They had no canteens.

That means a tremendous consumption of bread there, quite above the average. And to these women the subsidy meant more than the paltry few pence of which the Chancellor spoke in such a pompous way. In fact, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman of a young fireman, with a wife and two children, whose bread now costs 3s. 6d. a week more than it did in February.

The Chancellor said in his Budget speech that there had been a social purpose in subsidies, but no economic purpose. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman still thinks that? It is no use saying that there has been something for the children since the 2s. was given to the third child. It is interesting to reflect that at the present time the railway men are making a claim for increased wages, related to their last increase which took place in January. And this is the cost of bread alone. Does the Chancellor still think that there is no economic justification for subsidies? I can tell the right hon. Gentleman—and he would do well to face it—that to railwaymen, to agricultural workers, to millions of manual labourers, the price of bread has considerable economic importance.

Before reaching his measures in the Budget, the Chancellor told us that it was a choice between economy and taxation and that he chose economy. What he really chose was a way of taxing the ordinary people, discriminatory taxation. Yet the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in defending this in the month of July, when my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), quick on the draw as usual, asked what would happen after the subsidy ended, put a more glib gloss on it. Indeed, I find it difficult to realise that the hon. Gentleman did not realise the fatuity of what he was saying, when he said: It is well to remember that dispensing with 1½d. subsidy on a 1¾1bs. loaf will not be an extra cost on the community. It merely means that the public will be making the 1½d. contribution by way of purchases over the counter instead or by payments to the Chancellor of the Exchequer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th July, 1956; Vol. 556, c. 1004.] The fallacy is that it will be different people who will be making the contributions over the counter. I wonder how much the Surtax payer's wife pays over the counter per week for bread? Probably her contribution will be 1½d., but the chances are that she will be on a slimming diet and not eating bread at all. It is not those who will pay most in taxation who are contributing the bulk of these three-halfpences. It is those whose incomes are too low for taxation, those on fixed incomes, and the 4½ million old-age pensioners. The Parliamentary Secretary and hon. Gentlemen opposite should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves in legislating such an ill-disguised injustice, and using such words about it as did the hon. Gentleman. But that is all I want to say for the moment about the actual effect of the subsidy withdrawal.

Now I come to price control.

Mr. Percy Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the cafeteria in the House of Commons, where many of the poorer Members who cannot afford to have a dinner in the House eat, the price of a slice of bread has risen to 2d. this week? How many on the opposite side of the House go into the cafeteria for their food?

Mr. Ross

That had not escaped my Scottish notice.

As I said earlier, this Order also meant the end of the price control of bread, and we have had the advantage of a month's experience of it. In the Adjournment debate to which I have already referred the Joint Parliamentary Secretary laughed away what he called the gloomy prophecies about price levels. He pinned his faith on a competitive and efficient industry. However, he quoted the Master Bakers' Association that night. The master bakers were a little more careful. They suggested that talk about the 1s. loaf was premature and said that we must wait and see what the millers did and that the price of flour would be the key.

Let us see what has happened to the price of flour. I am sure that on 1st October the Parliamentary Secretary must have preened himself and burnished his ever-handy halo when he read that the Rank combine had started a flour war and had reduced the price of flour by 3s. a sack. The next day the other millers did the same and Rank countered by taking another 1s. off the price of a sack of flour, bringing the price down from 99s. to 95s. per 280 lb. sack of flour.

This was too good to last. On 5th October the Daily Mail reported as follows: The flour war ended suddenly and ignominously. … That has a habit of happening with short wars. … yesterday when all the millers, including the big Rank concern, which started it a week ago, decided to revert to their uniform prices operating before it began. … So the price of flour went up from 95s. to 99s. a sack. So much for the "keen competition." Since then the competition-mad millers have, by four increases of 2s. each, pushed up the price of flour to 107s. a sack.

Now the position is that another increase in the price of bread is inevitable. The present increase per sack means an increase of ½d. on the loaf. Can the Parliamentary Secretary guarantee that the increase, when it takes place, will be only ½d.? He is in no position to guarantee it now, because the Government have thrown away their power to intervene. We now have no control over the price of bread. That has been brought about by the Order which we now seek to annul.

The gloomy prophecies which the hon. Gentleman so easily dismissed in July are now a reality. We are thinking now not of the 1s. loaf but of the 1s. 2d. loaf, because the newspapers are softening up the public and telling them that there will be a certain increase of 1d. and, in the new year, perhaps an increase of 2d. That grotesque formation of economic geography, the Chancellor's "plateau", looks like acquiring a new and loftier peak. We should christen it "Ben Macmillan".

The result of this double-edged Order has been to bring about throughout the country a wide regional variation in prices, not all of which can be justified to the housewife by homilies about variety, quality and freedom of choice. What happened was that the multiple firms increased the price of a loaf to 10d. and even 10½d. in certain areas. Local master bakers' associations recommended various prices in the areas. In Scotland, for instance, the prices were 10½d. for a large loaf and 6½d. for a small loaf unwrapped, and the large loaf was 10½d. if wrapped. If we go to the remoter parts of Scotland we find prices higher than those thanks to lack of price control and loss of subsidy.

In London, the prices were 11d. and 6½d., and the prices in the North-West were similar. Some places, to spite the Parliamentary Secretary, plunged for a 1s. loaf straight away. Bath and Manchester are two places that I have in mind. This was before the millers had recovered from their attack of freedom and settled down to uniform and increasing prices.

So all these bread prices are now due for upward revision—and all this was before the Suez adventure. If it was folly to lay the Order taxing bread at a time when the Chancellor was lecturing on wage restraint the very men whose wives have been harassed about increasing costs, it is sheer lunacy now to persist with that policy when conditions have deteriorated so drastically and so dangerously. Today, we are threatened with price inflation, short-time and unemployment. In fact, Suez will flow through our homes, and for the national well-being bread subsidies and price control are more essential than ever.

Hon. Members on this side of the House are aware of the difficulties subsidy and control mean to the craft bakers. Freedom has reminded them that their real enemy—and it has been their enemy since 1922—is the multiple firm, and the advantageous terms that it is able to get from the millers. This House should accept it as a duty to maintain bread at a reasonable price for all sections of the community and to restore the subsidies, and they should be so assessed, and the controls so administered, as to ensure fair trading opportunities and a reasonable standard for those employed in the industry.

Bread is an essential food. It is something upon which the housewife cannot save. Even if the price goes up, she has to buy just as much. We ask the House to consider carefully what we think is an injustice, which leads consequently to discontent among millions of our people—an injustice which has been wrought by the Government's policy, and wrought upon young and old.

In one of our debates the Parliamentary Secretary said that we must think of the old-age pensioners; we must have them in our thoughts. He should have them on his conscience, because, while these bread prices have gone up, nothing has been done for the old-age pensioners. The last time that the House decided to do anything for the old-age pensioners was in December, 1954. Between that time and the month of June—this was given in Answer to a Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife. West (Mr. Hamilton)—3s. of the worth of their pension has gone. The Government proclaim the most persuasive aims, but I can assure them that in their policy towards bread the people who have to bear the burden regard them as guilty of calculated and callous meanness.

10.23 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I beg to second the Motion.

It is a great honour to support the Motion which has been so powerfully moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). I do not think that any hon. Member in the House tonight, on either side, believed that when the Government came to office in 1951, with their great "Cut the Cost of Living" campaign, they would, in five short years, double the price of bread. Incredible as it may seem, that is what has happened. Even if the Housewives' League has lost its voice, hon. Members on this side of the House intend to spread that news far and wide among the people.

The effect of the reduction of the subsidy alone is to put a tax of 4d. on a loaf of bread, because a subsidy is, in effect, taxation in reverse; it is a relief of a burden directly geared to need at its greatest point. The abolition of the subsidy is the restoration of a tax—and a very regressive tax at that. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is not only the final cancellation of the subsidy which we face tonight; it is the operation, in another vital field of human welfare, of the Government's steadily expanding policy of price decontrol.

I was very interested to see in August, when the first realisation dawned upon the Daily Express that 29th September was to be what that newspaper called "B day"—the final cancellation of the subsidy and price control—that the Daily Express had suddenly woke up to the whole horrors of this policy. This newspaper, which has always been the "King Canute" of the cost of living, suddenly realised that what we were facing was not the prospect even of a 10d. loaf, but a "sky's the limit" loaf. And we had this astonishing heart-cry from the leader columns of the Daily Express when it discovered that the combines were getting together to push up the price far beyond the reduction of the subsidy to cover a new range of profiteering.

This is what the Daily Express declaimed: Why should the customer be stung twice, once for the loss of the subsidy and once for the combines? The Daily Express proceeded to give us a graphic picture of how, under the Government's policy, the profits of the big combines had been steadily on the upward march, and went on: Mr. Garfield Weston's Allied Bakeries group—biggest of them all—showed a profit of £6,082,000 last year and an even bigger profit was reported by Mr. J. Arthur Rank's group, Ranks Limited. The figure was £7,045,000. The Spillers group, another giant, turned in a best-ever profit of £4,997,000. These big three taken together raked in a profit of no less than 38s. 9d. last year for every 20s. of profit they made in 1950. It is all very fine for the Daily Express to complain about the activities of the combines, but combines are in business for profit. It is Her Majesty's present Government who are to blame for allowing that profit to be made at the expense of one essential article, and that is a fact which the Government renounce tonight.

Since that effort by the Daily Express to turn back the tide of the cost of living by leaders in its columns we have had an upward march in the price of flour. So the Daily Express turns to the attack again. Only a few days ago, on 17th November, it asked: Just what are the millers up to? They have been dickering with their prices ever since the Government lifted the control. First, they came out with a 7s. cut bringing the price down to 95s. a sack. But barely six weeks later they have more than made up for that concession. Indeed, the new price of 105s. will be the highest for several years. The millers talk of 'increased costs' to explain their antics. But their biggest cost is the price of wheat. And that has stayed steady. Indeed, there is so much wheat in the world that the prevailing price is far too high. What we are being asked to vote on tonight is a "millers' charter," a "profiteers' charter" at the expense of the family man and the old-age pensioner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sal-ford, West (Mr. Royle) has just informed me that last week-end, when he was in his constituency, a worker and his wife came to him to complain about this latest intolerable burden imposed by the Government on the ordinary working-class families. My hon. Friend's constituent and his wife have seven children. Apart from his family allowances, he has a wage of £8 a week. This man told my hon. Friend that he bought 25 loaves of bread a week.

I would ask the House to realise what this Order means to that family in sheer terms of £ s. d. I understand that in the Salford area people have to pay 11d, for their loaf of bread. Since this Government came into power they have put an additional burden on that household budget of 11s. 7d. a week for bread alone. On this calculation that family, within a period of 12 months, will have to spend 8s. 5½d. more per week on bread alone. I ask hon. Members opposite to let that sink in in conjunction with their calculations of all the other price increases to which my hon. Friend has made reference—tea, fuel, fares and the whole range of essential articles in which prices have risen.

How dare they complain that wages are too high when a man earning £8 a week has to face a burden like that? Take the case of the old-age pensioner. Last March, when another instalment of the bread subsidy was removed, we were horrified by the complacency of the speech made by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the House. When challenged by this side of the House about the burden on the old-age pensioner and others on fixed incomes, he said, sneeringly, that a small section of old-age pensioners might be in some hardship, but that they had other agencies to assist them if the increase constituted real hardship.

Only complacent people, living in comfort which takes them right out of touch with the harsh realities of a person who is really poor, could make a remark like that. What, in effect, the Government have said and what, in effect, they have done is to say to the dignified old, "When we put a tax of 4d. a loaf on your bread you can go to the National Assistance Board and like it." Has it sunk into the heads of hon. Members opposite just what are the scale rates on which they ask people to live in those penurious terms? The Government claim that they have increased old-age pensions and National Assistance scales. The last increase in the scales was in January this year, bringing the ordinary amount for a man with a wife, apart from rent, to 67s. a week. They should realise what that means for two people to find the cost of food alone, quite apart from clothing, a trip to the pictures, or a packet of cigarettes, which this Government consider a luxury to which these people have no right.

It means that even if those people were eating only two loaves of bread per head per week—which is the nice, average, statistical calculation which hon. Members opposite like to make—in many areas where 1s. is now the price of a loaf those people have to spend 2s. more on bread alone. Since this Government came into power the whole magnificent scale rate has increased by only 17s. a week. It is, therefore, with real anger against the Government that I have the privilege tonight of seconding this Motion.

10.34 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), in what I think was the first speech he has delivered from the Opposition Front Bench, referred to himself as an unimportant person. I do not think that anyone in the House would be prepared to accept that description of the hon. Member. No one with a wit as quick as his, and with a tongue capable of producing such venom on occasions, could be considered to be unimportant.

I must congratulate the hon. Member in covering such a wide field and having made such a persuasive speech. From my point of view it was a very frightening speech, because he followed the line of having read all my speeches on this topic—which, as he said, we have debated on many occasions in this House. He rather prepared the ground for suggesting that if I used the same themes as in the past something would be wrong. I suggest that if the theme was right when we first discussed this subject it is still right today.

It is only hon. Gentlemen opposite who seem to change their tune when the wind blows in a different direction. I do not think that there will be any need for that tonight, and I promise the hon. Gentleman that to meet the points he has made I shall of necessity have to repeat some of the things I mentioned in my previous speeches for no other reason than that the hon. Member made precisely the same arguments that his hon. Friends made before him in our previous debates.

To begin with, I must refer to the Order. It is clear that wrong opinions are held as to the meaning of the Order and the effect that annulment would have. If the Prayer were successful and the Order was annulled, it would have no effect at all on many of the points that have been made, because in order to have the price of bread pegged at a certain figure, as was the case before 30th September, several things would be required.

First, as the hon. Gentleman said, we must have price control. Secondly, to have any effect at all, the ingredients of a loaf covered by that price control must be laid down. That is to say, there must be the old National loaf, made from the old National flour, otherwise the points that the hon. Member suggested would flow from success in annulling the Order would not follow. In addition, there must be a subsidy available to make up the difference between the cost of baking the loaf from the national flour and the controlled price. Merely by annulling the Order on its own would not, therefore, get us to the point that the hon. Gentleman appeared to want to reach. All those other ingredients must be present.

If the Prayer were successful, it would give the appearance of reviving price control, but it would not revive the Order that the House revoked last week in a debate in which I do not think the hon. Gentleman took part, when the essential basis of National flour was, by the decision of the House, removed. Nor could annulment of the present Order bring back the £24 million which we had from the Exchequer to cover the subsidy. That being so—and I am sure that the hon. Member knew that all these ingredients must be present—I can only take it that this debate is similar to the others and is, therefore, another opportunity to lambast the Government on their general economic policies.

I think it is right once again to place upon the record what the effects of withdrawing the subsidy have been. We have heard many wild calculations in the two speeches which have preceded mine. We have heard the price of 1s. 2d. a loaf mentioned, but apart from the Highlands of Scotland, in very exceptional circumstances, I do not believe that a 1s. 2d. loaf has been thought of.

Mr. Ross

I do not think I referred to the actual effect of it. I was talking about what is likely to be just round asperity corner.

Mr. Nicholls

We had all kinds of dismal prognostications when we had the last debate. We had the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), who, as has been said, is a very keen Member of the House in these matters, suggesting that the loaf would now be costing 11d. or Is, throughout the country.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

I did mention 11d., and probably 1s. How long will it be before the price reaches that figure?

Mr. Nicholls

The suggestion was that the removal of the last part of the subsidy would bring that about.

Let us have the calculations on the record. They are not calculations from one special part of the country but are based on the Food Survey, and they are the impartial calculations which we have to accept in the House, otherwise we cannot use the same yardstick and our debates cannot be as effective as they must be on such subjects. According to calculations based on that survey, assuming an increased expenditure of l½d. per 1¾ lb. loaf, the increased weekly expenditure for an average household, based on three and a half persons per household, amounts to 8½d. For the old-age pensioner household it is 3¾d.; for the household of two adults and three children it is 11½d., and for the household of two adults and four children it is 1s. 5d. I feel that when examining this question we ought really to disregard the rather flamboyant examples given by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) where they run contra to these calculations, because these calculations reflect a truer picture than the hon. Lady, with her specially-picked examples, could hope to do.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

it would be interesting to know what the dale of the survey was.

Mr. Nicholls

This is the National Food Survey reporting on the position as it applied to the last two months. It is that survey that makes these investigations, and it is clear that the removal of the subsidy will affect the average household to the extent of 8½d.; the old-age pensioner household to the extent of 3¾d.; the household of two adults and three children to the extent of 11½d., and the household of two adults and four children to the extent of 1s. 5d.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it perfectly clear that he has removed this final subsidy of about £24 million a year as part of his battle to defeat inflation. I accept at once, as do other hon. Members, the importance that he attaches to winning this battle, because the people who will benefit from this more than any others will be the ordinary working people. I do not think that we should start, at this point, belittling the importance of this or any other Government's facing up to the difficulties that will flow if inflation gets out of hand. It has been admitted in all parts of the House on more than one occasion that until the battle against inflation is won we run a great risk of pricing ourselves out of world markets, with our whole standard of life falling; and that all the horrors so vividly described by the hon. Gentleman will be upon us.

I confess at once, and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman himself recognises it, that this particular item is only a small part of the field covered by the Chancellor. By means of the credit squeeze, higher interest rates, more difficult hire purchase terms, and, in addition, the scaling down of subsidy payments, he is endeavouring and has made this quite clear—to spread the effort needed for defeating inflation across the whole social strata of the country. This is the battle order that he has laid out, and I think that if we are fair we will see that, so far, he has achieved quite a considerable amount of success.

Industry, local authorities, business houses generally—they are all being asked to make their contribution, and this Order is part of the contribution that he is asking the consuming public to make. Nobody needs reminding that if the Government are successful—and this is part of a great effort—no-one will benefit more than the consumers. The first result of ending inflation will be settled prices and, more than likely, lower prices. That is the whole burden of the battle which the Chancellor is waging.

We on this side recognise the burden of the complaints made by the hon. Gentleman. They are fair points to make and Parliament is designed so that they can be made. It is said by the hon. Gentleman—and I take it that this is really the gravamen of the charge made—that, accepting all this, the price of bread is such an important part of the household budget that we are asking from the consumer a greater contribution than we should. As I have said on other occasions, I do not think, frankly, that this bears examination when it is remembered that most of those who eat bread are those who are employed and that the increase in their earnings during this period has outstripped the cost of living.

Here again, I produce the actual facts. To take the official indices from January to September of this year—and that is recent enough—wages have risen by 6 per cent. whereas retail prices have risen by only 2 per cent. The greatest number of bread consumers are people who are employed, who come from households where the wage earner has had the benefit of the 6 per cent. rise in earnings, with an increase of only 2 per cent. on the cost of living.

Mr. Ross

This reference to averages is silly. I instanced railwaymen—a large section of employees—and this section does not come into the average wage scale at all. They have had no increase since January. How does that square up with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying?

Mr. Nicholls

I was talking about earnings. The hon. Gentleman cannot say that they have not done overtime and have not earned extra money. If the House is to be logical and is to do its duty, it has to be prepared to accept the official calculations. The average wage earner has had his earnings increased by 6 per cent. and the articles on which he spends his earnings have increased in price by only 2 per cent.

There is evidence to show that these official figures represent the true facts. These same people are spending, each year, £250 million on sweets, £870 million on tobacco, and £870 million on beer. [Interruption.] I refuse to be pushed off this point, which is significant and important. If the nation can afford to spend £2,000 million on these commodities, to suggest that it is a great hardship to remove a £24 million subsidy is not taking account of all the facts. One-hundredth part of this figure is all that is covered by this Order.

Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)

Is the hon. Gentleman now arguing that the nine children in the family which has been quoted by my hon. Friend spend their pocket money on beer and tobacco?

Mr. Nicholls

No. The hon. Gentleman is not paying me the compliment of listening to my speech. I hope he will read it tomorrow. I am trying to deal with each of these sections. I am saying that by far the largest section of the people who eat bread come from households where people are employed and have had extra wages.

I recognise the special plea that has been made for the old-age pensioners. I do not want to use the word "resent", but I am sorry that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn in quoting me from a previous speech, said I had sneered at the case of the old-age pensioners. I assure her that I never sneer at the plight of the old-age pensioners. I know their problems too well. My own mother and father are old-age pensioners. They are living in the sort of conditions that I know the hon. Lady has in mind, both having been working people. I hope that when she quotes me another time on what I say about old-age pensioners she will do so without ascribing to me a tone of voice in which I am supposed to have spoken.

Mrs. Castle

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that a reference to a small section of old-age pensioners who, if they had any real hardship, could have recourse to other agencies, is a sneer?

Mr. Nicholls

I did not say there was a small section. I said that there was a small section—of the population—who were old-age pensioners. If the hon. Lady would listen to some of our debates and not quote as she tends to read them in the OFFICIAL REPORT, she would be able to quote more accurately.

Let me repeat what I said on that occasion. It is a fact that the old-age pensioners, when they are in real hardship, have the opportunity of putting their case to the Assistance Board.

I beg hon. Members not to try to tag a reputation on to the National Assistance Board which will prevent people making use of it more often. This Government saw the old-age pension raised last year from 32s. 6d. to 40s. for a single person and from 54s. to 65s. for a married couple. Indeed, the present pension has a higher purchasing power than the rate of pension paid for seven years up to April, 1955. That is a fact that should be kept in mind.

I now come to the question of families with children. I remember that when we debated this matter in March last year the hon. Lady the Member for Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen) asked what the Government proposed to do for the families with many children. Since that date—and we cannot divorce this, because it is part of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's campaign—an extra family allowance of 2s. for the third child has been given.

It is essential that we should look at the whole of this picture. If we take the official figures in calculating the effect this will have on families it will be seen that we have kept our bargain in recognising the special needs of the big families.

Mr. Shurmer

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would trot out this children's allowance, but is he aware that there are thousands of widows with children who are unable to go out to work, and that when they did receive the extra 2s. the Assistance Board deducted that amount from what it gave them? It admitted that it had done so.

Mr. Nicholls

I have no doubt that the Assistance Board has to take into account all the income going into a home, but if the hon. Gentleman will try to follow my argument he will see that I was attempting to answer the question put to me by the hon. Lady the Member for Gorbals who, in March last, said that we were putting up the cost of bread and were not taking into account the special problem of the big family. To disregard the 2s. allowance for the third child is not to take full account of all the facts.

I do not believe that the public is being called upon to pay more than its fair share in this great battle to keep our economy stable. All the facts show that it is essential for every section of the community to play its part in trying to defeat this giant inflation. Every other section of the community is being forced by one means or another to play its part, and I believe that this saving of £24 million, which will mean that it will be paid for by the consumer instead of by the taxpayer, is an earnest of the fact that the Government are prepared to ask all sections of the community to join in partnership in the battle.

In our last debate on this matter I asked hon. Members to support the common sense and logic behind this step, and I repeat that plea tonight.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I believe that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to pray later and that if they do not pray tonight they will lose their chance for ever. Therefore, I will be very brief and say to the Parliamentary Secretary that he has spoken with more vigour than intelligence and that he has really not directed his mind to the charges made against the Government.

I do not know how one can battle against inflation by putting up the price of bread and raising the cost of living by doing it. This is not only a breach of all the electoral promises of the Government; this is the most cruelly unfair food tax. It is directed against families, against the poorer people, and is deliberately unfair. It is hideously irrelevant to our present crisis.

What can be more calculatedly unfair in present circumstances, when the people are to face the impact of price increases brought about by the Suez disaster, than deliberately to withdraw the subsidy on bread and to put up its price? The result is that we have bread costing twice as much as it did under the Labour Government.

It is for these reasons, and to express our indignation and condemnation of the Government, that I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide against them tonight.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 151, Noes 200.

Division No. 6.] AYES [10.56 p.m.
Ainsley, J. W. Herbison, Miss M. Parker, J.
Albu, A. H. Holman, P. Parkin, B. T.
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Holmes, Horace Pearson, A.
Allen, Arthur (Bosworth) Howell, Charles (Perry Barr) Peart, T. F.
Allen, Scholefield (Crewe) Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey) Pentland, N.
Awbery, S. S. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Popplewell, E.
Baird, J. Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Price, J. T. (Westhoughton)
Balfour, A. Hunter, A. E. Price, Philips (Gloucestershire, W.)
Benson, G. Hynd, J. B. (Attercliffe) Probert, A. R.
Bevan, Rt. Hon. A. (Ebbw Vale) Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill) Proctor, W. T.
Blackburn, F. Irving, S. (Dartford) Pursey, Cmdr. H.
Boardman, H. Janner, B. Randall, H. E.
Bowden, H. W. (Leicester, S. W.) Jay, Rt. Hon. D. P. T. Redhead, E. C.
Bowles, F. G. Jeger, George (Goole) Reeves, J.
Boyd, T. C. Jeger, Mrs. Lena (Holbn & St. Pncs, S.) Reid, William
Braddock, Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson, James (Rugby) Rhodes, H.
Burke, W. A. Jones, David (The Hartlepools) Robens, Rt. Hon. A.
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Jones, Elwyn (W. Ham, S.) Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon)
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Kenyon, C. Ross, William
Callaghan, L. J. King, Dr. H. M. Royle, C.
Castle, Mrs. B. A. Lawson, G. M. Short, E. W.
Champion, A. J. Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock) Shurmer, P. L. E.
Chetwynd, G. R. Lever, Harold (Cheetham) Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill)
Coldrick, W. Lever, Leslie (Ardwick) Skeffington, A. M.
Collins, V. J. (Shoreditch & Finsbury) Lewis, Arthur Slater, Mrs. H. (Stoke, N.)
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Lindgren, G. S. Slater, J. (Sedgefield)
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson Soskice, Rt. Hon. Sir Frank
Cronin, J. D. MacColl, J. E. Sparks, J. A.
Davies, Ernest (Enfield, E.) McGhee, H. G. Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Davies, Harold (Leek) McKay, John (Wallsend) Stones, W. (Consett)
Deer, G. MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling) Summerskill, Rt. Hon. E.
Delargy, H. J. Mahon, Simon Sylvester, G. O.
Dodds, N. N. Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Dugdale, Rt. Hn. John (W. Brmwch) Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A. Thomson, George (Dundee, E.)
Dye, S. Messer, Sir F. Warbey, W. N.
Edelman, M. Mikardo, Ian Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Edwards, Rt. Hon. John (Brighouse) Mitchison, G. R. West, D. G.
Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Moody, A. S. Wheeldon, W. E.
Edwards, W. J. (Stepney) Moss, R. White, Mrs. Eirene (E. Flint)
Evans, Albert (Islington, S. W.) Moyle, A. White, Henry (Derbyshire, N. E.)
Evans, Edward (Lowestoft) Mulley, F. W. Willey, Frederick
Fletcher, Eric Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Williams, Ronald (Wigan)
Gibson, C. W. O'Brien, Sir Thomas Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)
Gordon Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C. Oram, A. E. Williams, W. T. (Barons Court)
Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) Orbach, M. Willis, Eustace (Edinburgh, E.)
Griffiths, William (Exchange) Oswald, T. Wilson, Rt. Hon. Harold (Huyton)
Hale, Leslie Owen, W. J. Woof, R. E.
Hamilton, W. W. Paget, R. T. Yates, V. (Ladywood)
Hastings, S. Palmer, A. M. F. Zilliacus, K.
Hayman, F. H. Pannell, Charles (Leeds. W.)
Healey, Denis Pargiter, G. A. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mr. Wilkins and Mr. John Taylor.
Agnew, Cmdr. P. G. Barter, John Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry
Aitken, W. T. Bell, Philip (Bolton, E.) Bryan, P.
Allan, R. A. (Paddington, S.) Bennett, F. M. (Torquay) Buchan-Hepburn, Rt. Hon. P. G. T.
Alport, C. J. M. Bevins, J. R. (Toxteth) Butler, Rt. Hn. R. A. (Saffron Walden)
Amory, Rt. Hn. Heathcoat (Tiverton) Bidgood, J. C. Campbell, Sir David
Arbuthnot, John Biggs-Davison, J. A. Channon, H.
Armstrong, C. W. Bishop, F. P. Chichester-Clark, R.
Ashton, H. Black, C. W. Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.)
Atkins, H. E. Body, R. F. Conant, Maj. Sir Roger
Baldock, Lt.-Cmdr. J. M. Bowen, E. R. (Cardigan) Cooper, A. E.
Baldwin, A. E. Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. J. A. Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K.
Balniel, Lord Boyle, Sir Edward Corfield, Capt. F. V.
Barber, Anthony Braine, B. R. Craddock, Beresford (Spelthorne)
Barlow, Sir John Braithwaite, Sir Albert (Harrow, W.) Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E.
Crouch, R. F. Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Osborne, C.
Cunningham, Knox Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) Page, R. G.
Currie, G. B. H. Jennings, J, C. (Burton) Pannell, N. A. (Kirkdale)
Dance, J. C. G. Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle) Partridge, E.
Deedes, W. F. Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Pilkington, Capt. R. A.
Digby, Simon Wingfield Joseph, Sir Keith Pott, H. P.
Dodds-Parker, A. D. Joynson-Hicks, Hon. Sir Lancelot Powell, J. Enoch
Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. McA. Kaberry, D. Price, David (Eastleigh)
Doughty, C. J. A. Keegan, D. Raikes, Sir Victor
Drayson, G. B. Kerby, Capt. H. B. Rawlinson, Peter
du Cann, E. D. L. Kershaw, J. A. Redmayne, M.
Eden, J. B. (Bournemouth, West) Kimball, M. Rees-Davies, W. R.
Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E. Kirk, P. M. Renton, D. L. M.
Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Lambton, Viscount Rippon, A. G. F.
Fell, A. Langford-Holt, J. A. Robinson, Sir Roland (Blackpool, S.)
Finlay, Graeme Leather, E. H. C. Roper, Sir Harold
Fisher, Nigel Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H. Russell, R. S.
Fletcher-Cooke, C. Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield) Schofield, Lt.-Col. W.
Fraser, Hon. Hugh (Stone) Linstead, Sir H. N. Scott-Miller, Cmdr. R.
Freeth, D. K. Lloyd, Maj. Sir Guy (Renfrew, E.) Sharples, R. C.
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D. Lloyd-George, Maj. Rt. Hon. G. Shepherd, William
Garner-Evans, E. H. Longden, Gilbert Simon, J. E. S. (Middlesbrough, W.)
Gibson-Watt, D. Lucas, Sir Jocelyn (Portsmouth, S.) Smithers, Peter (Winchester)
Gower, H. R. Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Smyth, Brig. Sir John (Norwood)
Graham, Sir Fergus Macdonald, Sir Peter Stanley, Capt. Hon. Richard
Grant-Ferris, Wg Cdr. R.(Nantwich) McKibbin, A. J. Stevens, Geoffrey
Gresham Cooke, R. McLaughlin, Mrs. P. Steward, Sir William (Woolwich, W.)
Grimston, Sir Robert (Westbury) Maclean, Fitzroy (Lancaster) Storey, S.
Gurden, Harold McLean, Neil (Inverness) Stuart, Rt. Hon. James (Moray)
Hall, John (Wycombe) Macleod, Rt. Hn. lain (Enfield, W.) Studholme, Sir Henry
Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N. W.) Macmillan, Rt. Hn. Harold (Bromley) Temple, J. M.
Harris, Reader (Heston) Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax) Thomas, Leslie (Canterbury)
Harrison, A. B. C. (Maldon) Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries) Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)
Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye) Maddan, Martin Thompson, Lt.-Cdr. (Croydon, S.)
Harvey, Air Cdre. A. V. (Macclesfd) Maitland, Cdr. J. F. W. (Horncastle) Thorneycroft, Rt. Hon. P.
Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.) Maitland, Hon. Patrick (Lanark) Tilney, John (Wavertree)
Heath, Rt. Hon. E. R. G. Manningham-Buller, Rt. Hn. Sir R. Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H.
Hesketh, R. F. Markham, Major Sir Frank Vane, W. M. F.
Hill, Mrs. E. (Wythenshawe) Marlowe, A. A. H. Vaughan-Morgan, J. K.
Hill, John (S. Norfolk) Maude, Angus Vickers, Miss J. H.
Hinchingbrooke, Viscount Maydon, Lt.-Comdr, S. L. C. Vosper, D. F.
Hirst, Geoffrey Medlicott, Sir Frank Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)
Holland-Martin, C. J. Milligan, Rt. Hon. W. R. Walker-Smith, D. C.
Holt, A. F. Molson, Rt. Hon. Hugh Wall, Major Patrick
Hope, Lord John Mott-Radclyffe, C. E. Ward, Hon. George (Worcester)
Hornby, R. P. Nabarro, G. D. N. Whitelaw, W. S. I. (Penrith & Border)
Horobin, Sir Ian Nairn, D. L. S. Williams, R. Dudley (Exeter)
Horsbrugh, Rt. Hon. Dame Florence Neave, Airey Wills, G. (Bridgwater)
Howard, Gerald (Cambridgeshire) Nicholls, Harmar Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Howard, Hon. Grevlile (St. Ives) Nicholson, Godfrey (Farnham) Wood, Hon. R.
Howard, John (Test) Nugent, G. R. H.
Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral J. O'Neill, Hn. Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hughes-Young, M. H. C. Ormsby-Gore, Hon. W. D. Mr. Oakshott and Mr. Godber.
Hylton-Foster, Sir H. B. H. Orr, Capt. L. P. S.