HL Deb 29 July 1918 vol 31 cc27-32

VISCOUNT CHAPLIN had the following Questions on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. What has been the total amount of the payments made by the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies and the Royal Commission on Sugar Supplies for the purchase of wheat and sugar by those two Royal Commissions respectively;
  2. 2. Who is the chief official responsible for the distribution of food purchased by the Ministry of Food, and by whom are the payments made for the cost of its distribution;
  3. 3. What are the duties and functions in the organisation for the maintenance of supplies, and who is the chief official responsible;
  4. 28
  5. 4. How far has the cost of administration, so far, been paid for as it was "hoped" it would be by the margin above cost prices at which 'foodstuffs are sold to the consumer; and
  6. 5. How much has been paid for the purchased home-produced food and imported food respectively; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I do not ask these Questions for the purpose of raising a debate, but I have two reasons in particular for putting them on the Paper. Those reasons arise out of replies given to me on July 10 by the noble Lord who answered the Questions I then put to His Majesty's Government; and I was not altogether able to follow what he said when he told me that two of them could not be answered, and that certain items of expenditure could not be separated.

I was particularly anxious to know what the cost of the distribution of food by the Food Controller's Department was, because, until the distribution was undertaken by the State—which distribution, I imagine, must mean an enormous expenditure—it of course cost the State absolutely nothing. My noble friend on that occasion replied to me in these terms— The distribution of food by the Department is worked conjointly with the general control of prices 58 fixed by the Food Controller's Orders and with the organisation for the maintenance of supplies. It is, therefore, impossible to discriminate between the two items, and the cost of these functions cannot be separated. I myself do not care twopence whether the cost of distribution can be separated or not as between two Departments. What I should like to know is what it costs altogether. Somebody must pay for the cost of distribution, and there must be sonic account of such payment; and I do not understand on what grounds it is impossible that we can be told anything as to the cost of the distribution of food by the Food Controller's Department.

There is another reason why I have thought it necessary to put these Questions. The cost of this Department, which was £48,000 for the month of December last, has gone up by leads and bounds in such an extraordinary fashion that, according to the figures given to me by the noble Lord, they have now come to be at the rate of, as I stated on a former occasion in this House, something like £400,000,000 a year. It is quite true we have been told that Hare is to be a return for this enormous expenditure, and that it is to arise from margins on the sale of commodities, but we have been told nothing about the returns at present, and it is in connection with that subject that I have asked Questions also.

As to the first Question, I hope there may be a possibility of an answer to that, and it is as to the total amount of the payments n Lade by the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies and the Royal Commission on Sugar Supplies for wheat and sugar respectively. I am much interested in that because I recollect, perfectly well while I was still in the House of Commons an occasion on which the Government, although they had declined to spend something like £250,000 or £300,000 for setting up factories in one or two different parts of England where fanners had already agreed to grow all the sugar beet necessary for the purpose, instead of taking that course, which would appear to have been a reasonable one and calculated to be of great benefit to agriculture and the employment of labour at the same time—instead of doing that they purchased £18,000,000 worth of sugar abroad. Whether that was after the war broke out, or before, my memory does not serve me to say.

Then a most extraordinary thing happened afterwards, as it appeared that there was a considerable rise in the price of sugar, and the Free Trade Government of that day immediately prohibited the import of sugar into this country altogether. I think I am justified in asking for some information about what has been spent in the purchase of sugar and wheat, unless there be some objection of which I am not personally aware. As to my second Question, if we can ascertain that information we shall be getting on in the direction of what I want to know.

[The noble Viscountthen read his remaining Questions, and proceeded.] It seems to me that these are all Questions which anybody is fairly entitled to ask, grid I hope the noble Earl will be able to give me some further reply to-day than he was able to give me on the last occasion when I raised this subject.


My Lords, the total amount paid by the Royal Commission on Wheat Supplies for the purchase of wheat, including flour, is approximately £270,000,000 f.o.b. Of the quantity so purchased a considerable amount was allocated to the Allies, the balance available for British consumption representing approximately a f.o.b. value of £160,814,000, or, including freight and insurance, about £226,000,000. Down to September 17, 1917, it is hoped that the cost of administration was wholly met by the margin between purchasing and selling prices. Since that date, owing to the introduction of the 9d. loaf and the consequent fixing of selling prices below cost, there has been no available margin. The disbursements of the Royal Commission on the Sugar Supplies total £147,621,460. These figures include sums owed to the Ministry of Shipping, but for which no accounts have been received, and exclude sums paid on account of Allies and not yet refunded. In the case of sugar, the cost of administration has been wholly met by the margin between purchasing and selling prices. The Ministry of Food pay for the machinery of rationing.

With regard to the second Question, it is the duty of the Food Controller to regulate the supply and distribution of food, and for this purpose he has appointed secretaries and officers to take such steps as he may approve for maintaining supplies and, giving directions with respect to distribution. The problems of supply and distribution are inevitably linked together, as it is impossible to distribute supplies which are not available, while imported supplies, at any rate, are based on requirements which are ascertained in the last resort from distributing centres.

As to Question No. 4, the total amount of the payments made by the Ministry of Food in respect of purchases is £195,832,311, of this, £60,411,670 was for home-produced food, and £135,120,641 for imported food. All payments in the United Kingdom are made by or under the direction of the Financial Secretary to the Ministry. Payments abroad are made by accredited agents under the direction of the Financial Secretary of the Treasury. It is not yet possible to say exactly holy far the cost of administration has been met, but it is again hoped that this will be covered by the margin between purchasing and selling prices.

The annual accounts of the Ministry of Food and of the Wheat and Sugar Commissions will be duly submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and will be forwarded with his observations to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. I understand that the Chairman of the Select Committee of the House of Commons charged with the investigation of the expenditure of the Ministry of Food has expressed his entire satisfaction with the financial system set up by that Department.


I am sorry to say I hear so badly that at times it has been impossible for me to follow the noble Earl as closely as I should have wished. I still do not understand—it may be my own fault—why it is impossible to answer the Question as to the distribution of food. However, I must wait until I have an opportunity of seeing the noble Earl's reply in print, and then perhaps I shall have some further observations to make upon the subject.


May I explain in one sentence why distribution and supply are inextricably combined? Take wheat. Wheat arrives in this country from overseas, and it is handed over to the agent who is a distributor. He distributes to the miller; the miller treats that wheat, buying it as a wholesaler, and distributes it to the baker who is also a distributor. The baker distributes the wheat to the ultimate consumer, who is a member of the public. At the same time wheat grown in Lincolnshire is bought by a private corn merchant who is a wholesale dealer. He sells it to the miller, who for that purpose, becomes a retail buyer. The miller mixes that wheat with his imported wheat, and again it passes through the flour stage and ultimately reaches the consumer. At the same time a cargo of imported flour has come into this country. It is received here by the Royal Commission and handed over to the flour factor. The flour factor again, as a wholesaler, distributes it to his retail merchants, the bakers. They mix the flour with the home-milled G.R. flout and it ultimately reaches the consumer. Each of these persons, at one stage or another, is a distributor or wholesaler or retailer. I can assure the noble Viscount that it is through no desire to avoid the implication of what he asks that we say it is impossible accurately to define the division between the maintenance of supply and distribution.


I can see that with regard to flour.