HL Deb 19 November 1918 vol 32 cc222-7

LORD RATHCREEDAN rose to ask His Majesty's Government what steps, if any, are being taken to release some of the Army Transport with a view to the better distribution of foodstuffs by the numerous firms who in the interest of the Sate gave up their vehicles at the out break of the war.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in putting the Question which stands in my name, I desire to state at the outset that I do not minimise in the smallest degree the very difficult position in which the Government is placed at the present moment in being obliged to undertake hundreds of matters, all of which are presumed to be pressing, in consequence of the termination of the war. But they must begin somewhere, and there are a certain number of matters which ought to have priority of claim, and certainly any subject which deals either directly or indirectly with the supply of food to the people ought to take one of the first places.

It will be within the recollection of your Lordships that at the outbreak of war a large number of firms throughout the country surrendered the greater part of their transport, both mechanical and horse, to the Army, in a great measure through a feeling of patriotism. My contention is that those firms ought to be rewarded by the surrender to them as soon as possible of a portion at least of such transport as the Government have had placed at their disposal. I am well aware that it will be extremely difficult to bring rapidly from the Front any considerable portion of transport, but there is a certain amount of transport in the hands of the War Office in this country, and I am disposed to think that some small portion of it at any rate might be placed at the disposal of those firms who at the out break of war gave up their transport and who deal with food stuffs.

For some time past, as a member of an Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Food, I have known that the great difficulty with reference to supplies outside the urban areas of this country is due in the main not to a dearth of provisions but to difficulty of distribution. In the rural districts large numbers of the small shops have been closed altogether; in others the shops have been lamentably short of provisions, because it is extremely difficult for the wholesalers to supply the necessary stuffs to the smaller shops. As a result such things as cheese, bacon, margarine, and other substances, which are of supreme importance to the working classes, are not available at these smaller shops, and the working class women, the wives of agricultural labourers and others, are obliged to travel, at least once a week, several miles in order to obtain the provisions necessary for the week. They are obliged to go to the neighbouring towns, where they are not served over-readily.

This difficulty of transport, so far as the agricultural districts are concerned, is further aggravated by the fact that—as many of your Lordships know who, like myself, were members of military appeal tribunals for counties—we were told at the time by the gallant Field-Marshal that we had our backs to the wall and that we should send every available man to the Colours. In doing so we robbed the countryside of a large number of carriers. That further aggravated the scarcity to a very great degree, because it was not worth the while of the wholesalers to adopt some other method, and indeed the wholesalers could not have dealt with the matter, if they had wished, owing to the difficulty of transport.

What I ask is that in view of this difficulty we should have a small amount of mechanical transport at once transferred to the wholesalers. The question is much more pressing than is generally supposed, because into this question enters that of the distribution of the milk supplies of the country, and your Lordships will readily recognise that a supply of milk is even more important for the children than a supply of bread. I may therefore be pardoned if I read an extract from the summary of a Commissioner's Report for the week ending November 2. One of the Commissioners says that in his opinion— there is a large supply of milk in the division, which might be tapped if transport could be met by an increased supply of petrol and motor conveyances. I have made inquiry at the Ministry of Food and I was told that the number of milch cows in this country was as large as ever. Nevertheless, we find great dearth of milk in the country. It would be quite possible to overcome this difficulty if a little petrol and some motor conveyance were provided.

I might also add that this difficulty is aggravated by the fact that, as another Commissioner states, the lack of feeding-stuffs for the cows is reducing the yield, which has dropped from an average of 2¾ to 1½ gallons. That is a very serious consideration. In my part of the country I know that we attribute a great deal of this dearth of milk, or failure in yield on the part of the cows, to the fact that we had an exceedingly wet September, which had such an effect upon the grazing qualities of the soil that in a certain measure it has prevented the supply of milk which might have been anticipated. Both things combined place us in this position, that probably three or four months hence there will be a dearth of milk throughout the country, and much unpleasantness, to say the least of it, will arise among the working classes. I stated yesterday that it was always a source of great gratification to the working classes of this country when anything that deeply affected them was dealt with by your Lordships' House, and this is one of those questions; if your Lordships will support me in this matter you will thereby tend to increase the prestige of your House in the eyes of your fellow-countrymen.


My Lords, I am afraid I am unable to give a very definite reply to my noble friend, for reasons which I am sure he will appreciate. The demands for military transport both in this country and in France have, if anything, increased since the signing of the Armistice. The reason is, I think, clear as regards France. The Army has now begun to march forward at a very much more rapid rate than was the case before the signing of the Armistice. It is obvious that that Army must go forward with the whole of its supplies—supplies of ammunition, of engineering material, and of food. Until the railways are capable of carrying these stores forward, a very large amount of that work must be done by motor transport. In many cases it has actually been necessary to use all three échelons of the transport owing to the distance from our railheads. We hope shortly that the railheads will be pushed right forward, and in that case less transport will be necessary on the roads.

As regards this country, I am sure your Lordships will agree with what is being proposed, which is that a large number of motor lorries are being used for the conveyance of our repatriated prisoners of war from the ports to the camps, where they are first accommodated, and from these camps to the railway stations on the way to their homes. There is also a certain amount of movement in this country to clear camps for the accommodation of prisoners, and therefore actually at this moment the demands for transport in this country are rather higher than they were before. A certain number of vehicles no longer required by the War Department have been on sale for some weeks, and we understand that the number will very rapidly increase. It is at present impossible to estimate the wear and tear of motor transport abroad, but we anticipate that it will be less than it has been in the past, and therefore new lorries for replacement will be less required than they were before.

Therefore the number of vehicles for disposal will increase from this time on. Their disposal is effected by the Surplus Disposal Board, and I understand that it works under a Committee presided over by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. I am quite sure that this Board will pay every regard to the remarks that have been made by my noble friend, and will endeavour to give such facilities as are possible for the provision of transport for the disposal of food in agricultural districts, and particularly of milk, at the very earliest possible moment. I regret that I am not able to give the numbers and the dates upon which this increase of transport will become available, but I am sure my noble friend will realise why it is impossible at the present time.


My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord for asking this Question, and indebted also to the noble Earl for his full reply. But to my mind his reply has not answered the real case that the noble Lord made. I understand that the noble Lord's case was this. At present lack of petrol prevents the possibility of distributing our supplies of milk so as to ensure their being received in abundance by all the various consumers. The noble Earl has pointed out, in answer, that the demands of the Army in France in regard to transport remain to a large extent still unabated—this I can understand—and that to some extent also there may even be a slight increase. But there are a large number of instances in which they ought to be very materially reduced. Let us take the Navy for example. It must be plain to everybody that it is no longer necessary to keep the same supply of petrol for the use of our petrol-driven vessels as it was before; and a proportion of that supply ought to be capable of being released at once and used for such purposes as the noble Lord suggested.

Further, there have been a very large number of private cars utilised by the Government for the use of people connected with the Government even in a very remote manner. There is no doubt about their number; they can be counted by anybody who likes to walk down Whitehall or Pall Mall. Nobody was prepared to question the necessity for this while war was raging. We were told that swift transit of Government officials from place to place was necessary. But the exigencies of war have been relaxed, and it seems difficult, at any rate to my mind, to understand why the conditions of Government employment to-day differ from what they would be in ordinary times of peace, and why it is now necessary that a large fleet of motor cars should be kept for people connected with Government Departments when in times of peace nobody would have dreamt of any such thing being done.

Then we see announced in the newspapers—whether the announcement is inspired or not, I do not know—that private people may be expecting petrol shortly, in December or in January. I say without hesitation that it would be nothing less than a public scandal if petrol were to be released for the use of private people in the pursuit of pleasure while such demands as those to which the noble Lord has referred remain unsatisfied. Within my own knowledge I have the case of a doctor who has been unable to see his patients owing to shortage of petrol, and this at a time when able-bodied men are being driven about in motor cars from their clubs to Whitehall over a distance they might just as well walk. However much that may be submitted to in times of war, because of the excuses that war brings, I submit that it cannot be tolerated in times when peace is drawing near. The first petrol to be liberated should not be freed for the purposes of pleasure but for the purposes of the industrial needs and the economic necessities of this country; and in order that it may be made as much as possible the Government should at once take steps to check and to control the use of the cars placed at the service of their own servants.