HL Deb 19 February 1941 vol 118 cc442-56

VISCOUNT ASTOR had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they intend to develop the policy of subsidising meals especially for pregnant women and children in order to improve the physique, health and mental development of the rising generation, to economise foodstuffs and to utilise the increased output of agriculture", and move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, if I had not had a Motion of my own on the Paper, I should have been sorely tempted to take part in the very interesting discussion to which we have listened. It was one of those discussions where there is an element of right on both sides. I witnessed in the last war the bringing of many business men into Government Departments, and I am perfectly satisfied the civil servants were delighted to have their help, but I can also say, from observation and experience, that where you had business men without any adequate leavening of civil servants the business men did not make the progress they might have done with the assistance of those experienced in the machinery of government. I say only one other thing. In so far as red tape operates, whether at the centre or the periphery, it is very largely due to the fact that the elected authorities, whether Parliamentary or local, insist on the right of applying a magnifying glass to every small decision of an officer. It is that as much as anything else which tends to slow up the machinery.

In relation to the Motion on the Paper I should like first of all to apologise to your Lordships for having had to postpone this debate from the date originally selected a week ago. I apologise to any noble Lord who suffered inconvenience on that account, but circumstances over which I had no control made it impossible for me to be here to take part in a debate a week ago. Your Lordships had a debate yesterday on the inadequacy of feeding in connection with hunger. Today I rather want to have a discussion on the inadequacy of feeding in connection with malnourishment and malnutrition; they are different things. My Motion urges upon the Government the desirability of subsidising food for expectant and nursing mothers and children. The war has dislocated child life as it has dislocated all life. We have had evacuation; we have had injury to school buildings; we have had many public buildings destroyed by bombs or raids; we have had in the early days of the war a large number of inspectors of the Board of Education seconded to other work so that they were not there to carry out their usual functions. It is very difficult to illustrate the results of what I am referring to in terms of statistics. I will refer only to one figure and that is to compare the consumption of milk under the cheap milk in schools scheme in October, 1938, when it was 2,500,000 gallons, with the consumption of milk under the scheme a year later, October, 1939, when it had fallen by 1,000,000 gallons to a total of 1,500,000 gallons.

That is a very serious state of affairs and one likely to prejudice the welfare of a considerable number of children. We know that as a result of the last war there were a large number of children on the Continent who suffered through malnutrition, and who through the whole of their lives have borne traces of the fact that in their youth they had not had an adequate dietary. It is because of that that I came here to praise the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, for the steps he has taken to see that enough of the primary and most important food is made available for all children who need it. I would like to refer to a circular which was issued in July, 1940, less than a year ago, by the Board of Education. Although it was issued by the Board of Education it was issued in consultation with other Government Departments, and therefore presumably indicated the state of mind of many Ministers. This circular certainly shows that there was considerable anxiety in the minds of many Ministers who are brought in contact with the welfare of the rising genera- tion of our population. Various points are referred to in this circular, and I would like to take them one by one.

The first quotation I want to make to your Lordships refers to the fact that the Government, according to the circular, had under consideration the action necessary to secure increased provision for communal feeding arrangements, whether free of charge or on payment of the cost of food for children.… That is to say, the Government recognised the fact that the situation then was unsatisfactory. The next point is where the circular refers to the position of necessitous under-nourished children. The circular says about this that the provision, which was insufficient before the war, is now even less adequate. In about half of the local education authority areas in England and Wales no provision is made for free meals for necessitous undernourished children, and in many areas where such provision is made it is insufficient to meet the needs of all the children who require it. That is a very serious indictment.

The third point I want to refer to in that circular is the one which is headed "Meals for the children of mothers engaged on war work." There those who are in a position of responsibility are urged to supply meals on payment for the children of mothers who go out to work, and the circular points out that the rapidly growing employment of women in munition factories and other forms of war work has made it a matter of urgency. … The nation cannot afford to immobilise a large proportion of the mothers of children of school age in order that they may be free to cook midday meals for their children. Your Lordships know of the increasing extent to which our women folk are being brought into industries, and that the Government, quite rightly, have dispersed factories and built factories in rural areas. Consequently there are many women who have to go quite a long way to their work in these war factories and, as a result of that, the probability is that their children do not get the attention which they would normally get in peace-time.

The fourth point I would refer to is under the heading "Meals for other children." The circular deals with women in industry and necessitous malnourished children, and says: The Board therefore think it important that the local education authorities, in addition to making provision for the needs of the special classes of children already mentioned, should consider the desirability of making provision for other children and of encouraging parents to take advantage of such provision.

That is a very important matter of major policy. The last point I want to refer to is contained under the paragraph with the heading "Free Milk." Here local authorities are urged to consider whether the provision of free milk is needed for a larger number of children and whether the normal ration should be increased to at least two-thirds of a pint (one bottle in the morning and one in the afternoon. … These five separate points are all of importance and worthy of consideration and action, and it was quite obvious that the various Government Departments responsible for the welfare; and development of the population at large and of the child population in particular were worried and anxious when this circular was issued in July, 1940.

When we are tempted to criticise local authorities for not having done more, let us all recognise the practical difficulties that are facing them. I happen to be very closely associated with a local authority and I see the practical difficulties which face them all. On the periphery you have a shifting" population due to evacuation; you have raids which come and destroy essential buildings; there is a shortage of labour and materials when one is asked to rebuild these buildings; there is the fact very frequently that the buildings which local authorities require are requisitioned for military purposes; and there is also the fact that local authorities, like others, have a shortage of staff. I would agree that all these practical difficulties face the elected authorities at the periphery. But having said that, I would also agree with the Government that in spite of all this there are undoubtedly many local authorities that have not done as much as they ought to have done. I hope that the noble Lord, when he replies for the Government, will be able to give us the latest information which is available as to the exact extent of the improvernent compared with what the position was in July, 1940, when this circular was issued. I am aware that there has been a great improvement, but naturally I am not in a position to know the extent of the improvement and I hope the noble Lord will be able to give us some information.

I want to go out of my way to congratulate the noble Lord upon one contribution which he has made. Under the milk scheme which was prepared about the time that this circular was issued—I think it actually came into operation on July I—an enormous contribution has been made to the physical welfare of children at an age when their feeding is a matter of primary importance. Under the milk scheme any expectant or nursing mother and any child up to the age of five years where the family income does not exceed 40s. a week is entitled to a pint of milk a day. There are modifications but that is the main part of the milk scheme. Where the family income exceeds 40s. milk may be obtained at 2d. a pint, which at the time was not much more than half its market price. There is a further important provision. The noble Lord, I understand, has taken power to himself to impose priority—that is to say, if there is a shortage of milk at any moment mothers and school children may have prior claims.

I have in mind a chart produced in the last war—I think a committee of which I was chairman was responsible for it—which indicated that if all children had the milk which the medical profession and others thought they ought to have, there would be no milk at all at some periods of the year for the adult population, whereas it was quite obvious that all through the year, summer and winter, adults did drink a considerable amount of milk. It was equally obvious therefore that a large number of children were not having the quantity of milk they ought to have. The result of this scheme is that no less a number than 2,500,000 people or slightly over that figure were benefiting by this scheme a few weeks ago. That is a huge contribution not only to the physical but also to the mental welfare of the child population. Everybody knows that an underfed or malnourished child cannot take advantage to the full extent of the teaching and instruction given him. If you give a child enough to eat you will get the full advantage of the public money spent by the ratepayers and taxpayers on his education and upbringing.

Another point, which I am sure will interest many noble Lords, is that this is an indirect benefit to agriculture. Under this scheme 10,000,000 gallons of milk are being drunk a year. A measure such as this combines the interests of the consumers in the towns with the interests of the producers in the country. Before sitting down I am going to urge your Lordships individually and collectively to do all you can to see that this step, taken now in the emergency of war, is never given up when we reach the time of peace. I am going to urge your Lordships to do what you can to extend this principle to children over the age of five. If you do that, you will link up the welfare and prosperity of British agriculture with the interests of the masses in the towns and you will get mothers in the towns to vote for an expenditure of money to benefit agriculture in a way in which they have never done in the past when efforts have been made to benefit agriculture. So far as I am concerned, I consider it well worth while to have travelled from Plymouth if only to have an opportunity of thanking and congratulating the noble Lord on the enormous step forward he has taken.

I indicated just now that a great deal more ought to be done and I tried to bring out some of the practical difficulties which we have to encounter. It will be necessary for the Government and local authorities to improvise, and I hope that in any circulars that are issued from Whitehall local authorities will be reminded of that. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give publicity to what is called the Oslo breakfast. The Oslo breakfast, as many of your Lordships know, is a meal for which no cooking is required. Milk, cereal, raw fruit or vegetables, a bit of cheese if cheese is available, constitutes the Oslo breakfast, and a great advantage from the point of view of war-time emergency is that you do not require a kitchen. Every child who goes to school can be given an Oslo breakfast without it being necessary to incur the expense of setting up communal kitchens. Just as there is a shortage of bricks and skilled labour, so there is a shortage of cooking stoves and other implements and utensils.

I read a speech the other day by the Minister of Labour in which he reminded industrialists of their responsibility for the welfare and feeding of their employees. One of the big gains of the last war was the adoption, to a very great extent, of factory canteens and they are being developed and extended in this war. That is quite right and I hope that the contribution which we make in this war will be the recognition by local authorities of their responsibility for providing meals to a far greater extent than they have ever visualised in the past for children in their areas. In the discussion which we listened to earlier to-day, reference was made by more than one speaker to the constant delays which are associated with the administration of Government. I wonder whether it would not be possible for Whitehall, and even for the Treasury, to realise that in the larger local areas, counties and county boroughs, the treasurer is a responsible man, a man of ability and experience, and so far to forget itself as to allow that treasurer to give a decision on relatively small amounts. I have seen most important schemes held up for weeks and months over a trivial amount because it had to go back to Whitehall. Let us lose a few hundred thousand pounds if necessary—I do not believe you would lose, but that you would actually gain—by allowing the Treasury in London to delegate more authority and responsibility to these very responsible persons who hold the important office of treasurer in our larger cities.

I understand that in the near future your Lordships will be having a discussion on family allowances. The proposal for family allowances, I think, is very closely linked up with part of the Motion which I have ventured to bring before your Lordships' House to-day. The matter of family allowances is backed on the now generally admitted fact that whereas industry is expected to provide a wage which will enable the recipient to bring up a wife, a child, two children or perhaps even three children, industry cannot be expected, and does not now, fix its wage rates at such a figure as will enable a man to bring up a large family—a family comprising more than three dependent children—and bring it up adequately. That was very clearly brought out by Mr. Seebohm Rowntree in a book which he published some years ago. I think he brought out quite conclusively that a sum of, I think, 5s. per week per child ought to be provided by somebody other than the industrialists, the employers, in cases where there are more than three dependent children in a family. He estimated the total cost at something like £5,000,000.

One can relieve a family—a father and mother—of the expense of bringing up a large number of children either by giving them a grant in cash or a grant in kind, and that is where I link up my Motion to-day with that which is to be brought before your Lordships' House. If you give children free meals, one meal or possibly even more, obviously you are going to reduce the burden upon the family. If you relieve a family of the cost of feeding their children obviously you are going to assist the children and assist the employer in industry. I believe that if you were to do that you would get a greater economy of cash and of foodstuffs than if you were to give the whole of the money to the family and hope that they would spend it to the best advantage. You would guarantee that the whole of the money would be spent for the benefit of the children and that the right foods would be provided. I do not say that if you were to adopt the suggestion implied in my Motion you would necessarily solve the whole problem of the family income of the large family, but you would make a large contribution, and it may very well be that by a combination of the two, of providing free meals for families with a low income, you may make such a large contribution that the burden involved in family allowances may be very substantially diminished.

I said just now that I hope the principle which has been adopted by this milk scheme will be continued when the war is over. People are already beginning to talk of the new order which they are looking forward to when the war is over, and when they talk of the new order in terms of domestic policy they are apt to emphasize and underline the inequalities and injustices which exist I believe that the most serious inequality and injustice which exists to-day is not an economic inequality of talents but an inequality of the opportunities which the young have at the beginning of life—the unequal opportunities which tens of thousands of children have of physical development, of mental development and of moral development. That inequality, the fact that the young, at birth or before school age or during school age, have not a fair and equal opportunity of proper nourishment, proper mental development, hampers them throughout the whole of life. That is why I hope that when we come to work out our new order, whoever is going to do it will recognise the fundamental importance of removing these impediments, these inequalities, these injustices which to-day face tens of thousands of young children in this country.

Let us recognise the fact that the noble; Lord, Lord Woolton, has taken a step forward whereby the State recognises that it is its duty and obligation to provide necessary, adequate and essential food for expectant and nursing mothers and for young children where the family income is of a low level. Let us see to it that that conception of public service is put in the same category as our conception of public service in terms of sanitation, housing and education, and that it becomes part of the recognised Government machinery and administration. If we do that, and if we extend that principle so that it shall apply not only to children below the age of five but also to children above that age we shall have made a very substantial contribution to a new and better order for this country. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I rise to support the noble Viscount who has just spoken, because, as I told him, I wish to enlist under his flag on this subject if I may presume to do so. However important it is at the present moment to provide extra milk and food, I regard that as going only a very little way towards the desired result, the desired result being, as I see it, that every boy and girl born in this country should from the moment of conception have the best chance of developing mentally and physically, through childhood and through youth, so that these children in their turn can be the healthy parents of a new generation of the British race. In these times, when families are undergoing great difficulties, no one could hesitate to support the noble Viscount in his plea that more attention should be paid in the schools and elsewhere to seeing that the children receive adequate care. The children are the most important asset that we have, but they are not getting a fair chance under present conditions. If that were so only in time of war it might be excusable, but they were not obtaining fair treatment even before the war.

We have had many warnings. We have recently had Sir John Orr's views, and there have been Lord Luke's Committee, the Shoreditch report, and the Bristol Survey of the standard of living. Bristol is a particularly favoured city; it has many industries, and the conditions of the working population are probably better than in a great number of other cities, and certainly better than in London. I do not know what the housing conditions in Bristol are like, but it has been pointed out that one child in every five, amounting in all to 16,000 children, came from a family who, because of insufficient income, could not provide meals up to the standard laid down by the British Medical Association as necessary for proper nutrition, although that standard has itself been criticised by various authorities for not requiring enough milk to be supplied.

Let me remind your Lordships of the Shoreditch report. Shoreditch is a place where children have to live in conditions of almost unbelievable squalor, over- crowding, lack of open spaces, ill health and poverty, yet its boundaries march with those of the City of London—"the gilded City of London" as The Times described it. It was found that 75 per cent. of the houses in that district were bug-infested, extremely damp and unhealthy, and that rheumatism affected both children and adults. There were outside lavatories, with five or six families having to use one outside lavatory. I remember that the article in The Times which dealt with the matter was headed "Five in one bed." What is the good of supplying good food and milk if the children have to live in such conditions? What is the use of giving them extra food if they have to live, not through the fault of their parents, in these wretched conditions which must breed disease?

We are always inclined to tackle this matter piecemeal and not whole-heartedly. We have never made a big attack on the whole of these conditions of living. Take the case of the Bill providing for physical culture which was considered in this House four or five years ago. It touched only the fringe of the question; it provided certain facilities for physical culture for young men and women who were in a position to take advantage of them. The Government were not in a position to compel the wretched small employers, of the class who sweat young men and women in miserable quarters unfit for people to work in, to allow their young people to have the opportunity to go out into the fresh air and take advantages of the facilities for physical culture which were provided. I can imagine that your Lordships may be listening with some impatience to these remarks about housing conditions, because you may say that there is no labour now available for housing. Perhaps it is a good thing that there is not, because we have made no plan, and we are not yet ready to build the towns which ought to be built in place of those which have been destroyed. It is an ill wind which blows no one any good. The Fire of London was supposed to have done a great deal for the London of its day, and no doubt it did; and I am not sure that Hitler's bombing of our towns will not do good in the future.

One of our weaknesses as a nation is that we do not plan sufficiently beforehand. That is so in war, and it is so in peace. When history comes to be written, it will be seen that we did not learn from the last war, as we ought to have done, the great importance of planning ahead. This planning is needed in our social system also, and I believe the lack of it is largely due to the disinclination to stir up trouble and to offend vested interests. In the concluding part of his speech the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, urged that we should plan ahead, I am sure that we ought to plan ahead now for the rebuilding of our towns, which should go on alongside better feeding and the various other steps which will be taken to improve the conditions of life for the people of this country. Economies must come after this war, but that is one of the things about which we cannot afford to be miserly. We must see that the chilare fed, and that the mothers are fed, so that they can breed healthy children, and we must see that the children are brought up under conditions which will enable them in their turn to become healthy parents. Surely the magnificent people of these islands have established a claim for their children to be brought up with a far broader outlook on life and with far greater chances of education and of enjoying their existence than their parents had. I hope that they will insist upon it, and I hope that we shall have no peace in this country until some system of that sort is instituted.


My Lords, I am honoured in following such a very distinguished member of my own Service. I agree very sincerely with all that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, has said about the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, and what be is doing in this very difficult food situation. I deeply regret that my naval duties took me to Scotland yesterday, so that I could not be present at the debate which then took place. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, will forgive me if I ask one question now which I should have asked had I been present yesterday. It relates to some criticism which I have heard from trades people and from others in many walks of life, as to why the meat ration is based on value and not, as in the case of the Service ration, on weight. It seems to me that if it were done by weight it would enable the more expensive parts of the carcass to be bought by those who could afford them, and the less expensive parts would be available for others.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment, the rules of your Lordships' House are very wide, as we all know, but it is stretching them a little far to introduce, in a debate of this kind, a question which the noble Lord might have asked yesterday had he been here, a question about the price of meat. I have no more right than any other Peer to draw attention to tins point, but I have an equal right, and I think it my duty to do so.


I apologise if I have gone outside the wide rules of this House. However, I did not rise to bring up that point particularly, but rather one which I am sure has a direct bearing on what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, has said. There are certain commodities—in particular I am thinking of orange juice and tomato juice—which are specially needed by infants. There have been times in the past few months when oranges have been almost unobtainable. I would like to make what I think is a concrete suggestion—namely, that when commodities such as oranges are only available in small quantities and there are not enough of them to go round, arrangements should be made for infants to be given the preference. It has been suggested to me by a lady who is closely connected with infant welfare that the various infant welfare centres and baby clubs might well be entrusted with the task of seeing that the oranges reach the families where there are infants which require them.


My Lords, the question raised is one which concerns three separate Ministries; and I confess to your Lordships that I asked that I might be allowed to answer, because the subject that the noble Viscount has raised is one that is particularly close to my own heart and to my own interest; for, many years ago, I spent a great deal of my time and energy in establishing clinics and trying to persuade education authorities to provide meals and milk for necessitous children in the elementary schools in the slums of Liverpool, We have moved indeed a long way since those days. The Ministry of Health and the Board of Education, in which two Ministries the major responsibility for these movements lies, are bound to work through local authorities, and I think in fairness we must: recognise that in these days central government is pressing very hard on local authorities, constantly asking them to undertake more and more work. Those local authorities are indeed heavily burdened; but there are signs, I think, that on the subject which the noble Viscount has raised to-day they are indeed making progress. Yesterday we had in this House the great advantage of the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Dawson of Penn, and it was very encouraging for us to hear that at the present time there was no sign of malnutrition among the population of this country—and he mentioned children specifically—resulting from war conditions.

I must just tell your Lordships one or two facts that seem to me to show that we have not as a Government neglected to make provision. The consumption of milk in schools has indeed dropped, as the noble Viscount said, by 1,000,000 gallons, but the total increase in the consumption of milk by the population as a whole has increased by 5,000,000 gallons a month. Most important of all, the consumption of milk by people who are recognised as having prior necessity has risen to 10,000,000 gallons a month. Therefore, for what these figures are worth, they show that, in so far as the Government are intervening in the distribution of milk, they are arranging that it goes to the people who need it most from the point of view of avoiding malnutrition. We are indeed at the present time drinking, and so far as I can see we are likely to continue to drink, all the milk that the agricultural industry can provide. I look forward with some fear to see whether the agricultural industry will provide as much milk as we are teaching people to drink; and the prospect of the manufacturers this next summer having that surplus of milk which normally goes into manufacture are not very rosy.

The noble Viscount asked a specific question as to whether the local authorities were taking any notice of the Board of Education circular of July, 1940, on the subject of the provision of extra meals. I can tell him that the number of local authorities who are making this provision has increased from 200 to over 250—an increase which I think is not unsatisfactory. But I am assured that the President of the Board of Education is by no means complacent in this matter, and is pressing on still further. It was indicative, I think, of general Government policy that in that circular reference was made not only to meals for necessitous children, but meals for other children. There the Board of Education and the Ministry of Food are working in the closest possible contact. We realise that under war conditions, when women have been drawn into factories, there will be more need for meals in schools. Moreover, both for that and for other reasons, I have, as the noble Viscount knows, taken very active steps to secure that there shall be communal feeding centres throughout this country in order to deal with such emergencies as arise under war conditions.

The noble and gallant Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, has raised issues which I think he will admit are of a very wide order. But there is one point on which I think we shall disagree with him. He said, "What is the good of providing people with good food if their housing conditions are so bad?" I do not think we can admit that. It seems to me that we must look after housing conditions when occasion admits of our doing so; but in the meantime it is, at any rate, my duty to secure that the people are provided with the best food we can give them. I am sure the noble Earl will like to know that so great has been the anxiety of the Government to provide these people to whom he referred with food that we are at the present time subsidising foodstuffs to the extent of some 82,000,000 per annum, so that food may be available to people at prices which they can afford to pay. The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, asked me a question about orange juice for children; and I went up to the box to ascertain if, in fact, I was in a position to announce a decision which I hope has been taken in my Ministry during the course of the day. When it is taken I think the noble Lord will not be dissatisfied with it.


My Lords, I beg leave to withdrawn my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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