HL Deb 28 May 1941 vol 119 cc311-40

LORD ADDISON had given Notice that he would call attention to the need for strict control over the rationing, price and distribution of foodstuffs; and move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to draw attention to a very different subject, less dramatic and perhaps less interesting, but very important all the same. In doing so, and in making some criticisms of various matters, as I shall, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister of Food will not suspect me of any desire to embarrass him in the discharge of his exceedingly difficult duties. Perhaps by a wholesome and frank criticism on certain points it may be possible to supply a little helpful reinforcement of his own dispositions.

The suggestion made at one time was that this Motion might be confined to calling attention to the failure in many directions to observe the regulations of the Minister, but I deliberately enlarged the scope of it as I was not satisfied with that narrow framing of it. It is true that we see almost every day reports in the newspapers of unholy persons who take advantage of the needs of the community to try to exploit them in regard to different items of their food, and they are prosecuted frequently by the noble Lord's Department. We have all been impressed, I think, by the triviality of some of the sentences inflicted. We have all heard stories of people who must have mulcted the public of hundreds of pounds in the course of their transactions, being fined a pound or two, or some trivial amount of that kind. There is nobody but must deplore this. It is, however, no use simply condemning it. You do not get much further by that.

I remember some time ago being a member with my noble friend Lord Alness of a Commission on accidents on roads, and we were there confronted with a strange record of the inequality of magisterial sentences. Large numbers of people have called attention almost ad nauseam to the trivial sentences that were inflicted in some districts for what were really grave motoring offences I know that the Home Secretary from time to time addressed exhortations and circulars to the magistrates, and I believe the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack also was one of those who did his best to get some reasonable parallelism between the offence and the sentence, but he did not succeed. At all events the complaints persisted. Quite frankly, I think, with our magisterial system, it is quite hopeless to expect that you will always get a sentence suited to the crime which a trained Judge would inflict, and I hope, therefore, that the Minister will not think he is ever going successfully to extinguish improper exploitation of the people's needs in the matter of food by merely instituting prosecutions. Useful as they may be sometimes, I am quite certain they would be futile. We hear of cases where items of food have been dealt with four and five times, with the price rising at each deal, when the materials perhaps have not even changed their place of storage from start to finish. We know in fact that that sort of thing does occur. I do not myself believe that you will ever stop it merely by prosecuting here and there.

The noble Lord, I know, wishes to stiffen up the position by his regulations, and so far as I am concerned he has our good wishes, but I do not think that is enough. I would suggest that we might consider whether the organisation and the distribution of food and the control of prices are what they ought to be. For instance, as soon as the newspapers got hold of the fact that there was a scarcity of onions nobody could buy one, for they just disappeared. Whither did they disappear? It would be extremely interesting to find out They must have been somewhere because there was a lot of onions grown by different people. Yet nobody could find ore. The position was such that anybody who possessed an onion was regarded as a very remarkable sort of person Last year, I know, was a bad one for onions; yet I entirely refuse to believe that the onions were not somewhere. They must have been somewhere, and the fact that they were kept secreted in somebody's backyard, or wherever it was, meant that there was no adequate control over the system of distribution. It must have been that. I therefore suggest to the noble Lord that, taking the case of the modest onion as an example—oranges are another—he ought, when anything is scarce, either through a trade organisation or directly himself to control its distribution.

I am not quite sure whether the notices of the Ministry in regard to food ever produce the result they are intended to do in the matter of prices. For instance, I had this case given to me last week by a very large fruit grower. I understand the Ministry fixed the price for strawberries. I believe it was 9d. per lb. It seems to me a strange thing to do at this time. I wonder who advised the noble Lord to fix the price of strawberries before the sun has had a chance. I should have thought that you would wait to fix the price until you had a notion what sort of a crop there was; going to be in the country. That seems to be common sense. But the price, I understand, was fixed. This is what a large grower of fruit told me about it. He said that until the price nominally had been fixed at 9d. he had had more than one offer to buy his strawberries at 1s. 2d. I dare say he would have been required by the person who was to give him 1s. 2d. to make out his invoice for 9d. I am sure he would not have done it; still, the point is that he had had the offer. I suggest to the noble Lord that it is quite futile to suggest a price which adventurers can get behind. You must control physically, somewhere or other, the actual supply, and prevent this exploitation of the public.

It would be interesting to know what has happened about fish. Nobody, I am sure, begrudges the fisherman anything he can get. He is worthy of the best reward he can get and everybody, I am sure, would be glad to pay what the fisherman gets, but there appears sometimes to be a large hiatus between the price paid at the quay for the fish and what we pay for it if we want to buy a pound or two over the counter, and it is that hiatus that matters. That is the thing that affects the housewife. It is not enough to issue a regulation; the physical management of the food should be dealt with by people who understand the business. I would like the noble Lord to tell us something more as to what he proposes to do about fish. It is a good test case. I know that the supply varies, and we can take it, I am sure, that nobody wishes to deprive the fisherman of anything he can get. It is these other people, the middlemen who buy the article many times over, that we have no sympathy with, not the legitimate wholesaler and the legitimate retailer, who are entitled to be properly paid.

May I ask the noble Lord another question about price control which causes uneasiness? I am sure it will strengthen his Ministry a great deal if he will deal with it. Not long since we had a Report from my noble friend Lord Perry. I know that the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, will think that this to me is like King Charles's head. Maybe it is; but it is a true bill. Here is the fact. Lord Perry and a number of hard-headed business men—no freakish Socialists amongst them, just hard-headed business men—sat down to consider what was to be done about milk. Their Report was discussed here, and I for one hoped that at last we should see something done about it. The noble Lord has disappointed me very sadly indeed, because he has not done anything. This Report said that the margin between what the farmer received and what the public paid was too big. It was 1s. a gallon. It ought not to be 1s. a gallon, they said; 8d. was enough. That would have meant a reduction of a ½d. a pint. What did we see? Within a fortnight milk was put up ½d. a pint, not down, and it has been up ever since.

I saw yesterday the pay bill of a farmer who is a very large milk producer, because I thought I must get the latest information I could. His basic price was 1s. 6¼d. a gallon, from which he would have to pay transport charges. The public is paying 4½d. a pint. A simple sum in arithmetic tells us that 4½d. a pint is 3s. a gallon, so that there is a gap of 1s. 6d. except for a farthing. It is too much. I am quite sure that Lord Perry and his colleagues were right. Every authoritative Commission of inquiry into this subject has said the same thing as they did. I think it is up to the noble Lord to manage this business so as to reduce that charge. He would have earned the gratitude of millions of housewives if he had done so. He gave us an excuse later—it was a very thin one, I thought—about labour charges and so forth. I have inquired into that and I find they only represent a trivial fraction of the 1s. 6d.

The noble Lord in my opinion must institute a more complete management of the distribution side of many foods. By whom? Here I would like to associate myself with the kind of recommendations made in Lord Perry's Report. It should be done, of course, by people who understand the business. I would not have it done by politicians or by civil servants, but by men who understand the business. In every great industry there are responsible men on the wholesale, importing and dealing sides, who can be trusted to do a piece of public business in a public-spirited way. Those are the people who should be brought in, given definite instructions and put in charge of the distribution of these vital foodstuffs. The reason I have mentioned these things and have refused to confine myself to questions of regulation 1s that I want to elicit from the noble Lord more information as to who is advising him in these matters. I think he has missed opportunities.

There is another illustration of the kind of thing which I think ought to be avoided. I saw in the newspapers the other day a statement that if anyone grew sugar beet in his garden and wanted to boil it down in the autumn to get some syrupy stuff which might be useful as containing a large percentage of sugar, he would have to fill in no fewer than twenty-one applications for permit. It is true that the statement only appeared in the newspapers, and was not issued by an official of the Ministry of Food, but [...] was an appalling thought to a modest gardener who wanted to grow a few rows of sugar beet in his garden so that his wife might boil it down in the autumn to try to make a bit of sweet stuff. It was an authoritative statement—anyhow, it was clearly put out with authority—as to the pains and penalties which would attach to anyone who grew a few rows of sugar beet. Really, what does it matter? Let people grow all the sugar beet they like. It will be all the better both for them and for us. I wonder who advised the Minister, if anyone did, to put out that kind of warning, because it has been taken note of, and I have had a lot of letters about it. Let me ask the noble Lord to put his thumb on another thing.


I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord is asking me who advises me on sugar or on sugar beet grown in gardens.


I was asking the noble Lord who, if anybody, advised him as to the issue of this statement about the pains and penalties for growing sugar beet, because I do not think there should be any pains and penalties. I hope he will be able to tell me that the Ministry of Food had nothing to do with it. That would greatly comfort me. Here is another thing I would ask the noble Lord to look into. I ask these questions only because this is an occasion when we can air one or two grievances quite properly. It is entirely friendly. A matter which is causing much confusion, and which I think wants looking into, is the suggested scheme for the home preservation of fruit. There is a scheme which is to be worked by women's institutes in villages. I have read one or two circulars about it myself, and I confess that I am not at all clear as to what is to happen, but as I understand the proposal it is that women's institutes should get people to bring their fruit and their jam pots and then the fruit will be boiled down in some central place and made into jam. But it will not be their jam. The jam will be taken away and the people will be paid at some time or other for the bit of fruit that they have brought to the boiling centre.

Let us examine that proposal for a moment. Large numbers of people no doubt are depriving themselves week by week of a little sugar in the expectation of being able to make a little bit of jam when the soft fruit comes along. My wife is for one. If the noble Lord says to people, "I have not got enough sugar to let you have any more in your homes to make jam," people will accept that. They will say, "We are sorry, but we recognise it is so, and that's that." If the noble Lord says, "I want your fruit so that it can be made into jam," that is all right, too. But if that is the case, the jam should be made by the proper jam manufacturers so that it will get into the proper distribution channels as a standardised manufacture. What is going to happen, if I understand the proposal correctly, is that in hundreds of places up and down the country, women will grudgingly bring some of their fruit with a variety of jam pots of all sorts of shapes. It will be boiled or made into jam with a great variety in standards of efficiency, to put it no better than that. Some of it will be nice and solid, some of it will be rather treacly. How it is going to be packed afterwards with all this variety of different shaped packages I cannot imagine.

If the noble Lord wants the people's garden fruit, and wants it made into jam let him buy it from them—they will be glad to sell it to him, I am sure. Or, alternatively, I would suggest, let him have the fruit taken to the institutes, where it may be boiled in large containers, which can readily be transported and used by the trade. Anything more calculated to cause annoyance than the present ill—defined set of proposals I fail to imagine. I hope that the noble Lord will put the stopper on the whole affair and put something in the place of it that is rational, and that the people can understand. They are perfectly willing to go without their sugar, and they are perfectly willing that the noble Lord shall have all the fruit that they can spare, but do let us have business-like arrangements, and something not calculated to lead to wrangles and troubles in every village, for that is what this is going to do. I am bringing these points forward because I want the noble Lord to "vet" his advisers. I wonder who the people were who suggested this jam scheme? They did not know the first thing about the English village; that is quite certain. It is an entirely unworkable and, with great respect, nonsensical proposal. I do hope that we shall extinguish it.

In conclusion, whilst I have made some pungent criticisms, I want the noble Lord to accept from me, in complete good faith and sincerity, that they are made with the purpose of trying to call attention to what I know to be grievances. I want to ask the noble Lord to do, as I know he can, something to help to remove these grievances. He has a thankless job—one of the most difficult jobs of any Minister of the Crown. I take off my hat to him for the way in which he has been doing it, and I assure him that nobody more sincerely wishes him success than I do. But for all that, I know that he is big enough to realise that frank and friendly criticism is always likely to be useful. That is my excuse for making these observations. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I am sure we all feel indebted to my noble friend for having put this Motion upon the Paper. There are just two points which I should like to make. The first is in regard to what my noble friend has said about the racketeering and the speculation which have been going on in food supplies, and which, I believe, have created a tremendous amount of uneasiness, alarm and indignation in the minds of the people. There is ample evidence of this. The noble Lord, Lord Addison, has adduced several instances, and the noble Lord who presides over the Ministry of Food must have had many reports from his own officers in regard to this speculation and profiteering. The other day I came across a statement by Sir Douglas McCraith, Chairman of the Food Price Investigation Committee which has been studying complaints in the North Midland Region. He said that he had not the slightest hesitation in stating that: Speculation is rampant; goods are changing ownership many times like stocks and shares without even leaving the warehouse; people who render no services in distribution are enriching themselves at the expense of the consumer. Prices to the public have, in consequence, risen out of all reasonable propor- tion and contributed considerably to an increase in the cost of living with inevitable discontent. That, I repeat, is the report of one of the officers, but I suppose it represents the view of others who are members of this Committee.

I am sure that the noble Lord is also aware of the sort of thing that is going on in other cases. For instance, there is the case of canned soup in which apparently seven middle-men participated in the profits, so that prices rose from 6s. 6d. to 12s. and ultimately to 14s. 6d. a dozen before it reached the consumer. One could go on enumerating cases of this kind, and these reports were made as long ago as the 1st of May. Almost a month has elapsed. We all know the difficulties which confront the noble Lord, but I venture to ask him what action has been taken by the Ministry during that period, and how long is this ramp going to last. I suggest that there is one way in which he may mitigate this state of affairs. The suggestion I make is whether it is not possible for the Ministry to issue licences to bona-fide dealers in foodstuffs, so that everyone else would be precluded from participating in this trade. I cannot help feeling that that would eliminate speculators and profiteers, and it would also provide the noble Lord with a sanction, so that if any bona-fide dealer should transgress or do anything contrary to the regulations, he could be deprived of his licence, and would cease to trade.

I agree that fines are inadequate. I myself came across a case where a man was fined £20 for contravening the rules, and within a week he came to my head keeper and offered him a higher price for rabbits than he was entitled to receive. That shows how much a fine of £20 has done. I suppose that, probably, he made more profit than that in the following week. Of course that is not the only remedy that can be suggested—there must be others—but I suggest to the noble Lord that he should see what could be done in the way of establishing a system of licensing in dealing with foodstuffs.

My second point is this: What is the policy of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food in regard to the production of vegetables? Only last Sunday I came across a paragraph in a newspaper in which it was stated that everything was going to be done to try to discourage the production of vegetables. This is what was said concerning an individual who was described as "a distinguished industrialist" owning an estate in Hertfordshire: Soon after the outbreak of war he decided from patriotic motives to increase his production of vegetables. Every Saturday he takes the week's results in a van to the nearest market town where it is sold at a stall. This van also collects from his less wealthy neighbours their surplus output of vegetables and these are sold at the same stall. Now, in common with so many other people like him up and down the country, he has received notice from the Ministries of Food and Agriculture that it is not the Government's policy to stimulate production in private gardens. This news is making many people angry. The industrialist I mention is one of several who intend to disobey the Minister of Agriculture and go right ahead. They are hoping for a test case. I am glad to see in his place the noble Duke who represents the Ministry of Agriculture. Perhaps he can tell us what the policy of the Ministry is in regard to this matter. Does he intend, for instance, to prosecute this industrialist and his friends who apparently are determined to contravene the regulations which his Department have already authorised?

Then, of course, we remember there was the same trouble in regard to the production of pigs. The Ministry of Agriculture, apparently, did everything they could to discourage the collection of waste food and other products which were intended for the feeding of pigs, poultry, and so on, and it was not till the Committee was set up the other day which has now organised the waste food products throughout the country that that policy was discussed. I cannot help thinking it is high time that private interest should be subordinated to the general interest, and the only people we have to think about are the consumers. It is all to the good that small market gardeners and allotment holders, when they have surplus stuff to sell and surplus vegetables to put on the market, are allowed and are encouraged to do so and not discouraged. I cannot help thinking that an end ought to be put to this exploitation of the public, and I very much hope that the noble Lord will do everything in his power to put that policy into operation, in spite of all the difficulties with which he is faced.


My Lords, I ask your indulgence in rising to address the House for the first time. I do so now only because I desire to support the noble Lords, Lord Addison and Lord Davies, on one aspect of this food problem, and that is the grave menace to the country caused by inadequate penalties inflicted on many delinquents in connection with offences under the Food Control Act. It seems to me to be almost inconceivable that it should be necessary to emphasize to the magistrates of this country the grave menace to our national security of offences which do anything to affect the even flow of the country's food in the time of a great crisis like this.

I am not going to keep you more than three or four minutes at the most. I have taken the opportunity, since I saw this Motion on the Paper, of investigating a number of charges of offences that have been made, in connection both with home food products and animal feeding-stuffs. With your Lordships' permission I will first deal with animal feeding-stuffs. I have investigated twenty-nine cases which have come before the courts in the last few months in connection with gross overcharges in animal feeding-stuffs. In these twenty-nine cases I found that the total overcharges were £1,391. The total amount of fines in the whole of those cases was £140. Thus these delinquents—you cannot call them anything else—got away with 90 per cent. of their illicit profits. That, mind you, is in addition to the profit which they are allowed in the ordinary way of trading. I will take one specific instance. There was a firm summoned for five offences. They sold 148 tons of English millable wheat. The overcharges in those five offences were £900. The total fines for the five offences were £100, total costs £31 15s. So that for an overcharge of £900 they got away with a fine and costs of £131 15s., leaving, roughly, £739 of illicit profits.

There are several other cases and I am not going to detain your Lordships long. I would just like to mention this to emphasize the point I am trying to make. There was the case of another firm (I have the particulars here) charged with three offences: one overcharge of £27, one overcharge of £21, and another overcharge of £31. In the first two cases, where they were guilty, they were dismissed under the Probation of Offenders Act. On the third charge they were fined £10. So this firm got away with £79 at a cost of £10—a profit of £69. I do not think you are going to stop this sort of thing while magistrates treat these cases with such ridiculous, absurd leniency.

I will give you two or three other instances on similar lines. There was a firm who overcharged £58, where the total fine, including costs, was £3 8s. 9d. Another firm overcharged £26; total fine, 10s. Another firm overcharged £16; fine, 10s. Another firm overcharged £24; fine, 10s. Another firm overcharged £27, and another firm £21, and both of these were dismissed under the Probation of Offenders Act. In some cases these fines were as low as 2s. 6d. to 4s. These are not isolated cases; these are cases that are occurring time after time. I say it is quite impossible for us to stamp out these wicked people unless they are hit hard and hit where it hurts them most.

May I turn to another aspect of these offences and give you just a few instances of offences in connection with household commodities? In that connection I examined 57 cases tried during the last three months. Twenty-one of those cases were dismissed under the Probation of Offenders Act. In the other thirty-six the average fine was 8s. There was no fine over £1, and in many cases the fine was as low as 2s. 6d. Those who frame these food restriction laws realise the gravity of these offences because they make the penalties very heavy. I believe the penalty can be as high as £500 and two years' imprisonment; and a fine of 2s. 6d. for the offence of interfering with our food during war-time makes a ridiculous comparison.

One other aspect of the matter I should like to mention is in regard to offences by consumers. I am afraid there are a good many consumers who really do not realise the gravity of the offences they are committing. There are many otherwise perfectly respectable citizens who would not dream of doing a wrong in the ordinary way, but who think it quite "fair game" to get an extra pound of sugar or tea from the grocer above the amount to which they are entitled. I feel that in some ways I have less sympathy with such consumers than I have with the traders. The trader is harassed by all sorts of restrictions, and it may be he commits offences without realising what he is doing; but the consumer is not harassed. He is entitled to his proper proportion of food, and why should he take it out of his fellow men? Indeed I go so far as to say, on the axiom "If there were no receivers there would be few thieves," that if the consumers were brought to book, the whole of this evil would be stopped. In regard to consumers I only examined twenty-one cases, and I shall give your Lordships, before I sit down, the results of this examination. In these twenty-one cases of consumer offenders, five were fined 1s., five were fined 5s., two were fined 9s., five were fined 10s., and four were fined 10s. 6d. There was not one fine over 10s. 6d. I am afraid that while we have penalties so low as that, there is a certain type of citizen—I hope a small minority—who will always be willing to line his pockets and his stomach at the expense of his fellow citizens.

One other point and I have finished. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, and my noble friend Lord Addison referred to what I should call these shadow racketeers, these people who deal in food without even seeing or handling what they are dealing in, merely passing it from one to another, and in every case at an increased price. I do not know if it is possible to stamp out this sort of thing, but apparently our enemy has had the same problem, because in the Daily Mail of May 5 there was a short letter which, with your Lordships' permission, I shall read. This was a letter from an exiled German now in this country, and it shows how the Nazis have dealt with the food profiteer. He says: The way from the producer, manufacturer, or first importer to the consumer must be the shortest and most immediate. This chain must not exceed the following members: (1) Producer, manufacturer or first importer, (2) one wholesale dealer, (3) one retail dealer, (4) last consumer. I am quoting what, is apparently the German law on the subject. Any other person intervening in this is not only forbidden, but also subject to severe penalties. The result in Germany was the disappearance of racketeers and the appearance on the market of large stocks of goods before then held back from the market. The writer says that this law has had amazing results in Germany. I suggest that some similar safeguard might well be found for this country. It is not for me to say, but the Law Officers of the Crown, I have no doubt, will consider it.

I only wish to add this with great respect. I am wondering whether it would be possible for the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack to convey to the magistrates, both lay and stipendiary, throughout this country the gravity of offences of this kind and the danger to the country of treating them with such levity. I agree that the Ministry of Food have a very colossal task to perform and, if I may say so, they are performing it remarkably well. This country is, in my opinion, very fortunate, and more than fortunate, in having the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, at the head of this Ministry, but it is our duty to take every means within our power to see that no spanner is thrown into this vast complicated machine which will do anything to impede the proper and right distribution of the food of our citizens in time of war.


My Lords, it is indeed a privilege to be the first to congratulate my noble friend Lord South-wood on his maiden speech. I know that the limited, well-balanced, well-informed contribution that he has made to our debates is the kind that your Lordships appreciate most, and I am sure there are many others who will wish him to contribute on many future occasions out of his long and distinguished business experience. I want very briefly to endorse what my noble friend Lord Addison and others have said in making a plea to the Government and to the noble Lord opposite for a rapid and comprehensive extention of the present system of rationing and control, because that is what is implied by all these criticisms of unfair profits and so on. There is no doubt that the public is being held to ransom by many of the prices now being charged by shopkeepers for uncontrolled goods.

I should like to amplify what my noble friend had to say on the subject of fish. Fish has now become a luxury far beyond the reach of the average working-class household—that is to say, the great majority of kinds of fish now sold. The average retail price of this commodity, according to official figures published recently, was two and a half times higher than the price immediately before the outbreak of war, and the level has risen still further. This particular price increase can surely not be justified by higher production costs such as one would expect in the case of imported foodstuffs.

LORD WOOLTON indicated dissent.


The noble Lord would agree that, in the case of wheat or meat, production costs must-have risen even higher than in the case of fish. These elements in the fish industry which are benefiting from the increased demand, coupled with the reduced supply, and also an archaic distributive organisation which puts a whole chain of middlemen, such as my noble friend referred to, between the fisherman and the housewife, are mainly responsible for the prevailing level of prices. This state of affairs, which is admitted on all sides to be undesirable, can be remedied only by bold action on the part of the Government. I venture to suggest that they should extend their present very limited control of fish prices, introducing simultaneously some form of rationing of fish, because the one would be of very little value without the other. They should also do their utmost to reorganise the distributive side of the fish industry, which is one of the worst instances of ineffective distribution among all the traces with which the noble Lord has to deal. In present circumstances, fish has become one of our staple foodstuffs, and I am certain that we cannot allow the really glaring inequalities and hardships caused by the present relatively free market to continue.

There is one other foodstuff which I should like to mention. Similar difficulties have arisen through a half-hearted intervention and control in the case of eggs. I do not think that the subject of eggs has been mentioned by any previous speaker. The effect of a controlled price-level without rationing has been very curious and unexpected; we have found relative abundance in the country districts and acute scarcity in many of the large towns. It pays farmers to sell eggs at their doors to relatively well-to-do customers who want large quantities, it may be for immediate consumption or it may be for preserving, either at the regulation price or, in certain circumstances, I am afraid, at a higher price, which the customer is ready to pay. In this manner they avoid transport costs, and they make a more substantial profit. Those who live in the countryside have been benefiting in this manner at the expense of the town dwellers, and this inequality seems bound to persist until eggs are added to the list of rationed commodities. If this is done, the consumer will be unable to buy eggs from retailers or from producers without having coupons.

I do not believe that the administrative difficulties involved in rationing eggs are insuperable. We are all aware that eggs have been rationed in certain of the Continental countries, and it ought to be possible to build upon the system of voluntary rationing which prevails in a very great number of shops at the present time. A noble friend of mine who is a great authority on poultry tells me that if the supply of foodstuffs for hens were made dependent on the selling of eggs to these packing firms, it would be possible for the Ministry to control eggs and to get them distributed in a fair and equitable manner. According to his view, that is the only way of preventing this local sale of eggs, which in fact has been the biggest obstacle in securing proper distribution in areas remote from the centres of production.

We all welcome, as my noble friend said, everything that the Minister has done, and we look forward with great pleasure to his remarks on the subject of the enforcement and the more strict observation of existing regulations; but we do complain that there are many things he has left undone. I should like to remind him in this connection of a paragraph which appeared in the Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure just about a year ago, when it inquired into the working of the Ministry of Food. Those who drew up the Report said: We do not underestimate the objections to drastic measures of reorganisation and interference with existing channels, nor should we recommend hasty action in these matters; but what we do feel is that if this war is to last for the three years anticipated by the Government, it will be necessary to take advantage of every opportunity to avoid waste of effort and money in all parts of the economic mechanism of the country, and that eventually this problem is one of those which will have to be squarely faced. It is these drastic methods of reorganisation and interference with existing channels, which are bound to create suspicion and possible resentment, in certain quarters, which will have to be taken if the existing evils, to which attention has been drawn in all the preceding speeches, are to be remedied.


My Lords, I regret to detain you at this hour, but I am very greatly obliged to the noble Lord who leads the Opposition, not only for having directed your Lordships' attention to matters of general concern to the people of this country, but, if he will allow me to say so, for the persistent kindness that he shows me when he speaks on these subjects. Anyone reading the newspapers recently must have been struck by the Hollywood language with which crime is now described, and one might be inclined to think that "gangs" and "rackets" had become the common features of the distribution of food in this country. That is not so. The great mass of the traders of our country are law-abiding citizens, anxious to do whatever they can to maintain fairness as between one person and another, and to take such steps as are necessary to preserve public morale as well as public distribution until the time when we win the war. I believe that the morale of the country is being somewhat disturbed by the undue prominence that is devoted to the stories of the few people who indulge in "rackets," especially when those claiming to have precise knowledge of these crimes refuse to use it to allow us to bring the criminals to justice.

But let me set your Lordships' mind at rest; not only is there no lack of desire on the part of my Ministry to deal with the law-breakers, but there is no lack of organisation with which to do it, and which is constantly seeking them out. Over the whole of this country I have a network of 1,500 Food Control Committees, charged with the duty of prosecuting people in their districts who commit offences against the Food Orders. In February of this year, those Committees instituted 1,160 prosecutions; in March, 2,141, and in April, 2,300. It is clear, therefore, that they are increasing in their vigilance.

Moreover, these figures only represent prosecutions. We do not prosecute people for minor offences that have obviously been due to ignorance or inexperience. We do not like creating criminals. The enforcement officers of the Ministry of Food are constantly investigating cases where they decide that only a word of warning—or perhaps merely of explanation—is necessary: They give it, and that is the end of the story. We are not trying to build up our numbers of prosecutions as though that were an end in itself: we only enter into prosecutions where we feel that it is necessary to do so in the public interest, both as a punishment and as a deterrent, and I am pleased to tell you that the figures for the last four months show that in each of those months 95 per cent. of the prosecutions into which we have entered have been successful ones. It is, however, important that these prosecutions should act as real deterrents. While it is gratifying to observe, during the course of the last few weeks, that magistrates have tended to increase the severity of the sentences that have been imposed, there appears to me to be a great deal of room for improvement. There must be no profit in crime, and loss, as well as disgrace, should follow conviction of offences against the food laws.

Your Lordships will be sorry that it has been necessary to have, an admixture of war and of crime to force the noble Lord, Lord South wood, to break his practice of silence in this House, and I am deeply grateful to him for the obvious trouble that he has taken in order to demonstrate the danger of our regarding offences against the Food Orders as of minor importance to the security of the nation. There has undoubtedly been evidence of magistrates—and indeed of other people in the country—who, out of thoughtlessness have condoned these offences. But I hope that the time has gone by when that view will be taken by responsible people.

We have entered on a course of Government control of food prices and distribution which has been imposed upon us by the necessities of war: it involves innumerable new laws and restrictions: to obey those laws is the common duty of all patriotic citizens. There can be no doubt about the importance of food in the maintenance not only of public health, but of public morale, and I should like to see established and hung, not only in every home, but in every church and chapel and religious institution in this country, a Food Code, under which all decent and patriotic people who really believe that we are all in this war together, undertook to maintain a common front in keeping the law, and securing that no action of theirs should contribute to the encouragement either of the food profiteer or of the much more numerous specimen, the food cheat.

The tracking down of the profiteer is no easy task. I have not been negligent in this matter—or asleep. I know of those people who meet together at half-past four in the morning before they go to market, cunningly laying their plans to evade the law and to avoid detection. I know that they represent a very small and very unworthy section of an honourable trade, and I know, my Lords, that they disgrace that trade. But, by unfair means and devious devices, they have succeeded in evading punishment because of the high standard of British justice that demands clear and specific proof before conviction. The hunt of the profiteer is on, and many more of them will be brought to justice. But meanwhile suspicion grows, and the whole food trades of this country are being maligned by these people who are seeking to hold up traders and the public to ransom. Surely, the time cannot be far distant when the honourable traders of this country will make up their minds to get rid of these destructive parasites and hand over to me the evidence which I will eagerly use not only to bring them to justice, but to prevent them for the duration of the war from engaging in any capacity in these trades. The honour of the food trades is involved. There is no profiteering and no "black market" for any of the rationed foods. There certainly is none for bread or for milk, for potatoes or for any of the essential foods, and therefore these people, despicable as they are, are not, in fact, affecting those foods that are essential to the life of the nation.

What now of the uncontrolled foods, to which the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has drawn attention, and to which, in the Press, some time ago, a good deal of attention has been given? I believe it to be true that there was no profiteering in this country, and no "black market" until the middle of December of last year. In order to deal with the situation when it arose, I imposed a standstill order on the 13th January, fixing the prices of a very large number of commodities, the prices of which were previously not controlled, at the prices that were obtaining on December 2, when speculation started. Maximum price orders have since been introduced for a very large number of these goods that were taken out of the standstill order, including rabbits, canned fruit, jam, poultry, coffee, Icelandic cod, rice, sardines and a whole range of articles, 24 in number.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, drew attention to a recent report that has been published. I was bound to regret that so much publicity should have been given in April of this year to the discovery of speculation that took place in December of last year, without any disclosure of the fact that this was very old news. Whilst it was not an illegal offence for people to pass goods through many hands during the period from December 2 to January 13, it was most unprofitable, since, as soon as I saw it beginning to happen, I protected the public by fixing the prices at the early December level. I trust no one will think that I resent publicity being-given to profiteering when it is discovered. I only ask that the facts and the evidence shall be given to me and that publicity shall be avoided which will render it impossible for me to take action in the courts because the issue has already been prejudiced by publicity.

There are those who sit in judgment from afar on the problems of Government in these days, and see them with a simplicity that enables them to prescribe simple panaceas, but I am bound to say that I find life more complicated, and the solution of its problems more difficult. I am told that if I were to licence all wholesalers, then I should avoid speculation. I should, by this means, draw a ringed fence round all those wholesalers who were in existence in the food trade before the war, and assume that such people were irreproachable: I am told that if I did this I should eliminate the law-breaker and the profiteer.

My Lords, it is not true. The food trade before the war was very much like any other trade: it had in it those who were virtuous and those who were otherwise, and some of the people whom I am watching most assiduously at the moment are people who, under such a system, would hold the licence of His Majesty's Government, authorising them to trade. The truth is that already the public is protected from excessive prices by the Maximum Prices Orders, and on all rationed foods and on all controlled foods there is no room for the speculator except with the concurrence of other traders or of members of the public, who are prepared, in order to meet their own selfish ends, to indulge in subterfuges and evasions of the law, or, by paying high prices, to give support to these practices.

The principle of licensing wholesalers is no new discovery. My Department has been practising it for months. In a considerable number of trades dealings in food are restricted to the wholesalers appointed by the Ministry of Food and the practice is being progressively developed. The example which the noble Lord, Lord Southwood, took from Germany is being practised in this country, with this one difference, that we do not say that only one wholesaler shall handle the goods because we find that sometimes it is necessary, particularly in the smaller places, to have an intervening wholesaler to collect the goods and distribute them. But the main principle has been adopted and it is progressively being developed by the Ministry. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Addison, will be glad to know that I propose to bring more and more foods under control and to restrict their passage to the most economic lines from the importer to the consumer. But much of the administrative possibility of these provisions depends upon the extent of the supply.

I have dwelt in your Lordships' House before on the extreme difficulty of rationing foodstuffs if, in a particular article, there is not a sufficient supply to meet the reasonable needs of everybody. Rationing, from the nature of the case, gives a prescriptive right to every individual citizen to obtain an equal share of that commodity if he wants it. I have reached the end of the commodities that can be rationed on this basis with two exceptions. One is bread which I hope I never shall have to ration, and the other is milk which I believe that I will ration whether I have to from force of necessity or not. I have got to start a new system of experimental rationing that I frankly admit will be full of administrative pitfalls. We are all more interested in principles than we are in administration, but the ultimate success of any principle depends upon whether it will work.

I hope my experiments will secure the tolerant good will of the House and of the public. I shall presently try, to the satisfaction I hope of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, an experiment in rationing eggs—hitherto one of the most difficult commodities to handle because, by the nature of the case, I have had no control over the supplies that are brought forward for sale by the home-producers. I can, however, no longer tolerate the position whereby eggs are so unevenly distributed in the country, where long queues of people are kept waiting to buy eggs from particular traders who have succeeded in getting hold of an unduly large quantity, and are using them for the purpose of trade advertisements. In the distribution of eggs, I shall make special provision for priority classes—for children and for people who, in the considered judgment of my medical advisers, are invalids and whose hospital or domestic treatment requires this particular food. I shall probably require consumers to register at one shop only for the supply of eggs, in order to defeat the enterprise of the "shop crawler," and I am consulting the trade on a proposal to distribute the available supplies through retailers from time to time, as they are available, making a public announcement of the fact as we do with the meat ration. There will be no regular weekly ration of eggs, but I shall leave no stone unturned to secure the maximum possible ration for everyone, and as often as possible.

There are other commodities for which similar schemes will be adopted, suited to their individual circumstances, but again involving the extension of registration. I do not think, however, that it would be wise for me to announce what those commodities are until such time as the schemes are ready. I mention the matter here to-day, because of the general nature of the debate. These schemes, my Lords, will be imperfect. We have got to the stage of trial and error, and experiments are both necessary and will, I believe, stimulate us to find new ways of securing fairness in distribution. Some people do not like experiments. Recently, an experienced correspondent asked: "Why bring in oranges? The nation was getting on quite well without them. The arrival of a few cargoes has only had the effect of arousing criticism of the Ministry, and it would be far simpler to keep them out altogether." Administratively, it would be far simpler to carry on with the same uniform ration month after month; but the nation needs variety in its diet and we are going to try experiments, difficult though they may be, and critical Though the reception accorded to them may be.

It is natural that those without responsibility for administration should be more anxious to stimulate trial than to condone error, and therefore I confess at once before I announce these schemes that they will have: errors in them—errors which I have not had the wisdom, or the foresight, or the experience, to avoid. But I shall, without hesitation, acknowledge and confess all my faults and when these errors arise proceed to adjust the schemes in the light of experience so that they may come nearer to perfection. If I were to wait for perfection I should have to wait a very long time. Moreover, we shall proceed with a speed only governed by the capacity of the administrative machine to absorb the work. Few of us can visualise what is meant when we use the phrase "registered customer." There are 44,000,000 customers to be registered—registered in their shops and registered in the local food offices. Then those local food offices have to prepare their returns to be issued to the wholesalers and to the importers in order that we can arrive at the position when supplies are at hand at a particular shop at the particular time when they are required.

I appeal for the support of the House for this era of experiment in a field where there is nothing to guide us. There was nothing in the experience of the last war to guide us. The control we have now has gone far in advance of anything that happened in the last war. I appeal also for the help of the public. The profiteer will not exist if the public will not support him; if the women of England were to join together in a whole-hearted and cheerful observance of the Food Code the problem of the evasion of the law would be widely solved. Whilst I make this appeal for the support and help of the public themselves I can promise you that my Department, reinforced as it has been by people skilled in the detection of crime, will leave no stone unturned to bring malefactors to the bar of justice, where I hope for the support of those called upon to administer the law. I believe that this debate will have considerably strengthened that position.

May I detain your Lordships for a few moments more in order to deal more specifically with some of the problems which the noble Lord who leads the Opposition has raised? The noble Lord, Lord Addison, asked me if I would tell him who advised me on the problem of sugar beet. I am surprised. The noble Lord apparently intended to have a private still in his garden. Sugar is an excisable commodity and it is indeed true——


The noble Lord must not misrepresent me. It is a perfectly simple thing. It does not require a private still at all for a woman to boil down a few slices of beet to make syrup. It is nonsense to put it across to the public in that way. I hope the noble Lord will repudiate that it means setting up a private still. It does not mean anything of the kind.


My Lords, I am advised that this is not really a matter for the Ministry of Food at all; it is a matter for the Customs and Excise. The truth is that the Government do not want people to start making excisable food in their own gardens.


I must implore the noble Lord to ask somebody to look into this; it is not an excisable food.


I shall serve no useful purpose by carrying the discussion further if the noble Lord, Lord Addison, tells me that there is no excise on sugar. I have said what was the advice that I was given. Now let us come to an easier subject with which to deal—the subject of jam. There has, indeed, been much difficulty, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity of talking about this question of village production of jam. Lord Addison got right to the central issue of this matter. He said that if I would say that there was not enough sugar the people would be content. There is not enough sugar. If I could, I would, without a moment's hesitation, distribute sugar so that people could make their own jam in their own houses in the way that they have always done. But I cannot afford the sugar. There is not enough jam either, and I am most anxious to encourage the production of more jam.

I am told, and it is obviously true, that I shall get the maximum possible amount of jam if it is manufactured cither by people who are accustomed to manufacture jam, or on a communal basis. I have another problem to face. I am very anxious to use every particle of fruit that we can get in this country, and, therefore, with these considerable restrictions, we devised, on the basis of the practical experience of last year, a system of communal jam making. We have asked the women of England, if they will help to make jam in the villages in the country—not in order that they and not others might have it. When it was suggested that they might have a quid pro quo for their labour they rejected that idea, and said "No" —if the country wanted jam then they were prepared to make it as their contribution towards meeting a national necessity. It was very generous of them. The noble Lord, Lord Addison, almost gave me a feeling that we were on the verge of failure in this matter.


You are.


My Lords, the truth is that there are 4,700 centres in this country already established. The noble Lord shakes his head, and it is clear that one of us must be wrong, but that is the advice I got from the people who are actually working the scheme. Then they have already over two million bottles ready for jam making—bottles which may indeed be somewhat assorted, but which have been used before for jam making, and are precisely the things which the public are accustomed to see in shops. Furthermore, arrangements have been made so that this jam when communally made shall be sent by the communal centre to the shops in the district, so that these people will be able to buy in their own areas the jams which they, themselves, have made. They will have made a very great contribution in respect of an article supplies of which are now scarce. It is so easy to find fault and to say that some other system would have been better. I admit all the possible imperfections of this scheme. But it is based on the sound and successful experience of a year ago, and, what is more, it does represent the voluntary effort of a vast number of people in this country to meet a necessity. Let us give them encouragement.

The noble Lord and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked if I would say something about fish. There is nothing which they have said about fish with which I am not in agreement except as regards the one issue of the relative cost of the production of fish and of wheat. The cost of the production of fish has gone up very considerably—I mean the landed cost of the fish. If the noble Lords will be good enough to grant me indulgence I shall say no more about fish at this stage, but I will promise them that within the course of a very few weeks I will announce to the public a complete control of fish prices and a system of controlling the distribution of fish in this country.

Before I sit down, I desire to try, if I may, for a few moments, to get this debate into perspective. We have discussed many things that have caused us concern. I must say in reply to my noble friend Lord Davies that he revealed to me and to my noble friend the Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture something that we did not know, but I can assure him that whichever Ministry is involved we will pursue the matter of the gardens. The task that I undertook as a member of His Majesty's Government to try to perform for my country was to secure that in spite of all the difficulties and all the dangers and uncertainties of war, this country, harassed by U-boats, restricted in its shipping facilities, and bombed in its ports, should still have security in its essential food supplies. The hunting down of the criminal is only a very subsidiary aspect of this task.

I ventured last autumn to say that the coming months would not be the winter of our discontent so far as food was concerned. May I, briefly, mention a few of the things which my Department have been able to do? Food prices have been held down for all major commodities: our imports of wheat will continue without any increase in price at the port of shipment for a least another twelve months. We can see at least twelve months ahead with no doubt of maintaining our bread supplies and our meat supplies at their present level. For our meat supply we must look partly to the home farmer, and the home farmer is doing a grand job in winning this war. Our food supplies have been maintained to cities and ports that have been the target for enemy attacks; tens of thousands of people have been provided with meals by the Ministry of Food emergency organisation in all those heroic cities that have suffered intensive air attack. Our rations have not been generous and they have made many demands on the skill and ingenuity of the women of this country. But we have come through the winter, and nationally we are in good health. Therefore let us be thankful.

We have indeed suffered many hardships, much hindrance, and some serious losses, but we have emerged from the winter in spite of all these disadvantages and, after twenty months of war, in a position as strong and as secure in our food supplies as we were twelve months ago. That is the essential task which the Prime Minster placed in my charge. Security is a dull and unromantic story and of very little news value in comparison with the racketeer, but, restricted and beleaguered as we are, I do thank God and those who have helped me to produce these results that we can face the coming months with confidence in the security of our essential food supplies.


My Lords, as reference has been made in this very important and interesting debate to instances in which it would appear that offences against our food regulations have been very lightly dealt with, I feel it right to ask your indulgence just for two or three minutes, before the debate closes, to say a. word on that aspect of the subject, It was brought to our attention to day more particularly by the speech of Lord Southwood; a most persuasive and well-informed speech, if I may be allowed to say se, a model maiden speech, and indeed a model for some who are not making their maiden speeches. Of course, the Lord Chancellor is responsible for appointing magistrates, and in a measure it is right to turn to him on questions connected with the administration of the law in courts of summary jurisdiction, but at the same time it is, of course, a principle of our system of criminal justice that where the court is given a discretion in deciding what penalties to impose, the particular tribunal which has the actual facts proved before it should decide what is in the particular case the appropriate measure of punishment. On balance, that is the better arrangement. The alternative would be an office in which there would be a particular Minister, not merely doing his best to staff and generally supervise the courts, but authorised to intervene and almost to instruct people who are entrusted with trying a case as to how it was to be dealt with. Our principle is a rule which applies, of course, to magistrates' courts just as it applies to High Court judges on circuit or at the Old Bailey.

I am bound to make that point plain to the House first, for it really is fundamental to the kind of advice, influence, encouragement, which may be given to courts exercising their proper jurisdiction, whatever those courts may be. But it is, of course, very proper and most necessary that here in Parliament attention should be called and emphasis should be laid on the necessarily grave nature of food offences at this critical time, just as in the course of our history Parliament has called attention to the gravity of other kinds of prevailing wrong-doing. I think this debate, if it gets that wider publicity which it really deserves, is going to exercise a great and practical influence for the future on this subject. We are all greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Addison, and to others who have spoken, for calling attention to these matters. I suppose everybody here and everybody outside by this time has informed himself of President Roosevelt's fireside talk of yesterday. Well, there were a couple of sentences in that talk on the subject of the rate of sinking of merchant ships and the rate of their replacement, which make it the height of folly to treat offences connected with our Food Code as though they were trivial matters. It is pure lunacy to do so.

The individual case, of course, considered quite by itself, may seem unimportant because the extent of the transgression is limited. It is almost in the nature of the subject matter, because even the greediest or hungriest of us cannot consume very much more than the standard amount of food. But of course that is not the way to look at it. The way to look at it, I think, is this: The individual case may seem a small matter, a mistake, but, after all, the repetition of such cases must be a most serious thing for the whole country, and a slackness of view on the subject in any section of the population might involve the whole country in perils which a stricter enforcement would at any rate help to avoid. I do agree with Lord Addison when he said that the imposing of penalties and the exaction of fines are not the central matter in all this administration, but it is a control, it provides an index, and it is a matter of the very greatest importance that the whole country should understand that we are here dealing with a very serious business indeed.

I cannot but suppose that the instances in which unduly light treatment of offenders may have occurred are very much the exception. I am sure my noble friend Lord Southwood would be the first to say that. In his very careful and documented analysis, of course he was engaged" in bringing our attention to those cases, sufficiently numerous to be important, but none the less those cases which did show that sometimes there appeared to have been a lapse. I do not believe from the information which reaches me that those represent the general view of those who administer the law under this head. Anyhow I trust—and this is all I have to say—that all who have a share of responsibility in administering this branch of the law will, in the light of this debate and of the statements made in it, and of the exposition just made by the Minister, be stimulated in their determination to give full weight to food rules and regulations which must be enforced for the due distribution of supplies as a matter of fairness between one citizen and another and to help to secure the safety of us all.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, the Minister of Food, for the very important statements which were contained in the concluding sentences of his speech. What he had to say must be, and will be, very comforting to millions of people, and I am sure, if this debate did nothing else but afford him the opportunity of making these statements, it would have been worth having. I am sure also we are glad to have had the intervention of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, with his high authority, with regard to the kind of case to which my noble friend Lord Southwood called attention in particular. I have, of course, nothing to say in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, except with reference to the matters, relatively trivial to the bigger issues—the two sets of cases I mentioned—with which he did not find himself in agreement. I may ask him hereafter to have a little personal conversation with me on the subject. I am quite sure he has been completely misled, and I hope I shall be able to put him in better ways. Apart from these relatively minor matters, this has been a most profitable and, as the Lord Chancellor indicated, exceedingly valuable debate, thanks to the publicity which the statements of the noble Lord and the Lord Chancellor will receive, as they ought to receive, outside. I beg leave to wthdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.