§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY (VISCOUNT HALL)
My Lords, in the regrettable absence of my noble friend Lord Huntingdon, I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this short Bill. It is being introduced solely to meet a point raised by the Public Accounts Committee in its Third Report in the 1946–47 Session, in connection with certain long-term contracts already entered into by the Minister of Food which extended beyond December, 1950, which is the date of expiry of the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945. Legally, of course, a Minister of the Crown does not need specific statutory powers to buy and sell. As an agent of the Crown he can exercise any powers which the Crown can exercise, except in so far as he is precluded from doing so by Statute. But he will be able to pay for his purchases only if Parliament votes him the money.
This is not a new point. In 1933–34 it was agreed between the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury that when a Government Department exercise continuing functions, particularly where those functions involve financial liabilities extending beyond a given financial year, statutory cover should be sought for those continuing liabilities. The Public Accounts Committee, however, accepted the view that this established practice is suspended so long as 1169 the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act is in operation. It was only when their attention was drawn to the arrangements for the purchase of food which might commit the Ministry of Food to the expenditure of money beyond 1950, that they questioned the authority of the Ministry to pay out of monies to be provided by Parliament sums required to fulfil the contracts extending beyond the financial year in which the contracts were made.
That is the short history of this one-clause Bill. It is an important measure, but its purpose is a very narrow one. The Bill speaks of long-term contracts for the purchase of food and feeding-stuffs, but it does not seek in any way to define the Government's long-term policy for the procurement and distribution of food, or to give statutory effect to a policy of bulk purchase. Although the authority of Parliament is not required for a Minister to buy and sell, in the Government's view it is only right and proper that if his purchasing arrangements extend beyond the current financial year statutory authority on the lines indicated by the Public Accounts Committee should be sought in regard to the provision of money for the payment of the goods in due course. I am sure your Lordships will find no ground for controversy on this point, and will agree that it is highly desirable for the established practice of Parliamentary control in these matters to be extended to cover long-term contracts for the purchase of food and feeding-stuffs.
Whilst I hope I am right in expecting that this Bill will be as welcome to your Lordships' House as it was to another place, and will receive as speedy a passage, I realise that it has a bearing on the Government's purchase policy on which there are conflicting views. I do not feel that this is an appropriate occasion for a long debate on this subject, but I have no doubt that noble Lords may wish to raise some points on bulk purchase, and I should like to make just a few general remarks on this subject. Since this Bill was given a Second Reading in another place, I have been encouraged to believe that the controversy over bulk purchase has been narrowed between the Government and the Opposition. At any rate, the Opposition appear to have come around to the view that a system of long-term contracts is essential when dealing 1170 with Colonial territories, in order to encourage development of food production on sound lines in those territories. I assume that the Opposition do not exclude other parts of the Commonwealth; it is equally essential, for example, to encourage the expansion of meat production in Australia and New Zealand.
In the case of Australia, this will call for a very heavy capital outlay by the Australian Government, and we cannot hope to secure this expansion unless we are prepared to buy over a long period the extra meat that will be produced, and are ready to make some arrangement in advance in regard to the fixing of prices. I think I am right in saying that there is now no opposition to the Government's policy of placing long-term contracts for the purchase of food within the Commonwealth. It may be of interest to your Lordships to know that out of our current programme of imports the Commonwealth is sending us 97 per cent. of our wheat, 55 per cent. of our meat, 87 per cent. of our cheese, and 79 per cent. of our butter. This policy has certainly been endorsed by the Opposition so far as the home farmer is concerned, as witness their support to the Agriculture Act of 1947. That Act provides, in effect, for a system of long-term contracts for the purchase of all the basic foodstuffs produced at home at prices fixed, in the case of livestock and livestock products, four years ahead.
Therefore there is left open to controversy only the Government's bulk purchase arrangements with foreign countries. These number only 21, out of about 60 separate arrangements between the Ministry of Food and overseas countries, arrangements which operate for periods ranging from one to nine years. The rest of these arrangements, and those that run for the longest period, have been entered into with Commonwealth countries. Noble Lords are aware that the systems of government in certain foreign countries, particularly the Eastern European countries, are such that trade negotiations can successfully be carried out only on a Government contract basis. But, my Lords, I hope that whatever views noble Lords may have of certain aspects of bulk buying, or of individual Government transactions, your Lordships will not allow your feelings on there matters to prejudice your reception, and 1171 indeed the passing, of this straightforward little Bill. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Hall.)
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Viscount the First Lord of the Admiralty for stepping into the breach to-day and taking charge of this measure. It is somewhat outside the ordinary run of his Department. It is clear that if it be necessary to have long-term food contracts, the Minister of Food must be covered constitutionally when he makes them. It seems equally clear that if it be necessary to make a contract extending beyond December 31, 1950, he has, without this Bill, no proper power to do so. I therefore come to the next point which was touched on by the noble Viscount—namely, whether it is necessary for the Government to make these long-term food contracts.
I admit frankly that I should be the last person to say that in some cases they were not necessary and advisable. In fact, I believe that I was the Minister of Food who made the first two—those with New Zealand and Australia. But the reasons for making those long-term arrangements with those two Dominions were just those on which the First Lord touched—we wanted to extend the production of meat, of butter and of cheese, particularly, from those Southern Dominions. As the farmers of this country like the security of a guarantee before they go in for more extended production, it seemed to me, when I was Minister of Food, reasonable that the New Zealand and Australian farmers should ask for the same condition. As your Lordships are aware, it was Mr. Hudson's policy to give those long-term guarantees to the farmers. That policy was agreed to in the days of the Coalition Government, and, if I may say so, it is perhaps the reason why Mr. Tom Williams has been more successful than some of his colleagues. He has stuck to that arrangement, and by so doing has kept the farmers fairly well satisfied.
As I have said, we made those long-term arrangements with New Zealand and Australia. There is no doubt that if we want to increase the production of certain foodstuffs in the Dominions and in the Colonial Empire it is necessary 1172 occasionally to take such a course, but it should be taken only in an effort to secure increased production in the sterling area. If Parliament gives the Minister of Food these powers, I think it should watch to see how he uses them. Further, Parliament should insist on the Minister giving more information than he has done hitherto in regard to a certain number of these contracts. It is quite absurd that the prices paid for produce in Demark under recent arrangements were made widely known in that country (the same applies with regard to Canada the year before) while the Minister, and the Ministry, of Food in this country were reluctant to give any similar information to the representatives of the taxpayers in the British Parliament. I think we are entitled to know what the Minister is doing, and what prices he is paying for these foodstuffs. After all, the people of this country are paying the piper, and I maintain that they ought to have some say in the tune that is being played.
That brings me to a word which I feel I must say in regard to the position in which we find ourselves to-day vis-à-vis the Canadian producers. At the end of November, 1943, when I was appointed Minister of Food, I happened to be in the United States, and I went to Ottawa before coming back here to take over the Department. Through the courtesy of Mr. Gardiner, Minister of Agriculture in Canada, I was privileged to attend the annual conference of provincial Ministers of Agriculture, officials and farmers' representatives from the whole of Canada. I then assured them that we could take all the bacon that they could breed for us, that we would take what canned fish they had to spare, and that we would take far greater quantities of apples than ever before. I assured them that after the war there would still be a very big market here for their bacon, and that we should need all that they could produce. I added, as a matter of fact, that I did not know how the finances were going to be arranged after mutual aid came to an end, but I assumed, seeing that there were hungry consumers on one side of the Atlantic and willing producers on the other, that the statesmen of the time would find a way whereby the bacon could reach the people of this country who so badly wanted it. Unfortunately, that has not been done. All of us will agree, I am sure, that we could do with 1173 a great deal more bacon than we are now getting. We receive a very tiny ration at the present time.
I am aware that Sir Stafford Cripps has said that our exports to Canada have been increased by over a half between the second half of 1947 and the second half of 1948, but Canada is now taking only about 7½ per cent. of her imports from this country, whereas, in the pre-war years, she was taking some 17½ per cent. I have a feeling that perhaps we could do more than we have hitherto been doing in the way of seeing that some of those very valuable capital goods which we are sending to Russia and Poland, and other countries—which eventually may well be put to some use against us—should go to Canada, and so assist the producers there to help our people here to get more bacon than they are getting at present.
One thing we have to remember in regard to these bulk contracts, as they are called, is that in this kind of dealing between nations, if any friction arises, it arises between country and country, rather than between an individual trader in one country and an individual trader in another country. That is an aspect of these so-called contracts which has to be closely watched, because the repercussions may be extremely widespread. The sooner we can revert to dealings between individual traders, the better it will be for the general harmony and good will of the world. At the present moment some Canadian producers are blaming this country as a whole, whereas in the old days they would have been blaming certain individual traders.
I used the term "so-called contracts" deliberately, because we must realise that none of these dealings is a contract in the legal sense of the word. There is no sanction whatever against a party who may default—except, I suppose, that of war or sending a battleship, which would, of course, be absurd. A trader who had been let down under a contract, as we have been let down on our Argentine contract, could sue the defaulter and obtain damages, but we can take no action, except to send somewhat useless Notes of protest to the Argentine Government. In cases within the British Commonwealth, the fact that there are no sanctions is not so important. Within the ordinary British family, the fewer 1174 legal documents there are the better, and most of us get on very well in our family life without any. So it is in the British family of nations.
These long-term guarantees to encourage an expanding production may work all right within the commonwealth, but when we come to a country like the Argentine that is a different affair. Here there is no family feeling. Here there is no question of expanding production by giving this guarantee. They have defaulted badly on the meat contract, and we have no way of bringing them to book. Of all the stupid ways of making a contract, that seemed to me to be the most foolish, because we paid for all the meat in advance. It was said at the time that we were going to eat our Argentine Railways in the course of a year or two—that investment amounted to £150,000,000, I think—and that it was a sad thing to think that we should gradually use up our capital assets in that way. I find it even sadder to think that we have paid over the money and have not even eaten the product. And because this is a contract between one country and another, we have no sanction whatever, except to send stiff little Notes to Señor Perón or to Señora Perón, or whoever is "running the show" out there. That seems to me to be a very odd way of making a contract.
Another way in which several of these contracts have been badly made is that nobody has thought of putting in delivery dates. The ordinary food trader always includes a schedule of delivery dates in his contract. When the Government made the wheat contract with Canada, we obtained our bulk supply more cheaply than other people, and there were no delivery dates in the contract. Naturally, the Canadian farmers went on supplying people who were willing to pay more before they dealt with our contracts. As the result, much of the wheat did not leave Canada before the St. Lawrence froze, and great efforts had to be made then by the Ministry of Food. Quantities of this wheat had to be taken to the Pacific Coast, at a great cost in haulage, and shipped through the Panama Canal and across the South Atlantic. And all this because nobody had thought to put delivery dates in the contract!
Even worse than that: because we were so short, we had to go to the Argentine and buy 500,000 tons of wheat at 1175 3 dollars a bushel, compared with 1.55 dollars which we were paying the Canadian farmers. On those 500,000 tons we were paying £30–£33 a ton to the Argentine, as compared with £14 9s. to the Canadian farmers and £16 4s. to our own farmers. That was all due to the fact that this contract had not been settled in the way in which the ordinary exporting trader would have settled it. We have these two cases, and I have no doubt there are many more cases which will come to light, like the potato case and the onion case and various other little contracts which are being entered into by the Ministry of Food. I think it is bad to buy 50,000 tons of potatoes in Ireland and then have to give the Irish farmers £6 a ton to keep them. That was a business I would have been extremely ashamed of, had I been Minister of Food. Indeed, I do not think it would have happened, because when I was Minister I kept a pretty good watch on the Potato Division. When we see this kind of thing going on, we question how far these arrangements are necessary.
When I went to the Ministry of Food and had to apply my mind to these food problems, I found out many of the ramifications of the food trade. First, I realised to the full what a wonderful job our food importers, our food merchants and our food distributors and shopkeepers have done for this country over all the past years. They ship the goods to time, they distribute them evenly over the country, and they supply them at a reasonable price to the consumers. Let us, as soon as possible, be rid of these arrangements, necessary as some of them were during war time. Let us be rid of them unless they fulfil the test: Is it necessary to give a Government guarantee (because that is what these long-term contracts amount to) to take more of a particular foodstuff, so as to ensure that such a foodstuff is produced in greater quantities in the sterling area? If that test be applied, and if that object is to be achieved, then by all means let the Government give that guarantee. But if not, I say, let the food traders be given back as soon as possible the job which they have done so well for the people of this country all these past years.
To-day we shall, of course, give a Second Reading to this measure. In one 1176 or two exceptional cases, no doubt, its provisions ought to be used by the Ministry of Food. But let us as soon as possible get away from this kind of contract which has not the sanction lying behind a contract made by a private trader—that he is losing his own money if he makes a mistake. It is easy to run into these huge losses when you are not dealing with your own money, when you have only the somewhat remote control of the incentive to save the taxpayers' money—and that in days when our Budgets are still running into far more millions than, in my view, they ought to do.
§ 6.3 p.m.
My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships on this subject, except to add my agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, said about trying to restore conditions in the food trade to something rather more normal than they have been during the last few years. I accept fully that, where a Government trading organisation is the sole seller of a commodity, the counterpart in purchase should probably be the Government or someone acting directly as agent for the Government. In all these contractual arrangements it is almost essential that people should deal as it were among equals. In other words, we should not have individual traders in this country dealing with Mr. Miranda, and we should not have the Government here dealing with individual traders.
That is not to say that there ought not to be any bulk buying. We all accept that where there are long-term commitments—moral commitments, or even financial commitments—taken by either party to produce year by year more food or more of other commodities than they were doing, a long-term bulk contract must be made, and it probably can only be made by the Government. But what the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, and a great many people all over the country feel is that there has been more bulk buying by the Government than has been strictly necessary. In other words, it is felt that the Government have gone in to buy when traders could have done it, in our view, very much better; and also that, when they have gone in to buy they have, in many cases, been what can only be described by everybody concerned as not very competent.
1177 The story which came out in the debate in another place on transactions in potatoes over the course of last year is something almost incredible. Your Lordships have no doubt read the debate which took place on February 8. We received information of prices paid for potatoes. Even if we accept as a fact that there was a danger of a potato famine, to meet which it was necessary to import potatoes which had to be obtained at the last moment, can your Lordships imagine that any private trader in the potato market, whether at home or abroad, would have paid the fantastic prices which the Potato and Carrot Division of the Ministry of Food succeeded in paying? I say "succeeded in paying," because they must have worked very hard to succeed in paying an average price of £18 14s. 6d. a ton, which was the figure quoted in another place, I believe from official sources.
What happened to those purchases we all know. What has happened to the potato crop in England this year we all know, also. Noble Lords who are farmers probably have large quantities of potatoes lying on their farms to-day, as I have—potatoes which have been bought but which I have no doubt we shall shortly be told are not wanted, and we shall be asked to take them away or throw them somewhere. Many people have nowhere to throw them. I do not know where I should throw the fifty tons of potatoes which the Ministry of Food have bought from me. I wish they would take them away, but I am sure they will not; I shall have to cart them away. All one gets as the result of complaining about these things is: "We are sorry, but it was very difficult. We are sorry, but we have lost a lot of money." The same thing can be said with regard to the onions. The only comment, at the end of the long debate in which that subject was discussed, was that a lot of onions had been bought. The honourable lady who was replying said:It just happens that we did make a contract to import onions"—rather like rain from heaven!We asked the exporters to delay sending them here until about the end of December, but it was quite impossible, of course, to cancel the whole contract. Again, nature intervened"—I do not quite know why, in regard to this particular contract.
1178.… That is why many farmers, I am afraid, have been left with onions on their hands.In effect, the right honourable lady was saying: "It is just too bad!" And that is after the farmers were asked to plant onions. All they get is a reply from a representative of the Government saying: "It is just too bad! They are left with a lot of onions on their hands. It is rather bad luck, isn't it?" Is that the way to encourage people to do what they are asked to do? They have never been compelled to do it; they have for years now done what they have been asked to do, and that is all they get. Is that a courteous or even reasonable way to treat people?
There is something at the back of this which makes one feel that there are certain departments in the Ministry of Food which are, quite frankly, not working very well, although I have no doubt that within their own lights they are very efficient. Your Lordships know, in particular, that there is the Potato and Carrot Division, which I suppose was responsible for the bulk buying of the potatoes. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware of many of the other interesting activities of that Division, like the provision about not washing carrots. Your Lordships are probably aware that there is an order in force which says:A person shall not, far the purposes of sale, wash or cause to be washed any carrots, provided that this provision shall not apply to bunched carrots or to the washing of carrots by any person for sale by him by retail.Frankly, I cannot make out what the order means. But that is the sort of way in which this Division is apparently occupying its time. A much more amusing one than that is the order prohibiting the selling of carrots with more than twelve inches of foliage on them. Your Lordships appear not to be aware of that one.
I think we are all satisfied that something has gone badly wrong. Yet there has never been an expression of regret or an indication that where bulk buying has led us into these difficulties a change is envisaged. If the Government would tell us that after this season there will be no more of this type 1179 of buying, or that a new system will be adopted, I think we should all have a great deal more confidence than most of us possess in the régime of which the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, and others have been complaining.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will not expect me to deal with all the points which have been raised by the two noble Lords, but I was rather interested in the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, particularly in the latter part of it, because the sting was in the tail. To be sure of the position I would like to ask him whether he and his colleagues of his Party believe that the time has arrived when we should discontinue bulk buying. He said that, so far as he was concerned, we ought to rid ourselves of this method of buying, irrespective of where we are purchasing. It would be interesting to know where the noble Lord stands in relation to this matter, because it aims at the very principle in which His Majesty's Government believe, and also in which his own colleagues in another place believe. After all, as I have pointed out, some three-fifths of the contracts which have been entered into by the Ministry of Food have been entered into with the Colonies and with the Commonwealth countries for the purposes which I mentioned in the course of my speech. I assume that the noble Lord is still of the opinion that we should rid ourselves of this system of bulk buying as soon as possible.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
No. What I said was that where we are trying to secure extra produce from the sterling area—which of course includes the greater part of the British Empire, Canada, unfortunately, being outside it—it was right for the Government to give a guarantee in order to get increased production, just as our policy has always been to give a guarantee to the British farmer so as to persuade him to go ahead with his greater production. What I said was that I was in favour of this system if it was necessary for that purpose.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
That is entirely different from the attitude taken up by Mr. Peake in another place, when this Bill was debated there. He went so far as to say: 1180At the same time, of course, we must recognise that some system of long-term contract is an indispensable element in any effective policy for Colonial development. It is quite clear that though the contracts may be for fixed prices over long terms, some form of undertaking to purchase on minimum quantity contracts and at prices subject to annual review must be an indispensable element in the development of the production of various foodstuffs in our own Colonies.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, we do not usually take cognisance of what anybody but a Government speaker says in another place, but what Mr. Peake said means exactly the same as I have been saying, except that he used longer words than I did.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
I took down the words of the noble Lord, and what he said was this: "Let us get away from this kind of contract, and let us leave it to the private trader." Those were the very words with which he concluded his speech. They indicated to me that what the noble Lord was anxious to do was to hand back the trade to the private trader, irrespective of whether the contract was made with the Colonies or the Commonwealth countries. I think it is right that we should know just where we stand in relation to this matter.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, I wonder whether I might say this. There is really nothing of the antithesis which the noble Viscount is trying to suggest. Everybody agrees that it is right to make long-term arrangements with the Dominions and the Colonies to get increased food production. That means inevitably that you are going to take a minimum amount, and may mean that you have to give a minimum price. There are two ways of doing that. It can be done by price, or by preference. But that does not mean in the least that even where that kind of contract has to be entered into the whole operation has to be carried out by an incompetent department inside the Ministry of Food, instead of through the ordinary trade channels. May I take a specific example of what I myself had to operate in the war? At the beginning of the war I was asked to form a company called The United Kingdom Corporation, which had a turnover of over £150,000,000 a year. I was using entirely Government money; the Treasury was my sole shareholder. I formed a board of the ablest business men in the country. But the 1181 cardinal principle adopted was to use the ordinary trade channels at its instrument, and as a result the Corporation made a profit and not a loss. When I was the responsible Minister in West Africa I had not the least difficulty in seeing that the right price was paid to the African, even the small producer, and that the full amount he had to supply was bought (incidentally, no ground-nuts were left lying up at Kano on the ground); and for that purpose I used the direct trading organisations.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
That does not alter the point which I put and, indeed, it is a question of using the trading organisations. The trading organisations were used at the end of the First World War, and the Government of which the noble Viscount was then a member withdrew the guarantees which were given. What happened, not only to the foreign trade but indeed to trade with the Colonies and Dominions? What was the position of the agricultural industry in this country?
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
That is because Mr. Lloyd George broke his word. That has nothing to do with how you trade.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
Mr. Lloyd George was the Prime Minister of a Government the majority of whom were Conservatives. Really, noble Lords cannot help themselves by saying that the Department is an incompetent one because of what happened in relation to potatoes, or because it is suggested there is a stupid order in relation to carrots, when the Ministry of Food's purchases amount, I suppose, to some hundreds of millions a year. Indeed, the very morale and the life of this country has been sustained as a result of the work of the Ministry of Food. I have no doubt that the noble Lord himself who served in the Ministry, and with very great distinction, may be the father of some of the orders to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennell, has referred.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, may I interrupt for a moment? It is not, and never will be, my policy, or the policy of those for whom I speak, in any way to take away these guaranteed prices from the British farmer. Let us be quite clear about that. It was Mr. Hudson's policy, firmly backed up by myself. We 1182 carried it on when we were in office, and I am glad to think that the present Government are still carrying it on. When you want an increased production and you give security to the Dominion farmers or the Colonial farmers, I am equally in favour of giving them those guaranteed prices. I started it with the New Zealand and Australian contracts. If the noble Viscount will read my speech as a whole, he will see that I completely excepted that large range of contracts from all my criticisms.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
I will certainly read the noble Lord's speech, but the impression left upon me at the end of his remarks was that he wanted as soon as possible to hand back the trade to ordinary trade channels.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
That is what the noble Lord was anxious to do. Actually, whatever guarantee may be given to agriculture in this country, if this country is to be used as a dumping ground for the surpluses of primary products from abroad, whatever may be the intention of the Government, it would be difficult to continue guaranteed prices to agriculture in this country. That was one of the reasons why agriculture was in the doldrums right from the time that the guarantees were withdrawn in 1920 and 1921. It was after the First World War that we saw the downward slide of agriculture, which neither noble Lords opposite nor we ourselves want to see happen in the future. That is why I am anxious that we should be quite clear about the intention of the Opposition, in relation to this controlled purchase from abroad. We are determined to see that it does not undermine the agricultural guarantees which have been given in this country. I do not want to follow that matter any further, but I thought it was necessary that we should clear the position, particularly in view of my impression of the latter part of the noble Lord's speech.
Reference was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, to the defaulting of the Argentine in relation to meat. None of us likes it; let us be quite frank about it. We want contracts to be entered into freely between one side and the other, and we desire that they should be carried 1183 out, whatever their terms. I am not excusing the Argentine for what she has done; it is true that, of the 400,000 tons of meat which she contracted to deliver to this country in the course of the year, there will be a deficiency of something like 65,000 tons. But I hope that there will be sufficient honour in the Argentine, and in the Argentine Government, to see that that contract is fulfilled. The noble Lord asked why it is that prices are not published. The Minister is not at all averse from publishing prices where it can be done without prejudice to his commercial activities, but I am sure the noble Lord would not ask that there should be a disclosure of the prices where prejudice would be caused.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
I made the point that, where they are freely published in other countries, surely we ought to have them published here.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
That is so. I cannot give any reason why they are not published. It would be useless for me to attempt to do so.
Without keeping your Lordships too long, may I deal with this difficulty of potatoes, which was referred to by two noble Lords? The Ministry of Food have a great responsibility. They have to find food for 50,000,000 people in this country, and they must not "slip up" if they can possibly avoid it. I have no doubt that the Ministry of Food rather misjudged the position in relation to the potato crop, but it must be remembered that nature has been at work in that regard. Take the average yield of potatoes per acre. Over the last ten years, it was about 7.1 tons per acre. The year before last, it was reduced to 5.9 tons per acre. This last year nature has been very efficient; it has given the Minister more potatoes than he expected, because the yield is well above the average. Last year is was nearly 8 tons per acre. The Minister was playing for safety; unfortunately, he has been caught. But this is only one of very many deals into which the Minister has had to enter. On the whole, I think it can be said that the work of the Ministry has not been so bad as noble Lords have suggested. I am not going to say for a moment that the Ministry are incompetent. Indeed, I think it is unfair to make a charge of that nature against the Ministry. I have no doubt 1184 that, in all the circumstances, the nation has every reason to be pleased in many ways with the work that has been done.
I am afraid that I have taken up too much of your Lordships' time, but I was most anxious to cover the points that have been raised. If I have misjudged the noble Lord opposite, then I will certainly see that ample amends are made. I wanted the position made quite clear, because the impression which was left upon me was that he wanted to go back and hand over to the private trader. Whatever may be the complaints against the Minister of Food at present, I am convinced that private traders could not do the work nearly as efficiently as the Ministry are doing it.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.