HL Deb 30 March 1955 vol 192 cc262-76

3.54 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I should not for one moment venture to cross swords with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, over his detailed criticism of this Order. After all, he has a most intimate knowledge of the Ministries concerned. This is a short and simple Order, and largely an administrative one. It is unlikely, I think, to have any great and immediate effect upon the life of the country. But I do regard it as a great achievement on the part of Her Majesty's Government that they are able to bring in this Order at all at this moment. When one remembers that three years ago there were 27,000 people employed in the Ministry of Food, and that a great many commodities, such as bacon, cheese, butter, eggs, chocolate, tea, sugar and meat, were all still rationed, it is a great achievement that by 1955 the number employed has come down to 5,000; that there are no commodities which are still rationed and, at the same time, all the commodities which were previously rationed, as well as all other commodities, are available in increased quantities and in far better quality.

There are, of course, many important functions which will remain to the Ministry of Food, but looking at them I do not think one can claim that many of them are bad or unsuitable bedfellows for agriculture. Certain of the functions, it is true—those under the Food and Drugs Acts—are there in a purely transitory capacity, and will eventually end up, I understand, with the Ministry of Health. We have been told that the chief function of 2,500 of the employees, in fact about half those employed in the Ministry, is the implementation of the guarantees to agriculture. I welcome the fact that this function of the Ministry of Food has now been transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. It has always seemed to me a rather arbitrary division to say where the borderline comes between the producer and the consumer. I think this merger of the two Ministries makes it quite clear that there is no real line of demarcation between the producer and the consumer.

I believe that the policy of noble Lords opposite, that the responsibility of the producer ceases at the farm gate, is a wrong one. I feel that the responsibility of the producer goes much further than that. I do not see why there should be any real clash of interest between the producer and the consumer. Obviously, there will be points that will have to be settled between the two, but I do not think that it is beyond the power of one Minister to arbitrate between the two. In fact, I think it is far better that one Ministry should represent both the consumers and the producers of food. As I say, I do not like the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to set up one great new Ministry to protect the consumer.


I do not like to interrupt the noble Lord, but I am sure he would not wish to misrepresent me. I did not say that a new Ministry should be set up. I said merely that it was one of two alternatives which should have been carefully considered and which deserved careful consideration.


I thank the noble Earl, but I think what he said was that certain functions should be transferred from other Ministries to the Ministry of Food, and to form that into a Ministry which was primarily responsible for the consumer. I do not agree that there must inevitably be this clash of interest between the producer and the consumer. After all, they are both completely interdependent, the one on the other. One well recalls that during the period just after the war, in so many of our debates, particularly those on agriculture, the feeling was always cropping up that the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture were not always running along a parallel course. It seems to me that, now that it is possible to do so, it is obviously right to unite those two Ministries so that we can be certain they do follow one straight course.

Before I sit down, I should like to pay a tribute to the tremendous work that has been done in the past by the Ministry of Food, particularly during the dark days of the war, when the Department had the enormous number of 44,000 people working for them. But I feel that no verbal tribute to that Ministry is really necessary: the tribute to them is a living one, and it lies in the health of our people. The Ministry maintained the health of our population, in spite of everything that the enemy could do. However, I feel that we should now welcome this union of the two Ministries and hope that the day will not come when it will be necessary to separate them again.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join with the noble Earl who is responsible for this draft Order and with my noble friend Lord Listowel in the tribute to the work of the Ministry of Food, the Ministry which is now being merged, and, in particular, the tribute paid to the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, whose voice brought comfort to thousands, if not millions, over the wireless. I wonder whether those who heard him still carry out his injunction to put the jam direct on to the bread and not on to the side of the plate. I still have, as a treasured possession, a photograph of the noble Viscount when he was good enough to come to East Ham, where I happened to be in charge of Civil Defence, to open one of our civic restaurants. I think I supplied the noble Viscount with a copy, even if we were not able then to supply him with a key for opening the restaurant.

I agree with the broad, general case which has been submitted by my noble friend Lord Listowel, in connection with this draft Order. There is only one aspect of the Order in regard to which I should like to say something in support of what has already been submitted by my noble friend, though I think everyone will agree that, during the war and since the war, the work of the Ministry of Food in promoting food hygiene and winning the co-operation of all local authorities to ensure that the public obtain clean and safe food has been outstanding. The meat advisory service provided by the officers of the division has been most helpful and appreciated by those officers of local authorities who are responsible for meat inspection.

Incidentally, may I divert for a moment to say that I wish that producers always recognised that their responsibility is right home to the consumer and there is no separation of interests. If that were fully recognised, I doubt whether we should have to maintain the army of meat inspectors to see that diseased carcases are not foisted on to the public. I see my noble friend Lord Bledisloe getting up. I am sure that, if the producers of milk fully realised their responsibility, milk would always be up to the 3.5 fat content and there would be no need for the Ministry of Agriculture to maintain the service they have to maintain at the present time. If the noble Earl can educate the producers up to that standard, he will be doing a real public service; but, until he does that, I am afraid the inspections in the interests of the public will have to go on.

The work which has been done in prescribing legal standards of quality for various foodstuffs and in controlling food advertising and labelling has also been of the greatest value during and since the war. All this work has been for the protection of the consumer and to ensure that he gets pure, safe food of proper quality. It is essential in the public interest that this work should continue. Of course, local authorities are responsible for local administration and enforcement, but surely it is not right and proper that at the centre responsibility should be vested in a Government Department where the consumer interest is not the paramount consideration, but it should be vested in a Department which will stimulate and inspire further developments on the part of the local authorities in the public and consumer interests. Whatever else it may be, I would assert emphatically with my noble friend Lord Listowel that the Ministry of Agriculture is not the Department to so inspire and stimulate. I was glad to note, in the somewhat guarded reference made by the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, that he indicated that there may be some subsequent adjustment by another Order in regard to certain of these functions; but I would submit that it is really bad administration to have functions transferred to one Ministry and then transferred from that Ministry shortly afterwards to another Ministry. Surely, the right thing to do would be to submit those two Orders concurrently, and then we could see just where we were.

Food hygiene and meat inspection are clearly matters of public health, and they both have a close relationship with food poisoning and other food-borne diseases. May I remind your Lordships that this was fully recognised recently in the Food and Drugs (Amendment) Act, 1954? As the noble Earl said, this Act empowers the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Health, acting jointly, to make regulations for securing sanitary and cleanly practices in the manufacture and handling of food, and for the protection of public health. The Act also provides for the setting up by the two Ministers of a Food Hygiene Advisory Council. While I agree that during the war, and perhaps subsequently, the Ministry of Food had to be associated with these matters, because there were controls and rationing, there are now no real grounds for a divided responsibility of any kind in regard to the matters to which my noble friend and I have referred; responsibility should be placed fairly and squarely on the Ministry of Health to deal with those problems.

The sole central responsibility for food hygiene, including meat inspection, should be vested in the Ministry of Health, as these are essential public health services. Local authorities have not forgotten that it was the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries which deprived them of their responsibility for supervising hygiene in milk production, and they will certainly view more than suspiciously the transfer of food hygiene matters to the Ministry of Agriculture rather than to the Ministry of Health. In short, hygiene and meat inspection, and to a much lesser extent food standards, are matters of public health which should be the central responsibility of the Minister of Health.

I do not wish to rake over the dying embers of past controversies. If a strong hand is not played in regard to this matter, I am sure that, simply in the nature of things, the Ministry and the Minister of Agriculture will fight tenaciously for the retention of these powers. But, as my noble friend has asked, why place these new, extraneous duties, of which the Department has no experience at all, on an already overloaded, overworked Department? As recently as the Session 1953–54 the Ministry of Agriculture was heavily under fire from the Select Committee on Estimates in regard to one section of the Ministry's work—namely, agricultural research. I notice in the Report that as far back as 1951 the Treasury was seeking some improvement or alteration; yet nothing has really been done.

Again, as my noble friend has said, surely the real lesson in regard to Crichel Down is that the muddle was caused through the cumbrous machinery of the Ministry itself. Surely this is not to be a matter of just suggesting in the public interest that such matters as food inspection and food hygiene should be placed with a Department where the first consideration must be, in the nature of things, the producer. The Ministry of Health is accustomed to dealing with local authorities. On logical grounds, on grounds of good administration, and, above all, in the public interest, I suggest that the matters to which I and my noble friend Lord Listowel have referred should be transferred as quickly as possible to the Ministry of Health, so that vested interests do not grow up in the Ministry of Agriculture. In that way, I submit to your Lordships, the public interest will best be served.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I do not like to remain altogether silent on an occasion like this, when a relatively new Department, which has more than justified itself during a period of serious emergency, is apparently—I do not use a stronger word than that—being wound up. I say that for more than one reason. In the first place, I took part in the creation of the Ministry of Food, and, as representing the food producers—the farmers, the farm workers and the allotment holders of this country—I was asked to serve at the Ministry of Food in order to act, as it were, as a liaison between the producing and the consuming interests in a time of emergency, and, so far as it was possible to do so, to see that the producers of this country should not be overwhelmed at a time when inevitably there was a greater dependence upon food from overseas to avoid national starvation.

The other reason why I feel bound to intervene is because, not very long before the passing of our dear and respected friend the late Lord Addison, he and I together had this particular matter under discussion on more than one occasion. We discussed whether, taking the long view, and if, by the mercy of God, periods of emergency were coming to an end, it would, on balance, be in the national interest to wind up the Ministry of Food and to retain some sort of safeguards that the consuming public would receive, at any rate from our Commonwealth and if necessary from other sources overseas, essential foods which we were not able to provide in sufficient quantity within our own shores. I may remind my noble friend behind me (he has made an admirable speech) that it would be a profound mistake to regard the Ministry of Agriculture as representing for all time the food producers, as distinct from the food consumers of this country.

Before the Ministry of Food was originally established (I think in 1916), four-fifths of all our breadstuff came from overseas, as did roughly one-half of our meat. That proportion has since altered very considerably. When we are perpetually being reminded, as we are to-day, of this important problem of the balance of payments it is obvious that we ought to do all in our power in peace time, as well as in times of emergency, to produce from our own soil every single ounce of essential food that we can. I make an earnest appeal to my colleagues in this House not to take the risk of regarding this discussion as the last word upon this subject. I hold strongly to the view that we are passing through a period of transition, and that it would be very wrong for us to make up our minds that the consumers of this country want any definite protection against our producers of essential food in days to come.

I listened with great admiration and respect to the balanced views expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. It is easy, particularly at times when a General Election may be pending, to start talking of dear food. I went through all that myself thirty or forty years ago. It would be disastrous if there were to be strongly expressed discord, based upon Party political differences, on the subject of food producers, as against food consumers, in Great Britain. Though whatever I say on the subject at the moment will probably satisfy no one, I earnestly hope that we shall not come to any definite decision to regard this as the last word on whether consumers are adequately protected in the absence of a Ministry of Food.

My view, which I expressed quite candidly to the late Lord Addison seven or eight years ago, is that it may be desirable to have within the one Department, this Ministry of Agriculture and Food, or whatever it may be called, a definite section to which should be allocated the duty of giving full consideration to the essential food requirements of the people of this country. In days gone by, that was largely a responsibility of the Ministry of Food. In a humble way I represented the food producers in the first Ministry of Food. It may be found feasible, and may be considered desirable, after due consideration, to establish in the Ministry of Agriculture a similar department to act as a liaison between producers and consumers of food in this country without allowing the matter to develop into a political, partisan or other battle as between the interests of the more-than-ever essential food producers of this country and the reasonable requirements of the food consumers. Whilst I dare say no more, I cannot help thinking that we are at the moment in a transitional stage, in which we should not come to too hurried a decision if we really want to provide for the Welfare State and the essential welfare needs of our people in days to come.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, we have just listened to a very wise speech from one of our older statesmen whom we in this House are always delighted to hear. With him, I very much hope that we shall not put this matter out of our minds and think that we have settled it altogether, for I believe that there are involved here great issues which, perhaps, in a calmer time—after the Election—we may have to think over again. Two significant things have happened to me to-day which have made my already existing suspicions become almost certainties. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, while deputising for the Chairman of Committees, in giving a reminder on some innocent subject like the question of papers, go out of his way to indicate what was going to happen when there was a new Parliament and what the position would then be.

The second thing which I thought significant was this Order itself, for it is not a final solution of the problem at all. For the moment the Ministry of Food is dissolved, and everything, except in Scotland, goes lock, stock, and barrel to the Ministry of Agriculture. That is no final solution, because we are told that shortly hereafter something which has now gone to the Minister of Agriculture is to be taken away from him again and given to the Minister of Health. The obvious question is: why not do that at once? Why not give the Ministers of Health and of Agriculture that which belongs to each? It is obvious, therefore, that this Order has been drafted in a hurry and is not in itself the final solution.

The reason may be that at the last Election the Party opposite gave a pledge that the Ministry of Food should be abolished. If my guess is right, they have very few days in which to carry out that promise. So there is this hastily improvised, rather ill-thought-out scheme to abolish the Ministry of Food and to transfer it, not to its permanent resting place but, so far as some functions are concerned, to a temporary resting place. No doubt the proposal is that changes will be made after the Election, when there will be more leisure in which to deal with the matter. If that is not the solution, I entirely fail to see the reason for this temporary arrangement and for transferring to the Ministry, of Agriculture, for example, responsibility for food and drugs, and for clean food and hygiene, while at the same time the Government tell us that they will thereafter take that responsibility away from them and give it to the Ministry of Health? I hope that when the noble Earl replies he will tell me why it is proposed to transfer these responsibilities first to the Minister of Agriculture and thereafter to the Minister of Health? Why not, in this Order, at once sort out the functions? It might take a little time, but it could be done and some responsibility sent direct to the Minister of Health.

The next question I should like to raise is forestry. I believe that this Government, at heart, are not in the least interested in forestry. I regret to say that they have allowed forestry altogether to give way to food production. Of the two I agree that food production is of greater importance: it is more important than anything. But I firmly believe that, if things were worked properly, the two could go hand in hand, and that we could have both forestry and enough land for food production. If that were to happen it would naturally improve the prospect of food production. We all know that the Forestry Commission are in extreme difficulty in getting enough land to afforest; yet, so far as I know, absolutely nothing is being done about these common lands—two million acres of them—which are falling into a state of utter and absolute neglect. Why is this Ministry not to be called now the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Forestry? I would add "and Forestry" to the new title. Why should forestry be left out, as a sort of Cinderella? What is the reason for that? That is the second question I should like to ask the noble Earl. Why is the title of the Ministry not to include forestry, because that surely is an important function for it?

The next thing I want to say is this. I have sat in the Cabinet for many years at a very critical time. The problem in our day was very different from the problem with which the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, dealt so splendidly in his day. His problem, broadly speaking, was to get the food. The problem was not that of paying for it but that of getting it at all. When the war was over, and the German U-boats were no longer operating, the problem which faced us was that of paying for the food. It was an entirely different problem, and I am not sure that it was not a more difficult one to deal with. I can remember frightful difficulties which we had during those critical years. I can remember many occasions on which two Ministers, the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture, used to come before the Cabinet to resolve their differences—because there were differences. And may I point out how enormously important it is to have two Ministers who can each go to the Cabinet, and put his point of view, so that after hearing both points of view, the Cabinet may decide what is the right decision to take?

If the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture are merged, it means that at the Cabinet stage there is only one Minister there. He decides for himself at an early stage what line he will take. He may, perhaps, indicate to the Cabinet the difficulty he has had in coming to that decision. But that is very different from having in the Cabinet two Ministers who can each put his case. I can also remember from those days, even more than hearing those two Ministers airing the differences between them, how they both had differences with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And in my experience, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in every Government, is nearly always a very formidable person. Whether I think of Sir Stafford Cripps or of Mr. Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer used to have two hounds let loose upon him, and not merely one. From that point of view, I think it was useful to have two Ministers.

I humbly agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, about the foolishness of talking as though there were a complete diversity of interest between consumer and producer. If the consumer treats the producer so badly that the producer goes out of business, the consumer will have nothing to eat. That is simple. Therefore, the old classical, economic view about this has to a very large extent to be re-written. It is idle to pretend, however, that there are not occasions when the two points of view clash. We had a little discussion in this House to-day on plums. Someone suggested that at one stage—I do not know when—plums had been coming in from abroad, what time we were having difficulty in selling our own plums. That sort of thing happens from time to time. There are two points of view to consider, and in my view it is desirable that the two points of view should be put by different spokesmen, in order that the right solution may be arrived at. Therefore I do not think that this transfer of functions is a good solution.

There is another reason why I do not believe that this is a good solution. I believe that any Ministry which gets too large tends to become inefficient. The Lord Chancellor and I have had experience of having a very small Department. Before he came here the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Kilmuir, had the Home Office, which is a very large Department. I had the Ministry of National Insurance, which I suppose was even larger. I am certainly not going to say that either the Home Office or the Ministry of National Insurance was inefficient, but I must say, speaking with some experience, that the smaller a Department is, the better it is likely to be, because the Minister can exercise more control over what is going on.

There is no Department to-day more important than the Ministry of Agriculture. The whole future of this country depends entirely, I think, on what we can do in the way of production of food; and the Minister of Agriculture is already an overburdened man. He has a tremendous lot to do—make no mistake about that. Now there is in prospect the transfer to the Minister of Agriculture of an extra 5,600 civil servants. That is the number to be transferred, and that cannot possibly be done without adding still further to his labours and his responsibilities if he is going to do his job properly. And what will be the result? When he tries to extend his activities to all these spheres, one or other sphere is bound to suffer. For that reason, I think that this move is a mistake. We on this side of the House shall not, of course, oppose—we never do in this House—the Order. But I would plead with the Government to remember the wise words of the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. Do not regard this as necessarily the last word. These things are much too important to be made the passport of Party controversy, General Election pledges and all the rest of it. I beg the Government to keep this matter as one which must be considered in the best interests alike of producer and consumer, in the interests of efficiency in agriculture and efficiency in marketing, and in order to see that our people obtain a sufficient supply of food at prices they can afford to pay.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, a number of noble Lords have asked me various questions and I will try to deal with them as briefly as possible. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, more or less accused us of dismembering the Ministry of Food and distributing its functions here, there and everywhere. I should like to assure the noble Earl that that is rather unfair. Apart from the Scottish aspect, which I am sure he will agree was inevitable no matter what happened to the Ministry of Food, there is only the question of hygiene which is being transferred to the Ministry of Health. That is the only thing.


The noble Earl will remember that I drew attention to various trading functions, which I said in my view would have been more suitably transferred to the Board of Trade. The Ministry of Health is not the only Department concerned.


I will come to that point in a moment. I thought first that the noble Earl was accusing us of dismembering too much. Now he is more or less accusing us of not dismembering enough. On the question of transferring functions to the Board of Trade, I am sure he will agree that the Board of Trade is much overburdened at the moment—if anything much more so than the Ministry which will result from this amalgamation. He also accused us—if I may put it so—of bad administration. Frankly, we think that very much the contrary is the case. We think that the union of the two Departments will make for economy of administration; the work of the two is nowadays so largely complementary. Moreover, on many aspects of policy it is extremely necessary for the considerations affecting the consumer, the distributing trades and the producer to be brought together and to be harmonised. We think that the former two Departments can assist in the process as well, or better, when they are housed under one roof.

The noble Lord, Lord Burden, was worried about the protection of the consumer. We decided that the question of hygiene should be dealt with by the Minister of Health, who would also take responsibility for the new Hygiene Advisory Council. But the new Ministry will not be the Ministry of Agriculture. May I stress that: it is not the Ministry of Agriculture, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Noble Lords may think that is a long term, but the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, would like to add Forestry to it, which would make it even more of a mouthful. If it be asked: "Why not call it the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries?", the answer is that when Departments are amalgamated, the oldest Departments take precedence. But that does not mean that the interests of food and the consumer come down to the bottom of the list; they are on a par with the others. We shall have a new Department with a new range of duties and a new staff to match, which will be drawn from the old Ministry of Food. There is no question of the present Ministry suddenly being given the task of solving problems which were dealt with before by the Ministry of Food, and being expected to deal with them with the staff they have at present. That would be absurd. They are being given a staff which has had some years' experience in dealing with these problems.

I am sure we all agree that the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made one of his excellent speeches this afternoon, and I can assure the noble Viscount that I will take care that all that he has said will be passed on to my right honourable friend. The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, was worried about why forestry was not in the title of the new Ministry. As he is only too well aware, the Forestry Commission are responsible to the Minister in person and not to the Department. It would need a complete reorganisation before that could be done, and this is obviously a matter which would have to be considered at a different time. The noble and learned Earl also seemed to think that the job was going to be too much for the Minister. I have had the privilege of working with the Minister since amalgamation started. As I am sure your Lordships will appreciate, it was far from an easy job in the first place, and even up to the present day the Minister has to spend a considerable amount of time in his motor car, going between 3, Whitehall Place and Dean Bradley House. That does not make for the ease and comfort of the Minister, but I can assure your Lordships that he is managing extremely well, and once the two Departments are under one roof he will have no trouble in dealing with all the problems that arise on various sides. The noble and learned Earl was also worried about there having to be a second Order. He asked why it could not have been brought forward at the same time as this Order. It is only right that I should be perfectly frank. The problem of sharing the responsibilities in the most satisfactory way has been difficult, and has involved a considerable amount of discussion, but it is now solved. As I have said, hygiene will be going to the Minister of Health.


My Lords, if the matter is solved, may I ask why the Government do not transfer the hygiene functions directly to the Ministry of Health, instead of transferring everything to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and then transferring it again?


It is not really a question of transferring hygiene to the Ministry of Agriculture; it is only a question of amalgamation and slight readjustment; that is all. I hope I have been able to satisfy your Lordships in answering the questions put to me.


My Lords, I have no desire to take part in any controversy on this Order, but perhaps your Lordships will be good enough to permit me to say a last word of salute to the Ministry which I had the very great honour of serving during the war. I am grateful to noble Lords for the kindly things they have said. Perhaps your Lordships will let me record my gratitude to the Ministers and the members of the staff who were good enough to serve with me during those difficult periods of the war. Above all, I think it is appropriate that I should record my gratitude to the public who, with so much understanding, tolerated my administration during those periods.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Viscount would agree that members and officials of local authorities should be included.


I do indeed agree.

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes before five o'clock.