Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £2,382,732, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the charges for the following Departments connected with Agriculture and Food for the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1943, namely:
|Civil Estimates, 1942.|
|Class VI, Vote 7, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries||£2,382,552|
|Class X, Vote 1, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (War Services)||£90|
|Class X, Vote 4, Ministry of Food||£90|
We are now approaching the third war-time harvest. I do not propose to try to forecast its results, because in these matters we are always at the mercy of the weather. I would, however, assure the Committee that everything that man can do is being and has been done to ensure its being as great a harvest as possible. When I last addressed the House, in March, I indicated the increased tillage area and the increased acreage of the principal crops. I also suggested that I thought the time had come, taking the country as a whole, when we had attained the peak of our cropping expansion and that from now on we should, while maintaining our efforts, endeavour to intensify production from the land already in cultivation. Since then the calls on our shipping have been largely increased, both actually, and more especially in relation to the resources available. Therefore I have found myself compelled to make a further appeal to farmers and to ask them at one and the same time to concentrate on increasing the current rate of production and, for the year 1943, to increase substantially the tillage area of the country, and particularly the land under wheat, potatoes and vegetables.
While I am speaking of potatoes, may I say that I know that a certain amount of waste has undoubtedly taken place, but I would remind the Committee that we grew potatoes as an insurance, and I would only ask hon. Members to imagine for one moment what they would be saying to-day if this country found itself in the same state as Germany, if we had had to reduce, during this summer, our potato ration to half the normal, with no guarantee that even that half was available, and if London, for instance, had found itself in the same position as Hamburg, entirely without potatoes from 2nd to 12th July, or Vienna, which was in the same state during the week ended 4th July. Clearly it is very desirable that we should have that insurance, and, if you are to have insurance on that scale, I am afraid some slight modicum of waste may occur from time to time.
I have asked the farmers for an increase in the tillage area in England and Wales of over 500,000 acres this year. I hope to get the bulk of that planted to wheat and I hope that some land that would otherwise have been planted to other crops, will also be planted to wheat, so that if the weather is reasonable, we ought to increase our wheat acreage in England and Wales next year by no less than 600,000 acres. In addition I have asked for a 10 per cent. increase in the acreage under potatoes, a further expansion in vegetables and the maintenance of the very large acreage of sugar beet that we grew this year. At the same time, I am pressing for an increase in the production of milk. Dairy farmers, like other farmers, have responded well, and the results, so far, this year are encouraging, for in the first six months, despite a very unfavourable Spring, we actually produced over 10,000,000 gallons more milk than we did on the average in the three pre-war years and 13,000,000 gallons more than we did last year.
All this will, of course, require an enormous extra effort on the part of farmers and farm workers. They will have to work day in and day out, and if certain arrangements which we are at present discussing mature, they will be expected during this Autumn's ploughing season to work by night as well as by day. It will, I think, prove a formidable task, but I believe it can be done. I think one of the most remarkable things in connection with the efforts during the last two years of those engaged in agriculture has been that they have attained and exceeded the goals which we set them, in spite of a very definite limitation of resources. The total number of men and women employed in agriculture has increased only by a very small percentage, and that increase has been offset by the change-over from skilled to unskilled labour and from male to female labour, as indeed has been the case in other industries. But in the case of agriculture this change has been much more difficult than in ordinary industry, because the farms of this country are small and many are family farms and it is much more difficult, under those conditions, to change over and to dilute with female labour. Nevertheless, as an indication of what has been done, I may say that the Women's Land Army has, in the last four months, proceeded every month from record to record, and has got over 40,000 at work to-day, compared with some 15,000 only last year.
As regards tractors and other implements, there again, as in the case of labour, the Government have to balance the competing war needs. We have had some increase in tractor strength but nothing like as great, naturally, as a Minister of Agriculture would like. It becomes therefore essential to see that the tractors and implements that we have are worked to the fullest advantage and county war agricultural committees have been instructed to see that the heavy crawler tractor type of which we are particularly short is concentrated on heavy work and that all available machines, not only those in the hands of committees and contractors but those in the hands of private users as well, are used to the full. The same thing is true of fertilisers. Supplies of fertilisers are limited. I hate to have to introduce a rationing scheme or limitation but it is essential to see that the limited supplies we have are used for the crops that need them most and this year we have had to introduce a rationing scheme which will, I hope, work reasonably well.
In addition, we have to try to prevent any waste. I still believe that the country is to some extent under-stocked. I have been exhorting farmers to make the maximum use of the by-products of their crops such as straw, sugar beet tops, etc., and also of the remaining grassland, because livestock has been the backbone of British agriculture, not only in England but also in Scotland, and we have to try to ensure that every farmer keeps the maximum head of livestock on his farm that he can feed with his own resources, without of course encroaching on the land that has to be devoted to the growing of crops for direct human consumption. While I can lay down the general rules and can give a general lead to farmers, the success of the whole policy depends, of course, on the extent to which the individual farmer, working on his own farm, can adapt his farming practice to the new requirements. His success is conditioned by his knowledge, by the size of the farm, by its equipment, by the layout of the buildings and so forth. Clearly, there is a field for infinite variety and also scope for infinite progress.
The Committee will, no doubt, remember that I said last year that I had set up a new body, called the Agricultural Improvement Council, to see whether we could not get the results of research adopted and utilised more quickly in ordinary farming practice. At the same time, we made some alterations in the constitution and duties of the Agricultural Research Council. One should not, of course, count one's chickens before they are hatched, but I think we happen to have hit on a piece of machinery which will produce results of great value to agriculture and to the country. Perhaps the Committee would be interested if I told them briefly of what we are doing. The work of the Agricultural Research Council and that of the Agricultural Improvement Council are, of course, complementary one to the other. The Agricultural Research Council must ask itself every day, "Are we doing everything in our power to see that the research organisation is properly staffed and equipped to obtain the maximum possible knowledge and relate it to the needs of agriculture? "The Agricultural Improvement Council should be asking itself every day, "Are we doing everything in our power to see that the results achieved by the Agricultural Research Council are either applied to agriculture or else given the necessary opportunity of showing whether their application would be of advantage to agriculture? "By the very nature of things, as the Committee will see, these two bodies are bound to some extent to overlap and we have tried to avoid the evils of such overlapping by appointing a certain number of members of each body to be members of the other. In addition there are frequent meetings of the two secretariats.
We are faced with the difficulty that agricultural research is, of its very nature, a long-term job. It is subject to the restrictions imposed by the seasons. If you want to carry out full-scale trials with a crop, you can only do one field trial a year, and even in the case of animals and animal nutrition, although not so liable to interference by the weather, it is still the case that there is often a long gap between some promising discovery in the laboratory and its final testing in the field. In addition, there is, both in this country and in other agricultural countries, the factor to be remembered that we are dealing not with a comparatively small number of firms in an individual industry but with a very large number of individual farmers, for the most part small farmers, enjoying comparatively small incomes.
In this country the problem is further complicated by the immense variety of soils, of climate and of other geophysical factors, apart from the difference in size of farms and differing types of farmers. That is one of the reasons why, for example, this country went in for so many different types of ploughs, which are numbered not by tens or scores, but by hundreds. This is one of the main difficulties that face us in trying to reduce the different types of plough to more manageable proportions. I believe that the different types number no fewer than 850. In most other countries by contrast there is a comparatively small number of farming types and more uniformity of soil, of farm and of agricultural knowledge and resources on the part of the farmer. In the United Kingdom there are two further complications. It is very usual in my experience to find that if you discuss any one problem with farmers from different parts of the country they talk in almost completely different languages, so that an explanation of a process which is applicable to one part of the country may seem complete nonsense to farmers in another part. Endless confusion has been caused in the past and great disservice has been done to the cause of science by people advocating new methods as though they were of universal application. Another complication which is peculiar to this country is that in any one branch of farming, such as dairying, we find successful farmers practising very different systems according to the varying sizes of their farms and herds.
The result of all this was that the Agricultural Improvement Council early came to the conclusion that what we had to do was to decentralise the task of trying to apply the results of research to agriculture. That is being made the basis of our organisation. It is, too, to be remembered that, in this country at all events, agriculture is not a science so much as an art and craft, apart from being a business, and that good farming has to be learned by observation and experiment. The progressive farmer who keeps in touch with modern agricultural knowledge and who is prepared to consider how the results of research can be applied on a commercial scale on his own farm is of the greatest possible value in any community because he will gradually by his example spread the knowledge of scientific results. The ordinary practical working farmer is much more likely to copy one of his successful neighbours than he is to pay attention to some information given by someone, however knowledgeable, who has not had the same experience of putting his theories to practical tests.
Therefore, the Agricultural Improvement Council decided, in addition to arranging tests of new methods, new technique or new pieces of agricultural machinery, to concentrate on expanding the advisory work in the different counties, and, above all, arranging practical demonstrations not merely on two or three farms in a county belonging to a farm institute, but on many average farms, right down to farms in individual parishes. They are equally and rightly impressed with the danger of trying to use modern agricultural research as a substitute for, instead of as a supplement to, sound agricultural farming practice. We often tend to think that all farmers are aware of sound agricultural principles and practice although they may not always put them into operation. I am afraid that is not the case. Even in arable districts there are large numbers of farmers who are not aware of good farming practice, and in the areas in England which were predominantly under grass before the war we find a complete absence of knowledge of arable husbandry among both the farmers and their men. Therefore, we decided that we should have to pay much more attention than has been done in past years to trying to get sound systems of farming adopted, based not only on sound practice but on modern agricultural knowledge and suited to the different types of farming and the different soils in different parts of the country.
I have had an opportunity in the last few weeks of seeing these new methods in practice. I have attended a large number of demonstrations which have been organised by county committees, and I have been greatly struck by the keenness of the chairmen and members of the demonstration sub-committees of the war agricultural committees, and also by the excellent attendances of farmers at these demonstrations and their obvious anxiety to pick up tips and wrinkles. In one case where the demonstration extended over three days I was encouraged to learn of quite a number of farmers who had taken the trouble to attend on all three days because they had not had time on one day to pick up everything that was available. The Committee will realise that the system is only in embryo; it has only been going for some weeks. The demonstrations we have staged up to now have ranged from demonstrations on large farms attached to farm institutes to farms that last year were derelict and have been taken over by committees and are now growing fine crops; from farms belonging to members of the district committees to visits by farmers to a neighbouring farm in their parish with a view subsequently to having public discussions about their neighbours results. What we are aiming at above all is the avoidance of unnecessary frills and complications and something which will get into the farmer's mind the necessity for sound farming practice coupled with modern knowledge.
In addition, other activities of the Agricultural Improvement Council have included setting-up the Agricultural Machinery Development Board, and moving the Agricultural Engineering Research Institute from Oxford to much better premises at Askham Bryan, in Yorkshire. Certain members of this Board who have inventive talent have formed a committee, irreverently known as the "Heath Robinson Committee," and they are engaged in helping farmers to work out a number of practical ideas for labour-saving devices which can be made by the farmers themselves with the help of the village blacksmith or carpenter. A committee under the chairmanship of Sir George Stapledon has been investigating the problems of ley farming and questions connected therewith, and also the question of adequate supplies of seeds from home sources. They have made a complete tour of England and Scotland and discussed practical problems with members of war agricultural committees and their executive officers. They have put in some interesting and valuable reports, the recommendations in which we are now actively following up. The question of seeds is an important one, for we have been practically dependent on overseas supplies, particularly from the Continent, and as these have been progressively cut off our difficulties have been enhanced. We are, however, putting the supply of seeds on a sound basis, and I hope that from now onwards we shall have adequate supplies. It takes a long time between the time when the land is originally prepared and when the seeds are available for planting. This work is definitely in hand now.
Another committee, under the chairmanship of Lord De La Warr, is investigating the present position and trying to discover remedies for the difficulties that affect upland and hill sheep farming. The problem of improving derelict lands and heaths and marsh lands with peaty soils is under investigation. The problem of feeding our livestock and the advice to be given to farmers now that they can no longer obtain their accustomed pre-war supplies, has been under active investigation by various research institutes, and the tests required have made considerable demands on their staffs. Diseases affecting dairy cows are, of course, of particular importance in war time. We are now reaping the fruits of several years' research in dairying, and, in conjunction with the National Farmers Union and the National Veterinary Medical Association, have been able to launch a scheme for the control of bovine abortion, sterility and mastitis. In this we have been very materially helped by some researches that were made in the United States and some virus which they have sent over. The bringing back of large areas of grass land or derelict land into cultivation has accentuated certain problems of soil fertility. The chemists and plant physiologists of our research institutes have been actively engaged in attacking each of these new problems as they arose, and of course they have been very helpful in advising us how to make the maximum use of the limited amount of fertilisers that we can look forward to. Incidentally, the researches have produced some very interesting information concerning factors connected with plant nutrition.
We are endeavouring still further to increase the supply of lime and to improve its distribution, and in the last 12 months we have very nearly doubled the amount of lime applied to the land and have distributed just under 2,500,000 tons, very nearly double the quantity distributed the year before. Among the potential organic fertilisers which are not being used at present is sewage sludge. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 tons of this are destroyed or disposed of each year at considerable cost to the ratepayers, with no financial return. The Agricultural Research Council are conducting some experiments to see whether we can make use of it alone or composted with other waste products. It is too early yet to forecast the results of these experiments, because, apparently, there is tremendous variety in the composition of the sludge from different towns, and it would be unwise to advocate its widespread use until we know the results of these trials, but it may well be that if we are successful in finding a method of utilising this waste, it will be of enormous permanent advantage to the country and to the maintenance and the increase of soil fertility.
We have a sub-committee considering the question of artificial insemination and conducting trials on a field scale. This is a very good illustration, I think, of a result of research that requires full scale trials for some time before one can be absolutely certain that the method is suitable for adoption in general practice. We are conducting soil surveys, investigating dry rot in potatoes and, which is rather interesting, the best methods of mole draining, to meet the varying problems which are encountered in our endeavours to improve waterlogged land. Finally, there is the problem of plant pests, which is always with us. In this connection mycologists and entomologists and many of the research institutes are doing extremely valuable work with a view to controlling insects, fungi, viruses and worms which, if uncontrolled, would do immense damage to the war effort.
I was told that this Debate was to be cut short, and as many other hon. Members want to speak, I have, I am afraid, been rather sketchy in my account but I thought the Committee would be interested to hear what we have been doing along these lines. I think that the first year's experience of the working of this new piece of machinery holds out definite hopes that we shall be able to marry research and practice, and be able to ensure that all those scientists who have any contribution to make will be sure of receiving every opportunity and encouragement to give us all the help they can. There has lately been a great deal of talk about the need for more science in Government in general, and some people have been writing to the papers recently emphasising the need for more agricultural research in particular. I hope that what I have said will show that as far as agriculture is concerned, we are to-day making the maximum possible use of all the scientific agricultural knowledge that we can possibly lay our hands on.
As to the results, all I can say is that hon. Members can judge for themselves if, when travelling about, they will compare what the country looks like to-day with what it looked like two years ago. I think they will agree with me that although a great deal remains to be done a very definite transformation has been made in two important respects, one the aesthetic and the other the practical. For long years we have been accustomed in this country, looking at permanent grass, to believe that the particular type of green which we saw all over the country was the most lovely. I think anybody who is now going about will realise that mixed farming has made the country much more beautiful, with an infinitely greater variety of colour, and that is perhaps some alleviation in these days of war. On the practical side we have succeeded in securing an immense increase in the output of food required for this country. We are being compelled to-day to grow for ourselves the bulky foods that up to now we had always counted upon importing from overseas. As I said, I am far from complacent, for while I believe farmers have achieved a great deal, I am confident that there is still much room for improvement, and scope for still further increase in production. I hope that the account which I have given of the attempt we are making to improve methods of farming by utilising all modern scientific knowledge will convince the Committee of the great possibilities still in front of us.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture always makes the review of his Department interesting and informative. The effort to marry science and practice in agriculture, of which he has given us an outline, deserves encouragement, and indicates one of the most useful developments which we have witnessed in the field of agriculture. I had intended to open with the last comment which was made by the Minister, in which he pointed to the changing face of the countryside in Great Britain. Anyone who travels a lot must be impressed with the new picture presented by the countryside. There is not much of interest in the trains and so one looks out of the window more than ever—when one can get to the window. It is a welcome sight to see the extent of cultivation to-day compared with the neglected patches of land with which we were so familiar in the past. We can measure, in the figures that the Department issue, the increase in arable cultivation from 12,000,000 acres to 18,000,000 acres, and that is no mean effort. In the past I have not hesitated to stand at this Box and criticise when I have felt that the occasion warranted it. It gives me all the greater pleasure on this occasion to say from conviction, knowledge and observation that the food front generally is solidly based, not only in regard to production, but in regard to distribution. I include both 1he Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture, which are under review. It is encouraging to note the change that has taken place after three years of war. I shall endeavour to divide my remarks between the two Ministries. In view of the limited time at our disposal, we must all adopt the policy of the running commentary.
I should like to submit one large policy problem for the consideration of the Minister of Agriculture. It appears to fit in with the experiment he is making in connection with his Agricultural Improvement Council. Linking the present war position of agriculture with our past experience and what we hope will be the future position in this country, I say that it would indeed be ingratitude if we repeated after the war the mistakes that were made from 1920 onwards, when, by permitting the bottom to drop out of agricultural prices throughout the world, we undermined our whole economic structure. I recognise that we are holding up the food position in this country by a subsidy amounting to £125,000,000 a year, which money comes from the taxpayers. We have been able to increase substantially the volume of production, but we should not overlook the fact that we have not allowed the costs of that increased production to fall directly upon the consumer in the basic and primary commodities. When I deal with Ministry of Food matters I hope to show what a different picture there is on this occasion from that of last year.
Are the Research and Improvement Councils examining, noting and gaining experience, in order to be able to influence the change-over from war-time agricultural production to peace-time production? Examination of the sizes of farms indicates that, in round figures, 50 per cent. of the farms or holdings in this country are under 50 acres, and 75 per cent. are under 100 acres. In the controlled production and increased supervision which the Minister now projects for agriculture, and in the policy which the Ministry are developing flexibly and which enables them to deal with the matter county by county and even soil by soil, are the necessary information and experience being built up in the Department, so that we shall be able to decide after the war, when we shall not be maintaining agriculture by the present method, but shall have to meet the impact of more normal conditions, what type of organisation different sizes of farms require and what methods are to be adopted to decide the type of efficiency that emerges from different sizes of farms? That is a very important point, and I should like the Minister to keep it in mind. I have always contended that if we are to put agriculture on a firm and prosperous basis in peace-time, we must ensure the maximum efficiency in production. That is why I welcome the decision of the Minister, and the outline which he gave to-day of his Research and Improvement Councils; that is the type of machinery that will aid British farmers in getting the maximum degree of efficiency.
The second point we have to bear in mind is that the type of crop that we produce by artificial methods to-day is not necessarily the type that we shall have to produce in the same proportion when we revert to peace-time conditions. Therefore, it occurs to me that the Research and Improvement Councils should be hard at work at the present moment determining the type of crop for which our soils are most suitable, and in which we can get the highest degree of efficiency in production, in view of our standard of living, of the type of article that yields the best price on the market. The other point is that if we are to keep a stabilised system in this country, we must learn the art of marrying the price of imported goods to the price of home produce. It appears to me that knowledge of the way in which that could be done with the proper protection of the consumer—in which the organisation I represent is always interested—is that the machinery and experience of the Ministries of Food and Agriculture should be retained, or at least embodied in the machinery of government, for the purpose of effecting this result.
I was very pleased at the Minister's statement that the production of milk is not to be neglected. Not only have we increased production, but we are going to increase it still more. It is all very well for the Minister to say that we must eat more potatoes when there is a surplus, but he has a responsibility of indicating to the people recipes and methods. The rationing system must be so arranged that when there is a surplus of any commodity other commodities which assist in the increase of consumption must be released proportionately to enable that to be done. It is far better to have a surplus potato position than a deficiency. The Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture themselves have to take some blame for the position. I am informed that an unnecessarily large importation of potatoes from overseas and from Ireland was permitted to flood this market just when the early potatoes were coming on the market. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food looks surprised. If my information is incorrect, we shall no doubt get the right answer later on.
A point in connection with the forthcoming harvest is the problem of additional or voluntary labour. After three years of war we ought to have this matter on a better footing. I find considerable dissatisfaction among farmers with Italian and prisoners' labour. With regard to soldiers released from the Forces and the use of Service labour, the payment of money direct to the Service concerned, instead of to the individual, appears to create some difficulty. With regard to school labour, farmers from time to time are still being charged, in public statements and in the Press, with utilising cheap child labour. I feel that after three years this problem of the additional labour that we must have on the farms at particular periods ought to be better dealt with than it is at the moment. Despite the acute shipping position with which we have again been confronted, I feel that by a policy of trial and error the Ministry of Food have now arrived at a much more satisfactory situation. There is nothing like the public irritation that there was in the past, and I think the Ministry are to be congratulated in having kept such a satisfactory food position for three years.
I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to keep a proper balance between the three main methods that have been devised for the rationing of foodstuffs, namely, the direct rationing of foodstuffs on the basis of individual rights, the group system of rationing as applied to preserves, and the points system. Each of these serves a very useful purpose in a composite scheme, and I and many of my colleagues who have taken part in these Debates must feel some satisfaction that the points scheme now figures as an integral part of the whole system of distribution. I am glad that the Minister has not persisted in what I understood was his intention to transfer jams and preserves to the points rationing scheme. I do not think the points scheme should be overloaded. It serves its purpose in providing people with a variety of choice, but if at any particular time there is a deficiency of commodities for the points system, that deficiency is not overcome by transferring to it articles of daily consumption.
The Ministry are entitled to some commendation for the improvement which has taken place since our last Debate in regard to black marketing. During the last Debate the Ministry was subjected to considerable criticism for not having tackled the problem of the black market more thoroughly, but the position is better now; the increased penalties are having their effect. It was a case where the public recognised quite clearly that the black market deserved no consideration either from the Government or from the public, and now that more severe penalties are being imposed the worst type of black marketing is tending to disappear. A few days ago there was a Debate in another place with regard to the treatment of black marketeers' licences. I do not know what the Minister's intention is, but my own view is very definite. No person convicted of a serious black market offence which is deliberate or criminal in its intention should have the right to trade any longer; his licence should be withdrawn.
May I submit to the Parliamentary Secretary a point important to dairymen which I think the Ministry have failed to deal with so far? That is the problem, the pirating of milk bottles. Dairymen who supply their milk in bottles are to-day suffering very grave and serious injustice and inconvenience from the extensive pirating and thieving of bottles by other, less scrupulous, dairymen. I know that the public are involved in the problem, but it is not a difficulty impossible to overcome, and I think the Ministry of Food ought to devise some method, as they have done with regard to churns, whereby we should have a clearer legal remedy of prosecution and penalty for any dairyman caught using bottles which are not his own. There is a recovery organisation for this pur- pose, and I believe that it has repeatedly made representations to the Ministry, but so far its requests have not been met. I hope that it will be done now.
I should also like to express appreciation of the decision of the Ministry of Food in developing their milk rationing scheme in two directions, one in regard to rationalisation, whereby any dairyman with sufficient gallonage who can put up his own efficient scheme showing the utmost measure of economy and meeting the Ministry's standards is allowed to do so, and the other in determining the kind of milk. I am glad that pasteurisation has been recognised as one of the kinds of milk which the consumer is entitled to have. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, the larger dairy organisations have developed pasteurisation to a very appreciable extent; it is a very desirable process, and a protection for the quality of milk; the Minister should encourage it as much as possible.
The decision of the Ministry to reduce the exemption limit for poultry from 50 to 25 head is a move in the direction which we have pressed in the past. I hope that we shall eventually come down to the figure that we have always urged, namely 12, and probably my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture may be able to persuade him that that is the wisest step to follow.
In conclusion, I should like to give the prices of one or two commodities at the end of the last war and to-day, for I think they clearly indicate the difference between the policy pursued then and the policy of the Government to-day, and further in my view they represent a broad justification of that policy. Butter in November, 1918, had reached the price of 2s. 6d. a lb. During this war it has been more or less retained at 1s. 7d. a lb. Bacon and ham in November, 1918, were 2s. 4d now they are 2s. 2d. Cheese was 1s. 8d., now it is 1s. 1d. Dripping—and this is a more startling justification of the method we have adopted of controlling the prices of basic commodities by subsidy or otherwise—in November, 1918, was 1s. 10d. a lb., now it is 6d. Eggs were 5½d., now they are 2d. Margarine was 1s., now it has been kept at 5d. and 9d Sugar in the last war was 7d. a lb., now it is 3d.
That is an enormous gain to the consumer. We recognise that it has been accomplished by a subsidy, but it was a far better war policy to adopt, and I believe that the satisfactory position which we are in at present on the whole of the food front is due to it. There has also been a lessening of irritation. Naturally in the past when we were feeling our way towards this policy we had to face criticism from the retailers and the consumers and so on, but recently there has been a great improvement and a greater degree of collaboration between all elements concerned, and that has led to the present satisfactory position. Therefore it appears to me as far as these two Departments are concerned that while, as the Minister says, there is plenty of room for improvemernt, nevertheless, in dealing with the main situation, it is not a bad result. I think that with this result before us, and the food situation after three years of war, we can go forward with every confidence that we shall win the military struggle, and that when we have done so the experience we have built up with regard to food matters in this country will not be lost sight of later on.
I shall attempt the impossible, that is, to deal with four or five matters in the space of ten minutes. I must devote at least one of these minutes to paying a tribute to my right hon. Friend for the speech with which he opened this Debate. It was very encouraging to me as a farmer; I think it was encouraging to everyone, but it certainly left no grounds for complacency. I would dearly love to pursue some of the arguments he raised and indeed to follow my hon. Friend who has just spoken in some of his arguments, but time will not allow. Therefore, I will get on with my remarks. Some of these points are causing pin pricks. I would remind the Committee that one pin prick may be an annoyance, two a spur to effort, but a whole series may be a veritable hedgehog of irritation holding up production. The first matter is petrol for farm vehicles and tractors. I think we all welcome the fact that petrol is now allocated on a needs basis, but it may be forgotten sometimes that those who suffer most from the regulations are country dwellers, particularly those in remote areas far distant from towns, markets or shops. At present the decision to grant or withhold petrol is in the hands of the regional petroleum officer, who has no real knowledge of agricultural conditions and needs.
I would suggest that all petrol for farm tractors, for farm machinery, for farm vehicles and even for the farmer's motor car if it is used wholly for business should be allocated by the county war agricultural executive committee, that is, by people who know something about agricultural conditions and local needs. I think my case is proved on this point by the form which farmers have to fill up when they want petrol for their tractors. That form is the most perfect example of the divorce between administration and production. There is a question on the form which asks, "How many hours per week will the tractor be used during the next two months?" I am an honest man and have tried to fill up that form correctly. [Interruption.] I have tried to do it with the aid of Old Moore's Almanac and maybe a little bit of seaweed in the hall, but I cannot tell what the weather will be two months hence. If this matter were in the hands of the county war agricultural committees I suggest that we should have a form which bore some relation to the concrete facts of the case and to the area to be cultivated in the period under review.
I want to deal with the question of fuel for steam threshers, another source of form filling in the future. It may be that we shall have to institute fuel rationing in the autumn of this year, but so far no announcement has been made. With regard to coal required for steam threshers, it would simplify matters if the allocation was made by the war agricultural committees in conjunction with the fuel controller, direct to threshing contractors. It might also simplify matters if coal dumps were set up in strategic positions throughout the corn-growing areas, obviating all the delays and annoyances which will be entailed if farmers have to apply individually for each day's threshing.
My next point has to do with potatoes. Let me say that I cannot speak with any real authority for the Eastern counties or any of the great potato-growing areas of the country. I can only speak, and speak only too sadly, of conditions in my own county of Northumberland where, taken by and large, we were not potato growers before the war, but in spite of that and a certain lack of experience and a decided lack of equipment and seasonal labour, we did our best on a very considerable acreage last year, and grew good crops. The result was a serious financial loss to the farmers in spite of the £10 per acre subsidy. That was for the very good reason that no one seemed to want to buy our potatoes either for human consumption or for cattle food. Hundreds and hundreds of tons rotted in the county. The fault of that may have been partly due to the weather. Certainly the fault may have been partly due to transport difficulties, or partly to over-production. No matter what the cause was I most certainly hope that we shall not have that to contend with again and that such a result, after all the hard work and sweat and skill put into that potato growing, will not recur next year.
I am glad that my hon. Friend interrupted me there, because it is something I should have said. All this was in spite of an alleged scheme by the Ministry of Food by which these potatoes were to be taken from us. I could give plenty of examples of men with six, seven and eight acres who have not yet sold a single potato from last year's crop, and never will. I know that we have to grow as many potatoes as possible as a form of insurance. Perhaps that reason has not been definitely and generally realised throughout the country, but it is only fair, if farmers are to be asked to grow this troublesome crop in out of the way places, with machinery, labour and transport difficulties, that they should be told definitely and clearly the reason for having to do so.
That brings me for a moment to the question of propaganda. When I use that word I do not want the Committee to think for one moment that there is anything wrong with the morale of the farmer or the farm worker. That would not be true. But in the country people are somewhat distant from the more blatant manifestations of the war. There are fewer newspapers, no evening Press, cinemas are few and far between and seldom visited, and there remains only the B.B.C. I sometimes wonder whether the best use is being made of B.B.C. time so far as farmers are concerned. I do not mean talks by farmers to farmers. I do not think they do a great deal of good. They are either simply the pot calling the kettle black or the lily telling the rose how beautiful it is. But I think that stimulating talks by my right hon. Friend when he has the time, by other Ministers, by well-informed people and, also by the personnel of the Mercantile Marine who can talk about the other side of our food supply, would prove most useful. Above all, I should like to see much greater use of travelling cinemas. In the right place, at the right time, with the right pictures, they can have a stimulating effect on production.
Finally, I want to turn to the most important point of all—labour. We are approaching the most momentous harvest this country has ever seen. It is momentous, because upon it will depend not only the physical well being of our civilian population and of our Armed Forces during next winter, but our ability to hold on to victory. It will depend upon the weather—over which we have no control—and upon our ability to get the corn in in good condition. What labour have we for that purpose? There is the old remnant of our permanent personnel in the industry, sadly depleted by voluntary enlistment and by calling up. There is the Women's Land Army, that fine body of girls, who are growing in wisdom, in experience, and, I must add, in beauty, week by week. But we have been told to-day that there are only 40,000 of them. Also, their incidence is not fairly distributed over the country: in many districts there are none. In addition, we have the voluntary part-time gangs of women workers, who are doing an excellent job. I am fortunate enough to have one of these gangs in my own neighbourhood. But for their willing help, many farmers would have been in a sorry plight. Then, we can rely on public school boy labour, summer visitors, university students, and the like; but only to a very limited degree for this harvest. Lastly, we have the older and less fit men, who have been directed into the industry by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service. Obviously, we have a low priority for our call on the labour available, because the men we are getting out of these labour hostels are not of the right type. A distressingly large number are unemployable. I hate to say that, but that is what I have seen with my own eyes.
There is only one way to tackle this tremendous harvest, which is far bigger than last year's in yield and area. That is, by making use of military vehicles and military labour. I know all the standard reasons against doing this—and some are strong reasons: the dislocation and the inconvenience—but I also know that a great many soldiers are, in their own words, "thoroughly browned off"; and that there would be great benefit to the comparatively few who would be called upon for a comparatively short time. I and many other farmers are dreading this harvest. I do not want to see corn blackening in the stook, and rotting in November, as I did last year. Therefore, with all the sincerity I have, I beg His Majesty's Government to look into this matter of military labour and military vehicles, to give it their very sympathetic consideration, and to see that these crops, these gifts of God, which have been given us so bountifully this year in the fields of Britain, are not wasted, but are used for their rightful purpose, to give us victory.
It is a remarkable commentary on the position in regard to agriculture and food that so few hon. Members have chosen to be present to-day to listen to the Debate on this very interesting theme. It may be that there is general satisfaction about the good work done by both the Ministries concerned. Speaking by and large, I would offer my humble congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture for his excellent work in enforcing the drive in agricultural production. I think that the country is generally agreed that here, at any rate, are two Departments which have tackled a big job very well. The country and the House should not under-estimate the task which confronted the Minister of Agriculture at the beginning of the war. He had virtually to transform farming in this country. He had to deal with an industry which had been languishing, and which had become disheartened. He had to face men who were suspicious of Government assurances, because they felt they had been let down before. A very important factor is that the farmers had to do things for which they were not trained, and to grow crops to which they had not been accustomed. We are all familiar with the plea regarding the production of munitions of war, that it is a tremendously complex problem to transform a peace industry into a war industry. I maintain, from my own experience of both agricultural and industrial production, that the problem of the farmer is no less considerable than the problem of the industrialist in changing from a peace footing to a war footing.
I would pay this tribute to the Ministry of Food. We can express satisfaction with the way they have got the products of the farmer to the consumer. I can well imagine that Hitler and his advisers, when it was decided to invade Russia rather than this country, considered that it was only a question of time before we were starved out by the depredations of the U-boats; but the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food, backed by the British farmers, have successfully countered that threat up to now. The secret of that success is, I think, the secret of the failure in another sphere of production. It is that the Minister of Agriculture was able to make use of regional organisations, in the form of the county committees, and that the ground was well prepared before the war. The Minister has trusted those committees, and has not unduly interfered with their activities, although he bas made it clear, in a very forcible way, from time to time, that he expects them to do their job thoroughly. I can say, from personal knowledge, that his regular visits to these county agricultural committees have greatly stimulated and encouraged them. I think the committees provide very valuable experience for the basis of agricultural organisation after the war. Obviously, the efficiency of the committees depends upon the capacity of the members, who should be—and are—men of tried experience in agriculture. Generally the Minister and the Department of Agriculture have taken great pains in selecting these men; but there has been a tendency to restrict membership of the committees to older men, men who are perhaps past their best. The Minister might look into this matter, and consider whether he can get younger men to serve. The work is very onerous, and I suggest that more young, progressive farmers should be appointed.
Surely this occupation is so important that it ought to be reserved just as properly as any reservation applying to a technical man in a munition factory. The magnitude of the task and of what has been achieved can be seen when we consider that before the war it was estimated that the amount of food imported from overseas, taken altogether, was about threequarters of our consumption before the war. To take the figures separately, we imported 87 per cent. of the flour, 92 per cent. of the fats, 51 per cent. of the meat—the rest being greatly dependent upon imported feeding stuffs—and 73 per cent. of the sugar. I am sorry that I missed the first part of the speech of the Minister, but it will be very interesting for the Committee to know how these figures have changed. Perhaps the Minister may not care to give the actual figures, but I am under the impression that by his efforts, backed up, as he has been, by the farmers of this country, we are now producing more than half the food supplies of the country. I am under the impression that this is about the figure, and I notice that the Minister nods his head.
That is a very great result to be achieved during the two or three years of the war, and it would be of interest to know what commodities have shown the most marked increases. I want to deal with one or two other points. The Minister has expressed the view that we can still produce more, and I entirely agree with him, but the main source of improvement in the future will be by having better farming, and better farming will depend upon the supplies of fertilisers, and certainly upon labour. Both are important. Fertilisers, and particularly phosphates, are needed on almost all the grasslands that have been ploughed up. The supply of labour involves some conflict with the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour, but we must lay it down definitely that if we are to maintain our present production there must be an amount of skilled labour available which must not be called up.
I conclude my remarks by particularly calling the attention of the Minister to the women who are being called up throughout the country. He knows that in certain parts of the country the farms consist mostly of family farms. There may be a son or two at home who, after leaving school, were trained in farm work, or a daughter or two, also trained in farm work. These are general conditions throughout certain parts of the country, and particularly in the counties of Wales, which have been visited from time to time by the Minister. The interviewers who are chosen and appointed by the Minister of Labour to interview these girls are really people who know nothing whatever about agriculture. I happened to see a serious complaint in my county of how these interviewers regarded girls who had been doing farm work consistently since leaving school. Silly questions were being asked which showed a complete absence of knowledge of administration and of work on the farm. They asked such questions as, "How much time do you spend in the house? How much time does your domestic work take up? "I would like the Minister of Labour to realise that every farmhouse in the country is a canteen for the farmworkers and is just as important as a canteen for munition workers. If there are daughters at home who cook the food for the farm workers and clean the house, they are doing farm work. In my county these girls have, time and time again, been called up by the Minister of Labour to be interviewed and have had to go distances of 10 or 11 miles.
That is the fact in my part of the country. I am not going into the question of the advisability or otherwise of interviewing Welsh girls in the English language when the girls prefer the Welsh language. These interviewers are ignorant of the nature of farming. I said to one of them, "Have you ever seen a sow farrowing?" and she replied, "I never knew that they used a sow for harrowing at all." There is general complaint throughout the country, and I ask the Minister to look into this question. These girls are part of the Women's Land Army and are genuine farm workers. If he wants to maintain production and indeed to increase it by better farming—and that is the chief way to achieve the object he has in view—he must take care that an ample supply of labour and machinery and sufficient fertilisers are available for the farmers.
I too would like to add my congratulations both to the Minister of Food and to the Minister of Agriculture, because it cannot be stressed too often what a magnificent job their two Departments have done in the country. I am certain that the Committee will allow me a few minutes to right two wrongs, one of which arises in the agriculture world and one in the sphere of the Minister of Food. The first point is that there is a misunderstanding in the farming community at the present time as a result of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture in regard to the dispossession of farmers for reasons apart from bad farming. In these statements, which had wide publicity in all farming papers, certain parts of the statement were perhaps taken out of their context, but the fact remains that the impression abroad in the farming world is a wrong one. In his statement, which was made on nth November, 1941, he says among other things:
It appears to the Government therefore that the most effective deterrent to speculation in agricultural land is to restrict the power of the purchaser to give effective notice to quit to the sitting tenant. This will also avoid the disturbance of tenants who are playing their part in the increased food production campaign by farming their land well, disturbance which is obviously prejudicial to the national effort.
That taken in the context in which it was spoken should have been read with the statement that the Minister had himself to give consent to all notices which were given by the new owners of land who had purchased their farms subsequent to the war. But the real point is that although the Minister's consent is necessary, yet the Minister must give his consent unless he can prove that there is a speculative intent, and that is an exceedingly difficult thing to prove, or that he has reason to think that by granting permission to give notice a decrease in food production might arise. That is a fact, and I believe it to be wrong that a man who, in his pre-war life, has had nothing to do with food production—probably a city man who has been in commerce previously—should come along in war-time and take away a farm from a sitting tenant who has been there a great many years and whose father and grandfather were probably there before him. I do not intend to make a speech on the principles involved. I would like to do so, but it would take a long time. However, I want producers to
realise the position, and I would like to ask the Minister whether he cannot reconsider his decision on this particular point and see whether further protection cannot be given to these men who are good farmers and have been told so by their agricultural committees.
Now I would like to raise a point with the Ministry of Food. It is a small injustice, and because it is small it is difficult to get the necessary support in this House in order to force the attention of the Ministry to concentrate upon it. The majority of people in this country realise that our Service men are not being well treated. I think I can say that without fear of contradiction. But there is one useful concession which has been granted by the Ministry of Food in that if a Service man who is serving in this country has a wife and children, they are entitled to have it noted so that the Service man can be regarded as living with the family. Therefore, the free allowances of vitamins and milk can be obtained by the family. But when the Service man is killed on active service, his widow is told that she can no longer have this free milk and vitamins. In answer to a Question, the Parliamentary Secretary told me that in his opinion this is not an injustice, but surely it is an ungrateful action, to say the least of it, to one who has given her best for the country—her husband; an ungrateful action that has been perpetrated by the country to the memory of a man who has given his life for his country. Every little help that can be given at that time should be given, and I hope the Minister will reconsider his decision on this point, on which I ask the Committee to support me in my efforts.
I promised I would not refer to any points other than these. There are many others upon which I would have liked to have spoken, but I think we can say quite candidly that the farming community of this country, of which I am a small part, are doing their job and will continue to do so, whatever difficulties may be put in their way. I feel convinced that with the continuance of the magnificent administration of the two Departments concerned this country will never really lack for the necessary sustenance with which to carry on our war effort.
I think we are all agreed that this is an interesting occasion from many points of view, in that we are allowed, I presume, to discuss these two Votes together. I do not know whether it is a case of "coming events cast their shadows before" and whether we shall eventually get one Ministry to deal both with the production and distribution of food in this country, but at any rate I think it is long overdue. We have heard an interesting account of what the Ministry of Agriculture has been doing during the past few years, but I would like to point out that the tragedy of the Ministry so far is that it is purely an advisory body. It has had to try to lead the farmers of this country in the best way it could, but, as the Minister pointed out, there are very considerable difficulties in doing that, and many of us who are anxious for agricultural reform in the real sense of the term know and feel that the Ministry must be endowed with much more power than it enjoys at the present time. I would like to join in the congratulations to the Ministry upon the work they have done in changing the character of agriculture in this country, but we must not forget that there was considerable inducement from more than one point of view to do this.
The first and greatest inducement was, I think, that we felt that our food supply was in dire peril. As patriotic people, farmers realised that to the full, and I think we ought to be proud of the service they have rendered to the nation in this hour of need. As has been said to-day, this has cost the Exchequer a very considerable sum of money, and I am suggesting that the time should come when this House ought to take more interest in the food of the people than merely having more Food and Drugs Acts passed occasionally so that certain commodities are not offered to the consumers of this country. The two Ministries whose Votes we are discussing to-day could, together, make a very formidable combination indeed, and I hope we can look forward to the time when we shall be dealing with both sides of this fundamental question of the food of the people of this country and of the production of an adequate amount here for them. The Minister of Agriculture has, I feel, a particularly difficult question to face. I do not want to minimise the effort which has been made, but I would say that although it is possible to drive agriculture for two, three, four or five years, one does not look forward to the condition of the agricultural community and industry at the end of such a drive. We must remember when locking at the excellent crops we see in various parts of the country that what we are really doing is capitalising a great deal of the fertility that has been lying in our soil for a great many years. If we cannot get an adequate supply of manures from some place or other in order to restore that fertility, the agriculture of the country will be in a much more precarious position at the end of the war than it was at the beginning of the war.
Consequently, I rejoice very much in what the Minister said about the Research Committee and the Improvement Committee he is setting up. It is an old adage of the Royal Society of Agriculture that the object of the Society is to combine practice with science. I am glad to think that the Ministry of Agriculture are at last taking that as their motto. In this country, with its very considerable variations in soil and in climate, we must in future depend upon a much more advanced degree of agricultural research than we have been accustomed to in the past. I would only add that this research—and here we have one of the weaknesses of agricultural research, in my opinion—should always be co-ordinated with its economic results. I know that in many cases the farmers are very critical of scientific agriculture, but, on the other hand, I think they have good grounds for being critical. What the farmer wants is not of necessity good crops. The farmer—the potato grower, for example—has had the bitter experience of excellent crops but an inadequate monetary return. I suggest to the Minister of Agriculture that scientific research, which is most valuable and is being carried on by the Department at the present time, should be tested by the economic test as to whether it will yield to the ordinary farmer a return adequate to the expenses he is incurring. I conclude by saying that I rejoice to see the representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food sitting so amicably together. I do not know whether it is a case of a trial marriage or not. I am sure we would all agree with the poet:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
That is my feeling.
This Debate on agriculture and food has been marked by a degree of harmony unusual in Debates on either agriculture or food, and almost ominous in a Debate on the two together. As one who was Minister of Agriculture during years when there was in Debates on agriculture by no means that degree of unanimity, I must congratulate my successor on having smoothed away so many of the obstacles in his path. I think that is largely due to the fact that in case of need the people of this country begin to realise that one ton of food where we can get it is worth 10 tons of food in a place from which its passage to us may be interrupted by a submarine fleet. The danger is that at other times we tend to forget these things. Therefore, I was very interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), when he indicated that at the end of the war we must not allow the bottom to drop out of agricultural prices as it did at the end of the last war.
The shape of things to come begins to become evident. From all sides of the Committee there has been expressed a desire that in some form or other the Ministry of Food should persist after the war. Undoubtedly, that would involve the shouldering by the general purse of some part of the food prices, that is to say, a subsidy. Let us face bluntly the fact that after the war subsidy must be an integral part of our agricultural administration. All the research in the world—and I am a very strong advocate of research—will not in any way make up for insufficient prices. As was said by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Richards), a bountiful crop which gluts the market and is undisposable does more harm than good. Certainly, the danger in this country in the past was scarcely the under use but the over use of research. The new countries produced crops far inferior to those produced in this country. The production per acre in this country was high above the production per acre in the countries of the New World. After the war, we shall require to have some mechanism to ensure—and not merely to express the pious hope—that adequate prices are secured to the producer. This will involve a certain control over the producer of food, but I think he is willing to agree to that.
It has been said during the Debate that the Minister of Agriculture has no executive powers and is merely an advisory person. That was the case before the war, but in the county war executive committees the Minister of Agriculture has produced a pretty stiff compulsitor on agriculture. If any of the other industries of the country were submitted to a compulsitor of this kind, there would be a great deal more creaking and friction before the machine was running. I shudder to think what would happen in the coal industry if it had to bow its neck beneath the yoke that is laid on the shoulders of agriculturists. But the three things together—control, adequate remuneration, and interest of the people at home to protect our home agricultural production—will, I think, give us a reasonable agriculture after the war without the frightful succession of booms and slumps which in the past were the ruin of anyone who tried to produce in a continuous fashion. The hon. Member for East Ham South is a great co-operator. The co-operative societies have experience enough of agricultural estates and experience enough of having to get out of the production of food after a war.
However, the danger is that while we are indulging in generalisations there are certain steps being taken which do not by any means square with some of the lines of policy and some of the assurances that have been given to us. A very interesting White Paper was laid before the House recently on the Exchange of Notes following upon the conclusion of the Wheat Discussions at Washington. This arrangement was put across as a beneficent means of pooling and collecting surpluses and disposing of them after the war, but if one reads the White Paper, one sees that that is very far from being all. It is the old business of the restriction of production, and not merely in the exporting countries, but in the countries which have to import. That is very clearly set out in the White Paper, and I think that the Minister, in replying to the Debate, should give us an assurance that this matter is being very carefully examined from the point of view of home agriculture. There are some ominous phrases in the Draft Convention, where it says that
The benefits of abundant world supplies of wheat cannot be assured to consumers unless there is a substantial decrease in uneconomic incentives to high-cost production, a lowering
of barriers to world trade and the charging of prices to consumers not substantially higher than the price of wheat in international trade.
I draw the Committee's attention to the words:
a substantial decrease in uneconomic incentives to high-cost production.
We all know what that means. It means that wheat mining and quarrying goes on in the new countries of the world at a rate far below the replacement value of the wheat, and that this leads to the rack and ruin of agriculture in the older countries, such as ours, which have faced up to the problem of putting back into the land as much as is taken out of it. I believe that this country is as economic a wheat-producer as almost any country in the world, but it cannot produce wheat against the wheat mining and quarrying in the great deserts and steppes which results in the dust bowl of the United States and other phenomena of the kind, where the land has been wrecked by dragging crops out of it and putting them into the market at a price against which it is quite impossible for farmers here to compete. Therefore, when I see in the Draft Convention the phrases that the benefits of abundant world supplies of that wheat cannot be assured to consumers unless there is
a substantial decrease in uneconomic incentives to high-cost production,
and, in Article 2, on "Production Control," that
the Governments of the four great exporting countries shall adopt suitable measures to ensure that the production of wheat in their territories does not exceed the quantity needed for domestic requirements and the basic export quotas and maximum reserve stocks for which provision is hereinafter made,
and a note to that Article which says that it is
to be expanded later to include provisions for production control in other exporting and in importing countries,
I say that I have heard this sort of thing before. It is a sort of provision in an international agreement which requires careful watching, because occasionally things are signed away which are afterwards found extremely awkward to fulfil or get rid of.
There is another point I should like to raise. It is true that production of food in this country is subject to considerable variations; we have bountiful harvests and, occasionally, a surplus, but for all that I think it is a scandal that in wartime hundreds of thousands of potatoes should be rotting in the clamps. I cannot but feel that that is inadequate handling of the food situation. I say, without any hesitation, that in such cases it is possible to look a month or two ahead. The Minister got away with it very nicely by saying that this is an insurance premium, and asked what would have been said if London had had to go short of potatoes. I say, the fact that potatoes were growing whiskers as long as your arm, which was evident to anyone who went about the country—either you had to let the potatoes rot, or use up invaluable agricultural labour in dressing them—was a piece of obvious waste which discouraged everyone engaged in agriculture. Debates such as these are not merely occasions for handing out bouquets to the Ministers concerned, but for now and again throwing hard bricks as vigorously as they can be hurled. I hereby hurl this brick with the utmost vigour I can at those responsible for allowing many hundreds of thousands of good potatoes to rot this summer. Many hon. Members desire to speak during this Debate, and I will therefore not delay the Committee any longer. I hope, however, that we may have an answer to some of these points.
We are having a very short Debate on the two very important subjects of food production and food distribution, but that should not account for the sparseness of attendance. We have just listened to a very interesting speech by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), who had the charge of agriculture for many years, and I was tempted to direct your attention, Sir Dennis, in such a way as to ensure an adequate attendance. Is this attitude of the House of Commons representative of the country at the present moment? I am afraid, to some extent, that it is. There is this sort of complacent smugness and self-satisfaction that all is going quite well. That can be accounted for in the country by lack of knowledge of the true position. Our position with regard to food must be serious. This country has depended for two years on food brought by ships from overseas and what can be produced in this country, and, if the figures published this week-end by the Americans and repeated in our Press are correct, then the situation is getting hourly more serious. If that is so, there ought to be an expansion of production in this country.
There was one part of the Minister's speech with which I agreed. It was when, in the last sentences, he said he was satisfied there could be more production and a great deal of improvement. That, I think, is obvious. But what does it show? It shows that sufficient steps have not been taken, that there has not been sufficient planning in the past and that we are still meandering along with some slight improvements. There is a tendency among Members all the time to say that things are very much improved, that we are producing so much more food now than during the last year, so much more beet and so on, but when will this House realise that this is not the question before us to-day? The questions they ought to be asking are: What is required, what are the plans which have been made to bring about these requirements, how far short of them are we at the present moment and what further efforts are necessary? That is the sort of approach which should be made by the Minister, instead of reciting how well we have done.
What will be our position during the winter? The Minister referred to a number of inquiries which are being made. He stated that committees were inquiring into hill-land and mountain sheep, drainage, fertilisers and land improvement. When does he really think this war broke out? As far as we are concerned, war broke out in September, 1939. We are now approaching the end of the third year of war, and now committees are sitting, under Sir George Stapledon and Lord De la Warr, to consider what we are to do. When are the Government to get the fruits?
But we cannot get the crops this year. If the situation gets worse, what is the Ministry going to do? I still think, as I thought nearly three years ago—I am glad that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Richards) called attention to it—that production of food ought to be under the control of the Minister of Food. It is his duty to see that food goes, not only to the members of the Armed Forces, but to the people of the country. Food is the most important thing of all; without food men cannot fight, produce and live. The Minister of Agriculture ought to be his factory manager and under his direction. I agree there ought to be more direction and less advice. I am still unrepentant with regard to transport.
The hon. and learned Member must be aware that county war agricultural executive committees have power to direct to the extent of fulfilling the Minister's programme for this year, next year or any other year. They have power to direct the farmer on what he must grow and how he must fertilise and all the rest of it.
How much is that exercised? There ought to be full direction with regard to everything. Take the instance that I was giving. We advise farmers to be self-supporting. If you had a Minister of Food in charge of all food saying, "This is what I require, and this is what will have to be given and produced for me "—that is the policy that is wanted, the Minister directing how, when and where these matters are to be raised. To take another instance, there is a great deal of talk about lack of fertility. So there is. They continue to tell the farmer to buy lime and put it on his land. The Ministry of Agriculture know the conditions, and surely their position should be to direct that wherever lime would be of benefit to the soil and would grow food it should be put there.
They ought to be providing them with lime and saying, "Put it on your land." But they are short of lime.
Turning to production, I should like to call attention to what was said by the Minister with regard to potatoes, I saw yesterday representatives of the Potato Growers' Association, and their story shortly is that last year they responded to the appeal that was made and grew probably something in the neighbourhood of 2,000,000 tons more than had hitherto been grown. Some scores of thousands of those potatoes went west. They say that, nevertheless, this year they were pressed again to bring on early potatoes and secondaries. The thing was so mismanaged that distribution became difficult, and quite a lot of these potatoes have already during the last six weeks begun to go rotten. It shows that there is a real lack of system, and all that the Minister said was that he had done this as a matter of insurance. Does he grow food in order to have a surplus and then turn round and say that what is not necessary can go to rot? Is that the policy? They knew full well that potatoes were an easy crop to grow and that there would probably be a large crop grown, but they asked farmers to put up more potatoes. I do not know how many have been put up. I should be glad if we could be informed what is the Ministry's calculation as to the amount of wastage that occurred last year, what has been the wastage of the early crop and the secondaries already, and what is their method of dealing with the main crop when it comes through. Will there again be the possibility of a large quantity of it going rotten, or do they intend to take such steps that it can be utilised as direct feeding to the people and not indirect, through birds or animals? These are the matters that are worrying agriculture. There is a whole host of other questions that one would like to ask, but the time is too short.
I could not support the hon. Member in his plea for a combined Minister of Food and Agriculture. In my view each of these jobs is almost too big for any one human being, and, if there are faults, it is mainly due to the fact that they have too much to do, too much responsibility and too little time for planning ahead. I was interested in the speech of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), but I should like to make a brief comment on the brickbat that he threw with regard to potatoes. In my view it is a very cheap insurance to pay to get through in the way we have done. With a bountiful Providence producing all manner of crops in unknown quantity, because of the weather, and with almost equally unknown consumption, should we have been justified in running the risk of wheat ships being sunk to a greater extent? Wheat and potatoes have a strong similarity, and I feel that the insurance premium was well worth paying.
The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. O. Evans) referred to the small attendance here. I think he hit the nail on the head when he said the reason was the satisfaction that Members on all sides felt with the success of our agricultural policy. I think that goes without saying. I recollect earlier Debates, when I came into the House two and a half years ago, when these benches were crowded, because things wanted doing to repair the neglect of so many years, in the excessive importation of food from overseas and the consequent wastage. The Minister had no comment to make in regard to the home production of fish. I am sure, if he had time, he would have paid a great tribute to the very small but resolute fishing industry, which is carrying on with old craft, and frequently old men, and producing so much fish food under dangerous conditions. The House owes that tribute to these men. I should like to ask what has been done to increase fish production from Canada, Newfoundland and Iceland. I am wondering if the Ministry has really done very much to increase the patriotic efforts of the four firms who started the importation of frozen fish from these countries before the war. My impression is that they have done very little. They have just carried on these contracts, and a great opportunity has been lost. Very large quantities of salt cod from Iceland were imported last year. What has been imported this year?' We have sent much coal to Iceland to provide the trawlers with fuel and I am wondering if they caught the cod, because it has not appeared here. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with that point, too.
A good many questions have been asked in the last month or two in regard to salmon production, the shortage and the high price, but is not the basic fact that the industry has been deprived of labour, and is not that a short-sighted policy? When salmon come back to the rivers of their birth, we cannot spare the men to catch them. On the Tweed we have one crew where there used to be ten. On the Tay it is very little better, and on the Forth, which has the finest salmon trout fishing in the country, there are only one or two old men. One man who has been employed in the industry for 38 years—an experience which means a lot in an industry where so much skill is required—is now employed wheeling a barrow in an agricultural warehouse. That is a misuse of man-power which we cannot afford. I hope that before next season comes round there will be better cooperation between the four Departments concerned with this problem—Fisheries, Scottish Office, Ministry of Food and Ministry of Labour. In that connection it will be within the recollection of the Committee that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Fuel when Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food told us that the Government deemed salmon of so much importance that they had paid 4s. 6d. per lb. for the whole of the Eire catch up to 15th May and 2s. 6d. thereafter. If that food is so valuable to the nation that these high prices have to be paid, it is worth while sparing the hundreds of men who are required—not thousands—to ensure that the home salmon will be caught, because once the fish have passed the estuary they have gone, and probably their potential successors, too, owing to the lack of accommodation on the spawning beds. A certain proportion of fish must be caught to ensure that the fishing goes on.
I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions with regard to fish distribution. Is it a fact that nothing has been done other than to control fish prices? Has nothing been done to control distribution? Is there an equitable distribution of fish, or does it go to the highest bidders? I am inclined to think that a good deal of it does because of the cash transactions which are common in the industry. It is almost five years ago since the Government began to make plans with regard to fish. They set up the Food Defence Plans Department at the Board of Trade and it worked for almost two years before the war broke out. Then it became the Ministry of Food. I used to be in this industry, but I retired after I came here, and, as far as I know, the only thing that has been done in regard to the great fish distribution industry in Great Britain is to control prices, thus enabling thousands of wholesalers and retailers to keep going the whole fabric of peace-time distribution except for the lame ducks who fell in the first months of the war. It has been kept going at the expense of the consumer and taxpayer. There is only one economic way of compensating for a loss of turnover and that is by a high rate of gross profit. Another point arises in regard to fish distribution which has a tremendous bearing on the war situation. All the evils of allowing fish to be carted from Aberdeen to London and back to Birmingham or Grimsby, or from Milford Haven to Paisley still go on. Every individual person or wholesaler in this scramble to sell food to a hungry population, which is a most profitable job, can telephone and telegraph anywhere. If he is successful he can bring a load of fish by road or rail to his place. When he gets it he can send it anywhere.
There is no control over distribution between the port of landing and consumption. We have tried to do so much with all other commodities; is it so difficult to do it with fish? When my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Fuel was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food 18 months ago I urged the control of prices but he said how difficult a problem it was. He brought it in, however, and it has worked smoothly. That control is not a complete machine. It is not enough to control prices. Distribution also must be controlled if the population are to get a fair share. One can go to Billingsgate any day and see private individuals with cars waiting for fish. What roots have they there? Who are they? I do not know them and none of my old colleagues know them.
The hon. Gentleman is well informed on this subject, and no doubt he will tell the Committee about it. The wastage of transport is of great importance. When I drew the attention of the Minister of Transport to it he wrote on 16th February, that his
proposals concerning transport, far from being ignored, actually form part of a far-reaching scheme for the reorganisation of fish
distribution, on which the Ministry of Food are now engaged in consultation with the Fish Industry Joint Council.
That was five months ago, and nothing has been done. I have already touched on the high rate of profit which is being paid to many retailers and wholesalers, and which enables them to carry on. It is not pleasing for me to say that about many of my old friends in the fish industry. When a deputation of Birmingham wholesalers came here a few weeks ago I told them to effect marriages one with the other, for it was not good enough to have 30 or 40 wholesalers attempting to get a livelihood out of one-fifth of the quantity of fish. They only got that livelihood because of the generosity of the taxpayers and consumers. It must come to an end and we should take steps to see that it does come to an end.
In regard to concentration generally, we are told that the concentration of food businesses is in the hands of the Minister of Food. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us what has been done about it. We heard last week in the House that a scheme of concentration for other kinds of shopkepers was being prepared, but not for the privileged food traders. Apparently they do not want to come in and are doing so well that they do not need to come in, while being willing to allow their less fortunate brethren in other trades to sink. Why should they remain out? Why should the Government allow them to remain out? Is there not a shortage of food? If there is not, there is no need for concentration, but obviously there is, and fewer shopkeepers are required. In all these cases they are carrying on on reduced turnovers in weight or numbers simply because of the increased rate of gross profits that they get. They pass this on to the consumer. It is then passed on to the taxpayer, because so many consumers are employees of the State.
I feel that the Ministry of Food in approaching this problem could save the Board of Trade scheme, which is in danger of being destroyed. The premium provided by that scheme is 20s. per cent., but if food traders came in, it could be made a graded levy beginning at 5s. on the first £5,000 of turnover per annum, then 10s. for the next £2,500, and 20s. on the remainder. The man with the biggest turnover is the man with the biggest net profit, and he is able to pay the biggest levy. I would also like my right hon. Friend to consider bringing in the landlords of retail food shops. They have a great interest, and so has the local authority. A small percentage of 1¼ per cent. or thereabouts on the rent would ensure that the landlord would not be left high and dry under a concentration scheme. It is not right that he should be left high and dry. It is right that he should contribute to the insurance premium, because he has an interest, just as the tenant has. I submit, also, that local authorities have an interest, from the point of view of the rates on those shops, and might well contribute a small percentage, say 1¼ per cent. on the rates, to ensure half rates.
I am grateful to you, Sir Dennis, and in view of your remarks I will not pursue that point further. It arose out of the need for concentration in this important industry. Having regard to the fact that many other hon. Members want to speak I will sit down, but I earnestly hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with some or all of the points which I have raised.
I hope that the contribution of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) will be taken seriously by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. While the Ministry, very reluctantly, have applied rationing and other schemes which have been received with a considerable degree of general satisfaction throughout the community I think their handling of the distribution of fish has given less satisfaction, because the public feel that they have not had an opportunity to get adequate supplies. The most important point which has come out of this Debate is to be found in the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Scott). He referred to the actual work of getting in the harvest. To all appearances the harvest is going to be a magnificent one, but just as a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush so corn in the barn is worth far more than corn left in the fields, and if the harvest cannot be gathered in there is not merely waste but heartbreaking discouragement for those who have laboured so hard to achieve success. The hon. Member suggested that if supplies of labour from other quarters are not sufficient, soldiers should be used to assist in gathering in the harvest. I hope that if the Minister of Agriculture meets with any difficulty in this respect he will take the matter to the Cabinet and get a Cabinet decision. In war-time the Army must not be so predominant that they cannot accommodate themselves to the requirements of the civil front, and assisting in harvesting the crops is just as important as engaging in sham battles.
The Noble Lord's remarks are rather premature, because I was going to point out what was done last year, but the experience throughout the country then was varied. Where there was a sympathetic, intelligent officer who faced the concrete situation in front of him in a human way the farmers received help, the soldiers who participated enjoyed a break in their training which did them no harm, and a social spirit was created in the countryside which was good both for the civilian and the military communities. But in other areas we found officers lacking the same imagination and sympathetic understanding who made it very difficult or expensive for farmers to get the services of soldiers. They made numerous inquiries and a great deal was made of the question of control and supervision.
I apologise if what I said was out of Order, but I think that getting in the crops is a vital matter, and it seems that in many areas the only extra labour which is readily available and can be organised efficiently will be that of the soldiers stationed in the locality, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will see that this labour is efficiently used so that the crops are not wasted. As to the Minister's speech, I think the country will note with pleasure the progressive attitude of the Ministry and its appreciation of the importance of scientific research, but I would point out that research is one thing and the dissemination of the results of research work is another, and probably the most difficult thing to achieve.
I should like to pay a tribute to the assistance given to the Department by the staffs of the agricultural colleges who have been liberated for this work. Their patience, their persistence, and their energy in getting about and making personal contact with farmers have brought about almost a revolution in the attitude of the average farmer to scientists. I feel that a good deal more can be done along those lines, and I should like to see the Ministry with a much more efficiently organised scheme for utilising the services of all those men who have had not only scientific training but some experience in lecturing and passing on information. I think the time has come when the Ministry of Agriculture—and the same applies to other Ministries, although I must not refer to them—should recognise the supreme and urgent importance of research proper. While perhaps continuing for the time being its relationship with voluntary organisations, I think the Department is in a position to offer opportunities of direct service to some of the best men who are specialists in various branches of knowledge. They should be there to advise the Minister and to supervise whatever voluntary research is taking place.
There was a time when all research work was the hobby of a few persons. Very often the results they obtained were so revolutionary that they were laughed at. The most revolutionary book I have ever read was not a book dealing with sociology but with fruit growing. Some of the results of scientific investigation have been so revolutionary that so-called practical men, those who always do what their fathers and their grandfathers before them had done, regarded them as too startling to be true. I hope that the Minister will have in the Ministry of Agriculture a Department which encourages the finest brains and is in consultation with world research organisations, so that the authoritative leadership of the Ministry can be given to the whole industry, not in bits and bobs but linked up with the Board of Education and the university organisations and agricultural colleges, so that we can have an assurance that the supreme achievements of scientific research as applied to the practical problems of agriculture will be disseminated without delay throughout the industry.
I have only a word or two to say on the Ministry of Food and do not wish to waste time with further compliments. Necessarily there has been a good deal of improvisation in the Ministry of Food. The Minister has had to take the services of whatever organisation may have existed in an industry and utilise the personnel. One can understand that, but there is a feeling that a sort of oligarchy has grown up, and that those in the small ring are in an advantageous position as compared with the others. It has been very difficult to get satisfactory information regarding the working of some of these trade organisations. The very fact that the Ministry is so reluctant to give information rather increases than allays the suspicion that there is unnecessary extravagance. There is, for example, the wholesale side of the meat industry, both in home slaughtering and importing. Matters have gone on fairly satisfactorily, but the correspondence I have received satisfies me that there is room for substantial economies and for a higher standard of efficiency and, in some cases, of a greater sense of equity.
I did put down Questions in regard to grain purchasing. A limited monopoly has been in existence for this very important service. It was a game played by a few, and vast profits were made. The organisations concerned are given practically the responsibility, and those who are in with them are all right; but those who are doing the work and not associated with those organisations are ignored. Where a good deal of money is being dispersed I imagine you always get some degree of dissatisfaction in those who are not getting a share, but there is some degree of necessity for the Minister to make inquiries to see whether the organi- sations are functioning economically and efficiently.
Another aspect is the organisation for fat smelting. When the whole story of this comes out, I think the Ministry will be rather ashamed of the record. I have heard grievances expressed, many of them legitimate, of which it has been practically impossible, with the present organisation of the Ministry, to get any redress. The individuals associated with the central organisation for dealing with this matter are limited in their application and restricted in their operations, but they were given practically a monopoly and all the small people were just blotted out, without any regard being paid to the efficiency of their plants or to the percentage of fats recovered from the raw materials. Now a whole range of these people have been put on to a sort of reserve scale. The Minister may smile, but I see from the last report of the national association which was practicaly given a monopoly that an individual was seconded to it from his Department and made a tour of the country to decide—rather lightly, I am told—which organisations should function, and that this individual subsequently received a very substantial honorarium from the organisation. One understands that they got their money's worth. That kind of thing does not create confidence in the public mind. This aspect of the activities of the Ministry of Food demands the urgent attention of the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary.
These are minor points in the whole picture. It is very easy for us to be wise after the event. Some of the criticism in this Debate has been of that nature. The problems before the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture were extremely complicated and difficult. The organisations which were there had to be dealt with, and, if the work was to be done, those organisations and personnel had to be used. On the whole, the Minister of Agriculture has tackled his task with a sense of human values and with an appreciation of the historical obstinacy of the British race, especially in certain localities. Inspite of the handicaps and difficulties, the achievement has been very substantial. At the time of Dunkirk, most of us had very great misgivings. We expected that, if the war continued, conditions in the midsummer of 1942 would be far worse than they are. I hope that the achievement will not provoke complacency, but will be regarded as a true index of what can be still further achieved.
Whenever the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) speaks on the subject of fish distribution, he commands the attention of hon. Members, because he knows what he is talking about. I would only say that I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, when examining matters relating to fish, will not forget the most important fish of all—more important than salmon—the herring. In this country we are blessed with constant and continuous shoals of herring around our costs. I would like an assurance that we are getting all of them that we can, having regard to the restrictions imposed by naval requirements, and that the distribution of herrings is as good as it can possibly be.
The reason for the comparatively small attendance in this Committee is, I think, due to geaeral satisfaction with the performance of both the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture. They have been, on the whole, conspicuously successful Government Departments in this war. Production has exceeded our hopes, and distribution has belied our fears. I would add, to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, that his Department is to be congratulated on the enormous and continued success of the kitchen front campaign. It has brought about a tremendous improvement in the standard of nutrition, and consequently in the health of the people of this country. I hope that he carries on with it.
I should like to say a word on the subject of the National Milk Scheme. Perhaps the Committee will forgive me if I say that, if I never do anything more in public life, my association with the introduction of this scheme will always be a source of satisfaction to me. I believe that it is one of the greatest single measures of social reform ever passed by this House. It has achieved all that was expected of it. There is only one question I want to ask in connection with it. The intention at the time of the introduction of the National Milk Scheme was that, having secured the health and welfare of infant children and nursing mothers, the scheme should be supplemented by a great extension of the milk-in-schools scheme, and also by increasing the provision of meals in schools. Is the Minister quite satisfied that this matter has gone as fast as might have been expected or hoped? My impression is that it has not. Is he reasonably satisfied with the progress of the meals-in-school scheme, and have any steps been taken to hasten it, in conjunction with the Minister of Education?
I now come to the main point with which I wish to deal, namely, the feeding-stuffs position, with particular reference to oats. This position is far from satisfactory. The change-over from white to wholemeal bread has had the expected effect; it has greatly aggravated an already serious shortage of animal feeding-stuffs in this country. I am afraid I remain unrepentant. If I had had my way, we should have stuck to white bread, and rationed it. But what is done is done. How have the Ministry of Food sought to deal with the problem? Their first mistake, last year, was to prohibit the export of oats from Scotland to England. I never knew why they did it, and the Order has now been rescinded. At the time I thought it a very silly Order, and I still think it very silly. In January of this year I wrote to the Minister of Food and warned him about the oats position, which was becoming serious. I got a reassuring reply; and the oats purchasing officer in Scotland told the farmers that he was prepared to take all their surplus oats from them. Subsequently, about 1,500 tons were purchased; but this was quite inadequate. Since then, thousands of quarters of oats in the North of Scotland have been allowed to go rotten on the farms, due to lack of adequate storage accommodation. During the past four months, in particular, the position has continued steadily to deterioriate. I hesitate to quote figures, because when the oats are lying about the farms in the countryside it is impossible to make more than a rough estimate; but I reckon that about a fortnight ago there was still approximately 40,000 quarters of sweet, marketable oats of the 1941 crop available and unpurchased in Aberdeenshire alone.
About a fortnight or three weeks ago. Worse still, there were, and as far as I know still are, large quantities of unthreshed lofted oats lying about in lofts all over the North of Scotland. To my own knowledge one firm alone about ten days ago had 7,000 sacks rotting on the farms. It is no exaggeration to say that owing to the failure of the Ministry of Food to make adequate purchases of oats in time, a substantial proportion of the 1941 crop, which was a good crop, has been allowed to go bad. What are the excuses put forward by the Ministry of Food? There are three: bad harvesting, the necessity for building up reserves—the same excuse as they put forward in regard to potatoes—and lack of storage facilities. I deny the first; the Scottish farmers are very experienced farmers; some of the oats may have been a bit wet owing to bad weather conditions, but in the main it was a good crop, well harvested.
Some of them were a bit wet; but by and large, I think that they were got in in reasonable condition. With regard to the other two, I say most emphatically that adequate storage facilities should have been provided by the Ministry long ago. I should like to know how much storage accommodation is available to-day, which has not been commandeered by the Ministry, at the maltsters'. My submission to the Committee is that these oats should have been purchased by the Ministry of Food. It was open to the Ministry to deal with any surplus by broadening the basis of consumption, and taking the oats temporarily off the feeding stuffs ration.
What actually happened? The oats were neither bought nor released free of coupon; and at the same time poultry keepers all over the country were warned to cut down their stocks ruthlessly. I want to say quite frankly that I am against this wholesale murder of hens. I know that the doctors say that eggs consist almost entirely of water; but all I can say is that it is jolly good water, everybody likes it, and it is much better water than the ordinary kind. If it can possibly be avoided, I think it would be a great pity to deprive the people of this country of eggs, which have been a staple of their diet for many years past. Let the Ministry now buy all the oats which are not sweet and commercially clean and release them to the poultry keepers. I have some here if they wish to see them; they are not bad at all. They are not the same as the sweet marketable oats, but there is not a hen-wife in the country who would not go down on her knees for them at the present moment to feed her hens. Until you have disposed of all these unclean oats, stop killing the hens. It seems to me fantastic, and really intolerable, that at a time when the poultry of this country are being slaughtered wholesale on account of the lack of feeding-stuffs, oats should be left lying on the farms and be allowed to go bad.
It is not so much the money they are losing that the farmers mind—of course, they do mind that, because they will only get for these oats half of what they would have got if they had been bought when they were in good, marketable, sweet condition—what they do mind, and this I beg hon. Members to believe, is the waste and the muddle, which induce in them a sense of complete frustration. I beg hon. Members to believe me when I say that we shall not get the farmers to sow as many oats for the next season as they would otherwise sow unless they can have an absolute guarantee that what they produce will be bought, and bought in time and at a reasonable price while the oats are good.
Over the past not Heaven itself hath power.
I am now concerned with the future, and with what is going to happen. A farm is a factory, and if it is not given clearance for its products, future production must in consequence be retarded. I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary has already taken vigorous action in the course of the last few days, and I hope that he may be able to announce to the Committee that he has purchased a large quantity if not the whole of the 1941 crop of oats. But while recognising the vigour with which he has acted, and the sympathy with which he has met the complaints I have made so continuously in the last few days, I would say to him that in war-time it really ought not to require Parliamentary pressure on the Floor of this House to induce Government Departments to take effective action in time; and
I think I am entitled to ask for definite assurances with regard to the future. I want to ask him whether the Minister will give a guarantee to purchase this year's crop in time; whether he will make adequate provision for the storage of oats in the future, because he knows very well that the fanners cannot possibly provide adequate accommodation for the amounts which will be sown; and whether he will now resume the propaganda for the consumption of oatmeal, which ought never to have been abandoned? It is high time that the English learned to make porridge and oatcakes. The shipping position is grave, we can produce all the oats we require, and there is no more delicious and no more nourishing food if you know how to cook it. The English do not know how, and it is the business of the Ministry of Food to teach them.
Finally, I want to ask my hon. Friend to reorganise the purchasing machinery of his Department at Colwyn Bay, so that unnecessary delays may be eliminated in the future. At present it takes five, six or seven weeks for them to make up their minds whether they will make a specific purchase or not. This has been the theme of every speech I have made in this House since the war broke out. I believe that when the history of this war and of the events which led up to it comes to be written, it will be said of this country that the main reason why things have gone so badly for us is our apparent inability to make quick decisions, and take the right action in time. Nearly always we have been too late. This has not hitherto been a characteristic of the Ministry of Food—to be too late; but it has been a characteristic of the purchasing department for cereals at Colwyn Bay. I beg the hon. Gentleman to give the assurances I have asked for, and to make sure that these delays and muddles never occur again.
I shall be very brief in making two points only of, I hope, constructive criticism. The first concerns the Ministry of Food and the second the Ministry of Agriculture.
I want to enter a very strong protest against the methods adopted by some of the officials of the Ministry of Food in framing charges against people who are later found to have been innocent. At a recent Quarter Sessions a highly-respected Essex auctioneer was accused of selling poultry at prices above the maximum. It was disclosed in evidence that the Ministry officials had given false names, had set all sorts of traps to induce the auctioneer to commit offences, and had in general behaved as agents provocateurs. Perhaps even more serious is the fact, also disclosed in evidence, that they had actually introduced into the markets poultry suffering from infectious diseases. This man, I am happy to say, was acquitted—the jury did not have to leave the court in order to find him innocent—but the case has caused the greatest dissatisfaction and distress among the fanning community of the neighbourhood.
I come to the Ministry of Agriculture, and here I would like to ask whether the Minister has established sufficient means of impressing on the Ministry of Labour the importance of agriculture, with reference to the call-up of men from the land. I have particularly in mind the case of the assistant machinery officer of an agricultural war executive committee known to me. This young man has built up and is entirely responsible for the organisation and maintenance of some 200 tractors and 2,000 other implements. But he is now on one month's final deferment. I may say that the executive committee regard him as so indispensable that they have even offered to give the Ministry of Labour a dozen tractor drivers instead of this one man. If he had been simply a tractor driver instead of a man controlling hundreds of tractor drivers, he would have been automatically exempt; indeed, if he had been a conscientious objector this trouble would not have arisen. I would like to ask the Minister of Agriculture whether he can take stronger steps still to impress this matter on the Ministry of Labour.
If I may conclude with two lines of verse, I should like to adapt a quotation from Oliver Goldsmith which may appeal to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Scott) and the other Members who have rightly shown concern about the deterioration of potatoes and oats and other produce:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where forms accumulate and crops decay.
I think the Debate to-day is both timely and necessary. It is necessary from one particular point of view in regard to the distribution of our food. First of all, one must congratulate the Minister of Agriculture on achieving a great measure of success so far as the productive side of agriculture is concerned. I think that most of us will lament the fact, however, that after producing this food—I mention potatoes particularly now—it has been so badly handled that I am afraid when the Minister again urges some of the farmers to do their best to produce huge crops, he will find that the answer will be, in many cases, "Yes, we are quite willing to produce the crops of food, but to see it lie and rot on our farms and be completely useless is demoralising at least to a lot of people in different parts of the country who are short of food." Take the potato crop. I was among the farmers yesterday morning at my local market. Someone came to me who had 70 or 80 tons of potatoes in one particular" pie "completely useless for human food. So far as animal food is concerned, it should have been processed so that the best use could have been made of it. If the minds of Members will go back to February, 1939, we had a big fight about the policy of dealing with this crop at that time. The same adviser advised the Minister at that time, in order to deal with this abundant crop, to throw out all potatoes over 1 lb. in weight. The same kind of individual is advising the Minister how to deal with the crop this year. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is the same man."] Exactly the same.
Last year there was a slight gap between the old potatoes and the new ones coming on to the market. I think the Minister was perhaps wise in retaining some potatoes, but surely there were records at the Ministry as to the amount of potatoes on hand in this country and the amount likely to be consumed. One would have thought that the processing factories which some of us fought for some years to have erected to deal with surplus potatoes could have had the potatoes which were surplus to needs to manufacture into potato flour, glucose, soluble starches, etc., which would help the nation's war effort. I understand that no small amount of potatoes have gone to rot because that has not been done. I should like the Minister, in his reply, to give to this Committee some assurance. Some of us live in rural areas and have to go round to ask farmers, farm labourers and allotment holders to dig for victory and produce this essential foodstuff, and for the sight of unused foodstuff to meet one as one goes along roadsides in the potato-growing areas is demoralising, and gives the lie to every appeal we make to them to produce this food. I think practical suggestions should be made now. We are at war, and we are not trying to score party points. Practical suggestions to save food will save shipping.
There is another important food—carrots. I made a suggestion, I think a written one, to the Minister some time ago, as to how to deal with this food. I remember that some propaganda was directed against the Government and Parliament as to the way this particular crop had been dealt with. It was asserted that a large amount of this food was rotting in Covent Garden and other warehouses in different parts of the country. The primary cause of this has been, in my view, the fact that we have continued the senseless and wasteful practice of washing carrots in the field and then sending them to market. In the first place the carrot is grown on the cleanest land, because it is on light soil that carrots thrive the best. They are a clean crop. Why cannot they be sent straight to the market instead of being put into a tub and knocked about, bruised and damaged in the way that they have been? We have to put up with a lot of things in this war which we do not put up with in peace-time. Why not wash potatoes, why not wash turnips and swedes and the rest of the root crops? Carrots are spoiled by the process of washing them; they are damaged. In winter time—I hope the Minister will take note of this—they are washed, put into bags and become frozen in the bags. They are put into a warm warehouse, and they go bad, and damaging statements are made about merchants not marketing produce which is in the warehouses. I appeal to the Minister, and it is the Minister of Food in this case again, that so far as the Ministry is concerned its policy should be to wipe out the allowance made for washing carrots and have them sent in a sound natural condition to the markets of this country.
There is the question of price levels. I do not think that the Minister of Agriculture or any Member of this House could meet me or any other agricultural representative on any platform and defend the relative prices of, say, barley and wheat and carrots and potatoes. I consider, and every agriculturist does who knows his business, that carrots have been far too high in price. I do not know, but I should think that in several parts of the country the price paid for carrots is too high.
I am not aware of that, and I should challenge that figure. I have had some experience of cleaning them, and I know exactly what the process is. The price of carrots has been too high in relation to that of potatoes. The weight of carrots per acre will be 25 per cent. more than potatoes, and yet the price per ton is greater for carrots. Take the case of wheat and barley. I wish the hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) could travel with me to Don-caster, and see the result of a wrong price level. The brewers have become generous, and the Government have confirmed their generosity. The brewers have given an exorbitant price for barley, in order to secure for their industry the necessary raw material. They have decided on a price for barley which is far in excess of the price given for wheat. That is done at the expense of the Exchequer, because that money would otherwise go into E.P.T. Some farmers are growing barley on fields which last year were growing wheat. That is a wrong cropping system.
If it is a case of bread or beer, I say that we must have bread. I like a glass of beer, but it is now more necessary than ever that wheat should come first. The Ministry of Agriculture should have in mind a balanced agricultural economy, both in regard to what we want to grow and to a proper price level, which will induce farmers to grow the essential crops, without undue pressure being put upon them. In regard to ploughing up, I think that, in view of the scarcity of concentrates and fertilisers, we should rely more on getting the best out of the land which is already ploughed up. I hope therefore this autumn and spring the Ministry will concentrate more on adequately cultivating the land already ploughed up, using all the available labour and machinery, to this end, as I believe, that concentration on existing ploughed-up land will make the biggest contribution to our food supply and consequent victory. I do not want to end my remarks without paying a compliment to both Ministries, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food. They have in the main, in difficult circumstances, achieved a success that is remarkable. We wish them well and trust that they will strive to do still better and help to hasten that victory which we all so much desire to see.
It was with very great pleasure that I heard the statement of the Minister about what has been done during the past year. The Committee, although it appreciates what has been done, cannot fully appreciate the difficulties which the farmers have faced. The statement that we are now producing three-quarters of the food that we require in this country was not only satisfactory, but very enlightening. The Minister said also that there was a great deal to be done. Speaking for farmers, I can say that they will do their best to accomplish all that he asks of them, because they know the country's need. Satisfaction has already been expressed with the appearance of the countryside and the better farming which is seen. The better farming is simply due to the fact that farming pays better. It does not matter what our opinions may be at present, the pledges which have been given can be carried out only if the community are prepared to give the farmers a fair deal in future.
I want very briefly to make three points. I know that the Minister of Agriculture is also the Minister of Fisheries, but I am not sure whether it is to him or to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that I ought to address this question. I listen with interest to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), who evidently is a great expert on the subject, when he talks on fish. I am not an expert on that subject. Perhaps the Committee will allow me to mention one small incident. When I travelled home a short time ago, there was a message for me at the station, to take home some fish. I bought some at a shop, and was asked whether I would like it cleaned. I thought that was a very good thing. They took away the head and entrails, and I am sorry to say that there was not a great deal left. I am told that of the white fish which is caught a quarter is offal. I asked where that offal went. In this case, it was treated locally: to my mind, it was not properly dealt with. Realising the millions of tons of fish which are caught during the year and brought to our ports, one can appreciate that, in the heads and entrails, millions of tons of excess weight are sent from the ports of entry to the places of consumption, where it is not being properly dealt with.
I have never heard that it would not. In any case, I am asking; for information, not giving it. My information is that a quarter of the weight which is handled at the port of entry and placed in boxes is offal. That means that a quarter of the timber which is used for packing it is unnecessary, and, above all, one quarter more transport than is necessary at a time when transport is so difficult. Can the Minister see whether it could be arranged that the offal could be retained at the factories, which, I understand, exist at all the ports of entry, and made into fish meal for stock or poultry and fertilisers for the land? I am not an expert on fish, but I hope that the Minister will reply on this question. It is necessary to improve our stock on the farms and this is a source from which something might be achieved.
On the question of sheep, the Minister said that we were under-stocked on the farms. It is with very great satisfaction that we are producing more milk than ever before and that the number of milk-producing cows is greater than on any previous occasion, but I hope that the Minister will do something to bring about an increase in the number of sheep. In my experience nothing can fertilise the land like sheep. There are certain classes of hill land and marsh land more suitable possibly for the grazing of sheep, and sheep require less of the imported concentrates than any other of our animals. I hope that the Minister will do all he can to encourage the increase of sheep on the farms. Many farmers, because of the changed forms of cultivation, have reduced their sheep considerably, and I think it is a mistake, but I hope that the Minister will do everything he can with regard to that matter.
The question of potatoes has been mentioned by so many hon. Members that I do not wish to add anything, except that I know how difficult it is to estimate the crop of potatoes. It is only when the crop has really been got in that you can know what potatoes you have. A crop may look very well, but you have to wait until it has been harvested to know how it has turned out. If you ask farmers to grow as many potatoes as possible from the nation's point of view you ought also to see that there is no waste. A large part of the crop of potatoes has been wasted and something should be done to provide factories for the purpose of making alternative use of potatoes that cannot be used by the public. Will the Minister give some information as to what is being done to ensure that the crop when grown is not wasted, and, if not used for food, is used for other purposes?
We have been privileged to see some of the revolutionary reforms to which the Minister referred, and Members of the Committee would be failing in their duty if they did not congratulate him upon his workmanlike speech and the explanations he gave to the Committee. But we are not satisfied with the arrangement or the relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food. The situation as regards prices and distribution, or, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. D. Scott) said, getting home the supplies to the pantry, is wholly unsatisfactory and I do not think that anybody is entitled to any bouquets with regard to the organisation in this respect. Changes in recent times have emphasised the need for drastic revision. Lord Woolton said a few weeks ago that we must eat more vegetables and that the nation was beginning to recognise that we could not afford shipping space to bring produce to this country which could be produced here, but we ought not to be left to the mercy of wholesalers and racketeers in an out-of-date marketing system.
Everybody in the Committee knows, with regard to the £650,000,000 worth of foodstuffs that we grow or import into this country, that we have to pay another £850,000,000 to buy back those foodstuffs because of the out-of-date marketing system. Imagine the consumer having to pay £1,500,000,000 for what is done as a fine job of work by the Ministry of Agriculture or the producers, because of this antiquated marketing system. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I would like to say to the Noble Lord if he could be here, that, if they do not deal with the marketing system now, neither they nor any other Government will have an opportunity of doing so in the future. All the wonderful work that is being done by the Ministry of Agriculture will be doomed to disaster and failure if there is not a revolutionary change in the marketing system in this country. Fortunes have been made, and will be made, out of the change in dietary. We have pegged down prices all right in the matter of staple foods but we have left many other commodities to the wiles, the tricks and twists inside the market, especially in the wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
We have controlled the price of potatoes and carrots, and have controlled the price of tomatoes, but not the commodity. But have we controlled the price of lettuces, which have reached a price of 1s. 6d.? Have we controlled the price of radishes, for which a charge of 6d. per bunch has been made, when the growers are not getting anything like that price? Peas this week are ranging in price from 4d. to 1s. a lb. but the growers are not getting such prices. The prices of beans to-day are from 3d. to 8d. per lb., and fresh or French beans are up to 1s., 1s. 3d. and 1s. 6d. a lb. The Noble Lord and his publicity department tell the country to eat more vegetables, but the working-class families cannot afford these prices. The Minister of Agriculture may do all the encouraging in the world, but unless the Noble Lord and his advisers realise that they are inflating the cost of essential foodstuffs, they are not playing fair to the Ministry of Agriculture or to the nation. Cabbages, the price of which to the grower was ¾d. and 1d. a lb., have been 7d., 8d. and 9d. a lb. in recent weeks before they have reached the pantry of the consumer.
I would like to knew from the Parliamentary Secretary whether he believes that because a shortage is created by reason of war circumstances the people who inflate prices should have the kind of freedom demanded, say, by the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Sir W. Smithers) a short time ago in this House in regard to fruit. Commodities are subject not only to the whims and fancies of these people in the trade but to all kinds of tricks in between the grower and the consumer. I will give an example. People are invading the fruit and vegetable market. In my own division in recent weeks a haulage contractor, who had never been a trader and had never known anything about trading in fruit and vegetables, was able, because he had an advantage in transport, to corner supplies of strawberries and make £40 clear profit in two days through handling baskets of strawberries. This sort of thing is not fair to small retailers or consumers, or even to the Minister himself.
I would ask the Minister whether he will look into the question of the drafting of these Maximum Price Orders. There is much loose phraseology, all kinds of allowances and "ifs" and "buts" and "ands." We in this House put Questions on several occasions about the price of cucumbers, which reached 3s. and 3s. 6d. each in the spring of last year. We managed to persuade the Minister to introduce a Maximum Price Order, but the wording of this Order suggested that fresh cucumbers under a certain length would be controlled at 10d. a lb. Now we find in Liverpool, five weeks ago, cucumbers being sold at 4s. a lb—not fresh cucumbers, but frozen cucumbers. Why the Order could not say" Fresh, frozen, pickled or any other kind of cucumber," Heaven only knows. These cucumbers have been put into refrigerators and brought out as frozen cucumbers so that the market could be exploited. I appeal to the Minister to get hold of his publicity men and advisers and sack the lot. If he will bring together a few ordinary people, consumers, housewives, one or two old grocers and members of war agricultural committees, who know how to put into simple language the manner in which a commodity should be controlled, he will help the nation. I make this appeal in all sincerity, because I believe far too much cheating is being provided for by these Orders. Cheating is not commendable. It is a social crime, and the Ministry by its foolishness is creating opportunities for this cheating every day.
In the few moments I have at my disposal I want to urge one or two points upon the Minister. I think the whole country is grateful for the effi- ciency with which, in the main, the Ministry of Food has been conducted since the outbreak of war, but there is little doubt that, if the war situation continues as at present, it will be necessary to cut down rations in some respects. If that should be so, may I urge that there should be differentiation between the rations given to sedentary workers and the rations of those employed in mining and the heavy industries? Up to date we have all had more or less the same rations but there is a strong case, if rations have to be reduced, for a reduction in the case of sedentary workers, particularly those above a certain age. On no account should miners and workers in heavy industries have their rations reduced.
I would like to say a word or two about the distribution of food in the rural areas. Shopping facilities for housewives in rural areas are becoming next to impossible through the necessity of cutting down the bus services which used to take them into the towns. Many rural villages have no fishmonger and owing to the reduction in poultry supplies, egg production has been very much reduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), who made such an interesting contribution to the Debate, put forward a scheme whereby there could be distribution of fish in rural areas and I sincerely hope the Minister will give it his very serious consideration. I would like to endorse what was said about the regret felt that we should have gone on to the standard loaf, but as we have gone on to this loaf, I think there is little excuse for the Ministry of Food not having informed poultry-keepers much earlier that it would be necessary for them to reduce their flocks. The moment it was decided to go on to the standard loaf, it became obvious that the food supplies of poultry-keepers would be reduced and they should have been told earlier in the season, instead of having this shock and great injustice imposed upon them so late in the day.
Mr. De la Bère:
Does the hon. Lady realise that the cause of this is non co-operation between the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture? Over and over again it is a case of the same old tricks and ways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) has just made a characteristic interruption but the fact that the Votes of both Departments were put down for to-day shows there is co-operation between them, at any rate in this respect. I think the Committee will appreciate the difficulty that I am faced with in replying to this Debate. It is appropriate, indeed, that these two Votes should be put down for the same day, but it presents me with a dilemma in that I have to endeavour, on one hand, to deal in detail with many of the interesting and important points raised by Members, or, on the other hand, to make a statement about the work of my Department, as is customary on Supply Days. However, I shall do my best to combine both methods. First, I think the Minister of Agriculture would wish me to say, on his behalf and my own, that we have every reason to be satisfied with the general tone of Members references to the Departments. The hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Front Bench opposite seemed to be giving us a vote of thanks in certain parts of his speech and we are grateful for that. Throughout the Debate there has been a general atmosphere of satisfaction coupled with important' criticisms in detail.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) and others have raised the question of the liaison between the two Departments. It is very important. The problems of the Ministry of Food are divided into two classes—supply and distribution. The problems of supply again divide naturally into the problems of home-produced and imported food-stuffs and it is of the first importance that there should be the closest collaboration between the Ministry of Food and the agricultural departments in this matter of home-produced food-stuffs. After all, the Ministry of Food is the principal customer—I suppose, in the last resort, the only customer—of the agricultural departments. It is the duty of the Ministry of Food to indicate to the agricultural departments what foodstuffs are required to be produced. It is the duty of the two Departments to do their best to secure that production is diverted into the proper channels. I think it right that the Ministry of Food should pay a tribute to the agricultural departments and the farmers for the way in which production has been diverted in the directions we would wish.
There is, of course, a very necessary relationship between the programme of home production and the import pro- gramme. They must be dovetailed. Those things that we find it difficult to get from abroad we must do our best to produce at home. In the case of those things which it is easy to get from abroad, we can curtail production at home. But there are, of course, severe limitations. Clearly, we are limited in what we can get from abroad, but the limitations on home production, too, are severe. There is in one respect a special difficulty in connection with home production. After all, we know that we shall not get from abroad more than we expect. We are likely to get less. Sometimes, too, with regard to home production, the realisation is less than the estimate, but sometimes the realisation is greater than the estimate. We may be deceived because the estimate is too low. In respect of some commodities, conditions of glut or near-glut arise. After all, that happened in peace-time; then the producers suffered and the crops were sometimes wasted.
It is the business of the Ministry of Food to prevent both those things—to prevent the producers from suffering, and prevent the crops from being wasted. I think that, on the whole, price regulation puts the producers in a very much better position than ever they were before, and I would say that the waste in total is negligible and far less than ever it was before. After all, there are vigilant eyes, both in the House and outside. The country is waste conscious. One does not need to be very long at the Ministry of Food before realising that the country and hon. Members in particular are very eager to watch for any evidence of waste. I would say that much apparent waste is not really waste at all, and in so far as there is ultimate waste, as far as I am able to judge that waste is substantially unavoidable.
In the Debate there has been considerable reference to potatoes. The hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Colonel Elliot), the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) and other hon. Members have spoken of the waste of potatoes. Potatoes are a very good example. Let it be remembered that last year we were short of potatoes. I have here a cutting from the Press of last year:
Potato and fruit shortages upset food experts. The potato scarcity and the surplus
sugar for making jam for which there is little fruit available are striking examples of official shortsightedness. Potatoes are scarce because the Ministry of Food did not make sufficient allowance for any lateness of the potato crop.
Last year we were short, but this year the Department determined to ensure properly against any such shortage. A reserve stock of long-keeping potatoes was laid in so that there should be no gap between the two crops. Let it be remembered that in pre-war days the gap was filled by imports from North Africa, the Canaries, and the Channel Islands. There are no such imports now.
That may well have been, but last year the new crop was extremely late, and we were advised that this year we might expect it to be late, too. But the fates were unkind. Climatic conditions were different. The new crop became ready nearly three weeks earlier and it became available in extremely heavy quantities. There was the reserve of long-keeping potatoes. Naturally, they deteriorated to a certain extent owing to long keeping, but when one gets to the end of the matter, when one finds what has been made available from that store for processing, stock feeding, and so on, one is able to say that the resultant waste—it is not pure waste of potatoes if they are used for stock-feeding or processing—is no greater than 20,000 tons, a little more than two days' supply for human consumption. The new crop is now coming along. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said, the crop is extremely heavy. We have to do our best to secure that it is made available for human consumption. All we can do is to hope that our propaganda will result in potatoes being used extensively in place of wheat. The wheat stock position is good, but nevertheless, we would much prefer that potatoes, which are best used for human consumption, should be so used when this abundance is upon us.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Flight-Lieutenant Boothby) raised the matter of oats. He and I have been in the House for some time, he longer than I, and I always remember him as an advocate for the oats growers of Scotland. Since the matter was brought to my attention I have been doing my best to get accurate information about the position. It is very difficult to get accurate information as to how many oats there are. I think that a week or so ago there were about 7,000 tons in the area from Kincardine to Ross and of those about 6,000 tons were in Aberdeen. My hon. and gallant Friend knows that last year there was a shortage. The main use of oats is for feeding on the farms, and they are also required for the town horses, and so on.
The first use is for feeding on the farms. A year ago there was a shortage, and in some ancillary uses a severe shortage. Throughout the year the Ministry have been supporting the market. There was a time when, in order to avoid the possibility of a shortage, there was a restriction on the movement of oats from Scotland to England. That restriction was lifted last November and there has been passage of oats both to England and to Northern Ireland. As my hon. and gallant Friend will agree, the harvest was taken in bad conditions and some of the farmers threshed earlier than they ought to have done. Consequently, some part of the crop was not in the keeping condition in which it might have been. Throughout the year the Department have been doing their best to support the market and at the present time, the Department are prepared to take out of the market the sweet millable oats from the 1941 crop as and when they are offered, so that there should be no waste on that account. I hope my hon. and gallant Friend may rest assured that his constituents have been well looked after by the representations he has made.
Probably my hon. Friend is referring to the possibility of dilution. Certainly, that is being considered. There is a limitation to the extent to which oats may be used for dilution, but the whole matter is under consideration, so that oats may be obtained for dilution to the extent deemed necessary and desirable.
The Department are prepared to take such oats as are offered to them. I cannot be much plainer. I think I have indicated by the illustrations I have given some of the difficulties of managing our home supplies. The management of imported supplies is very difficult and different. We have to consider, first, the shifting strategic position of the war. We have to have a flexible organisation so that as the areas within which the war is being conducted change so we may change our supply policy. On the other hand, there has to be the most careful planning ahead, planning for production, for manufacture, and for research, so that imported foodstuffs may come to us in the smallest possible bulk and thus save as much shipping as may be. Perhaps I may be allowed to give an example of the first difficulty. The entry of Japan into the war as a belligerent, the successes of Japan, have closed to us very important sources of supply; I would mention tea, rice and edible oils. The Ministry of Food have' to be ready with alternative sources of supply and ready to use other commodities in place of those no longer available. I would draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that the tea ration has not been reduced, and that although rice may be in short supply, there will be other commodities in order that milk puddings may still be available to the general public. In regard to the planning of production and manufacture, I would mention cheese, dried eggs and dried milk. It is not by accident that cheese, which was in such short supply some time ago, is now abundant. It is the result of most careful planning.
And the Merchant Navy Production was undertaken in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and in the United States. Dried eggs represent a very long period of research and preparation for manufacture. Thus, over the whole range of food commodities, similar tales could be told of the way in which planning has been undertaken to provide the country with a varied and reasonably abundant diet. The guiding principle of the Ministry of Food is not to restrict but to provide, and that applies no less to its attitude towards the problems of distribution and supply. The Ministry of Food do not regard rationing as a good thing in itself. Rationing is undertaken only when special circumstances make it necessary—shortage of supply, the tendency for prices to rise beyond the means of those who ought to be able to purchase and so on. The purpose of rationing is not so much to restrict as to equalise.
Often the Department is urged to expand the area of rationing, and I very much welcomed what the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes) said when he approved of the policy of the Department in limiting the area of strict rationing and being very careful how it extends the points rationing scheme. As he said, we do not want the points rationing system overloaded. He will have observed that one commodity was transferred to the points rationing system yesterday, and I am sure he will not object to that. As he knows well, we do not confine ourselves in our efforts to secure equality of distribution to rationing schemes—strict rationing, group rationing and points rationing. There are other schemes, such as price control and voluntary arrangements within particular trades.
The Department must also do its best to help other Departments, particularly the Ministry of War Transport, and it is to save transport that the Department is undertaking, or is about to undertake, many of its most important and difficult schemes. Rationalisation of milk has been mentioned. A sector scheme has been planned to apply to distributors generally. There is also the tomato distribution scheme. The hon. Member for Streatham raised the question of fish, and read an extract from a letter he had received from the Minister of War Transport, which indicated very plainly that the Department is very anxious to rationalise the distribution of fish with the object of saving transport. The Committee will appreciate that when this Department or other Departments undertake schemes of rationalisation which have the effect, or appear to have the effect, of bearing hardly upon individuals, there are often vigorous protests in the House on behalf of those who are adversely affected. The hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Woods) loudly applauded what the hon. Member for Streatham said, but then objected in the course of his speech to a scheme of rationalisation which had been carried through in another industry.
I was not objecting to the scheme of rationalisation. I was appealing to the Minister to see that when these schemes of rationalisation are put into operation, they are conducted efficiently and there is no exploitation by those who have power over the general consumers.
So often a scheme which is admitted to be an efficient scheme by those who are not affected adversely is considered to be an inefficient scheme by those who are. I hope that when the fish scheme comes before the House, if it does, we shall have the support of all hon. Members who so rightly cheered the speech of my hon. Friend.
Perhaps we shall have the support of all hon. Members in bringing any scheme of rationalisation to fruition. The National Milk Scheme has been mentioned by a number of Members.
My hon. Friend pointed out that much waste of transport might be avoided if fish were gutted and headed at the ports. To the best of my knowledge, fish are gutted and a great many are filleted, but we are taking note of his point to see whether the heads should be taken off as well.
The National Milk Scheme has progressed very well indeed. My hon. Friend, who had so much to do with this scheme, will be glad to hear that the percentage of the possible beneficiaries—expectant mothers and children—who are taking advantage of the scheme has risen from 70 per cent. to 87 per cent. There are now 3,022,000 persons taking advantage of the National Milk Scheme. That is one way whereby we are able to secure the distribution of this very vital food. There are other devices. In the case of potatoes and carrots the whole crop was taken over, prices established and distribution arranged, and in the case of tomatoes, which are in short supply and are not essential, distribution has been arranged by a scheme of collaboration between producers and distributors. It appears to me, as a newcomer to the Department, that the Department is not wedded to any one hard-and-fast plan, but is prepared to act as the situation demands and adopt expedients which will best secure equal distribution of the foodstuffs over the whole of the population who need them. The hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) spoke on a subject with which he is very familiar—the marketing of vegetables. He knows that few problems are so difficult. Vegetables are a highly perishable commodity and are difficult to transport. I can assure him that the marketing of vegetables is commanding very earnestly the attention of my Noble Friend at the present time.
I should like to make one reference in connection with distribution, and remind the Committee of the work which has been done by the distributive trades, particularly the shopkeepers and their assistants. They have an extremely difficult task these days. They are troubled with forms and regulations at a time when the proper needs of the Ministry of Labour are depleting their staffs. To-day shop assistants have to be more skilled than ever before. We have not been troubled with food queues, but often food queues have been the result, not of shortages of food but of sheer inability of the assistants to deal with the press of customers at a particular time. Therefore, I appeal to the public to do their best to spread their shopping, when they can, evenly over the day and evenly over the week. Thereby they will be greatly helping both the Minister of Labour and the shop assistants in dealing with this very difficult problem of war-time distribution.
I should like to refer to one other aspect of the Department's work—the emergency and cognate services. When heavy air raiding was general, the Ministry of Food had an important piece of work to do, shall I say, in restoring nerves by filling bellies. I was able to realise that at the Ministry of Home Security. Although in London and in inland towns we have almost forgotten about air raids, in the coastal belt they went on and the Ministry's emergency service has been maintained, and it has been bringing succour to those towns which in the last year have been raided and they have never failed. Out of the emergency services grew the British Restaurants, and they are increasingly popular institutions. There are now over 1,600 of them and they are being opened at the rate of about two a day. Side by side with the development of British Restaurants, there is a continuous development of canteens at industrial establishments and commercial premises. It may be argued that this form of provision is really not fair, in that people are getting more than their ration, but in a way it is fair to argue that those who take their food at canteens are a kind of priority class and that it is a good thing to feed the man and the woman at the job. That is the view of the Minister of Labour and of my Noble Friend, and I feel that so long as we do that we are not doing what the Committee would wish us not to do. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about meals in schools? "] That is primarily a matter for the Board of Education, but I can assure the hon. Member that they and the Ministry of Food are extremely anxious that meals in schools should become, as nearly as possible, universal.
I have done my best to deal with most of the points that have been raised. I feel very much a newcomer to this Department and I feel that I am still regarding its work as an outsider. I am taking a kind of objective view of it, and it appears to me that its outstanding characteristic is that its problems are never static. Things never stand still. There are changes in the sources of supply, there are changes in the character of home production, there are changes in prices. From day to day the Ministry is on the move, and I feel that it is a very good thing that it should be on the move. After all, few things have such an important bearing on morale as food. It might well be said that the Ministry of Information works for the good of our souls. My noble Friend works for the good of our bodies. The Ministry of Information gives us, as a sign for victory, the Fifth Symphony. I suggest as a slogan for my noble Friend, "Vitamins for Victory." It is not our job to prophesy. We know that military necessities must come first. It may be that military necessities will make the food situation more difficult. Who can say? I am not prophesying. All I can say is that the country would agree to any restriction if it brought victory a day nearer. My Noble Friend's object is that, if there is to be any further tightening of the belt, he will desire that the hands of all shall go to the buckle.
THE CHAIRMAN then proceeded, pursuant to the Order of the House this day to put severally the Questions, "That the total amounts of the Votes outstanding in the several Classes of the Civil Estimates, including Supplementary Estimates, and the total amounts of the Votes outstanding in the Estimates for the Revenue Departments, the Navy, Army, and Air Services, be granted for the Services defined in those Classes and Estimates."