asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food whether he has considered the number of journeys which will be required of many housewives living in rural districts by the condition that a new ration book will only be issued for each member of a household on one of the dates allocated to the initial letter of the surname; and whether he will authorise all books for the same household to be collected on the same day by one person or sent by post?
asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food whether he is aware that the national distribution of new ration books in rural areas is creating excessive and unnecessary inconvenience to the public; and whether he will take immediate steps to reorganise it, on the basis of distribution by parishes or otherwise?
asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food whether he is aware that agricultural and other war workers in some rural districts have to travel as much as 14 miles each way to collect the new ration books; and whether, in view of transport and other difficulties, he will make other arrangements as soon as possible for local distribution?
My Noble Friend is alive to the difficulties attending the present issue of new ration documents, clothing coupons and national registration identity cards. My Department has issued ration books on five previous occasions, and has always carried out this operation with the minimum of inconvenience to the public. There has been only one previous issue of identity cards, and that also was carried out, in the autumn of 1939, with no inconvenience to the public. On that occasion, however, 65,000 people were employed as enumerators, and they carried out their work by calling from house to house. The man-power available to-day does not permit of that procedure being repeated, and it has, therefore, been necessary to appeal to the public themselves to play a larger part in this national distribution of documents than on any previous occasion. For security reasons it is considered essential that the documents should be collected either individually or by proxy, so as to enable identity to be accurately checked and to ensure that the issue of a ration book will be conditional upon the correct establishment of each individual person's identity. It is for this reason that a centralised scheme of distribution has been adoped.
To distribute documents to 43,000,000 people is necessarily a vast and compli- cated operation, demanding considerable patience and forbearance on the part of the public. In some urban areas, including Bristol and Manchester, congestion has occurred, but by increasing the staff, adjusting the accommodation, and arranging for the block issues of documents, the process has been or is being rapidly improved, and the latest reports assure me that in most town areas the congestion is now relieved.
In rural areas, during the period of central issue now in progress every possible local expedient will be adopted for collecting documents of persons living in remote districts. In many such areas voluntary workers are already co-operating in this work, by collecting and checking existing documents in a village and returning later in the day with the new documents. In each food area the documents are being written up a few days in advance of the day on which they are to be issued to the public. When all the documents in an area have been prepared staff will be available to undertake local distribution through local sub-offices, either fixed or mobile. The location of these sub-offices will be notified in each locality.
My Noble Friend recognises that the arrangements made have met with a considerable amount of criticism, but within the last eight or nine days it has become apparent that a high proportion of the public can be dealt with by the present arrangements without putting any individual to great inconvenience. My Department is determined that wherever adjustments, either of a general or local character, would appear likely to assist in the process of distribution those adjustments will be made, without quibble and with all speed, in order that this task may be completed without interfering with essential work or involving the public in special journeys, taking time and money. The new ration books will not come into use until 25th July. With good will and the co-operation of the public, every individual will have received his documents before that date.
Is my hon. Friend aware that applicants have to walk or bus from their homes or their work, very often for considerable distances, from all parts of Bristol; that they have to stand in the open air for three or even four hours before they succeed in getting into the office; that many women have fainted; and that many do not succeed in getting their books, but are turned away when the office closes at eight o'clock? Does he not think that steps should be taken to avoid that waste of time?
I think the hon. Member's description is a somewhat exaggerated account of the conditions obtaining in Bristol last week. An investigator was at once sent down. I think that the arrangement of block issue in the case of factories at Bristol, the rearrangement of accommodation, and the stepping-up of the staff have made conditions in Bristol very different this week from what they were last week.
As it is impossible to do full justice to this scandal—[Interruption.] On a point of Order. If I do not give notice at this moment of my intention to raise this matter on the Adjournment, shall I lose my precedence? I am informed that I shall. That is the only reason why I intervene; I do not wish to prevent other Members from putting questions.
While thanking my hon. Friend for his reply, and for the new arrangements which he has introduced, might I ask whether he will take special steps to follow up the working of these new arrangements, and to make sure that they do in fact relieve the very real hardships which have been caused already to quite a number of people by the quite inadequate arrangements? Also, will he in future make sure that he gets advice from people who understand conditions in rural districts before introducing schemes of this kind?
Certainly, every effort will be made to make the adjustments to which I have referred work as smoothly as possible. I might say that some of these statements are somewhat exaggerated. I took the opportunity yesterday of visiting several rural areas, and the issues made varied very little from the expectations of the Department. I found a queue in only one place, and I found the public co-operating in this issue with all that phlegm and forbearance characteristic of the people of this country.
If it is possible to make a block issue for factories, is it not possible to do so for remote villages; and for that purpose, could the hon. Member not use the emergency food officers in those places?
In the adjustments that the hon. Member proposes should be made in the scheme, will he leave the distribution in the country areas to the discretion of the local executive officers?
That is precisely what I meant when I said that every local expedient will be used. I am glad to say that many food executive officers are making adjustments which will suit the convenience of their localities; and doing so with the full approval of my Department.
Why was it not possible to arrange for the distribution of these ration books by the W.V.S., whose services in other ways have given such satisfaction to the public?
The W.V.S. are employed on many important tasks, and cannot be used for everything. Furthermore, there is an important element of security involved in this issue of identity cards. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that there are perhaps people not doing ail that they should in this country, and we want to secure that they do not get food unless they, establish their identity.
What arrangements does the hon. Member propose for a household which contains six members whose names all start with different letters, and who have to go ten miles to the distributing office?
That is a problem I am aware of. It is a problem which came particularly to my notice yesterday. I would not like my hon. and gallant Friend to press me now, but I am extremely anxious to secure that a number of journeys should not be made by a household where they are two, three, or four members with different initials, requiring visits on different days if the present arrangements are to continue. I hope we shall be able to meet that.
As it is obvious that the original scheme has, in many cases at any rate, broken down, will the hon. Member take steps to notify local authorities responsible for the distribution of the cards that the original orders are at a standstill until he has had time to review the whole situation and to deal with it accordingly?
I should be glad to know of any places where there is a breakdown. I must say, as I said before, that I found no evidence of a breakdown yesterday in the places I visited, which were fairly representative—large boroughs, small boroughs and rural districts. If the hon. and gallant Member will give me evidence of a breakdown, I will at once see that appropriate measures are taken; but I could not give any such general undertaking as he suggests.
Has the hon. Member made it quite clear to local food executive officers that where they deem it necessary to open sub-offices, they have full authority to do so without delay?
In view of what the hon. Member said about security, will he take note of the second part of my former Supplementary, suggesting the utilisation of the existing emergency food officers in remote villages?
Will my hon. Friend take an early occasion to broadcast these conclusions, because there is widespread ignorance in the rural areas about what is required of them and how they are to fulfil the obligations which the new system entails?
In view of the importance of this matter, and of the difficulty of dealing with it by Question and Answer, I beg to give notice that I shall raise it on the Adjournment.