World Food Shortage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th February 1946.

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Photo of Mr Charles Byers Mr Charles Byers , Dorset Northern 12:00 am, 14th February 1946

It is my very pleasant task to offer the congratulations of this House to the hon. and gallant Member for Woodbridge (Lieut.-Colonel Hare) upon the very excellent, able and constructive maiden speech which he has-just made. He referred to nervousness. I can assure him, as one who made his maiden speech nearly seven months ago, that if he suffers no more nervousness than he showed tonight, he will not have very much difficulty in the future. I do offer him the congratulations of this House on a most experienced, constructive and commanding speech.

Before he departed for dinner, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) referred to a dishonest campaign which had been carried on regarding the question of the world food shortage. I speak as a Liberal in this House, and I dissociate myself from any such dishonest campaign, if indeed it exists; I am not sure that it does. We Liberals have the self-imposed task of attempting to take a balanced view of occurrences in the political field, and we will continue to do so. It is a very difficult job, but I think that hon. Members opposite will agree that we have carried out the pledge which we made at the beginning of this Session, that we would support the Government on all matters where we considered that they were working in the best interests of the community, and that where we criticised, our criticism would be constructive. I think that on the whole we have been friendly to the Government but I also feel that certain valid criticisms were made both by the Leader of the Opposition and by the right hon. Gentleman the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter), which have not, in the main, been entirely refuted from the Government Bench. As far as the world is concerned, there is a food crisis, but as far as this country is concerned, there is more than that—there is, in our opinion, a crisis over the machinery of government. I feel that that must be recognised by hon. Members opposite. We do not seek to apportion the blame, but we do ask Members opposite to draw the lesson.

I do not doubt that the immediate problem of the food shortage can to some extent be solved by a series of hectic and unpleasant improvisations, or indeed by sacrifices on the part of the long-suffering British people and others. Many of those sacrifices would undoubtedly have been necessary, regardless of what had or had not been done by the Government. But I think that a case could be made that in the time at their disposal the Government could have done more to have prevented the seriousness of the food situation as it affects this country and other countries for which we are responsible. The question really is one of guilty or not guilty? Of what are the Government not guilty? I am quite definite about it; first of all, they are obviously not guilty with regard to the world food shortage. Everybody will agree with that. I do not think they are guilty of failure to issue general warnings to this House and to the country, but they have not always been given in the right way or with the right emphasis. We have not had the specific information which we require, though I fully appreciate that some of the vital specific information only very recently became available. I fully appreciate the extraordinary difficulties, both economic and administrative, with which the Government have been faced by the abrupt end of lend-lease, and the dreadful possibility of even further delay in the ratification of the American loan. That is a very difficult problem. Apart from anything else, there is the uncertainty of knowing when the loan is to be ratified, and that is a psychological factor which must be taken into consideration.

On the other hand, the Government must accept responsibility for serious failure to co-ordinate certain important Government Departments. I put this forward in the hope that the lesson will be learned, not only on the question of food, but with regard to other matters. There is a failure to establish a flexible type of machinery which could act quickly, in order to keep pace with events, instead of lagging behind. I deplore the tendency of the Government to think that they can run planned economy with the old Conservative machinery which they inherited from 20 years of Conservative rule. I do not believe it can be done; henceforth much more attention must be paid to the machinery of government. That is why I said there is a lesson to be learned. There is a lesson in this very crisis.

I also believe that to some extent there has been a very serious mishandling of the public. As the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann) said, "there are many ways in which one woos the opposite sex." There is also the attitude which Ministers in general adopt towards the public, and in that I think there is need for improvement. The public have put this Government into power, I do not argue the question of a mandate, but they elected the Government not as their masters but as their servants, and they do not expect a dictatorial attitude on the part of Ministers who say, "I have given you this, I have sent a ship here, I have done this." I acquit the. Minister of any desire whatever to be a dictator, but it is the impression which is created, and there is a great need for improvement in the relationship between the Government and the people. It seems a very odd thing to say of the Labour Party, but it is true.

There are many examples of lack of co-ordination. I would like to deal with one or two of them; some have already been mentioned. We have had repeated warnings, by the Lord President of the Council, the Minister of Food, and many others, that there was an impending world food shortage. I well remember those warnings, but we have not had specific information. With all those general warnings, issued from mid-1945 onwards, we have had the Minister of Agriculture taking at that Box what I would call a complacent attitude towards food production. That complacency is typified by the answer which he gave on 15th October, about the reduction of the wheat acreage payment from£4 to£2. This is very interesting when it is considered that the Minister of Food himself said that the gravity of the wheat position was not known until the autumn. It could not have been too late last autumn to do anything about the Spring sowing, but even so, on 15th October the Minister of Agriculture, in reply to a question said: I am anxious that all suitable land coining in turn for wheat should be so planted, and I should like to see the 1945 acreage maintained. But the growing of wheat on unsuitable land... would no longer be justifiable."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 703.] That is what I call a complacent attitude which could only have been due to one of two things, either ignorance or stupidity. Now the Minister of Agriculture is not a stupid man, therefore he must have been kept in ignorance. I can see no other reason. If he had known the facts about the food situation surely, in answer to this question, he would have given those facts and would have said, "Despite those facts, we are still convinced that our policy is' right." He did not, he merely said, "We are perfectly satisfied with the 1945 acreage." He had no right to be satisfied with it, and something should have been done about it.

Here I would like to deal with the lack of co-ordination between the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Agriculture when there is a shortage of food, as there will be for some time in this country, because we cannot produce all the food we want. In those circumstances of food scarcity, the Minister of Agriculture is really the factory manager for the Minister of Food. We have not had that co-ordination which, to my mind, is vital between the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture. I still think it is fantastic that we should find in the Cabinet the factory manager, but the boss himself is excluded from it. Therefore, I say, there is a serious lack of co-ordination. In fact, if hon. Members should get 'flu, it would be a very good thing to read through HANSARD while they are in bed and see, through a period of four or five months, the lack of co-ordination exemplified by the different answers which are given from different Ministries that should pull together.

I would like to turn to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Labour. They are two Departments very much interrelated at the present time. They must be co-ordinated, but I do not believe they have been. We have had continual complaints from all sides of the House that sufficient priority has not been given to the release of agricultural workers from the Forces. Yet it was only after considerable pressure that in December agricultural workers were included in the Class B scheme. The cream was knocked off that by calling up 8,000 of the existing workers. I think I am right in saying that agriculture has lost 100,000men during the war, and to call up 8,000 at a time when the country is being generally warned of a food shortage shows either a very bad decision or a tremendous lack of co-ordination. About a fortnight ago, on 23rd January, we had. the news from the Minister of Agriculture in answer to a Question that only 490 men had been released under Class B individual specialist arrangements up to 31st December. He went on to say that the ordinary block release system had not had time to operate. Only 490 men had been released under the individual specialist system, and all hon. Members know the continual demands coming to them to assist in getting men to get land into production to employ more men to get more food. I do not say this was a wrong decision, but I do not believe that there had been sufficient co-ordination before that decision to allow only 490 men out of the Forces had been reached.

I want to deal with the Prime Minister's deferment of 8,000 men. The Government have a case to answer there, that that should have been done when the Minister of Food knew that there was to be a shortage of food and on his own showing he knew that at the end of last year. I do not know whether he advised the Minister of Labour, but it does not look like it to us or to the public, and we have a right to know. I think probably the best example of lack of co-ordination was displayed by the Minister of Labour himself on 5th February, which was the day on which the food statement was made Half an hour before statements were made by the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Labour announced in this House, in answer to a Question, that only 1,529 of the 18,000 agricultural workers had been released under the block system by 15th January. He then said that he did not think the block release scheme was going too slowly, and that every effort was being made to push it along. But, surely, if he had been in the confidence of the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Food, he should have realised that it was going along too slowly—too slowly compared with the other events which were taking place. I do not believe the Minister of Labour could have given that answer if he really knew the facts, and, therefore, to us it appears as if there is a very serious lack of co-ordination between the various Government Departments.

I do not want to labour the question of the Treasury and dried egg, but I will say that the decision as to how dollars are to be spent is one which is far above the responsibility of the Treasury alone. We must ensure, particularly if we get this loan, that our dollar expenditure is very carefully co-ordinated, and that the decisions which are made as to how the dollars should be expended are taken after the most careful consideration and co-ordination. Furthermore, I think that, after what the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge said about films, there is a case for a serious revision of the present dollar expenditure to see if we cannot get more value for the meagre dollars that we have.

1 do not want to labour the question of the Prime Minister's letter. That has been dealt with, and it seems to have had a different effect upon different people. I think the Government can morally be acquitted, when one reads that letter, of having misled the people in that particular respect, but I do say that there is lack of efficient co-ordination and planning, and that insufficient attention has been paid to the needs of agriculture, so that the farmer and the farm worker will now be called upon to make additional sacrifices. They are bound to, they will do it, but why have we to ask them merely because we do not get the co-ordination and the flexible machinery to keep pace with events in a modern world? It will call for hectic improvisation in many fields. Today, instead of having an orderly system to deal with these problems—in so far as we can deal with them we are not asking for miracles—we shall have a series of improvisations throughout the country.

I want to say this to hon. Members opposite—I am afraid they will not like it. I do not want to make party capital out of it, I merely want to try and draw the lesson of this crisis as it affects this country. I believe that the key to government in a modern State is comprehensive planning, with the emphasis on the word "comprehensive." I believe that we, as Liberals, approach planning from a different standpoint from hon. Members on the other side of the House. Planning to us does not just mean nationalisation and the day-to-day interference with Government Departments in the lives of the people. We do not call that planning. We support a great deal of nationalisation and public ownership, but we do not make the mistake of thinking that nationalisation is planning. It is not. Nationalisation is just one of many methods which are used to develop a comprehensive plan. I am not advocating the Conservative argument of putting nationalisation before everything else—I do not think that holds water for a minute—but I do say this: You can do two things at once, but if you are going to give the people of this country the sort of economic and social wellbeing they want—and that means food and houses and employment—then you must, first of all, have the comprehensive plan into which your nationalisation and your other methods fit properly.

It is the comprehensive plan that we are lacking at the moment. It is most important that we should not think, every time we pass a Bill nationalising something, that that means planning. It does not at all. We have not the framework yet, and it is the framework that we want. I believe it is on the comprehensive planning side that this Government at present are lamentably weak. There is a lack of breadth of vision which is desperately required to meet the problems of the modern State. I am not suggesting that the Conservative Party would have done better. I am not even suggesting at the moment that we would have done better. I am merely pointing to the fact that there is this lack of breadth of vision which would be required from anybody occupying the Government Front Bench

Comprehensive planning means accepting full responsibility for ensuring the economic and social wellbeing of the people and giving them food, housing, employment and proper social services. And it means taking the people into the Government's confidence and telling them what the plan is. This is where I believe the Government have gone wrong, because they have told the people they are going to nationalise certain things—and have got a good cheer—but they have not given them a lead in the direction which they require. They have not told them what the whole plan is. That is where there is a very great weakness to which we have continually drawn attention. This comprehensive plan has never been developed and thought out for the simple reason that this country is being governed today by a Cabinet of Ministers who are over-burdened with departmental duties. It is like trying to run an army with a host of over-worked staff captains and no chief-of-staff. Nobody is doing the thinking. There are plenty of people doing the acting, plenty of people putting in long hours, and doing it extremely well and working as hard as they can. But who, while all this action is taking place, is thinking ahead? Where everything is in the hands of a Cabinet of Ministers who are over-burdened and over-worked and there is no one thinking ahead, rigidity is the rule and no longer is there a flexible machine which can deal with the various changes which take place and which have to be made as the exigencies of the situation arise. There is not the co-ordination which is necessary in order to plan the affairs of the country for the future.

We have continually drawn attention to the fact that there must be instituted—and this is really a most serious point— in the machinery of the Government, a small inner Cabinet of Ministers free from departmental duties and charged with the task of making a comprehensive plan, and of establishing machinery for coordinating the various Government Departments. They should have executive responsibility for developing that plan, and, above all, for explaining to the people how the plan is to be developed. We have not got that at the present moment, and there is no one today who is doing the thinking. There is no one who is free from departmental responsibility. In times of scarcity the first essential is to have someone looking ahead and laying down the priorities. I hope that the Government will pay particular attention to the tremendous weaknesses which have been shown to exist in our national machinery not only for dealing with food, but with full employment. We are going to have a catastrophe from which the country will not recover for years, with no one sitting down and thinking and planning and too many people dashing about. I do not mind them dashing about, providing someone else is doing the thinking. That is vital if we are to play our part in any world organisation dealing with food, full employment, or the improvement of the standards of living of the people. They are the people who will know what is happening. They will have the large co-ordinated picture before them and be able to speak with authority in the various organisations to which I hope we shall commit ourselves. I am not going to deal now with the international side of the danger, but I would say to the Minister and the Members of the Government, that I hope they will learn from the mistakes which they are making. I believe that if they do that they will prove to be the most experienced Government we have ever had.